Recently I went to see the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern in London. There it was, the world’s most illustrious piece of art – a skull cast in platinum and set in diamonds. I waited in line to enter a dark cubicle specially built for it. Only six people were allowed to enter at a time. This way you could spend some quality time with the skull, intimately, in the dark. I watched it glow inside its box with its infinite reflections on the glass walls, eerie sparkling object with a missing tooth. Then I noticed the most interesting part of the installation - the facial expressions of the other five onlookers. Diamonds cast off light that reflected in their eyes giving them a special glow, a mixed look of awe and greed. They looked like actors from an old black and white Disney movie, pirates who had just discovered treasure and couldn’t wait to get their hands on it. I probably looked the same way.
In Sohag, Upper Egypt, I visited the Monastery of Great Martyrs of Akhmeem. There it was again, this time a female skull, dating back to 284 A.D. adorned with a crown of fake diamonds, but believed to have special healing powers, skin and hair intact and inspiring awe in thousands of Copts visiting the site. “The saints are bleeding to this day and the women’s hair is still growing, we even have to trim it. When the pope took one of the Saint heads in his hands, the head glowed. They are blessed!” - the keeper of the monastery tells the tale.
Monastery of Martyrs in Akhmeem became a place of pilgrimage for many Copts, as they believe attending the relics of the saints can miraculously cure ailments with divine power. These relics are of persecuted and tortured Copts dating back to the period of Emperor Diocletian and his colleague Maximian, 284 A.D. Sohag, Egypt.
May 3, 2012
NOTES FROM THE FIELD, Rena Effendi
Kerolus Dawood, a 22 year old survivor of the Alexandria “All Saints” Coptic Church bombing of January 1, 2011. Thirty two people died in the bombing and 97 were injured. Alexandria, Egypt. April, 2012 His testimony:
It was like an earthquake. A big blast, I rushed out to see what happened and saw lots of bodies downstairs, torn off limbs, some people’s clothes were blown off so they covered them with newspapers. My mother was missing, so were both of my sisters and my aunt. I called out for my younger sister. If something had happened to her, I would not be able to live through it. People ran up and down in panic, everyone was looking for their family members trying to make sure they were not blown up. Blood was everywhere, but no sign of ambulance.
Firemen came instantly, something very strange, as it usually takes a long time for them to show up. They came out of nowhere and started washing everything with water, blood flowed on the streets and into the gutters. My mother, my older sister and aunt were killed by the blast. I saw my younger sister, she was gravely injured, but still alive, I rushed home with her, as she needed urgent help. That night I saw my mother’s body in the morgue, she was missing a leg. I recognized her only by the clothes that she was wearing that day.
My younger sister is now in a hospital in Germany, more than a year after, she still needs new surgeries to treat her injuries from the blast. She is a brave and amazing woman! One of the worst memories of that day was watching the firemen wash the blood of my family down the sewers.
February 17, 2012
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: Rena Effendi
While meeting with Christian families who lost family members during the recent sectarian clashes in Cairo, I often get the question: “What religion are you?” Over fresh strawberry juice I tried to explain myself to the family of 42-year old Migali Mounir, father of four children, who was crushed by a military vehicle in front of the Maspero TV building, after thousands of Christians protested the church attack in Aswan. My answer sometimes sounds strange even to myself:
“I grew up in an ethnically Muslim country where religion was forbidden for 75 years during Soviet Union. My father was a Darwinist, my mother – an atheist. I have never prayed in a mosque or a church.” Their next question is: – “Do you believe in God?” I answer: “Sometimes, when I feel things are spinning out of control, I cringe and call out to something, anything which can give me hope.” “Ah”, they say, “then you believe in God.” Especially with the recurrent violence in Egypt, I feel that faith has more to do with a relief from suffering than a path to forgiveness, as a deeply human rather than religious sentiment.
Photo Caption: Wife and children of Migali Mounir, 42 y.o. at home. He was crushed by a military vehicle in front of Maspero TV building on October 9 when thousands of Christians joined a march from Shobra protesting against an attack on a church in Aswan. January, 2012, Cairo, Egypt.