Baruch! I struck a minor coup for our cause this morning. Let me explain.
It was high time that I renewed my visa for Egypt. Until now I’ve always done so at an Egyptian embassy abroad. This time, through circumstances beyond my control, I found myself in Cairo with a visa that was about to expire and with no immediate plans to travel.
The only solution: A visit to the dreaded Mugamma. The Mugamma is a unique Egyptian institution, a massive squat gray building in the center of Cairo that acts like a sort of super-ministry of paperwork, licenses and permits. The insides are a warren of curving hallways, desks, numbered booths, waiting rooms, security checks and placards with instruction. Every imaginable activity in Egypt requires a permission slip from somebody in this building. The trick is finding that person. The task has driven people insane.
Among the Cairo expat community, Mugamma horror stories are great social currency. We all have friends of friends who spent days, dazed, trying to complete the intricate steps for whatever permit they needed; and there are rumors of people actually living in some of the further reaches of the place.
Forewarned, I came forearmed with the required passport photocopies and passport photo. After some aimless walking around, I found a window that sounded appealing — Temporary Tourist Residence Permits. I thought I might get me one of those, say for six months — much more interesting than a visa extension, no?
Remarkably, there was no wait. I was given a form, told to fill it in, buy some stamps (worth all of 2 USD) and come back.
So I filled in the form. All was well, until I hit a roadblock:
Well. How dare they ask. I should not have been surprised, however. Egypt’s religious composition is a matter of great importance to the powers that be, because the percentage of (Coptic) Christians in Egypt determines all manner of job quotas and budget matters. (Copts say they make up to 15% of Egypt’s population. The official figure is much lower.)
Religious identification has also been a rallying cry for Egyptian Islamists. As in the rest of the Muslim world, the concept of religious freedom is a decidedly one-way affair. Are you Christian and want to marry a Muslim girl? Easy. Just convert to Islam and the girl is yours. The state will gladly give you a new ID card with your new religious persuasion. But try to convert from Islam, and you face public disgrace, threats of vigilante killing and jail. After all that Mohammed’s done for you, you certainly don’t deserve a new ID card, you ungrateful bastard.
There has long been an additional problem for people who are not one of the three officially recognized religions — Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Egyptian Baha’is have had to wage a protracted campaign — only just recently successful — to allow them to leave blank their religious persuasion on their ID card, instead of being forced to lie by choosing one of the three obligatory options.
I knew all this as I pondered what to put down on the form as my religion. I certainly could not put down the truth — atheist — as me and my ilk tend to get deported or thrown in jail for such a public display of disaffection, just like that other great threat to Egypt’s public morality, the homosexuals.
But I didn’t want to put down what al the other expats put — Christian — because if anything I am anti-Christian. Christianity’s mythology is just as ludicrous as that of the Mormons or Scientologists, only older. I probably couldn’t get away by putting down “Muslim”, though that would be an acceptable ironic answer in my book, while putting down “Jewish” would only invite trouble. Leave it blank? I didn’t feel that was an option on this form, where the absence of an answer would leave a gaping hole, inviting scrutiny or a delay.
Then I had my stroke of genius. Before I could regret my impulsiveness, I put down “Spinozist” as my religion and handed in my bundle.
I was told to come back in two hours. That in itself was a shock — I have never heard of same-day service in the Mugamma for visas. And yet, 90 minutes later, there was my new temporary tourist residence permit, without a hint of trouble for my idiosyncratic “religion”. As far as I know, I am now the only certified Spinozist in Egypt.