No haven for Scrooge in Cairo

After years of success, our Arab world reporter’s strategy of avoiding the Christmas buzz backfires.
I consider myself a curmudgeon-in-training (I don’t have enough gray hairs to claim the actual title). Around this time of year, I tend to identify with Scrooge, the Grinch, George Bailey (prior to the angel’s arrival), and other fabled grumps.

For many years I’ve taken pleasure in living in Muslim lands free from the trappings of Christmas commerce and the unholy trinity: Carols, mistletoe, and, most daunting, Santa’s lap.

That’s why I was startled to hear strains of “We wish you a merry Christmas,” coming in my Cairo bedroom window last week.

I live in an oasis of an apartment in Egypt’s capital that overlooks a back garden, thus shielding me from the incessant honking and exhaust from the traffic in this city of 15 million people.

But the Port Said elementary school at the far side of the garden musters its charges at about 7:15 every morning for an outdoor sing-along. Not yet a full-fledged curmudgeon, I don’t mind beginning the day to a gleeful, if tuneless, chorus of 100-plus Muslim children.

But instead of the usual patriotic Egyptian songs, lately they’ve taken to waking me up with “Jingle Bells” and the like.

Is nothing sacred? Egypt is 94 percent Muslim. This is the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, the modern Islamist movement that ultimately seeks to make the Koran the constitution of the world.

This is home to the great scholars of Al Azhar University, and the chauvinist ideology of Sayyid Qutb. Yet, remarkably, there seems to be more controversy in Washington over the devoutly Christian President Bush sending out a million cards wishing friends and supporters a joyous “Holiday Season,” than there is over the spread of all things Christmas here in Cairo.

A cab ride through the city shows something on a grand scale is afoot. There’s the parachuting Santa strung up in lights over a downtown hotel, “Merry Christmas” and “Joyëux Noel” banners in front of jewelry stores and Cairo’s shopping malls. And what’s with the cypress and juniper bushes, dressed up as Christmas trees, for sale on dozens of street corners?

Though Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a prophet, his birthday has not traditionally been celebrated in Muslim countries. But there’s every indication that the Arab world’s largest city is fully embracing the holiday.

The other day, Ahmed Demiri, my local florist whose shop is entirely given over to wreaths and poinsettias these days, was just emerging from afternoon prayers at the mosque next door, when I demanded: “Who, exactly, is getting into the Christmas spirit?”

“The business is about equally divided between foreigners, Egyptian Christians, and Egyptian Muslims,’’ he told me. In recent years, the Christmas season has become a mainstay of his trade. This year he expects to sell about 300 Christmas trees and “lots and lots of poinsettias. People think they’re festive.”

Festive? Bah humbug.

A few nights ago I went out on the balcony to see who was making so much noise in the garden. It was too late to be the schoolchildren. My landlady Nadida occupies the ground floor, and she and her college-aged daughter were holding a Christmas party for friends and relatives.

I couldn’t help but watch for a moment. I caught a glimpse of Nadida sporting a rakishly tilted Santa hat on top of her Muslim head scarf as she ducked back inside for more food.

I can only guess that my recent complaints about the building’s water-pressure got me scratched off the invitation list.

But even a curmudgeon knows his limits. Earlier this week, I finally caved to the Christmas spirit. I went back to visit Ahmed and bought a small poinsettia for the apartment. (I showed great fortitude, however, in resisting the impulse to purchase a wreath he was hawking at a bargain price).

Walking home, I spotted Amir, a local contractor who painted my apartment when I moved here last year. I’ve been avoiding him for months, since every time I see him he tries to talk me into buying the Iraqi dinars he unwisely purchased in a bout of currency speculation. It’s true I spend a lot of time in Iraq, but the country’s currency controls make it illegal to carry the money into Iraq.

I quickly crossed the street and stepped behind a row of cars. Too slow. “Dan, Dan,’’ Amir called as he wove through traffic. I took a deep breath and focused on his zabib, the prayer callous on his forehead marking him as a particularly devout Muslim. As he drew near, I prepared to calmly explain once again why I couldn’t break the law and change his dinars.

“I’m so glad I caught you, Dan,” he huffed. “I’ve been wanting to wish you a Merry Christmas.”