Exorcism in Egypt

*A version of this article was originally published on Vice.com

On the day of the first Egyptian presidential election, as millions anxiously stand in line outside polling stations throughout their country, I should be out gauging the euphoria of the people who triumphantly toppled their dictator in order to cast their first vote for democracy. I am not. Instead, I am up to my neck in refuse in a place aptly called Garbage City, looking for a church where it is rumored that for years an Egyptian priest has been performing mass, ritual exorcisms. In the heat of an Egyptian summer, it is not advisable for anyone to be surrounded by rotting garbage. But an exorcism barely a stones throw from the City of the Dead is a story that cannot be easily passed up.

Spending any amount of time in Cairo, one learns to deal with the dirt and grime. The city of 17 million people living on top of each other is blanketed by smog, car exhaust, and an inescapable dust that arrives from the desert and settles on everything. But Garbage City, an urban area of unfinished brick buildings on Cairo’s outskirts, must be in the running for the filthiest place on earth. It is a slum like many others in the developing world, except that it imports garbage from neighboring Cairo so that it can be sorted for recyclables. Start imagining a dump transplanted onto a city where people eat, sleep and procreate, and you begin to get the picture.

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In 1969, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s revolutionary pan-Arab leader thought it wise to take all of Cairo’s trash collectors—an occupation that was traditionally held by the country’s marginalized Coptic Christians—and consolidate them in a single location at the foothills of Mount Muqattim, a desert area with no infrastructure or services like running water, sewage or electricity.

What has emerged is a trash city, literally oozing bags of garbage from its windows and doors. Large sugar sacks of trash crouch along the walls of streets, layer the tops of buildings and fill the storehouses. Peek behind the wrought iron of any open doorway and you are bound to see the different-colored sacks neatly arranged. The sight is surreal. The people here are organized and incredibly efficient. Some work only with plastic, others with glass, picking apart a metropolis’s material refuse. Much of the byproduct is recycled, providing a living for thousands of the residents. Organic matter used to be fed to the hundreds of pigs that were raised in the city until the government initiated a mass slaughter in a panicked response to the swine flu epidemic three years ago. The rest seems to just linger around. Whole families of garbage men, garbage women and garbage children work together sorting the endless waste. The smell and the flies in the sultry weather are enough to make you wretch. You wonder how human beings can live this way until you realize that a life spent among the trash becomes normal.

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The whole situation takes the phrase bringing your work home with you a bit too literally. Yet defying all my expectations, the people of this wretched slum are probably the friendliest I have ever met. Everywhere they call out to you in heavily accented English, smiles beaming ear to ear. Making my way tepidly down the trash-laden street, I am invited over and over again to take pictures. I stop to chat in Arabic and am offered tea, sugar biscuits, and heavy cigarettes. Ignoring my own germaphobic inhibitions I shake hands freely, smoking what is offered. It is easy to get lost in their hospitality.

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Alley by alley I find my way up the hill towards the church—which rises above the city, but not high enough to escape the smell. I am here with a Danish journalist and his photographer—Allan and Soren. In typical Danish humor, one of them laughs and points out to me the pile of dead sewer rats just up ahead, each as big as a football.

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We get to the gate of the church compound and we are asked our nationality by the guard. “American,” I say. “Welcome,” his enthusiastic response. I think the last time I got such a friendly smile to the A-word while in the Middle East was, let me think, never. It was fitting to the whole bizarre experience. The words of David Byrne pop into my head. “This must be the place.”

I heard about the exorcism from a photographer friend that was living in Cairo. Garbage City is relatively infamous but no one in his or her right mind—besides journalists of course—wants to go there voluntarily. When I asked an Egyptian friend of mine if he wanted to accompany me on this trip he laughed in my face.

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The exorcism is more obscure, largely kept under wraps. Especially because the aging priest who performs the ritual caters to Christians and Muslims alike, a rare thing these days in a country that has been seething with interreligious strife since the revolution and the emergence of polarizing religious forces into the mainstream. When I was in Cairo last year, following the epic 18-day revolution, there were riots after it was rumored that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held hostage in a church basement in the working class neighborhood of Imbaba. Several people—both Christians and Muslims—were killed in the ensuing violence and the church was set on fire.

As I said before, I should be somewhere else but the prospect of witnessing an exorcism—in Egypt no less—is too interesting to turn down. The St. Sama’an Church where the exorcism takes place is built inside a massive cave on Mount Muqattem, adjacent to Garbage City. The setting is quite beautiful and large with stadium seating for around twenty thousand people. There are actually six semi-adjoining churches built into the mountainside, along with numerous frescoes depicting biblical scenes cut into the stone façade. It is said to be the largest church in the Middle East and is equipped with an expensive sound system and TV production set. It reminds me of the mega churches in the United States and the service that is about to take place is not much different from a Billy Graham sermon either. The contrast to the wasteland that lies below couldn’t be starker.

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Father Sama’an Ibrahim, the priest who performs the exorcisms, constructed the Cave Cathedral in stages mainly during the 1980s and 90s to address the needs of the Zabaleen, or garbage collectors. It is said he found them living in sin and squalor without a church of their own and decided it was his mission to help them. Now, somewhere in his 70s, Father Sama’an presides over his parish from Garbage City and beyond, attracting adherents from near and far. Indeed, many of those who attend his services for its exorcism ceremony are Muslims eager to make use of his skills in the supernatural.

Despite the friendly intermingling of Muslims and Christians, Garbage city has not been totally immune to the outbreak of sectarian violence that has marred the aftermath of Egypt’s historic revolution that began on January 25th, 2011. A number of the Zabaleen were killed during demonstrations against the burning of the church that was previously mentioned. Many of the residents I spoke to have opted to vote for Ahmad Shafiq, a retired Air Force General who represents a link to the old regime, and a sense of stability for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

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Inside the compound we meet a man who helps out at the church named Magid. He gives us a rundown of the history of the church and the priest who will eventually conduct a mass exorcism when that evening’s ceremony is over.

“Father Sama’an actually exorcises the demons from these people?” Allan asks, incredulously.

“Father Sama’an is not doing the healing,” replies Magid. “It is Jesus.”

Magid raises his clenched fists in the air, “When the priest mentions the name of Jesus the devil is destroyed,” his body trembling as he cries out. “You will see!”

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We go take our seats in the back. As the service begins nearly 2000 people have filed into the minimalist wooden pews, coming from Garbage City and other areas. Although the setting is impressive with a large overhanging rock spanning the entire amphitheater, the service is like church anywhere in the world, boring as hell. For nearly two hours of singing and prayer we sit amid the pungent aroma of frankincense. As night slowly descends on the cave cathedral, I make my way to the front in anticipation of the coming event, waiting patiently for them to parade out the crazies and get this show on the road. The lights dim, the music becomes louder and the people in the front more impassioned. There are tears running down the faces of some of the women as they sway with eyes closed in euphoric reverie. Some of them look like they have taken an eighth of boomers and are deep into the music.

And then, in an instant, the whole ceremony is over and people quickly begin filing out of the church. I look over at one of the guys and ask what the hell is going on? Is it finished? The place has cleared out to about a hundred people and I am wandering around in front of the stage, aimlessly.

All of a sudden I hear the howl of a man who sounds like he has just been stabbed. Caught off guard I make my way over to the crowd that has assembled in the second tier. The priest—cloaked in black with a long white beard and gilded cross in hand—is already there, his hand clutching the grey hair of a middle-aged man with a thick mustache and a striped shirt, his body convulsing on the bench. The priest takes a handful of holy water and whips it into the man’s face, reciting biblical incantations and addressing the demon directly. It looks like the water knocked the man out because he is no longer yelling, which is a relief, and his eyes have rolled back into his head. Eventually the man comes-to and his face, no longer contorted, appears normal. The mass exorcism has begun.

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The priest deftly moves onto the next man that has suddenly become possessed. He repeats the ceremony, having the man recite verses from the bible and stamp his feet on the ground to crush the devil when he is done. This is no Linda Blair exorcism where heads spin and Emily Rose levitates from her bed—but that is Hollywood.

The priest parts the crowd like Moses and the Red Sea and makes his way over to the women who are now overcome by a horde of demons. Several of them are convulsing and crying out for help. The whole thing is fucking nuts because its dark, ghastly shrieks are coming out from every direction echoing off the cave walls, and the priest has decided the only way to exorcise all these demons is to start slapping the women in the face and spitting in their mouths. He even spits in bottles of water and hands them out for drinking. And the women all appear relieved by this saliva cocktail. After each of them is cured they are summarily marked by what looks like holy lip-gloss, which is drawn on their hands and foreheads. Two of the women start vomiting after the exorcism begins but in a matter of minutes they are miraculously cured. The crowd of spectators, mostly women, claps with every successive victory over the emissaries of Satan.

I look over at Allan who has one hand rubbing his face in a look of disbelief. Women are aggressively pulling on my pant leg asking me to get the priest’s attention to comfort their demented daughters.  I had been thinking that the best way to proceed with this story would be to get myself an exorcism but besides having my cover already blown as a journalist, I would never be confused for one of these lunatics. Only moments ago these people had been sitting normally at a church service and now they were reeling back and forth and panting like hyenas. It was a circus.

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Or maybe that is what exorcisms actually are: giving the religiously disturbed a little bit of extreme religious psychiatry. Our problems are all in our heads anyway, right? The cure is in making us believe that we are ok. And those that see the world through the prism of angels and demons and genies probably need Father Sama’an’s spit more than Dr. Freud’s couch. It is exorcism as catharsis.

After twenty minutes or so the whole thing is over and everyone looks content. I ask one of the women who had been foaming at the mouth less than five minutes before how she is feeling.

“I feel great,” she says with a huge smile. “Thanks to God.”

I regroup with the Danes and start making my way towards the exit. I am still not exactly sure what I just witnessed but then no one else is either. The only thing we can agree on is it’s time for a drink, which is maybe just our own form of collective therapy.

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