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Enjoy your problems (2-4)
Published in The Egyptian Gazette on 26 - 07 - 2010

INDIA is known worldwide as the land of wonders, the biggest democracy in Asia and even the world, and as a model of plurality.
Some people have built their knowledge about India on Bollywood movies, English literature and novels such as E.M. Forster's “A Passage to India,” or through visits.
As a journalist, I had the additional privilege of covering a four-day conference about ‘Indian-Egyptian Relations across the Ages' that was organised in Cairo early in the 1990s, about which I wrote a four-part
article for The Egyptian Gazette.
The relationship between Egypt and India goes all the way back to Pharaonic times; and archaeologists have detected many similarities and even contacts between the Ancient Egyptian and the Hindu civilisations.
Therefore, the strong bonds between Egypt and India were not just built in the Nasser- Nehru era.
For this reason, when I decided to accept a five-month scholarship to India in 1992, I was confident that my knowledge about India would be deeper and more realistic than information coming from movies, literature or a short visit to this marvellous sub-continent.
In my view, what makes India so unique is the strong tie connecting Indian people today to their ancient civilisation. Unlike the Egyptians, the Indian people still visit the ancient Hindu temples and worship the
same ancient gods and goddesses whose pictures and statues continue to decorate all houses, offices and even some public places.
In many of our trips outside New Delhi, I visited Hindu temples situated beside public parks or close to famous tourist sites. Many
of these temples, to one's surprise, are in such good condition that one might think they are modern buildings or only from some years back in history, whereas Indians date them back several centuries.
Although it is true that the greatest number of Indian monuments known to the world and seen in Indian tourism pamphlets belong
to the Islamic Mogul era (1526 -1857), the majority of Indian Muslims were not clearly apparent in Indian society. It took me more than three months to meet an Indian Muslim, who in turn helped introduce me to some other Muslims living and working in New Delhi.
From them, I started to get deeper information about the condition of Muslims in India since the time of the historic partition of India into today's India and Pakistan by the end of the British rule.
The cause of my curiosity to know and discuss this issue with different Muslims and Hindus was not the typical wonder about the condition of minorities in the world, but rather was the widespread debate at that time over the demolition of an ancient mosque that Hindus claimed had been built in place of an ancient temple of Lord Ram, one of their main gods, which later developed into a bloody clash between the two groups.
As mentioned in last week's piece, I was not able to fully mingle with Indian society because I was staying in a hostel affiliated to the Indian Institute of Mass Communication that was located in a relatively remote region from the city centre. Therefore, my contact with Indian society was conducted via my daily interactions with my professors and a colleague in the same course, named Uma, who was working for the Indian News
The nearest to me, however, was a group of Indian graduates who were living in the same hostel and attending other courses at the same institute to prepare them to the workplace or for a governmental position.
In addition to their friendly nature, they were men and women who preserved special conservative traditions that made them feel close to me and my Egyptian colleague Shadia. We in our turn felt more comfortable dealing and mingling with them than with our African colleagues in the same course.
Fortunately, I found no difficulty in approaching those young Indians and even befriended many of them. They were actually the ones to start the dialogue with me by asking the same repeated question: “Why do you wear such a headscarf?”
The question was natural, as it was made years before the 9/11 assault on New York's World Trade Centre, after which the whole
world was overwhelmed by information about Muslim culture and religion. The second reason why the question was so natural was that my colleague, although an Egyptian Muslim woman, was not wearing
the hijab (the Islamic headscarf).
This matter made them wonder about the reason that I was wearing this kind of dress, as an educated Muslim woman who had no problem in working and travelling abroad, unlike the image they had conceived about
conservative Muslim women.
This question was a good start to open a broad discussion about the teachings and principles of Islam, as most Egyptian Muslims know them. In return, I was trying to gain some information from them about
Indian Muslims and the ongoing debate and differences over places of worship.
The different answers I got from those welleducated Indian youth helped me piece together part of the mosaic picture I had of the crisis, which was completed with information some Indian Hindus gave me by
the end of my trip.
One of those Hindu men was an engineer who had left his state in southern India for New Delhi, in search of a job opportunity.
He explained the fury at that time over the conflicting interests of the Hindu and Muslim merchants who benefitted from these places of worship by locating their shops around the mosques and temples, and who feared loss of their profits by the change of place from a
mosque to a temple.
Another Hindu man attributed it to political interests and the attempts by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) to gain public acceptance prior to parliamentary elections, by provoking the movement of the Hindu Indians to demolish the old Babri mosque in Ayodhya, a city in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, and to rebuild a temple of Lord Ram in its place.
The destruction of this mosque, which was followed by nation-wide violence that claimed more than 3000 lives, took place some weeks after my return to Cairo. I had discovered that the roots of the problem even touched other mosques that the Indian Hindus claimed had been built in place of ancient temples of Hindu gods.
This information was gained through my personal visits to some mosques and temples in India, as well as by interviewing Indian Muslims.
The other part of the mosaic picture of the circumstances of the Muslim community in India will be completed next week in this corner.

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