Egypt has hit the headlines in the past few weeks with the clashes on the street and the referendum on the constitution. Now, though, it's time for Christians in the country to celebrate Christmas.
Every nook and cranny of the tiny shop is filled with Christmas decorations: pink bells, blinking lights, snowmen with sleds in tow, and glittering miniature trees. Meanwhile, a noisy Koran recitation can be heard in the background.
It's Christmas in Cairo. The barber shop on the corner greets clients with its own Christmas tree, while a Santa Claus laughs out from a leather goods store window to passers-by on the streets.
A Christmas or New Year's tree?
Zamalek is a Cairo city district that's home to many well-heeled foreigners. A large flower shop is located at the corner of one intersection. Poinsettias dot the windowsills, while Christmas trees in all shapes and sizes are available to customers.
"We get the trees either from Alexandria, or from the Netherlands," the salesman says proudly. "Everyone buys the trees: Muslims, Christians, and secular people." Although he's a Muslim, he even has one at home himself, he adds.
Some Muslims celebrate Christmas because it's Jesus' birthday. In Islam, Jesus is not considered to be the Son of God, but he is one of the prophets. Others like to celebrate it as a special holiday for the kids. And some buy fir trees for December 31, to ring in the New Year, calling them "New Year trees."
"Four Christian families live in our building," says the florist, "and we all get along very well." As if to prove the point, a prayer rug is rolled out in front of the shop in the shadow of the Christmas trees.
Christmas two times over
In the Coptic Orthodox St. Maria Church in Zamalek, services have just come to an end and many people are streaming outside. Most are looking forward to Christmas, but they still have a while to wait. Coptic Christians celebrate on the eve of January 6 into the 7th. "We go to mass in the evening, then celebrate with our families and eat a big feast, as we've just fasted for 44 days," says Michael, a young Coptic Christian. "Other people go to parties or clubs."
However, many Copts are not really in a festive mood this year. "We're only going to go to church in the evening and pray," the young man says solemnly. "We don't want to celebrate and sing. We're sad about the developments in Egypt at the moment, and we're also worried about our safety." Some Copts are concerned that Islamist parties will now have more influence in shaping Egypt. The Coptic Christians are a minority in the country, comprising only 10 percent of the population.
All Saints Cathedral lies in the heart of Cairo, very close to the Nile River. It's an Anglican church, so the Christians here are a minority of a minority. "We pray for President Morsi, for his advisers, for the judges, and for the military," the pastor says. "We pray that they will gain wisdom from above - especially during these times." Then the congregation sings "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming" together. The political situation in the country cannot be held at bay, not even here, in the holiday season.
"If you ask Egyptian Christians how they feel at the moment, you get very different answers. Some are scared; others want to be involved in the political process," says Reverend Mike Parker. He and his wife came here from England four years ago, and they look after the English-speaking community. "We're guests in Egypt and feel welcome here, but the general security situation has gotten worse," he says, over a cup of tea. He comments that the streets have become more dangerous since the revolution, with more thefts and muggings.
But a vicar wouldn't be a vicar if he weren't optimistic at Christmas time. "We love Christmas in Egypt," insists Reverend Parker. "You don't have to worry about buying all the presents, but you can still celebrate the holiday - and the sun shines." And he adds with a smile: "Our Muslim friends expect us to celebrate Christmas, so we can't disappoint them."