We didn’t have a fireplace when I was growing up. Actually, all the people I knew did not have a fireplace growing up. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the place I hail from is also where the famous Sahara desert happens to be. (the English name of the Sahara desert always bothered me.The word “Sahara” is merely the Arabic word for desert. So it’s like saying the ‘Desert desert”. You get the redundancy?) Egyptians can successfully live without a fireplace. In fact, I’m pretty sure some Egyptians don’t even know what a fire place is.
This was a problem for me. You see, I grew up watching American movies and cartoons. In a good chunk of the American programs I grew up watching, Santa Claus came down a chimney. In order for Santa to leave his little goodies and presents, a fireplace was essential. It is also where one hangs up their stockings. How was I ever to tackle this dilemma?
I begged my father to build us a fireplace with a chimney, I even explained that Santa will not be able to come! And in fact that’s why he was unable to come all those previous years. My father instead of explaining to me why Santa does not come, agreed. He told me meanwhile I can hang my stockings above my bed, and I should sure find some candy. (I never did) “But what about the Christmas tree? You never buy us a Christmas tree. Where will Santa leave the gifts then?”
“Oh, Nermine, don’t be silly. We are Muslim. Muslims don’t buy Christmas trees, only Christians!”
This somehow at the age of five made sense to me. Of course we can’t buy a Christmas tree. We did however pretend that Santa Claus, not only existed but would have successfully visited Muslim Egyptian children once they provided him with an entry strategy.
My father never kept his promise. So Santa never made it to our apartment. A couple of years later however we moved to a bigger apartment with a decorative fire place. “Is there a chimney that connects to our fireplace mama?”
“No, dear it’s only decorative”
“How, is Santa going to come down the chimney then?”
“Nermine, there is no Santa. It’s only in Cartoons”
I was possibly the only child in the world that felt relieved to discover that Santa was not real. I did not miss out after all.
In a predominantly Muslim country, we felt comfortable enough to share our religious celebrations with our christian friends and neighbors. There was no fear of criticism. I am not sure if I can say the same for my Christian friends and neighbors (and after experiencing being a minority myself I now understand why). Exotic Santa stories and Christmas dinners were not shared with non-christian young children. Although in my British-run private school, we decorated a plastic Christmas tree, celebrated a Christmas party and exchanged gifts every year. Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th. We had two celebrations, one for my expat teachers and another for my Coptic friends.