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Extortion in Cairo’s mosques: paying to “safely” store your shoes

Extortion in Cairo’s mosques: paying to “safely” store your shoes

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Wednesday 16 February 202202:40 pm
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المال مقابل حفظ متعلّقاتك... "بيزنس" في مساجد مصر

Mohammad is a young man who hails from Egypt’s Delta region. After he was admitted to the Faculty of Commerce at Al-Azhar University, he took a tour of the places he had previously only seen on television. His first stop was at the Al-Hussein Mosque close to the area he is studying in, to attend Friday prayers and visit the holy site.

The 20-something young man entered the mosque to pray for the first time. Inside, he experienced a new sensation, perhaps due to the sheer number of worshippers that he’s never experienced before.

He handed his shoes and belongings to the worker standing in front of the shoe rack by the door. He then went to the bathroom, performed wudu (ablutions), and went to pray. Until that moment, everything had been fine, and the young man was enjoying his first visit to this place, but everything changed as he was about to leave.

There are four main doors that people enter the Al-Hussein Mosque from. Behind each door, there are wooden shelves that are divided into small compartments in which shoes are placed.

These “storage cabinets or racks” occupy a few meters of the space within the mosque, and one or two workers stand in front of them, taking the belongings of the worshipers and putting them in specific numbered compartments. When the visitor wants to leave, he would hand in the paper bearing the corresponding number of the compartment holding his belongings.

With shock still apparent on his face, Mohammad recounts how when he wanted to take his belongings and leave, the worker asked him for money in exchange for returning his shoes and belongings. He quickly took a few Egyptian pounds out of his pocket and handed them over, thinking it was charity for the mosque, but he was surprised when the worker said that he wanted five Egyptian pounds in return for storing his shoes and a small bag.

The very same scenario happened yet again when Mohammad visited Al-Sayeda Zainab Mosque. The worker asked him for money, but in a different way, “Give us something to bless us, or a small gift”. This time he was less surprised, since it had happened before. With time, it became the norm; Whenever he goes to any large mosque, he prepares an amount of money in his pocket to give to the man who he’d entrust with his things.

A widespread trend

Taking money from worshipers is apparently widespread in many mosques in Egypt, and both Egyptians and foreigners fall victim to it. This practice is more commonly found at mosques that are visited by tourists mostly.

We followed up on Mohammad’s story for a while. The amount of money that’s requested in mosques varies by region. In Old Cairo, for example, the pricing differs from that in the Garden City and the Fifth Settlement districts. Each region has its own set price, and this has now become a way for many people to earn money unduly and unjustly.

The Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo is considered the most expensive when it comes to the amount required for using the bathroom or performing wudu. It is always crowded with worshippers and those who visit shrines and holy sites, which makes it easier for those seeking to take advantage of them. Here, the price is five Egyptian pounds for shoes, and three pounds for slippers.

This mosque, constructed in the year 1154 during the Fatimid era, is built of red stone in the Gothic style. It was named so based on a narration that states that the head of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, was buried in its shrine. It is considered to be one of the largest mosques in Egypt, and its area, after it underwent further renovation and expansion in 1953, spans across 3,340 square meters, enabling it to accommodate hundreds of worshipers at once.

Upon arriving at the Al-Hussein Mosque, a man in his forties with a dark spot in the center of his forehead (a sign that he prays all the time) can be seen standing at the door, welcoming visitors with a faint smile and some kind words, which relaxes them and puts them at ease. The visitor is then asked for his shoes and belongings while he finishes using the bathroom and performing wudu. Upon leaving the mosque after he is done, he sees it all for what it really is.

The man who welcomes you before prayers with gentle words, greets you as you are leaving with the phrase, “[Give] any small handout or donation for your lord Hussein”, and this man might completely change all of a sudden, raising his voice and arguing with worshipers for money.

Some have gotten used to it, while many who aren’t regular visitors do not know what is going on. One such worshiper approached him, asking for his shoes. He was holding one Egyptian pound in his hand that he had wanted to give as a small contribution, thinking that this was merely a donation to the mosque. In response, the man’s appearance changed, and in a very abrupt and severe manner, he said, “Give me five pounds, mister.”

The worshipper then asked, “Why are you collecting this money?” The 40-something man quickly replied with, “We use them to get things for the mosque.” “Is the Awqaf [Ministry of Awqaf] aware of this?” He asked him in return, and the reply was, “That’s enough, mister, we need to see to other people. Why are you delaying me?!” Then he took the Egyptian pound from his hand and did not speak to him again.

The 40-something man who welcomes you before prayers with kind words, greets you as you leave with the phrase, “a small donation for your lord Hussein”. His attitude can suddenly change, raising his voice and arguing with worshippers who won’t pay him.

Not far from the same worker stood Mustafa Ibrahim, a young man in his thirties, holding five Egyptian pounds in his hand and waiting for his turn. He then reached out to the worker and gave him the money for his belongings.

Mustafa tells of how this is the first time he has performed Friday prayers in Al-Hussein Mosque. He came with his wife to visit the holy shrine, and pray for God to grant him a child. He had not been aware of the issue of paying money at the door, but he saw everyone doing it, so he did the same.

He’s worried about leaving his shoes and belongings next to the mosque or at its entrance outside. He fears his belongings will be stolen, just as they had been before in other mosques.

He thinks that they are collecting money for renovations for the mosque, but he does not rule out the possibility that they may take this money for themselves. But he had paid it as “charity, and they are the ones who will be questioned about it before God,” he says.

One Sunday, I went to the Al-Hussein Mosque with the aim of further investigating this issue on days other than the crowded Fridays. Just like everyone else, I handed in my shoes and went inside. I then prayed the Duhr (midday) prayers, and sat inside the mosque for a while, and when I decided to leave, the same scenario took place: I handed ticket number 37 to a man in his forties standing in front of the storage compartments to collect my shoes, so he asked of me, “Come on, [give] any handout or donation from you.” I asked him, “Why?” and he replied, “Because I kept your shoes for you.” “And is it not a free service?” I asked back. Anger seemed to dominate his face, and he sharply said, “Then get yourself a bag to keep your things after this... It is a matter of tact. I am older than you.” I tried to inquire again, “Isn’t this a free service?” but the conversation was interrupted by a man in his sixties who took a few pounds out of his pocket and gave it to the worker, who then looked at me and said, “Here, I didn’t even have to tell him anything. It was all done willingly.”

The 40-something man insists that he is doing the right thing, even though he is a salaried employee at the Ministry of Awqaf. Standing not far from him was Sheikh Ashraf Farouk, a muezzin at the Al-Hussein mosque. He says that the service of holding shoes and possessions is completely free, and the workers who are in charge of holding on to the belongings of the worshipers are employees of the ministry, but it is tactful to pay some money in exchange for the worker carrying your shoes.

Farouk points out that the job of these employees isn’t carrying the worshippers’ shoes, but we allow them to stand here to serve the people. He adds, “Your shoes are usually dirty and the man carries them for you, and therefore it is in good taste to pay him.” He continues, “Besides, the whole thing costs only five pounds, it’s barely worthwhile,” noting that the Ministry of Awqaf is aware of everything that is happening here. He also pointed out that if the worker standing at the door makes a mistake, he will be held accountable, “but paying the money is a matter of tact, and not an obligation on the worshipper.”

At the Al-Shafi’i Mosque

Old Cairo is home to many famous mosques that are regularly frequented by Egyptians from the north and far south. The atmosphere, mixed with the smell of incense and the old buildings that have stood witness to Egypt's history, is valued and appreciated by everyone who visits.

There, the minaret of the Imam al-Shafi’i Mosque stands tall in the Sayeda Aisha neighborhood. The mosque, which reopened nearly seven months ago after having been under renovation for years, welcomes hundreds of worshippers on Fridays, and this paves the way for some people to profit off of them.

“Be mindful of your possessions. Thieves are amongst you,” which leads some to ask him to pay attention to their belongings until they are done using the bathroom or performing wudu… as you exit the mosque, he demands payment.

A man with a gray beard sits on a wooden chair. In front of him is a small “table”, and in his right hand rests a plastic box containing about twenty Egyptian pounds worth in “loose change”, which indicates that the pricing here may differ from, or is slightly less, than that in the Al-Hussein Mosque. In his left hand is nearly 200 pounds ($13), the yield of everything he’s collected during the past few hours. He does not speak at all. All he does is loudly tap the box on the desk, as a sort of alert to the fact that he is collecting money. Near him, another person continuously echoes warnings: “Be mindful of your money and your possessions. Thieves are amongst you,” which leads some to ask him to pay attention to their belongings until they are done using the bathroom or performing wudu

Here things are slightly different from how they are in the Al-Hussein Mosque. The toilets where people perform wudu are located outside the mosque, which provides some with the opportunity to make profit far from the watchful eyes of mosque officials. This mosque doesn’t have a designated place to keep people’s shoes and belongings, but the crowds of worshipers force many to leave their belongings with the people sitting there, who occupy a small space there, in the hope that they will get some money in return.

The man with the gray beard says that he isn’t an Awqaf Ministry employee, but his relationship to this mosque goes back to his childhood. He says that his father used to frequent the place because he is a local in the area, and that he collects this money in order to buy cleaning supplies for the bathrooms, and this is all done in coordination with the mosque’s administration.

The imam and khatib (one who gives the khutbah, or sermon) of the Imam al-Shafi’i mosque, Sheikh Sayyed Antar, tells of how many visitors from inside and outside Egypt come to the place to seek blessings from the mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi’i.

He denounces the act of taking money from worshipers in exchange for holding their shoes and belongings, stressing that this is completely unacceptable, and that those who stand at the entrance to the mosque’s bathrooms to take money are not employees of the Ministry of Awqaf, but rather people he described as “poor and hapless” individuals who resort to this instead of begging. He says the money they collect they take for themselves, but “in any case, none of the worshipers is obligated to pay anything in return for going to the bathroom, performing wudu, or putting his shoes aside. These are free services in every mosque.”

Antar says that “the Ministry of Awqaf has nothing to do with this practice, and if it does receive a complaint or a report about a person forcing worshippers to pay, it comes and deals with it immediately and holds the person accountable.” He points out that “people who collect money claiming that they are donations to the mosque, are not being truthful, because the Awqaf (Ministry) has permanently prohibited donations inside mosques, even in donation boxes, and only allows donations to be done through its bank accounts only.”

In “Upscale” neighborhoods

The aforementioned scenes leave a negative impact within the minds of those who come from foreign countries for study or tourism. Omar, a young Indonesian man, came to Egypt to study at the Faculty of Islamic Da’wah at the Al-Azhar University. He says that “the whole thing is odd and I have only seen it being done in Egypt.”

“The first time someone asked me for money, I acquiesced, but as more time passed living in Egypt, I became sure that these people were taking this money for themselves, and not for the mosques. It upset me greatly, and ever since I make sure to bring with me a plastic bag to keep my belongings in until I finish praying,” he tells.

This practice is not limited to the local, popular neighborhoods in Old Cairo. It also happens in the “upscale and high-end” neighborhoods there. The Omar Makram Mosque on Tahrir Square sees the same practice being done, but in a different manner. When you enter, you see an old man similar in age and appearance to those who do this in the other mosques sitting by the shoe storage compartments with a small “carton box” placed next to him. He waits for you until you use the bathroom, pray, and sit as long as you like in the mosque, and when you leave, he whispers to you in a low voice, pretending to be somewhat coy and shy: “Put what money you can into this carton box, and may God reward you.” He then waits as he holds your belongings in his hand to see what you will do.

He does not suggest a price, with the intent of getting more than five pounds given the social status of the people of the area.

The official spokesperson for the Ministry of Awqaf, Dr. Abdullah Hassan, comments on this issue, saying that taking money from citizens in mosques in exchange for keeping shoes is a clear violation of the ministry’s instructions, because the service of holding shoes is free in all mosques across the country.

He adds that all the instructions issued by the ministry are done through its official page and website, and we have previously announced that this service is free, and the ministry does not charge any amount of money for it.

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