CAIRO // To be Egyptian can mean very different things. There are the barefoot fellahin and the pointy-shoed city-slickers; the wailing Sufi dervishes, the tattooed Christians and the long-bearded fundamentalists. And there are even the face-painted flirts and blushing muhagabats. But if this disparate group of 80 million can agree on one thing, it is their universal love of a good party. So it came as a disappointing surprise to Mohammed Gilani that his celebration of the Egyptian New Year - an event that should have been a shisha-choking, hip-shaking, drink-tea-out-of-little-cups celebration of the Egyptian identity - attracted a measly 11 guests last week at a country club outside Cairo.
"I was very disappointed because it took a lot of time to invite people," said Mr Gilani, who organised the celebration as part of his work for Egypt for Egyptians, a non-profit organisation that works to promote a concept of Egyptian identity that Mr Gilani believes has been eclipsed by the encroachment of both western commercial globalisation and the religious austerity of the Arabian Gulf region.
"This goes back 1,430 years, if you understand what I mean," said Mr Gilani, referring to the time when Islam first reached the Nile valley, where Christianity had been the dominant religion. "Egyptian identity disappeared when Islam came to Egypt, because it was part of the Arab way. It forced people to talk this language and the Egyptian language disappeared. You can't have a history if you don't have a language."
To celebrate the Egyptian New Year - it is now the year 6251, according to the event's organisers - is to commemorate what is fundamentally Egyptian: that spirited national pride and strong sense of place that predates the foreign influences that turned Egypt into a nation of fractured identities, said Samy Farag, a lawyer and ancient history enthusiast who helped to plan last week's small celebration.
Mr Farag is a member of Om Al Masria, an Egyptian nationalist organisation that helped Mr Gilani to organise the party last week. "I'm interested in the Egyptian nationality, which I see is lacking now in Egypt. The problems of the Egyptians started from an identity crisis," said Mr Farag. "That's why my group and I think there are some symbolic things that could help bring back our identity." Among such symbols are a variety of other holidays that, like the recently revived Egyptian New Year, trace their roots to an ancient nation that predates Islam and Christianity. On November 1, Mr Farag will organise a party to celebrate the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in 3100BC. December 24 will be Tree Day - a celebration meant to commemorate the ancient Egyptian legend of Osiris and his "Tree of Life" ("It will be exactly like a Christmas tree," said Mr Farag).
Finally, Om Al Masria is also planning celebrations for two ancient holidays that are already widely observed in Egypt. The organisation is making arrangements for a party on April 5 to mark Sham Al Nessim, the ancient Egyptian vernal equinox, and for Wafaa Al Nil, the feast day that marks the beginning of the Nile flood season, in August. But even such benign celebrations as Mr Farag's and Mr Gilani's Egyptian New Year, which they have tried to convene for the past three years, have come under suspicion for perceived political motives. Last year, state security forces cancelled the new year party because it was deemed to be too political.
But can a few parties change a nation? Perhaps not, said Mr Farag, but they can help to demystify Egyptian history. As it stands, the Egyptian New Year is widely known as the Coptic New Year. The common misnomer, said Mr Farag, has only furthered the damaging and relatively recent idea that Coptic Christians and Muslims are separate peoples with divergent cultures and loyalties. "Muslims don't know that this day is for all. They think it's just for Christians," said Claire al Masry, one of the few guests at Mr Gilani's party, who urged her Muslim co-workers to attend with her. "We've always celebrated this as a Christian holiday, but now we're trying to make it a national day."
In the popular imagination, modern Egyptians are the descendants of pyramid-builders who established one of the ancient world's most enduring civilisations and engineered a calendar that forever changed the way mankind measured the passage of time. By drawing a logical connection between the phases of the moon, the movement of the sun and the annual flooding of the Nile River, the ancient Egyptians were able to ground the older lunar calendar in a static 365-day year that progressed with the seasons.
For Egyptian nationalists, those are achievements worthy of a little boasting. "I want every schoolchild to write 6251 as the year," said Saleh al Zein, an organic chemistry professor, when he was asked to address the small party after dinner. "Then I will ask the same question: Why are we more ancient than [the West] and yet they are more advanced than us? This is the question I want every schoolchild to ask."
Though the only "-ism" at last week's party appeared to be nationalism, many Egyptians both at home and abroad have sought to give the New Year a more political flavour. In the run-up to this September 11, Copts in the United States urged Egyptians to hold strikes and demonstrations to protest at the Muslim majority's continuing discrimination against the 10 per cent of Egyptians who are Christian.
"We cannot object to that because a person who feels unfairly treated may express him or herself at anytime, even on Egyptian New Year," said Mr Farag, who said such political expressions are too divisive for a holiday that should be about unity. "But let's look at the facts: Christians in Egypt have problems at the official and civilian level. They are subject to many annoyances owing to the increase in Wahhabi attitudes."
The small group gathered last Thursday evening was something of a multi-confessional microcosm of modern Egypt. The guests, who were evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, shared a sense of being Egyptian that transcends a growing religious gap that many attendees said has been imposed on Egypt from abroad. Among those present, the Wahhabi religious beliefs that were imported to Egypt from Saudi Arabia during the 1980s when many Egyptians travelled abroad for work, attracted the most blame for Egypt's current "identity crisis". Following in a close second were the policies of Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of Egypt's first presidents and a pioneer of the Pan-Arabist movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
"The basic reason for the identity crisis, according to Om Al Masria, is the basic assumption that Egyptians are Arabs and the assumption in the constitution that Egyptians are Arab," said Mr Farag. "Egyptians are now perplexed." firstname.lastname@example.org