by Khaled Hammad
Khaled’s fascinating story is serialized on this site every Thursday. You can read it here:
Breaking free from Islam Between Halal and Haram
A Journey Through Hell Fire
Chapter 9: “Father Zakaria”
In 2001, after spending a few months working in Manchester, I ended up on the Convent Way estate between Hounslow and Southall on the H32 bus route. I shared a flat with Omar, a friend I had known from my earlier days in London and who had not finished his beloved engineering course at Cairo University. Still, his genius and passion for IT pushed him to start again here in the U.K.. In challenging circumstances, he managed to acquire his degree in software engineering, and landed a satisfying job in the industry. I never forgot Omar’s excitement when he came home from the Hounslow market on a Saturday with a computer held against his chest.
I was a confident PC user myself, having used Microsoft Word at work and had been creative in constructing impressive worksheets with formulae that had given me well-paid jobs as an accountant. However, I was utterly ignorant of one aspect of the PC “world”: the internet. I remember well, while meeting my friends back home for a farewell gathering before I came to the U.K., one of them saying, ‘Khaled, the internet cafes in Europe are now very popular, just like coffee shops here in Cairo. Please email us to let us know how you’re getting on.’ I just said ‘sure’ without knowing what he meant. ‘What is an email and how do I send it?’ I was only familiar with what I had come across. We did not use the internet at work. Those days, I found fax devices a great alternative to the dull noise of the gigantic telex machine that we used to communicate with our distant clients; my Nokia 3310 was my pride and joy because it did not have an antenna. The idea of a computer in our flat in Convent Way did not seem significant to me because I did not need to write anything.
Omar spent long hours trying to fix his cheap and faulty new toy from the market. He came home with an internet card and managed to get the PC working. The funny internet dial-up tone sent his excitement level over the roof. We were connected. He taught me what the internet meant and how to connect. We had a lot of fun chatting with strangers. It did not take long before I came across a programme called Paltalk. It was a platform where people could search for any topic of interest and find various rooms where administrators chat about that topic, and the members of the audience could ask to speak and converse freely. My interest in religions landed me in rooms about Islam, and then I stumbled across a room which was called “The Only Way”, inspired by the famous biblical quotation, “I am the only way.” The main admin had the same nickname name. He was a very charismatic talker. You could not see him, but you could quickly get addicted to his speech, which criticised Islam heavily on a regular basis. He was witty and confident with a very distinguished voice. I would finish my shift in the canteen at the Excelsior Hotel, Heathrow, and return home to get stuck to his room like a magnet, listening to the critique of Islam with high curiosity.
The room, alongside other rooms, was no more than an echo of the voice of a famous Coptic priest called Father Zakaria Botros (an Egyptian name for Zachariah Peter). Botros, who resided in Australia then, became well known in the Arabic world in 2003 when he appeared on a TV show that would be cancelled seven years later. His critique of Islam placed him as Islam’s biggest enemy and led to a $60m bounty on his head by Al Qaeda. He had made a considerable effort to understand the original old scholars’ books and highlight issues that had never been pointed out to the public before. With his huge charisma, Botros started to have an internet fan base on Paltalk. He had an episode every Thursday evening where he answered people’s questions and spoke about various topics of Islam from the Quran and the Hadith. However, his teachings would remain throughout the days of the week in every minute of every day in other rooms. What I learnt through the priest and through “The Only Way” was the true beginning of my journey to atheism.
[To be continued]