Sunday, December 21, 2008


I'm reading a book called A History of God, by Karen Armstrong, which covers the major monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I became interested in this book when I started to realize I had few grounds to discuss religion in Egypt, the heart of so much conflict and creation. Today I got to the first Islam chapter, which is the most engaging (though all of it has been fascinating thus far).

Since I've been in an Egypt funk this fall/winter (for no logical reason), I've felt as if all I have observed are the things I consider to be nuisances. Case in point: we live next to a mosque, and each Friday I grow successively more irritated that I cannot escape the loudspeakers. And a little tic has commenced: I walk through the apartment for an hour trying to find something to do that doesn't involve having to think, and a juvenile "SHHHHH!" escapes my lips as the imam's recitation intensifies.  

But you should see the beauty of the prayer rugs spread on our street, a colorful assortment draped over the cracked manhole covers. I look out the window, and the men and boys - the teens texting on their mobiles, the taxi drivers, the shopkeepers and bawaabs of our street, men rushing up who could not get to their regular mosque in time - never seem to look up or see me; they are waiting and listening, readying to prostrate. They do not bother to look at the Asian couple weaving through their ranks or the blonde American with his backpack, standing on the perimeter, uncertain about how to get through this knot of locals filling the street. I am privy to this public devotion as if I'm looking through mashrabeyya, the intricate wooden shutters that created a space for women to look out but not be seen, in those days described by Naguib Mahfouz when women rarely left the home. 

The imam often sings in a rich voice, and you can pick out the repetitions of words. It is the repetition, Armstrong writes, that so many Westerners do not understand. When they try to read the Qu'ran or the Torah in translation, they can get hung up in the repetition and become bored, for in English it doesn't carry the same power. In Arabic, it is an art, conjuring the transformative response we have to poetry. The Hebrew, the Arabic, the languages of this region are known for their beauty. 

Strange to think that before I came here, my experiences with Arabic consisted of translated sound bites from Al-Jazeera, and every word sounded angry. 

I remember watching my grandpa sitting in his rocking chair, thumbing through his well-worn Bible, and the first time I heard a hellfire sermon at the little church in Nason that he attended with my granny. I was brought up Catholic, and I must have looked scared because my mom sent me down to Bible school in the basement, where we learned the story of Zachariah -- acted out with pastel characters on a felt board -- and ate cookies. I loved the stories, but I wondered what was going on up there in the wooden pews, with the painting of Jesus and his flaming heart hanging over the worshippers. I was worried about what it meant when people were saved because the preacher had forecasted that someone was going to come forward that day and accept Jesus. Until my mom sent me downstairs, I was worried that it was going to have to be me. But I also didn't want to miss the harmony of Southern-lilted hymns, my granny's wailing alto, the Old Rugged Cross. 

I remember my grandpa's devotion. It was simultaneously demonstrative and private, as if he knew a secret, and as I watch the men kneeling toward Mecca with their foreheads on the rugs and their feet bare, I do feel as if they have some secret, and whether it is language, or devotion, or some other form of faith, I am able for a moment to comprehend the inescapable and comforting sameness of humans.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Look Behind You

Thanksgiving 08 
T and me

Yesterday we walked through the new campus for the last time with one of our good friends who is leaving to get back to the states to be with his wife. We'll miss him, bunches. As we were almost to the gate, we came upon fake Christmas trees advertising the university Christmas party. (Our university makes use of Muslim, Copt, and Western holidays, as well as Thanksgiving - no complaints here.) T put down the chicken crate that was holding his office supplies and handed J the camera. He posed beside one of the trees. J was snapping away and then giggled. "Look behind you," he said. T swiveled around and snorted.  The tree was in front of a men's bathroom we had never noticed before, which for some reason has many uncovered windows, and it was full of men because the sun was going down and everyone was washing up to pray. We found it funny because we are all rather irreverent, but mostly because it was just another example of poor planning on the new campus. I looked over at a security guard who had been watching us, and he smiled at me and laughed at our realization. I think this is only funny if you know T, but it was a great closing moment.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hers and His

When she was too small to remember, the cross was seared into the inside of her wrist. As she grows, it gets larger, a tattoo that expands and fades. Some Copts have the Cross on the side of their thumb. Recently she heard the screams of a boy receiving his cross, and she wondered if she had sounded like that, too.

He thinks that harassment of women didn't exist before American movies made their way into Egyptian society. Men who are so stifled must find an outlet. He means poor soldiers from the sticks. Over the Eid, he will go to Sharm El Sheikh, where he will drink and ogle the Russians. It doesn't count there, like Las Vegas.

She wears hijab because it says to in the Qu-ran. She is usually color-coordinated from the veil to the shoes to the designer purse. She is firm about the hijab. I give her my standard opinion: "It's just something I can't wrap my mind around." That's an easy answer.

He expresses a hatred for Egyptian women, a hatred laden with class envy and rejection in the tone of a child. Since I am not his wife or future wife, I am related to as a mother or a sister. He doesn’t have to say that out loud for me to understand it. I am his only female friend. He calls me his sister. I accept this for a long while, trying to be culturally sensitive, until, in the height of Ramadan on a hot afternoon of dehydration, his pronouncements get too invasive, as if any time now he might give me a curfew and forbid me from seeing the boy I live with. I realize that I am not sure he has ever heard a word I have said. He is nothing like my brother.

She is willowy, with a fringe of bangs swept to the side that cause her to tilt her head and pass the back of her hand over the hair every once in a while as if to keep it out of her eyes. She believes that only the Prophet's wives wore hijab and that it is a choice. When she presents this view, she can barely get the sentences out before she is interrupted.

He remembers a protest in the nineties after a few gay men were arrested. He was a child. He watched a clip on television. He says he could hear the soldiers' nightsticks hit the protestors' bones and that, if he were there, he would have beaten them too. He is willing to be friends with a gay man if he doesn’t “act like a girl.” I lean in close to him. I tell him he is free to believe whatever he wants, but his opinions, to me, are simply garden-variety homophobia of the kind I can find in my own country. This is a lesson in audience, for both of us.

Then I talk over him, and him, and him. I just keep talking.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Images of Ma'adi

Gaya is our new favorite restaurant. That's J passing by.

The cafe at the end of our block. It says "Green Mill Fish," but I haven't seen fish on the menu. We've only been in the cafe under the green awning - there's a restaurant below that. Good cappucinos.

J pets the resident cat from the antique store around the corner.

J at the head of our block, Green Mill to the left.