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.

1 comment:

siobhan said...

This is gorgeous. A History of God has been on my wishlist for a long time; maybe it's time to get my hands on it. (Ok, maybe now is not a good time. Maybe when the semester is over.) Your Facebook comments often cause me to imagine your mosque-next-door.