I wanted to keep a blog since the beginning of summer to record my travel experiences which I knew would be a nice way to look back on my year-long study abroad in post-revolutionary Egypt. But between Arabic classes, language partners, internship hours, and the new cultural whirlpool that is Egypt, I could never find the time. Then I came across Shaykh Hamza’s quote, “The biggest lie that anyone can ever tell is ‘I don’t have any time’. The real answer should be ‘I don’t use my time wisely enough to have time.’” This was true. Sometimes it was easy for my roommate and I to fall into a spiraling decadence of re-watching O.C. episodes until our eyes hurt. But we only did this in order to save ourselves from the external chaotic world. If I had to describe Egypt in one word, it would be chaos. A chaos that warrants confusion and annoyance, yes, but also an organized chaos where every citizen understands that traffic is merely an inevitable facet to their daily lives, and also a beautiful chaos where the man selling his fruit attached to a donkey wagon somehow fits in with the scenery of tall peeling buildings lined with cafes and pharmacies on every corner.
I didn’t have nearly such a hard time coming to terms with the quality of life here as I did understanding the qualitative fabric of “Egyptian Islam” and I call it “Egyptian Islam” because the religion seems to have amalgamated so much so with the current culture and customs, that it is hard to discern its true nature.
I assumed Egypt in part, would be a spiritual reawakening for me like Jordan was two and half years ago. But when men harassed me on the streets, cab drivers wrangled over more money, and nameless people gaped fixedly at my appearance, my spiritual journey seemed to hit a roadblock before it had even begun. Where was Islam among a country of majority Muslims? This reminded me of Muhammad Abduh’s predicament, “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” I remember telling my roommate, on many a days where we would walk along the corniche, gazing out into the waves, “It’s so hard to find God here.”
At some point, I came to a realization that although God seemed less apparent to me in Egypt, where socio-economic problems were not only visible but in your face at all times, He was still present, but I’d have to work harder to develop an intimate connection with Him. Surely, with His infinite wisdom, He had a plan for me, and of all the places in the world I could be at the time, Egypt was where I belonged.
I remember one late afternoon, when I lived in the University of Alexandria Women’s dorms; I climbed the stairs to the eleventh floor and looked down at the world below me. I saw masses and masses of bustling people, coming back from work, buying food, smoking cigarettes, visiting friends, living their lives, unaware of my observing them. Then I saw him. A solitary old man praying the afternoon prayer on a green mat by the side of the road. He looked so focused and intent on his prayer, undisturbed by the multitude of people and cars around him making noise. In that moment, he had managed to forget the chaos and find God.
I realized something else then. Although culture and religion appeared synonymous in the Arab world, there was something almost simple and sincere about the way Muslims practiced their faith here. Egyptian Muslims publically displayed their faith with such strong conviction, it made me wonder if I could do the same without apprehension. One of the foremost Muslim theologians, Shaykh Nuh Keller, who converted to Islam here in 1977, experienced a similar incident in his personal account, Becoming Muslim. He saw a man on the side of the Nile, praying on a piece of cardboard and wondered how a man could be so absorbed in his connection to God. He said, “To my mind, there was something magnificently detached about this, altogether strange for someone coming from the West, where praying in public was virtually the only thing that remained obscene.”
Perhaps Egyptian Muslims were closer to their “fitrah” or natural state where pure belief in monotheism is inherent and perhaps I, as an American Muslim, had gone farther from my “fitrah,” clouded by the advanced technological world and thoughts of secularism. Regardless, I’ve developed a profound appreciation for Egyptian Muslims, and despite the per diem chaos that permeates the religion as well, I’ve learned how to tune it out, and find God.