Egypt

The Carriers

The souq was noisy and bustling. Sultry, sweltering, sun-stained women picked at gorging produce stands. Bananas. Mangoes. Guavas. Tomatoes. Potatoes. Zucchini.

It was her first time in a souq. She was a Foreigner. More like an interloper. An alien. As her image reflected in the people’s eyes told her. Confusion coupled with curiosity said their eyes. But she skipped to the beat of the bustle in the souq. She blended in as best she could. Their eyes followed her.

A bag of onions in one hand and a bag of tomatoes in the other. She balanced her scales like a seesaw. She wobbled through the streets teetering to this side then that. Women shoved passed the Foreigner. Nudging her into conical, knobby eggplants. Little shayal clamored to catch her bags.

These were little Carriers. Young boys tall and short, skinny and plump, ranging the various stages of boyhood. They worked in the souq. They picked fruits and vegetables, secured them in bags, placed them on their trolleys, and shuffled everything back to your house for a paltry sum. Little helpers, little elves working all day in the sun. Working and playing because for them, the two were interchangeable.

Poor miskeen little creatures she thought. Yes she would take one. The first to have caught her bags and her eye was a small prepubescent boy with a face caked in dirt. He had a red snub nose that sat squarely in the center of his baby face. His eyes. Emerald. Peeked through a forest of dark lashes. Yes. He would be her little Carrier.

The little Carrier took orders from the big Foreigner. He packed each plastic bag with its designated plant and stacked them high on his rusted steely trolley. He pushed his cart, weaving in and out unnoticed between legs of people. Like a mouse. Soon the mountain on his trolley towered over him. Another older Carrier took advantage. Kicked him in the gut and tried to commandeer his trolley. The boys struggled and wrestled as boys do.

“Stop it!” yelled the Foreigner in foreign Arabic. People stared with their ears. Both boys fell silent and straight, heads lowered in obeisance. Older Carrier gave little Carrier a residual pinch to the shoulder before scuttling away.

Little Carrier gathered an ample two week supply of fruits and vegetables. He finished, tying a sack of grapes and placing it atop the leaning tower of pisa. Yalla. Time to go. The Foreigner led her little Carrier down a narrow, winding street past tall, peeling buildings.

He lagged behind her tripping on the ends of his oversized pants. He labored under the weight of his trolley. Prodding and pushing, he pleaded with the produce. Don’t fall. She could see his exasperation float into the air like clouds above her head. Perhaps she should help him.

Why didn’t they push the trolley together in unison? It was much too cumbersome for a boy no older than six. He puffed out his chest and told her he was nine. He declined the help. Afraid she would reduce his pay.

She ignored his puerile pride and dispelled his fears. Let’s play a game. Let’s push the trolley together as fast as we can. Little Carrier forgot he was at work. Slid seamlessly into play. They pushed the bulky cart down the bumpy road, slowly gaining momentum. Faster and faster they ran, trolley first. Scarcely avoiding potholes. Taxis screamed their horns at them. They paid no mind. The wind lifted and rushed past their ears. The fruits and vegetables quivered inside their bags. Almost falling. Run. Run. Run. The Foreigner and her little Carrier ran. Onlookers cheered or shook their heads disapprovingly.

Suddenly stop. Back to reality. Her apartment building loomed overhead. The bawab stood puzzled by the entrance.

Little Carrier looked down at the ground expectantly. The Foreigner wanted to give him her wallet. Her entire purse. She wanted to give him her heart as a mother would her son. She wanted to clean him up and take him to school. Read him bedtime stories at night.

She reached into the cave of her bag and pulled out an appropriate sum. Then she added a little more. She instructed him to buy a coke. A bag of chipsy. Some helwayat.

He looked at her like she was stupid. A smile flashed across his face revealing two missing front teeth. He took the money. Sauntered down the road. Turned around the corner, trolley in tow.

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Is Yasmin Mogahed a Sexist?

In a recent article, a blogger by the pseudonym “Muslim Feminist” takes Yasmin Mogahed to task by exposing the subtle “sexism” in her online personality. “Muslim Feminist” claims that Mogahed deliberately reposted a “sexist” joke and wrote an article with a hidden “sexist” agenda — all of which provides ample ammunition to pierce the religious leader’s moral credibility.

“Muslim Feminist” is not off the mark in suggesting that a Muslim woman can promote gender inequality. Any person, regardless of sexual and religious orientation, can be a sexist. I would hesitate, however, to accuse Yasmin Mogahed of willfully propagating underlying sexist messages and religious beliefs. Labelling her work as “sexist” fails to comprehend Mogahed’s complex sensibilities and attachments that make up her worldview.

Mogahed would be regarded by many in the Muslim community as a da`iya or religious teacher who is either self-taught or has received some formal training. She instructs both women and men on proper Islamic conduct and urges them to greater piety. Her “self-help” book and articles are laced throughout with exhortations to developing a primary relationship with God.

The internal critique by “Muslim Feminist” is necessary. Religious public figures are not exempt from criticism as they engage the public discourse. In fact, they may be subjected to an even higher standard of scrutiny given their claim to religious authority. Constructive and meaningful criticism however, does not overshadow a person’s good works. Popular academic critique tends to entirely obliterate a person by exposing errors in a way that permanently taints the bulk of his or her work. This genre of critique dangerously impels us to forget the truth and good in another’s labor. What I mean to say is: Mogahed may have posted an indiscreet joke but by no means should this color her integrity as a Muslim woman role model and mentor.

In Mogahed’s view, traditional gender roles do not indicate inequality. Women and men are celebrated for their uniqueness. She criticizes women who emulate men in superficial ways like physical appearance and behavior. Notice she never says that women shouldn’t participate in the public sphere and pursue careers in politics, education, finance, and healthcare, etc. I highly doubt whether Mogahed, who spends much of her time empowering and uplifting Muslim women, would advocate less rights for her own sex. Moreover, some Muslim men are uncomfortable with Mogahed’s emergence in the public spotlight. Their particular religious view maintains that women should remain within the confines and seclusion of their own home. Mogahed disregards these religious gender boundaries, contradicting her supposed sexist ideology.

My point however, is not to ascertain Mogahed’s level of feminism. Mogahed appears to derive her gender notions from a deep sense of religious belief wherein women are equal, but not similar to men. Her rhetoric might appear outwardly inimical to our own ideals and values but a closer look reveals a similar desire for liberation and empowerment. This demands we show reluctance in labeling her with incisive antifeminist terms, lest we run the risk of projecting our own ideas and misinterpreting her intentions and sensibilities. In other words, this warrants an act of humility on our part.

Saba Mahmood, while researching the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, arrived at a similar conclusion. She eloquently writes:

“Rather what I mean to gesture at is a mode of encountering the Other which does not assume that in the process of culturally translating other lifeworlds one’s own certainty about how the world should process can remain stable. This attitude requires the virtue of humility: a sense that one does not always know what one opposes…”

After immersing herself within the rich and multilayered lives of Egyptian women, Mahmood was able to dismantle her own subjectivities. She recognized a religious force incapable of being translated into limiting definitions. There is a strong reflex in feminist discourses to mock a worldview like Mogahed’s. We consider it backwards and outmoded. We project our own assumptions which prevent us from critically engaging a work on its own merit.

I believe as Muslims first and foremost, we should exercise a degree of caution in deconstructing another’s worldview. We should critique with the hefty realization that we are not always experts in what we purport to know. This requires that we objectively interrogate our own assumptions and then proceed with circumspect and nuanced arguments. Our goal is not to obliterate a person nor is it to tiptoe nicely around his or her obvious errors in judgment. Rather, it is to modestly impart a balanced critique, always mindful of the sacred trope, “And Allah knows best.”

You Know You’re Living in Egypt When…

I want to preface this entry by emphasizing my deep and unbridled love for Egypt. But as within every loving relationship, there are certain trade-offs.

 

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1. You start singing Celine Dion because you heard it in a taxi, at a grocery store, in a cafe…

2. Toilet paper is a hot commodity

3. The electricity goes out conveniently while you’re using the bathroom

4. You want to create a homeless shelter for homeless street cats

5. You order Pizza Hut once a week

6. You get hit on wearing normal clothing

7. You get hit on wearing a headscarf

8. You get hit on wearing a face veil

9. You get hit on wearing a garbage bag over your head

10. One hundred ghena seems like one hundred dollars

11. The bawab (doorman) takes a deep interest in your personal life

12. Everyone eats fuul (beans) for breakfast even though this may pose problems later in the day

13. At least once a day, someone asks where you’re from, except in this manner: “from where?” (tilts head, makes emphatic hand gesture)

14. You ask someone on the street for directions, they ignore your question and ask where you’re from

15. You wake up to construction sounds in the middle of the night…

16. There’s Arabic coffee everywhere, but somehow it will never match up to American brewed coffee

17. There are 3-4 pharmacies on every street, you know just in case of emergency

18. You have serious anxieties that your building is going to collapse

19. If you could win a ghena for the number of times you’ve killed a roach, you’d have a lotta ghena

20. There’s always traffic but rush-hour is at 2 pm, you know when the work day ends

21. Thursday is the new Friday

22. You substitute Arabic words for English words you no longer remember

23. You light your oven with an incense stick

24. Random Egyptians add you on Facebook. You might have 1 mutual friend which of course means you were destined to become friends

25. People stare at you constantly

26. You hear your neighbor’s children playing happily at 3 in the morning

27. Random people call you by mistake, when you tell them they have the wrong number, they keep calling…and calling

28. There are multiple cafes on every street corner

29. You meet an Egyptian in a microbus. You become pals for the rest of the year

30. Macaroni is the main dish of Egypt

31. Your newsfeed is all in Arabic

32. No need to go to the mosque on jummah. The Friday sermon is connected to loud speakers in your bedroom

33. There are only 3 religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism (although no one has ever spotted a real Jew)

34. Projectfreetv is a godsend

35. You never use to eat McDonalds but the occasional Mickey D’s McFlurry is your new guilty pleasure

36. French fries and all fried foods are dank

37. You have preferences over bottled water brands: Hiyat, Baraka, Aqua Siwa, Dasani, Nestle…

38. Takeef (air-conditioning) water falls on you from buildings above

39. You find foreign objects in your food

40. You have severe necrophobia when riding an elevator

41. You have trouble lighting your water heater so you take ice cold showers

42. There’s a man outside your apartment building who yells talaaga (refrigerator) over and over while pushing a donkey cart

43. Pedestrians never have the right of way

44. You see more children than you do adults

45. Sleeping in until 2 pm is not uncommon. When you do so, you use the excuse of being culturally immersed

46. When you confront men who harass you, they say you are like their mother or sister…

47. All your P’s have evolved into mighty and powerful B’s like Bizza or Bancake

48. You’ve grown into a skilled bargainer

49. All modes of transportation are great but the 3 wheeled tuk tuk is your favorite

50. You carry hand sanitizer with you wherever you go

The Wonderful World of Egypt

Greetings ya’ll. I just want to start off by thanking everyone for all the love on recent blog posts. A lot has happened since my last post like…severe fuel shortages leading to ridiculous queues of vehicles blocking traffic (and making me late for everything), deadly Port Said riots culminating in the Egyptian fan club, Ultras Ahlawy, torching the Egyptian soccer headquarters (glad I’m not a soccer fan), and the usual occurrence of political oppression as the MB censures a U.N. document aiming to quell violence against women.

But in regards to my personal life, it’s hard to complain. Although lately, my roommates and I have felt as if we’ve reached a sort of lulling standstill. Our Arabic skills have properly ripened but classes are no longer intellectually stimulating (were they ever?) and more so, they aren’t pushing us to a higher language level. With two and a half months remaining, that’s two and a half months to leaving Egypt and its alternate reality world and returning to the States, the question of grad school, jobs, and just generally— “what the heck am I going to do with my life?” haunts us on a regular basis.  

This lull accompanied by our disenchantment with grandiose plans for the future, has left us searching for a new purpose; perhaps one that can carry us through the remaining months and show us something that we have left to find here.

In the meantime, I’ve taken to refining those skills which I know there is still possibility of improvement like my tajwid or Quran recitation, which might I add has always redirected me when I felt lost in Egypt. My Quran teacher, a friendly Arab baba in his own right, also happens to be the sixth best Quran reciter in the world, according to a yearly competition administered by the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs in Jordan.

But really, all you have to do is listen to the man to know how good he is. Listen to him recite HERE.

His affecting singsong recitation, meditative focus, and perhaps most importantly, meticulous pronunciation of every Arabic syllable, sends shivers down my body every time. He often corrects me with the simple tap of his hand to the desk. Thankfully I’ve become accustomed to pinpointing my errors in elocution whenever he does so. Before that, I used to stare doe-eyed and dumb, waiting for an explanation.  

In addition to teaching me tajwid, Shaykh Ahmad Abdul Samad offers free mental health sessions as in he offers me motivating advice about how to overcome strife in life. Recently, he returned from umrah, bearing a gift for me—a handpicked black and white polka dot hijab. His motives weren’t subtle but they were sincere and this small gesture of kindness and concern really moved me.

It is definitely thoughtful personalities like these I will miss most about the wonderful world of Egypt. Much like the charming characters Elizabeth Gilbert encounters in Eat, Pray, Love, these people exude genuine concern about your wellbeing. Whether it be my eyebrow lady’s mother who has taken me on as her culinary apprentice, teaching me the art of stuffing grape leaves and zucchini, or the elderly lady who works in our Arabic department, providing tea and biscuits between classes, oh and free hugs whenever you’re feeling down, the sense of community and care is tangible and touching. As Millard Fuller once said, “For a community to be whole and healthy, it must be based on people’s love and concern for each other.”  

Anyway, I have to stop writing now because my kitten is purring incessantly in front of my face. She’s also demanding I pet her so until next time,

S

A Beautiful Chaos

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.

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