Sound of Islam

Egypt Add comments

Two weeks in Egypt passed in a heartbeat. My friend Mike had joined me partway through. We stayed with Desiree and her American friend Sara at their new apartment on the cusp of downtown Cairo. It was an old, dusty place, with oversized rooms that came halfway to life after much sweeping and scrubbing. We woke early to sounds of car horns and street peddlers climbing through our grand, but thin 4th floor windows. We cooked big feasts for ourselves and for local Egyptian friends of Sara. The shower head was fat and hung straight over a ceramic bath tub. The water fluctuated between scolding, frigid and at times turned from a plentiful flow to popping gasps of air and a drip.


A few blocks away was a westernized oasis, Tabasco Cafe, where we spent much time. Desiree studied Arabic and I worked through an internet connection that trickled like the water supply. One block in the other direction was the stairs to the subway, which we descended each day on our way to spend time with locals and see the city. The first couple of subway cars are only for women, which I learned, like in India, a few seconds too late. At first I saw no sense in the segregation, but after some time of pushing and shoving our way into the over-packed unisex cars and the girls getting grabbed by horny, unholy men, the strange logic began to unfold.

Being three Americans and one German in Cairo, we had many deep conversations about Islamic culture. As a westerner, I have an obvious difficulty accepting the idea of woman being subservient to men. We talked about the Hijab covering the heads of women so that men aren’t tempted by their beauty and about the passage in the Koran that states hitting your wife can and should be used as a means of control. I found both to be examples of an extreme lag in the progress of positive moral evolution. However, even if Islam is laced with ideals to be challenged by compassion, all the Islamic people I met found mostly love and kindness through it. Meeting and spending time with countless numbers of Egyptians refreshed the idea that despite extremists, most people are genuinely good and a whole culture should never be judged.

Sara has been living in Egypt for some months now and we met many of her friends, but we spent the most time with a particular family from the other side of Cairo. They were a young, handsome, tall and thin man of 21 named Shady who studies Agriculture at Cairo University, his three beautiful sisters of 14, 15 and 16 all with massive brown eyes that stared unforgiving into ours, their bottom lips drooping slightly as they held their hypnotic and curious gazes, and their father with thick hands and a long Muslim gown who unique to his culture, since his wife and oldest daughter had recently left to teach Arabic in Indonesia for a year, cooks for the family and looks after their home, a first floor apartment in a thick of dingy, brown high rises cut by bumpy, unpaved roads.

We ate many meals with them. The food was hot and delicious. Vegetarianism proved to be a bewildering notion, yet we tried valiantly to explain. The girls giggled as they watched how we washed our hands, pointing out the strange ways we scrub vigorously back and forth when all their lives they have rolled, softly, one hand over the other. We drank tea and spent hours translating simple inquiries and imagining each others lifestyle. We watched them struggle with meeting and loving good people from America, a place they had been told was a ‘bad country’. We listened and danced to Egyptian music. One day we joined the family for a cruise down the Nile on a friends’ old sailboat made of crude lumber. The mast was a bowed tree trunk and the lines were a mess of knotted threads, ropes and chains. They even offered to move out of their home so that we could all stay there. Their hospitality was overwhelming and we found it to be characteristic of everyone we met in Cairo.

On one evening, from a beautiful, green grass park made over a landfill at the edge of the city, Desiree and I watched the sun set apple red through thick smog hanging over Cairo that had made our buggers black and throats sore. The relentless groaning and honking of vehicles made a noise that mixed well with the sandy brown haze and then suddenly, as the sun disappeared into the thick of low sky, the last call to prayer crackled over loudspeakers dangling from the long pointed columns of the near hundred mosques below.

That sound of Islam, a fluttering and wavering, yet harmonious, chant-sounding prayer, seemed to set the dusty, mysterious city ablaze and despite my all curiosities and difficulties with Islam, that powerful song traveled through me and into me and I felt my passion rise pushing out the threads of rationale and making me comfortable and begging me to believe.

2 Thoughts on “Sound of Islam”

  1. Suzy Says:

    Your writing is starting to remind me of Cormac McCarthy or someone like him… Keep on Keep on…

  2. Kiku Says:

    this is so lovely.
    i have never been to egypt
    or to the middle east
    but some of my family is from jordan –
    and christian –
    i know they struggled and fought hard
    in their OWN country
    after 9/11 – getting rocks thrown at them
    at the airport – subjected to racism by their own –
    it was so terrifying to be involved.
    my uncle was in the hotel that was bombed in
    jordan
    and this is reality
    this is our world.
    i am so glad to hear that the climate is shifting
    and that hospitality and kindness exists
    in the hearts of americans and those who
    must learn to like us again.

    your writing is beautiful
    and so are you.
    i have a proposal for you
    when you come home.
    when is that!?
    come home!

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