Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dining with Darwin and Mohamed

An email from Russell, an Egyptian, on the listserv CairoScholars invites those interested in learning more about Islam to come to a dinner on Friday at his house. I respond and rsvp for dinner.

At the elevator, I meet another dinner guest--Peter, a German student studying Medicine and Arabic. He will be here for a semester, maybe more. Perhaps in his late 20s, Peter carries a backpack and wears glasses.

As soon as we arrive at Russell’s apartment, we accompany him and his friend Mohamed to the nearby mosque for the evening prayer. We dodge traffic (this is an Egyptian skill that I believe I must master to survive here for the next 8 months). It is very similar to wading a river, while avoiding the big rocks and logs that come by every now and then to sweep you away. I make sure to walk to the left of the rest of the group, so that they form a buffer in case we misjudge and are swept into the river of metal and tires.

Before we enter the Mosque, we remove our shoes. The name “Allah” is inscribed in beautiful calligraphy over the entrance. Peter and I sit on plastic lawn chairs in the back, while Russell leads the prayers. About a dozen men line up to pray in the direction of Mecca.

After prayers, we return to the house for discussion.

The Imam is a dignified gentleman of 35, but looks much older. Dressed in a grey galabiyeh--the flowing robes of Egyptian men--and sandals, he is quiet and does not speak much English. His skin has a cappuchino color. As soon as I speak a few sentences to him in Arabic, he offers to tutor me in Arabic for a fee.

The living room is a rectangular space with a carpet and a chair in each corner. We each sit in our respective chairs. There is no Television set or coffee table.

Russell wears a prominent beard and has large round eyes. He may be in his early 30s. Born in California, he also lived in Boston for a couple of years. As an auditor for Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), he has traveled to Tripoli, Libya for the past year to conduct audits of Middle Eastern Companies. He told me not to believe everything I read or watch on CNN about Libya. Russell is an amiable host and sits comfortably in his chair, with his left foot tucked underneath his right knee. His right hand covers his mouth in a pensive mood. His wife prepares dinner in the dining room and walks back and forth from the kitchen, but she is never introduced to us.

Mohamed is a young man of 25 who tutors some foreigners in Arabic. His English is superb. He takes out a notebook and writes some notes as Peter and Russell begin their talk about Islam and Darwin.

I can hear a child running around in the adjacent rooms. Occasionally, a small baby screams.

Peter and Russell discuss evolution and the role of the Fatwa in Islam.

Russell states, “Islam rejects evolution.”

It appears that Russell does not truly understand Darwin, evolution or the Survival of the Fittest theory as he believes that Darwin says we are descended from monkeys.

Peter explains that in his discussions with Muslims in Egypt, many have never heard of Darwin. He finds this troubling, as evolution is so central to Medicine and Science.

Russell declares, “you cannot combine Islam with evolution because God created man in his image, in the best shape.”

When dinner is prepared, the wife disappears into the background, perhaps in her room with the children. Could this be a typical Muslim custom? For the woman to be with the children when the men are around to discuss serious topics such as religion and politics?

We are treated to a wonderful dinner of salad, pasta casserole with ground beef, potatoes with parsley, Dolma (grape leaves with rice and beef), corn with tuna, and cow intestine sausages. Russell warns me that I may not like this particular dish. I explain to him the Chinese proverb that we “eat anything with legs, except a table; anything with wings except an airplane.” He laughs.

At dinner, the discussion lightens up and we move to less serious topics. Mohamed tells me that there is a great interest in China these days. Many Egyptian students are taking up Chinese. One of his friends has been studying for four months and many of his classmates have dropped out after only a few months, finding the Chinese language much too difficult. He asks me if I would be interested in language exchange with his friend. I say yes.

About 7pm, Peter has to leave for a wedding. Russell, Mohamed and the Imam pray again in the living room. Peter and I watch attentively.

Mohamed and I walk to a nearby tea house that’s very famous. It is also known for its liberal policy of allowing women to mix with men at the tables. As I look around, I notice a few women here and there, which is an odd sight at a café, still the exclusive domain of men. We sit and enjoy our shai or tea for the next two hours. He is a gregarious sort, telling me about the Muslim Brotherhood, fanatical debates over Islamic doctrine and practice, and his recent breakup with his fiancée. Every so often, our talk is interrupted by a beggar or a passing street vendor selling tissue or flowers.

Mohamed impresses me with his intelligence and independence. He recently declined a job offer with a good Egyptian company after interviewing with them four times and passing several tests. He explained that he’s not yet willing to work at a desk job.

After our talk, I bid Mohamed farewell and take a cab back to my refuge in Zamalek.

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