Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Praying in Port Said

Port Said is a three hour bus ride from Cairo and is a nice getaway from the hustle and bustle of the capital city. I travel with my friend Min and his friend Enha, both from Korea, but studying Arabic in Egypt.

We take the ferry across the Suez Canal and stand before Mosque Port Fuad. Its twin minarets tower above us as they reach for the sky. We step inside the empty Mosque. After a few minutes of looking around, a short, older gentleman approaches us. He seems to be the groundskeeper. He has a white beard—like Santa Claus, silver hair trimmed neatly at the top, with deep lines in his forehead and a dark prayer mark in the middle of his forehead—where he presses against the carpet for his daily prayers. (This mark is a badge of honor for Muslims, representing their strong faith. In fact, it’s reported that some go to the doctor to surgically add the prayer mark, to give the appearance of piety). He has farmer feet—blackened toenails and callouses. He offers to show us around.

He takes us downstairs to the bathroom where worshippers wash themselves in the ritual known as “wah-doo” before each of the 5 daily prayers. Afterwards, Hassan declares that he loves God. He asks me if I love God, too. As a student at Fajr Center, I’ve been conditioned by my Islamic tutor to repeat the phrase “La ilaha illa Allah wa Mohammedu Rasoolu Allah” (there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger). So, I repeat it to Hassan. He’s delighted.

He asks me, “Are you a Muslim?”
“Insha’Allah!” Or God Willing, I respond. The English equivalent is really “hopefully,” but sometimes in Arabic Insha’ Allah also means yes.

We ask if there are other parts of the Mosque to see, so he shows us the women’s prayer room. He then opens his hand and motions toward his mouth in an eating gesture. I know what he wants: baksheesh, or tip. So, I dig into my pocket and gave him two pounds. We then start to walk upstairs again. He tells me to slow down as he’s an old man and he has pain in his feet and legs. He shows me the medicine in his pocket.

Inside the mosque, another man yells at him, asking what he is doing. He reassures the other gentleman that everything is fine.

After Hassan explains a little about the services and the meaning of the different parts of the mosque, he then asks if we want to pray with him. I look at Min and say this may be an interesting learning experience. So, we agree and head back downstairs to wash and purify ourselves. I tell Hassan that “Ana Gedeed” or I’m new to the faith, so he has to teach me how to wash. He obliges.

We return to the top and follow Hassan in the prayer. Afterwards, we sit on the carpet and listen to him explain the concept of “tawheed” or monotheism. God has no partner, no son, no father. There is only one God and and Mohammed is his messenger (Peace Be Upon Him). He punctuates each sentence with his right hand lightly tapping the knee of Enha. He does the same to Min. Soon, a young man joins our small circle. He speaks very fast, assuming that we are fluent and understand him. He reads from Sura 55, Al Rahman, the Merciful. I’m glad he did because I have read it before with my tutor, so I’m somewhat familiar with its teachings of the creation of the Universe and the Heaven and the earth.

It is now about 3:00pm. We are a bit tired and are thinking about leaving the Mosque and walking around. Hassan asks if we want to stay behind and pray again, this time for the 3:30pm Asir Prayer. Min and I look at each other. We first ask Hassan if we can go up to the Minarets. He says yes, but AFTER the Asir Prayer. So, we agree and return to the bathroom and wash again.

When we return to the top of the Mosque, the hall is now filling up with a dozen or so worshippers. Enha steps outside the Mosque. When she returns, she is covered with a long overcoat-type garment that hides her form, keeping her modest and preventing her from mesmerizing the men too much.

After we pray, Hassan takes us to the side of the Mosque where the Imam meets us. He introduces himself to me as “Usama—Usama Bin Laden.” And cracks a big smile. He is perhaps in his late 30s or early 40s, with glasses and a long, black beard. He is warm and has a “Kirsh” or belly. If he were a woman, he would be perhaps at about three months along.

For the next 30 minutes, we listen politely as he talks about Islam and Allah. He speaks very clearly and pauses a little bit as Min translates a few phrases for me. Min has been in Cairo for nearly a year, so his Arabic is very fluent and he is able to understand much more than I could. We are in a small circle. The Imam sits between me and Min. Enha is at the end of the row of chairs and seemingly cut off from the circle of men. At one point, she dozes off as she is so tired. I don’t think the men realized or paid any attention to our female guest.

Before we leave, one man hands us three large pieces of bread. They are warm and fragrant and as we learned later--very tasty.

Hassan, the young man, Min and I take a picture together outside the Mosque. Before we depart, Hassan returns the tip to me. I am a bit puzzled, but refuse to accept it. I hand it back to him, but he, in turn, refuses. We go back and forth like this for 3 or 4 times. In the end, I finally succeed in pushing the small tip to his pocket and whisper into his ear: “sir, this is for you—a gift. You must take it!”

While we visited Port Said and Port Fuad for only a day, this visit was the most memorable experience for us. I am now working on writing a thank you note to the Imam and Hassan for their hospitality.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mahmoud the language exchange partner

Meet Mahmoud, one of my four language exchange partners. At 21, he is short, has a chocolate complexion, curly, black hair and a big smile with pearly white teeth. From Aswan, the southernmost city in Upper Egypt, Mahmoud studied some English in school, but never built a solid foundation. Mahmoud is the “office boy” at his company. That is to say, he is the coffee boy. In Egypt, offices generally have one or two people who prepare coffee or tea for the office staff. They also clean the office at the end of the day. I met Mahmoud through my friend Hazem, my first language exchange partner. Hazem told me that Mahmoud wanted to improve his English.

For the past several months we have met twice a week for two hour language exchange sessions: an hour of English and an hour of Arabic. In our first session, I had to teach him basic grammar and review the alphabet with him. I very often feel my Arabic ability is about the same level as his English, so it is somewhat of a symmetrical match. Although Mahmoud is 21, he sometimes behaves like a teenager. He giggles like a girl. And is fairly playful.

Mahmoud makes about 400 LE ($80) a month, which is a typical salary. He sends half of that to his family back home in Aswan. He lives in the office and doesn’t have much of a social life. In his 10 months in Cairo, he has never attended a party, so he expressed a strong desire to attend one. As I was preparing to host a small gettogether, I invited him; however, he was afraid that there would be beer and hasheesh (marijuana). Alcohol, of course, is forbidden for devout Muslims. Hasheesh is also frowned upon, in general. (However, it is also the drug of choice for many young Egyptians.) I told him that there would be small amounts of alcohol that some friends would bring, but there would be no hasheesh, as I am not a pothead.

I tell him that President Jimmy Carter visited Cairo the previous night and spoke to the American University in Cairo (AUC) community about peace between Israel and her neighbors, especially Palestine.

“Do you like Israelis?” he inquires.

“Yes, I do,” I reply.

“I don’t like Jewish. In the past, the prophet says they war with Muslims.”

I ask him, “How many Jews do you know?”

He met one Jewish tourist in Aswan two years ago and spoke to him for 10 minutes. Mahmoud did not have a good impression of the Jewish visitor, which only confirmed his low opinion of Jews. Of course, in this aspect, Mahmoud is a typical Egyptian. While Egypt and Israel are officially at peace, there is very little cultural exchange or tourism between the two. In fact, any Egyptian who does visit Israel should expect to be called into the Egyptian Intelligence Ministry for an interrogation.

I ask him, “How many Chinese do you know?”
He explained that once he met two Chinese girls who were lost in Aswan, so he directed them to the tourism office. That was about a 10 minute exchange. “They were very beautiful,” he recounted. I am the third Chinese he’s ever met in his life.

Mahmoud asks me, “Do you not know Kung Fu?” This is a very common question Egyptians ask of Asians. Usually, I’ve denied that I know any martial arts; however, after many weeks of the same questions, I decided to be mischievous and say that actually, yes, I do know Kung Fu and I studied at the famed Shao Lin Temple. When Egyptians ask me to demonstrate my technique or to teach them, I say I cannot, as “it is a secret.” Moreover, the true master does not settle problems with his hands; rather, he uses his mouth. This answer usually leaves them with a sense of awe.

After I said I do no know any martial arts, he asked, “Why do you not know Kung Fu?”
I tried to explain by asking him, “Does every Egyptian own a camel?” or “Does every Egyptian know how to build a pyramid?”

Obivously, not every Egyptian owns a camel or knows how to build a pyramid and I think he got the point.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Arab greetings: the man kiss

Men kiss men here, not women. It is very common to see men hold hands, or their arms locked as they walk down the street. In fact, a man will routinely rest his head on another man’s shoulder on a metro train. One time, I even saw one man sit on the lap of his male friend.

A kiss from my supermarket manager
Cairo is a city that is adopting the ways of modernity, while holding onto its traditions. It is a place filled with modern amenities like supermarkets and theaters and shopping malls and jazz clubs. But at the same supermarket with 10 different types of cereals, the manager Wael introduces himself to his foreign customers. Shortly after I met him, he greeted me and pulled me in for an unexpected peck on the cheek, Yasser Arafat syle. It was sudden. And warm. And totally appropriate for a Cairo supermarket, yet completely alien to this foreigner. Wael now kisses me on the cheeks whenever he sees me. In fact, the last time he saw me, he kissed me three separate times within 5 minutes. This is unusual, even for an Egyptian.

The doorman to the Fajr center, Abdul Al-Wahead, Servant of the ONE, now routinely kisses me on the cheeks whenever he sees me. His horse teeth protrude prominently from his wide smile. Perhaps, it is because of the one chat of 10 minutes that I had with him a few weeks ago, that he now treats me like a long time friend.

My tutor Dr. Moustafa kisses me on the cheek whenever I do well in my lesson or understand the grammar; this works out to be about once a week or so. At first, it was a bit awkward, to say the least.

How to explain all this male-male bonding? I’m no sociologist, but as I seem to remember reading some time ago, whenever you cut off men from women and only limit them to other men, as is the case in much of the Arab world, then men will sublimate their desires ie they will redirect their desires to other men.

Ahmed, another teacher at the Fajr center, came into the class today for a few moments to ask my tutor something. A tall gentleman in his mid 20s, he looks like a point guard for the Chicago Bulls. He wears a big beard in the style of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). Normally, we shake hands. However, this morning, he pulled me in for a Yasser Arafat type greeting—and gave me a wet one on my cheeks. He then rubbed some perfume from a small bottle onto my right hand. Perhaps, it is a sign that I’ve lived here a while that I did not think the exchange unusual at all.