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.

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