Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Alhamdulillah: praise be to God!

In my eight months in Egypt, I have learned much about the people, religion and culture of this ancient country. Perhaps, the most common and the most famous Arabic phrase I have learned and use is Alhamdulillah, which means “praise be to God.” In English, we really do not have its equivalent in our secular vernacular. Instead, we must borrow from our more devout compatriots for the phrase. Alhamdulillah consists of two words or three parts: Alhamdu is the praise; lillah is to God. If you simply walk down any street of Cairo on any given day, you’ll hear this phrase. Greet the doorman with SabaH Alkheir or Good Morning. Most likely, he’ll respond with SabaH Alnour, meaning a morning of light to you. Ask him how he is doing and he will quickly respond with Alhamdulillah. Ask him what is new and he’ll say Alhamdulillah.

Get into the taxi and comment on the beautiful weather today; the driver will say Alhamdulillah. Tell him you are happy in your short stay in Cairo and he’ll say Alhamdulillah. In other words, this simple phrase is a distillation of people’s understanding that everything comes from God.

My Arabic tutor, a devout man who prostrates himself five times daily to worship Allah, told me recently that when life is good and you have plenty, you must say Alhamdulillah; when life makes a turn for the worst and you are in pain, you must say Alhamdulillah; when the earthquake comes and you lose your house or family, you must say Alhamdulillah. When you die, you must say Alhamdulillah because at that point you go to Aljenna or heaven.

The spirit of Alhamdulillah is the same as the gratefulness that I learned in my study of Judaism in the last three years with the Rabbis in Washington, DC’s synagogue. When I broke bread and drank kadim wine (or whiskey) with my fellow Sabbath worshippers, I saw the enthusiasm and joie de vivre on people’s faces as they praised Hashem. We prayed before the Shabbat dinner, during dinner, and after dinner; before dessert, during dessert, and after dessert. The whole day was a celebration of the Almighty.

In our current so-called food crisis around the world, I see regular TV broadcasts that show starving families in India and Africa; of large families that must cope with limited or no food; of desperate people in the aftermath of the cyclone in Burma; and of the earthquake survivors in Sichuan Province, China. Of course, these images are not new to me. I saw plenty of poverty and privation in China during my year abroad teaching English after college. At these times, I find myself saying Alhamdulillah for living in Egypt; Alhamdulillah that I am not starving; Alhamdulillah for my freedom and ability to travel; Alhamdulillah that I am returning to the United States shortly. Has my experience in Egypt these months made me more religious? I don’t know. I can say that I have a better appreciation of Islam; of giving thanks to the Almighty on a regular basis, even though I still have doubts that he is up there.

The proverb says, “I complained about my shoes until I saw the man with no feet.” This saying means that you should be grateful for what you have; it can always be worse. Well, in my time in Egypt, I have seen a man with no legs move himself on his palms from train car to train car, begging; I have seen mothers push their disabled or retarded son around in a wheelchair on the train; in the market; in the streets; of small children working as ticket collectors in the microbuses; of families living in the cemetery because they are too poor to afford an apartment in the city. But for the grace of God go I. Alhamdulillah!