Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Dinner with a Wahabi

Yehia Khalif teaches English and Arabic at the Berlitz language school. At 25, Yehia has a thin frame and speaks softly, but confidently. Born in Saudi Arabia, he came to Cairo 7 years ago to study at Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s premier religious institution that dates back to more than 1,000 years. His parents and family still reside in the Saudi Kingdom. He is now expecting his new baby girl next month.

One of the first things Yehia tells me is “do not judge Islam based on Egypt or Egyptian Muslims.” It seems he does not think too much of the Egyptian form of Islam. His ideal Islam is that practiced in the Saudi Kingdom. While I never asked him, I believe it is fair to call my new friend a follower of Wahabism, the strict form of Islam that the House of Saud embraces. It is a bit hard for me to believe this, as he has no big beard and does not speak in a strident voice.

Yehia picks me up at the Al-Tahrir Cinema by my apartment. I buy some Ramadan pastries from the store as a housewarming gift. The clerk invariably asks me where I am from. I say Hawaii. In America.

Hawaii is an island, yes? Close to Alaska?

No, very far away. Half Kilo of these cookies and half kilo of those, please.

We drive around the corner to pickup Hassan, Yehia’s friend. As we wait, Yehia steps out of the car to buy some water and juice. When he returns, I fight my instinct to open the juice. It is about 5:45pm, about 5 minutes before Magreb prayer (Sunset), when the fast is broken. I started the day by eating the Suhoor, or the morning meal before Fajr (4:20am) and did not eat or drink anything. Only a few more minutes to go…Yehia thanks me for waiting with him.

The car is old. Very old. It is a LADA. Russian. It used to belong to his father, but he has inherited it. The radio still works fine, as he showed me. The rear view mirror is unusually long, about the width of a man’s forearm.

Once Hassan arrives, we drive off to his home. I tell Yehia that I want to pray with him this evening. He is delighted. His small apartment is by the Shooting Club, where the Egyptian Military likes to have its target practice. It is common for him to hear bullets in the evenings.

The living room is well-furnished, with a beautiful chandelier that boasts six bright fluorescent bulbs. New carpets line the floor and the couch and armchairs seem to come from a Victorian Era with gold edges and cushions with green tassels. We wash the Wudoo and prostrate ourselves before Allah.

Yehia leads the prayer: Allahu Akbar! (God is the greatest!) Head touches carpet.
Allahu Akbar! Head touches carpet.

Stand. Right hand over left hand over heart. Bend forward, hands on knees. Straighten again and head touches carpet. Allahu Akbar!

After prayer, we begin dinner: “a simple meal” as our host describes it. It is anything but simple. It is food prepared only for guests. A beautiful Saudi Arabian dish with raisins and grilled onions resting on a bed of Basmati rice, half of which is marinated in Safron. Baked Chicken thighs. MaHshee or rice stuffed into squash and eggplant. A risotto soup in chicken broth. Salad.

Yehia’s wife is in the background. She is not introduced to us and does not dine with us. I know better than to ask. As this is my third meal at a Muslim house, I have grown accustomed to not having the woman of the house join the men for the meal. Perhaps, once Yehia and I become good friends later on, it would be more appropriate for her to join us, but not on the first night, as a dinner guest.

I tell Yehia about my Arabic studies and my interest in Islam.

Why Islam?

Well, the religion is connected to the culture and the people. I don’t know much about Islam, so I am here to learn.

Yehia gives me a hardback Qur’an with both English and Arabic. It is sturdy and similar to the type I’ve seen used in mosques. “Here, this is for you to keep.” I am reluctant to accept such a wonderful gift, but he insists.

About an hour into our meal, we hear the Ithaan or call to prayer for Aisha’ the fifth prayer. Hassan and Yehia are nearly finished, but I am only halfway through with my plate. Yehia tells me that I can take my time. “The Prophet Mohammed (Peace be Upon Him) said that if you are still eating while you hear the call to prayer, then finish your meal before you pray.” Once I finish, I wash again before we pray.

We retire to the couch, where Yehia brings out a huge plate of fruit. Grapes. Apples. Guava. Dates. Hassan stays silent while Yehia and I exchange our thoughts. His pace is deliberate and steady. Pregnant pauses punctuate the conversation every few minutes.

Before I depart for the evening, I tell him that I hope to be able to finish reading the Qur’an before I leave Egypt. Yehia responds that he hopes that we can meet many more times to discuss the Qur’an. I am told by friends that if a Muslim converts a non-believer like me to Islam, then he and 7 generations of his family will have secured a spot in Aljenna or heaven. A wonderful reward, indeed.

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