Friday, January 30, 2009

In search of a good eggman

Ever since I’ve moved to my downtown apartment next to the Interior Ministry—reportedly a place of government work (read: bureaucracy) and Egypt’s domestic black site for its political dissidents—I’ve had no access to a supermarket where I can do all my shopping at one time. So, I usually have to journey to no less than three separate places for my food: the mom-and-pop corner store for juice, canned tuna and noodles; to the outdoor market for vegetables; across the Nile River for cookies and brownies; and finally, to the corner for eggs in a hole-in-the-wall where Hisham, the middle-aged vendor runs his operation.

When we first talked, Hisham asked me the essential Islamic question: what’s your religion? And when I told him that I was “kafir” or infidel, he was shocked. And Chinese people in general? “Kufar”—infidels. He was jolted! 1.3 billion infidels? How can that be? I tried to explain Confucianism—the philosophy and demi-religion of China. He couldn’t really understand it and encouraged me to explore Islam. And with that, we exchanged phone numbers. He told me, “if you ever need eggs and I’m not here, just call me and I’ll come down.” As he lives close by, it’s not much trouble, he swears. While I’ve not yet had an egg emergency, it is certainly comforting to know that my eggman is at my disposal—merely on the other side of my mobile. Earlier this week, Hisham called me on my cell phone. A pleasant surprise, indeed. He just wanted to check in with me and say “hi.”

The other day, while picking up some vegetables with my roommate, we spotted another egg store. To our amazement, the eggs were bigger and cheaper than Hisham’s eggs. They were also clean—that is to say, there was no chicken shit on the egg shells. This eggman, named Khelid, seems to be busier and more diplomatic than Hisham. Perhaps, in his late 30s, he has a earpiece and seems to be conducting business deals at the counter while selling eggs. When my roommate Andrew asked him whether he liked China or America better, he said “the two are brothers.” He could’ve been straight from Foggy Bottom!

While I like Hisham, I like cheap eggs even better. So, while it saddens me a little to leave Hisham for Khelid, my new eggman, perhaps I can visit Hisham every now and then. Will Khelid and I exchange numbers? We’ll see about that…

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Islamic Prohibition: notes to women and music

On Christmas day, David’s Palestinian friend Meliha gave me an Arabic children’s book, which she wrote. To thank her, I wrote out a short thank you note—in Arabic. Of course, as my grammar is not perfect, I asked Mustafa, one of my 5 language exchange partners, for help. He is a Mutadayyen, or devout Muslim with a big beard. The Arabic word Mutadayyen translates into “one who lives by religion.” When he read the short note, and noticed that it was addressed to a woman, he said, “I’m sorry. I cannot help you with this note.” I was a bit puzzled at first. He explained that he could not assist me in writing a note that would facilitate a relationship with a woman.

So, I asked him, “you mean, it’s too close to zina (sin)?”

“Yes! Exactly,” He replied, with a smile.

I looked at him for a moment in disbelief.

Then I asked him for the exact sura and aya, or chapter and verse in the Qur’an, which addresses such practices. Mustafa could not give me an exact reference, but explained that Islam frowns on such practices. These guidelines are intended to protect women—and men, for that matter.

“Are you angry or upset with me, Andy?” Mustafa inquired.

“No. I have 4 other Egyptians I can ask for help on this. If you were the only one, maybe I would be a little upset. I understand that the world is big and there are many different peoples with different cultures. Islamic culture is extremely different from Western culture, especially that of the USA. So, I can respect these differences and I want to respect your beliefs. If you don’t want to help me with this note, that’s fine.”

He seemed pleased with my diplomatic answer.

After our language exchange, I told him that I was off to the Opera to meet a friend. Although the Mohamed Mounir concert had been cancelled, I was going there for some coffee. Mustafa said matter-of-factly, “Mounir is not good.”

“You don’t like Mounir? How about Um Kalthoum?”

“Music is not good,” Mustafa replied.

“Some music, or ALL music is not good?” I pressed further.

“All music is not good.”

“What sura and aya?”
He went to his Qur’an and referenced Sura Luqman, aya 6. He asked me to show the sura to my friend at the Opera and he would explain.

Sura Luqman, aya 6 reads:
“And of mankind is he who purchases idle talks (i.e. music, singing, etc.) to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah without knowledge, and takes it (the Path of Allah, or the Verses of the Qur’an) by way of mockery. For such there will be a humiliating torment (in the Hell-fire).”

My Egyptian friend Hatem explained that when Prophet Mhmd (Peace and Blessings of Allah be Upon Him) arrived in Medina, he was greeted by his supporters with songs. Furthermore, this literalist reading of the Qur’an is most common among Mutashaddid, or “fundamentalists.” I now realize that Mustafa and I live in very different worlds.