Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ramadan Kareem!

It is still an hour or so before dawn of the first day of Ramadan. I hear some fireworks outside. Do people celebrate the arrival of the Holy Month of fasting the way Americans celebrate the Fourth of July?

This month I am trying to fast, so I prepared a fairly large suhoor, or morning meal before dawn so that I will be able to withstand a full day of forgoing food or drink. You will see a bowl of beans (plenty of protein to keep the stomach happy); a bowl of cereal--corn flakes with 10 sweetened peanuts covered in sesame and honey, 5 dates and one serving of yoghurt; two fried eggs with one piece of bread; a serving of left over soup from two nights ago; and a banana for dessert.

Once I go to bed (about 330pm or so), then I should be ready for the day, insha' Allah.

An American friend who has lived here about 5 years or more recently told me that if I have no strong reason to fast, then I should NOT. She should know since she has fasted for two consecutive Ramadans, even though she is a devout Catholic. "Unless there's a really good reason, I will never fast like that ever again. One week will give you a taste, but really it's after two weeks that you really start to feel the effects of fasting. Which are not good, actually! lol"

That sounds like an ominous warning.

I now hear the Ithaan (or call to prayer) outside my window, and it's different from the regular call, which usually sounds like a recording.

Happy Ramadan!

Stay tuned...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A visit to Midan Al-Tahrir

I wait for my friend Hatem at the Hardee’s Restaurant in Midan al-Tahrir, a common meeting point for demonstrators.

The flag salesman is doing brisk business. When I inquire with him about his sales, his voice is hoarse. Perhaps, from his participation in the demonstrations?

Hatem and I dive into the crowd of mostly young men. Three platforms have been set up. We proceed to the main stage where a dynamic young man is delivering a fiery speech that draws rapt attention from the audience. I remember him as the same man from two weeks ago who captivated the audience with his rhythmic and poetic slogans.

“Allahu Akbar” shouts a man behind us, as he passes by. “God is great!”

In what has become a typical scene from the square, a young man with a long paintbrush walks around painting the Egyptian flag on people’s hands or faces. Though it is free, he usually expects a tip of at least one pound.

On stage is a munaqaba, or a completely veiled woman, an unveiled woman, who turns out to be a national TV broadcaster, and a young kid with a white T-shirt with the Superman logo emblazoned on the front. The banner behind the speaker reads,
“We cannot match the blood of our young martyrs from the justice and freedom.”
When the dynamic speaker finishes, a patriotic song is performed.

At a second and smaller stage, Dr. SalaH Al-anany, a calligrapher, is pontificating on the difference between the army and the military council. “The army is on our side, but the military council speaks politics.” The speaker is a middle-aged man with curly hair down to his neck. Bespectacled, he holds the microphone with his right hand and punctuates most sentences with his left hand.

The banner behind him reads, “From administration of the country’s affairs, returning to an original position and forming a temporary, civilian council for the administration of the country’s affairs. And we invite general personalities to debate in the Square initially to agree in the square.”

Some are on a hunger strike.

While we chat with the medics, a man carries his younger brother to the parked ambulance. The young boy has fainted. Another patient is receiving some medicine inside the van, so there’s no space for the boy. Furious, the man screams at the medics, “he’s my younger brother. I will not abandon him or let him die!” Despite the medics trying to explain to him their limitations, he’s adamant. A few people in the crowd try to restrain him to no avail. Eventually, he is led away.

A young veiled woman, 19, next to us tells us that she arrived the previous day from a nearby town. She wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
She is playful and pinches me a couple of times.

However, some men in the square robbed her and now she needs to return home. Sadly, she is lacking the 35LE for the bus ticket. Hatem reached into his pocket and gives her three pounds.

I offer her the remaining bag of peanuts in my hand. She takes the entire bag and eagerly dives in.

As we turn away, I tell Hatem that she’s a con artist. Hatem is now embarrassed that he was snookered. However, I tell him not to feel too badly. After all, for three pounds, he now has a story that he can retell for the next few months or years.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Mulid of Sayeda Zeinab

Imagine a loud karaoke room, but set outside and turned up to the maximum with the subwoofers blasting a man’s voice and drumming and horns. Fill the streets with cars and Egyptians swaying to the beat to celebrate the birth of Sayeda Zeinab, the grand-daughter of the prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

A wall of sound surrounds us, but it is really more of an assault on the eardrums than anything else. It is at this moment that I realize the Western ear is clearly more sensitive than the Egyptian one. Our hearing has been spoiled by regulations modulating decibel levels. We sell ear plugs; silence is observed on Sundays by banishing church bells; we have an “inside voice” and an “outside voice.”

Men are swaying back and forth on their heels, almost like they’ve been possessed by the Holy Spirit. Pendulum-like…Back and forth. Back and forth. We might as well be at a southern Baptist revival meeting, minus the preacher.

An elderly woman, veiled in black, to my left, sways back and forth, to and fro, aided by her companion, who greets my gaze and smiles briefly. I try not to stare.

I am with Tom, a 21 year old British wanna-be journalist. He ventures into the breach of the crowd with his blackberry camera to capture a photo or two. A few minutes later, an Egyptian man with a bottle of liquid – 7 up?—oil?—playfully douses Tom’s hair with the strange concoction. And then laughs, revealing his brown, tea and tobacco stained teeth.

We return to the cheap hotel of my Egyptian friend Mohamed Aly. It is now filled with visitors from upper Egypt. They can be identified by their crisp galabeyas (flowing robe) and headdress, which are not normally worn by most Cairenes.

One room is full of middle-aged men, seated against the wall, drinking tea, smoking sheesha and chatting. Each time a new visitor enters the room, he goes around the room and greets everyone with “Salaam Aleykoom” or peace be upon you. It seems to be a necessary ritual.

As we are invited to a meal next door, I notice charcoal in a metal tray outside the room. The local fire marshal probably is unaware of this. (or maybe he is aware).
Another room is reserved for food—a few large communal plates of pita bread and potato cubes, chunks of boiled beef with some bits of fat attached. A cross-eyed man with a cane and a galabeya approaches and welcomes us. Another man—perhaps a caretaker?—quickly ushers him away from us. (Is he afraid that the man’s presence will disturb us?)

The man across from me is from Suhag in Upper Egypt and greets me warmly as we share bread and boiled beef. Then, the perennial question, “deenak ey?” or what’s your religion? I try to be coy and quote the Qur’anic scripture, “In Allah yeHdee min yesha’!” or God leads those whom he wills. It’s a fairly nebulous statement open to interpretation for many people. However, for this gentleman, it is not enough. He presses on, “so, what’s your religion?”

We return to the first room with the sheesha imbibers. I sit first next to a gentleman who speaks basic English. He interrogates me in the King’s English; I respond in Egyptian Arabic. He asks why I chose to study the Egyptian revolution, of all the revolutions.

I then sit next to an Arabic teacher who works at a local high school teaching girls. He asks me for my opinion of the Jan. 25 revolution. Odd. I tell him, “I should be asking you the same question!”

Every few minutes, another attendant asks me if I want tea. Or food. Or a sheesha. Or a cigarette.

“La…shookrun!” No, thanks!

On the last night of the Moulid, we visit the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque.

The Crowds, elbow to elbow, body pressed against body, arm on shoulder, flows forth like a small river. There is no turning back. Pilgrims remove their shoes at the door, but are given only a split second.

Several bowabeen or doormen take the incoming supply of shoes, and hand each pilgrim a small tag with a number. Wait—is this an actual system?! I hold onto my shoes, despite their protests, not wanting to lose them in the confusion.

The crowd is mostly men, upper Egyptians of galabiyehs; they are pilgrims here to worship Sayeda Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed. As I enter, a man grabs my hand and asks if I am from Malaysia. Indonesia, I respond. (not really, but I am playful). He then introduces me briefly to an Indonesian pilgrim before I am conducted forward.

As we approach the exit, a small group of men – seated on the carpet, begin talking with Peter, my American classmate from MN. The usual questions pepper him: where are you from? What do you do? Your religion? I serve as the informal interpreter. The men—mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, are a chocolate complection, with a mustache or two, and a working class flavor. They are from Assiyut and arrived two days ago. They have stayed at the mosque ever since, praying and sleeping and resting.

“Why are you here?” Peter asks them.
“For the Mulid of Sayeda Zeinab,” They respond.
“What do you hope to get out of this?” Peter presses further.
“To honor Sayeda Zeinab,” they explain.
It is that simple.