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Experiencing Cairo: A Journey of Acceptance

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“Are you insane?  Do you have any idea about driving?” The milk truck driver yelled in Arabic at my husband as he bent down to pick up his fender and shake it in my husband’s face.  My husband, a convert from the farmlands of Illinois, had just made a left turn into the entrance of our chalet along the coast of the Red Sea outside of Cairo.  He was well aware of the insanity of Egyptian driving yet had not realized the true extent of its danger.  Just as in America, he had given a left hand signal indicating his intent to turn, slowed down upon approach, and began to turn into the entrance.  As he was about to complete the turn, we suddenly felt an intense jarring as we were rammed from the left hand corner of the car.  After the initial shock, we immediately jumped out of the car, worrying that the perpetrator was going to make a run for it.  Instead, Mr. Egyptian Milk Man not only stopped, but also proceeded to accuse my husband of complete fault, backed by a posse of 3 other men who were packed into the small cab of the truck.  It was quite a show watching the four men take turns raising their voices and yelling at the Agnabi (foreigner) who clearly had no clue about the unwritten Egyptian driving rules.  Apparently, when one intends to turn left, he should signal, and then sit in the lane until all the vehicles behind him swerve into the opposing traffic lane and pass him.  Only after all the impatient drivers behind him have passed him is he allowed to make his turn.  Obviously ignorant of said rule, my husband went ahead and turned left as his signal indicated, and the milk truck rammed us as it was swerving to pass him.  For 45 minutes random strangers interfered as self-appointed mediators, insults were tossed, and money was demanded from my husband for damages to the milk truck.

Welcome to Egypt!

I have been to Cairo many times since my parents emigrated from their motherland to the U.S. before my birth. I have a large extended family in Cairo and have spent many summers visiting them and trying to improve my Arabic.  Each time I go, I come back with the same impression…too many people, too much sand, several near-death c  ar accidents, and contempt for how backwards and corrupt everything seems to run.

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This trip was no different.  I had not been back for four years and it had been long enough for me to forget my previous experiences and hope for something new and improved. Despite some surface changes, things were as they always were, except with even more people and more traffic.

This time I was taking my family so that they would have a connection with their Egyptian heritage.  My 7-year-old daughter, Khadijah, was looking forward to meeting her many great aunts and uncles and second cousins.

As we made our way through the city, visiting all the family members and shopping, I marveled at the curious cultural practices that I could never quite understand.  An example was the bizarre interaction surrounding the rendering of services or purchase of goods.

“I would like 30 kilos of sugar cane,” Samir tells Ali, the roadside vendor displaying his freshly cut sugar cane on a broken wooden cart pulled by a partially maimed donkey.

“At your service!” Ali responds with soldier-like aa aaaa attention.

The sugar cane is chosen and loaded into the car.

“That will be 35 Egyptian ginea (Egyptian currency)”

“What!  35 ginea!  Are you insane?  Why don’t you fear Allah!  This price is simply haram!  You are so greedy!  I will not give you an irch (penny) more than 25 ginea

The haggling continues for a while as both sides alternate between reminding the other of Allah and throwing personal insults.

“Okay, 30 ginea?”

“Fine!” Samir accepts with staged anger as he offers the cash to Ali.

Khalee” Ali responds with a sudden calm benevolence.  Khalee (meaning “keep it”) is typically a pretentious and insincere offer by the seller to refuse payment and instead offer the goods as a gift.

“May Allah always keep you and bless you!” Samir replies in turn, insisting that Ali take the money.

And of course, Ali takes the money.  End of transaction.

Another bizarre trend is the addiction many Egyptians have to these overly dramatic, poorly acted soap operas that air 4 times a day.  The actors are always yelling at each other and flaying their arms in an attempt to bring home their argument.  Family members are always trying to kill each other, or steal each other’s property, or secretly marry multiple wives.  These shows, added to the road rage resulting from the extreme traffic gridlock and complete lack of traffic rules, results in a very interesting personality type.  Everyone always seems angry, each conversation is merely a trading of complaints, and many transactions are filled with extreme distrust and accusations of cheating and thievery.

Every time I come to Egypt, I always long to find in it a second home, a place where I am no longer weird or out of place, where people understand me, and where Allah guides all our actions as we live in one big harmonious ummah.

And every time I feel a deeper sense of alienation.  It seems I am always the stranger.  In America, where I was born and raised, I understand the mentality and the culture, but am baffled by the appearance and beliefs of many of my fellow citizens.  In Egypt, I feel a familiarity with the people’s appearance and beliefs, yet am baffled by their mentality and culture.  In turn, I am constantly criticized from both groups for my dress, the way I choose to raise my children, what I choose to eat, etc.

Despair was beginning to set in.  And then Allah opened my eyes.

As my mother and I fought our way through the swelling crowds of people, crossing the street in a vicious game of Russian roulette, I stopped, looked around and took in the scene.  As I stood there, I watched as a man was beginning to unwrap a falafel (fried veggie patty) sandwich he had just bought from a street vendor.  The way he slowly peeled back the wrapping and seemed to prepare his eyes and stomach for the delight about to enter his mouth seemed to indicate that it was not easy for him to afford such a treat.  Slowly the sandwich approached his mouth and as it was about to touch his lips, another man who was obviously homeless, a perfect stranger, touched the man’s arm and tugged it towards him without uttering a word.  Immediately and without thought, the first man cut the sandwich in half, gave half to the homeless man, made dua (supplication) for him, and walked away.

As we arrived at our apartment building in Giza, we gave our salams to the bowwab’s (building guard) wife.  She is a petite woman who lives with her husband and son in a vault-like room under the building.  She always has a smile on her face and was sitting on a stool with her son on her lap.  Her son is 13-years-old a   and double her weight and size.  He is mentally handicapped and cannot speak, merely grunting out his thoughts.  She lifted him off of her and guided him forward as she came to greet us.

“What happened to your son, Umm Waleed?”  I asked her.

“He was fine as a baby and then all of a sudden when he was 3 years old, he just changed.  He went from speaking to grunting.  He lost his fine motor skills.  We took him to so many doctors and they told us he has an increase in electricity in his brain.” He swayed back and forth, revealing a huge bandage on the back of his head covering a wound from a terrible fall a few days previously.

“How hard it must be for you, seeing him struggle so and having to take care of him as if he was a baby for the rest of his life,” I exclaimed with tears in my eyes.

“No worries.  He is my path to jannah, insha Allah!” She happily replied as she took her seat, pulled him back onto her lap, and wrapped her arms around him.

My tears only increased.  Subhan’Allah! My heart and my perspective were beginning to change.  Rather than seeing Egypt from a position of condescension, forcing my expectations onto the country and its people, I began to let go. To let go of the arrogance and pride I realized I had by living in America.  I realized that I was constantly comparing Egyptian society to American society, seeing everything as backwards and inferior in comparison.  I realized that I had never really experienced Cairo because I had never let down the walls that had always separated me from understanding and accepting my heritage.  Slowly, I began to see the beauty of the Egyptian people, the subtle ways in which the brotherhood and sisterhood of Islam guided these people.  I began to really listen to their words, seeing beyond the superficial materialism and catching a glimpse of the deep faith and love that is deeply rooted n in in the hearts of the Muslims.  I saw that despite the accusations of thievery and corruption, life still went on and people still interacted with each other, business as usual.  Egyptian speech is constantly filled with thikr (remembrance) of Allah and dua for each other.  Although they may have become mere habit, the habit waters the seeds of faith that existed in their souls.

And I began to feel at home.

I realized that in Egypt, whenever someone is in a conflict, there are at least 5 random strangers who will put their life on hold to advocate for each side and attempt to mediate for the common good.  I learned that after the haggling is finished, the buyer sometimes gives the seller more than he has asked for as a sign of brotherly love and charity.  I discovered that the dust and sand that covers every building, tree, and flower in Cairo is merely covering the beauty underneath.

I realized that in order to understand a people, I have to accept them as they are, without projecting my own experiences, expectations, or judgments onto them.  That does not mean there are not faults or that things should not be improved, but it does me no good to define people by their flaws and shortcomings. Instead, I miss out on their beauty and what I can learn from them.  This seems applicable to almost every interaction in our life.

Furthermore, how can we hope to change society’s negative habits, or make dawah (outreach), or improve relationships with our children or spouse if we do not first see and understand them for who they are?

“What do you think of Egypt,” I asked my daughter, Khadijah.  “It’s dirty, people throw trash in the street, we are in the car too much, the driving is scary, and I don’t like it!”

Maybe one day Khadijah will see what I now see.

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Hebah is a Muslim American with a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from UIUC. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee to Egyptian immigrants. She currently resides in Albuquerque, NM with her husband and two children. Hebah is a social activist who works to dispel the myths about Islam and Women in Islam through community presentations and panel discussions. She also heads Daughterz of Eve, a local Muslim girls youth group.

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Waseelah

    February 7, 2011 at 3:18 AM

    SubhanAllah. The dhikr that is performed is so heartwarming. May Allah bless and guide the Muslims in Egypt and around the world. Ameen.

  2. Ummousama

    February 7, 2011 at 4:20 AM

    Assalamu alaikum,

    Jazak Allahu khairan for this nice post. Every country has it’s downside but I actually believe that Egypt is improving. Barting is normal and yes, I often give more than the agreed price. There are various way of bartering too.

    They of course have their problems but so has every country. We are patient with the West’s problems but are not with Muslims’ countries problems because the first ones are not Muslims so they don’t know.

  3. AnonyMouse

    February 7, 2011 at 6:39 AM

    Hah, yes… my memories of Egypt are a combination of despair, bewilderment, and amusement and admiration at the same time. I saw things that were both despicable (corruption and bribery that I’d never seen before) and humbling (the efforts of a small group of people to provide food staples to tens of families in an impoverished village).

    When I first arrived in Egypt, my reaction was pretty much the same as your daughter’s! Now that I’ve left, though, I do think on it more fondly :)

  4. Amatullah

    February 7, 2011 at 6:45 AM

    Jazaki Allahu khayran Hebah. I enjoyed reading this and it reminded me of my time in Cairo.

    It was definitely a culture shock for me at first being there, as a non-egyptian student, but alhamdulillah I got the ‘hang’ of it after a few months. I learned what you learned – that we cannot judge them or look at them based on our standards and upbringing.

    I learned there to look at the good of the people and ignore the bad. There are so many instances that we were ripped off, yelled or cursed at or nearly run over by a car, but at the same time, so many instances where people were nice to us, helped us, offered us free things after finding out we were foreigners, and other great things. I loved how easy for us it was to do good deeds there like feeding the poor and giving the salaams. I think it’s important, especially for students who go there, to remember this point and to always have the mindset of seeing the good in people and overlooking the bad.

    To see the good in egypt may take some time for people, because at first glance, all you see is pollution, trash, and loads of yelling people. As my sister said: the city is dirty, loud, and crowded – but I love it.

    I hope I can visit again soon inshaAllah. May Allah bless Egypt and its people, and may He ta’ala grant them safety and security.

  5. Mariam E.

    February 7, 2011 at 2:14 PM

    Asalamu Alikum

    Jazaki Allah khayr, a great read mashaAllah. There is a lot of khayr in Egypt and other Muslim lands; we just have to open our hearts and humble ourselves.

    The Prophet (sallaAllahu alayhe wasallam) said, “You will conquer Egypt, so when you conquer it, treat its people well, for they have protection (dhimmah) and the ties of kinship (rahm).’ Or he said: ´… protection and the relationship by marriage (sihr).’ (Muslim).

    “The ‘ulama, explained that rah­m here referred to Hajar the mother of Isma’il, and sihr referred to Maryah, the mother of the Prophet’s son Ibrahim – both of who came from Egypt.”

  6. Salam

    February 7, 2011 at 4:14 PM

    As-salamu Alaykum,
    I enjoyed reading your essay but kept expecting that you would eventually discuss the protests in Egypt and how this has changed/affected your feelings about Egypt. Perhaps you wrote this piece before the latest events?

    • Hebah Ahmed

      February 7, 2011 at 4:18 PM

      We Alikum Asalam,

      Yes, I wrote the piece when I was in Egypt a month before the protests started. I was not sure if now was the time to post it but then I also thought that it would help to give people a feel for Egypt despite not mentioning the protests. Masha Allah there are 3 great scholars who have commented on the protests and I think my perspective would be redundant.

      When I wrote the piece my purpose was more about the lessons I learned during my trip.

      Jazak Allahu Khair,
      Hebah

  7. Leo

    February 7, 2011 at 5:22 PM

    Jazakillah khairan for this beautiful article. I have not been to Egypt but have experienced the bartering you wrote about where afterwards the seller would offer a gift in some way. I went to hajj a few months ago (alhamdulillah) and asked a seller how much he would sell me 4 nice musahif. He showed me an invoice showing how much he bought them for insisting he can’t lower his price. I accepted with a smile. He then gave me an extra copy which meant he broke even, may Allah reward him. This probably sounds stupid but I think I can relate. I love Muslims!

  8. Sister

    February 8, 2011 at 8:04 PM

    Assalaamu Alaykum. Beautiful post Hibah, I always love to read what you have to say. The part about the falafel was so touching, may Allah swt make that act of kindness the deed that will take him straight to Jannah! Jazaakillah Khayr :)

    • Hebah Ahmed

      February 12, 2011 at 2:13 PM

      Jazak Allahu KHair Dear Sister! Ameen to your duaa and May Allah reward you. :)

  9. Maleeha

    February 8, 2011 at 10:25 PM

    As Salaamu Alaikum Hebah,

    I love the way you described the evolution of your experience in Egypt. I hope everything is good, and that your Egyptian relatives are safe and sound insh’Allah.

    Maleeha :)

    • Hebah Ahmed

      February 12, 2011 at 2:14 PM

      We Alikum Asalam Maleeha!

      We miss you and pray all is well Insha Allah! AlhumduliLah all is well with my family. Jazak Allahu Khair for your concern!

      Hebah

  10. Babar

    February 9, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    mashallah, this was a very good piece, living in america we tend to project on other cultures and societies.

    even at a smaller scale we do the same thing, using our social network and ethnic groups, we look down at others and their practices in our communites.

    • Hebah Ahmed

      February 12, 2011 at 2:15 PM

      Asalam Alikum Babar,

      I could not agree with you more! I think the lessons I learned are applicable to every interaction I have and it was a wake call for me to stop projecting my ways on others. Let Allah be the judge and just worry about myself!

      • hira sharker

        June 28, 2014 at 7:01 AM

        Peace be upon u sister,

        I have started searching for u after watching the CNN conversation between u and mona on nikab issue. I was astonished by ur wit, while muslim women over the world are portrayed as prototype foolish or rebellious!!!(like mona). U reminded me tht many greatest muslim scholars are women like Aesha(ra), umm dahdah(ra) and others.

        Sister I feel proud of being muslim for having muslim sisters like you. I have watched some videos of u like the conversion of ur husband and pleased to see how u r fighting with your choice.

        About this post, i am amazed how u started this article and end it. The reality is, we the muslim countries are loosing islam day by day for running behind the materialistic world ignoring our duty as muslim. We have forgotten tht, islam is not a trophy but responsibility. We who accept islam must live with islam and spread it to others but we ignore this duty and now we have fallen under the curse of Allah swt as promised.

        Sister make dua for us but dont say may Allah help us gain control over ur land but say may Allah grant control over urself. We have lost control over ourselves therefore we are loosing everything.

        Sister I love u and ur husband for the sake of Allah and send my salam to my brother(ur husband).

        Hira Sharker

  11. anonymous

    July 30, 2012 at 6:01 AM

    AssalamuAlaikum, this post just made my day. I’ve just come back from Egypt and you’ve basically written what I experienced there. While it has its problems, the people and the country itself are beautiful. This made me homesick for Egypt!

  12. anonymous

    July 30, 2012 at 6:01 AM

    AssalamuAlaikum, this post just made my day. I’ve just come back from Egypt and you’ve basically written what I experienced there. While it has its problems, the people and the country itself are beautiful. This made me homesick for Egypt!

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