“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.

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.