It all started over a cup of tea at a retreat in a game reserve in South Africa. It was after the dinner break and my co-retreater had just told us (V and me) that she had been to Jerusalem in a Middle East tour.
Jerusalem, Al Aqsa a remote impossible dream fraught with dragons and monsters that guarded its gates…….and yet this petite woman, told us as she fastidiously sipped her tea with a great deal of finesse, that she had prayed in the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and was planning on going again………and the rest is history. Many thanks to the sister who inspired us, and to V whose tenacious follow up made this dream a reality.
Five countries in fifteen days. What was different was that it was an educational tour, this time it was not an ABC tour……i.e. another B church, but different, very different!
The first country was Egypt, where I had last been thirty years ago as a young bride with my hubby.
“Cairo is a city of 2000 mosques,” said the guide, the same line I had heard thirty years ago. The city has grown to 14 million people but the mosques have remained the same. Thus providing one musallah for 7000 people. Something was wrong in this math, but it turned out to be true.
I took a cab to the Imam Husain mosque in the heart of the city flanked on one side by the honorable University of Al Azhar and the souks of the Khan e Khalili on the other.
Nowhere else is religion more clearly divided in practice versus way of living as I found in and around the Imam Husain mosque.
I had arrived one hour before Jumma prayer and yet as I stood outside the entrance the sway of the crowd of women told me that the inside was packed. It was reminiscent of going to see the Rowda of Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him. The desire of the women to pray in the mosque was intense and determined. I too had made up my mind that though I was not going to push but I was indeed going to pray jooma inside
Standing in line I glanced back as a shimmer of sequins sparkled in the sun. The shop at the mosque entrance was selling belly-dancing costumes. Nothing could had been more inappropriate and yet it did not seem unusual to the locals who went about their business defining a succinct separation between prayer and daily life with nothing connecting the two.
I did get into the mosque and managed to pray, salaat ul juma. I noticed that the Egyptian women reflected the microcosm of their population that I see in the American mosques. They talked while the adhan was called and continued to talk while the khutbah was given and after finishing prayer, pulled out their little bags of food and started feeding themselves and the children in the musallah. A relatively affluent woman was distributing bread with something green and cheese to the rest of us and earning her hasanaat.
I decided that the Imam Husain mosque was not where the affluent women of Eygpt went to pray.
As I came out the belly dancing costume sellers looked at my black abaya and my scarf, which I discovered is a Saudi style, and left me alone as they heckled others.
In the mosque was a grave and supposedly the body of Imam Husain is buried there, women went in to pay their respects give money to the man sitting at the door and went out their duty done towards God and his representatives.
My next stop was the Khan e Khalili, I remember it fleetingly from thirty years ago where the guide had ushered us quickly to one shop and then taken us back without letting us imbibe the atmosphere. This evening, I could do that at leisure. As I walked the narrow lanes, people stepped aside respectfully and some disinterestedly, no one heckled me, I was neither white, nor an obvious tourist, and my abaya spoke volumes.
The shopkeepers had hard eyes, had seen many a thing, and struck many a bargain. It was impossible to tell the Christians from the Muslims, they were alike in their behavior. I came upon a shop of Tasbeehs made of the most exquisite stones engraved and set with mother of pearl and other semiprecious stones. It was a joy!
The next stop was the bookshop run by a Coptic Christian lady. I found prints from long time ago of Jerusalem and the Sinai, I relished looking at them for that is where I was going next.
Walking to Al Azhar, I have never felt safer and more respected in my life, clad in my black abaya and my black Saudi styled hijab.
As I stepped over the threshold of the masjed, I felt honored to join all the scholars of this University who had stepped over this threshold. In the secular climate of Egypt I am told that Al Azhar has lost its shine and its dignity for many reasons, which are unclear to me.
Inside the peon of the Imam, shows me around, and then indicates the women’s prayer area. Inside the women’s musallah, the women are ready to pray, some have been there a while and some like me have come in from shopping.
In the cool slightly darkened musallah I pray Asr with them. After salah a young woman approaches me talking to me in Arabic, I feel like an imposter with my abaya and mute in Arabic.
We talk in the international language of sisterhood of the Ummah and I realize that she is studying at Al Azhar and then she gives me the students tour, and we go into the inner sanctums where the imam is giving the post Asr lesson and as usual we have some women talking during the lesson………reminding me of our masjed at home.
Thus is my first day in Cairo………
More on my Travelogue on the Middle East educational trip Click on: ARRIVING IN CAIRO