يا مسافر (Lone Traveler)

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During my visits to Egypt, I often visited many of the mosques in Cairo. I am not a Muslim, but I brought along my own headscarf in respect of their religion. After all, do in Rome as the Romans do. This, I’ve found, is really the only mantra one needs to take heed in when visiting a new place. I’d wear dark clothes so as not to be see-through in any way, and would not be showing much skin. However, different mosques have different regulations. The mosque of Amr ibn al-As, for example, the men near the front door wanted me to wear a long-purple robe (a strange assortment to give out to one entering a mosque, I know; I felt like an elf), although I was already wearing a headscarf and black trousers with a black, long-sleeved blouse. Another mosque (I can’t remember which- perhaps Al-Azhar mosque?),  gave me a thick, heavy, brown robe – which I wasn’t too pleased considering the 40C degree heat. The mosque of Muhammad Ali was less strict, allowing me to enter with my own clothes and headscarf. The Mosque of Ibn Tulun was one of the other ones I remember quite well. Each of these three rather well known mosques in Cairo each had their own unique set of design.

Islamic art is dominated by Islamic geometric patterns, which may overlap or form tessellations, as it is often believed in Islam to depict God, the Prophet Muhammad, relatives of Muhammad, and so on – is blasphemous, or to depict anything resembling God, or with a soul, that is, a human or non-human animal is similarly, also blasphemous, although to a lesser degree. This is called Aniconism, which is against the creation of images of sentient beings. This has resulted in geometric patterns dominating Islamic art, as well as half-formed figures such as wings without a body, and the arabesque. This can be seen in the shapes and architectures of the mosques.

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Mosque of Muhammad Ali
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Mosque of Ibn Tulun
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Mosque Amr Ibn al-As
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Al Azhar Mosque

 

 

The Egyptian Cafe

For those who don’t know Naguib Mahfouz, he’s often considered the most influential writer of the Arab world, having won a 1988 Nobel Prize in literature and having produced over 30 novels and over 350 short stories. He is, of course, Egyptian. One of the reasons he is so well known is due to how he captures the colours, smells, and the atmosphere of Cairo in many of his novels. My favorites are that depict Cairo very strongly are Khan al-Khalili, Adrift on the Nile, Children of the Alley, Cairo Modern and of course, arguably his most famous work, the Cairo trilogy. 

(to see list of books written by Naguib Mahfouz, see https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/naguib-mahfouz/200620/).

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The cafe scene depicted in many of his books is a strong part of Egyptian society. Where one goes to escape the corruption and desperation of nihilistic tendencies, as graduates realise they are unable to  get a decent job or the ones they want without connections, as nationalistic individuals realise their fate has been placed in the wrong hands, or religious zealots lose their faith in God- many of the day to day troubles are forgotten in the smoky, hashish filled, cafes, with little cups of coffee or Egyptian tea (the one with no milk, occasionally mint leaves or sage, and usually many spoonfuls of sugar). Laughter fills the cafes, it is a place where, for a moment, we can truly be in the present.

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Throughout the day, one can hear the calls to prayer resounding from the mosques, the أَذَان  (pronounced “adhan”)  in Cairo. Five times a day. Although we don’t really understand what time is, we have, in some way, captured it to some extent- by being able to accurately get on a flight at the right time, meeting a friend at a cafe at said same time, and so on. The calls to prayer are, for me at least, incredibly calming, placing our stake, some sort of hold on reality , despite being infinitely small in the grand scheme of things, some order to the chaos, and that all is good and constant. Here is a beautiful video I found on YouTube that captures that essence, in a call to prayer taken in Giza: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMxUGB-lSqo

Particularly in today’s political climate, it’s important to understand Islam before judging it by the media that survive on the deviants and extremes of society. In 2010, the Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowment decided to have a single Islamic call to prayer resound from downtown Cairo, which will then be transmitted through thousands of mosques. This is because it was said before, when each mosque used their own muezzinine, or callers, there was chaos and lack of unity.  Many were unhappy about this change, as often times, change meets resistance, and many cling on to familiarity, confusing familiarity with a stubborn righteousness, perhaps in the attempt to feel we have control over the otherwise chaotic universe.