Monday, October 29, 2007

Flattened Bottle Caps

I’m tired today on my walk home from class. I look down at my shoes to squint out the afternoon glare. A wink in the sidewalk catches my eye.

Flattened bottle caps tell the best stories of summer.

This one could be the token of a hot July afternoon. Maybe its owner sat on the hood of a parked car and ordered the bottle of soda from a street-side vendor. Legs worn from pick-up soccer, perhaps he flinched as he rested against the hot metal body. He probably watched one of countless Hagg Ahmads or Mohammads retrieve the bottle from an ice chest and pop off the metal cap with a quick flick of his wrist.

In the summer heat, a sizzle of bubbles can be heard creeping out of the bottle neck to whisper a promise of cool solace. He savors the crisp, fizzy sweetness, resting lips against cold, heavy glass. The bottle is handed back to the Hagg, sent off on yet another journey through the factories - to be washed, refilled, and returned again to the chest of ice. In his palm, the bottle cap is carried away. He tosses it into the street, kicking it around with the toe of a dusty shoe, and quickly loses interest. He looks up to see the game of street ball resumed, forgets his token and runs off to join the crowd.

The metal top stays behind. It’s flattened over and over by speeding cars and hurried feet, all day and all night, week after week, summer after summer.

I look down to the sidewalk where the bright shiny lid has become a barely discernible label among the other ‘Coca Colas’, ‘Sprites’ and ‘Fantas’ half heartedly glinting in the matte gray asphalt. The reds and blues, greens and oranges fade. But just enough color stays behind so that every now and then a passerby will pause, intrigued by a silver wink. Like me, the passerby stoops down to get a closer look, remembers for a moment childhood summers in crisp intensity, then straightens up and continues walking.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Light Of Allah


It is so utterly difficult to put this trip into words. Beyond impossible to describe the emotions, the actions, the colors, the light. When you go to Mecca, you don't come back. Not like how you were anyway. There is a light that surrounds Mecca that you yearn and beg to be a part of.

Light. So much Light.

I spent five days in Mecca performing the smaller pilgrimage during Ramadan and then spent 16 days in Madina, the home of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). The Prophet (PBUH) said that the person who performs Umrah (the smaller pilgrimage) during Ramadan, it is like he/she has performed the Hajj (the bigger pilgrimage) with him.

It is an honor not bestowed upon many. And I didn't deem myself worthy of it. But it changed my outlook on life. It changed me. It is a mercy that I will never forget.

It was my first time in Mecca.

I was petrified when I entered Mecca. Absolutely petrified. I held onto my father's hand as he took me inside the mosque towards the Holy Ka'aba, the Sacred House of God built by Abraham. It is said that the first time you see the Ka'aba whatever you ask for will be given to you.

The first time I saw the Ka'aba, I was stupefied. Its a feeling that is miles ahead of being scared. You aren't scared but in complete and total awe. There is no way to explain it. Lets just say it is a moment that no one, I can guarantee, no one who has ever experienced it, can ever forget.

I've seen nothing like it. Nothing.

It was surrounded by light. The sky was white, the marble white, the people, white. It stood in the middle covered in a black cloak. Covered with Light. So much Light.

Tears streamed down my face and I barely knew it. I stood awed and begged, absolutely begged, for forgiveness.

There is Majesty. You drop to your knees and put your head to the ground in prayer not because you have to. But because you know it is the right thing to do. Not because it commands you to. But because you feel it in your heart that this, this is the Truth.

I so wish you all could see it.

I spent five days in utter awe. I sat on marble that remained cool, so cool under the blazing Saudi sun. The smite of Egypt does not compare to the heat of Arabia. It was hot. But the ground remained cool.

I remember the time I prayed near the Ka'aba with my father. A man came and stood next to me to pray. We all prayed together, creating motion at different speeds but all asking for the same thing. It didn't matter who he was, who I was. Men and women, old and young, rich and poor, everyone prayed together. Names, class, nationality, nothing, nothing like that mattered. It didn't even exist.

I remember circumambulating the Ka'aba in prayer (known as the Tawaf) feeling the cool ground underneath my feet as the blazing afternoon sun shone above.

My family and I were always tried to find a time when there would be fewer people performing the Tawaf so we could get closer to the Ka'aba and to the place where a marker marks the footprints of Abraham's feet. There is am imprint of his feet in a glass covered marker covered with gold. Its always difficult to get close to it because there are so many people.

So, so many people. Thousands, thousands.

So we thought of going at 1 AM, 2 AM, 11 PM, anytime when traffic would be slow. I don't think there has ever been a moment when there has not been someone performing the Tawaf. Hundreds.

I've been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, to the churches of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. To the chapels, churches and cathedrals of Italy and the temples of Thailand and Singapore. To the mosques of Jerusalem, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan.

I've never, never seen anything like this.

People cried, smiled, laughed and prayed. Mecca and Madina, in my opinion, are the two places in the world where you can look at someone next to you and not see them. You are alone in a crowd of thousands. Thousands who all worship the same way and aim for the same thing. You sit next to people breaking your fast with them in the Mosque and do not see then for what they look like, or who they are.

I rarely ever knew who the person was sitting next to me, where they were from, what their name was, what the color of their skin was or what they looked like. You saw them only as Muslims, you see them as family. You break bread with them, you eat dates when them. And then you place your head to the ground together and think:

We believe.

We believe in the Power of God, We believe in his Message. We are awestruck by His Power and We are humbled by his Mercy. I look at his people, their hands raised in prayer, tears streaming down their faces. Tears mixing with my own. I see them shave their heads, kissing each other as they finish their pilgrimage, washed away of their sins.

And your heart is washed. It feels new. I promise you it is a feeling that it unlike any other.

You pray on the streets outside the mosque because there is no space inside. As soon as you hear the call to prayer, you stop in your tracks. Cars stop, shops close and time slows. God is remembered and worshiped. There is silence and there is peace. There is Light.

Mecca is full of Awe. Madina is full of peace. In Madina it is as if you have finally come home. Birds fly around minarets, lazily circiling the minarets of the mosque. You go into the old mosque, where the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is buried to give him your greeting. You have come to his home. You have been invited to his home.

Your soul feels light in Madina. You finally realize that you actually have one.

I look back on my trip, my nights at the mosques, my days in the cities. And I feel my heart breathing anew.

I wish you all could see it. I wish you all could be there. I went there, skeptical, at times, of my own beliefs. Asking questions, demanding answers.

And now, I know. Now, I have seen.

And I am a believer.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Insider from Outside

Before I discovered a love for travel and geographic wandering, Cairo was the first to claim my heart. I was born in Egypt and spent the early part of my childhood here. For the fall, I’ve returned to study abroad in the country of my nationality while writing back home to the U.S. where I’m becoming naturalized.

At first glance Cairo appears weary with crowding throngs, poverty, and an overhanging smog. At its heart, however, the city is captivating. The overwhelming hospitality, serenity of the Nile, self-affirming sense of history, and throbbing street life have strung me along visit to visit during summer breaks. It is this vibrant intensity that lured me back to Cairo for a semester - to forge a relationship with the city for the first time in my adult life.

I’ve chosen to live in Old Cairo in the apartment where my father grew up - the first place I ever knew to call my family home. The most vivid of my childhood memories here now lurk as shadows in the emptiness. Weekday afternoons I sit at the dining room table to do my homework. Sometimes when the light falls through the wooden balcony slats just right, the glass surface reflects old times - Friday dinners with all the family overflowing the table and spilling into the living room. Evenings I sink into the couch indentions worn by three generations gathered on weekends and holidays. If I listen hard enough, I can still hear the rhythmic click of the slide projector flashing old photos on the living room wall.

The widest bed that used to hold four or five siblings and cousins at summer slumber parties I now have all to myself. With no giggles and whispers late into the night, I am grateful for the fan blades to drown out the silence. A journal entry from my first week reads, “Without the life, the joy and the stories the house is an empty shell. This house hasn’t been loved in years; it is neglected and lonely.” The walls, the chairs, the kitchen, they miss my grandmother – and so do I.

That was six weeks ago. Now, the walls are repainted, the plumbing fixed, the beds made up with new sheets and the clutter packed away. It will never be the same, but slowly a different joy is coming into the house and I am finding a new sense of place.

While hanging laundry out to dry, I dropped an obnoxiously cartooned sock through the laundry lines. I ran down three flights of stairs and knocked on the first floor apartment. The door swung open and a jolly woman welcomed me in, “You must be Aisha - you look just like your grandmother!” After karkadeh [hibiscus] juice, tea, baklava, and an hour of chatting, Tant Amaal’s curiosity was caught up enough with family updates to merit retrieval of my sock.

Judging by my awkward laundry skills I think we’ll become good friends.

More than ever I am gaining a contextual sense of my own history. At a Ramadan Iftar [dinner] last week I met childhood friends of my father, colleagues of my mother from AUC, great aunts, second and third cousins, and family friends twice removed.

After dinner I stood chatting with Ahmad and Yasmeen – my older second cousins who used to live near my family in Maadi neighborhood. Mid conversation Ahmad suddenly ran outside to his car and returned with a coy smile. “Remember when we were younger and you used to come to our house and we used to come to yours all the time?” He asked. “Of course!” I exclaimed. He grinned widely holding out a miniature toy car. “Remember the gold Jeep? You gave it to me when you moved away and said I could keep it until you moved back. It’s taken a while, but I guess it’s yours now.” He handed me the metal Jeep with white interior and doors that really open. It had been the gold standard among our shared toys; to entrust Ahmad with it was sure collateral for my return.

I really did come back; I’m meeting the neighbors, catching up on contemporary slang, becoming a regular at the corner grocery, and floating through the city from line to line of transportation. Despite the characteristic adventures and discoveries, this is not a typical study abroad set-up.

My past travels abroad have been defined by the classic subject/object relationship. As a foreigner visiting a new culture I’m ready to absorb, adapt, assimilate, embrace and return home to share the novelty of a new experience. This time, however, I came to Cairo with the approach of a native and that made for a complex and somewhat rocky start. Though my roots originated in Egypt, my perceptions come through the lens of an American-raised ideology.

Through my posts I hope to share that duality in my experience as I’m learning to make sense of it as the insider from outside.