Sunday, March 4, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Ten

"Guten Morgen, Noura! Guten Morgen!" Mohammed joins us again for breakfast. I love Egyptian breakfasts. At our hotel you can OD on pastries, or you can have a very healthy meal. I have to take the healthy choice - doctor's orders, it's all for my sinuses. But this, by now, is also what I would choose. The foul (pronounced like "fool"), the fava bean dish, is marvelous, nice and mushy, with chopped tomatoes, onions, tahini and olive oil all mixed in. I probably shouldn't be eating the raw tomatoes with my stomach the way it is, but with Mr. Arabi's medicine, I'm doing OK.

I am no longer "Nanzi" for Mohammed. He has declared he prefers "Noura" because it means "light", and his daughter is named the same. Or simply "Noreen". He has no name for Peter, and I have none anymore for him. Speaking German, we are still officially on the formal basis, something that comforts Peter, but drives me crazy. And Mohammed too, I suspect. He bounces from "Sie" to "du" like a basketball.

Almost the first thing he asks is, "How was your evening with Jayson? What did you talk about?" My, these Egyptians are nosy! I tell him about the plan I heard about to partition Egypt, which I find absolutely shocking. "Jayson is right," Mohammed says. "Those maps were found. Not only that, but the Americans increased their budget to the NGOs for this year, way out of proportion. They are clearly intent on fomenting chaos."

This is how our morning goes. Intense discussion in the taxi on the way to El-Galmaliya, the part of Cairo he wants to show us today. He continues talking as we cross streets, his hand protectively around my shoulder as he leads us across the heavy traffic. "I have a story," he says. "I meet up every year or so with some of my school classmates. Guess who one of them got a job with several years ago - he's a geologist." Not a clue. "Haliburton! And so, just before the Iraq war began, we were talking about people demonstrating in America and hoping that they could influence Bush to stop the war. My friend laughed and said, 'You have no idea! There are no weapons of mass destruction, and this war is going to happen. The oil companies have already divied Iraq up among themselves. It's all planned.' I have no problem with Americans," Mohammed says, "but most Americans are certainly naive about politics." I hear more examples like this, which increase my confusion about my government. Peter's too, since four of the NGO people arrested are from the Adenauer Stiftung.

"I can't imagine the Adenauer Stiftung being part of a plot to create conflict among Egyptians," Peter says.

Bab Zuweila
"Germany has to do what the Americans want," replies Mohammed. "Believe me, I know. And I know that Obama has no power to change anything in America. Don't you see that nothing is any different?" Yes, I have noticed that. The prisoners are still in Guantanamo, and the Patriot Act is continuing under Obama. What can I do about being so ignorant? Blame myself for it? Try and become more informed? No, I'm not really that political a person. But I can be truthful myself. As for politics, yes, at this moment my head is spinning, and I feel almost sick, wondering what is true of what we hear in the news, wondering how on earth I can interpret what I hear.

Eventually we start talking about the things at hand - spices, oils, and shops with strange equipment for Egyptian-style restaurants. He leads us to a a beautifully ornate structure. "This is the Bab Zuweila", he says, "a city gate built in the middle ages. It was built by the Fatimids." The Fatimids were a Shi'ite group of Islams who came to Egypt from Tunisia and made Egypt their capital, building up Cairo in about 969. This seems to be the golden age of Islam - the Fatimids were tolerant towards Jews, other Muslims, and the Coptic Christians. During their reign, Saladin invaded, ending Fatimid rule. The gate is beautiful.

Caravanserai, also known as a wikala
quilts in the caravanserai
Mohammed leads us into what he calls a caravanserai, something that was once a roadside inn where travelers could rest. Now it's a quaint market, dominated by the tent-makers, which in reality seem to be quilters. During my first trip to Egypt, I saw quilts in the Khan El-Khalili bazaar and thought this was a technique they were copying from the American quilters. How wrong I was! Wikipedia tells me that the earliest known quilt was on an ivory carved figure of a Pharaoh dating from about 3400 B.C. We stop at one of the shops, and the owner invites us for a cup of tea. He expressly says he doesn't care whether we buy or not. Mohammed likes this attitude. We sit for a long while, admiring the quilts as we sip our tea, and eventually buy two quilted pillow cases.

On we go, now to a mosque. On the way to the mosque, though, Mohammed shows us a sabil, a fountain built by a wealthy patron in the middle ages for the village, so that the poor can have easy access to water. They were also fed by the patrons. We pass several on this day, and they are rich in ornate ironwork on the grids, as well as interesting stone work.

a door at the "red mosque"
We enter one of Cairo's oldest mosques, absolutely beautiful with inlaid woodwork, marble stonework, and beautiful alabaster lamps. It's called Al Muayyad, or the "red mosque". The story is, says Mohammed, that the man who was later to become the Sultan al-Mu'ayyad was imprisoned. He suffered so much in prison, also from flies and lice, that he made a vow to God that if he was released from prison, he would change this prison into a holy place of learning and worship, and that is what he did upon release. It was constructed between 1415-1422, and became a very important mosque and madrassa (Koran school). This mosque has many features similar to the Hanging Church - the same type of alabaster lamps, ornate metal work, the same inlaid ivory stars in woodwork. The sultan died a few years after his mosque was constructed, and had the reputation of being a humble man.

a bag of cotton
Women's gallabeyas
There is lots to do today. We saunter through a souk that Mohammed promises rarely sees tourists. For me, the most interesting thing is the enormous bags of raw cotton. It is used in stuffing mattresses and cushions, Mohammed says. Cotton grows only in the Nile delta. During the time of the Pharaohs, cotton was grown, then it disappeared until the time of Muhammed Ali in the nineteenth century. We also see shop after shop of cheap women's wear - gaudy red and pink negligées decorated with glass beads, (why aren't these forbidden in this sexually strict country?) and women's black form-fitting gallabeyas, also trimmed with rhinestones. I don't get it - I thought the gallabeyas were meant to discourage male attention. These do manage to cover the entire body, but the rhinestones only serve to draw attention. I smile - you can bring religion to the people, but you can't make them discard their natural human drives.

On to the Al-Azhar mosque, which tops Peter's list of places to visit. This is not only a mosque, it's also a university - in fact, the oldest university in the world, founded in 970 as a Koran school (madrassa). Mohammed tells us that he is a graduate of Al-Azhar University, but he went to a different campus. Before we enter the mosque, he explains the philosophy of the university to us. Al-Azhar is important in the entire Muslim world, and its decrees used to be defining, but are now declining in influence unfortunately, as the fundamentalists gain in popularity. Al-Azhar was always the university with the most liberal position. Students here are required to study all the religions in the original, encouraged to think for themselves. Mohammed thinks he has received an excellent education here. Every student is required to study Islamic studies, plus something else. He did German studies.

In the courtyard of Al-Azhar Mosque

Mohammed walks over to two young women bent over in a corner, fumbling in their pocketboks.  He starts an animated conversation with them.

"Look at that!"  Peter exclaims.  "He's flirting with them." 

Mohammed likes me partly because I am a woman, but he's not obsessed with me.  How nice!  Just as I thought - he simply likes women.  I'm not annoyed.  In fact, I don't feel anything at all except relief that Mohammed hasn't singled me out for attention.  This relationship isn't going to get complicated. I was only the one he chose to hang around with more on our last trip.  Now I am simply a speciman of something he finds appealing, and I find that appealing.  I'm learning late in life to enjoy the opposite sex without craving anything more.  Before I used to just shut out that part of life.  It's much nicer and more interesting this way.  Well, go ahead, Mohammed.  No harm done here at all.

He comes back to us, smiling.  "One of these girls comes from my home town," he says. "They're students, here on a day trip."

Al-Azhar is very large, graceful and beautiful.  We enter the mosque proper.  We see a group of women in a side room, sitting around on the floor, as a professor lectures to them. People are sitting around everywhere, bent over their Korans or other books, sometimes reading out loud, or talking to others. Some are even sprawled across the floor, asleep. We spot a corner with literature. "It's all free," Mohammed assures us. We take every piece of literature about Islam available. It's there in all the main European languages - a brochure about the role of women, another about Jesus, another about what Muslims really believe.

Over lunch we discuss Islam. I've been asking questions all morning. I ask Mohammed about something he said during our last trip, that Islam is a further development of Christianity and Judaism, a progression. I ask him how he sees it as something that takes us on.

"It gives us complete principles about how to live our daily lives," he says. Here it comes - sharia law. He says the Koran is very enlightened about how we should live, but that people go and interpret it in a very inhumane manner.

"But the Old Testament also has a complete set of rules for living," I say. "It's in the Torah."

"Ah, but the Koran is older than the Bible," he answers. Did I hear that right? I dare to contradict him. "No, it's not," I say. "The Torah is older. It was written about 3,000 years ago," I say, and then look to Peter for support. "Isn't that right, Peter?" Yes, approximately, he answers, the Torah was starting to be written about 1,000 BC. End of subject. But I'm not finished.

"What about this sharia?" I ask. "To me, it's much more humane to punish a thief in prison than to cut off his hand."

"That happens very rarely," Mohammed says. "Only after about six or seven times of getting caught. A thief would have to be very hardened to keep stealing then, and then he should lose his hand."

I'm not a bit convinced. Peter is quiet. I feel we've reached the end of any discussion about Islam, at least any critical discussion.

We talk about other things for a few minutes and then Peter and I leave to go look for a suitcase at the Khan Al-Kanili bazaar. We find one. We leave the suitcase at the restaurant and walk together through the bazaar and check out yet another mosque.  Mohammed helps me find a pair of silver earrings for a friend.

It's late afternoon - time to go back to the hotel. An ancient, run-down Chinese taxi that runs on a combination of natural gas and gasoline stops to pick us up. The driver's trunk is so full, and small, there's no room for the suitcase. But Egyptians are full of Egyptian solutions. He simply pulls a piece of rope lying next to a gasoline cannister in the trunk and ties the suitcase onto the roof. We're off.

There's one more thing Mohammed wants to discuss with us - Mormonism! I'm surprised by his subject. Neither of us is a Mormon. "But you should know something as an American, Noreen," he says to me, "and you, Herr Nanz, you're versed in theology. What do they believe?" He seems particularly interested in the history of polygamy in the Mormon church and fascinated to learn that there are offshoots of the official Mormon religion - groups called fundamentalist Mormons, who still practice it. When I tell him that I have heard of men marrying biological sisters, he is horrified. "Even Mohammed forbade this," he says. He also finds the idea of baptizing dead people distasteful, especially since the dead and their descendants aren't even aware of the baptism. I tell him how I discovered that all my ancestors on my mother's side were baptized after their death by Mormons. "Unbelievable," he says, shaking his head.

I wonder if we'll discuss religion anymore. I rather doubt it, at least as far as our respective beliefs are concerned. We've had it out with one another.  We've gone as far as we can go, at least for now.

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