Sunday, July 1, 2007: Today is our 1st day of school at Al Azhar University, founded in 970~972 as a madrasa and the chief center of Arabic literature and Islamic learning in the world. It is associated with Al Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo and is concerned with the propagation of Islamic religion and culture. Al-Azhar University concerns itself with the religious syllabus, which pays special attention to the Quranic sciences and traditions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, on the one hand, while on the other hand teaches all the modern fields of science.
Al Ameen Associates has arranged our classes through the university; however, I can never quite believe that the University is actually involved in our classes. I often wonder while I’m here if Dr. Jones has just arranged for us to attend classes in these bare bones buildings with teachers hired from outside the university.
The university is quite horrible by western standards. There is no air conditioning, or what there is certainly doesn’t cool us off. There are no blackboards and the classroom looks a storeroom of some sort, which junk scattered in corners and throughout the room. The teacher uses a table turned on its side as a blackboard and uses dry erase markers which don’t fully erase. Whenever she erases and writes atop the previous lesson, the shadows of ghostly writing are visible under the fresh letters. The table top looks like a jumble of scribbles.
Last night at Midan Hussein, Kevin bought a jallabaya, a long gown worn by men. He wears it to our first day of class. I wear a headscarf because I’m told it’s ultra-conservative at the university, so I should cover. I look horrible in a head scarf because it emphasizes my jowly face, which I usually cover with my hair. Besides, wearing the head scarf only exacerbates my discomfort in this July heat. I wear a short sleeve shirt, and later find I am the only one who isn’t covered to my wrists. I think, wearing these clothes in these temperatures is going to kill me!
When we have a break, we stand or sit out on an open air kind of passageway looking out over the courtyard in the university. There is no relief from the heat which makes me really grumpy. I think I will not survive this month in Egypt.
Our Arabic lessons are from 8:30-12:30. We have an hour break and then we have Tajweed from 1:30-3:00. The word “tajweed” means to improve, make better.
Tajweed of the Holy Qur’an is the knowledge and application of the rules of recitation. The goal is to read the Qur’an as the Prophet Mohammed recited it.
It is expected that you should have certain manners when reciting the Qur’an:
- Purity of body and clothes and place.
- Using sawak, a teeth-cleaning twig taken from the Salvadora persica tree. This is supposed to be used at every prayer or recitation of the Qur’an.
- Facing the Qiblah, a direction that should be faced when a Muslim prays. Muslims everywhere should pray facing this direction to achieve unity for all Muslims throughout the world.
- Seeking refuge from rejected Satan and reading the basmalah, or the formula prayer in Islam “bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm,’ “In the name of God, the most kindly merciful.” It is recited before each sura except for the 9th. It is recited several times as part of daily prayers.
- Not reading when yawning.
- Avoiding cutting off reading to talk with people.
- Stopping at a verse of warning and seeking protection with Allah, and stopping at a verse of mercy and asking The Merciful for His Bounty.
- Humbleness and crying when reading.
This is not what I came to Egypt to do, yet I know it is part of the program and I must do it. It is only 1 1/2 hours each day and I must just get through it. So, we meet our teacher, Mona, who wears the full burqa; only her eyes are visible to us through a little rectangular slot in the garment. Luckily, thank God, Lisa is in our small group; there are only 5 of us altogether. The other three are serious students; Lisa and I are not serious students by a longshot. Lisa will definitely add some humor to the situation, as I’m finding she does to every place that she is present. All I can say is Al-Hamdullilah to that!
In the evening I write a long email to R about my first impressions of Egypt. R is a man I started dating in early June before I came to Egypt. We had met in Mexico in May, but we both live in northern Virginia. Because my plane left from New York City, he drove me to NYC and spent a day with me there before I flew out.
Here’s the email I send:
Thank God I am finally able to access e-mail. This place is hell. And that is an understatement. Nevertheless, I’m trying to make the best of it and have a good time.
I MISS YOU SO MUCH! I keep looking at your picture on my camera. Everyone knows I’m lovesick. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but the first day I thought, shit, I’m never going to make it here a month. I may get on a flight back home. I miss you! I keep thinking of NYC and how wonderful it was. I loved every minute of it. You are so much fun and I LOVE your company. HOT, HOT, HOT!
I don’t want to complain too much, but I guess you get what you pay for. Our accommodations are absolutely horrible, Al-Azhar is a dump, and our location is in the hinterlands of hell. Both nights, Fri and Sat, we have been without power for a number of hours. Sitting in this hellhole in the dark with no air-conditioning. The first night a bunch of people just went to bed early b/c of the lack of light, but I was determined not to get too depressed and talked 3 guys into going into Cairo. The taxi driver was an absolute maniac, squeezing between two cars in the tunnel under the Nile at 80 mph, smoking a cigarette in one hand and speaking in Arabic with Latif, while looking at him instead of the road.
Sorry if this message is a mess, but this is the first time we’ve had internet access and there’s a line of people waiting for the one computer we have available. You can actually call me if you want at #011 25076015 #225 or 011 25074703 #225. Remember we are 7 hours ahead of you. I would definitely LOVE to hear your voice while I’m here, so I may try you too. Let me know what time of day would be best for me to call.
Last night we went to Al Hussein Square to celebrate Shannon’s 25th b-day. The Muslims with us are very sedate and I haven’t had one beer or drink since I got here. We did manage to have a good time last night. The school conditions are horrible (NO AIR CONDITIONING!!!!) I fell asleep today during Koran recitation b/c it was so damn hot. I am wearing a head scarf because everyone else is and I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. EVERYONE in Cairo is dressed fully like a Muslim (Hajib and long skirts, etc). I am shocked. I thought it would be much more modern!!!!
Anyway, people are waiting, so don’t want to be too long. I hope I can try to get on more often. I wish so much I had a cell phone and am tempted to buy some kind of international package. I hope I can last here for 30 more days. I’m trying so hard to keep an open mind, but I wonder if my dream of working somewhere in the Middle East will rapidly fade. Then what???? OMG.
I also text-messaged you about Jenn, so I guess you know I now have a house waiting for me.
R, please don’t worry about me having too good a time. Frankly, this place is NOT Mexico. And I have and do cherish every moment I have had and will have (InShallah – god willing) with you.
The one saving grace is that I have a great Muslim roommate, Lisa, who is funny and actually quite wild, and every encounter I’ve had with the Egyptian people has been fabulous. Without exception, everyone is wonderfully kind.
Other than that, I just know I LOVE being with you and wish these days would go by quickly. Take care, you, and don’t you dare forget me….:)