exploring islamic cairo with an egyptian brain surgeon: al azhar mosque, khan al-khalili, & bab al futuh

Wednesday, July 11:  This morning, I head to class at Al Azhar University, as usual.  It’s the same old miserable experience except that today it’s worse than usual because I get poked and prodded and told that I’m “harram.”

Al Azhar is an ultra-conservative Islamic university.   Before I came to Cairo, I was advised that I should wear no tank tops.  That was the only  guidance I got.  Because I knew it would be hot in July in Egypt, I only brought short-sleeve shirts.  However, every woman here wears long-sleeve shirts and ankle-length skirts or long pants.  My arms are always bare, and that draws many condemning stares.  Also, when I wear the scarf, I wear it very loosely, so that you can see my hair in the front.  I just put it around my head, cross the ends across my neck, and toss the ends down my back.

Today at Al-Azhar a random woman, a total stranger, comes up to me and tugs at my scarf so that it covers my front.  I have a v-neck t-shirt on so you can see my neck and the top of my chest.  She pulls my scarf down to cover my skin, jabs her finger at my bare arms and says, “Harram, harram.”  She is visibly upset with me.  Harram means forbidden — this is forbidden in Islam.  I say, “ana la musleema,” (I am not Muslim) to explain my wayward attire, but she isn’t satisfied by this.  Apparently since I’m at Al-Azhar, I should be non-harram!

Shannon at Al Azhar today

Shannon at Al Azhar today

After classes, the bus takes us to the Carrefour for groceries.  While at the mall, I buy a couple of head scarves from a tie shop.  When I return home, I waste a lot of time on the computer, reading and answering emails.

I get another email from R.  He says:

Sorry I couldn’t call.  Much H breaking loose and couldn’t get free.  But MUMchly and thought I’d feel better if I could at least say so  this way.  Hope you have a great day and night. (Well, pretty great.)

Off to meet a Mexican from the embassy.  will report back later.

I write him back immediately:

Hey there, was just getting ready to sign off the computer when your email came up!  Glad to hear from you, of course.  Hope your meeting goes well with the Mexican.  Think of me when you see him (& try not to think of young Alfonso!)

We’re heading back to Khan el Khalili.  I should be studying but I can’t seem to sit still.  Hope to talk to you soon.  Tomorrow is the last day of our week!

Your favorite Egyptian faker (I hope)

After messing around on the computer, I go out to Road 9 in Muquttum and take a taxi to Al Azhar Mosque to meet Basim, the brain surgeon.  Al Azhar Mosque is one of Cairo’s earliest mosques and the world’s oldest surviving university.

Basim, the brain surgeon

Basim, the brain surgeon

We hike all though Islamic Cairo, around the northern section of Khan al Khalili, through the medieval thoroughfare and home to clusters of Mamluk-era mosques, madrassas and caravanserais.  We come upon the old northern wall.  The recently restored ancient gates here include the square-towered Bab an-Nasr (Gate of Victory) and the rounded Bab al Futuh (Gate of Conquests).  These were built in 1087 as the two main northern entrances to the new walled Fatimid city of Al-Qahira (Lonely Planet: Middle East).

Sweat is pouring off of me and I am in pure misery.  Basim seems to be on a mission to show me all of Cairo in one night.  We probably walk for 3-4 miles.  Because we are so busy trekking, we hardly have time to speak.

the gate to the Citadel

the rounded Bab al-Futuh, or Gate of Conquests

Basim is protective and gentle with me though.  He keeps grabbing my hand and pulling me out-of-the-way of traffic.  Finally, we stop at a cafe and I drink a mango juice while he sips tea.  He gets his shoes shined at the cafe.   He tells me he’s an only child and lives with his parents, or rather they live with him in Ma’adi.  His mother does everything for him.  I tell him he’ll have a hard time finding a modern-day girl who will do everything for him.  He responds that all he cares about is work and doesn’t feel like taking care of mundane household tasks.

me, finally able to sit down, have a drink and relax

me, finally able to sit down, have a drink and relax

Basim at the cafe

Basim at the cafe

The evening seems awkward all around.

When he drives me home, he doesn’t even shake my hand.  He says he will call if he thinks of anything crazy.  I figure it is the last time I will see him.

When I return to the Muquttum apartment, I find another email from R.

So glad I caught you.  Fabulous lunch.  Super scholarly-kinda dude who wants to learn all about America.  Got his PhD at San Diego, but needs to know about east coast and other ‘real’ stuff.  Already enlisted him  to teach a class for me in the Fall.

Meanwhile, I’ve a few hours alone– oh, soo alone– to spend prepping  for class.  I plan to do it at the Liberty Tavern, sipping, reading,  and reminiscing.  Siiigggg! 🙂

I was so bummed yesterday I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and I  hopped a freight train.  Just my luck it was heading to Union station,  so I walked back to my office; pissed. And yet I feel so kick-ass  today.  I must be bi-polar.  It’s really wierd from inside where I see  it.  I’ll have to explain it to you someday; or at least try until you get scared enough to excuse yourself and never return.  I’m getting ready.

In the meantime, I want to reiterate yet again how special it is to have someone to be completely honest with.  I just can’t say that too  often because it is such a wonderful thing.  I love it.   And I miss  it.  But I’m truly enjoying the vicarious thrill of your adventure.  Please keep me in the loop.  I need the fix to make it through my hum-drum existence.  All the sordid little details please; it’s like reading someone’s novel as they’re writing it.  Maybe you should:  CATHY’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE.

Stay well, stay safe, and maximize each moment.
~ R

p.s. Best to Lisa.  (Frankly, if I was from NJ I’d say I was from Pa too).

Feeling a little depressed, I write him back right away.

Hello there again,

I’m glad you feel comfortable being honest with me.  I hope you will continue.  I’d love to hear more about the inside view of your bipolar existence.  I hope your preparation at Liberty and your class go well tonight.

Tajweed class was another joke; Lisa and I, and even teacher Mona, were in a crack-up mood.  This time they both laughed as I tried to mimic Mona’s face forming the Taa sound in Arabic.  I must have made a hilarious face, because neither of them could stop laughing.

I was planning to go to Khan el Khalili again tonight with Clint and Kevin, but since they’re going to Alexandria tomorrow night, they decided to bag it.  Instead I went to the streets of Old Cairo with the brain surgeon.  His name is Basim.  Although he’s only 34, he’s a very conservative and serious Muslim; he seems older to me than I am!  It seemed very awkward with him tonight and I doubt I will see him again.  Again, there is nothing to worry about here.  I just returned and now will go upstairs to study. 

I had to make a decision quickly today about whether I would go to Alexandria with Clint, Kevin, Tarik and Shannon.  At the last minute they decided to leave Thursday and come back late Sat. afternoon.  That clinched it for me; I decided not to go.  I still have much to see in Cairo and didn’t want to spend a whole weekend in Alexandria.

I would love to go to the hash again on Friday night, but we’ll see.  I had a weird experience with Mohsen last weekend and I don’t know if I feel comfortable going. (I’ll have to tell you about it sometime).  Besides that, the brain surgeon will be there.  We’ll see.  I’m trying to be open, but I don’t really want to be all alone on Friday and Saturday night exploring Cairo (although I will do it if necessary).

Oh well, of course none of my little problems are of concern to you.  You will have a good weekend, per the usual, I’m sure.  I don’t know how I will be changed upon my return, but I do feel I am changing in some way…  I just don’t know how at this point in time.

It’s funny, but I have rarely given Mike or the boys a thought since I’ve been here.  It seems so weird, and sad, to me, as they have been my family for the last 18 years.  I could so easily stay here if some amazing opportunity were to arise.  But I have no idea what that might look like, or how it would possibly unfold.  I am just going with the flow and will go down whatever paths open up for me.

I know I’m sounding philosophical and all — I don’t know why.  Pensive and sad a little, I guess.  I’m sure I will feel better tomorrow.  I wish you were truly free to be open to me; maybe that’s what’s making me sad.  Or maybe it has something to do with stuff going on here.  I don’t know.  Right now I’m probably just tired….

So, goodnight, dear lover,
Keep happy,

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Filed under Al Azhar Mosque, Bab al Futuh, Bab an-Nasr, Egypt, Islamic Cairo, Khan el-Khalili, Middle East

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