If you called the airline (assuming they would answer) to find out if your 9:00 AM flight tomorrow morning was leaving on time, and they answered, “Yes, God Willing,” you might not get on the plane. The Western mind, no matter how religious you might be, wants to know that the crew has thousands of hours of flight experience and lots of seniority. We all know that this life could vanish at any moment, but it is in our Western DNA to fight that tooth and nail – control it any way we can. Not so in the Islamic world. How many miles to Cairo? Inshallah, about 50. What time should we have lunch? Inshallah, noon. How long will you stay in Luxor? Inshallah, two days. It’s hard to know how much this permeates people’s mindset – is it really this fatalist? Can we compare it directly with “God helps those who help themselves.”? Tempting, but that puts me squarely and squeamishly in the cultural clash camp.
Sacred time. America is both very religious, very pluralistic and very aware that my religious space ends where yours begins. We don’t live in a national cocoon of sacred space. The Muslim call to prayer is 5 times a day, starting at 5 AM , then noon, then 3 calls almost back to back from 3:00-ish to 7:00. This floors me. It corresponds to the exact time in the West when we are rushing to finish the days’ work, get home through the crush of traffic, deal with tired family members and eat. Not everyone prays at prayer time and not much stops, but you are certainly aware of your obligation. Men pull out small rugs and bow their heads to the ground in their shops, in the park, in the parking lot. Everywhere men have the mark of touching their heads to the ground many times a day, year after year, embedded on their foreheads.
These traditional window boxes and screens, “mashrabeyya,” allowed women to look out from the privacy (and protection) of their houses onto the comings and goings of the public street without being seen. View from outside and inside.
Full frontal fashion for those who cover completely. In Cairo, most, but certainly not all, women wear hijab, often very colorful and with coordinated outfits that test the definition of modesty (to me but many are fully covered and several shops display the latest in sequined black. Whenever I see a woman totally covered (shrouded?) right down to the gloves and either on the phone or taking a picture of other covered women it really challenges your idea of living in the modern world.
Hanging out in the mosque. When not at prayer, mosques are very low-key welcoming places where people mingle and lie around on the beautiful carpets, chatting, snoozing. Below are some of Cairo’s lovely mosques.