A lot has changed since I last visited Egypt: New highways and roads have been built, new neighborhoods have sprung up, and there are some absolutely gorgeous malls that rival the ones in which I have shopped in America. And I don't remember seeing so many McDonald's the last time I visited Egypt. The desert road between Cairo and Alexandria is hardly a desert at all, with all the agriculture that has been developed. Cairo itself has become much more crowded than I remember it to be. (And I remembered Cairo as very crowded.)
But at the same time Cairo has hardly changed at all. It is still very dusty and polluted. It is still the city of 1,000 minarets, some of which I was blessed to visit. Traffic is still a mess, and Egyptian driving is still as maddening as ever. The sights and smells that I remember from 13 years ago were all the same despite the tremendous amount of change, and that was simply amazing to me.
Yet, amidst all the rest and relaxation of my very short trip there was one thing in Egypt that really surprised me--the nonchalant attitude toward religion. Religion, in fact, is pretty much taken for granted over there, and I found that strange.
See, I am a Muslim living in a majority non-Muslim society (the United States). Throughout my entire life I have had to contend with almost everything about me was different from everyone else. My name, my skin color, and most importantly my religion was different. This would not have been a big deal had not religion played a very important part of my life.
My faith is very important to me. So I have chosen to avoid many things I wanted to do as an American through the filter of my faith. A lot of times there was no conflict at all--I simply didn't want to indulge in that activity, such as eating pork. But sometimes it was difficult, such when it came to dating and drinking alcohol. But it is my choice to honor my religion's rules on these things precisely because I take my faith very seriously.
I found the contrary to be the case in Egypt. Sure, there are plenty of very religious people, and many of the phrases and actions of ordinary Egyptians stems from Islam. But it seemed that religion was almost an afterthought on the minds of most people I encountered, and I was not used to this.
Take, for instance, the Muslim greeting of "Salaamu-alaikum," or "peace be unto you." This greeting has profound meaning for me. Whenever I utter this greeting to someone, or someone says it to me, it gives me such a warm feeling inside. I cannot help but smile at the Muslims giving me this greeting--because it means that either I am, or they are, praying for God's peace. This is a very powerful thing to say.
In Egypt, however, "Salaamu-alaikum" seems like nothing more than "What's up?" I didn't get that warm feeling when it was said to me. I tried to make the same deep connection with the person I was greeting--like I do in America. But most of the time, the connection did not happen. When someone said to me "Salaamu-alaikum," I did not feel that the greeting came from his heart--it was just words coming out of his mouth. Maybe the greeting felt empty because it was easily said. People didn’t seem to emote the meaning of the greeting as they said it.
Another example is the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer. Five times daily mosques across the world issue the call to prayer from loudspeakers atop minarets in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It is akin to a church bell calling the faithful to mass. It was the thing about my trip to Egypt that I most anticipated.
All around me scores of muezzins (the people who recite the adhan) harkened me to prayer and success. It was an absolutely wonderful sound. In fact, I spent a couple of sunrises on Al Muqatam, a mountain that overlooks all of Cairo, and heard the adhan echo from every corner of the city. It was amazing. At home I have software that plays a recording of the call to prayer from Mecca on my computer. It is nothing compared to hearing it live.
Thus, when I heard some people in Egypt --Muslims, mind you, including members of my own family-- complain that the Fajr (pre-dawn prayer) adhan bothered them and should be stopped, I was utterly shocked. In fact, the mosque at the resort village on the Mediterranean where I stayed made no adhan except once for the main Friday prayer. It was most distressing.
Then there are the hundreds of mosques in Cairo. Some of these house the graves of monumental figures in Islamic history, such as Imam Al Shafi'i, the founder of the Shafi'i school of thought in Islam. When I learned he was buried in Cairo, I had to visit the mosque where the grave was. I took my cousin with me, and again I was shocked to learn that despite living in Egypt his entire life, he had never visited the mosque. In fact, both he and the driver of our taxi had to ask for directions to the mosque. Unbelievable.
Now, I suspect that had I been born and raised in Egypt, I would have been like many of the Egyptians who I met (although I don't think I would have ever complained about the call to prayer). I am almost certain I would have taken the things I hold so special about being in Egypt for granted as well. Maybe that’s the downside of what happens can when you live in a Muslim country—the special spiritual things of your religion can become commonplace.
When I come to think of it, my being a Muslim in a non-Muslim society is actually a tremendous blessing, even though it can be very difficult at times. It has led me to appreciate my faith and its traditions so much more, and it has prevented me from taking my faith for granted. Ironic, isn't it? It took a visit to the land of the pharaohs, who were enemies of my beloved Prophet Moses (peace be upon him), to make me realize this.