Al Fayoum, Egypt, 2016
My passion was ignited, a column was born – “Giving Voice to Muslims Who Seek Peace”, written by this orthodox Chassidic Jewess and directed at a traditional Jewish readership. I began spreading the word that the children of Israel and the Muslim nation can indeed find common ground for peace through our scriptures and shared history. Momentum was gaining, the workload overwhelming as my networking revealed ever more Muslims to write about and vital information about Islam to share with the traditionally Jewish English speaking world.
Having ingratiated myself into the graces of Dr. Omer Salem of Al Azhar and Yale Universities, and hungry to interview Muslims, I demanded contacts in Egypt.
Well he invited me there, and I jumped, along with Rabbi Yakov Nagen of the Otniel Yeshiva and Dr. Joseph Ringel, Fulbright scholar. We spoke with professors at Al Azhar University and Al Fayoum College. Think of Al Azhar as a world class university teeming with the sheer variety of the vast Muslim nation, with students flooding in from all over the world to learn at this one thousand year old institution, heading home afterwards to take up leadership positions in their native lands. Al Fayoum is more conservative. From what I gathered, students there aspire to build strong Muslim families, not too far from where they were raised.
The warmth of the people we met was palpable, tinged by a bittersweet awareness that we could not always reveal that we were Jewish, and that we were visiting from Israel. The first evening there, we stood on the street in Cairo gazing that the Shaarei Shamayim synagogue. We were dressed as Muslims, which was pretty easy, Rabbi Nagen and Dr Ringel simply donned large white knitted skull caps instead of the smaller colorful ones they usually sport. I simply tied my regular headscarf across my neck instead of to the side. Well some policemen saw whom they thought to be Muslims looking suspiciously at a synagogue and promptly requested our passports. You see, they were protecting the Jewish presence there – from whom they thought were meddling Muslims. I cannot remember ever feeling at once threatened and protected at the same time. Made me feel a bit jittery, parting briefly with my liberty.
This sleight of hand with our identity is what helped us navigate safely. I conversed with a Muslim man, a shopkeeper, who described with much feeling the Friday prayer that he attends. As a direct descendant of Muhammad (pbuh), he and his extended family are entitled to utter a special prayer for the benefit of his kin. He briefly recreated the form of worship for me, his head gently shook from side to side, he raised his arms slightly, “this gives us a good – feeling”, he said with a broad smile, and for a moment I could visualize a thousand cousins praying together and the source of joy it bequeathed upon them. The spell broke as he looked directly at me and asked kindly if my husband is a Muslim. My sincere interest had brought me from the level of tourist to sister, you see, so he needed to take an interest in my spiritual welfare.
This quick change in direction, from shopkeeper talking to tourist, to elder brother looking out for the welfare of a seeming potential sister in faith, meant I had to change gears quick. I stumbled on a mumbled, incoherent, “um, um, well,…” answer, and Omer abruptly entered the store to usher me to our next meeting.
I had bonded, but could not be completely honest, an aspect of exile not easily remedied.
But there was another time in which our passports were taken from us, and the atmosphere was much more charged. We had spoken to a professor at Al Fayoum college, without having followed the proper protocol, and this time, our Jewishness was transparent. One administrator confronted us, “Do you cry when Israeli soldiers murder Palestinian children?!” Rabbi Nagen responded, “yes I do, in fact, I organized a prayer vigil after the fire in Duma village that killed three members of the Dawabasha family, and I signed one hundred Rabbis to a petition condemning the alleged arson. Do you cry when Jews are killed?” Well this did not turn out to be a time for dialogue, but for accusations. Ushered out of the college abruptly, the students staring at us, our liberty grabbed out of our hands, Omer taken aside to be questioned, I was quite frightened.
After a long wait and heartfelt prayers, we we allowed back into the college, and engaged in dialogue with professor Wageeh Abdel Qader El-Sheemy . He apologized for the actions of the administration, and shared the teachings of the Qur’an that welcome all People of the Book. He asked us to proclaim this message – “we accept have no problem with the Jewish religion, but we are pained at the plight of Palestinians, that is our real concern.”
So the barriers between us are more political than religious. Indeed, as a devout Muslim he was honestly welcoming, yet he dwells precariously under a firm hand that is likewise more political than religious. Sadly, his salary was later docked for meeting with us. So Egyptians may suffer for meeting with Jews. At least, for the time being.
I continue to be in touch with Dr Omer Salem and Egyptian human rights activist Hassan El Shamy, but there are others I met, spoke openly with, and have not been able to continue in dialogue. The taboos in Egypt against connection with Jews, with Israel, are more than social, they are enforced with threats of ostracism that can damage the participants professionally and financially. At least, for the time being.
And in my Haredi community, such a connection would be looked at very askance, no matter that I have my Rabbi’s blessing and encouragement. I could tepidly be accepted as an eccentric, but not a role model. At least, for the time being.
I had the privilege of meeting face to face, “eyeball to eyeball” as they say in Arabic, with a variety of people in honest dialogue, even seeing a place that tourists generally do not travel to, and it was in this space that my feelings about the limits on our ability to connect spilled out into prose – there, in Al Fayoum:
An oasis an hour and a half south of Cairo, tourist free, you will visit and see real Egypt.
As you leave Cairo, the sands of the Sahara surround you on either side of the straight highway going south, a little higher than the road. Golden brown, a color you have never seen before, ever. Indeed, there are many colors in Egypt you have never seen before. Color and fragrance were created in Egypt, and spread out to the world from there.
You feel small among the sands, there are no landmarks, no wild brush, no cactus. You will perish with no trace if you do not get out of there.
Reborn, you come upon the sight of an oasis, slowly sand gives way to a bit of green, then a few scattered buildings, then suddenly a mighty and wondrous city full of colorfully dressed Muslims in hijab and jalabiya – pastels, every shade of brown and blue and pink, moving everywhere, adorning the faithful, among the mosques and stores and gracefully built apartment buildings. A surprisingly beautiful city in an oasis hidden in the desert. I can just go out and hug the people, I know it.
Generous and curious smiles greeted us as we sat in the outdoors of a community center. They are all related or acquainted so who might you be? A bit pale and a bit awkward in my impromptu hijab, I smiled back, the stranger who loved you before she ever met you.
You continue on to the farmland, green and lush as New England but flat, though the flat Egyptian earth has its own subtle curves. Green increases to farmland of – spices? Again a foreign image, like overlarge clover, ah – surely a spice you never scented before. Ever. Scent is created in Egypt and spreads out to the world from there.
Sharing a ride, men in white robes stood on the outside of various vans holding onto metal hooks, totally at ease. Children played in the fields that touch the small outskirted village that followed the farmland, wearing pink and yellow and clashing crazy color, casting a wondering look at the strange car coming though. Shop owners displayed their wares out doors under a generous sky that sheds no rain. The sights just got better and better.
When I met Ben I understood something. You can fall in love passionately and permanently in minutes. With Ben the love returns to me – a quarter century growing together, we are completely different people than when we first met, constantly reborn together, readjusting, re-giving, and now not only a resource for our kids, but even for grandchildren.
But you need to beware. You may fall in love with people and a place and they cannot give back to you yet. You may have to resign yourself to missing people that you found reason to love in minutes. You see, sound was created in Egypt, you can reach back there but you may find there is no echo, once you leave you are somewhat a traitor to color, fragrance and even sound. Those you befriended are trapped behind strange walls that I broke through, but closed up behind me again once I boarded the plane for anywhere outside the mother of all nations.
But I have a noble goal, telling the world about noble Muslims, remember? Remember me?
Silence was created in Egypt and spreads out to the world from there.