From Damascus to Cairo
It has been close to four years since the first time I stepped foot in Egypt. I remember the culture shock I experienced when first encountering Cairo after our relatively simple, traditional lifestyle in our little corner of Damascus. Here was an urban explosion of people, pollution and noise, modernity and history, poverty and wealth, all layered one on top of the other, sandwiched between a scorching sun and desert dust. Women in the most colorful hijab ensembles I have ever seen, some elegant and some outrageous; donkey carts and Mercedes benzes equally vying for space in the insane bumper to bumper traffic; masjids, maqams, and remarkable sites of history scattered in the rough of urban sprawl and twenty million people living out their lives.
In Damascus, it was unseemly for women to be brash and loud in public. Here, women fought toe to toe with men for space on the microbus or service at the local store. Here, you put on a tough, no-nonsense skin to make sure you got where you wanted to go with your personal rights and money in tact; there, an innate sense of courtesy had not given way to the pressures of congested urban living, and a grinding poverty that made people feel that there was never enough to go around.
In Egypt, men wore beards, thaubs and showed other overt signs of religiosity on their person, things that were for the most part subdued among Syrian men (We used to joke that you could ironically tell the foreign brothers by their traditional Arab clothes.) While we saw poverty in Damascus it was not in the overwhelming numbers one sees here, with countless people living in abject destitution or close to it. And somehow the contrast between the rich and the poor here is all the more striking, with the doorman’s shack-like home just one floor below a wealthy family’s sumptuous home, the luxury car cruising right by the man in his donkey cart asking for biqya (garbage that can be reused or remade into something else), and the little boys begging at the doors of fancy Western restaurants.
In Cairo some buy groceries from the souqs as we did in Damascus, but many buy them from 24-hour grocery stores, stocked not only with local produce but expensive imported goods that I remember longing for in Syria, which we had to specially request for someone to bring from trips back home or to neighboring Lebanon. Instead of saying eh (which means ‘yes’ or ‘yeah’ in the Syrian dialect) Egyptians say ah, and eh actually means ‘what?’ – which can lead to some confusing conversations in the first few weeks and months, when you think you are answering in the affirmative when asked something but are actually just replying with another question.
In many ways Cairo is an amplified, intensified version of every other city I’ve seen. It is a universe all its own – an urban jungle with character and history, a city that is capricious and passionate. While I would personify Damascus as an elegant woman, dignified in her old age, Cairo is a rough and ready brawler with a heart of gold, an intriguing past and a sharp and appealing personality. Damascus has a sweetness; Cairo, a spice.
People often ask me if I prefer Damascus to Cairo. It is a difficult question to answer. There are times when a memory will come to me, clear and sharp, that will make me long for my time in Syria – walking through the courtyard of the Ummayad Mosque, shoes in hand, in the soft glow of twilight; connecting deeply with one of the sisters in my class with no shared language between us but our struggling Arabic; walking gleefully home from my Quran teacher’s house in Rukn ad-Deen, happy and relieved that I did well in my lesson. Sweets in a small bowl on a shopkeeper’s counter with a little sign that says ‘Sweeten your mouth with prayers on the Prophet’ (salAllahu alayhi wa salam). And even silly things like the exact ridiculous tune of the Suzuki trucks when they used to back up. I miss these things, and I miss that special time when one first embarks on an adventure, a new chapter in life, and aspires to be more than what one already is. The first steps one takes on a path towards enlightenment and knowledge are fragile and precious, like the first time a small bird spreads its wings towards the heavens, seeking to take its first flight.
But Cairo also has a uniqueness, a specialness, that can be found — it can be found in the dignified comportment of the Azhari scholar, wearing his red cap and white turban and the long raiment of scholars; in the recitation of the local qari who, in classical mujawwad style, makes you feel the words of the Quran until your heart shivers with it; in the maqams of scholars of old, and those who visit them with a yearning to walk in their footsteps; and in the shared conversations of students over mint tea, with more books than furniture in the simple rooms in which they live.
Every place has the potential for beautiful memories, and to be the background scene set for the defining moments of one’s life. I feel blessed for experiencing Shaam, and further for living in Umm al-Dunya for these last few years – I just pray that when I return home, the experiences and memories I have gathered will not just be interesting tidbits for conversation, but have helped shape me for the better, and for the betterment of those around me.
N.B.: I’ve discussed Damascus through the lens of memory, and did not mention anything about the current situation there. Please keep the people of Syria in your prayers, as well as the oppressed everywhere.