To fully appreciate the Egyptian experience, I decide, I have to immerse myself even deeper into its society. The opportunity presents itself with my head buckling under the weight and heat generated by my rapidly growing hair. Its time for an appointment with a barber, an Egyptian barber that is.
Ismail, who is at our service at virtually any hour, pulls up outside the hotel and arranges an appointment with a hairdresser in a nearby suburb. Don’t know what I was imagining, but certainly this is no ‘chop-shop’ with swords adorning the walls to claim my scalp. The barber has a kind demeanor and on completion of my makeover, humbly requests that I pay him anything I’d like to. Initially I interperet this as yet another cash extortion attempt, but my guide for the morning informs me soon enough that such claims cannot be made of barbers in Egypt. They genuinely accept anything that the client offers and very often offer their services for free to deserving customers. In his words, “They do it for the Barakah.”
Whilst waiting for Ismail to arrive, I stroll through an impressive enterprise in the suburb called Flower Cotton. This outlet specialises in fine Egyptian cotton garments and, for a change, all prices of items are clearly specified by price tags. No haggling or bargaining here, at least.
More impressive though, is how the environment here this Ramadan morning, rotates around the Quran. Attending to clients almost seems to become a secondary occupation for the shop employees this month. Rather, they choose to utilise every other minute in Tilawah of the Book of Allah. Every employee has staked out his/her little corner in between rows of linen and displays of T-shirts to recite the Quraan. It is most inspiring to see the entire shop full of individuals deeply committed to the Quraan-their lips contantly moisturised with the Book of Allah. It is a scene reproduced verbatim on street corners, at banks and in classrooms. Ziad tells me that even a cleaner tasked with tidying his room carried a Mushaf with him wherever he went, only stopping momentarily to leave it on a shelf while he cleaned the bathroom. Once done, he wasted no time swooping up his most prized possession.
With Iftaar fast approaching Ismail is once again calling to tell me he is outside. Its a whirlwind of emotions again blurred by the fast moving Cairene traffic. Soon the microphone will be mine at a Masjid frequented by local Egyptians. What did I do to deserve such an honour and more importantly will I be able to at least recite favourably enough in front residents of a country favoured with some of the most legendary Quranic reciters ever. After all, I am no Qari.
I am diverted for a moment by more telling scenes of human endurance. We are driving through one of the most poverty scarred suburbs I have seen thus far. The nature of work here is more menial and some sights you encounter transport you back almost instantly to a bygone era. Tuc-Tuc’s are more common in place of personal vehicles and people actually stare at you sometimes, bewildered by your usage of a camera.
There is also a well oiled backdoor petrol station on one of the street corners. The cheaper grade of fuel here attracts those looking to drain some piasters off a fuel bill at a conventional filling station. Petrol is stored in gallon drums and manually poured into your tank using a system of funnels. The fuel itself looks quite watery to me.
But it gets Ismail chugging along to the Masjid which is situated on the ground floor of the building that includes his home as well. Prior to our arrival, Ismail has undertaken to provide all poor families in the vicinity with a food supply pack of rice and meat, all given in the spirit of Ramadan. The Masjid was constructed in the same spirit. For the second time, Ismail recounts in vivid detail a dream he had in 1993, where he witnessed himself as helpless corpse being lowered into the grave. He was buried and moments later two mighty angels interrogated him about his achievements in life. Ismail was speechless but pleaded with them to give him a second chance. They refused.
Fortunately it was just a dream. But it’s message was too chilling to ignore. Ismail immediately resolved to build the Masjid himself and dedicate it entirely to Allah. He also initiated various other noteworthy charities.
Ismail seems to have a particular liking for Masjidul Aqsa if the many pictures of the first Qiblah are anything to go by. When the cannon is heard on the radio, Brother Mohammed Sadeka raises his voice to give the Azaan. I then am called to lead the Salaatul Maghrib which Alhamdulillah goes off quite smooothly. I choose to recite first from Surah Waaqiah about the majesty of the Quraan and also about the spectre of death, which in retospect has a particular resonance in this Masjid due to Ismail’s dream. Also being the 25th Ramadan, I recite Surah Qadr.
The response is positive, with one Musallee noting that the sound of my recital is unmistakeably Arab. I am thankful for the opportunity but also wish that someday the residents would also be able to taste the much sweeter recitals from South Africans certainly more talented than myself.
Over supper at the Masjid, we meet Ramy, an engineer by trade, whose command of English is equally impressive. On figuring that our forefathers hailed from India, he attempts to impress us by saying something meant to be ‘Jalli Karow’
We have an animated and lively discussion peppered by guffaws of laughter and hear how he got shot close to the ear during the revolution close to Tahrir square. His experience is in direct contrast with that of the man Ismail stopped to greet earlier who himself claims the credit of attempting to disrupt the protests at Tahrir on his camel whilst wielding a whip and other indigenous weapons. He did so apparently out of frustration and in fear that his income from the tourist sector would be at risk of drying up should political instability continue. Ismail is ambivalent to all this political pasta. “If you avoid politics my son,” he sighs, “you will live a good life.” Regardless, we still manage to extract a commitment from him to drive us to Tahrir square for a brief tour tomorrow. As always, money talks.
Before we depart, Ramy confirms for us the great news that the Khatam of the Quraan will occur on Friday evening at Masjid Amr ibnul Aas in Cairo. Making a special guest appearance for the evening will be Sheikh Mohammed Jibril, who will make the Dua Khatmul Quraan as well. We immediately resolve to include that on our itienary as well, should the Convoy still be present in Cairo at that stage.
As one convoy member observes, Egypt in the wake of the revolution is undergoing an extraordinary Islamic resurgence. From the abscence of fear on the streets, to a Quranic atmosphere gripping the country, Ismail’s respect for the Bearers of the Quraan, the unhindered lecture tours of scholars such as Sheikh Mohammed Hassan and the coming spiritual climax on 27 Ramadan, the winds of change are blowing through Egypt. And by the Will of Allah, I am fortunate enough to be around to feel the breeze.