This Thursday morning starts with a summons to Convoy head, Moulana Igsaan Hendriks room cum office. The apartment is orderly and Moulana operates with an open door policy at most times, allowing any member of the Convoy to engage him about their needs and concerns. Moulana also has an eye for the news, analysing every contemporary development as it flashes on the screen in front of him with an incisive mind.
This morning Moulana stresses upon us the importance of correct information dissemination to an outside world hungry for news. He details the latest progress on the Egyptian clearance of humanitarian aid containers, cargo and vehicles. He is pleased to inform us about pledges of governmental assistance to the Convoy and says the South African Muslim community has much to be proud about this Ramadan knowing that the much needed medical aid it has entrusted to this Convoy will be able to meet basic medical needs in the coastal sliver for upto 4 months. This is a territory, he reminds us, where even the consumption of something as trivial as a Panado cannot be taken for granted.
On my touring itienary for this morning, I have requested Ismail, our taxi driver, to take us to the heart of the Egyptian revolution, the legendary Tahrir Square. It promises to be an interesting trip and Ismail does his part by offering valuable commentary along the way.
Cairo appears to be a city that takes its education seriously. Ismail shows us the huge premises of the Cairo University. He also goes on to contrast it with the al Azhar University which he promises to show us later. The difference-Whilst both offer similar secular degrees, Al Azhar makes it a prerequisite to study the Quran along with any degree and thus any graduate from here will inevitably be much better grounded to deal with the challenges of life.
There is also another painful personal moment for Ismail as he points out to us the premises of a childrens place of safety at the roadside. In a rare moment of sentimentality contrasted with his usual jovialness and sarcasm, he informs us that he once recieved an unexpected call from the institution informing him that his elder son had been admitted there after he was found indulging in substance abuse. He was called to intervene and sign a pledge that he will take proper care and ensure the safety of his child. He managed to get his child back. Is his child still his, we ask. Alhamdulillah, there is much to be grateful for, he replies, but quickly adds: ‘It is still a work in progress.”
As we drive closer to the city center, the statues along the way tell the story of innumerable great men who have helped make Egypt a formidable power. They range from men who courageously stood up to foreign occupiers to the man-a former education minister-who took the bold step of making education in Egypt free. Whilst their legacy is today immortalised in stone and steel, barely a few kilometers from their busts is another living testimony to the indomitable human spirit.
Tahrir Square creeps up on us sooner than we ever expect. To be honest, in appearance it can be quite an anti-climax. So much so that Ismail deliberately asks a policeman on the side of the road what the name of the place we are at is. Suprised that the question is even being asked, he smilingly replies ”Tahrir.”
Calling Tahrir a square is grossly incorrect. For literally, it is clearly a circle. Trying to imagine the scenes that won prime space on our screens for many weeks, is equally difficult. How it was possible for so many people to congregate in such a small area does not occur immediately to me. I also do not readily recognise too many landmarks as conveyed by the TV coverage, but that is not too surprising since most of the visuals at that stage were aerial shots.
There are a few manned military vehicles at the outskirts of the ‘circle’ and there is also a Masjid close enough in the vicinity. What did not exactly gel with the image of liberation and free will-the stated ideals of this revolution-was the ring of military personnel with their riot shields, batons and piercing eyes staring blankly at all passing by the circle. I did not notice any small demonstrations in the vicinity as I understand regularly happens, but I do observe the gratifying sight of a bunch of fluttering Egyptian flags nearby which comes as a welcome relief.
We request to get out and take pictures, but Ismail is visibly apprehensive. Eventually he relents to drive around the circle once more, but does so very hurriedly, not at all serving our purpose. While the revolution had managed to break the fear of many Egyptians, Ismail certainly does not appear to be one of them.
Later we solicit his thoughts regarding the old and new Egypts. Surprisingly, he says he prefers the former. His reasons; a breakdown in service delivery since the revolution(which may account for the huge piles of rubbish virtually everywhere) and a decline in tourism and revunue.
On the way out we see more tanks, this time outside the Swiss embassy. Before I can pass any judgement, I see one of the soldiers who is crouching next to the tank, completely absorbed in his Mushaf, reciting Quraan. I am gratified. My heart melts. We are on the same side.
Just off the banks of the Nile is one of the most visible scars of the revolution I have seen thus far. It is the gutted headquarters of the former ruling party which was a major venting point of frustration during the revolution.
We had seen the Cairo University, the University of Revolution at Tahrir and now Ismail decides to take us past al Azhar. We spend a few minutes in its historic mosque which seems to have stood the test of time. It is quite dark inside but even at this early hour many are engaged in stimulating activities. Many read the Quraan; others pore through the daily papers and a fully fledged girls Madressa class is underway in one of the wings.
A brilliant initiative is the huge Dawah bookshelf located in one of the corners of the Mosque. Due to the large numbers of tourists who visit the mosque as well, it is well stocked with quality Islamic literature in a variety of langauges-English, Finnish, German, Spanish and Romanian to name but a few.
My first encounter with Old Cairo also leaves a lasting impression. The sights are distinctly medieval. Some buildings can rightfully be described as ruins from a town battered by a war, yet people still reside in these buildings and the area is pulsating with life. The narrow alleys and winding gulleys at the marketplace also whet my appetitite to explore this area further at a later stage. According to Ismail, many of these buildings are in excess of 600 years old.
Our whirlwind drive home sees us encountering the historic Masaajid of Aaishah and Nafissah RA as well as Salahudeen’s fort. It is an impressive and intimidating structure overlooking the city and a base from which he slowly moved towards his eventual destination of Al Quds. May the solace we draw from his experience shine on us as we embark on another important mission to the same region.
In Cairo, we also get to see the Egyptian museum from afar. We are told that a new national museum is being built in Giza which will soon be the home of all the national treasures. Separately we see construction work in progress for an Islamic museum. This is an exciting development as it shows a realisation of the great potential that lies in the Islamic tourism sector, if only it is promoted sufficiently.
For Iftaar this evening, the Convoy has a very special invitation to honour. In the hills on the outskirts of the City, with a panaromic view of Cairo one will find the international headquarters of the Ikhwanul Muslimeen or the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political party. It is a movement influential in large parts of the Muslim world and one sometimes misunderstood and incorrectly demonised by the West.
They have been kind enough to host the Convoy for Iftaar this evening. The entire experience to say the least, is surreal. Whilst needing to have kept a low key presence for many decades due to violent suppresion from successive governments, tonight there is nothing to fear. The Brotherhood is flourishing stemming from its widespread popular support and its social activities are well known. A long stream of senior leaders line up to greet us and in the foyer we see the potraits of all the leaders of the movement since inception. The radiant face of its founder Sheikh Hassan al Banna draws much attention.
Movement members share with us a brief synopsis of the movements history and are warm in their gestures towards the Convoy. Moulana Igsaan reciprocates and describes the meeting as historic. It is still extremely difficult to believe that I found myself at the headquarters of such an influential movement, whose history and founders are held in awe and whose program and principles have groomed thousands of Muslims worldwide, many of whom occupy esteemed positions in their socieites.
Sheikh Abdul Gamiet Gabier, a senior scholar and former president of the United Ulama Council of South Africa, is another man who cannot believe his destiny. The elderly Sheikh spent his student days in Egypt more than half a century ago. He was more than aware of the tribulations faced by this movement during his stay here and witnessed persecution and imprisonment of its members first hand. He never imagined an Egypt where this movement could finally interact so openly. He breaks down uncontrollably. Further enamoured by the experience, he prays to see a free Quds in his lifetime and asks the younger generation to do whatsoever is necessary, even to carry him on their shoulders into the city, if that day were to arrive in the twilight of his life.
Meals are served and just like the rest of the reception preceding it, it leaves a sweet taste in the mouth and fond memories to cherish.
Back in Giza, Moulana Igsaan reminds us about the reality of the mission. He says the coming hours would be full of extraordinary anxiety and participants should be ready to leave at the shortest notice. He nonetheless offers assurance that when the entry into Gaza is made, the nature of the experience would be such that each and every participant would be able to write a story of hope with their own hands. As if to increase the longing, Moulana receives a call from Gaza during the meeting wherein he is told that Gazans are eagerly waiting for the Convoy. ‘Gaza is your home,’ he is told.
Dr Essam Abu Yusuf of Miles for Smiles takes the opportunity to remind participants that charity and prayer can move mountains.
Shortly thereafter we perform Taraweeh in the open air setting of Pine Lodge. The Rakaats are shared out between various Hufaaaz and Shuyookh on the journey and the variety and quality of the recitals makes it a most pleasurable experience.
I also conduct an interview for Cii with Moulana Abdul Khaliq Allie on his experience with the Convoy thus far. He also offers Nasiha for the final Friday of Ramadan. As employees at Cii, we are accustomed to the larger than life figure of Mufti AK, our in house Mufti. But today, I had discovered another AK of note. Though small in size, Moulana AK also packs a punch and always says something profound and meaningful each time he rises to speak. His speciality is making people feel special, being diplomatic and uniting hearts. What a rare breed indeed.