This past Thursday was Thanksgiving in America. Of course there was no celebrating as such on this side of the world, but everyone was gathered at my Grandma’s home back in Minnesota. My mom had set a date with me earlier in the week for Thursday evening to be online so I guessed that she was bringing the webcam so that even if I wasn’t there in body I could be there in mind and soul and digital picture.
So Thursday evening we rounded up the webcam and connected and my husband was able to meet people he had only heard about. It was wonderful to see all of my family, it felt like I was there. I even witnessed my two boy cousins (brothers) get into their daily wrestling match (without which it would not officially be a family holiday.) It was so wonderful and while it made me feel a little sad that I wasn’t there it made me feel that I hadn’t missed out on much. I do still have a fierce craving for pumpkin pie though, and turkey, and mashed potatoes……
Those family members who had not seen my husband in anything more than pictures were able to interact and talk with him and I was delighted. To each side they were no longer faceless names and stories I talked about, and I think some of the nervousness was lifted for them. And a lot was lifted from me as well, I wondered how well my family would interact with Mr MM as not many of them have had extensive contact with foreigners on a family level of familiarity, and I wondered how Mr MM would do with them as he hasn’t had much contact with American family dynamics except that which I brought with me. But everything went off without a hitch and I don’t think there was any nervousness at all. So I’m looking forward to the day when we are both home and on the other side of the camera eating that pumpkin pie. You know how they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder? You never appreciate what you have until you’ve lost it? I know that I, for one, will never again feel bored at family functions as I can honestly say it sucks much worse to not be able to go to them at all.
The next morning we got up early (for a Friday) in order to meet my mother-in-law (I’ll just refer to her as Mama) at al-Azhar mosque in Khan-el-Khalili for Friday prayer after which we began one of the coolest adventures I’ve been on here in Egypt. It began ordinarily enough, except that Friday prayer in al-Azhar is somewhat like the process of canning sardines. For such a warm and fuzzy culture I am sometimes shocked by the rudeness of Egyptian women. My mil is elderly and has a hard time getting up and down so sitting on the floor for the sermon is an impossibility and when asking a young woman to move over so she and I could sit the girl just completely ignored my mil, didn’t look at her, didn’t answer, didn’t move. I couldn’t believe it. We eventually found a better place to sit and settled in for the sermon of which I understood maybe a handful of words. It is really cool to think that we were sitting and praying in a mosque that had been around since 975 AD. But then again Egypt is a fount of history, Misr Om-ad-Dunya (Egypt Mother of the World,) and all that so its sometimes easy to forget just how old the wall you’re leaning against really is.
After the prayer we began to wander the Khan-el-Khalili market which is a must-see for any tourist in Egypt. It’s always amusing to me to be walking by a line of shops and have each salesman, or I guess barker would be a better word as they sit outside the shops and try to lure tourists in to them, yell at me in varying languages: first English, then German, then Spanish, and then maybe in Arabic. You’d be amazed just how much each barker knows of each language. Of course no Egyptians go to Khan el Khalili to buy anything unless they know people there or know a special shop like the religious book store my husband likes to go to. Other than that most natives will buy the same things in other parts of Cairo for much cheaper as prices are jacked up for the tourists. So we were wandering, not really looking for anything, mostly just to waste time as Mr MM wanted to take his mother and I to a famous kabab restaurant in the Sayeda Zainab district which didn’t open until after 5 pm.
We left the main tourist area, of which I am not terribly fond mostly because all of the shops sell the same crap, and its very crowded, and entered into the older part of the Khan area where there are a number of museums. We entered into one which took my breath away. I can’t recall off the top of my head what the name of the house was called but the residence, palace I would say, once belonged to a man who was the Minister of Commerce before there was such a station. Ah, found it, Bayt-ul-Suhaymi (the Suhyami House) its huge and its a jewel of old Arab architecture. Read the link, it talks about how it was built to best handle the heat of the summer before such luxuries as air conditioners were invented. Throughout the house I kept elbowing Mr MM and saying, “did I mention that I want one of these?” and finally we decided to just bring whoever we hire to build our villa to this house and point out the things we want. Problem solved. As soon as I have the time and energy to upload the pics I believe I took about 100 throughout the house. I think I’ll also publish a pass protected post with the pics of Mr MM, Mama, and I throughout the day as well.
We probably spent a good hour and a half wandering, the master bedroom -yes they had one of those- was amazing with a domed ceiling with star-shaped cut outs of colored glass over the bed. Definitely fit for a king. Also, I must mention, that they (the museum not the house) had very clean bathrooms so for any tourists needing to use the loo and planning to go to this museum there is light at the end of the tunnel. This is important information, believe me, when you’re faced with a choice between toilets encrusted with unmentionable substances or a squat loo also encrusted with unmentionable substances.
After using the loo and getting ready to leave we passed a group of foreigners on our way out to meet Mama who was sitting at the entrance. She motioned for me to be very quiet and after we had left she explained to Mr MM in Arabic that they charged the foreigners 30LE for entrance but us “Egyptians” only 3LE. It was the same in all of the museums but as I was tramping around with Egyptians and dressed in an abaya and hijab they just assumed I was Egyptian as well. Lucky for us.
After this we passed the mausoleum and mosque of a Sultan who was a great-great grandfather of Mama and while it is actually forbidden to allow anyone in, as it is in the process of being turned into a museum, money talks and a matter of 5 or 10LE to the maintenance woman we were allowed in and took a bunch of pictures. It was cool to know it was the grave of one of my husband’s antecendents and I’ll post pictures of that as well.
We also explored an old water station that, like everything else, was extensively decorated and tiled. I will post pictures of that as well. Really, I think its funny how they employ maintenance people to sit around, sure they clean, but mostly what they do is ask the people who come to see the sites for money for allowing us to see the sites which are here for us to see. Welcome to Egypt. Honestly though, these people are so poor that they’re one step up from sitting on a street corner begging so you work with what you got.
I could wax poetic on the architecture and the beauty of old Cairo but I will let my pics (once uploaded) speak for themselves. The highlight of the day, however, was the discovery of my spiritual home. While we were sitting and resting out front of a mosque called the Al-Hakim Mosque (after the ruler who built it) I decided to enter and fell in love. Built entirely of white marble and in the style specific to the Fatimids (the rulers who basically built Cairo) it housed a small flock of pigeons that were flying in formation around the huge open-air courtyard. Theres really no way for me to describe exactly how I felt the moment I stepped into it but I fell in love. In fact I miss it as if I were missing a best friend or a lover. It was as if I had stepped into a place that was separate from the rest of the world, a quiet moment in time where you are at your happiest. Sitting on the edge of the courtyard with my back against the pillar, feeling the breeze as it blew across the cool white marble and watching the pigeons as they weaved and bobbed and floated on the same breeze I felt completely at peace with everything.
Mr MM always talked about how he had wanted to enter the mosque when he was younger and visiting his grandmother who lived in this area but that he was afraid of the Indians who were always inside. Apparently a select group of Shi’a Indians are followers of Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah (the one who built the mosque) and have dedicated themselves not only to cleaning and up-keep of the mosque but who also make pilgrimages to it like their own special hajj. Those who know about the Fatimids (and those of you who clicked on the link I provided) know that the Fatimids were Shi’a and that Cairo was a Shi’a caliphate for hundreds of years. It is no longer and in fact it is almost as strongly Sunni as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but without the crazy that the KSA holds dear. Most Shi’a were drummed out a long time ago and now only a small underground group remains. Oh and the Indians of course, of which a small group came in for maghrib prayer.
Maybe a reader can help me out here, I’ve seen people of this group before in another part of Cairo but the women wear this really wierd matching skirt and khimar set except the khimar has this flap that folds back from the forehead. Its very unique and I’ve only seen them wearing it. I would have taken a picture except I don’t think it would have gone down well. My husband approached a gentleman to say hello and when he asked the man where he was from he answered, in accented English mind you, “England.” To which Mr MM replied, “Ok sure, but where are you from originally?” And again, in accented not British English, the man said, “England.”
I gave them the benefit of the doubt on being Shi’a but when everyone prayed maghrib the group went over to a small section marked off with a curtain to pray on their own which immediately marked them out as being such. They reminded me of my friend Mer’s husband who is a Shi’a Indian from Hyderabad and part of a community of Niner Shi’a that are different from Twelver Shi’a in some way that I don’t entirely understand. Anyways, they will not pray behind an Imam who is not descended from the line of the Prophet (saaws) and so they went off to their own area and prayed behind their own Imam. I have a strong desire to talk about haraam and all that but I will refrain and leave that for someone else. I’m going to stick to just writing down my observations.
I would assume that this group was possibly part of Mer’s husband’s group except that I’ve never seen any of his family members wearing this particular outfit. Life I said, anyone out there who can help me out?
Edit: Ok I should have fully read my own links; on the link for the Mosque it talks about the interior being redone by the Bohra/Mustaali, a shi’a sect based in India. I believe Mer’s husband’s sect is referred to as the Sulaymanis so they are related if not the same. I heart Wikipedia.
Anyways, the lights on the mosque were gorgeous when the sun went down and when we were leaving the entrance man was nice enough to flip on the colored laser lights they had hooked up outside and which bathed the white walls of the Mosque in beautiful pastel blues and pinks and purples. Delicious.
We left through the huge iron gates that used to be the entrance into Cairo, way back when, and caught a taxi to Sayeda Zainab to eat at al-Rifa’i which is a famous and oh-so-yummy kabab and random grilled meats (even bull penis) restaurant. Its pretty famous, and rightfully so. We stuffed ourselves silly and then paid an exorbitant amount of money. On one side Mama was yelling at Mr MM in Arabic for spending that much money and on the other I was yelling at him in English for spending that much money.
Afterwards we escorted Mama to her ride back to Warraq and we met up with one of Mr MM’s best friends and his new wife and went to a ghetto movie theatre and watched Babylon AD which was better than I thought it would be but which I think was heavily edited at the end because I can’t imagine any movie being that choppy for an ending. Did anyone else see it in the US where its not censored? If you did please email me (mollyannelian[at]gmail) and tell me how the ending was for you.
I have probably like 200 pics to upload, I know it. And I can’t promise when its going to happen as my camera takes high resolution pics and takes forever to upload, but I promise it will be sooner rather than later.
It was such a wonderful day, I wish I could live it again.