Friday, October 24, 2014

Groundhog Day in Egypt

Asalamu Alaykom,

Seriously, some weeks you don't know if you're coming or going.

I've been living with two YES, TWO! pregnant sisters-in-law both due this month.  One got her scheduled c-section appointment for Tuesday and we all planned for that (with an "inshahallah").  In Egypt, there's an awful lot of c-sections and about zero VBACs.  So, all of us counted down the days until that sister-in-law's third child would arrive.

Three days.

Two days.

Then, the night before her surgery, in rushed my husband's sister in a near hysteria.  This is a big, strong lady; she's as tough as they come and she was barely holding it together.  Something bad had happened.  She told my husband to call one of their cousins.  I know enough Arabic to get the basic THERE'S A BIG PROBLEM but I don't know enough Arabic to know exactly what is going on.

Someone had died.  I waited to find out who it was.  Turns out that their aunt had died.  She had lived most of her adult life in Libya (with the last years being especially tough) but came home to Egypt for medical treatment.  When my rock of a sister-in-law fell down to the floor crying, I knew that she must have had a special love for her aunt.  It turns out that my sister-in-law had been nursed by that aunt and looked on her as another mother (which Islam says is an actual bond after three full feedings)

Game changer!  The doctora was immediately called.  No, the c-section couldn't be postponed another day but it could wait until later in the morning.  This would give the men of the family time to pay their respects down the street.  My husband would help his brother bring his wife to the hospital at 11 and then he would go to the funeral at duhr.  He hates that feeling of having been in a hospital and he hates that feeling of having been in a cemetery; he would experience a double-whammy of dislike.

Meanwhile, I had to go off to school and teach English.  My story about the death of a Native American chief included the line, "Death is a part of life."

A boy blurted out, "That doesn't make sense."

"Raise your hand if you have something to say," I had to admonish.

He did raise his hand to state again, "That doesn't make sense.  How is death a part of life?"

Our school's curriculum is often far reaching in its goals.  Now was one of those times because I had to get all existential with fifth graders.  Our fact-filled lessons don't really allow for a lot of elaboration either so I had to be very succinct.

"When you read a biography, does the story only include the person's life?  No!  The story has to include when they died; their death is part of the story of their life."

Life and death live so closely together.  They aren't really opposites.  I mean, if you were calling out opposites in some kind of word association test, you might very well shout out "DEATH!"  if you heard "life" but death is actually a continuum of life.  It is the last thing you ever do in your life.

I thought of this auntie who lived for so many years in Libya.  She had wanted to marry her cousin but he picked someone else so she married a Libyan airline pilot instead.  What an adventurous lady!  God bless her.  Made me think of my own adventure moving here and about my own eventual time to "come home."

In this house, Libya had always been associated with her and prayers said for Libya's peace to ensure her safety. Most Americans don't think of actual people who live in the countries where the U.S. government sends bombs on their behalf.  Who do you know in Iraq, Mr. Midwest?  Do you know someone in Syria, Ms. West Coast?  When we know real people, we really care.

When I came home, I heard that the baby had arrived safely, alhumdulillah.  Three is really too many children for the average Egyptian couple to afford but what can you do?  Those three children will share that one bedroom for many years to come.  I, no doubt, will hear them fight over the limited resources they have but I will also hear them laugh and play.

Around one o'clock in the morning, the other pregnant sister-in-law's water broke.  I went off to school not knowing this.  No one knew except the expectant parents.  When my husband came home from helping us catch the bus, he found his brother in need of help.  It was a kind of Groundhog Day deja' vu.

When I came home, I heard that the baby had arrived safely, alhumdulillah.  Wait...I already wrote that.  Oh, that's OK because it happened twice.  Ya, my head was spinning but just imagine my husband:  funeral, hospital, hospital, funeral.

Oh, I added one more funeral because sure enough there was another.  Yes, an elderly cousin died today.  He was a very proper gentleman and the picture I have of him shows me a side of Egyptian man that I wish more would emulate.

In the midst of all of this, my husband and I had a major disagreement.  My mother-in-law added her own rant to the proceedings.  It was the stress of it all.  It wasn't us.  In the end, we made up and moved on because that's what life needs.

People are still so connected here---to one another and to both life and death.  As much as Egypt drives me crazy, I do value that connection.  People are fragile; it's a miracle anyone is ever born and a blessing that anyone ever survives a day, let alone until old age.  That realization also connects you to God.

The only guarantee we have is to be born and to die.  Again and again it's true.  It was true for the four lives that touched my life this week; two entered this world and two left.  Subhanallah.

May the time we have in between be used wisely.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

University Shootings in Egypt

Asalamu Alaykom,

My oldest son is a university student, alhumdulillah.  I worked REALLY hard to get him there, even if I haven't been there these past years.  Getting your child to adulthood is a looooong process.  When you start to see the fruits of your labor, you realize what a sad day it would be to watch it all go to waste.

My oldest son is in the States at a really good school, alhumdulillah.  I don't worry about him getting mixed up in the politicized climate at Egyptian universities, yet I know that there are strong convictions in him that might get him into trouble wherever he is.  If you are a bright person, striving for better, you often go against society.

At the Egyptian universities now, there is discord and it's not being reported by the Egyptian government.  It's mostly unknown by the Egyptian public. Here is a video taken on October 14 in Alexandria. If you recall, we just got back from Alexandria.

Whether news should or shouldn't be told is something that goes against my grain.  I am still American in the belief that all information is good information.  My husband and I have had many disagreements over me just needing to know what's going on:  in our family; in our house; in our neighborhood; in the country.

When I see what's going on here, I think about my oldest son.  I don't know exactly what he's doing and thinking because he's become independent.  I think how he is 20 years old and prone to strong convictions.  I doubt he would consult me if he were spurred to protest.  I bet he'd join friends to lend his voice and even put his body on a front line.

Of course, I wish that the university students could focus on their education.  If they REALLY want to change the country, become a leader academically and see what avenues that opens for them.  The "us vs. them" mentality is crippling this country and we don't really need to see it play out at schools.

Having said all that, a young person's decision to protest at their university shouldn't end in injury and death from live ammo being fired at them.  It shouldn't be like this.  It's sad that many people around me don't know, and those who do know don't care.

"They're just protesters," was the throw away line from a dad with two young children of his own.

I once had only young children but now that they are growing, I sense how my eldest are young adults.  I pray daily for their safety as they will always be my babies.  Any protester ever killed anywhere was once the hope in a parent's dream of the future.  Let's not casually dismiss the inability to protest without being shot at.  Let's not vilify those idealists even if their hopes for Egypt differ from yours.

May God protect places of learning all around the globe.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Destroying the Mosque of Abu al-Abbas Mursi

Asalamu Alaykom,

What would you do if you saw people defiling a mosque?  

Throwing garbage on the steps.

Letting it fall into disrepair.

Spray painting the walls.

Bringing dogs to defecate and urinate.

Littering the area with used needles from their heroin habit.


For me, I don't have to imagine because I saw this at a mosque in Alexandria.  

While every mosque is important to believers, what makes this especially difficult to stomach is that I'm talking about the Mosque of Abu al-Abbas Mursi.

El-Mursi Abul-Abbas Mosque (Arabicجامع المرسي أبو العباس‎) is a famous mosque in Alexandria,Egypt. It is dedicated to the 13th century Alexandrine Sufi saint el-Mursi Abul Abbas whose tomb it contains.
It is located in the Anfoushi neighborhood of Alexandria, near the Citadel of Qaitbay.
The Mosque was redesigned and built in today's current form by Eugenio Valzania and Mario Rossiin the years 1929/1945.

This beautiful mosque, with its high minaret and four domes, is Alexandria's largest and one of the most important Islamic monuments.

Abu Al-Abbas Al-Mursi is Alexandria’s largest mosque; with a cream coloured façade, four great domes, arabesque designs and a high minaret, the mosque is a beautiful sight.

Built in 1775 to commemorate the life of an Andalusian Sheikh that was buried on the site, it is one of the most visited mosques on the White Med coast.

While visiting this amazing sanctuary, do not forget to have a long and thorough look at the colonnade of elongated arches, the eight monolithic granite columns and the beautiful marble floor. 

from Travel Guide to Alexandria

This stunning mosque, with its high minaret and four domes, is considered Alexandria’s
largest and most important Islamic monuments. It was built in 1775 A.D. on the eastern
harbor of Alexandria over a tomb of a Spanish saint and scholar. El-Mursi Abu Al Abbas
Mosque was dedicated to the Muslim hermit, el-Mursi Abu Al Abbas who was born in
Murcia, Spain, in 1219. He came to Alexandria to teach the Islamic theology in the Mosque
of El Attarin. He died in 1287 and was buried in the site where the mosque now lies.

Built in 1929, the present mosque was modeled on the Andalusian style with a 

unique octagonal plan with sides measuring 22 meters. The entire area the 
mosque covers 3000 square meters. His tomb became a pilgrimage for Muslims
from Egypt and other Islamic regions when the rich trader El Sheikh Zein El Din Ibn El
Qattan founded a mausoleum and small dome for the tomb in addition to a small mosque in
1307. It was occasionally restored until a much larger mosque was built by Sheikh Abu Al
Hassan EL Maghrabi, and its renovation was finally completed in 1863 when the ritual of
celebrating the birth of Abu Al Abbas became an annual festival.

This mosque is the place where architecture becomes an exploration. If you are an

architect, you will feel that you have found your perfect inspiration, and if you’re a tourist
then you have found the subject of your next gorgeous photos that will be added to your

I hope you read some of what others are saying about the importance of the mosque.

This is Islamic architecture  at its finest.  Here is a 1945 document from Yahia Qadri detailing the well-planned construction of the complex.  Large teams of dedicated people really cared that this building would last through the ages.

Remember that many people discover beautiful Islamic buildings first and then search deeper into the faith which was the initial inspiration.  Truly, Islamic architecture is dawah or religious outreach; if the place of worship is a peaceful sanctuary then perhaps the religion itself is a pathway to that peace.

The Mosque of Abu al-Abbas Mursi is many things:

a place to worship The Almighty;

a resting place for an important Muslim scholar;

an instrument of dawah;

an architectural achievement;

a historical site important for not just Muslims in Alexandria but worldwide, and not just for Muslims but for all of humanity.

For all these reasons, seeing the Mosque of Abu al-Abbas Mursi was on our "Must See" list for our visit this week in Alexandria.

Our plan was to be there for the magrib prayer at sunset.  We walked along the Cornish as if we were heading back to the Fort.  There was the upscale Fish Market restaurant on our right.  A little further on, we reached the fountain.

Walking through the large crowd, we could see a wide range of couples, families with small children and roaming independent teens.  Everyone was enjoying the carnival atmosphere of ice cream, face painting, trinket sellers and carnival rides.  It was a fair of sorts that took precedent over the needs of a holy place.  Litter was everywhere as was disregard for the mosque.

When we reached the steps, a man inside motioned us in but I couldn't.  I was really sick from seeing the condition of the entrance.  How could a place that values cleanliness be this dirty?  I didn't take any picture of that entrance.  I was too sad.

We walked past two sedentary police officers around to the side of the mosque.  We looked to be the only tourists that night.  Yes, I wanted a picture of a place I'd dreamed of seeing but it needed to be a picture from my imagination and not reality.  The whole place was so chaotic and messy.  We walked to the side and I tried to take a photo like how I used to for real estate brochures.  There's a way to focus only on the best while cropping out the worst.

The gate which used to protect the courtyard was open to all.  We walked in and the the scene was dismal.  The courtyard was filthy.

There were children who had brought two puppies to the courtyard and the dogs were using the place to relieve themselves.

For Muslims, having a dog in a holy place is considered very bad.

I then saw the graffiti.

There has been some publicity about Egyptian churches suffering since the Revolution.  I know that is true and it is heartbreaking.  What I hadn't realized is that the majids/mosques are also suffering.  That destructive thoughtlessness is not limiting itself to one religion.

Take a closer look at the names.  I see Muslim names.

Some boy named after the Prophet (pbuh) has his name spray painted on the side of the mosque.  Shame.  That's a big shame. In another section, there was the name "Ahmed".  So, if you're wondering who is responsible for this graffiti, look for Muslims not Christians, Jews or Hindus.  Muslims themselves are destroying their own masjids.

Remember that there was a whole HUGE crowd of Muslims outside this area, laughing it up, eating until their buttons popped, spending money and time on frivolities.  I have no problem with people having fun---I was on vacation myself.  What I hate is that I had only to spend two days in Alexandria to discover this problem yet no one  in Egypt's second biggest city has.  How is THAT?

It gets worse.

My husband decided to walk ahead of me and called for me to go down some stairs.  He thought there might be a better area below.  I followed him in a bit of a daze.  My son (El-Kid on this blog) was tagging along although he'd been begging to leave because the place, "really creeps me out".

Three steps down I saw the hypodermic needles.  A click went off in my mind.  I remembered the strange scene of a young man freaking out on the sidewalk.  He'd been so wild with agitated shouting that I'd been reluctant to pass by.  Now, his antics made sense.  This was a place for drug addicts to shoot heroin or mix.

"T'allah delwaty---DELWATY!"  I commanded my husband to come right away without telling him anything more.  To his credit, he took me at my word that we needed to leave immediately.  It's not easy for a woman to order an Egyptian man around but in a marriage built on trust it can happen. Thank God that he followed me up the stairs.  Once we were up into the courtyard again, I told him that I'd seen needles.  He then told me that he'd seen a man down there.

We were clueless and we would have been helpless if that man had turned on us.  Really?  Going to one of the most famous mosques in Egypt should not have to be life threatening.  We could have been attacked by someone high on drugs that night.  Addiction is a very powerful force and can produce unpredictable behavior.

What's important to remember is that we're NOT typical tourists.  I'm very world-wise and careful.  My husband is actually from this country and is always looking for trouble to avoid.  We fell into a big dangerous situation.  If this is what happened to us, then what could happen to first-time tourists to Egypt?

The sun was setting.  We quickly made our way out without looking back.  Through the crowds we went again.

I had a bad feeling towards all the people----sorry, but I was mad at them for allowing the destruction of such an Islamic treasure.  They were like the people of Jahiliyya the time before Islam; basking in the Dunya the worldly pleasures and forgetting the Akhira the after life.

We walked away and I felt guilty to leave the mosque in such a state.  It was as if I were leaving a sick old man to die.  Astragferallah. The truth is that I couldn't do anything that night.  We walked and it was a kind of escape.

My husband said that he felt like throwing up.

I felt like washing---and then I realized that washing my skin wasn't enough.  I said, "I feel like I need to wash my soul."

El-Kid was grossed out and said he couldn't believe we'd brought him to such a place.  As a Muslim mom who has always tried to instill pride in my son, that comment hurt.  He was right that it was a bad place.  You could feel the evil.  How very sad that one of the most majestic Islamic landmarks in the country had that affect on him.

When we had set out our walk, we were going to have dinner after our tour of the mosque.  Now, we weren't hungry even though we were at the restaurant.  We went in, washed up and tried to make the best of it.  The meal wasn't sitting well with us because our eyes had already taken in too much.  My husband complained to the manager about everything; he was in a horrible mood.  I understood.

Do you understand?  There is a real need to rectify this problem.  What I'm doing now is publicizing this and I hope you can also pass this along to people and groups who care.  It is an embarrassment for Egypt but that is not my goal.  My intention is to clean up a treasured jewel of Islam.

May God make it easy on those who can find a way to help.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Muslim by Any Other Name

Asalamu Alaykom,

I used to have an All-American name.

When I took shahhaddah, I felt that I was really done with it.  I changed it to "Yosra" which was an Arabic name that my Muslim man and I had picked out.  The reasons for choosing "Yosra" had more to do with how it dovetailed together with his name than about religion.  At the time, I didn't even know it appeared in the Holy Quran.  Getting a new name was a kind of re-birth---a re-packaging of the NEW AND IMPROVED ME!

I am Yosra and "yes" that's my legal name.  I paid my money and I have it on all my documents.  I carry around my official name change decree when we visit government offices in Egypt (just in case there's an issue about it somewhere).

I've been Yosra since February, 2003.  My mom, who gave me my beautiful birth name, stood up in court on that day and said that she was aware that I wanted to change it.  It's part of the legal process.  That must have been hard on her---as a LOT of my life has been hard on her.  May God forgive me and reward her.

I had thought that I could change my whole name when I married but NOPE I couldn't.  You can only change your last name.  I didn't have a problem changing my first name but that last name was an issue.  That day we were to pay for a marriage license, I actually sat stupefied in the waiting area mulling over what I should.  Something just felt mixed up.

What would have really helped was some Islamic guidance but because I was with a non-practicing Muslim man who was not forthcoming.  At this time, I had already been married and had given up my maiden name (my surname or family name).  I was trying to build a future but I had another man's family name still pulling me into the past.  That felt wrong but it was the same last name as my kids from that marriage had.  I liked being connected to them---if only I could keep our connection without being connected to the ex.

Should I go back to my maiden name now that I was no longer a maiden?

Should I take the family name of my new husband?

I actually told my man that we had to go.  I couldn't think any more.  So despite having taken a number and having waited for our turn, I gave up our spot in order to think clearly.  I would be "Yosra" but Yosra----What?

I talked it over with my dad.  I had already given up the name, he reasoned, so the deed was done.  No need to feel badly about it now and going backwards.  He thought that I should just move forward.

Here's one of the problems reverts face:  we get council from all over God's green earth, because that's what we're used to doing, but we don't go to God.  Yes, the answer was there but I didn't know I could find it so I didn't look.

Islamically, a woman is ALWAYS part of her family; it's part of her identity.  She doesn't lose her self when she weds.  Now, someone try to tell me that feminism is a Western ideal.  No way!

We did go back to that government office and take another ticket to wait in line.  I was a bit shocked.  The previous week our ticket number had been 322 and I had remembered it since the number 22 was our special number.  I even kept the ticket!  Now, I was looking, once again, at 322.  Subhanallah.  What were the chances?  I took it as a sign that God was with us---and of course God always is.

Sadly, I did sign off to change my last name once again.

I would now trade my easy-to-pronounce last name for a new chance at family life.  When I married that November, I became All-American First Name + Unpronounceable-Arab Last Name.  Three months later, I went to court to become Yosra Unpronounceable-Arab Last Name.  

On paper, I now looked like I was from the Middle East not the Midwest.  Little did I know, the month after the change, I would be out of a job and searching for employment with that name.  I'm sure you can all imagine how well that went.

Four years later, our marriage ended.  Divorce is never easy but it is harder for a woman who has given away her name.  What should you do?  Keep a name from a family that no longer considers you kin?  Give away a name that your child has?  This time, on my divorce decree, I signed away my foreign moniker and went back to my Scottish roots.  I was now Yosra American-Last-Name.

I liked it.  I saw me better for what I was:  I was a mix but no longer mixed-up.  Although I was Muslim, I was never Arab!  I could never be Arab on paper and Anglo in person.  I liked that my name represented the full circle of my life.  I had started in one place but ended up another; I had made choices; I was dynamic.

I vowed that day that I would NEVER give up my family name again and I haven't.

In 2010, I married here in Egypt and kept my family name.  Ahmed, who observes his faith, never even considered that I would change it.  That's a big positive difference.


As for my first name, I learned after a year of having it how beautifully "yosra" was used in the Quran.  I have come to embrace its important for my faith and to slough away the other reasons that once were tantamount in my mind.

Letting go of what you once held dear is part of coming to Islam.  Staying in Islam necessitates reflection, realization and recollection of who you really are.