My Egypt Stories 3: Finding Friends and Surviving Fajr Centre

Malaysian & Somali Friends

While I was studying in Misr (Egypt) I had very few American or British friends.

I was so interested to explore relationships with other nationalities and cultures. Noriani (نور عيني) meaning “light of my eye”, was from Malaysia. She was a student of Shari’ah at al-Azhar but she like many other Azhar students, came to our school because she wanted to strengthen her Arabic speaking skills. Noriani did not know English and I didn’t know Malay so we were constantly practicing our Arabic on one another. On the weekends, she used to invite me to her apartment for spicy Malay food ( which I wasn’t used to). She lived with 7 other roommates, all students at al- Azhar. They were very soft, yet firm in their deen, and I admired their character. And they walked together like a pack! You never saw one Malaysian girl out on the street alone. If you saw 1, you saw 4 or 5. I liked being around them because  they were a tight, strong group, and I was always alone. They wore very soft colors like sky blue, gray, or beige; some covered their faces and some did not. When I used to visit, a few of them would get nervous because they knew they would have to speak Arabic with me, and some of them weren’t very good at it. One time I was there and it got late so they said, “just spend the night.” They had one mirror that they shared, which was on top of a dresser/bureau. Before sleeping, each girl, one-by-one, would stand in front of the mirror, put on sweet smelling lotion and brush her hair. They were so feminine mashaAllah.

My other close friends were Somali, and to me they were The Quran Specialists.

We had a group that used to gather at Umm Luqman’s house, she was an elder Somali sister whose husband worked in Canada. She was very strong and I learned a lot from her. She was, you could say, our leader. She held duroos (classes) at her house in Aqueeda and Quran. Everyone who came to her house left wearing niqaab and all black. She also arranged marriages between male and female students who were at her house from different countries.  She was a Mother, an Auntie, and a big sister at the same time حفظها الله

What I admired about Umm Luqman was that her children absolutely loved her. Well everyone did but especially her children. If she left the house to go to the market, they would spend a whole 5 minutes just kissing her good bye. She had a maid and after dinner, while the maid cleaned the kitchen she would be sitting on the balcony reading Quran to her children. I said, if I become a mother I want to be just like her.

I stayed in her house for 3 weeks when we were changing apartments.  Wallahi I only saw her hit one of her children one time. And it was because of me! Her oldest son Luqman had turned 9 or 10 and she was teaching him not to walk in on the women without knocking first.  I was were staying in a room that he was used to walking into all the time. He walked in without knocking and as soon as he did it, he looked shocked because he forgot. I told Umm Luqman, it was an accident, she said, no he has to learn and not forget. Well, I felt so, so bad, subhaanAllah and actually his spanking was a Whole Family Event. Everyone gathered around to witness it.  She had a thin stick but she didn’t hit him hard.   I had never seen this before. Everyone stood around in a circle to watch him get hit. They were a very close knit family. They had a spacious apartment, 4 rooms, living room and large kitchen. But when bed time came, they pushed all the beds together in one room and they all slept together, even the maid. I laughed the first time I saw this but then I thought, “MashaAllah how safe they must feel all huddled together!”

I learned from the Somali sisters about having a good relationship with the Quran through memorizing and reciting it. They did not play when it came to Quran!  One time this sister named Natheefah came over, and she was reciting with this African rhythm that made me think of grass huts and women at the river with pots of water on their heads. She had me rocking! I thought her tilawa was so nice! But Wardah was like, “yeah she has a nice voice, but her tajweed is not so good. Those sisters really pushed me in memorizing the  Quran mashaAllah, and once I moved away from them, I felt myself becoming weak subhaanAllah.

This is the importance of having companionship with those who push you to move forward and better yourself.  I hope we can do that for each other online inshaaAlalh.

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ِثَنَاء وَالحَفْرَةُ فِي الجِدَار My Egypt Stories: 1. Sanaa and Her Home in the Wall

When I lived in مصر Misr (Egypt),

we lived in a very nice apartment building. MashaAllah.  It had 4 floors and was owned by 1 family. The apartment was spacious with Louis the 16th style furniture and tall French doors leading out to a large balacoonah (balcony) overlooking a main street.  Sigh… I loved that شقة  shaqqah (apartment). When we would go out and come back in, there was always a 9 year-old girl who would follow us into the building and ask, “Awzah haagah?’ I couldn’t figure out what that meant for the first 5 days. “Do you want/need anything?” The girl was a part of a family that lived in a home in the wall or more like a hole in the wall, on the side of our apt building and her father was known as the البواب  ‘Bawwaab’. ..the ‘Doorman’. Me being from New York City, Doorman to me means a man in a suit and hat, standing in front of a fancy apartment building. Well, …it was not quite like that. They are there to serve the middle class people who live in the building. They opened doors for us, carried groceries for us, cleaned our apartments, even shopped for our groceries. We could give them a tip of like $2 and they were happy.

Sanaa was 9 years old. She did not go to school.

She was too busy helping her mother clean houses and see to the needs of the residents of the عمارة (imaarah) building. Sanaa, her mother, and her sister, cleaned our apartments, did our shopping, cleaned the halls and stairs and carried our groceries. Sanaa’s mother was a very strong  قوية  (qawiyyah)  little woman. One day our gas tank ran out in the kitchen. I heard the gas tank guy clanging downstairs on the ground floor so I ran to my balcony to catch him. He didn’t hear me and rode off on his bicycle. Sanaa’s Mom took off running down the street after him. I was expecting her to bring the guy back with the gas tank. Instead, she showed up at my door with the FULL GAS TANK on top of her head! She had walked the block and up 2 flights of steps to get it to me!! I tried to help her get it from her head to the floor and that thing felt like lead! ” Laa Laa! Madame Nadiya!” She said.  gas.png

Sanaa started cleaning our apartment once a week. She was very good to be just 9 years old, and strong like her mother. When she would finish cleaning I would give her a snack. She used to clean my house from top to bottom. I gave her money but what she really wanted was croissants.  She loved croissants with strawberry jam. I tried to pick up as much Egyptian dialect as I could from her since we were only allowed to speak fus-ha at my school. Sanaa and I became best friends. One day after she did her cleaning, I asked her if she could recite Quran she said no, she could not read. It was very strange teaching alif-baa to an Arab child but I didn’t care about that. I felt like she deserved to have an education and reading Quran is a minimum education for a Muslim child. So I would teach her to read Quran (which is really proper Arabic) and she would teach me Egyptian Arabic.

I was so curious about the hole in the wall though.

I would see them disappear around the corner and I was so curious about their hole in the wall. What was it like inside? Did they have furniture, a stove, refrigerator, electricity? Finally, Sanaa’s mom invited me inside. I wasn’t supposed to go in there. After all, I was an American Lady living in a lovely apartment building and I had a “status”. What was I doing going into a dark hole in the wall? But curiosity got the best of me!  I went in. It was one room with a curtain as a door and you actually couldn’t stand up completely or you would bump your head. It was kind of dark.  There was a bed and a carpet on the floor. I guess the 4 kids slept on the floor. A small portable type of stove for cooking and all bathroom facilities were outside in the back of the building, looked like just a water hose.  But it was clean and Sana’s mom served me tea. She told me about where they came from in the country but my Egyptian wasn’t really that good so I only got bits and pieces. They were a family trying to make it the best they could in the big city of Cairo القاهرة.

I grew up poor, but I had to learn rules of classism.

Rule #1: don’t be too friendly with the help.  One time, Sanaa finished cleaning and her 2 little brothers came knocking on the door for her. I offered them all some fruit and let them sit on the balcony to eat it. The sister of the building’s owner happened to drop by and she saw them on my balcony eating. She gave them a look, they all looked down to the ground then she turned to me and smiled like everything was fine. But I understood perfectly.  “They’re kids!” I wanted to shout. “Let them have a childhood, SubhaanAllah!”

Rule #2: don’t get too comfortable with poor people who perceive you as being rich. One day there was some problem in the kitchen and Sanaa’s father brought up a fix it man but everyone seemed to be interested in what was broken. When they all left, my gold watch – a gift from my Dad for my college graduation – was missing.  I never said anything about it. It was my own fault for being too trusting.

Well, something very strange happened in this story. You could say a surprise ending.  Eid ul Fitr came around and a woman who I had never seen, showed up at the hole in the wall. I heard her and Sanaa’s mom shouting at each other.  The whole building could hear their shouting. The shouts became screams. We went out to the balacoonah where we could see downstairs to the ground floor. And there was Sanaa”s mom running down the street after that woman, holding a thick long tree branch in her hand. I’m not kidding it looked like she had yanked that tree right out of the ground! The woman was running for her life. ‘What in the world is going on?’ we thought.  The next day we woke up, and Sanaa and her family were gone. I asked the owner’s sister what happened to them and who was that we had seen the day before. Well! Sanaa’s Dad had another wife!!  زوجة ثانية She was the strange lady who showed up and got chased down the street with the tree. We stood there with our mouths hanging open. The owner’s sister and sister in-law chuckled. I just sat there wondering, if he had this family living in a hole in the wall, where in the world was she living????   Many-Croissants-On-Basket.jpg

Then I thought of my little friend Sanaa, and I hoped she had a better home wherever they went. I still remember her laughing in delight when I gave her a special Eid gift…a basket of croissants and a jar of strawberry jam. “I love you Madame Nadiya Wallahi! Uhibbuk! ”

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