Egypt Through Other Eyes
THE angry face of an ayatollah and a shouting crowd with clenched fists were the media images my mind held before I set a tentative foot on Middle East soil. Many Americans avoided travel in the region that year because of such images. Terrorists, hostages, and hatred screamed through the television cameras warning us to stay away. My business trip took me first to Egypt, where I was immediately intimidated by the officials at airport immigration. Hot, dusty, impatient authorities. What was a young, blue-eyed, American woman doing here?
The guide my associates had arranged was also a young woman. Her dark smiling eyes and bouncing black ponytail complemented her keen intellect, commanding confidence, high academic achievements, and professionalism. She was an Egyptologist of outstanding qualifications, and as she led me through Cairo explaining past and present, I became her willing student.
The media images flashed through my mind as we passed guards in uniform flaunting automatic weapons at nearly every major intersection. In the crowds of the city, the faces of angry young men chilled me. Striking contrasts of poverty and wealth, idleness and commerce, history and hopelessness surrounded us.
As we became friends, she described her feelings about those contrasts. She was Muslim and a progressive woman. Her step was brisk and determined as she passed caf'es filled with men who occasionally made unpleasant remarks as she passed. She looked straight ahead as we brushed through crowded streets full of black-veiled women who never spoke to her.
A group of teen-age boys heckled her as she led me through an ancient gateway on our climb up to a magnificent mosque. When I asked why, she explained that her status as a professional woman in modern dress, leading, was offensive to them.
In the inner courtyard a leather-faced man gently and impersonally tied cloth slippers around my ankles as he had done for thousands of Western tourists, reminding us to be respectful of the place of worship we were about to enter but did not understand. Inside, in the spacious emptiness of Islamic mosques - absence of furniture, gracious architecture, layer upon layer of rugs on the vast floors, ornate simplicity - we sat together and in hushed voices questioned and answered. I asked her to explain her concept of religion, the youngest of the world's great religions.
Her face softened and in a sweetness I'll never forget she shared her love of what she considered true Islam. She described a rev-erence for all great prophets, Biblical and Koranic, and of the brotherhood of man. She spoke tenderly of the importance of the family in the practice of Islam. She told me of her commitment to contributing a substantial portion of her income as a tithe, because her work prevented her from showing her devotion in the more traditional ways. Her view was generous and humanitarian and she shook her head in sadness at the intolerance of the radical sects.
For the rest of my time in Cairo, and on through my travels in the Middle East, I saw through her dark eyes past the aggressive few to the quietly obedient many who answered each call to prayer. I saw fathers with little sons upon their shoulders as they went to market. Graceful, black-robed women who saved their brightly colored garments for the private enjoyment of their own families within their own walls. And the modern, professional Muslims contributing to harmonious dialogue between cultures.
The striking contrasts were still there and the potential for hostility still hung about the fringes, but I wasn't seeing through the television cameras any more. I was seeing the Muslim world through the eyes of someone with a deep faith, so different from my own, and yet surprisingly similar in its humanity.
Today, when I am confronted with the pictures of an angry-faced ayatollah, the shouting crowds with clenched fists raised, in my mind's eye I exchange them for pictures of a giggling little boy enjoying a ride on his father's shoulders through an Egyptian marketplace, and the proud, professional, patient smile of a dark-eyed, progressive Muslim woman.