Friday, October 5, 2007

The Interior of my Ministry: Part I

I live across the street from wizara-al-daakhaliyya, the Ministry of the Interior, Egypt’s equivalent of the US’s CIA. My two Egyptian roommates dub it, “the scary place”. Thus, you can only imagine how safe my neighborhood is. No one causes trouble in these quarters of Cairo. However, Egypt on a whole is surprisingly safe. It is unheard of for anyone to carry guns in this country, a fact that helps keep violent crimes to a remarkably low level.

On my walk back from campus, I always use the street that leads directly to the main gate of the ministry’s complex. It’s blocked off to nearly all cars, but pedestrians are allowed through. The street, Shaari’a Abdel Megeed El Remaly, has become my sanctuary in the bustling chaotic harmony that is the neighborhood of downtown Cairo.

When I first got here, back in August, the front end of the street was used righteously as a small soccer field for kids that did not have much open area to play the sport. This was street ball if I ever seen it.

The kids in this country start playing the sport as soon as they can walk, corroborated by the fact that if I ever walk down my stairs to the lobby at 2PM, passing by the second floor, I am sure to catch the same four year old child kicking a ball back and forth in the hallway nearly everyday. This country is in love with the sport.

About three weeks ago, I went to a soccer match in Cairo stadium between Ahlee and Zamalek. The rivalry that exists between these two teams can only be compared to that of the Yankees and the Red Sox. Zamalek is a very bourgeois part of town, an elusive island in the middle of the Nile wherein Americans, foreigners, diplomats, and many tourists end up living. To give you an idea of the level of its bourgeois-ness, the Egyptian Harley Davidson Shop is located there.

Now this bourgeois team is the underdog in the match up. They have a lot less cup titles than Ahlee, which translates to “the People”. In baseball history, there is no better team that represents “the People” than the Yankees, straight out of the ghettos of the Bronx. With 26 World Series titles, they are definitely Ahlee. And with a fiery passion, there is extreme, if not more beef between Ahlee and Zamalek, concomitantly to the Bronx Bombers and the Red Sox.

Entering the stadium that day at 8PM after breaking fast merely two hours before, it was an experience within itself. In my group of six friends, I was the only Ahlee supporter, since I live downtown amongst “the People” and feel that I am one amongst them. The rest of my friends live in aristocratic Zamalek and are Zamalkawee and so I ended up sitting in their section. I will not lie that I was afraid for my life, being the only one wearing a red shirt for Ahlee in the hordes of white that represent Zamalek. In a group, we marched past streams of riot police until we got to a gate. Although we had bought second class tickets, we could not find the entrance and settled down in third class, which is where the mob resides.

As you walk closer to the stadium, you see lines of people completing their fifth and final prayer of the day, each praying to the same God, but for a different victory. It sadly reminded me of the situation in Iraq wherein Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other. Although they stop warfare at the same time to pray to the same God that they both believe in and call Allah (SWT), they are asking for victory against the other in the name of the same God. It baffles me how prayer does not translate into clarity of mind for them or of the preposterousness of their actions. Serious prayer is always a calming, cathartic process for me. Even watching others pray has this effect.

As I calmed down and walked past the believers, we reached the entrance of the pit. As you walk through the tunnel to get there, you hear nothing but incessant chanting and a ritual-like beating of garbage cans made drums. The energy just echoed throughout the tunnel and pit. Once again, I was pumped for the match.

One of the most astonishing facts of the night was that these people were so riled up without a trace of alcohol in their blood. They were there purely for the sport. No where have I ever seen that level of energy packed into a confined stadium without any external influences. On top of the soberness of the situation, these fans spent the whole day fasting, without food or drink, so no nutritional energy either. I’ve been to Yankees games, Red Sox games, and this energy can never be replicated, not even with enough kegs to line up an entire football field. Egypt is what it means to love soccer.

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It is the last ten days of Ramadhan and I have finally begun my reflecting. Some say this is late, but better late then never. Because Ramadhan has commenced, I stopped seeing the young boys playing soccer on my street. Without food, I wouldn’t play either. Plus, there is the taraweeh obligation that many children undertake. Taraweeh is a special prayer in Ramadhan that is performed after the final prayer of the day. It is long and proceeds deep into the night, but is highly recommended, for spiritual and health reasons. I haven’t been that punctual with the prayer. However, with Lailat-ul-Qadr coming up, the night the Holy Quran was revealed, the opportunity cost of dismissing the prayer only becomes larger. Only once a year do Muslims have this great an occasion to both rack up blessings and develop a new level of God consciousness. I will always have my street asylum for my daily need for peace in my four month stay here, but I will only get Ramadhan in Egypt once.

The street reminds me of my block back in Queens. After coming back from work in midtown New York City this summer or from my high school in downtown Manhattan, there was little else I craved more than the street lights of my relatively peace inducing street of Highland Avenue. That is what Shaari’a Abdel Megeed El Remaly is for me.

Yes, I can grow homesick to these things and try to find replacements, but why should I when I’ve found treasures, friends here that’ll last me lifetimes, places I will always cherish. I will never forget my nap atop Mt. Sinai. It was the first time I was able to see the stars in full, the Milky Way Galaxy spread out in its false infinity, and nearly 4000 years of history to my right. For the believers, the stars are a sign of God’s existence. Why do we deny it? Why? Sometimes I ask myself what is my place in questioning His Greatness? In moments like atop Mt. Sinai, there is no questioning His Exalted Existence. He is the One and Only. The Absolute. He begot none nor is He begotten. There is none like unto Him.

I need to be grateful for all I have. If Ramadhan is not the month for it, please so help me God. I always ask for your Mercy (the first 10 days of Ramadhan), your Forgiveness (the next 10 days of Ramadhan), and now and forever, your Blessings (the final 10 days of Ramadhan). Amen.

1 comment:

Kim Vu said...

no silly, the equivalent of Egypt's Ministry of the Interior, is our Department of the Interior. duh.