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Dew Point

This blog is dedicated to sharing my every-day discoveries of how the light and beauty of Islamic spirituality can be part of a modern, well-rounded way of life.

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Egypt

Lessons on living from my late uncle

Turning on a tune by Egyptian legend Abdel Halim Hafez, my sister Mandy handed her iPod to Uncle Hoda and gestured him to place the headphones over his ears. Seconds later, an expression combining astonishment and glee came over his face while listening to a melody that must have taken him back at least three decades. Our uncle laughed and sang along to the words of “Gana El Hawa, the Love Came to Us,” while swaying his head from side to side, fully mesmerized in enjoyment of the moment.

If there’s anything that I will always treasure about my Uncle Hoda, who passed away last month following a battle with cancer, God bless his soul, it is that he was among only a small number of people that I’ve encountered who lived for the present.

Sunrise in Egypt

I imagine it was Uncle Hoda’s deep connection with God that enabled him to embody this state of being. He spoke with great reverence of the Divine, and the love that sprang from that bond was contagious. Positivity and optimism radiated from him; whenever he entered a room, it was with the lightness and calmness of a person who was content with the joys and patient with the challenges of his life.

As my two sisters and I reminisced in our Whatsapp chat room about our beloved maternal uncle in the days following his passing, we alternated between tears and laughter. I was struck at how profoundly he had affected each of us, given we lived far apart most of our lives, Uncle Hoda in Egypt and us in a scattering of cities around North America, the Arabian Gulf and Europe.

It was joyous to reunite with our uncle during summer holidays, the distresses of our childhood dissolving away in his playful presence. He was consistently ready to offer a smile, which would make his small eyes almost disappear beneath his bushy eyebrows. Whether he was getting us to hum and sing along to the latest Egyptian pop song or sending us into an endless round of giggles during an afternoon drive around Cairo by swerving his car to the right and left in a zigzag pattern, Uncle Hoda always made us feel like the centre of his attention.

As I got older, the ease with which our beloved uncle yielded to the flow of life was deeply inspiring for my spiritual journey. He would constantly seek divert attention away from himself to calm the often-frayed nerves of his siblings.

When a car accident took our beloved uncle to within a hair’s breadth of death 16 years ago, I remember how on emerging from his coma, Uncle Hoda would downplay his pain to calm his rattled and restless sisters. Even as he battled the painful side effects of treatments for pancreatic cancer this summer, our uncle tried to reassure our worried mom that the symptoms were bearable and he was infinitely content with whatever God willed.

Continue reading “Lessons on living from my late uncle”

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Art of the streets


On my first visit to Cairo since last year’s popular uprising overthrew Hosni Mubarak following three decades of rule, I was inspired and moved, sometimes to tears, by the graffiti and public art that now decorate the city.

Campaign materials strewn across the city by key candidates in the country’s first free presidential election also took me aback. The last time I visited in September 2010, only photos of the long-time dictator, or his wife and heir-apparent, could be seen adorning Cairo’s streets. Continue reading “Art of the streets”

Lost letters

(A version of this story was carried by the Huffington Post)

One memory from my childhood was watching my mom sit at the kitchen table with a pen and stack of lined loose-leaf sheets of paper to write one of her three sisters a long letter, handwritten in attractive Arabic script.

This was one of the only activities that could draw mom away from her rigorous daily routine of managing every family affair and caring for three daughters with boundless dedication. Taking the time to write letters was a rare respite for our supermom. She would become immersed in her thoughts and intently focus on the blank sheets in front of her, as well as the multi-paged letter she’d received in the mail a day or two prior and was then replying to.

For more than an hour, swiftly and with ease, she would craft page after page of prose, pouring onto the paper the multitude of thoughts and feelings that she had stored in a crevice of her mind for the months, if not more than a year, since the last time she sat down to write to one of her sisters. Continue reading “Lost letters”

Let’s keep the spotlight on Egypt’s sexual harassment crisis

The insidious prevalence of sexual harassment in Egypt found itself at the centre of a very public, global discussion this year, and I could not be more pleased that this issue has emerged from the shadows.

CBS reporter Lara Logan’s account of her physical and sexual assault by a Cairo mob and news that women detained during the Jan. 25 uprising were subjected to forced virginity tests have given male offenders a sampling of the negative glare and condemnation they deserve.

These incidents will surely make many tourists think twice about travelling to Egypt and should force society and the government to bring to an end the practice of turning a blind eye to acts of violence against women. For decades, too many men in Egypt have become progressively more cruel and deliberate in their mistreatment of women in public places.

Egyptian women have sought for years to stop sexual harassment
Sexual harassment of Egyptian women is, sadly, ingrained in the cultural fabric of society to the extent that we have accepted it as an unalterable reality, one that women have been forced to adapt to. I certainly became numb following repeated exposure to harassment while living in Cairo after university, and during periodic visits since then.
As a young, cash-strapped journalist when I first moved to the Egyptian capital in 2002, I would take mini buses and vans to and from my family’s apartment in the heart of the Pyramids district to my office in the more upscale neighbourhood of Mohandiseen. The commute took about an hour in the morning rush on Cairo’s congested Pyramids Street.
I was always careful to wear ankle-length skirts or pants, and the sleeves of my blouses would usually extend below the elbow. All but my hair and face were generally covered. Yet not a day would go by that I wasn’t glared at, subject to inappropriate often sexual remarks, objectified, and sometimes touched or stroked by other male passengers.
My cheerful disposition quickly transformed; I became very stern, unsmiling and cold in order to dodge harassment as much as possible. I learned to avoid eye contact with men, instead focusing on a book or out the window as I eagerly awaited my stop each day. It was exceptionally difficult to feel comfortable in my own skin when defiant stares concentrated on every part of my body.
Such an experience is the rule rather than the exception. Some 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women said in a 2008 poll by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights that they faced sexual harassment while in Egypt. A staggering 46% of Egyptian and 52.3% of foreign women faced harassment daily – and 72.5% of the well over 2,000 women surveyed wore some form of a veil.
Women have little recourse to report abuse
Needless to say after about five months of taking public transportation, I was relieved to be able to afford regular taxis that would pick me up and drop my off. Until today I cannot fathom how women endure the abuse of men every day on public transport; I applaud their courage and strength. My experience in the workplace, at functions and meetings  tended to be more respectful and comfortable.
Yet even after I stopped taking public transportation, men would find ways to do the most appalling things. Once I was waiting for my morning taxi on the street corner in front of my apartment building, and a young man of less than 30 passed by. He stopped a couple of metres away from me at the corner of the fence that bordered the property next door, pulled down his pants and underwear and began masturbating while facing me and staring. Horrified, I ran up the walkway of my building and waited at the top of the stairs until my driver called to inform me he had arrived. From then on, I wouldn’t leave my apartment until a missed call signalled the taxi was downstairs.
It was not always easy to escape quickly when faced with inappropriate behaviour. Often when my hands were full of groceries as I walked home from the nearby souk, young boys would challenge each other to run by, touch my bottom or breast, and then run away. Lecturing them to have some respect or fear of God would induce only laughter. These boys had learned that it is alright to objectify women who are not their sister, relative or family friend. And they faced no consequences for doing so.
The walk to my office, home, grocery store or mall would often be interrupted by a slow-moving car whose driver was scouting the streets for prostitutes. And I don’t even want to remember the remarks I heard and touches I suffered when I once missed the door to the women’s carriage of the Cairo subway and found myself in a subway car teeming with men, many of whom had no concept of respect or courtesy for the opposite sex. What consistently shocked me was the lack of intervention; not one time did a man who very publicly harassed me face any criticism from others standing in the vicinity.
The tides are beginning to change with initiatives such as HarassMap, which allows women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment by sending a text message to a centralised computer. This initiative is absolutely imperative to start altering the culture’s tolerance of sexual harassment by documenting its frequency. The media is catching on as well. Al-MasryAl-Youm said this month it would feature pieces each Wednesday to “dissect the reasons behind sexual harassment”.
I was very excited by women’s extensive participation in the Egyptian revolution, especially when I heard anecdotally that harassment was rare in Tahrir Square. I thought the revolution would offer a sincere challenge to the patriarchal structure that for so long had condoned sexual harassment. In recent months, however, it seems the condition for women has reverted back to what it was before, and by some accounts harassment has gotten worse as part of a concerted effort by the military to shame women away from protesting:
“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and drugs.”
This blatantly incorrect, ignorant and shameful comment by an army officer did not surprise me. Such perceptions are suggestive of the damage caused by the disintegration of moral values in Egypt in the last 40 years. Virtually every Egyptian woman over 55 will recount stories of how she and her friends wore short dresses and sleeveless tops in the 1950s and 60s—and no man dared to harass them.

My mom feeding a giraffe with friends at the Cairo Zoo in late 60s, when harassment was rare
Ironically, my mom was more comfortable walking on Cairo’s streets as a striking 20-year-old in a mini skirt than she was as a conservatively dressed woman in her late 50s. After buying groceries at a neighbourhood shop a few years ago, she was approached by young man who offered to assist her with the bags. When she declined his invitation, he made an obscene comment. Needless to say my mom gave him a well-deserved and very loud lecture on morality and Islamic values before he was able to escape the vicinity.
Society must begin naming, shaming and ridiculing male perpetrators of sexual harassment in newspapers, on television and online. These offenders must face legal consequences for their actions so Egypt’s youth are conditioned over time to change their disgraceful ways. Allowing the harassment problem to continue to fester threatens widespread social and economic ramifications, including for tourism.
New campaigns that target a man’s honour, preach respectability, and teach men to treat all women as they would their sisters must happen widely and aggressively before meaningful change takes place. Egyptians are persuaded by the ideas of honour and shame they are exposed to on the news, television programmes and movies. The onus of upholding honour has always fallen on the shoulders women. The time has come for men to share the burden.

Look forward to your comments!

Revolution in perception: Egypt’s women defy labels, demand rights

“Leave! Leave! Coward” (Carolyn Cole/LA Times)
Images of Egyptian women, many donning the Islamic headscarf known as ‘hijab’, forcefully demanding freedom, rights and the demise of the Hosni Mubarak regime poured into households across the world during Egypt’s revolution. As women stood alongside their brothers, husbands, friends and colleagues to knock down the foundations of a stagnant, repressive government, they also tore down walls of stereotypes that Arab women are passive, mute, repressed victims of a religion and culture that subordinate them.
 
I have always been enamoured and awed by the power of Egyptian women. My maternal grandmother raised eight children, four girls and four boys, on her own in Cairo after her husband passed away following a battle with prostrate cancer at just 40 years of age. My grandmother has always been an emblematic symbol of an Egyptian woman for me; I see reflections of her courageous spirit, strong character, unwavering faith in God and devotion to her family and neighbourhood in my mother and, more broadly, the women I encounter across Egyptian society. Women wield great economic and moral power in most Egyptian households. It takes only a trip to a traditional fruit and vegetable market to experience their influence first hand; souqs are usually operated by resolute and tenacious women who take charge of the sales, purchases and bargaining.
 
These are the impressions of Egypt’s women I grew up with, and it has been thrilling to watch the world capture a glimpse of this in the past month and a half. Female participation in the revolution was extensive: young university students seeking greater opportunities and an end to corruption stood alongside mothers of victims of state-sanctioned violence hunting for justice and thought leaders, such as renowned Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi.
 
It is my belief that the Egyptian revolution will come to represent a decisive shift in the narrative about the status of women in Arab and Islamic culture. In first week of the revolution in January, I forwarded this Facebook album, which amalgamates images of women in the Egyptian revolution, to friends across the world. The responses I received were immense. For a number of friends and acquaintances in Canada and the United States, the images challenged pre-conceived notions they had held about Arabs, and Muslim women in particular.
 
Women take part in anti-regime revolt (Felipe Trueba/EPA)  
Yet Egyptian women, like their counterparts in other Arab countries, face an uphill battle against patriarchal laws and interpretations of faith which I believe have really clouded the exalted role women are granted by virtue of Islamic faith.
 
Egypt’s women working toward cementing greater rights and empowerment are planning a demonstration on March 8, dubbed the “Million Woman March”, to coincide with International Women’s Day.  Protest organisers seek to reinforce the role of women in Egypt’s revolution at a time when the government is listening to citizen concerns more than it has at any point in decades – and arguably in the past century.
 
These are some of the protesters’ demands:
 
 (Credit unknown)

* Abolition of absolute parental authority over women.

* Empowering women in political life.
* A new civil constitution.
* A new and civil personal status law.
* The immediate application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates women’s rights in addition to all other international agreements that Egypt signed on to; many of them are inactive and not applied.
* Rewriting all Egyptian laws to ensure equality for men and women.
* The abolition of all forms of political and social tutelage forced on Egyptian women.
 
While I am uncertain how these demands will play out, I believe this bold move will send a message that watershed transformation in Egypt should not be allowed to overlook the rights of women of all faiths.
 
Women pray at Cairo’s Tahrir Sq (Credit unknown)

Women have a long way to go to be granted their God-given rights across the Arab world. Islam – a state of mind in which a believer submits her/himself to God – is frequently misconstrued as contrary to the rights of women. For me, this is one of the most-frustrating stereotypes I face as a Muslim woman. It is through embracing the message of God and submitting myself to His will in Islam that I, as a woman and a human being, have been able to attain true freedom.

 
The Quran, which literally translates from Arabic as ‘The Recitation’, is God’s gift to human beings, regardless of gender. God refers to men and women an equal number of times – in each case on 24 occasions – in the Holy Book and grants each human soul the chance to attain salvation through prayer, fasting, charity, patience and works of righteousness. I often notice in translations of the Quran from Arabic to English that the Arabic term “Naas” (meaning people) becomes “mankind” in the English version, which can detract from the beauty and equality of the message. God’s law speaks of the complementarity of women and men in their lives on this earth, and their equality in striving for eternal peace.
 
For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s (God’s) praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward. (Quran, 33:35)
 
I find great inspiration in the first human being to embrace Islam following the Prophet Muhammed , his first wife Khadija. A widow, Khadija managed her father’s business, fed and clothed the poor, and at the age of about 40, following the death of both of her parents, married Muhammed , who was then 25 and one of her employees.
 
“Christian + Muslim = Egyptian” Credit unknown

Khadija is regarded as one of history’s rare “perfect women” alongside Mariam, mother of Prophet Jesus. When I contextualise her story with examples of devout women I have encountered in my life – my mother, grandmother, and many women of the Jan. 25 revolution among them – it gives me great hope that Egyptian and Arab women have the strength of mind and character to insist that their rights be recognised and enshrined. Raising our voices at this pivotal point in Arab history is absolutely imperative.

 

A clean sweep

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As myself and tens of millions of Egyptians jubilantly relish at the victory of toppling a dictator who ruthlessly clung to power for three decades, it may seem unusual that I have garbage on my mind.
Watching footage of the past two weeks building up to the revolution that would depose Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, I was shocked to see Egyptians picking up paper scraps and splashing water onto the streets of Tahrir Square with mops and matchless motivation, cleansing their surroundings with a spirit of pure delight and good cheer. This struck me as a key symbol that something had fundamentally transformed in the Egyptian mindset.
A daughter of Egyptian parents but born and raised in Canada, I was always deeply bothered by trash during my usually infrequent trips to my homeland as a child. I couldn’t understand the rationale of throwing cigarette butts, candy bar wrappers, empty plastic bottles out of speeding car windows and dirtying one’s neighbourhood and home. One day when I was 13, during the second family holiday to Egypt that I can recall, I posed the question to one of my cousins Ashraf. We were visiting him and other relatives in the Suez Canal city Ismailia, my mother’s birthplace.
My cousin, then a 30-something lawyer who had lived his entire life in the North Eastern Egyptian city, smiled , looked me in the eye, and said in a matter-of-fact way, “ya habibty ya Daliah, this is not Canada. Our government gives us no benefit for keeping the country clean. This culture doesn’t exist here”. I admit that in the almost two decades that have passed since then, most of the details of that glorious summer holiday spent with family in Cairo, Fayoum, Ismailia, Suez and Port Said have escaped my memory. But Ashraf’s words remained etched in my mind. Egyptians had been denied a culture of civic responsibility by a government that defined legitimacy as its ability to incite fear and indifference among its people.
Each time I returned to Egypt following that trip in 1992, I saw the trash accumulate more prominently; as the streets became more riddled with rubbish, I felt inside that it represented another layer of hopelessness afflicting the population. I worked as a journalist in Egypt from 2002 to 2004, but left as living costs soared wildly in part triggered by a state decision to sever the dollar peg in favour of adopting a managed flotation for the Egyptian currency in early 2003. Inflation mounted in the following years due to currency weakness, high oil prices, swelling global food costs, huge population growth. As the people’s frustrations grew more palpable, the trash piles heaped higher and higher.
But I wasn’t prepared for what I would witness during my three visits to Egypt in the past year and a half. People living in our 10-year-old apartment building in the Haram (Pyramids) district of Cairo were throwing entire bags of trash from their eighth and ninth floor balconies onto the empty plot of privately held, abandoned land behind us. It was covered in garbage. I was shocked and appalled. Only palm trees, not a spot of trash, could be seen on that land just five years earlier.
My brother-in-law, who grew up adoring Egyptian cinema and people from afar, was ecstatic about embarking on his first trip to Egypt this past September. He was, regrettably, taken aback by the filth that filled so many Cairene streets. One day, he went with my mom and nephews to visit the Pyramids and a man with a horse-drawn carriage graciously offered to take them on a tour, but said he would use a short cut. Smirking, he told them they should be prepared to see some wonderful “ful and yasmeen” – deliciously fragrant flowers commonly sold in Egypt. My gullible mother and brother-in-law believed him. Until, that is, the old man’s truly Egyptian humour rung clear; the carriage passed through heaps of uncollected pungent trash, situated just off the five-star Mena House hotel adjacent to the Grand Pyramids. They pressed their noses closed and laughed at the redefinition of floral aroma.
While Egyptians always bring light-hearted humour into every situation, desperation was building. I could feel it on every street corner – the people were frustrated, desperate, irritated following 30 years of repression and years of double-digit inflation met with no meaningful increase in wages. Along with the building furore, I was overwhelmed by how garbage was teeming everywhere. Walking along the Nile with my family one day, police officers tried to force us to erase photographs we had taken of the trash amassing along the banks of the great river. It was disgraceful. My mom cursed the government, and Hosni Mubarak, her criticisms silenced only by our pleas for her not to make a scene. Egypt was, simply, overflowing with the sense of indignity and apathy that my cousin had described to me so many years before.

You can imagine my astonishment watching footage of Egyptians rolling up their sleeves and cleaning Cairo’s streets in Liberation Square this past two and a half weeks. It literally moved me to tears. All it took for the patient, good-humoured, inventive Egyptians was the scent of freedom to restore their dignity and faith in the future of their country, and fuel their resolve to rebuild its glory, one piece of trash at a time.
In my elation at the momentous events of the past 18 days, I imagine that during my next visit to Egypt, it will appear exceptionally cleaner – in form and spirit. I imagine the attitude of civic responsibility will spread through the streets and people will take pride in their supreme accomplishment of regaining their dignity and reclaiming ownership of their land. It will take a long time for Egypt to reverse the damage left by decades of oblivious dictatorship. But I have enormous faith that this newfound freedom will echo in every corner of ‘Umm Al Donya’, an Arabic phrase commonly associated with Egypt, meaning ‘Mother of the World’.

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