Part 3: Misr – Country of Saints

Fresh from a shower and change of clothes from the hand luggage we had carried on board from Nairobi, we piled into the tourist buses waiting at the kerb of Triumph Hotel in Cairo, and were told that we would visit the local Bohra Faiz at Al-Qahera in downtown Misr for namaz and lunch. Unfortunately by the time we had negotiated the nearly 100 strong pilgrim crowd onto the bus and through Misr traffic, we were late for namaz.

But the Misr Faiz was beautiful: with a reception like a hotel, residential rooms on the upper floors, and a spacious hall with courtyard on the lower level. We gathered in the hall for jaman, and had our first proper meal since leaving Nairobi.

There is a delicate familiarity that lends itself to a religious pilgrimage, possibly because the shared faith, traditions and practices imbue a commonality to the surroundings whichever country they take place in. And so sitting in the familiar thaal in the Misr Faiz, eating bohra dishes with their familiar tastes and spices was enough to make me feel at home even though I was in a strange city, surrounded by strangers.

The talk in the thaal was all intizar – what the plans were for the day and the 10 days ahead, where we would be going, other ladies in the thaal sharing their experience of previous pilgrimages (like when they had to cross the Iran-Iraq border by bus because Baghdad airport was closed). And that disorienting sense of disbelief that less than 24 hours ago, we had been in mundane Nairobi and today we were in the historic city of Misr where the Ahl ul Bayt had once lived!

After lunch, we gathered in the courtyard outside the hall and sipped hot, sweet tea – a practice that I grew to realise was unique to the Arabian countries; a hot drink after the meal despite the heat of the day – and cooled ourselves sitting on the outdoor swings. Gradually we drifted back up the stairs to the foyer, and sat waiting for instructions for the afternoon’s activities.

In a true representation of how enterprising the Bohra community is, there was a small shop in the foyer run by one of the ladies in Misr which stocked jewellery, precious stones and mementoes unique to the city. Prices were listed in Egyptian Pounds and dollars, and in our naivete as virgin pilgrims, many of us selected a bauble, desperate not to miss out on the opportunity to buy what seemed like a precious bracelet or taweez at what seemed like a very fair rate. Taking my cue from the more experienced travellers who brushed past the display cabinets with a polite smile, I also walked past breezily; suspecting that it was a tourist snare, deliberately located here at what was the start of the journey for many, in a convenient location, benefitting from the safe familiarity (and therefore innate trustworthiness) of the Faiz surroundings.

We were trapped in the Faiz for nearly two hours – waiting for Asr prayers to finish, so that we could visit the various locations without disturbing the locals. There were mumbles and grumbles; which were only heightened when the organisers suggested we could only visit 1 or 2 key places in light of the time restrictions. The more experienced among us mentioned names of other sites that were a must to see; the braver confronted the organisers and insisted that they be added to the itinerary. Finally the buses arrived and we were ready to experience the city of Cairo. We walked out of the air breezy Faiz, recoiled instinctively from the desert heat of the afternoon and anxiously clambered back onto the air conditioned buses.

As we settled into our seats, one of our organisers asked if any of us wanted to exchange any money at the Faiz. Ensconced in a world where the men were in charge and making all the decisions, I asked no questions and assumed that the exchange rates at the Faiz would probably be to my advantage, and since we may want to buy something at one of the pilgrimage sites, I agreed and asked for $100 to be exchanged. A family of around 9 also agreed; with 6 of them being children, they had big shopping plans.

Our organiser disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a wad of money, which he gave to the lady from the bigger group since she had asked for more money to be exchanged. She kept her share and gave us the rest. The Egyptian pound notes were in the most deplorable of states. Not just old and dirty, but torn. Some of them had entire sections of the note ripped off – so bad I doubted whether anyone would accept it as legal tender. I was disappointed.

First, the tediously long wait in the Faiz when with less than a day in Misr, all we wanted to do was get out into the city and see places. And then a completely cavalier attitude from a person whose main responsibility on that trip, as the organiser, as the shepherd, was to look after his flock, protect their interests. It left a bad taste in my mouth and I was worried it did not bode well for the organisation of the rest of the trip.

The coddled treatment we had received so far had lulled me into a false sense of security, and this was a wake up call. To be alert, to behave as I would on any other foreign travel that I had embarked upon alone. I was not a naive traveller. I had been outside Kenya for work and on holiday; sometimes alone. And I had managed just fine without a man having to facilitate any of my activities. I severely chastised myself for sinking into the armchair comfort of a society of male dominance. I was determined to rely no longer on the organisers for any of my needs. And it was a good thing that I did.

Completely ignorant of where we were going and the plans were for the afternoon (I bitterly reflected that the men on the bus – and the pushy women – were probably familiar with the full itinerary), we meandered down the busy streets of Cairo, jostling for space with cars, people and animals. Angry with myself for having been overly trusting – most especially on the issue of money – I almost missed the first glimpses of the exotic city. Almost. Because Misr is not a city that you can block out even if you are deliberately trying to do exactly that.

I caught glimpses of the city from the bus window which will forever represent the city of Cairo to me. Horse drawn carriages in bustling city streets. A man sitting on the pavement with the first lane of the road covered by his group of hairy brown and white goats. And street vendors selling copper and bronze ornaments which were polished to a gleam: Aladdin lamps, coffee pots, and ornate lanterns that were a throw back to an ancient civilisation.

And from the shiny and historic, to the colourful and fresh. Pedestrians sheltered from the afternoon sun in the shade of a street shop, crowding around fresh juice outlets with their bright liquid reds, green and oranges.

From our elevated height in the bus, I could look down at the passengers hanging out of the windows of their taxis, shouting and gesturing at the cars in front to move faster. Despite the heat, the taxis had their headboards and backboards draped in fluffy sheep blankets: brown and dirty on top where they had been exposed to dirt and sweat, but creamy white and fluffy underneath, with a Quran placed front and centre. Intricate Arabic messages were etched in gold and silver onto small frames and dangled from the rearview mirror.

All the buildings were grey and brown, and seemed even more bland in comparison to the bright sunlight of the afternoon. There wasn’t a burst of colour anywhere except for the Coca Cola tarpaulin and the Vodafone white bead in a red circle.

And through the low whirr of the air conditioner in the bus, I could barely hear the voice of the muezzin as he gargled out the Azaan. Even the clarity of the closing lines La illaha illallah were muffled by the steady pip pip and parp parp symphony of the traffic.

Caught up in my bus-window mediated experiences of the city, I almost didn’t realise that we had arrived at our first stop: Rasul Husain. The pathway to the shrine was crowded with street vendors displaying their wares. Walking single file, careful not to trip on any of their merchadise, I entered into the shrine from a small side door and surrendered my shoes at the makeshift shelves, tucking the token number into my rida pocket. The room before the shrine was filled with women sitting circled on the dirt encrusted carpet with their children in their laps, talking loudly. As we entered, many of them looked up, and in garbled Arabic addressed us as a group that had arrived from India. There was no point insisting we were from Africa – India being the most populous bohra country and as East Africans of Indian origin, we were all boxed into the identity. Others outstretched their hands asking for money.

The door to enter the shrine was at the right and looped around the inside to exit from the left. A small quarter of the shrine was accessible to the women, and we pushed our way in. The small trickle of men freely roamed the remaining three quarter behind the curtain.

I was nervous, unsure of what to do, how to act, and so I stopped at the threshold, next to the wooden doors and just stared. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of dark green velvet. The carpet, the drapes. With the thought that the small crowd gathered around the zari would probably be unforgiving, I quickly rushed in before I lost my nerve, performed the ziyarat from the distance of the metal gate that had been erected all around it, and then looped back out again, staring in awe at the top of the silver zari where pilgrims had thrust torn patches of material and photos of children and family members. I was engulfed by the sounds of wailing and tears, the crush of people, and the sight of a religious monument that I had only seen thus far in photos.

I moved towards the exit doors of the zari, pressed my back against the wood and stared into the room over the heads of the other pilgrims stunned that I was finally there. And then disappointed at myself for not having absorbed the experience deeply enough, I rushed to the entry doors and performed the ziyarat once again.

And then remembering that the bus was scheduled to leave soon, my mother and I went to collect our shoes. She found hers, but I only found one of mine. We searched again for my second shoe. And then again. Checked in the tightly tied Nakumatt, Uchumi and Tusky plastic bags that had remarkably made the journey with us. On the floor. Near the door, Behind the doors. Outside the building. I even glanced at the feet of people leaving. Over and over for nearly fifteen minutes. The stall keeper was very apologetic. He asked for our phone number so that he could send us the second shoe when he found it. Even offered me some scuffed shoes that a previous pilgrim had forgotten. And then finally, unwilling to miss the bus, I walked back to the courtyard and the bus in my black socks with their grey toe and heel sections. The ground was oddly cool; unexposed to the heat of the sun by the footsteps of so many pedestrians.

We headed to the zari of Moulatena Zainab, in the district of Sayeeda Zainab. It was on the main street, and the bus stopped outside two separate entrances: one for men and the other for women. The women’s section was closed for cleaning and so many black burkha women were crowded around the gate to the ladies entrance. When we explained that we were only in Cairo for the afternoon, the female custodian agreed to let us in in small groups. The floor was sloshed with water and the women in my group squeamishly tiptoed in, getting their clean white socks wet and dirty. Like Rasul Hussain, a small section of the zari was sequestered off for the women. One by one we clung toit, and then quickly rushed out again as the custodian gurgled at us in Arabic, tugging at us with one hand and shoving us out the door. The moment between putting my head on the silver knobs, and feeling the pull of the custodian’s hand on my arm was too small and I barely glimpsed past the grill into the shadowy inside.

As the rest of the women scrambled for their shoes, I squelched out of the zari grateful that I was wearing black socks and in a nonchalant manner strolled back onto the bus. My glances out of the bus window from that point on were consumed by when I would be able to buy a replacement pair of shoes. All our luggage was on its way to Iraq, and I definitely would not be able to board an international flight the next morning barefoot.

Dusk was about to fall as we made our way to the third stop in Cairo. Excited words were being whispered around as to what this third stop would be. We climbed off the bus and followed Cairo residents off the main road, under an arch and down a small cobbled alleyway to a beautiful external stone courtyard that had trees and benches. Opposite it was a long meandering stone path with small shops bordering it. It was so at odds with what we had just seen on the main road – traffic and cars blaring – that as people rushed past me into the mosque, I marvelled for a moment that a place like this could exist. A taste of authenticity curtained behind the bustling persona of the cosmopolitan city.

We entered an even larger open courtyard with a domed fountain in the middle and a mosque at the far end. This was Masjid al Anwar. From the fountain in the centre with its little minaret shaped peep holes, water was pouring. Through the fading light, I saw that the structure was made of a burgundy coloured, veined marble. There was a legend around the water from this fountain and we crowded around to drink from it. It says that whoever drinks water from Masjid al Anwar will return again to this land and so gain the blessings of a repeated pilgrimage.

We performed our wudhu, and then rushed into the tall arched mosque for namaz. The green velvet carpets were patterned in preparation for prayers with the repeated points of the minaret, and without asking or hesitating, we took one minaret pattern each for a masallah and said our Maghrib and Isha prayers.

At the main entrance of the Masjid, a simple nikah ceremony was being performed with a groom, his bride and around 5 members from their families. The masjid however seemed to be in a state of rehabilitation with large areas cordoned off, which only served to enhance the beauty of the huge latticed windows high up on the stone walls.

Our prayers completed, we wandered around the courtyard for a while, and then sat on the benches in the outside courtyard. The evening was cool and calm, and the branches of the trees swayed down over us rustling in the evening breeze. A young boy cycled past, his metal bicycle sounding a melodious tune as it jangled against the cobbled stones. Carefully balanced on the back, he carried long loaves of freshly baked bread.

Tired from the afternoon’s activities, we ambled back to the bus and then to the hotel. That evening, we had dinner in the hotel restaurant – nowhere near as enjoyable as the lunch we had enjoyed at the Faiz – and then on our last evening in Egypt, four of us took a taxi to the night markets of Cairo to buy some gifts. Mum and I had already bought some for M***** and Mustafa from the hotel gift shop so it was more about seeing the city, and most importantly, finding a pair of shoes for me.

There was a delightful engagement party taking place in the foyer of the hotel as we left. A young couple with the bride in an ice blue sheath dress and the groom in a matching ice blue tie with dark suit. There were cymbals and drums, and clapping and dancing as the families of both crowded around them to celebrate their nuptials. Very different from the subdued wedding ceremony we had seen at the Masjid less than an hour ago, but no less poignant or sweet.

That evening, I continued to walk barefoot in the streets of Cairo until I found a shop that sold flat shoes which I could wear to the other zaris we were to visit during our pilgrimage.

A final bitter moment marred that evening for us. Our taxi driver confused Hotel Triumph with Triumph Street in Cairo, and when corrected, insisted on charging us 15 instead of 5 egyptian dollars. But we reached the hotel in one piece, were convinced by the hotel porter to pay the taxi driver his due and suppress our instinctive Kenyan desire to fight it out and create a scene. We shuffled into our rooms, my new shoes slippery on the marble tiled floor of the reception, only stopping to ask for a wake up call. We would be leaving for Iraq in the morning.

I lay in bed, drifting into sleep, processing the busy day with its overwhelming assault on my senses.

October 15 2011

One of the masjids we passed on the way to Rasul Hussain, Misr
Rasul Hussain, Misr
Larger than life arches at Masjid al Anwar
Latticed windows at Masjid al Anwar
The patterned carpet at Masjid al Anwar
The legendary fountain at Masjid al Anwar
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