Thursday, January 20, 2005

Song And Prayer

Girl with a drum
Girl with a drum, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I woke this morning at about 7 am to a sound that I haven't heard for years. Softly in the distance men and boys were chanting "Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. La illaha il Allah." God is Great. God is Great. There is no god but God. As I lay in bed with rat terriers keeping my chilly feet warm, I smiled at the sunny morning and the memories this chant brought back.

Yesterday was a busy day for me. I had a first time client come to me for a ride in the area to check it out prior to bringing a British visitor later this spring. He's not a rider, so I put him on my schoolmaster, Bunduq, and showed him around the area while we chatted about the vagaries of introducing someone to Egypt. Once I finished with that, I went to visit some local stables and bought a new mare for my work string. Having finished that, I stopped off at my house to feed the menagerie and for a quick cheese sandwich with Morad before giving him a ride to Abu Rawash to take an eideya (a money gift for someone on a special occasion). His Jeep Wrangler has no top and it was cloudy, cold and moving on into evening, so my Jeep with windows and a heater was a good idea. Besides I needed to stop in Nazlit Semman to buy corn for birds on the way back.

We visited the home of Morad's uncle Magdy's best friend, Salah Abdel Hafez, who passed away before Magdy leaving his housekeeper and her family in the care of Magdy's family. Samiha's grandmother had been brought to Egypt at the end of the past century from the borders of Ethiopia as a slave along with others to work the farms of Magdy and Salah's family in Minya. Over time, all of the slaves were given their freedom and land, so now next to the owning family's land, is Ezbat el Abdeen...the farms of the slaves. Samiha's mother had gone to work as a housekeeper for Salah who moved to Cairo, so Samiha grew up in Salah's home in Abu Rawash and was the person who cared for him in his old age, sickness, and whose husband washed the old man when he died at home. He'd married once when young, divorced without children and lived alone all his life under Samiha's watchful eye. Before his death, he wrote a legal document with Morad's mother, who is a lawyer, leaving Magdy to administer and protect Samiha's right to live in the house that she'd built on the land behind Salah's home for the rest of her life. The land was inherited by his nephews and Magdy's family has had to work a bit to protect Samiha and her family. She's a lovely woman, obviously not Egyptian, who sent us back with a pile of home-baked bread, fresh cut spinach, coriander, parsley, and two stalks of the best sugar cane.
I was honored to meet this woman who still keeps the eccentric old house of Salah clean although no one lives in it anymore.

After Samiha, Morad and I stopped by one of my neighbours for a cup of tea that ended up being an evening meal. Saber is building Morad's house and will build mine. He's a very intelligent man who's never attended university, but he manages a huge nursery and learned construction working with his uncle, our omda Haj Abdou. Over braised veal, rice and a tomato salad, Saber told me that in the morning all the men and boys from this particular area would be following an old custom for the Eid prayer, the early morning prayer. They would leave their homes and walk up to the area of the tombs near Abu Sir village, just under the brow of the hill of the Sakkara complex, to pray in the desert near the tombs of their ancestors. Men from the area had been preparing the desert for the past day, and in the morning the sun would shine on hundreds of men and boys performing the Eid prayers on the sand beside the tombs. According to Saber, this is the right way to perform these prayers, with one's ancestors, under the sky. As he put it, "mish makshouf" without shyness.

This was the chant that I heard this morning, a chant I have not heard since about 1991, when we were living in Alexandria. I woke early in the morning on the Eid that day to hear a murmuring in the streets outside our villa walls. Gradually the murmuring became louder until it was a musical chant whose words I could clearly make out. I had no idea what the noise could be about, but there seemed to be no concern from my sleepy husband, so I went to the window where I looked out to see the streets full of men and boys in fresh white galabeyas marching through the streets chanting on their way to prayer. We were lucky in that villa to live near an important mosque in the area who had a muezzin with the most lovely voice I've ever heard and the attendance for Eid prayer was enormous.

I believe that St. Augustine said that to sing is to pray twice. He came from North Africa and must have heard these chants in his childhood because double prayer blessed my morning.


Anonymous said...

Just popped in to say a belated "Eid Mubarak!" As a Canadian ex-pat living in Qatar, I can relate to much of what you have described here, but want to thank you for the delightfully creative desription of your experience. There is a haunting beauty in the prayers that echo from mosque to mosque, that seem to hang in the pre-dawn darkness as a reminder to all of us that God, indeed, is great. Even more poignant, sometimes,the re-enactment of traditions as you have described ... thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you get this all the time, but you really are an amazing writer! I'm in a taxi going to the Samsung fab right now, reading this off of my laptop. I can see completely the both the scene in Alex and in Abu Sir. For the few minutes of this ride through the Korean countryside, I can let my imagination wander back to a familiar place, though I've only been a few times in my life. It reminds me that there are different places and ways of life than here, and I feel really lucky to have seen them.

Thank you for taking the time to share this one with us!


Ronnie Smartt said...

Nice thought about Augustine, though he was a bit early perhaps for Mohammed. RGS