View from Salahuddin's Citadel, Old Cairo
by Qaahira Capricious
Once again I find myself in an airplane speeding towards a new home, memories and countries left behind and the unknown stretching ahead like the wide expanse of the night sky. From my window the city of New York is a dazzling array of a million tiny lights spread on a blanket of black. As we ascend into the sky I see the distinct outline of the Empire State Building, the red light at her top winking at me slowly, and the other skyrise buildings that make up the world’s most famous skyline. I spot a long bridge of lights seated over a river of darkness, and then the lights become more scattered and it’s clear we’ve moved away from the city proper.
I lean back and stretch my legs and marvel at my ability to do so. I am enjoying the unexpected luxury of flying first class. From my first-time observations it seems to me that its benefits can be summarized as the following: 1. actual space for your legs, 2. an almost overly-solicitous flight attendant, and 3. alcohol, lots of alcohol. Suffice it to say that we were the only ones who ordered juice and water on our journey (and not margaritas, white wine, red wine, lager, or any of the other new vocabulary words I learned), and were perhaps the only ones of that class of passenger who had to find a more natural means of relaxing in travel.
We left Cairo in a rush of packed boxes and last minute goodbyes. My mother-in-law had been critically ill for some time, but its really serious effects had not manifested themselves until more recently. My husband was torn: We had finally settled, after some hectic months, into a comfortable apartment, made connections and friends, and had begun our studies seriously. What to do when your passion and dreams lay on one side of the ocean, and your family in need on the other? A shaykh pointed us in the right direction, confirming the decision we already knew we had to make: This ‘ilm was made for realizing and acting upon in our relationship with others. The purpose of studying Arabic/Islam was not to simply learn about ‘haal’ and ‘tameez’, but to change one’s own haal [state], and to make tameez [distinction] of one’s self in Allah’s sight by being in the khidmah [service] of those closest to you. What is the benefit of this knowledge if one is not affected by it personally for the better, and doesn’t use it to benefit those around them?
We booked our tickets for travel in five days. This was the first difficulty that surprisingly came with ease. A verse in the Quran, repeated twice in Surah Al-Sharh, couples them together: “Inna ma’al usri yusraa” [Indeed with difficulty there is relief/ease]. The conjunction “ma’a” [with] here is interesting linguistically because it does not indicate that one comes after the other, but simply that they are joined together. Perhaps at the same time you have a trial or tribulation in your life, you may encounter something that brings relief; or it may be that the trial itself, when looked at from a different angle or perspective that can actually be considered a type of comfort.
My studies had been seriously curbed by my new role as ‘Momma’ but being in Cairo and around other students of knowledge still gave me access to a few classes and at least that culture of talab al-’ilm which I had become accustomed to. Now we had to put a hold on our studies, pack up an apartment and find a place for our remaining things, and prepare to travel back to the US indefinitely, on such short notice.
It was strange that at this time I actually felt a deep sense of calm, that upon reflection I feel must have been a gift from Allah ta’ala. Everything came together so easily in those few days, due in large part to the sisters there who came forward and were so generous with their time and efforts to help me. Some came to play with and watch my baby son, help pack and label boxes, and even cook for us. I could only feel gratitude for the small community of sorts of Westerners there studying and the kindness I have seen from them on so many occasions that cannot be repaid.
After a relatively smooth flight, we got off the plane in a cold and icy New York to find two men in uniform checking the passports of all the exiting passengers. When they got to my husband’s they gave each other a nod and one said to the other ‘This is the one.’ Ya Allah! My husband and I looked at each other and he said to me, ‘Hmm, that’s probably not a good sign.’ I suppose it was just our turn, seeing as most of the other Muslims we know, especially those who travel overseas to study, are already familiar with this experience. They took us to the office for Homeland Security in the airport and proceeded to ask my husband a number of questions and go through our luggage. The luggage search would have been amusing if it wasn’t so nerve-wracking. My husband packs like a true student (books, books, books, and oh yeah a pair of pants), while the officer obviously did not know Arabic, and ended up asking what this or that book was about, and glanced through a text of fiqh upside down. I was almost put out by how little interest they had in me (Hey I was studying too!?) and seeing the other officers interaction with other ‘suspects’ was almost sitcom material. I remember distinctly one officer with a heavy New York accent asking a well-dressed, non-English speaking latino man about making a phone call, “Here, why don’t you g’ahead and call sumbody… you know… some of your amigos? familia?” which I think was a demonstration of the extent of his Spanish vocabulary. (It’s scary really that these types of investigations take place when there is a langage barrier and what seems like no translators.)
While all this was occuring, I was busy trying to keep my son, already tired from travel, occupied. We went for a walk around the luggage area, and the stillness and quiet of the usually bustling airport was almost eerie. Taking a look at the ‘Arrival’ and ‘Departure’ screens showed a long list of cancelled flights, with ours included, due to the ice and severe winds. Only a handful of passengers remained in the airport, walking here or there, while the few employees on duty lounged together in corners, chatting and drinking coffee to fight off the bitter cold.
When they were finished we went to the check-in counter for our airline and found another passenger arguing with the man behind the counter. “We don’t provide hotels when a flight is cancelled due to the weather. I can’t help you. Sorry.” I assumed that we would receive a similar response, but they must have been sympathetic with the weary-looking couple approaching them with a cranky baby. They offered us a nice hotel room for the night, as well as upgrading our tickets to first class for our continuing travel the next day. Another hardship, another ease, and as I studied the snow-covered city from the window of our shuttle to the hotel, I could only think, this is a lesson Allah is trying to teach me.
I’m surrounded by sleepers, my husband leaning back in his seat, my son curled in my arms, the lights of the cabin dim and the outside world dark. My mind is busy trying to make sense of the things that have occured and what lies ahead of us. This lesson I have learned resonates inside me. I wonder how many challenges and difficulties I’ve faced in life, seeing only the bleakness of hardship while completely missing the ‘yusraa’ that Allah had coupled with it? How many failures had I endured with patience, when one who ‘knows’ would have been in shukr [gratitude] for the khayr folded inside of it? SubhanAllah, how many intricate layers to this epic called life, and how many things we overlook because of occupied hearts and minds… May Allah make us those who see and reflect and understand. Ameen.