My journey to Egypt was the first time I had ever set foot in an Islamic country, and because I had recently become a Muslim, I went there with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Would it live up to my expectations or was I in for a horrible let-down? Arabs are famous for their generosity and hospitality, but I’d also been told scare-stories of tourists who’d been duped into being parted with their money. I travelled with two brothers: one Malaysian and one Filipino.
We were greeted at Cairo airport by two Yemeni brothers, who we had been put in contact with through a mutual friend. Even though they had never met us before, they picked us up and took us to an apartment which they had found for us which was spacious, clean, centrally located, very cheap and, most importantly, air-conditioned!
The brothers also kindly helped us navigate our way round the huge, mazy metropolis during our five-day stay.
City of a Thousand Minarets
Because we arrived quite late at night, it wasn’t long before the first calls of ‘Allahu Akbar’ echoed around the streets for Fajr prayer. This was the first time I had heard the azan properly and it was a truly mesmerising experience.
I had heard the call-to-prayer many times in mosques in Britain, but this felt like a world away from rain and fish ‘n’ chips. One azan started up at a nearby mosque, then another from a street away. Then more and more azans could be heard from every direction, every time ‘Allahu Akbar’ – ‘God is Great’ – was called, the volume level was increased further.
Cairo really is the ‘City of a Thousand Minarets’. What a magnificent way to be introduced to Egypt! How could someone ever miss Fajr prayer with this to awaken them every morning?
Cairo is more than just a city. The 14th Century traveller Ibn Batutta referred to it as ‘The Mother of all Cities’ and it is easy to understand why. Not only is it the biggest metropolis in all of Africa, with a staggering population of eighteen million, it also has a rich and diverse history.
The area that is now Cairo encompasses the ancient Egyptian settlements of Memphis, Heliopolis and Saqqara. The streets are narrow, and crowded; the traffic noisy, smelly and constant (and also mildly terrifying). As we walked through the Khan-al-Khalili bazaar we were greeted with huge smiles and broken English. When I told one stall-owner where I came from he replied, “London? Lover-ly Jubbly!” Wherever we went we were offered tea and made to feel most welcome. So the fabled Arab-hospitality was not a myth.
It is true that some of the friendliness was channelled into presenting us with a selection of artefacts and keep-sakes (AKA useless tat) that were for sale, but there was no aggressive marketing and we never felt under any pressure to spend our money if we didn’t want to. I felt absolutely safe throughout my time in Egypt, if someone was to threaten or rob us, I’m sure everyone nearby would try to catch them and make sure we were ok.
People’s reactions to discovering that I was a Muslim ranged from ‘delight’ to ‘utmost delight’, and I had to be careful not to exploit this in order to try to get free gifts or large discounts.
No visit to Egypt would be complete without seeing the Pyramids; the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. I got the obligatory photograph of me in front of them whilst riding a camel, and we all had a great time in amazement at how incredibly huge the Pyramids are, and by making jokes such as:
“The Sphinx has no nose,”
“How does it smell?”
Our time in Cairo was full of fantastic experiences, which unfortunately this article does not allow space for, but needless to say someone could spend months there and still only experience a fraction of what Cairo has to offer. Next, we set off on a long (very, very long) coach ride to the horribly tacky and commercialised Sharm-al-Sheikh resort which is on the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula. This was to be the base from which I would get to the other highlight of my Egyptian expedition.
Mount Sinai is where Prophet Musa [Moses] (as) received his Revelation from Allah (swt), the Taurat (Torah). It is extremely remote; miles and miles from any town or village, in the middle of a mountain range which itself is in a desert. Getting out of the car, the first thing that struck me were the stars.
Growing up in the city I rarely get to see one star, and even in the countryside in Britain there are not very many because you’re never far away from a town. But here was different: thousands and thousands of them, and even dozens of shooting stars, it was almost too much for my eyes to take. I was reminded of the Holy Qur’an when it says:
“[Allah,] who has created the seven heavens one above the other; you can see no fault in the creation of the Most Gracious. Then look again: Can you see any rifts? Then look again and yet again: your sight will return to you in a state of humiliation and worn out.” (Qur’an 67:3-4)
We arrived at about midnight, and were guided towards the summit by one of the Bedouin who makes his living taking visitors up the uneven, rocky path night after night in a pair of battered sandals. We only had a small torch to guide us, so we were as-yet unaware of the unique beauty that was surrounding us.
After an hour or so we stopped for a short break, and as my heartbeat and breathing returned to normal, I realised that for possibly the first time in my life I was experiencing complete and utter silence. No buzz of a fly or scratch of a cricket. Not even a single whistle of the wind. There were no trees or plants here, only rocks and more rocks. We set off again, hoping that we would reach the top before the sun began to rise.
At the top there is a tiny encampment of semi-permanent buildings, a church and a mosque. The locals offered us tea and blankets, as it was now rather cold. A young Bedouin asked me to show him my mobile phone, and he seemed fascinated in it. I sat back, wondering what he, from a traditional and ancient nomadic culture, must think of all these foreigners with their strange contraptions. Then he put his hand in his pocket to pull out his phone and started to compare our ringtones! It does beg the question of how he charges the battery, or whether he gets any reception on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. But by now I was beginning to realise that many things in Egypt choose not to follow logic or reason.
The time for Fajr arrived, and after prayer I found a comfortable-looking boulder on which to sit and wait. It was now beginning to get light enough to realise that I was on the edge of a very high, very steep cliff. I gulped and grabbed the boulder ever-so-slightly tighter than before. As the sun poked its head over the horizon, I realised that Allah (swt) has created so much beauty for us, and no amount of praise or thanks would ever be enough to give Him what He is due. His creation is literally stunning. His Power and Majesty was there to see in front of my eyes.
Mere words do not do justice to the feeling that I had that morning. The sun rises over every person, every day, but before I was a Muslim I had never even been awake at this time of the morning, so was unaware of this work of art that is free for all of us to experience every day.
The journey down was fast and it felt like I was almost dreaming. This was because of a combination of what I had just seen, sleep-deprivation and the high altitude. But I still managed to get many photos of the unique mountain range which I had previously climbed in darkness. I left Sinai with a heavy heart, and I hope that one day I can return, insha’Allah.
I had been told that in Egypt I may experience a culture shock, but this was only evident once I had returned to Britain. Suddenly it was again a crime to make eye-contact or smile at a stranger, and people would only approach you if they wanted something from you, not if they had something for you. My Egyptian experience left me hungry for more adventure, and increased me in iman and gratefulness to Allah (swt).