Cairo is difficult to palate. We’re the second St. Olaf group that’s been here in the last three months, so I feel destined to have a pre-digested experience. What a sensation it was, when the Global Semester group stopped in Istanbul on their way to Cairo, to take them to our favorite restaurants and guide them to choice rooftop cafés. Here, as the recommendations we’ve eagerly solicited from the Global students pour into our email inboxes, I can’t help but feel like the path through Egypt has been finely beaten for me.
One of the things I appreciated most about Istanbul was my freedom. After class in the morning and afternoon on most days, I relaxed by running on the track, clicking around on Al Jazeera, or sipping tea at a neighborhood café before a nightly venture into the city for dinner. This independence all but disappeared when I was thrust into life with a Moroccan host family. I discovered how much I relied on my peers for daily support and entertainment but simultaneously felt obliged to spent as much time as possible at home. Moreover, in Istanbul, Islam is a way of articulating urban life that is as intelligible yet distinct as English spoken with a foreign accent. In Morocco, when we sacrificed a sheep in the name of God and my family members congregated in the living room to prostrate, it became clear that Islam was conceived of in a cultural language I simply don’t speak.
Thus, I arrived in Egypt disoriented. Is Islam consistent with modernity, urbanity, secularism? We’ve learned that in both Turkey and Morocco, Islamist political parties have risen to prominence through democratic channels and catalyzed much-needed development, but both countries have come to crucial crossroads regarding the rights of ethnic groups, women, and religious minorities. Different interpretations of Islam, like different interpretations of Christianity or Hinduism, mandate paradoxically disparate ways forward for these countries. Is there a way for the needs of modern people (especially youth, the largest demographic group in Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt) and the demands of internationally recognized standards of human rights to be re-imagined from an indigenous Islamic perspective?
Egypt, and the rapid changes it is undergoing, may help us answer this question. Cairo is both staunchly modern and profoundly religious. Here, billboards advertising cell phone services perch near the most revered center of Sunni Islamic scholarship in the world, the millennium-old Al-Azhar Institute. Pharmacies proudly offer Viagra and condoms in a city where it’s not uncommon to see a woman so pious she is completely covered save a thin strip of skin, the bridge of a hidden nose tucked between dark eyes. It’s tempting to write off such contradictions as a “clash of civilizations,” the impingement of modern needs on centuries-old ways of life. But more likely, there is something elusively coherent about the Cairene identity, harmony between the forces shaping Egypt’s past and the currents defining it today. Critical to understanding how Egypt will succeed or fail to move forward is learning to see from this intersection.
The remaining days of our semester sift almost imperceptibly beneath us. Something like 38 or 37 nights (you have to ask Mike for an accurate count) remain until we return home. But despite the reality of this inevitable closing, the impending wrapping-up, I feel like our semester is beginning to open in a new way. Istanbul gave us the tools to navigate a supercity and see to the core of political Islam; Morocco opened our eyes to the nuances of religion as it relates to society and culture. These frameworks enable us to approach Cairo confident and curious, and regardless of who came before us, Egypt is looking to be our best experience yet.