Trip of faith takes skeptical turn
Friday morning came, and the broad-shouldered young African American made his way to the sedated city’s ancient quarters. He walked the streets with the determined gait of a football receiver to Al Azhar Mosque, arriving just as the muezzin’s call to prayer summoned the faithful.
Suddenly, the outgoing Californian ceased his banter and gaped, awestruck, at the intricately carved minarets reaching for the heavens, the browns, reds, greens and blues interwoven into masterful calligraphy.
Salahudin Ali was a long way from the drab office buildings used as mosques in the Bay Area, where he grew up, or the small student lounge he and his friends used as a prayer room at college in Oregon.
“You just get kind of shy,” he said. “It’s like being around a very pretty girl. You almost blush if you look.”
This summer, the 22-year-old Portland State University pre-law student pursued a years-long dream. The young Muslim traveled to Cairo to broaden his understanding of his faith, following the path forged by Malcolm X, whose thinking about race relations changed after he visited Egypt and other parts of the Mideast and Africa.
At first, his voyage of discovery was a thrill ride. He was welcomed by Egyptians ecstatic to find not only an American-born Muslim, but one named after one of Islam’s greatest heroes: Salahudin, the warrior who pushed the Crusaders out of Jerusalem and raised a hilltop fortress in this very city.
But Ali brought his American tendency for criticism and skepticism to a part of the world that values obedience and cohesion above all. He challenged much of what he saw, and ultimately he found himself uncomfortable in the heart of the Muslim world.
“This place went from like cool to weird in the last week,” Ali said in the days before he left. “I’m ready to get back home. I’m kind of tired right now.”
Ali wasn’t born into a Muslim family. He lived with his mother in the rough East Bay city of Vallejo until he was 9. When a SWAT team raided the home of his baby-sitter and found drugs, Ali’s no-nonsense father, a career airman, took him and his twin brother to Travis Air Force Base, where he and his own brother, Andre, were stationed.
Uncle Andre exposed Ali and his brother, Mika’il, to the faith that both formally adopted as adults, a faith Ali said he felt drawn to because of its diverse adherents and commitment to justice.
Ali changed his name from Anthony Thompson two years ago, Mika’il from Vincent Thompson. Both played football at New Mexico State University before transferring to Portland State.
Cultural and class differences have long formed a barrier between African American Muslims and immigrant believers as well as within the black community between the Nation of Islam and those practicing mainstream Sunni Islam.
But Ali belongs to a new group of African American Muslims who have encountered few such obstacles. In California and in college, he counts Arabs, South Asians and Iranians among his closest friends.
“In college we’re all one big group,” he said. “In the mosque we’re all together. Where I come from, there’s no, ‘that’s the black mosque and that’s the Pakistani mosque.’ ”
Often under the tutelage of liberal-minded clerics, he was also encouraged to question the Koran and its teachings. He found himself leery of the ways of coreligionists with roots abroad, especially the older generation. Often, he said, they tried to impose their own cultural habits as religion.
“They say a tattoo is haram,” or sinful, he said. “Why? Where is that in the Koran? They say, ‘Well, the prophet never had tattoos.’ I say, ‘Oh, do you drive a car? Did the prophet drive a car? I don’t see you riding around on no camel.’ ”
For years he’d dreamed of visiting the Middle East, where Islam was born. He saved up money and ignored the dire warnings of relatives who said it was too dangerous. His wife, Misty, a native of Guam who converted to Islam before they married, encouraged him to go.
“She was sick of hearing me talking about it,” he said.
In early July, he flew to Cairo via Los Angeles and Moscow on a grueling 50-hour journey aboard the Russian airline Aeroflot and enrolled in Arabic classes at one of the city’s language schools.
“Man,” he said, arriving for the start of classes. “I woke up this morning to the call to prayer today for the first time in my life.”
He found a rundown hotel before moving into a cheap apartment with some friends from the Arabic classes. He bought a $1 pair of sunglasses from a street vendor and a 10-cent knit prayer cap from a mosque.
During prayers he was overwhelmed by the sight of the faithful spilling out into the street with their colorful rugs.
“I’ve never seen so many Muslims in one place,” he said. “Here everything stops at prayer time. You feel good.”
He reported his discoveries in e-mails to friends and relatives.
“The funny thing that happens is whenever I say my name people go crazy,” he wrote in one dispatch. “They give me, like, free stuff, and lower prices than my counterparts.”
Mostly, he found confirmation of what he’d been told by his Middle Eastern friends back home: that despite the supercharged politics between America and the Muslim world, the distance between daily life in the two places wasn’t as vast as most people thought.
Ali shopped for headphones at a Radio Shack, bought towels from a department store, listened to a DJ spin records inside the old souk.
He made new friends, shared jokes with cabbies, munched on fast food and fought repeatedly with the hotel manager who tried to rid him of his money, even after hotel workers swiped his beloved iPod.
He was surprised by Cairo’s nightlife, which stretched until the dawn call-to-prayers. He chuckled at scenes of women in colorful Islamic head scarves cuddling up with their boyfriends or young hipsters in aviator glasses listening to hip-hop star Lil Jon in their sports cars.
To his surprise, he found his Egyptian friends more eager to drag him to the new shopping malls built in the suburbs of Cairo than to proselytize about Islam.
But Ali preferred to spend time studying Arabic or for the Law School Admission Test, or else visiting old mosques and the city’s ancient quarters.
“They have more fun here than we do,” he said, surprised by how libertine Cairo’s ways differed from the stereotypical image of austere life in the Middle Eastern nations of the Persian Gulf. “There are couples walking around, out on dates and holding hands over the Nile. I expected the Middle East was going to be way more strict. I thought the men and women aren’t going to be touching. All that stuff is crap.”
But the petty ways some Egyptians viewed the faith he reveres rattled Ali. Once, he got into a cab with a driver who demanded he prove that he was a Muslim by reciting the fatiha, the opening chapter of the Koran.
“For what?” Ali asked.
“I want to see if you’re really a Muslim,” the driver told him. “Recite the fatiha.”
The driver flustered him. As if the measure of a good Muslim was how well he had memorized the Koran.
“You recite it for me,” Ali demanded. “I want to see if you’re a Muslim!”
After five weeks in the Middle East, he realized he was far more comfortable with the hyphenated American Muslims back home than with those here.
He yearned to head back to the Portland campus for Ramadan. He and his fellow Muslim students are organizing their second annual holiday “fast-a-thon”: Non-Muslims can join in the traditional dawn-to-dusk abstention from food and drink.
“There’s a reason why they’re over there and not here,” he said. “They’re really the best and the brightest.”
Still, he vowed to take in as many sights as he could. He visited the Pyramids of Giza and attended prayers at ornate mosques as well as tiny prayer rooms more like apartments than houses of worship.
His eyes teared at the recitation during his first Friday prayer in the Middle East in a dingy one-room mosque. “In time, verily, mankind is lost,” the preacher recited from the Koran, “except for those who abide by the faith, do good deeds and practice patience.”
As his Arabic improved, he talked with people around Cairo and was touched by the simple hopes of impoverished Egyptians struggling to wriggle free of poverty and hardship.
“You meet these ordinary people with these little lives, and they’re like, ‘Inshallah, life will be better,’ ” he said, using the Arabic for “God willing.”
But the highlight of his trip was the visit to Al Azhar, which he calls the Harvard of the Muslim world.
Inside the courtyard, the men took their positions on their prayer rugs. The women waited in a room inside the mosque, separated from the men by a wooden screen. Boys crowded around the water coolers as volunteers crushed huge slabs of ice.
Ali shook off the magic and hurried to the basins of water for the ritualistic washing before prayer. As he walked back toward the courtyard he heard a voice speak to him with a crisp American accent.
“Salam aleikum, bro’,” the man called to him, using a customary Arabic greeting, meaning “peace be upon you.”
It was another African American Muslim, dressed in a blue-and-white striped polo shirt.
They smiled knowingly at each other.
“We both had this, ‘Wow, we’re at Al Azhar’ look on our faces.”