Strange journeys home
By Khaled Diab
Intense is the word that most
readily comes to mind whenever I touch down in
Arriving from the orderly calm of
People who dwell for most of the time in the private lanes and cul-de-sacs of memory, as disembodied voices down a telephone line, or as personalities made up of a combination of characters on a computer screen suddenly leap into vivid life for a week or two of intense socialising.
My presence in the city is a good pretext for large family reunions which would normally not take place owing to how busy everyone is. The mirth, laughter and voluble good humour at these get-togethers are very therapeutic. The art of sound is something at which Egyptians excel, and a group of socialising Egyptians can move from 0 to 100 decibels in about five seconds, and without the catalyst of alcohol.
Despite the familiarity of the faces and surroundings, there is the inevitable sense of being a relative stranger that years of absence create. Although it highlights the best aspects of the different worlds I occupy, being home also throws into relief the fault lines between my various existences.
Even though my maternal family are very tolerant and great respecters of individual choice, there is a general sense among my kin that I am the wayward prodigal son who has lost his way even more in foreign lands. The general consensus is that Iím a good and decent man, but my lack of faith is troubling some members of the family.
The most open demonstration of
this was two years ago, when we visited
One uncle who had never talked to me about religion decided to break his silence and advised me to come to terms with my faith and suggested that it was best for me to start moving closer to God, because faith and ritual was the only sure-fire way to overcome the doubts plaguing my conscience.
Despite his good intentions, this circular logic struck me as being incredibly paradoxical. How can my doubting mind take a massive leap of faith without being presented with convincing evidence of why it should believe? After all, I have tried at different periods of my life to follow some of the rituals, such as fasting Ramadan, but the questions only multiplied.
In private, my wife Katleen, who has a large fan club among my relatives, jested that my family must feel that my being married to her had corrupted me. I told her not to worry because my family knew I was a hopeless case long before Iíd met her Ė and perhaps when I was still living in Egypt, they still held out hope that I would Ďreformí and see the light.
The luxury of distance and the
fact that my mother is very open minded mean that I have it much easier than
many other non-believers living in
Faced with this epic spiritual struggle and the cloak of resurgent religion, tradition and conservatism that is increasingly stifling Egyptian society, we would take late night refuge, and a different kind of spiritual sustenance with friends, in one of Cairoís many watering holes.
Ironically perhaps, the
increasingly visible expressions of faith, including hijabs
and regulation beards, have been accompanied by more visible expressions of the
contrary, such as the mushrooming of alcohol consumption. Every time we visit
Fortunately, for the most part, my latest visit was a far more chilled-out affair, with most of my family having sensibly decided that there was little point in dwelling over my lack of faith.
However, my most religious aunt, with whom I enjoy excellent rapport, could not help herself. Torn between not wanting to hurt her feelings, being as honest as possible and not getting her hopes up, I admitted to her that many aspects of Islam conflicted with my rationality and all the available evidence pointed to the fact that all religions were man-made, imperfect and not divine. The look of melancholy and disappointment on her face left me troubled for some time.
I have pondered long and hard how
much more religious and conservative Egyptian society is actually becoming, and
why. At one level, it is fuelled by the politics of fear that have fed the
Christian right in the
While the ostensible signs would
point towards spreading religiosity in
On a personal level, I may get
What seems pretty certain is that
Aside from the metaphysical,
Many Egyptians are making
salaries that were previously undreamt of except for those who worked abroad.
In fact, some of my friends are making more in absolute terms in
Not being a very material man, the spread of mall culture among the Egyptian middle classes is one unfortunate side effect of this increasing wealth. Another far more troubling aspect is the growing economic disparity between the haves and have-nots in this neo-liberalist wet dream.
I cannot help but wonder how much longer the largely passive and peaceable Egyptian poor will put up with their worsening lot before the pressure cooker explodes. With the wave of industrial action overtaking the country, it looks like Egyptian workers are beginning to take matters into their own hands.
Another worrying development is
how the wealthier classes are increasingly abandoning the urban disaster area
of the capital and moving out in droves to exclusive gated communities outside
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimitedís Comment is Free section on 3 January 2008. Read the related discussion.
„2008 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.