In true gap yah fashion, I have had a fair few memories of moments on my travels (yah I kneuw, pretty lean. I was seu high, Boatros and me were doing some serious doob. Haha, MATE. etc.) when I was struck with an overwhelming sense of doubt as to the accuracy of the formation of my own cultural and historical ideas, and perhaps specifically a sense that my own knowledge was just suddenly so lacking. A rare moment indeed, when my surroundings caused a total dearth of the usual flood of sheer liquid nonsense normally unleashed on the unsuspecting world when I open my mouth to say something. Thing is, my brain normally expresses these notions a wee bit more lucidly than that.
This was what I thought, though, as we had just felt the need to blag our garrulous Copt taxi driver down the equivalent of about 20p on the agreed fare across the morbidly congested centre of Cairo and crossed Midan ‘ataba, past which no four-wheeled vehicles might venture, heading for the deep, black pudding and whisky-free bowels of mediaeval Islamic Cairo. ‘Hāzā Muskī?,’ I asked, in my inquisitive Levantine, of an eight year old boy carrying his weight in sheep’s brains, and as he confirmed my suspicions with a brusque ‘Ah’ we vanished into an altogether different world.
All of a sudden those confused thoughts which I was just confusedly trying to express came to the fore in my mind filled with confusion as we walked through this tiny street utterly saturated with humanity. Hijabs were everywhere, and not a single woman’s hair could be seen. Vendors hawked their cheap clothes and shoes. Raw sewage flowed liberally under our dusty boat shoes (yah mate, SEU fierce). The air was thick even here with that grotesque and quintessentially Cairene smog. Then, all of a sudden, just to make the moment, our nearest muʾaḏḏin called out ẓuhr – and all of a sudden in turn Halim’s dulcet tones faded from radios, yielding to that ubiquitous creed. God is the greatest indeed, it seemed.
I sit here now scoffing a bacon roll with broon sauce and think back to that most unusual Wednesday morning two months ago and wonder how it is that places and cultures can be so different. But we should dwell instead, though, on how super cool I am for being a bridge between these and being able to get by in and understand that other world of them Saracen and Mohammedan types.
Al-Azhar, though. Let’s see that picture again.
The great mosque-university was one of our first destinations and certainly our most crucial that day, and the oldest continuously functioning university in the world certainly didn’t disappoint. ‘This was the centre,’ I asserted, much as I had in the awe-inspiring Umayyad Mosque in Damascus: the centre, this time that is, of Shia learning, indeed of some of the most distinguished scholarly and literary achievements of the mediaeval world. When the Fatimids first established Cairo as it’s called today, named (‘the victorious city’) after their triumph in war, and first built this institution, I wonder if they knew that they were creating one of the most intellectually outstanding places ever to have existed, and one of the most mind-bogglingly replete with history in every tiny aspect of its architecture and involvement in the lives of so many historical figures. Everyone who’s anyone in mediaeval Islam seems to have a named qibla in al-Azhar.
I’ll spare you a whole blog about al-Azhar, though (or maybe that was why you were here in the first place, cock in hand). But the whole place is so astonishingly replete with stories. Stories of thought, as so many thousands of students have walked before us through these lazy colonnades; stories of filial piety, as Caliphs’ sons sought to inter their predecessors in this great centre of learning; stories of adventure, as Ibn Baṭūṭa himself had stayed here studying on his lengthy travels, which took him from the Atlantic to China and Indonesia in the high middle ages. But now it’s so quiet: somehow, incredibly, the masonry, the atmosphere and the wizened scholars, contemplating the finer points of Qur’anic exegesis, seem to absorb even the cacophony of car horns from the nearby ring road and bawling vendors just outside the mosque itself.
After seeing numerous mosques no less worthy of comment but less immediately famous and historically influential, we thought to stop for a nargileh and some coffee. Just off the square containing Hosayn’s mosque we sat outside, smoked and chilled out. I thought back most immediately to when I sat in rather similar circumstances outside the citadel of Aleppo one similar Autumn day in 2009, and my thoughts at both times had been based around some unstructured notion of how desirable it would be for this ancient city and her culture somehow to involve and integrate me to the fullest, completely imbibing my spirit and mind, transcendentally subsuming me entirely. Then the headache kicked in and I realised I’d had enough tokes on the water pipe.
We came out of the old city and took a taxi to the bus station in order to book our journey to Luxor. A few minutes after stepping in the car, we were all of a sudden returned to the real world of a modern metropolis, stuck in a traffic jam extending as far as the eye could see in both directions. As car engines went off, however, and with the futility of honking horns evident to all, silence descended: that same silence I relished in al-Azhar. But a few minutes passed, and suddenly all was go again, and drivers resumed their horrifyingly dangerous sprints of interspatial exertion, probably to cafes where they would sit for hours over loose leaf tea and thirty cigarettes. Cairenes seem to be all for these extremes: the city is alternately a feast and a famine of being lurched frighteningly from one place to another, only once there to conduct oneself in the most calm, even apathetic, manner possible.