My take on “Love in a Headscarf”

I just finished reading Shelina Zahra Janmohammed’s debut autobiography “Love in a Headscarf”. Being a 25-year old single Muslim woman, I am going through a process very similar to the one she describes. Her journey to understand herself as a Muslim, her relation to the broader community and to the world in general is one that both inspires and challenges me. I too have been consistently been told that that “nice girls don’t climb mountains”. Yet, I have stubbornly persisted in doing just that. Love in a Headscarf gave me a fresh perspective: nice girls can climb as many mountains as they want to, as long as they’re doing it with the right neyya (intention).


The book helped me reaffirm my suspicion that each experience I have gone through is a stepping stone to further personal and spiritual development. This book came at a time when the worst aspects of my character were beginning to dominate my thoughts: namely, impatience and arrogance. Reading about the author’s experience with spiritual growth and connecting with the Divine has reminded me that I have always found warmth and security in the steady knowledge that Allah’s love for all His creations is indefatigable, and that He is closer to each and every one of us than the veins in our neck.

He knows what I am going through, and He knows what is best for me.


بِسْمِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا ٱلْإِنسَٰنَ وَنَعْلَمُ مَا تُوَسْوِسُ بِهِۦ نَفْسُهُۥ ۖ وَنَحْنُ أَقْرَبُ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ حَبْلِ ٱلْوَرِيدِ


April 16, 2009 Posted by | Islam, Personal | 5 Comments

Surat Qaf – Verses 6-11

(6) Do they not then look up to heaven above them how We have made it and adorned it and it has no gaps?
أَفَلَمْ يَنظُرُوٓا۟ إِلَى ٱلسَّمَآءِ فَوْقَهُمْ كَيْفَ بَنَيْنَٰهَا وَزَيَّنَّٰهَا وَمَا لَهَا مِن فُرُوجٍۢ ﴿٦


(7) And the earth, We have made it plain and cast in it mountains and We have made to grow therein of all beautiful kinds,
وَٱلْأَرْضَ مَدَدْنَٰهَا وَأَلْقَيْنَا فِيهَا رَوَٰسِىَ وَأَنۢبَتْنَا فِيهَا مِن كُلِّ زَوْجٍۭ بَهِيجٍۢ ﴿٧

(8) To give sight and as a reminder to every servant who turns frequently (to Allah).
تَبْصِرَةًۭ وَذِكْرَىٰ لِكُلِّ عَبْدٍۢ مُّنِيبٍۢ ﴿٨

(9) And We send down from the cloud water abounding in good, then We cause to grow thereby gardens and the grain that is reaped,
وَنَزَّلْنَا مِنَ ٱلسَّمَآءِ مَآءًۭ مُّبَٰرَكًۭا فَأَنۢبَتْنَا بِهِۦ جَنَّٰتٍۢ وَحَبَّ ٱلْحَصِيدِ ﴿٩

(10) And the tall palm-trees having spadices closely set one above another,
وَٱلنَّخْلَ بَاسِقَٰتٍۢ لَّهَا طَلْعٌۭ نَّضِيدٌۭ ﴿۰١

(11) A sustenance for the servants, and We give life thereby to a dead land; thus is the rising.
رِّزْقًۭا لِّلْعِبَادِ ۖ وَأَحْيَيْنَا بِهِۦ بَلْدَةًۭ مَّيْتًۭا ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ ٱلْخُرُوجُ ﴿١١

Copied from the Online Quran Project

April 14, 2009 Posted by | Islam | Leave a comment

GazaMom’s Detainment

Many of us have been following the ordeal of Laila El-Haddad (aka GazaMom) as she posted her updates on Twitter. El-Haddad was her way back from North Carolina, where she had been living on a temporary visa with her husband and two young children, to her home in Gaza. Her children were with her. Her husband was set to travel a week later. She (along with her children) was detained at the Cairo airport and refused entry into Egypt. She was told she would be deported to the UK, where she has no visa, or the USA, where her visa had expired.

I’m not sure what to say when a Palestinian, a fellow Arab, is refused entry into our country. I’m not sure what to say when a mother and her two young children are treated as if they are less than human because they are Palestinian. I’m not sure what to say at the notion of somebody being denied access to their own home. And I’m speechless at the sympathy she received from the USA official who, after hearing what happened, renewed her visa in a second.

Once again, our government surpasses all expecations. Bravo.

I will not add anything to what El-Haddad herself says:

Always waiting. For this is what the Palestinian does: we wait. For an answer to be given, for a question to be asked; for a marriage proposal to be made, for a divorce to be finalized; for a border to open, for a permit to be issued; for a war to end; for a war to begin; for a child to be born; for one to die a martyr; for retirement or a new job; for exile to a better place and for return to the only place that knows us; for our prisoners to come home; for our home to no longer be prisons; for our children to be free; for freedom from a time when we no longer have to wait.

Please read her post at http://a-mother-from-gaza.blogspot.com/2009/04/i-was-born-palestinian.html. You can get the full account of her twitter updates from here http://hootsbuddy.blogspot.com/2009/04/laila-el-haddads-palestinian-passover.html

7asby Allah wa ne3m al-wakil.

April 14, 2009 Posted by | Egyptian Affairs | Leave a comment

ياكلوا حلاوة .. ياكلوا جاتوه

Check out the column by Dr.Ghada Sherif in al-Masry al-Youm on how innovative we Egyptians have become. Hehehehe…!

تذكرت هذه الأغنية الشهيرة القديمة جدا: «ياكلوا حلاوة ياكلوا جاتوه» حين دعانى أحد أصدقائى لمشاهدة ما سماه «ظاهرة غريبة» تحدث فى أحد شوارع شبرا. ذهبت معه إلى هناك وإذا بمحل حلوانى يقف أمامه طابور طويل يكاد يصل إلى آخر الشارع! فسألت: إيه الحكاية؟ فعلمت أن هذا الحلوانى يبيع دستة الجاتوه بأربعة جنيهات فقط!

 تعجبت من السعر وتعجبت أكثر من التزاحم والصراع الذى وصل إلى حد الضرب فى الطابور. هل إلى هذا الحد الناس هتموت على الجاتوه؟.. وظننت أن الظاهرة هى حالة «وحم جماعى» فقررنا أنا ومن معى أن نندس وسط الطابور ونسأل. واكتشفنا أن الناس بناء على هذا السعر الخرافى للدستة قررت الاستعاضة بالجاتوه عن الخبز!

فسألت: «طب يا جماعة مش السعر ده برضه يقلق؟ جايز الجاتوه مضروب»! ردت أخت مواطنة: «ياختى صلى ع النبى يعنى هو العيش اللى مش مضروب؟».

و تلقفنى أخ مواطن آخر وقال بتهكم: «إنتى ما بتقريش جرايد واللا إيه؟ ما انا عارفكم يا مثقفين بتمشوا تتكلموا بالنحوى علشان ماحدش يفهمكم، لكن حتى الجرايد ما بتقروهاش! مش سامعة عن الدقيق أبوديدان اللى عايزين يوزعوه بالعافية على المخابز؟».. وهنا.. لم تقبل علىّ نفسى أن أسمع مزيدا ً من الإهانات لحكومتى حبيبتى وقرة عينى.. فانتفضت قائلة: «يا جماعة حرام عليكم. الديدان اللى فى الدقيق دى ديدان صديقة، متربية عندنا مش عند حد غريب.. وبعدين يعنى هو دقيق الجاتوه ده اللى بيقول ماما و بابا أكيد فيه اللى فيه.

ثم إن وزير التضامن من فترة قريبة شرح بالتفصيل أن الحشرات الموجودة فى دقيق المخابز هى حشرات ميتة وليست مميتة، وأوضح مشكورا الفرق بين الاثنين. إذن، كل ما هو مطلوب منا فقط قبل أن نأكل هذا الخبز أن نترحم على الميتين اللى فيه! تبقى فين المشكلة ؟» وهنا جاءتنى سيدة طيبة وقالت: «يا بنتى احنا بناخذ اللى بنلاقيه، يطلع عيش يطلع جاتوه المهم السعر الرخيص وفى الآخر العيال تاكل!».

أسكتتنى السيدة بهذا الرد البليغ! فعلا.. المهم السعر الرخيص والعيال تاكل.. التزمت الصمت، ثم أخذت أتأمل فى نوعية الناس الواقفة فى الطابور.. إنه طابور يشتمل على جميع الأشكال. هناك من يرتدى الجاكت والبنطلون وهناك من يرتدى الجلباب والعمة وهناك من ترتدى الجينز ومن ترتدى النقاب.. هناك المدير المحال على المعاش والموظف الصغير.. هناك من يرتدى الحذاء ومن يرتدى «الشبشب» فى عز البرد!..

كلهم فى انتظار نصيبهم من الجاتوه.. الجاتوه الذى كان منذ فترة غير بعيدة من السلع الترفية ولا يشترى إلا للمناسبات! هاهم الناس الآن يقفون طوابير ويتقاتلون للحصول عليه! مثله مثل الخبز تماما!.. ما أذكى هذا الحلوانى.. و ما أذكى هذا الشعب.

وتذكرت السؤال الخالد: لماذا لا يثور المصريون! هذا السؤال الذى بات الشغل الشاغل لجميع المعارضين والمحللين السياسيين. وللأسف أن انتهى البعض منهم إلى استنتاج أن المصرى أصبح متفرجا و»ماعندوش دم!». ولكن واضح أن إجابة السؤال أبسط من هذا.

 المصرى لا يثور ولن يثور لأنه ببساطة أصبح «بيعرف يتصرف!». المصرى من كثرة ما عانى من الضغوط عليه، ولرغبته الشديدة فى البقاء أصبح يتمتع بخاصيتى المرونة والمطاطية. فأصبح يتمتع بالقدرة على الانثناء والالتفاف حول مشكلته و إيجاد الحل البديل.

 هذا الحل البديل الذى يطلق عليه علماء الإدارة «الخطة ب»، والتى يوصى دائما ً علماء الإدارة بإعدادها مسبقا للمواجهة السريعة للكوارث. والمدهش أن المصرى صار متمرسا لدرجة أنه من سرعة توالى الضغوط المختلفة عليه فإنه بالاضافة للخطة «ب» أصبح يبتدع الخطة «ت» و «ث» و «ج» و «ح».. إلخ..

 ولهذا، لا أعتقد أنه أصبح من المتفرجين أمام ما يحدث من فساد.. إنه ببساطة لا ينظر إليه ولا ينشغل به.. لأنه صار مشغولا باختراع وتنفيذ الخطط البديلة.. و كأن البلد أصبح يسكنه بلدان، لا ولن يلتقيا! وحينما يصل الأمر للجوء للجاتوه لابد أن نقف حدادا على روح خالدة الذكر مارى أنطوانيت طيب الله ثراها..

 هذه السيدة أكيد كان مكشوف عنها الحجاب حين ردت على من أخبرها بأن الفقراء لا يجدون الخبز وقالت: «وإيه يعنى ما ياكلوا جاتوه» ! صحيح أنها لم تحدث أبدا فى فرنسا، لكنها تحدث الآن فى مصر! وأصبح المصريون «ياكلوا حلاوة ياكلوا جاتوه» ولكن بدل الخبز..

وبناء عليه قررت أنا الأخرى الانضمام للطابور وأخذ نصيبى من الجاتوه. يعنى هى الناس دى كلها ناصحة وانا بقى اللى عبيطة؟ أستأذنكم فى قطع مقالى الآن لأن هناك شخصا يريد أن يأخذ مكانى فى الطابور، عن إذنكم هأروح أموّته بسرعة وأعود إليكم!


April 8, 2009 Posted by | Media/Press, Portraits of Egypt | 3 Comments

The Anglicization of the Elite

I remember when the first Cilantro Café opened its doors in Egypt a few years ago. It was the first 100% homegrown café that had seen such success and popularity. Going to Cilantro became the new cool thing to do among Cairo’s elite youth.


My mother’s comment about the Cilantro phenomenon:

“Why in the world did they name it Cilantro??”


Apparently “cilantro” in Arabic is “kusbara khadra” and my mother was adamant in her belief that if the owners wanted to name their café after this delicious herb, they should have used the Arabic term for it – especially being a born and bred Egyptian café, not a foreign franchise.


This is just one manifestation of the phenomenon of the Anglicization of elite Egyptian youth. Brilliant Egyptian writer Bilal Fadl wrote about one aspect of this phenomenon in his daily column “Istebaha” in al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. The focus of Fadl’s column was on parents who place their children non-Egyptian schools that are not legally required to abide by the standard curriculum set by the Egyptian Ministry of Education. This means that these schools are not required to teach the Arabic language or Egyptian history. After making this point in a previous article he wrote, he received several emails from angry parents who felt they were being attacked and criticized for their desire to provide their children with high-quality education. Fadl responded with the following:


What I am saying is clear and specific. I have never been, nor will I ever be opposed to a parent’s desire to guarantee the best education for their children to prepare them for the future. To the angry fathers and mothers who have sent me emails of disagreement and objection…believe me it is impossible that I would be against your children’s international schools in a general and inclusive form, for I am…against generalized judgements of any kind.

I am specifically against the lack of scrutiny over the curricula of these schools…I am against these schools becoming a state within a state and bringing back the era of foreign privileges in its ugliest form. I am against people thinking that their children’s graduation from a foreign school that makes them speak in a foreign language, think in a foreign way, and live a foreign lifestyle, is the only solution.


Following this article he received another email from Egyptian journalist Sondos Shabayek who went to a non-Egyptian school and ended up choosing a career that necessarily entails mastering the Arabic language. She recounts her story:


I was in a language school where I studied Arabic, and history and geography in Arabic until 3rd preparatory. I then entered the IGCSE program and then went to a private university – meaning that my relationship with the Arabic language ended at the age of 14….The school I went to was so concerned with teaching us English that anybody who spoke Arabic during class or even during the break was penalized! …When I decided that I wanted to become a journalist I discovered that I don’t even read the newspaper. …The real catastrophe was when I started working at Dream TV. My job entailed writing scripts, and you can only imagine the scandal and the number of mistakes they would find. …I turned into someone who was unable to express herself in her mother tongue and the language of her country, nor did I consistently express myself in English simply because it is not my mother tongue….I would start writing an article and find that I wrote half of it in Arabic and half in English!… But all this made me realize that the most important thing to teach my children is Arabic and Arab history. I forgot to mention that I’m bad at history and geography as well, and that I’m trying to learn those while I also try to learn Arabic. …And of course I still haven’t even started talking about the identity crisis. In the words of the Egyptian folk singer “I don’t know me, I am not me”.


Reading this I could not help but relate. When I came to Egypt from Canada at the age of 10 I barely spoke a word of Arabic. I’m 25 now and I still occasionally make grammatical mistakes when speaking Arabic simply because certain aspects of Arabic to not come to me subconsciously, but rather require me to actively ask myself if what I’m about to say is grammatically correct. Like Shabayek, I am an avid reader, and I have been an avid reader since I first discovered books in preschool. And yet, I only started to really enjoy and appreciate Arabic literature a few years ago!


But here’s the major discrepancy between my story and hers: I didn’t even go to an international school in Egypt! My parents insisted – despite my begging and pleading – on placing me in an Egyptian language school where I would learn Arabic, Qur’an, history and geography (in Arabic), and everything else in English. I did not do the IGCSE or an American Diploma, I did the Thanaweya Amma.


My parents’ reasoning was not only for me to learn Arabic while simultaneously maintaining my English, but also for me to be submerged in a truly “Egyptian” environment and culture. And I was. So I can only imagine how much worse my Arabic would have been if my parents had given in to my dramatic declarations that my life would be over if I did not go to the American or British schools. The problem is that the Thanaweya Amma system has a way of spoon-feeding information in way that ensures you absolutely will not retain any of it after the exam is over.


My ability to express myself in Arabic in a professional setting has been also a major challenge as my university studies were in English. This brings back the memory from a few months ago when I was conducting an interview – in Arabic – with a local NGO in Minia. The interview was going well, and I was full of pride that I had managed to give a little spiel about my work entirely in Arabic, using terms I had just learned a few weeks before. All was going smoothly until I decided to ask them about their advocacy activities and midway through my question realized that I had no idea what the Arabic term for “advocacy” is! After making extensive use of the traditional silence-fillers “aaaa… mmmmm… ummm… ya3nyyyy…”, one of the interviewees kindly asked me what I was trying to say and was able to translate for me.


Elhamdulellah, this is also improving slowly but very surely as my current job entails that I work extensively with Egyptian civil society and thus professional Arabic is becoming increasingly natural to me. As a result I find myself much more able than before to hold my own in professional and intellectual discussions in Arabic. And today, elhamdulellah, I read Arabic as easily as I read English.


I admit, for a long time I secretly resented my parents for placing me in an Egyptian school where I not only struggled to navigate this new language and culture, but where my (inevitable) identity crisis came into full force. But today, I fully understand and appreciate their decision, and will replicate this decision with my own future children inshallah.




P.S. I am aware of the irony in the fact that I am writing this in English not Arabic as I have not yet mastered typing in Arabic. Wa7da wa7da ya gama3a!

April 8, 2009 Posted by | Media/Press, Personal | 1 Comment

On the 6th of April Movement

Yesterday a column by Refaat Rashad in al-Masry al-Youm daily newspaper titled “Who is Behind the April Youth Movement?” criticized the 6th of April movement for not having an official structure. After briefly outlining the recent developments in political culture in Egypt, the author ends his column with the following:


وإذا كانت الأحزاب الشرعية رفضت المشاركة، فمن يقف ويساند ويخطط لشباب أبريل، ربما إذا عرفناهم، ساندناهم، وربما إذا عرفناهم طاردناهم، لذا أرى أن تخفِّيهم وتخفِّى الجهات المساندة لهم يضفى الكثير من الشكوك حول هذه الجماعة التى تستمد اسمها من شهر اشتهر أوله بسمة يرفضها الجميع أو على الأقل يتندرون بها.



And if the official parties refused to participate, then who is supporting the 6th of April Youth? Maybe if we knew them, we would support them. But maybe if we knew them, we would resist them. Thus, I see that their obscurity and the obscurity of their supporting entities places a lot of doubts around this group – a group that draws its name from a month [April] that is famous for starting with a trait that everybody abhors.


What I don’t understand is why the author feels the need to link the unofficial status of the 6th of April Youth to obscurity and lying? Many unofficial Egyptian networks and alliances view their unofficial status as an asset so as to escape government cooptation as well as the bureaucracy and leadership struggles that emerge in many official Egyptian structures.

The 6th of April Youth are an organic social movement that was started by a group of youth who actually worked for an official political party and were tired of the bureaucracy and cooptation and wanted a chance at instigating real change.


He also states in his column:


ولكن أيضا على جماعة أبريل وغيرها من الجماعات المناضلة أن يكون لها شكل وملامح وكيان شرعى لكى يمكنها بلورة مطالبها والدخول مع الحكومة فى مفاوضات لتحقيق هذه المطالب.



The 6th of April group, and other resistance groups, must also have an official structure and become an official entity to be able to crystallize its demands and enter into negotiations with the government to fulfill these demands.


While the author asks some good questions and raises some legitimate points, I think he is asking them prematurely. This movement is a nascent one – its first protest was only 1 year ago! Some of the greatest movements in history emerged from informal, unofficial collectives of citizens gathered around a common goal. The labour movements, even the civil rights movement, began as an organic informal engagement by ordinary citizens in political life. Not because they’re politicians or members of political parties, but simply because they wanted to live a decent life and becoming politically active was the only way to achieve that. But these movements take years to formalize. We cannot expect a 1-year old movement to become a structured, organized, official entity with a clear mission statement and leadership.


Social movement theory states that movements go through several stages. They emerge for a particular purpose, they coalesce and begin to organize, they bureaucratize, and then they either succeed or fail at achieving their original purpose, after which they decline when there is no longer a purpose for their existence.


Perhaps the reason why we don’t know who is supporting and funding them is that they don’t actually have any funding yet. What have they really done so far that requires funding? Their campaign has been conducted on Facebook and through brochures and posters, which don’t require a lot of money to print.


As I previously said, I am not refuting the points raised in the article, but to put them under the title of “Who is Behind the April Youth Movement” implies a conspiracy-theory tone. This tone bothers me because there are many who have been accusing the movement of receiving foreign funding and trying to impose “foreign morals” whatever that means (I guess they think democracy, human rights, minimum wage, constitutional reform, and not forming political and economic alliances with colonizers are foreign morals?). These types of accusations are expected. How else can the corrupt delegitimize a citizen movement? They are just using what ammunition they have.



I would like to emphasize that I am not in any way implying that the author of this column has partaken in these conspiracy theories. To my knowledge the author of this column has NOT been among those who have accused the Movement of foreign support. I am merely comparing what he said in his column to what others have been saying.










April 6, 2009 Posted by | Egyptian Affairs, Media/Press | 1 Comment

Goatmilk, anybody?

The other day I was sitting in my room minding my own business when I suddenly heard a “maaaaaa…maaaaaaa” coming from outside. I looked out my window and saw this:


April 5, 2009 Posted by | Portraits of Egypt | Leave a comment

My brother

I never cease to be amused by the reactions I get when I tell people that my brother has a band in Vancouver – a rap band – called Social Deviantz

I have had this conversation many times:

X: So, do you have any siblings?

Me: Yeah I have an older brother. He lives in Vancouver.

X: Oh wow, what does he do?cimg7165

Me: He’s a web-designer / rapper.

X: He’s a web-designer what?

Me: A web-designer / rapper.

X: blank stare…

Me: A rapper – as in he raps on the side.

X: confused stare…

Me: Meaning that in addition to working as a web-designer, he also has a band. They make music…rap music. He raps.

X: OH! Ok, I just thought because of that scarf you wear on your head that you’re like super-religious or something.

Me: Unsure of which part of that bizarre statement to respond to first, I proceed to explain the nuances of the dynamics within my family, and that such nuances are present in many Muslim families, particularly those living in non-Muslim countries.

X: So are you still close with your brother?

Me: Absolutely. I love him to death. And you know what? His music rocks!


After a similar conversation with a group of non-Muslim American and British study-abroad students in Egypt, one person turned to me and said “you’re quite an interesting specimen aren’t you”.


April 4, 2009 Posted by | Personal | 2 Comments