Kofta, Sheesha, Prayers, and Gaga

On January 28th the world witnessed the courage of the Egyptian people and the cries of their hearts for freedom from an oppressive regime; I, on the other hand, witnessed the defiance of tyranny first hand.

The youth led movement was inherently non-violent and also inherently non-Islamist. The media narrative that argues the Muslim Brotherhood to be a contributing factor to the Revolution is fallacious. Why is it that the media attributes Islam as always containing an extremist side? The Egyptians, who I know, are completely modern in their mannerisms and dress, as well as in their personalities. Nevertheless, while remaining modern and "Westernized", they respect and honor their Islamic roots, and see this not as a problem but as a non-factor. The Egyptian youth, who fueled this movement, see no clash between Islam and modernity.

I had met Karim in early October. Karim was in his last year of dental school and, like his friends, shared an appreciation of American and European fashion as well as pop culture. We wore similar clothes and had the same taste in music. We both shopped at the H&M and Lacoste in Carrefour, the local mall in Alexandria. We both enjoyed Starbucks coffee, even though we both thought it was overpriced. We were both confused over why Justin Beiber was famous, and moreover, why on God's Green Earth would Ludacris do a song with him.

One weekend Karim had invited me to a hafla, the Arabic word for party, in Montaza. Montaza was the former "summer home" of the extinct Egyptian royal family. Acres upon Acres of plush gardens and magnificent castles built overlooking the Mediterranean Ocean made Montaza one of the most beautiful places in Alexandria to spend one's Saturday afternoon.

By 3:30 the party was in full swing. Karim had invited many of his friends, and I came with two other Americans. We ate kofta (like a hamburger shish kebab) and pasta, had lamb and grilled chicken, drank an excessive amount of tea and smoked an equally excessive amount of sheesha, the Egyptian name for pipe tobacco, also known as hookah.

We ate, smoked, drank, and talked for hours. The time flew as I made my rounds talking to each one of Karim's friends. There were about ten new Egyptians I had met that day, and all of them were students. Some of them were studying medicine, some studying dentistry, and some studying engineering and pharmacy. All of them spoke English fairly well and were eager to learn more about my fellow Americans and me.

A funny thing happens during language exchanges. The first conversation one has with someone whose native tongue is alien from one's own, is that the pleasantries dissolve into nothingness and the conversation deviates into the various intricacies of cursing. We shared the American curses, while they taught us curses in Arabic. Surprisingly, the Egyptian way of "giving someone the finger" is a lot more practical than the method used by Americans. Moreover, Arabic curses are very outwardly expressed manners of speech. A simple "Ah-ha" with the right breath can mean something very, very naughty in Arabic.

After we were done eating and talking, we moved the picnic from the grassy knoll to the parking lot. Karim and his friends wanted to play us some music.

Karim and five other Egyptians got in their cars and turned on the headlights, parking them in a circle so the headlights all pointed towards the inside of a circle. Karim adjusted the speakers inside his car to full volume, and all of a sudden I heard "Rah, rah, ah, ah, ahhha. Roma, roma, maaa. Gaga, ooh, la, la".

Then, with big smiles on their faces, Karim and his friends started to dance in a circle. As a Westerner I thought the dancing was peculiar at first. I thought, "Where are the girls? Why are all the guys dancing together like this?" I eventually saw that there was nothing homosexual or even remotely sexual about it, and it was all in good fun; this was the Arab culture, men dancing together, and as I learned that night, a universal truth that Egyptians love to dance and have a good time.

I was apprehensive at first about dancing, but eventually Karim convinced me to join in. While I was shaking and grooving to the music, I heard the Azhan calling us to prayer from a minaret about two hundred meters away. When the call to prayer began, Karim, without thinking twice, calmly went into his car and turned the music off. There was normality in his movement, as though it was a habit, and as though it was something he had been doing for years.

Some of Karim's friends went to go pray, others listened to the Azhan and contemplated their relationships with God and their own immortality, and others engaged us in conversation.

When prayers were over, Karim, without blinking twice, went into his car and turned it on. "1, 2, 3 and to the 4, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is atcha door" and the party resumed.

And for Karim and his friends, the music, the dancing, the praying, and the resuming of the dancing were all completely normal.

Karim and his fellow friends were amongst the hundreds of thousands of protestors in Egypt demanding freedom from tyranny, a voice in government, and civil rights. And just like Karim and his friends made an effort to share with us their Egyptian culture, we Americans made an effort to share with them our culture. Over a period of six hours I had made friends and established relationships with people, whom I will always regard as close to my heart. There is nothing to fear about their Islamic culture, if anything it provides them with a moral compass with which they strive towards individual virtue and justice. Should the United States really be afraid of them? Let's collectively stop perceiving the Pan-Arab world in such a dichotomous fashion.