It’s not surprising that many Westerners who choose to convert to Islam decide to move to an Islamic country. But often those who make their way to the city of a thousand minarets find that living in Cairo does not always strengthen their faith and can mean disenchantment.
By Dominika Maslikowski
Yearning to find out more about the religion they have embraced, Western converts to Islam are frequently drawn to Muslim countries, with their multitude of mosques and books on Islam that are more widely available and the opportunities to attend lectures, or meet with Imams and knowledgeable Muslims. Those that come to Egypt love Egyptians for their warmness, hospitality and ability to open up easily and make friends. But making the move here can sometimes bring disillusionment as new converts begin to realize with disappointment that people in real life are often not as perfect as their religion.
Kate Durey, a 32-year-old convert living in Australia, is getting set for a move to Ismailia with her Egyptian husband, whom she met online through a language exchange website. Durey converted in 2009 after she rented out a room to a Muslim student and got into heated debates with him about how “his religion was backward and Muslim women were oppressed.” She began reading more about Islam for points to use in those arguments, but quickly found herself genuinely interested in the religion. On a drive home from work, Durey saw a Muslim taxi driver who had taken a break from work to pray in a park. She was so impressed with the man’s dedication to his faith and how peaceful he looked that she knew she also wanted such tranquility. She said the shahada that night.
Durey lived in a small Egyptian village for six months in 2011, and says her husband Mahmoud’s family was “very weary” of her initially but they later developed a good relationship.
“As I was in a village, I got stared at a lot! People would stop [Mahmoud’s] relatives on the street and ask questions about me. Even though I wore hijab it was obvious I wasn’t Egyptian,” she says. “I thought I would have more freedom in Egypt. I imagined I would be able to go out when I felt like it, but instead I felt quite restricted. I couldn’t go out unless my husband or one of his family members was with me, so I was quite bored.”
But that was the least of her frustrations. “The annoying thing [about coming to Egypt] was finding out people aren’t perfect wherever they are, whatever religion they are. People were short-tempered. I saw men fighting beside the mosque, during taraweeh [prayers] in Ramadan. The toktok drivers still had their music so loud,” she says.
Lena, a 27-year-old German convert who became a Muslim in November 2009 after coming to Cairo for a student exchange program, agrees. “It’s frustrating because Islam is not practiced in the street, and there’s the harassment of women [...] shouting and fighting.”
“Coming to Egypt at first I had high expectations, but was very disappointed because of the level of knowledge and people mixing culture and Islam,” echoes Maria, a 32-year-old Romanian convert who has been living in Cairo for seven years. “I expected more ethics from Muslims.”
Maria, who has been a Muslim for 13 years, began wearing hijab last year after being involved in a bad car accident in Cairo. She realized she could die at any time, and says she didn’t want to die while “disobeying God.” Maria lives in a liberal, upscale Cairo neighborhood where the headscarf is often frowned upon and the decision to wear one was against her husband’s will. “Nowadays, because of politics, a lot of people are scared of Islam. I was told by people close to me that I would look like a servant or maid [with a hijab on],” she says. “I am a servant — a servant of Allah.”
Female converts often list harassment as one of the biggest problems in their daily lives. Coming from Europe, they are just not used to the stares, comments and pick-up lines they get every day.
“I live in Fustat where there are very few foreigners, and I often get prolonged stares and puzzled looks from men and women, even when I’m just running out for a bottle of milk,” says Kasia, a Polish convert whose interest in Islam was sparked by reading about the politics and conflicts in the Middle East. “I think they’re puzzled because I’m white, and even more puzzled because I wear hijab. I understand the curiosity on one hand, but it can get annoying when I’m having a bad day and don’t feel like being under a spotlight. You constantly have to ignore the looks and comments, and keep your guard up. And it can get very tiring on the days when you just want to relax and be left in peace.”
Nadia, a 25-year-old Spanish convert living in Cairo, now prefers not to travel much around the city these days, after experiencing sexual harassment on a train. She shares that her faith got a bit weaker, perhaps because she too expected too much and was disappointed. Her neighborhood in Zamalek has many small mosques, but there are no prayer areas for women so she prays mostly at home, like she did in Spain. “I feel a bit guilty,” says her husband Daud, 32, also a Spanish convert. “I’m able to enjoy Cairo more than her, and make contacts more easily.”
Daud had never been to a Muslim country before moving with his wife to Cairo for work two months ago. “I feel more proud to be Spanish here than I do in Europe,” he says. “Egyptians are interested in the Islamic history of Spain, and in football. Sometimes they talk to me about footballers that I don’t even know about. One even knew about the club in Seville.”
Kasia, who moved to Cairo in December, says that many Egyptians are happy to hear how she converted to Islam, however, she sometimes feels that many such conversations turn into “lectures” where born Muslims try to “educate” her.
“I don’t mind telling my story again and again to people I meet, because I realize I’m probably the first convert most Egyptians have seen and they’re curious,” explains Kasia, who converted three years ago in Warsaw. “I know people have good intentions. But sometimes when I’m out with a group of friends, and someone hears that I’m a Muslim, they ask if I canrecite a basic surah, even when I tell them that I’ve been Muslim for years. Or they ask if I know a particular hadith. It’s almost like a quiz. I do love Islam, but I’m very independent and I don’t want to feel like I need to be educated.”
Converts face another set of challenges in living in post-revolutionary Egypt, in which some say Egyptians’ distrust of foreigners has grown. Australian Anita who wears hijab in Cairo and has an olive complexion and dark hair, says she’s often mistaken for an Egyptian woman. She says, however, that the friendliness she feels with Egyptians quickly shatters when they learn she’s a foreigner.
“Most women who spoke to me out in the community had mistakenly thought I was an Egyptian, and once they realized I wasn’t, they suddenly seemed reluctant to even talk, let alone make friends with me,” Anita says. “I was being regarded with some suspicion, probably because of misconceptions they have about foreigners.”
Anita first visited Cairo about a week before the January 25 Revolution, and has been back each year since, staying for three months each time. She noticed that Egyptians had become progressively less tolerant of foreigners, and more likely to show their intolerance especially to those who don’t conform to local dress or behavior standards.
However, because she wears hijab and is often mistaken for an Egyptian, she finds herself “more readily accepted” than other expats. “Most Egyptians were very keen to help me expand my religious knowledge, and people often went out of their way to help me because I was a foreigner and a Muslim sister,” she says. “Unfortunately, there are always people who don’t care about God or religion, and they see all foreigners as easy targets for fraud, theft, or violent or sexual assaults.”
At the other end of the spectrum converts also find themselves being treated with greater respect by Egyptians, because of their conscious choice to become Muslims and the obstacles they’ve overcome with their families andfriends back home.
“There are high expectations of converts sometimes. There’s a sense they’re better than born Muslims because they chose Islam,” Lena explains. “But we’re human beings and we make mistakes, and we’re still learning about this religion.”
Many converts feel they are more respected than foreign women because they often dress more modestly and wear hijab. But Lena believes such special treatment just isn’t fair. “I actually don’t like that, because all humans deserve respect — veiled or not,” she says.
Home away from home
Through their various issues and difficulties, many converts feel that the people who understand their struggles the most are other converts. Yet converts in Cairo seem to lack a tight-knit community, and are sometimes unaware of available resources like lessons about Islam in English at Al Azhar mosque, the most prestigious learning institution for Sunni Muslims. Al Azhar has been offering lessons about Islam in English and French for the past two years, and also maintains a YouTube channel and Facebook page called Azhar TV that offers recorded lectures by the mosque’ssheikhs in English, Arabic and French.
The lessons, held at the mosque in Old Cairo, are offered mostly by sheikhs covering topics like hadith, the Qu’ran, the life of the prophet, Sufism and Al-Aqida (Islamic belief.) They are attended by both converts and Egyptians who want to learn more about Islam in English and be able to talk to their non-Egyptians friends about the religion.
Azhar TV focuses on a “scientific understanding of Islam,” that stays clear of “preaching,” says Mohamad Esayed, a Shariah law student at Al Azhar University who recently worked on the TV channel’s English shows. The lectures provide details on topics like marriage in Islam, prayer and how to perform ablutions, instead of general moral rules or topics like Islamophobia that are popular in the West, Esayed adds.
Al Azhar does not have statistics on how many people convert there each year — anyone can walk in and say their shahada at any time informally.
Esayed urges converts who need emotional support in dealing with issues like unaccepting families or life in Egypt to contact one of Al Azhar’s sheikhs, who can often be found on Facebook, or to come to a lesson at the mosque and seek advice from one of the teachers who lecture in English.
There are also small communities of Muslim converts who meet regularly in Sixth of October City and Maadi for Quran and study sessions, Maria says. Lena is taking Qu’ran classes with some friends with a sheikh and meets with friends when there’s time to talk about hadith.
Anita says she found plenty of useful literature and booklets at Al Azhar, but notes that Egypt could do a better job at welcoming converts. “It’s difficult being a convert in Egypt because there is no support in places at mosques to assist converts, and nothing to help them feel like they belong,” she says.
Many turn to Facebook, where it is easy to make connections with other converts. Although there are no groups that cater specifically to converts living in Egypt, there are plenty of support groups for Muslim converts in general. Muslim Converts, or The Revert Muslims Association boast hundreds of members who post anything from inspirational videos about Islam to messages that they’re looking for a spouse. Often conversations turn to the hijab — a controversial topic for those converts who live in the West and face the struggle of wearing it in a non-Muslim country.
In many closed groups like the Revert Support Group, which includes 1,001 members, the posts get quite personal as converts write on anything from bad marriages to problems with intolerant families. The members, despite the occasional arguments, are quick to forgive each other and trust each other, at times with deeply personal confessions.
“The debates can really get fiery in such groups, but you really do get a sense of community among converts that you just don’t always feel with born Muslims, because only converts can really understand what it’s like to break the news of your conversion to your family, or come to a Muslim country to discover that it’s much more conservative than your version of Islam,” explains Kasia. “You can be a Sufi or a Salafi or Shia convert in such a group, and you’ll have your arguments and you’ll fight. But in the end you’d do anything for each other, because you’re all going through the same journey.” et