I returned home last week after having spent most of the past three years living in Cairo while pursuing graduate studies. During my past few years, I have grown accustomed to the constant hum of honking horns, the smell of rubbish piles that one must constantly navigate through and adjusting to the ever-fluctuating mood in the air that shifts seamlessly between joy, hope, tension and anger as the Revolution carries on. In many ways, this city of millions could not contrast more starkly with my small hometown in the United States. “Home” is the quiet Southern California town where I was born and raised. Much like myself, the majority of students in my classes growing up were white and Christian and throughout my eighteen years in the town, I had never met anyone, at least known to me, who happened to be a Muslim. It’s the sort of place where the opinion page in the local newspaper religiously features the likes of Ann Coulter and a proudly narrow-minded brand of conservative thought dominates local politics and many homes.
Since I first left for Cairo in 2010, I have visited home several times; these returns are dotted with extended family and friends’ well-intended exclamations of relief that I am safe from the dangers (some real, most imaginary) of Egypt. I am overjoyed when someone voices genuine interest in aspects of Egyptian life, custom, or religious practices that are too often misrepresented in American media. These visits, however, are also marked without fail by the not-so-well-meaning jokes centered on Islam, queries as to whether they have converted me yet, or obvious attempts at getting me to confirm that any number of negative stereotypes about Arabs or Muslims – some that I had not even realized existed – are indeed true.
My homecoming this year coincides with the start of Ramadan. A large part of me regretted leaving Egypt at this time, as shops and street corners are abuzz with signs of the holy month’s approach: bins full of nuts, dried fruit, and dates, and shops displaying multicolored fanawees Ramadan, Ramadan lanterns. I’ll be honest, sharing streets with taxi drivers deprived of their usual lifeline of cigarettes and coffee during a summertime Ramadan is not always conducive to the most saintly behavior. A strong sense of community, however, is felt when the evening call to prayer is heard and strangers share bottles of water and bags of dates with others who haven’t made it home in time to break their fasts, or iftaar.
Though I have spent several Ramadans in predominantly Muslim countries, during which I have participated in fasting to various degrees, this Ramadan will be different. I fully embraced and accepted Islam six months ago and this will be my first Ramadan since identifying as a Muslim. I imagine that the primary challenges I will face in the coming month will not come from the sacrifices of fasting, something I look forward to as an opportunity to grow spiritually, but instead will stem from opening up to my many relatives and friends who do not yet know that I am Muslim. Having spent the past years surrounded primarily by individuals who have heard the call to prayer five times each day since birth, it is easy for me to forget that I come from a place where Islam is widely considered to be foreign, anti-American, and, so ironically to me, inherently violent, and oppressive to women.
Over the coming month, I anticipate several new and challenging experiences as I adjust to openly practicing Islam in the United States. How will my family and friends respond to my newfound faith? How will I pray outside my home without making those around me uncomfortable or isolating myself? Will I feel more comfortable with and accepted by my town’s Muslim community than I did in Egypt, or not? There are hundreds of unknowns and questions in my mind. While this Ramadan I hope to embrace these beautiful struggles with strength and confidence, at this point I am unsure if the optimism I feel is well-placed or just naïve.
Tune in next week for Shelley’s reflections on her first week of Ramadan back home.