It was the staring that caught me off-guard.
I had made it through customs without any problems, and the hour or so after baggage claim had been a frantic attempt to figure out Cairo’s public transit system, which is a whole ‘nother blog post, believe me. Anyway, I was so out of breath and ready for a break that, finally stepping from the cool of the subway tunnel into the warmth of the railcar, I was hoping for some relief from feeling out of place, out of sorts, and way out of my comfort zone.
No such luck. I entered a railcar crammed with Egyptians: men in dark suits and bright ties, chattering on their cell phones; little kids in Reeboks and Mickey Mouse t-shirts; their moms, most in a hijab and a long skirt; macho teenagers in flamingo-pink tees and studded jeans. Some would not have looked out of place in Seattle—but I, let there be no doubt, looked completely out of place in Cairo, hurtling along with them sixty feet below the streets of the city. Everyone’s gaze, inevitably, locked onto me, and wouldn’t let go.
Who in Allah’s name was the white boy with the beard?
It took me a while to figure out why they stared so—shamelessly. The first ride I took, it was a struggle to keep from giggling. Being the only white kid in the room was a new (and kind of fun) experience for me. But as I learned more about the culture there, being stared at like the star of the freak show started to make more sense.
Beards are popular enough in Seattle, but in the Middle East, they are a sign of Islamic piety, both feigned and genuine. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood—a large, well-organized group in Egypt whose conservative influence on politics and culture there is not unlike that of evangelicals in America—whisper Qur’anic verses from under their big beards on the subway. They also have calluses on their forehead—I kid you not!—supposedly from praying so much, but my friends told me that the look can be faked by applying vinegar, lemon juice, or something similar. Either way, for Egyptians, a big beard means you’re a devout Muslim. So a white foreigner sporting a beard like mine was a bit of a walking contradiction. Like if Osama bin Laden had sported a crucifix and a clerical collar, then walked down Main Street, USA.
Not that a white guy to Egyptians is the same as Osama to Americans, but you get my point.
About half the time this situation was bearable. I’d look around and watch as people pretended to not be staring, but then feel their eyes boring into me as soon as I looked away. Sometimes, though, something had to be said. A group of six teenagers, standing right in front of me, staring directly at me, for twenty minutes? That kind of attention is more than I could bear, personally, and I needed a way to acknowledge the awkwardness and start a conversation. Luckily for me, I knew the exact words that would do the trick. So, whenever this happened—which was at least twice a day—I pulled out my earbuds, smiled broadly, and addressed them with the magic words.
Instant smiles from everyone. I had given the call; now was the response, chanted in unison:
“Wa alaikum es-salaam!”
This worked like a charm. Every time. What’s more, it almost always began a conversation which ended with one of them giving me their contact information. “If you ever need anything in Cairo, don’t hesitate to call. Welcome to Egypt!”
As-salaamu alaikum (ahs-sah-LA-mu a-LIE-koom), see, is the formal Islamic greeting—it means, “Peace be upon you!” And it’s reply—wa alaikum es-salaam!—simply returns the blessing. Here’s the Arabic:
I get tired of the casual, but often insincere, “Hey, how’s it going?” of American culture. Everyone just says, “Fine, how are you?” and moves on without really caring. But can you imagine greeting family, friends, and strangers with a blessing like “peace be with you”? And saying goodbye with a simple, “peace”? I found this way of moving in the world enchanting. Peace—the Arabic word is salaam—was offered and received in every encounter. I am trying to do that more often here at home.
See, the word salaam, peace, is a word with deep roots in the Islamic imagination. And for good reason. Check this out:
Arabic words, like in Hebrew, are built off triconsonantal roots: so, three consonants which, put in a certain order, call up a certain root meaning. Any word built off of k, t, and b, for example, connotes something to do with writing. You put vowels between the letters to denote the different possible meanings: kataba, for example, means he wrote, maktub means letter, kaatib means author, and so on and so forth.
The word salaam—as in, “as-salaamu alaikum”—has the triconsonantal root s-l-m. Wanna know some other words with that root? How about Islam? And, by extension, Muslim? “Islam” is the Arabic word for submission, and a “Muslim” is one who submits. So peace, in Islam, is intimately tied to submission to God’s will. The letters of peace lie at the very core of the religion.
Pretty cool, huh? By the way, salaam in Arabic is the same word as shalom in Hebrew. And “Shalom!” is how you greet people in Israel. Go figure.
The twenty-fifth chapter of the Qur’an, called “The Criterion”, has this to say about peace:
The worshippers of the All-Merciful are they who tread gently upon the earth, and when the ignorant address them, they reply, “Peace!”
Dr. Juan Cole, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, gives historical context to the verse (full post here):
The small Muslim community in Mecca faced much harassment and persecution. The “ignorant” in this verse are the militant polytheists who hate the monotheistic message of Islam. What they “speak” to the Muslims is abuse and taunts. The early Muslims viewed the times of pagan dominance as the Age of Ignorance (al-Jahiliyyah).
One name for God in Islam is al-Rahman, or the All-Merciful. This verse chooses that epithet for the divine, it seems to me quite deliberately in this context. The Muslims are the worshippers of the All-Merciful. It is implied that they are expected to exemplify this divine attribute in their own lives, and to show mercy, compassion and forebearance to others. (The root r*h*m from which al-Rahman derives implies all of these characteristics).
So what do they do when the “ignorant” Meccans curse them, taunt them, and harass them?
They reply, “Peace be upon you.” They wish their tormentors peace, and in so doing they pledge their own nonviolence toward them.
Kinda sounds like Jesus a little bit, doesn’t it? Showing mercy, compassion, and forbearance–and all this tied up in one of the names for God! Here’s another verse of the Qur’an, this one from the fourth chapter:
Do not say to one who offers you peace, “You are not a believer,” seeking the spoils of this life. For God has abundant treasure. You used to be like them, after all, and then God blessed you.
Dr. Cole explicates the verse (again, the full post here):
Muslims say “hello” with the phrase “as-Salamu `alaykum”– “peace be upon you.” Once the pagan, polytheistic Meccan tribes started attacking the Muslims and trying to wipe them out, the question was raised of how to repond when a pagan not connected to the Meccans greeted a Muslim.
The instinct was to refuse to accept the sincerity of the greeting, “peace be upon you,” which was also a pledge of non-violence toward the person greeted. That tendency was reinforced by greed, since if the Muslims fought these pagan strangers and won, they would legitimately be able to demand loot from them. (This was a tribal, often nomadic society, and that was the custom when tribes raided each other).
The Quran settles this dilemma. It says that Muslims are not to taunt pagans who greet them with “peace be upon you” by shouting, “You’re not a Muslim!” They are to accept the sincerity of the greeting, and are not to get so greedy for spoils that they let it affect their judgment of others. When you are offered peace, take it.
As a stranger in an Islamic society, perhaps there was some amount of suspicion surrounding my presence. What were my intentions and purposes in Egypt? My offering of peace—“As-salaamu alaikum!”—was, as Dr. Cole notes, also a pledge of goodwill and nonviolence. And Muslims, in the Qur’an, are obligated to accept that pledge. Any sort of tension that existed before these words was resolved almost right away.
I hope by now you see what I am doing. There is a great deal about jihad, holy war, in the Qur’an, to be sure. Lots of people in the West are fearful of anything to do with Islam because they think that that’s all there is to it: violence. Islam is a violent faith, they’ll say. The Qur’an is full of talk about violence and war (then again, have these folks ever read the Bible? The books are pretty similar in that regard).
But here’s my point: if you take an honest look at Islam and the Qur’an and ask which is closer to the heart of Islam–jihad or salaam–your answer is in the very name of the religion and its followers. The answer is in the way they say hello and goodbye. It’s right in front of you.
Just remember that next time you watch the news, OK?
Thanks for reading this, friends. And until my next post: salaam!