The Mosque of Hussein
The Mosque of Imam Hussein is one of Cairo’s holiest shrines. It contains the tomb of the Prophet’s grandson. It sits on a clean well lit little square next to the ancient bazaar.
My friend Ken and I were to meet the Ustez (Professor) near the entrance closest to Fishawi’s Coffee Shop, our ultimate destination. But we were early. And since the Ustez was reliably late to everything, we were very early.
The mosque is a beautiful simple building that looked gray in the indirect light cast by the surrounding shops. I glanced inside. Like all venerable holy places I have visited, whether very active churches in Rome or temples in Japan, this one gave a sense of profound peace. The floor was covered with beautiful well-worn carpets. Lamps hung from the ceiling giving the interior a charming diffuse light, as though the inside lay within the shade of a giant tree. There were people inside, some sitting on the floor talking softly in small groups, some sitting alone, some reading, some sleeping.
— Can we go in?
— No, no way, man. Not this mosque. This mosque is strictly forbidden to infidels.
— What if I did go in?
— Oh, you wouldn’t want to do that. If they find an infidel in this mosque, they take out the Rug of Blood, make him kneel on it, and then they decapitate him. Since the police are all Muslims, they would do nothing to help you. It is their law.
I am ashamed to admit that I believed this crap about the “Rug of Blood”. It seemed to me that anything was possible in Cairo.
— Since the Venerable Ustez will be late, we should follow the local custom and circumambulate the mosque for luck. This is done clockwise.
— Sure, why not?
So we took a stroll around the mosque.
When we had finished the circuit, we found the Ustez waiting. Although he was about 45 minutes late, we let him pretend that he had gotten there first and allowed him to chide us for our irresponsibility. He seemed cranky.
— Come. Let us refresh ourselves, he said. I am going to treat you to a delicacy.
We walked over to a stand on the square and the Ustez placed an order. I was handed a glass. It was a thick sugar cane juice with figs and dates floating in it, suspended like planets.
Now if there is anything I hate worse than figs, it is dates. I hate dates so much that at one point while I was still in Chicago I had seriously considered canceling my Egypt trip when I had read that the Egyptians ate a lot of dates.
If the Ustez had given me a glass of cat turds floating in dog urine it could not have been worse. Yet he was already on his second one and he stood there in beaming expectation that I would quaff mine and fall onto my knees in ecstasy. So I tried to stall.
I focused on the people in the mosque square. There were many cripples. In America, people are ‘physically challenged’ and we fix them, accommodate them, or hide them. In the Third World, they have cripples; people with no faces, lepers, people with broken limbs set at 90 degree angles, eyeless people with no Raybans, all relying on the grace of God and the kindness of strangers. A man walked by with a goiter that hung all the way down to his belt. Our eyes met and his tired eyes said, what the hell are you looking at, infidel?
Suddenly, I was startled to see a man who stood out in a different way. I don’t know why I was startled. He had no physical deformity whatsoever. He seemed to be in his forties and was wearing a gallabiyah and skullcap like almost everyone else in the square. But he had this strange glow about him. He was radiating something, and at first I am sorry to say that I thought that he must be a European who had gone native. He has a certain sort of confidence to him that in the West we usually associate with old aristocracy. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but he absolutely transfixed me until he disappeared into the mosque.
The jig was now up with me and the dates. The drink was not something that I could hide in my pocket or toss over a fence. I had to confess that I hated dates and figs.
This infuriated the Ustez and he looked at me as thought I were feeble minded. He grabbed the glass out of my hand and drank it himself.
— Well, perhaps you can manage a cup of coffee, then.
So we went to Fishawi’s, the famous bazaar coffee house that had been open continuously around the clock for hundreds of years. The first thing that I saw when I entered was a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling. The paneled walls had large round mirrors hanging from them. The place seemed to be full of blonde headed Swedes, as though a Viking convention was in town.
We took a table from which we could see all. A small boy came by and dropped three pieces of hard candy on the table. I picked one up.
— You don’t want to eat that candy, said the Ustez. For one thing, it is probably 40 years old. Churchill might have fingered that very one. But it’s not for eating in any case.
— What’s if for?
— It is for that woman, he said, motioning with his chin to a thin woman dressed in black who had appeared from nowhere. If you want the woman, you take the candy.
I put the candy down and in a few minutes she came by. She looked into my eyes and gave me a lascivious smile. I was shocked to see that she was extremely old and wrinkled. Her face was covered with a paste of makeup and she had so much kohl on her eyes she looked like some sort of ancient raccoon. The Ustez greeted her with a polite nod and a couple of words, and she greeted him back.
— The remarkable thing, he said after she had picked up the three pieces of candy and headed over to a table full of stocky blondes who were busily munching theirs, is that she has been here since I was a mere lad and she was just as ancient then. She must be at least 90. When she dies, if she ever does die, they may have to hang her up next to the crocodile. By the way, I understand, Mr. unagidon, that you are still not feeling well.
— Yeah, still sick. I probably need to rest for a few days.
— You need something, said the Ustez, fiddling in his shirt pocket with what I had thought was a glasses case.
He put it on the table and unzipped it. Inside were two syringes and two small injection bottles. He took out a syringe and one of the bottles
— Here. Roll up your sleeve.
Ken started to laugh.
— Ustez, I whispered looking around, we’re in the middle of a coffee shop!
— Oh, don’t worry. It’s only vitamin B. It will make you feel much better.
— No thank you. I’ll pass.
— Are you sure? Well, as you wish, he said, putting his works away. Perhaps if you are squeamish about public places…
I asked the Ustez about the Mosque of Hussein and especially about the Rug of Blood. He giggled at this.
— Well, it is best for infidels not to enter the mosque. It’s not there for tourists after all. And a non-Muslim would do well to stay away from the square entirely on certain holy days.
We finished our coffee and the Ustez suggested that we not go out drinking after all given that I was still under the weather. Ken seemed disappointed, but he didn’t argue.
We headed back towards the mosque, where the Ustez expected to be able to catch a taxi. When we got to the square, he announced that that we needed some refreshment, even though we had only walked about 100 feet. This time is was a tall glass of fresh orange juice. We stood at a counter drinking and chatting idly, when the Ustez suddenly said, Excuse me, I must see someone.
He walked towards a man whom I was surprised to recognize as the strangely glowing man who had entered the mosque. They seemed to know each other very well and they laughed it up for a few minutes. There was still something about that man…
And then the Ustez was pointing in our direction and I knew they were talking about us. The stranger gave me a long hard look while the Ustez said something to him. He smiled, looked at the Ustez, and chuckled about something. Then he and the Ustez salaamed each other and the man walked back into the mosque.
When the Ustez came back, Ken asked, who was that?
— Oh, I have played a great joke at Mr. unagidon’s expense.
He started chuckling and seemed very pleased with himself.
— What did you say, I asked.
— That man I was speaking to is the head of the Sufi order attached to the Mosque of Hussein. A very holy man. He asked if you two were Muslims. I told him that Mr. Kent was not, but that you were, Mr. unagidon. He asked me how long you had been a Muslim. Rather often we have young Westerners who come to visit our glorious city who, in a spirit of exuberance, decide to convert to Islam. Regrettably, these kinds of conversions seldom last. But I assured him that you had been a Muslim for over three years and that you had converted in….Massachusetts!
He was laughing so hard; he could hardly spit out the last word.
— But the best part is that he wants you to pray with him and his fellowship in the mosque tonight!
The tears were now running down his cheeks and Ken was laughing too, no doubt from the look I had on my face.
— I can’t pray in that mosque! I’m not a Muslim!
— I know. Isn’t it wonderful? But Mr. unagidon, it isn’t often that one gets an invitation to prayer from the head Sufi of the Holy Mosque of Hussein!
He wiped his eyes.
— Well gentlemen, alas but I must depart. I will see you again soon and Mr. unagidon I wish you a speedy recovery. Salaam.
And he waddled off through the crowd and was gone.
— I want to get out of here, now, I told Ken.
— Why? He was having a joke. What are you worried about?
— Do you think he was telling the truth?
— Absolutely and without a doubt. He’s a great prankster. This is just his style. But don’t sweat it. I don’t see any Sufis around here. I’m sure that guy has already forgotten about you.
— I don’t know…
— Trust me, okay? Let’s split.
— All right.
—But first we have to do another circuit around the mosque.
— We do?! Why do we need to do that?
— Custom, Luck. We have to do it, man. This is Cairo. This is the way that it is.
— All right. But let’s walk quickly.
Of course, we strolled. I thought about the Sufi and now I knew what was odd about him. He had an aura.
Some weeks before on the way toCairoI had spent a week inRome. I had traveled with a group of Ukrainians, some of whom I had gone to high school with, and I had ended up staying in a Ukrainian religious pension run by nuns. These particular Ukrainians were Catholics and the Ukrainian cardinal in Rome had enough clout to get us front row seats to a general papal audience. I was interested in seeing the pope (Paul VI) to see if he looked particularly holy or not. I can report that in his snow-white outfit he looked like a cunning Sicilian grandfather wandering around in a nightshirt. The two tall cardinals flanking him dressed in blood red looked like the Vultures of Inquisition. All in all, it was what I expected.
But the Pope had guests who were dragged up to the front each in their turn. Some children’s delegations made up of little cuties carrying flowers, some priests from the back of beyond, a few Irish nuns; and then something remarkable. Two Middle Eastern monks dressed in black Maronite vestments were leading and supporting an ancient man wearing a white monk’s robe and skullcap and carrying a cheap bunch of flowers. He looked to be 100, and he was weeping unashamedly with joy from the experience of meeting the Pope. This man had an aura too. It was so tangible that he seemed to glow and the pope, the cardinals, and the monks looked like burned out light bulbs beside him. He was a hermit and he had been dragged out of some cave in Syria and cleaned up for the trip. I had never seen a person like this before, though I had read about them; someone of a tangible spirituality. And now inCairoI had seen another.
I mused about this as we turned the corner and headed on the last leg of the circuit. I wasn’t paying much attention to the square.
— Hey, man, look! It’s your buddy! said Ken.
I looked up. The Sufi was walking directly towards me with a group of at least 20 men behind him. He was staring at me.
— What am I going to do, I hissed out of the side of my mouth.
— Looks like you are going to get to pray in the mosque after all.
— What?! I don’t know how to pray like a Muslim! I don’t even know any Arabic. They’ll catch on in a second!
What was I going to do? When they found out, they were going to fetch the Rug of Blood, which I pictured as being very stiff and black. At the very least they were going to beat me to death for walking around the Holy Mosque of Hussein masquerading as a Muslim.
Then I thought of a way out. It was so simple. As soon as I touched the threshold of the mosque, I would fake a full-blown epileptic seizure, fall down, and start thrashing around. Yes, that’s exactly what I would do.
He came closer and closer, a small smile on his lips. Could I do it? Should I do it? I then realized that I couldn’t do it. How could I? He was about ten feet away now. Then five. When he was about three feet away, he suddenly looked through me and passed me, walking so close that he almost brushed my shoulder. The group with him simply split and went around us and went on their way.
— Man, that was close, said Ken.
— Yeah, thanks a lot, buddy.
My knees were shaking, but I noticed that my adrenaline levels were so high that my hangover was gone. We got to the end of the square and then Ken took a left and led me down some dark streets that got darker and darker as we walked.
— Where are we going?
— We’re just walking. It seems like a fine night for a walk.
As we continued to walk for a couple of miles, we reached a point where even house lights were becoming scarce. Strange neighborhood.
— Where are we?
— Where are we? We are in the cemetery.
— The cemetery? But these are houses.
— These are tombs. This is Egypt. People have buried their dead in tombs for 5,000 years when they could afford it. But you should come here during the day. There’s, like, half a million people living in the cemetery.
— Are you serious?
We had seen no one. It looked like a typical Cairo working class neighborhood, but deserted.
— They stay in at night. Officially they are not supposed to live here.
— These look like houses and mosques to me.
— The mosques are mosques, with tombs inside. The houses are mausoleums, with rooms like a regular house. The dead are buried in the walls and floors. From time to time the family comes and spends the day with them just as they did in the days of Cheops
— Why doesn’t the city kick them out?
— No place for them to go. Unofficially, the city is glad they are here. Half a million people with housing and the city does not have to pipe in water or have sewerage or electricity, since this is a cemetery and no one lives here.
— What about the owners of the tombs?
— Officially, some of these people are caretakers for the tombs. Someone hires Fouad to look after a tomb. Fouad brings his family to help. They bring their relatives and friends. The abandoned tombs get occupied and cared for. Pretty soon, you have half a million living here.
— Is this place safe?
— No. Bad place to be at night.
— Then why are we here?
— We’re not here. Who goes to the cemetery in the middle of the night?
I marveled at the simplicity of this form of urban planning. Even though we weren’t actually there, we sped through anyway and soon we were clear, on a road through the rocks and sand. In the full moon we could see rather clearly.
— Where the hell are we now?
— Outside the old walls.
In the distance I could see low rocky hills. That was Cairo. One step and one was out of the green and into the brown.
— Those hills are full of SAM sites, said Ken. Restricted areas.
Almost on cue, a large American car came roaring up the road. It had six men in it. It pulled to a gravel scattering stop next to us. I didn’t like the look of it, and I continued walking a few yards down the road while Ken engaged them in animated conversation. Finally he laughed and I saw them waving as the car pulled speedily away.
— What was that?
— That was odd. Those guys asked me if I knew how to get out to the SAM sites without passing through the military checkpoints.
— Creepy. Were they some sort of police?
— Who knows? This is Egypt. They could have been anyone.
We continued on. To our left, the land sloped down to a sort of valley. To the right was a wall of rock that looked to be forty feet high at least. I could not see to the top. Had it not been for the surface of the modern road, I might have been walking in biblical times.
Then the road turned a corner. Suddenly, ahead of me the road dipped and on top of the rock was part of the old structure of the Citadel. The Citadel was an ancient fortress built by Saladin during the Crusades, using Crusader prisoners of war. It was startling to see it there in the moonlight. Pure sublime romantic beauty. Below the wall on the other side of the road was a tea garden, ancient as well, shaded by many venerable trees.
— Let’s get a beer, said Ken.
So we walked down. They seemed surprised to see us, which made sense, considering the road we had walked in on. The service was more perfunctory than friendly. Still, it was so picturesque we would have stayed. But I was freezing. I had forgotten how cold the desert gets at night. Ken of course was wearing a light jacket.
— You should have worn a jacket, man, he said as he watched me shiver.
— Now you tell me. Can you order me a tea?
The waiter brought me tea and contrary to all Arab custom I belted it down in order to warm up.
— Let’s get back.
We paid up and headed out. Instead of turning back, Ken wanted to continue up the road.
— I’m pretty sure that this road leads back to the city.
— Pretty sure? What if it doesn’t?
But we continued up the road another kilometer or two and after the road took another turn, we were back in the rocks and sand. The cliff to our right came right up to the edge of the road; to the left, the low valley.
— What’s that noise?
— That? Probably just some dogs. Sound carries a long way in the desert.
But not tonight. These dogs were at the bottom of the valley just to our left, maybe sixty feet down the slope.
— Stop! said Ken. Freeze!
It was a pack of feral dogs, maybe twenty of them; ugly, vicious and starving. They stopped and looked up at us, sniffing the air.
We faced each other in total silence. Then they attacked, rushing up the hill towards us.
At our feet were rocks of various sizes, from baked potatoes to loaves of bread. Ken picked up a potato and threw it at into the pack, hitting one of them.
— Start throwing! he yelled. Come on, you bastards! he screamed, throwing another one. They barked and growled and slowed a bit, but they kept coming.
We started throwing the rocks, one handed and two handed, as fast as we could. We hit some and knocked some down, but still they kept coming on.
Ken had a good arm. He had played a lot of Little League when he was a kid. His shots told. I was more like the field artillery with few scores and a lot of property damage. I was scared witless and was starting to regret a childhood filled with books.
Then Ken threw a potato that knocked down the leader of the pack. The dogs suddenly stopped and began to mill around. Now that they were relatively stationary, we were hitting them better and to my great joy they started to back off. So did we. But we kept the rocks flying until they turned and limped off. We backed down the road for about 20 years with rocks in hand until we were sure they were gone.
— Now that was…, said Ken.
I don’t think that I had anything to say. I was in shock.
We trudged on down the road until we came to an old gate, then some houses, and then two old mosques on either side of the road silently mirroring each other. There were some people now. Farmers from the look of it, bringing the morning produce in to the sleeping city.
As we passed between the mosques, Ken announced that he was hungry. I found that I was too.
— Let’s keep an eye open for a place.
We found one soon. It was a koshari joint, fifteen piastres a plate. It was a low down dive of a place with dirty dishes and the koshari was totally awful on technical points, but it was one of the best meals I ever had.
(For those who would like to try it at home, here is the recipe:
1 half cup overcooked white rice
1 half cup overcooked spaghetti
1 half cup watery tomato sauce, straight from the can
1 half cup cooked lentils
1 table spoon of spices, chosen at random
1 half table spoon of sand, ground finely
Put the rice on a dirty plate and dump the rest of the stuff on top. Garnish with a wild dog attack and a severe hangover. Serves one.)
While we ate, Ken showed me something. He held up the palms of his hands. The upside down V and the vertical line on the left palm looks like the Arabic number 81. The vertical line and the upside down V on the palm of the right hand looks like the Arabic number 18. 81 + 18 = 99; this is the number of names of Allah.
— See, we’re branded!
He laughed and then clapped his hands together, yawned, and stretched.
— What a day, he said, like we were knocking off from some office job. Let’s catch a taxi and get home and get some sleep. Need to rest up. We’re going out tonight with Khaled and the boys…