This particular family reception was surreal: the mood was celebratory but cautious; everyone was there, all my brothers with their very long beards; the nieces in their hijab, which they take off once they get home. (Wearing hijab is complicated. It has its religious and social rules. If I’m the only visitor in the room, they can leave them off, and they do. It just depends on who comes in the room if the hijab will be on or off: if he is a brother, his sisters can leave their hijab off, but other nieces have to put them on. If someone comes to the door, the person who opens the door announces to everyone who is coming so the right person is ready with her hijab. Sometimes it happens so fast, people are coming and going, then it gets confusing, who should have hijab on or who can have it off, and if you can’t find your own hijab, then quickly grab one from a non-hijab compliant girl; then everyone starts giggling.)
As a group, my brothers who live in Egypt are on the conservative side. I will introduce them to you here in order from youngest to oldest. Abdel Nasser, the youngest, was a military man until he became more interested in growing his beard than his career. He was let go with an early retirement. Now he is, naturally, the most disciplined about his religion. As a military man, he understands the maneuvering of the military in running the country. “Tantawi is the most cunning, confusing, military man I know; I served under him,” he vented. “He could get the whole country lost in a flinch.” Then he added, “He is the dirtiest man I have ever seen.” Next, Refaat, the second-to-youngest, is the most dedicated one. As a youth, he was the funniest most lovable kid in our village. Now he is an executive of a big construction company. In the aftermath of Sadat’s assassination, in the first year of Mubarak’s presidency, he had the bad fortune of being arrested, tortured and jailed for 13 months, then let go without any trial or an apology. After his release, and for 30 years, he has had to go to the National Security office on the first Tuesday of each month to make sure he is still broken and tamed. I asked him about the revolution and the changes that had occurred for him personally. He replied, “For the first time in 30 years, I’m not afraid. I can walk, go anywhere without fearing being humiliated or arrested by the security police,” he softly said without any bitterness. Abdel Raffaa, who everyone calls Sheik Obed, he is the conscience of the family. He is loved by everyone, and he is the closest to me in age, just a year older. When he was about six years old, he fell off the roof of our house and landed on his head, I rushed to see him and I saw a big cut in his forehead. I thought I could almost see his brain oozing out. Something happened to him that day; he never was able to tell a lie after that. You can always count on him to tell it like it is, which sometimes gets him into trouble. His religion is very deep but balanced. He doesn’t quote from the Hadith or Quran as much as the other brothers. “The youth of this country are the noblest people of Egypt,” he explained, “they are men and did what our generation couldn’t do,” he explained.
Then there is Hosam, the one who terrorized the village growing up, and who now has the longest beard of the Salafy bunch. His views go straight down the party line. “We need religion to guide our lives and our country,” he always says.
Emad is known as the Omdah (the mayor). His Islam is a quiet one, a moderate Salafy. “God helps Egypt to make the right choice”, he explains. He has always been the comfort seeker in the family, and his religious view is no different.
Finally, my only sister, who also, I might add, is the most successful member of the family career-wise; she was the VP of a big investment bank before she retired a few years ago. Her husband was a military man, who was captured in the 1967 war and held as a prisoner of war for a year or so. She is also very religious, going to a religious academy for Qur’an studies. She insisted I help her prep for her exams, which requires memorizing long passages of the Qur’an. I stayed in her house during my visit, so we talked a lot. She has a great sense of humor when she is alone. She treated me like her own son: the breakfast was always on time and laid out on the table; my clothes were always clean, and my bed was always made. She is on the side of military and stability, and makes no apology about it. “If it wasn’t for the military, there wouldn’t be any revolution” she told me. “The youth of the revolution are a bunch of boys, and know nothing about running a country like Egypt,” she explained. Her son, Essam, an open “felool”, those who benefited during the Mubarak era, don’t accept this change easily. He is married with two kids, works for a multinational corporation out of Dubai, drives a top model BMW, and lives his life to the fullest. “People need just to go to work, and stop blaming the military for everything,” he said under his voice with a smile.
My brothers’ children are still religious, but also supporters of the youth revolution. It doesn’t take much before the family conversation get contested and edgy. I have never seen my family talking politics with such fervor! The political conversation breaks the tradition family bounds, the old alliance has shifted, the brothers are ganging up on their only sister, but she doesn’t budge. “We need to get some sleep before we head to Tahrir Square,” said my nephew Mohamed. Now it is three in the morning. The call for prayers would start soon, said my niece Mariam with a smile. In Cairo, mosques are everywhere; all you need is a megaphone and a sidewalk, and you’ve got yourself a local mosque. Mosques were the only place in Egypt that the regime of the ex-dictator, Mubarak, could not penetrate or control. Before I left Egypt more than 30 years ago, I only heard the “Azan” call for prayer maybe once a week, for Friday prayers. Now it seems they call for prayer every few hours. My brothers got up to go to the fajr (dawn) prayer. They are the Salafy Bunch, as I call them. Each wears a robe, and a very long beard, keeping up with the beard generation, which dominated Egypt lately. In fact, beards were the only thing allowed to grow during the Mubarak regime.