The Story of 3 Muslim-Americans in Egypt

A Muslim-American in Cairo
by Tasneem Chithiwala

“Ya Gamila! Come here sexy,” the men clucked at us in Arabic as we pushed our way past them toward class.
Every day we walked the back route in hopes of avoiding the hoards of men that congregated on the sidewalks to smoke.
And yet, every day dealt with them and closed our ears to the unrelenting provocation.
As a Muslim woman studying abroad in Egypt, I had anticipated this type of behavior, but every encounter still proved demeaning and exhausting.
I prepared by packing clothes that would not elicit unwanted attention, in anticipation of the cultural differences I might encounter.
I even toyed with the idea of wearing the hijaab, a traditional head covering, while I was there but ultimately chose not to.
Though I consider myself a religious person, I’ve never chosen to wear a hijaab in the United States, so I felt that using it in Cairo would be an unfair representation of who I really am.
When I go to the mosque in California, we are required to wear it, and I’ve always donned the hijaab out of respect.
I admire my friends who have chosen to wear one in America because I can understand how difficult it must be.
The hijaab, a symbol of modesty and honor, is often misinterpreted as a means of oppressing women.
On the contrary, many find that wearing it empowers them.
During my four-month stay in Egypt, I learned that wearing the hijaab there went beyond modesty and honor.
It was a shield.
It seemed that the women in this environment were forced to choose to cover their heads to protect themselves from harassment and even then, it still occurred.
And because I looked like I could easily be Egyptian, and most certainly a Muslim, society expected me to cover myself too.
Even women would make comments about my lack of covering and, of course, I got the brunt of harassment from men compared to my white American counterparts.
Though I made the decision not to wear a hijaab every day, there were still occasions, like visiting the mosque for prayer, when I had to wear a headdress.
During those times, I found no difference in how I was treated.
The catcalls didn’t cease, and I was still leered at.
Men showed the same disrespect to a covered woman as they did to any woman in a t-shirt and jeans.
Though I continue to respect the women who wear a hijaab in this country and in others, finding a reason to wear the headdress will always be a struggle for me.
Tasneem Chithiwala is a senior at Northwestern University majoring in journalism.
She studied abroad with American University’s program in Cairo ( during the fall of 2005. Tasneem can be reached at

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A Muslim in America
by Farah Mohd Alkaf

Before I came to America as a transfer student in the fall of 2004, I’d never ventured beyond the borders of Malaysia for more than a month at a time.
As my mother tearfully hugged me goodbye at the airport (after loading my luggage with instant noodles and a copy of the Koran, and reminding me every 10 minutes to say a special travel prayer on the plane), it was hard not to think that my life was going to change.
I worried about all kinds of things—psycho roommates, surviving on dining hall food, hellish study sessions—but it never occurred to me that the one thing I’d have trouble hanging on to most wasn’t my sanity, as I first imagined, but my faith.
I am Muslim and I grew up in a Muslim country.
Sure, Malaysia’s got Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus, among people of other faiths, but just over 60 percent of the country follows Islam.
When people who are of the same faith constantly surround you, you tend to take things for granted.
I’d never had to work at practicing my religion, but suddenly every little thing required extra effort.
Back home, schools scheduled around prayer times, or teachers would let students take 10 minutes to go to the prayer room during class.
Here, my schedule isn’t quite so easy on me, and taking time to pray can often feel like a hassle.
Ramadan, the fasting month for Muslims, is an even bigger trial.
Not only does my stomach rumble uncomfortably loudly in class (including several times, memorably, in the deadly quiet of an international relations midterm), but in smaller classes I also have to deal with curious stares from classmates who don’t quite understand why I’m chowing down in the middle of a lecture.
And let’s not even talk about Eid—I celebrated the end of Ramadan by studying for, and taking, a law quiz.
As if it isn’t enough of a struggle to maintain even the most basic tenets of Islam, I also have to deal with the larger, more difficult problem of temptation.
Growing up, we’d been warned time and time again of the insidious Western culture and how we shouldn’t fall prey to its charms.
My grandmother’s parting advice, whispered into my ear at the airport was, “Remember to come home. Don’t marry a foreigner!”But I hadn’t quite counted on the culture shock that came with finding out how commonplace things like sleeping around, drinking alcohol, and smoking can seem on college campuses. You aren’t supposed to be allowed to serve liquor to Muslims in Malaysia, and a couple can be arrested if they’re caught having sex before marriage.
Here in America the “good girl” stance that was the norm to practice back home sets me apart from many of my peers.
I spent most of my first term patiently resisting attempts to get me to stray by friends who didn’t understand my refusals.
“Why?” they asked, bewildered.
“What’s wrong with drinking a beer once in a while?” They don’t understand that my upbringing has already soured the idea of drinking for me, and that watching them make fools of themselves while inebriated, though amusing, does nothing to convince me otherwise.
I’m not saying I haven’t been tempted to join in, haven’t wanted to be a part of normal college life as defined by my American friends, haven’t wanted to experience the kind of enjoyment they seem to have at parties.
But every time, a voice in my head holds me back.
It is not who I am.
It is not who I was brought up to be.
And that can be attributed not only to having the strictest and most “Asian” of parents but also to the religion that has given me my value system—to Islam.
That, then, has been my biggest challenge.
The strength of faith that ties me to a warm, embracing community in my own country only sets me apart in America.
It is easy to seek refuge in the company of other Malaysians, people who see things from the same perspective, but this is not what I came to the America for; I came to experience new things, meet new people, get myself out of the comfort zone I’d inhabited for so long.
The challenge that I struggle with every day is relishing and accepting these new experiences without losing sight of the beliefs and traditions that make me who I am.
What does this all mean? If you’re asking me out, suggest a coffee, not a beer.
Farah Mohd Alkaf, AV’s Web Editor, is a senior majoring in journalism at Northwestern University.
She is an international transfer student from Malaysia. She can be reached at

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An American in Cairo
by Timothy Gutmann

I have always had an interest in Arab Muslim life.
Islamic heritage and my own Western ancestry have been closely intertwined.
Historians have often portrayed each as poised to destroy the other in some eras; at other times, indistinguishably connected.
The relationship between faith and intellect fascinates me.
To these ends, I took a few years of Arabic to get closer to the culture.
At Boston University, I studied Islam and the history of its ideas.
I had a rudimentary understanding of Egyptian politics and I knew the historical timeline, but there was nothing like seeing those underlying factions marching in the streets.
For all the use of distant observation, I simply needed to go there.
So I enrolled for the summer of 2005 in the American University program in Egypt.
I lived in Cairo, properly al-Qahirah— literally the city “victorious.” In a sense, the place has been victorious over the ages.
The hourglass has worn down and destroyed many a lesser city and civilization, but Cairo has persisted in its uniqueness.
Everything there is different.
The space is different.
The time is different.
Egyptian society is unambiguously authoritarian.
The Middle East in general, and Egypt specifically, has weathered 30 years of religious revival.
Knowing this, I expected people in Cairo to lead a dull, pious existence.
Instead, I found chaos and intoxicating vitality—something no amount of holy water can sober.
The physical Cairo is stuffed to the brim.
Its 15 million inhabitants overwhelm whatever semblance of order the socialists in the 1950s ever imagined.
Hectic souqs, shouting students, and foreigners pack streets devoid of any sort of traffic
regulation, mocking the watchful gaze of black-clad political police with berets and submachine guns.
The mua’zzin’s calls to prayer are easily heard but sometimes compete with European techno music for the very air of the city.
Women wearing the traditional hijab sometimes sit next to hipsters in miniskirts on the Metro, a transportation method that the government insists on segregating by gender.
In Cairo, I once saw a woman on the Metro get stuck in the subway turnstiles.
She was clearly having trouble and a few men gathered to try to help.
But according to most religious conservatives, men and women are forbidden to touch in the public sphere.
So, the gentlemen could do nothing but stand there and empathize.
This unnerved me.
Of course, this was no more than a feeling, expressed by little real experience of Arab life, culture or Middle Eastern sexuality.
However, that was just the surface of life in al-Qahirah.
In dark overhangs and in corners of the Nile esplanade, couples hold hands and occasionally dare to go for a bit more.
The space of Cairo defies any sort of regulation, even its own.
Egyptian politics, too, revealed themselves to me as incoherent, yet undeniably forceful.
Against the best advice of our program’s directors, several of my friends and I went to watch groups protest the Mubarak regime.
Such events often turn violent, and Egypt’s security forces have vague directives and no democratic supervision.
They exercise authority almost at their own discretion.
The protests I witnessed occurred before the country’s historic 2005 elections, which finally saw limited but true competition—a first in the region’s history.
While I was studying abroad, though, President Muhammad Husni Mubarak’s face looked aloofly out from buildings everywhere in framed pictures and hand-drawn posters.
Three years of university life in Boston had accustomed me to view protest as a form of self-expression. But often, American protests have struck me as insincere or even a little lazy.
These demonstrations in Cairo displayed a sense of urgency unlike any I had ever seen before.
Protesters crowded the neighborhood surrounding the Sayyidah Zainab mosque, a rougher part of town. Heavily armored police surrounded the protesters, but the number of cameras present prevented any real violence.
The protestors presented the cops with a firm front, and the crowd shouted, “Down with Husni Mubarak, down with George Bush, down with Tony Blair.”But a closer examination of the situation showed less of a united effort.
On one end, the protest’s sponsors included the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative organization that called for the right to run for office and the implementation of strict social and sexual regulation.
On the other, college students and well-heeled liberals demanded openness in government and freedom of the press.
Truly looking at the protestors gave me a better understanding of who they were and where they came from.
I traveled wanting a truly cosmopolitan perspective, to learn to relate to each person as an individual.
I understood that this required uncovering as much as I could about cultural politics and historical communication.
What I learned along the way was that passing through another culture involves confronting prejudices.
This experience was only the beginning to what I see as a lifelong pursuit: experiencing the wide world.
Timothy Gutmann is a senior at Boston University where he majors in history and philosophy/religion.
He studied abroad in Egypt last summer at the American University in Cairo. Contact him at
[email protected]