It is said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. In my case, it started with a number of flights. The first of these took me from Malta to Cairo. From there, I was meant to take a connecting flight to Thailand. With my main luggage safe and sound in the hands of the baggage handlers, I had only a slight issue. The flight wasn’t for another few hours. I had plenty of time to kill.
Going through security, I had the misfortune to be checked by a really bored Egyptian guy who made life quite annoying for me by repeatedly checking my hand luggage just to have a laugh with his friends. Unfortunately for him, as a Maltese I was able to understand good parts of the Arabic he spoke, but chose to keep silent. This strategy paid off as I was finally free.
Thirsty due to the long flight and lack of water bottles on flights, I befriended a random Egyptian worker, and convinced him to bring me a small bottle of water. I pushed my luck a bit and scared the cat away, but the one bottle at least gave me some respite. There were still several hours between me and Bangkok though, so I needed to kill some more time. There’s only so much amusement one can get from using the internet and after a while, it’s good to give it a break. Juggling is popular with the kids but once again, anything that is done for too long becomes a drag. Finally, a sign caught my attention. There was a Muslim prayer room. Why not use the time here to learn about other cultures, I though as I headed in that direction.
Once inside, I proceeded to wash myself in customary Muslim fashion and head towards the sacred area. I’m no Muslim, or Christian for that matter, but I feel that it’s important to try to understand what drives people to be religious. Part of me was afraid that the Muslims might take umbrage at my attempts to pass as one of them, however I genuinely wanted to try to learn another religion’s prayer techniques. Much of the conflict in this world stems from misunderstanding. We fear what we do not understand and all of us have a great deal of ignorance on several matters. I did however fail to pray correctly in spite of all my efforts. Perhaps I wasn’t bending correctly, and I was certainly not using the right technique. It wasn’t long before a huge African man approached me. I wondered whether he’s get pissed at me for mocking the prophet.
The man introduced himself as a Sudanese. He gave me a tutorial and showed me how to pray correctly. He tried to teach me the words, but though Arabic is similar to Maltese, it is different enough to make some utterances a bit of a challenge. Undaunted, this patient gentle giant of a man continued to explain his religion with great passion. I had to lie and say I was a beginner Muslim, as I was afraid that if I said I was an atheist or Christian, things would get ugly really quickly. I felt a bit guilty. Here I was trying to pass the time learning about something which I was very ignorant about, and here was a man imparting his knowledge with a commendable sense of duty and love for his faith.
You may or may not believe that faith or religion is the opium of the masses, but there’s no denying the fact that it gives millions of people a sense of purpose which they might otherwise perhaps struggle to find. This man like many others from his country had been a soldier in the Sudanese war. Perhaps in his faith, he found refuge from the carnage, for bullets and mortar rounds rip through human flesh with little regard for faith or religious tenets.
Finding that I was even more of a hard rock to crack than he’d bargained for, he enlisted the aid of the conveniently nearby Imam, who was kind enough to give me an idiot’s guide to Islam. After answering several of my questions, he regaled me with a book about how Islam is misunderstood in the West. Over the next few months, many were the times were I read parts of the book with interest, not always agreeing with everything but trying to keep an open mind, until I finally traded the book away for another as is common among backpackers in South East Asia.
I may never be a Muslim, or a Christian for that matter. Religion is for me perhaps a closed book, a chalice from which I have drunk my fill and do not intend to drink from again. Still, that day I learnt more abut the Muslim religion than I would have just by reading internet articles. As I looked at my mobile phone, I noticed that over two hours had passed, enough time for me to start thinking about my flight to Bangkok. I’m sure that if the Muslim version of heaven is the correct one, a certain Sudanese man and local Iman will probably be getting lots of brownie points, and maybe even a high five at the pearly gates for the genuine and much appreciated efforts to educate this uneducated one in a matter which is for them of the utmost importance.
N.B. The image was not taken by myself, and is taken from the internet. I didn’t take images of that holy place as I feared people would react negatively to that. Still, it gives you an idea of what the place looks like.