I hate Egypt, and I miss it a lot. By 2013, the sunny spring of the 2011 revolution had faded to a bloody winter that showered bullets and froze hearts and, in my family’s case, burned the bridge across the Atlantic. Our summer visits, held every two years, ended. Now, only my retired uncle’s annual Ramadan visits remind us of the reality of the world from which we’ve been exiled.
He returns the summer after my freshman year of college to lead the prayer at the small musalla. The prayer space is at the London Terrace apartment complex just off of Route 9 in Old Bridge. I’m driving.
Our nightly trips aren’t inevitable. They aren’t even necessary. He could have rented an apartment at London Terrace, 30 minutes away from our house but an easy five-minute walk from the musalla. It is a sensible plan, except no one likes the idea of leaving him in a lonely, inaccessible flat for the only month of the year we get to see him. So I volunteer to drive my uncle from our house to the musalla every night, while my dad leads prayers across New York and New Jersey.
Amu Sameer spends most of our drives practicing his Quranic recitation. For those first few days, my uncle is more enigma than flesh — like he’s always been. I know him as Baba’s brother, Sayed’s father and the family driver who, in a car unacquainted with seat belts, drive at speeds almost certainly illegal on American highways. I wonder if he thinks my driving, so often derided by my sisters as reckless, is brutally tame.
We’re driving by Darul Arqam, my old private school, on a street with a 35mph speed limit, when he expresses approval of my restraint.
“Your dad comes here and just flies,” he says, sarcastically gesturing at the street in a tone of elderly-sibling disapproval I recognize well. My four younger sisters hear it often. When he criticizes me later for pressing the gas pedal too hard when barreling down Ryder’s Lane, I hardly feel diminished. I’m too busy feeling honored.
I am confused, too, that my mellow passenger seems to have forgotten the NASCAR racer who flew the roads of the Nile Delta. Did my childhood memories slightly exaggerate my uncle breaking every traffic law imaginable?
My uncle asks me, once, to explain to him the system of higher education in the United States: the convoluted machinations of financial aid, the distinction between private and public schools, the different avenues of study. I think my dad’s need to emphasize that I attend Ye-ale has inspired the question. That’s my parents’ dilemma: They want to brag about my new school, but my relatives in Egypt have no frame of reference with which to understand its value. In Egypt, you aren’t asked where you went to college, you’re asked what you studied. Engineering is prestige, Yale a tongue-twisting non-entity. If I’m not studying medicine, why am I even there?
Amu is worried about his son, Sayed, and the non-future the Egyptian education system is providing him. He tells me of teachers skipping class for weeks and months at a time, of lessons so empty that students attend private tutoring sessions to compensate and of an administrative system that enables zero accountability. He wonders about his 15-year-old son’s slavish adherence to fashion trends, his obsession with Facebook and his lazy millennial slang when with his friends. He speaks about Egypt’s future while staring at the cracked asphalt of poorly-lit roads leading to nothing.
I think at first, with some degree of paranoia, that my uncle looks at me and resents my privilege, the intrusive pride with which my father walks, the teasing stability that our family enjoys. But hostility, even vague contempt, is as foreign to him as his fatalistic cigarette. I wonder if I have fabricated the uncle of my childhood.
All I had ever known of Amu Sameer as a father was that I wouldn’t want him as one. He’d always seemed so harsh on Sayed, shouting at him for being late to the kutaab, a communal Qur’an class, or for dirtying his clothing while playing soccer in the streets or for watching too many dubbed Japanese anime on SpaceToon. My cousins peddled horror stories about his kharazana, a bamboo stick that descended from the top of his dresser to deliver discipline.
But now he’s an urban legend reduced to reality. When my uncle glances at me, his face illuminated by a passing streetlight, I see Sayed in his smile.
We don’t actually travel Route 9 most of the time. I take my uncle away from the crowded noise of the Garden State Parkway, through obscure backstreets and silent side roads. We stream through a winding two-mile stretch through forest, drive parallel to abandoned train tracks and take unpaved turns by an asphalt mixing plant. It’s the closest we can come to privacy on public roads.
Route 9 interrupts us with civilization. Perrine Road empties out into TD Bank and Exxon Gas station and the Outback Steakhouse and Wendy’s. The mosque is three minutes away. Route 9 is a reminder that my time with my uncle is limited, but it’s also the reason I’m able to spend so much time with him. It’s a curious coincidence, I think, that Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar.
Sometimes, instead of asking about the intricacies of American history, he recites his surahs for the day. Some days I enjoy his slow, melodic recitation, savor its gentle embrace, as the night sky and the night road stretch out before us. Other days, though, I find myself wishing, with a great deal of guilt, that he wouldn’t recite, that he would leave God’s Word be for just 30 minutes and simply speak to me. I would hear his recitation soon enough, for the hour that we stand in worship that night and for the many nights to come, and in the morning when I wake to find him reviewing on the couch, and in the noon after he wakes from his nap, and in the eve when he paces around our backyard deck, and again as my legs ache in prayer.
I don’t dare tell him that.
“You practice all day, and then you actually start leading and it all goes,” he tells me one night, with his usual mix of amusement and bemusement. He swipes the air above his head, presumably mimicking a broom sweeping verses off of his mind’s slate. “You forget a word in the middle of a verse, and while you try to remember it you forget the rest of the verse, and suddenly everything is gone and well I guess that’s the end of this rakah.”
I laugh hard and loud. It’s as though he has stood in my body and felt my terror, and suddenly I realize he has. We both dread it, the mental abyss that blinds your memory and uncaringly sends your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, except instead of fighting or fleeing you’re sinking into the prayer carpet under the accusatory weight of rows upon rows of congregationalists waiting for you to finish the surah, you fraud.
I cheer for my uncle from those rows, relaxing when he finishes a rakah without incident and tensing when he stumbles. He doesn’t stumble nearly as much as I would over calculus, but he stumbles often enough that his daily willingness to lead is aspirational. He makes plausible the idea that I can overcome my prayer-fright. I just need to make peace with the inevitable failure of memory.
I’m not there yet, though, so I let him practice. It’s his bulwark against the fear of leading the prayer, his basis for daring to speak, in a voice roughened by age and scarred by smoke, the Words of God.
I don’t see him smoke a single time during his stay. I wonder if I should ask him if he has quit, if my childhood fear that he’d someday smoke himself to death can finally rest. But I never can, not in all the times we speak. So we speak about other things. Islam in the United States. Egypt’s history of political persecution. The educational problems facing private Islamic schools. My baby sisters’ catastrophic brattiness. His experiences as my father’s older brother. The best and worst moments are when he laughs his hearty, heart-warming laugh, only to break down into a vicious coughing fit that makes my hands grip the steering wheel tighter.
But the bad is worth the good. He isn’t very different from my dad: tough, scary-looking, but with an inside softer than the ishta, the clotted cream, that we so often eat during suhoor.
Assalamu Alaikum Warahmatullahi Wa Barakatuh. Assalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah.
I feel emotional when my uncle concludes the last rakah of the taraweeh prayer on the final night. The onslaught of “thank you, our shiekh” and “God bless you” and bagged presents and kisses on the cheek leave my uncle feeling sentimental. He occasionally complains to me about the fickle attitudes of the mosque’s managers, about their insistence that he finish prayer at 11:20 p.m. rather than 11:30 p.m. while also reciting more slowly and reciting more. All was buried under jolly hugs and teary-eyed gratitude.
“These people…” my uncle mutters as we depart the mosque, but he’s dabbing his eyes and glancing back as we get into the car.
The next day we’re at JFK airport. Unlike earlier years, I’m taller than him. I watch quietly as he and my father exchange a tight hug. Then, unexpectedly but inevitably, it’s my turn. I swallow the lump in my throat. As I pull away I wonder if I had imagined the slight redness in his eyes. Then my uncle is walking away, clothed in the business t-shirt and dress pants he’d wear every time he picked us up from the Cairo airport.
“You know he was crying?” my dad asks, only fleetingly glancing at me as he says it. I just nod, murmuring something I don’t remember.