*This is a guest post from my dear heart Laila. The post is about her experience as a Black Muslim Woman abroad*
A little over a year ago I finally listened to the voice in my head (Allah) that said to leave my job. I had nothing lined up. I had applied to a few different places and nothing had come of the interviews I went on, but my time was up there. When I submitted my notice I had no regret and no fear. When it’s time to go it’s time to go. After I left the job I applied to a few more places all with the intention of relocating. I wanted to get out of New York by any means necessary. When the first job I applied to wanted to hire me I was excited . I thought this will be great a new adventure in a new city. I had applied to a job in New Orleans where I would be helping to rebuild homes that were destroyed after Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, there were no positions available in New Orleans.
The turning point that got this Black beauty living in Egypt was a conversation I had with a good friend of mine. She had moved to Egypt about six months prior and was studying there and loving it. Since she left she kept asking me to come, but I didn’t have enough money or time. I told her about the job I was denied she asked me again to come to Egypt. Not to visit, but to live for a year and study. I of course said no. Egypt wasn’t what I thought the next step of my life would be. I was thinking about moving to a city in the United States, not Egypt. But, the more we talked about it the more it made sense. I had no bills that I was married to and I was subletting her apartment for her, so I could leave whenever I wanted. When I left my job, I left with all my sick and vacation pay. Anyone who knows me knows that I almost never took off from work so after eight years that was a pretty penny. Then she asked me a critical question that changed my mind and gripped my heart. “When else will you have the time and money to study the book of Allah?”. When she asked me that I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t speak because the tears just swam down my face. This is why it’s important to have friends who are believers. She reminded me to make two rakat and book my ticket so shaytan ( the devil) didn’t have time to fill me with any doubt. I booked my ticket the next day and moved to Egypt at the end of that month.
I was sooooooooo excited! I was moving to Africa, T. (Nas- Belly reference). Anyway , I got to the airport gave my bro a goodbye hug and tried to hide my tears cause I’m a thug and I was on my way. Twenty hours later and I was in Egypt. And pretty much as soon as I got off the plane I was re-introduced to Arab Muslim elitism. When I went to through customs in Egypt I was hit with the Muslim twenty questions, you know the Muslim twenty questions every non Arab – hijabi gets when we get in to taxis or corner stores in NY. However, these questions were a bit different and confused me, they were hidden in customs lingo. The customs agent asked me what I thought were basic questions at first plus I was exhausted from my travels so I wasn’t quite understanding all of his many questions:
Custom’s agent: Whats your name?
Customs Agent: Whats your other name ?
Customs Agent: What’s your other name that’s not what’s on your passport?
Me: Yes it is? What are you talking about? (with real attitude and confusion – remember I told you I was tired) Oh you mean my middle name? Sorry Americans don’t really care about middle names. It’s Sauda.
Customs Agent: Oh we care about that in Egypt. But what’s your other name?
Me: What other name? I only have one name: Laila Sauda Nor????
Customs Agent: You don’t have another name?
Me: No –should I have more than one? (Utterly confused)
Customs Agent: Where are your traveling from?
Me: New York
Customs Agent: Where were you born?
*Just an FYI, ALL of this information is on my passport that the customs agent is holding and I’m tired and had been traveling for almost a full day. But the interrogation continued*
Customs Agent: Where is your mother from?
Customs Agent: Where is your father from?
Customs Agent: Where are you from?
Customs Agent: What’s your nationality?
Customs Agent: What’s your other nationality?
Customs Agent: Your other nationality?
*Well maybe I don’t know what nationality means*
Me: Can you have more than one? I’m from America what are you asking me?
Customs Agent: You don’t have a different nationality?
Me: Is that possible? I was born in America – I’m American! What are you asking me? ( I didn’t realize I had gotten louder I was giving him full on Black Brooklyn Women “I’m sick and tired of this” face, volume, and tone. Shoot, but listen dude, move on to the next one.)
Customs Agent: Ok ok ok ok it’s fine yani.
Then he proceeded to ask me a few more questions that were actually legit and had to do with my stay in Egypt and he let me go .I would come to have many more conversations like that. Perhaps not with that exact line of questioning but pretty dern close. What I experienced was the gentleman trying to make sense of how I look vs, my name and where I’m from. When I first got to Egypt I had on an abaya, a nose ring, a septum ring ,and I also have a tattoo on one of my hands. People from New York see this about 50 times a day. It’s not special or different, but alas, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Let us not forget…I’m Black! So how could “all of that” be born a Muslim and have no Arab ties? That gentleman might’ve lost his natural mind that day trying to figure out how all that was possible. I was finally able to get my passport stamped and retrieve my luggage and left the airport. My friend picked me up and we were off. I was so excited and I thought I would be so amazed at everything I saw. I expected the pyramids to be right there when I left the airport and the sand to be clean and atv ready, like I always imagine and saw in the pictures. Now that I think about it ,I think the pictures of the clean sand were of Dubai.
I quickly learned that nothing I thought I knew about Egypt was the reality. Everything is a lot dirtier and slower and yet somehow always more rushed than I thought it would be. This was my first experience being so far away from home and for so long. The last time I was away from home I was in undergrad – it was a lot dirtier than I expected there too but I went home every three months. While it became evident that there was a lot I didn’t and I don’t like about Egypt there’s also a peace and internal happiness that comes from your work being purely to learn and understand the book of Allah.
Lesson number one in Egypt was adjusting to living in what felt like was a downgrade from the projects. No shade to the projects; but living in the projects in America is not like the projects in a third worldish country (maybe not third world but 2 and a quarter world country). The actual apartment was ok but the building and its outside of was a level of filth I’ve never known. The block I lived on had tall apartment buildings and a plethora of stores, many of them restaurants and very little space between. For the whole block there was one big dumpster everyone threw their trash in. So it was more like that part of the block and the sidewalks behind it were designated for trash. What comes with large amounts of trash? Rats right? Or so I thought., Egypt has its own checks and balances. I’ve been in Egypt almost a year and Alhumdullilah I’ve yet to see a rat. The stray cats and weasels evidently keep the rats out of commission.
Lesson number two: learning how to travel. As I’ve said I’m from Brooklyn and anyone from Brooklyn should be familiar with dollar vans. In downtown or Flatbush, Remsen, kings plaza you can always find some Caribbean Papi screaming your needed destination. Good all “Utica –Utica” always comes to mind when I think of dollar vans. So there are dollar vans everywhere apparently there just called different things. The vans that are fairly cheap and the driver screams the destination so you know which van to get into. The driver also often has little to no manners. – Same deal in Egypt, trade in the dollar van you know with sometimes flat screen tv’s and party lights for mini busses that often have the cushion spilling out of the seat and so much caked on dirt you actively try not to look around. Trade in ” Utica- Utica” for “Seebaaaah – Seebaaaah “. Even though its gross and dirty it was somewhat refreshing to having something that felt familiar in terms of transportation. It has also been fun to see how people pile in. I bet you think it’s important that the door is closed before the driver starts speeding down the street? I bet you think the vehicle is at capacity just because there aren’t any more seats ? Ha! There is always standing room – as long as you have a good grip on something you just have to get your feet in the vehicle and hold until your stop.
Once I learned enough Arabic to say where I was going and how to let the driver know this was my stop I started traveling alone. At home and in most places I come and go as I please and I really enjoy having that autonomy; so a big struggle was needing to depend on other people during my first few months in the country . I’m sure it weighed heavy on my friends because I really needed them to do a lot with me and for me. Once I knew enough to say Seebah, or Safarrat, hena (means here), alligum ( I think means this is my stop or let me out, it accomplishes that goal so Alhumdullilah ) ,I was out.
Since being here I’ve changed how I cover pretty drastically. While I’d like to say it’s all been because I’ve gotten a higher level of Iman and my hiya has been raised; however a lot of how I dress now is literally for protection. While I was home my concept of hijab was solely based on my imaan and what I deemed as modest. I wore long sleeve maxi dresses and my hijabs usually covered my bust and the bulk of my back. For me that was enough. Men were respectful and saw I was a Muslim woman and so dealt with me accordingly. That is very different here. It was one thing when I was with friends, especially my home girl from New York. She knew what men were staring at and she was always vigilant to stand behind me or eye check a man who was falling over himself to stare. And the staring is REAL here. I look different in my dress, I talk different and I’m shaped different. I’ve found that Arab women are not as curvy as I am so a booty is something to look at here. Being gawked at and looked at like a piece of meat is disgusting in general. Depending on where I am I have different expectations on the people around me. If I was in the hood and someone stared at my behind it’s still gross but not unexpected. If I’m in the masjid I expect for Muslim brothers to lower their gaze especially because at the masjid I always did my darndest to cover. When I came to the Muslim country to study my deen and I was covered the best way I knew how but was still viewed as an object for someone to use for sex really hurt my feelings. I felt like I was trying my best. It didn’t matter what wore, I was still stared at.
When I started to travel alone I had to deal with all of the havoc by myself. Being from NY it’s nothing new. Unfortunately, as young girls we all learn to deal with these parasites, as we ran errands for our parents and began traveling alone to school. Although, I had experience in this kind of harassment it still really disturbs my peace. Literally, I would walk home from a Quran lesson and be in such a positive headspace. However, empty streets mean there are no witnesses and some men think they can do whatever they want when no one is looking.
Once, I was walking home from class and a man in truck started following me. I was still new to the country, I was maybe here a month maybe more but I knew VERY little Arabic. He was following me and making kissing noises. I turned down a street so that the way he was driving he couldn’t turn because he would go against the flow of traffic. But there was no traffic because of the time of day. So he swung back around and met me on the next street. I would cross the street and he would follow. This went on for a few blocks. I was approaching a street with a big masjid and more people and hoped he would be embarrassed by what he was doing and go on about his business. But before I got to that street he stopped his car and got out. Now I’m thinking “What is he about to do? Is he about to attack me? Is he going to try to touch me? What?”. I couldn’t think of any words in Arabic to get him to stop. I put my bag down and got ready. Whatever you want from me you gonna earn either through a dowry and nikkah, or these hands. I don’t know what he thought but he laughed and was coming closer to me. And then I remembered the word for used for Enough : Khalas. I said that a few times and he got back into his truck. Alhumdullilah x infinity.
I thank Allah for his Mercy and Protection that nothing happened because although I believe my hands and feet will do good work (shout out to Nor Martial Training and Crom Martial Training and Brooklyn f) I don’t ever actually want to fight a man. I know I think that I’m DMX and 6’3” but I also know the reality that it might not be the case I might just be 5’1 and ½” and not be DMX in reality. Also, without speaking the language if I got into a fight they could say I attacked them when the police came – and that I’m some crazy women and I would get in trouble, not them. No one wants to be arrested, especially in somebody else’s country. I was super grateful that Allah put the word in my head and made that fool turn on his heels. Honestly, I thought I was in a Muslim country with good practicing Muslims. But the reality is I’m in a country with people. Some of them are good and some not so much. This is the reality of life, right. But after that experience I started to alter how I dress. I don’t know if it was immediate but I know that I started to look for ways to cover more. And just like wearing my head scarf had been a part of my outfits for some time – now making sure my backside was covered became just a part of my routine. Because I wasn’t willing to give up my autonomy, my quiet walks down quiet streets, and the peace I feel when I left my home in the morning and returned from class in the afternoon. So if I needed to add something to keep that peace it was worth it.
Lesson number ??? – I don’t know I forget at this point – eventually I had to get a job. I was blessed to be able to live fairly cheap and off of the money I had from the job I left for a long time. I was also teaching English privately and was able to make that work for me for a little while but I could tell I was running out of money and I wasn’t ready to go home. So I looked for work and got a job, Alhumdulliah, working at a call center. This was my first time working alongside Egyptians. As a disclaimer I know lots of Egyptians and people from other countries being from NY. I always feel like NYC has a huge mix of people, so from work or the masjid or wherever, I had probably worked, prayed or done business with people from every part of the world. But I was still getting used to being the “other”, being the foreigner. I’ve been the other in work environments before but being Muslim in NY in a predominantly black community isn’t a big deal. It had been my reality for so long it was normal.
You really get to know people when you work with them. While overall the people there were very nice – two things became very clear to me: the first was that whilst Egypt is predominantly made up of Muslims that doesn’t mean that everyone does Islam the same. It also doesn’t mean that everyone is in the same place of their practice. When I first started the job I was on my “Praycation” (my menses). I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that we all heard the adhan come in but no one budgeted. In fact, on my first day of training when the Adhan came on the trainer asked me specifically if I wanted to go pray. By that time I was wearing niqab and my hijab to my navel in front and the calf in the back, I looked different from everyone else in the room. The common style for a lot of hijabis I’ve seen here is that their scarf covers their hair, neck and ears and has the tail of it hang down the side of their chest-but it doesn’t cover their bust. Even though I was looking at the trainer “like chill shorty – you making it hot.” I wasn’t wondering why she singled me out though right – ‘cause we’re all Muslim. Isn’t everybody about to go pray? While I’m in my Quran classes we clearly stopped to pray. Everyone I had met and had friendships with since I came to the country were in the country for the same reason – to learn Arabic to study the Quran. So everybody in my world in Egypt prayed. My bubble had popped. Nobody moved for prayer, just cigarette breaks. (Everyone smokes here.)
Speed forward to me being able to pray, I hear the Adhan come in but now I’m paying attention. The training didn’t stop, and there was no break for prayer, no one else repeated the Adhan. But now I’m paying attention ‘cause I have to pray, and I’m confused at the lack of urgency I see in the rest of the room. So I ask when the next break is because prayer just came in. That’s when they break it to me that they don’t schedule breaks around prayer. But this is Egypt? I traveled from ‘Mreieka to increase in my ibadah. The trainer was very polite and accommodating and said I could go and that when I actually get on the floor to let my supervisor know I would need my breaks to be aligned with the prayer times. I said thank you and I went to pray, alone. I was told the company had been in Egypt since 2007, and Egypt has been a Muslim country since before that day so why were prayer breaks something that still needed to be negotiated? Eventually it ended up being the thing that made me leave the job, but I had another lesson to learn before I gave them my official two weeks.
Then came the microaggressions and racism. I was most people’s first “Black American.” It was a very interesting experience being the first Black American a whole company was exposed to. Well at least every one in my building except for one an Egyptian dude from Bayridge so he was very enthused to tell me about all the black people he knew from back home.
Although the comments I got from my co-workers were annoying and hurtful; it produced great stories to tell my friends and family. It also served as a reminder as to how blessed I am coming from America, especially NYC. I come from a place where being different is normal, knowing people from different countries and religions isn’t something exciting, that’s what you get in a regular interaction at any given Starbucks any day of the week. So this experience was really important for me to understand that people don’t always have access to others and it’s the lack of access that leaves space for stereotypes from misinformation. If you only know about a people from what you hear about them through main stream media it’s easy to think less of them. It’s easy to think that all Black people are all ghetto or all of middle America is racist and poorly educated. Some of why people are so blown away that I’m Muslim and from America is because of Trump. That’s what they see of America on t.v. They figure ‘we’ voted for him so ‘we’ must think like him. I tell them that everybody didn’t vote and for those that did everybody did not vote for ole orange face – small hands. I think for a lot of people they need for things and people to fit neatly in a box and I don’t. I’m American, Black, I’m not a convert, I have a visible tattoo, and I’m a social person. I think for many people none of those things go together. So my colleagues all worked hard to try to understand what box I belong in. They couldn’t bond with me through Islam because most of them weren’t really practicing. I’m a friendly person but I don’t hug or touch men in general. I have a tattoo but I wear niqab. It was too many mixed messages and I think they were searching for something that made sense to them. That’s when the problems began.
We were all sitting talking and some of my colleagues were trying to teach me Egyptian Arabic slang. I wasn’t really interested because I’m studying traditional Arabic but it’s good to know since I’m in the country. Then they asked me to teach them some American slang. I had already conditioned myself to not speak in any sort of “Ebonics” at work because it was very clear that I was the other; and I didn’t want anyone doing what they were about to do: bond with me by way of my Blackness. I honestly couldn’t think of any slang in that moment because I literally turned that part of my brain off when I was at work. They were not my home girls or home boys so we didn’t need to communicate that way. So I told them I couldn’t think of anything and that I probably say more slang when I’m angry and I wasn’t in that part of my head. So naturally the guy sitting next to me acts out what he thinks my and every other black woman’s anger must look like. His head starts moving back and forth, pointer finger is waving in the air and he says something like “Okay miss thang uh-uh”. **insert pregnant pause here** .
Instead of responding to the ‘BS’ with what they expected, I simply clarified that –that’s not how my anger looks. I actually look more like DMX when I get angry. To that they said, “Who?”. Then another young lady chimed in, “Is it like Madea? I love Madea movies. She is so funny.” **Takes deep breath** Is this really happening? “ No, it’s nothing like Madea, I actually don’t find Madea funny, that’s more Southern –Christian humor and I’m from NY and Muslim I often can’t relate” I told her. I thought that was enough of answer but Madea came up a few more times. Then I was asked if I know how to beatbox because I look like someone who knows how to beatbox. I was also asked if anyone in my family had ever been on crack( I can’t make this up). Also, once during a training I was eating a twix, and the trainer asked me if I was sneaking fried chicken under my niqab. If I hadn’t been actively working on staying employed… Eventually I got fed up and expressed my displeasure for my colleagues ignorance and racism.
This journey has been teaching me a lot. There are still a lot more stories I haven’t shared and I’m sure a lot more stories I will have to share in the future. With all the “stuff” that comes with living in Egypt and adjusting to life here, somehow I still really enjoy it. And there is a lot of “stuff” but every place in the world has it’s “stuff” right? There is a beautiful balance in life in Egypt. For every time I have one negative experience , Allah has blessed me to have quadruple that in positive experiences. For every rude, disrespectful person I’ve dealt with; Allah has surrounded me with beautiful, warm people who I am truly grateful for. You can get into a bad argument with your cab driver and later that day get lost and Allah will place a person right next to you who is going where your headed and will invite you to their home for dinner. If you’ve ever been here you know it’s true. SubhanaAllah. Perhaps there will be more stories to come . . .