“PRAYING LIKE A FROG”:
RELIGION AND THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL ENCOUNTER
In addition to my gender and marital status, being Arab but not Egyptian shaped my interaction with people. First, I was not associated in any way with the Egyptian government. People were not hesitant to express antigovernment feelings and discuss various “illegal” issues such as drugs, gangs, and prostitution. Second, I was really surprised to see people who had spent between twenty and thirty years in Cairo identifying with me because “we are all strangers in this city.” Third, questions asked by informants about Jordan and how life there compared with certain aspects of life in Egypt taught me a lot about what informants regarded as important and unique to life in Cairo. They repeatedly brought up marriage, the housing shortage, and the transportation system in discussions with me and my relatives when asking about life in Jordan. Still, being non-Egyptian left me vulnerable to political changes. With the increasing number of armed attacks and the attempts to blame outsiders for these attacks, I often felt insecure about how people would react to my presence. Religion, however, was of greater importance than nationalism in shaping my relationships with many people in al-Zawiya.
When I planned my fieldwork, religion was not one of the topics that interested me. But I realized its significance as soon as I arrived in al-Zawiya. The emphasis on praying and performing religious duties, wall and car decorations, the importance of the mosque in bringing people together, the role of Muslim activists in providing various services, and the tension between Muslims and Christians were all signs that signaled the significance of religion in daily life. One of the first questions people always asked was about my religion and if my husband and I performed our religious duties. Each time I answered that I was a Muslim, Muslims expressed relief and repeated “al-hamdu lillah” (thanks be to God). I was politely asked by my first informants to wear a scarf to be able to “blend” into the community, especially when going with women to local markets and mosques. This was particularly important because I was married and the scarf was needed to distinguish me from Christian women. The fact that I was strongly identified as a Muslim allowed me to go to the mosque and facilitated my interaction with Muslims. However, it restricted my
Even though people tolerated not praying, it was totally unacceptable not to fast. Like the others, I fasted during Ramadan and prayed throughout the month. I also occasionally attended the Friday prayer as well as weekly lessons in local mosques. Being a “Muslim” in al-Zawiya, however, was not an easy task. I soon discovered that there were many subtle differences between what I had learned as a child in Jordan and what people practiced in al-Zawiya. Although I used to pray on a regular basis while growing up, it was in al-Zawiya that I attended the mosque for the first time in my life. I was not sure what I was supposed to do. At first, I thought that it was sufficient, as the informant who invited me to go with her to perform the Friday prayer suggested, to imitate other people who were praying, but soon I realized that there were other things that I needed to take into consideration. On a couple of occasions, I felt very embarrassed because other women praying corrected the way I bent my knees and stretched my hands. That embarrassed me because it happened in front of other people and because I thought that “I knew the right way” to pray. One of the sources of my pride when I was ten years old was the fact that my teacher used me as a “model” to teach other students how to pray. Because I was one of the few students who had learned to pray at an early age, the religion teacher used to call me to her various classes to pray on the table in front of the whole class. To my astonishment, in al-Zawiya, my way of praying was not “correct.” One woman even said that I “prayed like a frog” because my hands where separated when I was bowing down (sujoud). On another occasion, a woman scolded me because I did not move quickly to secure a space for another worshiper who was trying to fit in the line with us. For me, there was no space, and the line behind us was totally empty. In the mosque, I learned later, we should stand as close to each other as possible to prevent the devil from entering among us and dividing our unity. These incidents brought to my attention the important role of religion in disciplining bodies and souls and in constructing collective identities and reinforcing gender inequalities. Discourses circulating in the mosque also informed people's attempts to appropriate modern discourses and objects and their discussions of mundane issues such as wearing wedding bands, watching TV, and obeying one's husband. Religion thus became central to my research and understanding of people's daily struggles.