When my parents told me we’re moving to Egypt, I knew my whole world would never be the same. I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia and I only know about Egypt from what my parents tell me about their childhood and families. I didn’t know what to expect and it was almost Ramadan when we arrived. Egypt seemed like a very noisy and crowded country for me, two characteristics I am not adapted to at all. I accepted the fact that change is inevitable but I had no idea to what extent would that change be, until Ramadan finally arrived.
On the first Friday in Ramadan, I was helping mother incense the apartment as we used to back in Saudi and I went to the balcony seeking some cool breeze.
This weather is one of the perks of spending Ramadan in Egypt, Somaia, I said to myself as a way of trying to accept that this is where we are to stay from now on. I didn’t notice the girl standing on a balcony opposite to our own, until she whistled and then smiled widely when I looked at her.
She asked, smiling goofily, “what is the scent of this incense?”
“White musk” I replied, awkwardly.
“Can I have one?” she asked again. I shrugged, grabbed a stick of incense and waved it foolishly around, not knowing how to give it to her. She disappeared for a second, came out with a wide basket and held it out of the balcony for me to aim into. I threw it and since she was living a floor below, the stick was delivered successfully and thus, our white musk friendship began.
Her name is Ayah, she is a year older than me but looks two years younger. She has a peaceful symmetric face with extremely enthusiastic brown eyes which see chances and adventures in almost everything. The first time we hung out a few days later, she took me for a walk around the neighborhood talking about everything and nothing until we came to a stop down the main street. She handed me a box of dates and tiny bottles of water.
“Try to break the record, Somaia” she said and then explained how each year, the girls and guys of the neighborhood hold a competition to determine who will give Iftar to the biggest number of people still out on the streets, by Maghrib. Everyone was excited and jubilant, preparing themselves for doing some good before breaking their fast.
I have never been that anxious or stressed before; with every date I was about to offer, I expected people to tell me to mind my own business or think that I wanted something in return. Nothing of that sort happened though; instead, people were smiling and thanking me. Everyone else was so comfortable that they started having conversations with people who’re passing by. When we were done, Ayah asked me how many dates I gave out. I told her that I lost count because I was so overwhelmed by people’s reactions. She laughed so hard that she was close to tears, patted my shoulders and shouted, “Somaia just created a new record folks! The most overwhelmed!” The girls and guys from the neighborhood cheered me on and it warmed my heart.
Since then, the adventures never stopped. At first I thought they were adventures for me because I am a newcomer but Ayah was just as excited as I was and sometimes even more. She took me to pray Taraweeh in almost every famous mosque in Cairo and Giza. Later on, we went on a tour at El-Hussein and I’ve never seen so many people in one place at the same time in my life. The Ramadan spirit was everywhere, on people’s faces, in the mixed smells of food and drinks and the lights around every corner.
We ate there and bought similar decorative fawanees to hang them in our balconies. There were endless vendors selling various stuff from jewelry, toys and clothes to food and souvenirs. I felt an urge to buy one item from each. As we walked, we stopped by an incense shop but didn’t find white musk and the seller weirdly insisted that “normal” musk is just as good and so I bought a box. Ayah later commented that I am too emotional to deal with sellers from now on and laughed at me.
Next thing, Ayah was dragging me to watch a dance of dervishes nearby, “التنورة” she calls it. We watched silently; I was curiously observing the dancers’ faces and moves. I have never seen such dances live; when I looked at my friend, her eyes were longing to dance with them. I wondered about what I look at and long for in such a way in my life, before I come to Egypt. When did my eyes ever turn to pure circles of passion?
The month was coming to an end. It was one of the last 10 days when people try to figure out if it is Laylat Al Qadr (The Night of Destiny) or not. Ayah and I were sitting in my balcony enjoying our cups of tea and the night breeze. She asked me while gazing at the stars, “do you think tonight is the night?” I replied with a shrug of my shoulders, “I don’t know…maybe”. We stayed silent for a while; communicating on a hidden plane without using words. “You know”, I started saying, “Ramadan was never like that in Saudi”.
She looked at me then back at the sky. I was watching a star blink and I said, “It is weird how we think only according to our limits of space and time. I thought Ramadan was a universal atmosphere of spirituality that affects all Muslims similarly, a month of piety and peacefulness. Back in Saudi, I used to feel constant guilt because I hated Ramadan and I thought it must be because my heart is not “pure” enough. It is overwhelming how a change in place can mean a change in the universe of feelings and thoughts!” I said that last sentence with an almost protesting tone and Ayah chuckled. She looked at me with soft eyes then raised her cup of tea and said, “You would’ve never known what would come to you to you when you gift someone a stick of incense. It’s the white musk friendship effect,” we laughed then gazed back at the stars and I found myself praying “May we add lots of other titles to our friendship” and she repeated “Amen.”
When I remember that night, I believe it was Laylat Al Qadr.