WITH A HEAD FULL OF WHITE, slicked-back hair, freshly pressed slacks, collared-shirt, and corduroy blazer, this religious advisor had a professional air about him.
“So, Islam interests you?” asked the Sheikh in perfect English. The family — mama, papa, and Ahmed’s younger brother — looked at us expectantly.
“Yes, it does,” I answered. The family nodded their heads as Kristina shook hers. An Islamic intervention in Zagazig was not what she signed up for. Exchanging puzzled looks, our hosts shifted in the Liberace-styled thrones of the family parlor. With a big smile and fresh haircut, Ahmed returned to join us.
Ahmed was a student of mine at the American University of Cairo who had invited me and Kristina (my fiance at the time) to his family’s home in Zagazig for a meet and greet — a chance to experience Arab hospitality. I was touched by such a welcoming invite and accepted without hesitation.
As the Nile whizzed by at 140 km/h and as we nearly broadsided a donkey-cart combo, Ahmed told us about another special guest for the evening at his parent’s home, a renowned author and spiritual advisor, Sheikh Mohammed.
The Sheikh — who was fluent in English and well-versed in the monotheistic religions — would address all the questions I had about Islam that Ahmed hadn’t been able to answer himself. I glanced at Kristina in the back seat. Whether it was the drive or the news of what we were doing, she looked uneasy.
By the grace of God (or was it Allah?) we arrived frazzled but safe in Zagazig. After brief family introductions, Ahmed excused himself to get a haircut, saying he’d be right back. We wouldn’t see him again for three hours.
His mother — a stout, round woman, veiled and gowned — smiled at us. I interpreted her look to say, “My poor heathen brethren.” With Ahmed (who was our translator and the only person we knew there) gone, Kristina and I felt vulnerable.
His father, a slight shadow of a man in the matriarch’s immense presence, shuffled about, indicating that we should take a seat in the garish, overwrought divans that looked more like they’d been picked up at a Liberace yard sale than at a furniture store.
As requested, we sat, smiling awkwardly at each other. I tried my best not to look at the mark in the middle of his forehead. As the mother scuttled off to the kitchen, a servant girl trailed close behind her to help ready the feast prepared in our — and the Sheik’s — honor.
The minutes ticked by in painful silence. If only we had paid more attention in Arabic class.
Hours into dinner, the doorbell rang. “It’s the Sheikh!” we shrieked. Mama and papa exchanged a surprised look before welcoming him. Taking advantage of the distraction, Kristina and I excused ourselves from the banquet table. We were relieved.
He sat at the dining room table and acknowledged us with a friendly smile. Shoving a piece of deep-fried liver into his mouth, he chewed it openly. Kristina winced. Then with a mouth full of pigeon, the Sheikh engaged us in small talk. He’s sizing us up, I thought. We answered his questions politely, trying not to stare.
Then, going over the sequence of events that got me here to this time and place, it dawned on me.
After telling an Egyptian colleague at the university that my student, Ahmed, had invited me to meet his family in Zagazig after I’d asked questions about Islam, a knowing look had come over his face. I must have looked confused because my colleague chuckled and without explaining why, gave me a list of instructions: take notes, keep an open mind, eat everything they put in front of you, and enjoy.
Most travelers don’t get this kind of opportunity. It seemed like good advice for any cross-cultural situation so I took it to heart and brought a pen and my little notebook with me.
Ahmed — and my colleague to some degree — had set us up. It seemed that the thought of me — his new-found friend, English teacher, and non-Muslim — burning in a hellfire of eternal damnation on the Day of Reckoning was unconscionable for him. It was Ahmed’s sacred duty to save my heathen soul. Several of my Muslim friends later confirmed my suspicions.