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January 19, 2018

Meeting God's lovers in Cairo

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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I met two beautiful people on my recent visit to Egypt. Although geographically and culturally worlds apart, they are nevertheless deeply connected in spirit.

The first is Dr. Nicolaas Biegman, whom I met throughout the 188 pages of his fascinating 2009 photo book, Living Sufism: Sufi Rituals in the Middle East and the Balkans.

The second is Mostafa, a local Egyptian taxi driver I contracted to chauffeur me around the vast metropolis of Cairo during the eight weeks of my stay late in 2017.

Biegman, a Dutch national, has a PhD in Balkan history and is a specialist on Islam and Sufism. He has previously published a number of photographic books on international locales as diverse as Egypt, Haiti, and Manhattan.

As he skillfully navigated Cairo’s dense traffic, Mostafa filled hours of travel time sharing his life story with me.

Yet our rapport was not always as relaxed and personal as it is now.

When we first met on one of my previous visits to Egypt, the relationship was very business-like. I needed transportation to a certain address and trusted that he would get me there, hopefully on time.

As with most taxi-drivers in my native country, Mostafa didn’t say much at first, but I noticed that he would often recite soft whispered phrases to himself.

I also noticed and appreciated the fact that he never used foul language or exhibited “road rage” against other drivers, no matter how vulgar their behavior. But his driving style was every bit as aggressive as theirs; if he didn’t drive with “attitude,” he couldn’t have lasted a single day in this demanding job.

I learned that Mostafa, now aged 45, had not always been the skilled, patient and attentive professional who could thread his way through Cairo’s traffic labyrinths.

He revealed to me that in his 20s he was “evil incarnate.” On inheriting a considerable amount of money from his father, he quit technical college and for years failed to hold down a steady job.

While he did not drink or do drugs, he would frequently spend money on his friends at nightclubs and end up in bed at dawn after being with a different woman nearly every night.

His daytime hours were lost in sleep. His mother and siblings were worried about the poor choices he was making, but Mostafa ignored their advice.

The only voice that seemed to get through to him back then was that of an elderly man who had known his father well.

Every time they met, he would say simply: “Mostafa, I miss your father dearly – he was a good man.” That was all he ever said; no advice, no judgment, no other comment.

Gradually, Mostafa felt the warmth of the old man’s patient words and one day confessed to him that he was not happy. He felt lost, as if his life had amounted to nothing. In response, the old man took Mostafa to his Sufi master. That simple connection became the first day in the troubled young man’s new life.

Mostafa explained that the soft whispered phrases he would often repeat while driving were his practice of Zikr (also written as Dhikr), a Sufi devotional mantra based on the rhythmic repetition of the name of God, or of God’s attributes. Ever since his life-changing adoption of Sufism, Mostafa attends mosque each week to perform his night prayers and recite Zikr with a group of fellow believers.

While I have not spent hours in a vehicle speaking and listening to Nicolaas Biegman, I still feel deeply connected through the literary relationship he cultivates with readers through his writings and evocative photography.

Dr. Biegman writes: “In the course of two extended stays in Egypt in the 1960s and the 1980s, seven years in all, I found that most Sufis didn’t object to the presence of a respectful outsider even when he was using a camera.” 

He continues by observing, “I have always admired Sheikh Zahir of Cairo for his ability to explain in simple terms the intricacies of Sufism with its central notions of love, light and the heart. He draws examples from sports and even compares contact with God to the use of a mobile phone… ‘The heart rules the brain,’ he used to say.”

In the Sufi tradition, mysticism is the believer’s expression of his or her passionate love and desire to establish an intimate personal relationship with God. Sufis are God’s lovers.

Music and rhythmic movement are essential components of time-honored rituals that allow them to draw ever closer to God.

Sufism is recognized as an integral part of Islamic tradition; in fact, Sufis are more numerous than the fundamentalist and extremist groups that often predominate in the world media.

Unfortunately, too few outside the faith know that Sufis respect different creeds, spiritualities, opinions, and above all, abhor violence.

But these two very different individuals – Dutch author Nicolaas Biegman and my courageous Cairo chauffeur Mostafa – have enriched my life. They are both memorable examples of Sufism as a living embodiment of faith. 

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