Religion is everywhere in Egypt. Long before it was used to symbolise differences for questionable gain it was simply a fact of life. Skylines were interrupted by crescents and crosses, the call to prayer would flow around churches where hymns were sung, and neighbours would celebrate the breaking of fasts together, regardless of which religion had prompted them.
When I first got to know the country, these celebrations were a revelation to me. Keeping to time-honoured practices of hospitality I would be invited to traditional Ramadan iftars, to celebrations at the end of Coptic Lent, and at one point was offered some of the foulest fish I had ever encountered.
I grew up eating raw herring long before sushi became trendy, but the rotting fesikh was above and beyond my ability to culturally adapt. And true to form, the Egyptian family that had invited me to celebrate the arrival of spring laughed kindly and heartily at me, and with me, when I choked miserably on the small piece of fish.
The good humour and endless willingness to ply you with food was a recurring phenomenon whenever I was invited to someone’s home. It took me a while to get used to the copious amounts of dishes on the table and the corresponding amounts I was expected to eat. In the house I grew up in you had to finish what was on your plate and that deeply ingrained habit nearly became my undoing.
After having my plate piled full of mahshi, rice with molokheya and bamya, roast chicken, a piece of duck and a stuffed pigeon or whatever else was on the table, I would contemplate this dinner for four with a sense of dread. I learned early to disregard my upbringing and ignore the phantom wrath of my mother and always leave some food on my plate to avoid the otherwise eagerly offered second helpings.
The first time I was treated to such a feast in true in Egyptian style was not here but in the US. Many years ago I was traveling around Utah with my Dad and as we made our way from one national park to the next we would stay in one of the ubiquitous motels. One day, traveling through the rural high desert where you only encounter cows and alfalfa, we could not find a room. Anywhere.
In every little hamlet we tried to find a place to sleep we were told it was a national holiday weekend and all was full. Just as we realised we might have to spend the night in the car a large pick-up truck flew out of the parking lot of the last bed and breakfast I had tried and neatly blocked our car. A huge man, wearing a cowboy hat and sporting a ZZ Top beard, leaned out of the window and said: “You are welcome to spend the night in my house, we have enough room.”
Stories of serial killers flittered spookily through my head but all other options seemed to have dried up so we followed him through the fields, ending up in the middle of rural absolutely nowhere. As he parked his car he asked us to hold on for just a moment, so he could tell his wife they had guests.
Full of trepidation, we watched him disappear into a large house but before we could decide to run for cover the front door of the house was thrown open and a small woman catapulted out of the house towards us. Flinging open the doors of the car she repeatedly welcomed us to her home and before we knew it we were in the kitchen, sitting around a large wooden table.
Within minutes the contents of the fridge had been deposited on assorted plates, pans were steaming on the stove and dish after dish was placed on the table, accompanied by excuses that they had only come back to the area themselves a few days ago so they did not have a lot of food in the house.
It was one of the best evenings I had ever had. Life stories were swapped, family pictures shared and we, the kind, friendly but a bit reticent Western Europeans, learned first-hand what hospitality was all about.
The lady of the house told us she was Egyptian. She was born and raised in Cairo and had gone into the family business when she was young. Life had taken her away from her native land and she had not been back for over 50 years.
I still think of her and of how Egyptian I now know she was. Maybe it takes an outsider to see the similarities where others can only see the differences.
This woman who first taught me about Egyptian hospitality had been constrained to leave the country because she was Jewish.