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‘Mother Of The World’ revisited
By Zafarul-Islam Khan

Everyone I met was deeply concerned with the ‘plight’ of Indian Muslims. So much so that special prayers were said in mosques for our welfare, I was told. I explained to them that, despite all the challenges, there are many, exceeding by far, positive developments taking place on the Indian Muslim scene…

It is a different city, not the one I arrived in, uninvited, in 1966. It was my flight into the unknown from a bleak future back home. As a student of a madrasah in India I could see all doors blocked except to become an imam or a teacher in a madrasah to live forever on the periphery of life. Thus came my flight to Cairo. 

I spent the next seven years of my life, the forming and the best years, there. Life was difficult but money had value. I could manage to live on a meagre scholarship of ten Egyptian pounds (LE). A few years later I managed to get the Indo-Egyptian cultural exchange scholarship of LE 30. It was more or less a princely sum at the time - twice the salary of a school teacher or government clerk those days. 

I studied for some time at Al-Azhar, then moved to Darul Uloom College of Cairo University. Within two years of arriving in Cairo I had published my first book, in Arabic, at the age of 20. Soon many books followed. I also started translating my father’s books into Arabic, starting with Ilme-Jadeed challenge. Published as Al-Islam Yatahadda, it became the talk of the town from the Gulf to the Atlantic and catapulted my father into an international figure in the international Islamic circuit and with it came recognition in India as well. 

I was more interested in writing and mixing with the Egyptian society. I made wide-ranging contacts at all levels. Newspapers and magazines started publishing my articles in the very first year of my arrival in Cairo. 

On a visit to India, I got married in 1972 and soon thereafter found a job with the Libyan foreign ministry in Tripoli. We went and spent the next six years there. My eldest daughter, Aisha, who now lives in New York, and Khalid, who died two years ago in a tragic accident, were born there. 

My affair with Cairo continued. Every time I came to India on leave I used to pass through Cairo to spend a week or two there walking the streets and lanes and bylanes of the old town around Al-Azhar, Ghoriyah, Al-Darb Al-Ahmar etc, which I know better than any town in the world. 

From Libya we went to London, spending the next five years there. From there too I paid visits to Cairo. I returned to India late in 1984 and went again to UK for a year in 1987 to complete my PhD at Manchester. I continued to visit Cairo thereafter. But Cairo was increasingly becoming unattractive for the long waits one had to endure on the airports at the hands of wary security personnel who saw every bearded person those days as a potential enemy… Cairo city too had become inhospitable on account of pollution, difficult transport and illogical high cost of living. A few years later I thought of going to Cairo during a foreign trip and paid a visit to the Egyptian embassy where an Indian clerk speaks to you from behind a prison-like window fitted with a mirror which reflects your picture but you cannot see the face speaking to you. I was told to bring an airticket with confirmed bookings and bank endorsement on my passport of a certain amount in foreign currency. So I said good bye to the idea of visiting Cairo. The Egyptians call it Umm al-dunya, Mother of the World, just like Iranians call their cultural capital as ‘half the world’ ‘Asfahan nisf-e jahan’.

This time came an invitation from IslamOnline, the emerging Muslim news and views major portal on the Internet. The invitation was genuine so I took the trouble of getting an OK-reservation-ticket and approached the mirror-window where I was told that if I had credit cards I could be exempted from the foreign currency requirement…

A few days later I was in Cairo - a different city altogether. Most of the city is now linked by elevated flyovers - so you see a different skyline and when you walk on the streets, not the pavements because these are seemingly reserved for car parking, you don’t see the old familiar face of Cairo. Though public transport is better now. Cairo now has two underground lines which have provided cheap and speedy transport to most parts of the sprawling city. But life is incredibly expensive - everything seems to be twice the price of the same stuff in India if not more. Local produce which used to overflow in shops during my old days, has conspicuously disappeared with the exception of a few basic food items. Even these, like most shops, now bear English names written in Arabic script. In daily life too Egyptians now extensively use English words like we do in India. Arabic language too seems to be weakening and a new, popular form, is developing slowly.

Time was short yet I managed to meet some old friends starting from celebrated literary critic and rebel Safinaz Kazem who is now living with a few beautiful cats who bear fantastic names and try to be extra friendly. She too was complaining that everything around you is changing fast. I also met old friend Husain Ashoor, publisher of Al-Mukhtar Al-Islami, a radical Islamic magazine, whose blue print I wrote first in Beirut in 1991 (when Ashoor was a publisher in Beirut) and I was supposed to be its first editor and this is a different story for another day… I also met Dr Abdus Saboor Shahin, who is a giant as a scholar, orator and human being. I believe he is my real and only teacher in life. He did the revision of Al-Islam Yatahadda, over around eight months in 1968. I used to go to his flat every evening from Abbasiyah to the end of the Qasr al-Aini street, a good one hour’s journey by tram. From him I learnt the lessons of life and perfected my Arabic. And if I know any amount of Arabic today, it is his gift… He now lives at a heaven-like resort at stone-throw from the Pyramids, a far cry from his humble flat three decades ago. He has built a beautiful mosque adjacent to his villa, where he delivers Jum’ah khutba… I also found time to meet for a short while my old friend Fahmi Huwaidi, who is now the most prominent Islamic current affairs writer in Arabic and his columns appear simultaneously in many newspapers in the Arab World, including a Tuesday column in Al-Ahram where he works. He was briefly attached to Arabia in London where we first met some twenty years ago.

Everyone I met was deeply concerned with the ‘plight’ of Indian Muslims. So much so that special prayers were said in mosques for our welfare, I was told. I explained to them that despite all the challenges, there are many, exceeding by far, positive developments taking place on the Indian Muslim scene… The issues of Muslim minorities were the subject of a lecture I gave at IslamOnline.

The above impressions were jotted down at Kuwait Airport on 2 February while waiting for a return flight to Delhi. All photos by the author (except Safinaz Kazem’s) 

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