Part I can be read here.
Soldiers, locals, tourists, and the occasional stray cat wandered to a faded yellow bus. A few young Arab men, dressed in Western clothes, smoked cigarettes and joked around. Women in black burkas began loading their children and luggage onto the bus. I was sitting near the bus with my head buried in an English translation of the Koran. I was simultaneously attempting to memorize transliterated Koranic Arabic, so that I could pray, or make salat, correctly. In Jerusalem I had begun to understand the basic motions, but not the intricate details of the prayer cycle.
While I was reading, an older woman began speaking to me and I stood to listen. While she was speaking, a man in the distance caught my eye and shook his finger in a “No, no” way. Men speaking to women that are not family members is generally frowned upon in Islamic culture – and by “frowned upon,” I mean it could get you killed in some parts of the Muslim world. I gathered my things and got on the Cairo-bound bus, insh’allah: if God wills. In Islam it’s hubris to say you will do something without Allah’s will.
Being a student of the Bible gave me a foundation to begin understanding the Koran. It is a story written in the second person, from the angel Gabriel to Mohammed (peace be upon him). Whenever Mohammed’s (عليه السلام) or any prophet’s name is said, that is the obligatory salutation that follows.
The Koran is composed of 114 Surahs, or chapters, and is roughly the size of the New Testament. It assumes you have a point of reference for the many stories and characters, but it assumes you have heard much of it incorrectly. The Koran is meant to set the record straight for the People of the Book, or Jews and Christians.
As the bus disembarked, a golden setting sun shone across the Red Sea. The jagged peaks blazed in crimson red and burnt orange. I meditated on the land as a sprawling ancient battlefield where many of my childhood heroes lived and died. As the bus rumbled along the old highway, goat herders were seen leading flocks home and the sun fell behind the western sky.
The young men from the bus station were sitting near me. After dark they started a conversation. I held the Koran in my lap. They spoke English well and our conversation drifted from travel to religion to politics to religious politics. The year was 2005 and America’s second invasion of Iraq was in year two.
One of the men asked me, “Do you think 911 was committed by Muslims?” I thought for a few seconds and didn’t know how else to answer. “Yes, I do. Muslims from Saudi Arabia and Egypt.” The men smiled at each other as the man responded to me, “No. It couldn’t have been men alone, only Allah could do such a magnificent thing.”
For the next five hours we spoke incessantly. They answered every question I had and they elaborate on far more. As we got out of the bus in Cairo, they hugged me like a brother and asked again. “Are you sure you won’t come with us?” “I am sorry – it’s not the right time.” They were headed to Alexandria and I was welcome to go there to learn Arabic. They were meeting up with some other guy and planning their voyage to Iraq. They asked me to go and fight the infidels alongside them. Over the years I would think a lot about going to find a battlefield. But on this trip, I was first going to see the pyramids.