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Trip of faith takes skeptical turn

A California Muslim's recent visit to Cairo becomes a journey of religious discovery and cultural disillusionment.

September 02, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Friday morning came, and the broad-shouldered young African American made his way to the sedated city's ancient quarters. He walked the streets with the determined gait of a football receiver to Al Azhar Mosque, arriving just as the muezzin's call to prayer summoned the faithful.

Suddenly, the outgoing Californian ceased his banter and gaped, awestruck, at the intricately carved minarets reaching for the heavens, the browns, reds, greens and blues interwoven into masterful calligraphy.

Salahudin Ali was a long way from the drab office buildings used as mosques in the Bay Area, where he grew up, or the small student lounge he and his friends used as a prayer room at college in Oregon.

"You just get kind of shy," he said. "It's like being around a very pretty girl. You almost blush if you look."

This summer, the 22-year-old Portland State University pre-law student pursued a years-long dream. The young Muslim traveled to Cairo to broaden his understanding of his faith, following the path forged by Malcolm X, whose thinking about race relations changed after he visited Egypt and other parts of the Mideast and Africa.

At first, his voyage of discovery was a thrill ride. He was welcomed by Egyptians ecstatic to find not only an American-born Muslim, but one named after one of Islam's greatest heroes: Salahudin, the warrior who pushed the Crusaders out of Jerusalem and raised a hilltop fortress in this very city.

But Ali brought his American tendency for criticism and skepticism to a part of the world that values obedience and cohesion above all. He challenged much of what he saw, and ultimately he found himself uncomfortable in the heart of the Muslim world.

"This place went from like cool to weird in the last week," Ali said in the days before he left. "I'm ready to get back home. I'm kind of tired right now."


Ali wasn't born into a Muslim family. He lived with his mother in the rough East Bay city of Vallejo until he was 9. When a SWAT team raided the home of his baby-sitter and found drugs, Ali's no-nonsense father, a career airman, took him and his twin brother to Travis Air Force Base, where he and his own brother, Andre, were stationed.

Uncle Andre exposed Ali and his brother, Mika'il, to the faith that both formally adopted as adults, a faith Ali said he felt drawn to because of its diverse adherents and commitment to justice.

Ali changed his name from Anthony Thompson two years ago, Mika'il from Vincent Thompson. Both played football at New Mexico State University before transferring to Portland State.

Cultural and class differences have long formed a barrier between African American Muslims and immigrant believers as well as within the black community between the Nation of Islam and those practicing mainstream Sunni Islam.

But Ali belongs to a new group of African American Muslims who have encountered few such obstacles. In California and in college, he counts Arabs, South Asians and Iranians among his closest friends.

"In college we're all one big group," he said. "In the mosque we're all together. Where I come from, there's no, 'that's the black mosque and that's the Pakistani mosque.' "

Often under the tutelage of liberal-minded clerics, he was also encouraged to question the Koran and its teachings. He found himself leery of the ways of coreligionists with roots abroad, especially the older generation. Often, he said, they tried to impose their own cultural habits as religion.

"They say a tattoo is haram," or sinful, he said. "Why? Where is that in the Koran? They say, 'Well, the prophet never had tattoos.' I say, 'Oh, do you drive a car? Did the prophet drive a car? I don't see you riding around on no camel.' "

For years he'd dreamed of visiting the Middle East, where Islam was born. He saved up money and ignored the dire warnings of relatives who said it was too dangerous. His wife, Misty, a native of Guam who converted to Islam before they married, encouraged him to go.

"She was sick of hearing me talking about it," he said.

In early July, he flew to Cairo via Los Angeles and Moscow on a grueling 50-hour journey aboard the Russian airline Aeroflot and enrolled in Arabic classes at one of the city's language schools.

"Man," he said, arriving for the start of classes. "I woke up this morning to the call to prayer today for the first time in my life."

He found a rundown hotel before moving into a cheap apartment with some friends from the Arabic classes. He bought a $1 pair of sunglasses from a street vendor and a 10-cent knit prayer cap from a mosque.

During prayers he was overwhelmed by the sight of the faithful spilling out into the street with their colorful rugs.

"I've never seen so many Muslims in one place," he said. "Here everything stops at prayer time. You feel good."

He reported his discoveries in e-mails to friends and relatives.

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