Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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EGYPT: Not your '70s movie

April 16, 2008 |  7:42 am

Men were humming verses from the Koran, gently moving their heads back and forth. Others were murmuring prayers while fumbling with strands of beads to keep count. The scene in Cairo's metro, on my first ride to the office here, was revelatory of the wave of religious fervor that Egypt has known in the last few years.   

Man_reading_koranThe contrast with an Egyptian movie from the 1970s I had seen in Beirut last week was staggering. The film featured women wearing miniskirts and dancing disco extravagantly. It was set at a time when the society in Cairo was embracing modernity and opening up to the West.

But witnessing the crowds of veiled women and bearded men on the metro, that permissive, open Cairo seems a distant recollection. In fact, Cairo does not resemble at all that idyllic image of the glamorous glitzy city we, in the rest of the Arab world, have repeatedly seen on our movie and TV screens.

Another stunning aspect was the characteristic bruise on the forehead of many men here. These marks are supposedly formed by the repeated contact between the forehead and the floor during prayers. These prayer bumps have become like fashion statements and are derisively referred to as "Zebiba," the Arabic word for a raisin.

—Raed Rafei in Cairo

Photo: Man reading the Koran. Credit: AFP