I stumbled into Cairo determined to learn Arabic, read the Quran, experience Muslim culture first-hand and test my enthusiasm for Islam. I found the Fajr Centre for the Arabic Language, founded in Cairo in 1995, online. The new session was beginning in January 2007. Fajr (dawn) is for new enthusiasts and prospective imams, affiliated to the Egyptian Ministry of Education and al-Azhar, and located in Medina Nasser (Nasser City), which I was to discover is a sprawling suburban near the airport. Transportation in Cairo is a nightmare, be it by taxi or public transit. Virtually all Fajr students share digs near the ‘institute’, which is modest to say the least, but I immediately liked it, despite the anonymous suburban clutter. The administrators and my teacher were clearly devout Muslims, and warm, friendly people. This was not for rich secular westerners, who studied at the AUC or one of many private institutes down town, at three times the cost.
I heard of a Canadian-Egyptian artist who lived in Manial, the southern-most large island of Cairo, perched just upstream from more upscale Zamalek. Anna responded to my query, offering the vacant apartment next door. The ‘apartment’ was one of two shacks atop a 9-storey genteel 1930s apartment building on the east shore of the island of Manial, with a channel of the Nile and the Corniche directly underneath, in the heart of Cairo. Straight out of The Yacoubian Building (2002), the best-seller by Egyptian author (and dentist) Alaa el-Aswany, made into a film as I was packing my bags for Egypt in 2006, and into a TV series in 2007. A good omen, I thought, and it became a kind of Bible for me, where I learned my Arabic watching the daily episodes, along with other musalsal (tv soap operas) over the few years, like a textbook, as I struggled with Arabic. It is set in a real-life, dowdy, but still elegant Art Deco-style 1930s apartment building in downtown Cairo, much like the one I was to call home for the next six years, populated by a bizarre cross-section of Egypt.