In the monastery garden I worked alongside a twenty-one-year-old Bedu boy called Suleyman. We were assigned to gather olive branches for burning, and from the first day I could tell he was very special. He had worked with tourists as a camel guide for a few years and so could speak English well. I would come down to the garden each morning at nine o’clock, when we would first have tea together, which Suleyman or one of the Copts who also worked there would brew over a modest fire.
Suleyman stood out sharply from the others. The Copts were interested in one thing only, which was to leave Egypt for America as quickly as possible. Their chatter was filled with cars, easy women and easier money, and they would hear none of my sermonizing about the ways in which Egypt is possibly superior to the West and worthy of a life of work and dedication. Suleyman stayed mostly quiet during these teatime conversations, but every so often he would voice his disapproval of their ambitions. He had never been further than Sharm and wasn’t concerned about it. Everything a man could want is available here beneath Mount Sinai, he argued: food enough to live on, a bit of land to work, and a mosque to pray in. What more did you need? His Christian co-workers were able to think of a few things.
Suleyman was always kind, quick to help, and obedient to all his Greek overseer’s commands. He ate very little (as indeed they all did), didn’t idly chat, and made sure to find a place to roll out his mat at prayer time. He was very diligent at prayer, he said, and had read only one book in his life, the Qur'an. But he wasn’t at all showy or self-righteous, and he evinced a curiosity about the religious practices of the monks and, by extension, of me. All told, Suleyman was the complete opposite of the young hustler I encountered in Cairo. He seemed to be totally unscarred by the modern world, which, from what I could tell, he was very much in but very little of.
One evening I happened to be in the village near the monastery when the call to evening prayer rang out. Knowing that Suleyman would attend it, I hurried over to the mosque. As I waited for it to empty, I peered through the windows. Eyes closed, concentrated, all as one, they went through the familiar routine: standing, bowing, prostrating, hands behind their ears or folded neatly across their bellies, all the time the bubbly ‘Allahu Akbar’ floating out through the door.
The local imam, whom Suleyman had called a very holy man, knelt in the mihrab and led the others, and the image of him there set off an explosion in my mind. It was as if I was looking at Christianity stripped down to its barest essentials, as if the symbolism of the Christian liturgy had been replaced with a living man. The mihrab where he lay prostrate seemed no different from the apse of a church, the rug on which he placed his forehead no different from an altar. His mind full of God’s name, his heart raised to heaven, who is to say he wasn’t himself a bloodless sacrifice to the Lord, a meeting-place of heaven and earth, his body and blood mystically transformed through prayer into the body and blood of God?
Was there some common ground, then, between Christianity and Islam, there where their two most central rites met? If, as Christians believe, Christianity is the spirit behind the letter of Judaism, then could Islam be related to Christianity in a similar way, an exteriorization of its most inner mystery? Could Islam help me, the contemporary Christian struggling with modernity, find the heart of my own faith?
Suleyman emerged from the mosque and we sat and chatted a little. I began asking him all sorts of questions about his faith, about figures from the Bible we shared in common, Yub and Yusaph and of course Ibrahim. To be honest, he didn’t know much. His was as simple a faith as can be. But I was excited at the prospect of there being some true, integral rapprochement between our two religions, that each might be for the other a kind of symmetrical mirror image, engaged in a fiery, tempestuous dance. There seemed to be a possibility now that I could really learn from Suleyman, from his contentment in the face of poverty, his gentle spirit, and his detachment from the worst of the modern world. The tension between faith and doubt and reason, between striving for virtue and being a mindless consumer, a victim of the push and pull of irrational forces; in short, the tension I had seen in Cairo and at Sinai, in the monks and the tourists, the old Cairenes and the Bedu – it is present in me too, creating confusion and desperation. Had I found a potential means of overcoming it through the example of a simple Muslim gardener?
I kept bombarding Suleyman with questions, and finally ventured to ask, ‘What about the Shiites? What do you think about them?’ He was silent for a moment, his face, as usual, serenity itself. Then, slowly and with a strange smile, he shrugged, put a finger to his throat and, breathing sharply, mimed a bloody decapitation. I might have been stabbed by his finger-knife as well, for I quickly deflated.
Two days after Easter I left Sinai and made my way with a friend to Jerusalem. There at what should be the world’s beacon of peace, I saw instead the same old contradictions, hypocrisies, and conflicts to a sickening degree. Different scenario, same unremitting tension: security fences, religious schisms, suicide bombers; ignorance, aggression, arrogance, and despair; the ancient and the new, conflated and confused, fighting to the death. In Jerusalem more than anywhere else it is impossible to ignore the fact that the world is ascending its Golgotha.
I’ve struggled to find a conclusion to all this. I haven’t yet. I’m waiting for one.