Essaouira, Casablanca, Cairo

“God is the greatest.”

The man whispering to me during our guided tour inside the Hassan II Mosque spoke with a combined sense of admiration and intrinsic conviction. Looking at the majestic hall stretching out in front of us I couldn’t help but be equally overwhelmed. By the imposing pillars and arches, the intricate and highly detailed carvings adorning the walls and the solemn power that only religious spaces of this scale seem to possess. It was easy enough to relate to my neighbor’s emotions, albeit in a purely worldly way. I’ve been inside enough churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to recognize the universal pattern that an important measure of devotion seems to be the magnitude of its expression. As so often and not to anyone’s surprise, size does matter.

This is not to detract in any way from the respect I have for people of every faith. And even though I am not an atheist I don’t believe in the safe rigidity that defines most major religions. I guess you could call me agnostic, or eternally unsure, or simply critical to accept incomplete assumptions about matters we don’t actually understand as humans. Much less from a transcendent point of view rather than an immanent one. What I cannot reconcile, and likely never will are the flagrant hypocrisies that highlight the ultimate humanity of religious expression. The conformities and restrictions that are often more cultural than divine in origin. Opulent grandeur contrasted with shocking scenes of poverty. The fact that the mosque I was standing in cost 800 million dollars to build, while just outside some of Casablanca’s slum-like quarters were stretching into the distance.

At the same time, I get reminded of the enormous power religion has had throughout history and continues to have today, regardless of the rather recent emergence of a relatively minor secular and atheist community. There could be no better illustration of this than the sight of the nearly 5000 year-old Great Pyramid of Giza. As the only surviving ancient wonder of the world it is a baffling structure, nearly 150 meters tall and with a combined mass of almost six million tons. As a final resting place for the pharaoh and god-on-earth that’s a decent tribute I’d say. The fact that it took only took twenty years to construct is mind-blowing. A man-made mountain that has stood throughout most of human history, and will continue to do so for its foreseeable future. “Unless we bomb it.” You can always rely on the American sightseers to provide a trademark brand of subtle and sensitive commentary.

The night flight that took me from Casablanca to Cairo was entirely forgettable, except perhaps from the personal heavily armed military escort I got at 4am to collect local currency in order to pay for my visa-on-arrival. Having split the last week in Morocco between the supremely chill seaside town of Essaouira and metropolitan Casablanca, the prospect of finally getting to Egypt was exciting.

At the risk of repeating myself, the contrasts and cultural differences were once again widespread and deeply rooted. Cairo is a vast capital, with a great number of wildly diverse neighborhoods and a general atmosphere that is decidedly more Middle-Eastern than anywhere in Morocco. Alcohol is still frowned upon but much less hidden, women are still veiled but much more visible, traffic remains absolute insanity. And shisha is simply everywhere. Coffee shops serve tea and lemonade alongside it, and people sit and talk and smoke their pipe in peace. As an avid waterpiper I was in heaven. Apple, mint, lemon, grapefruit, watermelon, mango, vanilla and so many more. Even just sitting amidst this blend of flavors is intoxicating.

Five years after the Arab Spring, the returning stability created by a widely considered oppressive regime is still very fragile. There are security forces in the streets, and x-ray security checks at train and metro stations. That being said, after all the travel warnings and concerned fears that I have been hearing from both people at home and on the road the reality is in fact quite a reassuring one. People are extremely helpful (occasionally for a price) and the considerable language barrier is alleviated greatly through the power of impromptu sign language. One might even argue that given recent events, Belgium is not necessarily preferable to here safety wise. At least here there are mummies.

I got my second haircut of the trip at a local barbershop recommended by one of the hipster hostel staffers. Once again, nothing beats going local. I had one guy expertly cutting my hair while another translated my wishes into Arabic and a third tried to sell me a 5-day tour package to Luxor and the Red Sea. For the first time ever I got “threaded”. If you don’t know what that is, that’s probably because it ought to be illegal. An innocent-looking piece of rope tangled up and held between two hands and mouth is twisted and scraped over your face, pulling facial hair with swift, excruciating twirls. So I manned up and took the pain, with all of the onlookers laughing at me. Beauty requires suffering, and indeed my face has never been smoother. Also I will never again trivialize the experience of a Brazilian wax.

Over the next two weeks exciting times are ahead, seeing the Valley of Kings in Luxor, diving in the Red Sea, all the while appreciating life on a thick cloud of fruity smoke.

For now, traveling remains the Greatest.

October 17th, 2016

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