Going home to Egypt, I cannot shake off the sense of being a stranger in my own increasingly conservative motherland.
Intense is the word that most readily comes to mind whenever I touch down in Cairo – and this time was no exception. The sheer energy of the ever-waking metropolis of nearly 20 million souls so closely packed together that buildings and roads reach up into the dust-laden, smoggy sky like the dense canopy of a wild concrete jungle is both overwhelming and infectious.
Arriving from the orderly calm of northern Europe, I felt overwhelmed and swept along by the mighty, gushing and noisy sea of people and unruly traffic. The concentrated dose of humanity creates in us a buzz that has us positively tripping, in an emotionally induced high, down memory lane.
People who dwell for most of the time in the private lanes and cul-de-sacs of memory, as disembodied voices down a telephone line, or as personalities made up of a combination of characters on a computer screen suddenly leap into vivid life for a week or two of intense socialising.
My presence in the city is a good pretext for large family reunions which would normally not take place owing to how busy everyone is. The mirth, laughter and voluble good humour at these get-togethers are very therapeutic. The art of sound is something at which Egyptians excel, and a group of socialising Egyptians can move from 0 to 100 decibels in about five seconds, and without the catalyst of alcohol.
Despite the familiarity of the faces and surroundings, there is the inevitable sense of being a relative stranger that years of absence create. Although it highlights the best aspects of the different worlds I occupy, being home also throws into relief the fault lines between my various existences.
Even though my maternal family are very tolerant and great respecters of individual choice, there is a general sense among my kin that I am the wayward prodigal son who has lost his way even more in foreign lands. The general consensus is that I'm a good and decent man, but my lack of faith is troubling some members of the family.
The most open demonstration of this was two years ago, when we visited Egypt during Ramadan, the most overtly religious period of the year. My daily life is largely devoid of religion, save for my academic and journalistic interest in the subject. And so the omnipresence of the holy month, despite the charm of this festive season, was like a shocking jolt to the system.
Ironically perhaps, the increasingly visible expressions of faith, including hijabs and regulation beards, have been accompanied by more visible expressions of the contrary, such as the mushrooming of alcohol consumption. Every time we visit Egypt, we are struck by the profusion of new alcohol outlets and the constant birth of new Egyptian beers and wines.
Fortunately, for the most part, my latest visit was a far more chilled-out affair, with most of my family having sensibly decided that there was little point in dwelling over my lack of faith.
However, my most religious aunt, with whom I enjoy excellent rapport, could not help herself. Torn between not wanting to hurt her feelings, being as honest as possible and not getting her hopes up, I admitted to her that many aspects of Islam conflicted with my rationality and all the available evidence pointed to the fact that all religions were man-made, imperfect and not divine. The look of melancholy and disappointment on her face left me troubled for some time.
I have pondered long and hard how much more religious and conservative Egyptian society is actually becoming, and why. At one level, it is fuelled by the politics of fear that have fed the Christian right in the USA and the far right in Europe.
Many Egyptians are making salaries that were previously undreamt of except for those who worked abroad. In fact, some of my friends are making more in absolute terms in Egypt than I am in Europe.
Not being a very material man, the spread of mall culture among the Egyptian middle classes is one unfortunate side effect of this increasing wealth. Another far more troubling aspect is the growing economic disparity between the haves and have-nots in this neo-liberalist wet dream.
I cannot help but wonder how much longer the largely passive and peaceable Egyptian poor will put up with their worsening lot before the pressure cooker explodes. With the wave of industrial action overtaking the country, it looks like Egyptian workers are beginning to take matters into their own hands.
Another worrying development is how the wealthier classes are increasingly abandoning the urban disaster area of the capital and moving out in droves to exclusive gated communities outside the city. Cairo's legendary safety and lack of violence is based partly on the fact that rich and poor live shoulder to shoulder.
Where Egypt will be a few years from now is anyone's guess, especially once the country's ageing and increasingly unpopular president finally dies. One thing is for certain, interesting times lie ahead.
While the ostensible signs would point towards spreading religiosity in Egypt, these could be misleading. Until the mid-1970s, Egypt's trendsetters were the liberal and progressive elite, and so even the religious would strive to project a secular image. Today, the tone is increasingly being set by conservative Islamic groups, and so even those who are not particularly religious are superficially following the trend. Outward displays of religion enable people to go about their lives under society's radar and get away with some very un-Islamic things.
On a personal level, I may get the impression Egypt is growing more Islamic for several reasons. Although I have nothing against people of faith, I dream of an Egypt in which religion is a private affair. I live in a secular society (Belgium) and most of the people I know are not religious. And when I lived in Egypt, the liberal and permissive subculture I belonged to insulated me somewhat from the full force of the conservative tide.
What seems pretty certain is that Egypt has become more polarised, with the chasm between the secular minority, the conservative mainstream and the radical Islamic fringe having widened to unprecedented levels. However, signs are that the country has reached a turning point, as the Islamic movement fails to deliver the promised land its supporters had expected, and, judging by what I've heard from some people I've met, we may soon start seeing more and more people drift away from religion.
Aside from the metaphysical, Egypt has been overtaken by massive socioeconomic changes over the past few years. The booming economy, with one of the fastest growth rates in the world, has generated a lot of wealth, which has given the country a new sheen of modernity, prosperity and a growing sense of confidence.
One uncle who had never talked to me about religion decided to break his silence and advised me to come to terms with my faith and suggested that it was best for me to start moving closer to God, because faith and ritual was the only sure-fire way to overcome the doubts plaguing my conscience.
Despite his good intentions, this circular logic struck me as being incredibly paradoxical. How can my doubting mind take a massive leap of faith without being presented with convincing evidence of why it should believe? After all, I have tried at different periods of my life to follow some of the rituals, such as fasting Ramadan, but the questions only multiplied.
The goodbye presents I received from my uncle and two of my aunts at the end of the Ramadan trip were not-so-subtle hints of their wishes for me: the CDs and tapes of the superstar telepreacher Amr Khaled and a book entitled The Muslim's Creed, all of which have been collecting dust ever since.
In private, my wife Katleen, who has a large fan club among my relatives, jested that my family must feel that my being married to her had corrupted me. I told her not to worry because my family knew I was a hopeless case long before I'd met her – and perhaps when I was still living in Egypt, they still held out hope that I would “reform” and see the light.
The luxury of distance and the fact that my mother is very open minded mean that I have it much easier than many other non-believers living in Egypt. One young man has been confiding his lack of faith to me and the loneliness it engenders because he feels, aside from his closest friends, most people would not understand. He dares not even hint at it to his parents because he fears his mother would suffer a stroke at the revelation.
Faced with this epic spiritual struggle and the cloak of resurgent religion, tradition and conservatism that is increasingly stifling Egyptian society, we would take late night refuge, and a different kind of spiritual sustenance with friends, in one of Cairo's many watering holes.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 3 January 2008.