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Definitely, Insha'allah, Or How I Learned to Love Uncertainty
jesus, take the wheel
Happy Friday, friends!
There are now FOUR HUNDRED of you—a big, warm welcome to the 50 new subscribers that have found me since my last edition of The Cairo Dispatch, where I write essays about everything that is weird, wonderful, difficult, and enlightening about travel and life abroad. I would love to get to know you in the comments. And a special thank you toof and of , who recently recommended The Cairo Dispatch to their readers.
Today I’m talking about learning to live with uncertainty, but a quick announcement before I cut to the chase: starting next weekend, I’m rolling out a series of travel guides for paid subscribers. Naturally, I’m kicking things off with a big handbook on what to do (and not to do!) in Cairo. Future editions will focus on where to stay, shop, and eat, plus how to construct an overall Egypt itinerary. I intend for these to be living documents that I update whenever I get new intel, and you can use the comment sections to ask any questions you have about traveling in Egypt…and get an answer from someone who has more than a passing familiarity with it. I hope to see you there.
Have a wonderful weekend,
I was in a dingy upholstered airplane seat on a flight from Cairo to Luxor, dozing against the window and squeezing my eyes shut against the harsh morning sunlight, when a staticky noise jolted me awake and alerted me to the fact that I had absolutely no control over my life. It was the pilot’s voice coming over the PA. “We will be landing in thirty minutes, insha’allah,” he said. Insha’allah. If God wills it.
If God wills it, we will land in thirty minutes.
That was not the sort of thing I wanted to hear from the man in command of the tin can I was currently strapped into while hurtling through the sky. What did he mean, “if God wills it”?! Should he not have known exactly when the plane was going to land, considering he would be the one landing it? I imagined him sitting in the cockpit, throwing up his hands, and singing Jesus, take the wheel in his best impression of Carrie Underwood.
I had believed, before then, that I knew what the phrase insha’allah meant. It was what Muslims (and sometimes non-Muslims who were worldly and pretentious) said about things that they hoped would happen, but were hardly certainties. “Insha’allah, I will be elected president of France.” “Insha’allah, we will colonize Mars one day.” It wasn’t the sort of thing someone should be saying about a situation of which they were in charge—especially not a pilot in mid-flight with his hands on the steering yoke. I had trusted this man with my life, and I wanted him to be pretty darn certain of when and how he was going to land the plane. Because if he wasn’t in control, who was?
No Western pilot would say such a thing, but the phrase insha’allah is ubiquitous in Egypt. This is partially because the Quran requires it. To whit:
Never say of anything, “I will do so-and-so tomorrow,” without in shāʾ Allāh. When you forget [to say it], remember your Lord, and say, “May the Lord guide me to more righteous conduct than this.”
In other words: good Muslims should not presume to make promises, because only God has the power to command the future. But not all Egyptians are good Muslims, and the ones who aren’t—the Christians, the secular—still say insha’allah. It’s a national mantra, uttered compulsively after anything that sounds determinative. Egyptians will even correct you if you omit it. Whenever I’ve said “I’ll see you next week” to my housekeeper, my tennis coach, my Arabic tutor, they have waited a beat, and responded with a smile, “insha’allah,” covering for my cultural faux pas.
When I first arrived in Cairo, I found insha’allah to be so prevalent that I wondered if, as a matter of linguistic drift, the phrase had shed all its dogma and morphed into a common idiom, used when you wanted to be polite but noncommittal. An Egyptian friend unwittingly lent credence to my hypothesis.
“Egyptians are flaky,” my friend said offhandedly one night over dinner. “Even when someone swears he is coming, we never know whether he will actually come until he arrives.” Of course, that someone would have added an insha’allah when swearing that he would come. He would have said, “I will come to your house for iftar Tuesday, insha’allah,” and if he didn’t show up for Tuesday iftar, he would not be the guilty party; the tacit implication would be that God had not willed it. This theory of politeness made sense to me, given its American parallels—it seemed a bit like running into an acquaintance on the streets of New York and saying “let’s grab coffee sometime,” even if you had no genuine intention of following up.
But then I heard a construction that didn’t fit the mold. I was arranging an appointment, and my interlocutor said, “I will meet you tomorrow at noon, definitely. Insha’allah.”
This “definitely, insha’allah” puzzled me. It wasn’t a noncommittal pleasantry, and frankly, if it had been a matter of religion, he never would have asserted that he would definitely be there in the first place, because to say so would be to deny God’s ultimate power. This was something different. He had every intention of arriving exactly when he said…unless, of course, some unforeseen circumstance stopped him from doing so. Unless an unsecured watermelon flew out the back of a truck and whacked him upside the head. Unless he found his route inexplicably closed by concrete roadblocks, as they so often are here. Unless the road itself collapsed.
It may sound like I’m joking, but these are all very real possibilities in Cairo, where randomness reigns. By saying I will be there at noon, definitely, if God wills it, he wasn’t being pious or circumspect. He was merely being honest. It was a simple recognition of one of the human condition’s more vexing aspects: that we can never know what happens next.
Life is unpredictable everywhere, of course, but life’s unpredictability feels especially acute in Egypt. The country seems to exist in a collective fugue state where it is difficult, if not impossible, to know anything empirically. In contrast to the West, with its lane lines and time tables and rules that give us the illusion of control, there is no veneer of orderliness here. There is only entropy. There are no lane lines at all. The traffic lights (which I could count on one hand) are mysteriously always yellow. If you go to the same coffee shop at the same time every day, you will find that one day it’s open, the next day it’s inexplicably closed, the third day it’s open but has no coffee beans, the fourth day it’s open and there are six baristas but none of them know how to operate the espresso machine, and the fifth day it’s been reduced to a pile of rubble. Why? You’ll never find out. So you stop buying into the idea that the future is foreseeable or that you have any real say in it.
Maddening as that is, you can find freedom in uncertainty—a sense of empowerment, almost. When you can neither predict nor control outcomes, you stop worrying about them, and you start to savor what’s in front of you. If that coffee shop you frequent could be gone tomorrow, you’re much more likely to appreciate it now. Amid this endless discombobulation, I’ve started practicing acceptance: I make my plans knowing things will either work out or they won’t, and I take solace in the fact that there is nothing I can do but to wait and see.
A couple weeks ago, I found myself at a dinner party where I was outnumbered by Egyptians, all of whom had spent an extensive amount of time in the West. When I introduced myself as American, they smiled knowing smiles. They asked me if I was enjoying Cairo, and I could tell they were picturing all the ways in which a quiet, manageable, American life would be upended in coming here.
“The adjustment was hard, to be honest with you,” I said. “But it’s forced me to calm down and start rolling with the punches. If I fixated on all the things I can’t control, I’d be angry all the time.”
My dining companions chuckled with understanding. “That’s good,” one said. “It’s the only way to survive here. You have to surrender to the chaos.”
Surrender to the chaos. I live by those words now. I’m happier for it. And whenever I say “definitely,” I add a silent insha’allah.