“We were in Liberation Square, and then Mubarak made the statement one night saying that he is not going to resign, and that was after one of the most violent nights. We were in this field hospital a little smaller than this prayer room [where we interviewed Hassan], and there was one night where there were potential attacks on the square to pretty much just kill everyone there. We were in this room with so many injured people, and people who are dying. And there are physicians and nurses trying to save the people. We were trying to do our documentation, and just staying up all night. You are so tired. You’ve been awake for days. And you want to sleep, but you can’t sleep because if you sleep they might come and kill everyone. And you just can’t sleep. And there’s nothing to do. You can’t do anything.”
Friday prayers are over. The mosque is empty and quiet now as Imam Hassan Selim recounts for us some of his memories as a participant in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. He is a young man, not yet thirty, but already he has witnessed and experienced things of which most people are only vaguely aware.
The months Hassan spent in the square, surrounded by millions of his fellow citizens, watching many of them die as they fought for their right to self-determination, have had a profound impact on the young cleric. They gave him a new, deeper understanding of weakness, strength, and the presence of God.
Hassan continues. “There were some nights, we didn’t have access to food, because the regime was trying to cut any sources of survival. And there were some nights where you had to share whatever with the entire square. And it was cold. It was January. I remember, because the hospital was kind of protected between two buildings that were very close to each other. And I remember when we would go outside, me and my friends, to do the camera work and take pictures and stuff like this. And then we would meet a guy who seemed so exhausted. And he hasn’t slept, hadn’t taken showers, he hasn’t eaten anything. And you’re like, ‘You know what? I have a blanket in there. You should come, and you can sleep there for tonight, or at least a couple hours.’ And how much this really felt that you were saving a life just by offering someone a blanket to sleep in. Because people were sleeping outside and it’s January and it’s cold and there’s no food and no blankets.”
“And so, it just was a feeling that…you know when we were talking about being vulnerable. You start realizing things as they truly are. You start realizing that people and having a relationship is what really matters. Not how much you have or what things you have. You know what I mean? Giving someone a blanket; this really matters! This makes you happy. This means you accomplished something. Sharing some bread with someone. Sharing something with someone is what matters, not having this thing for you. Not having it all for you and not wanting to share. And so the less you have, the weaker you are, the more you get exposed to the real world. The real world.”
It was this weakness, this vulnerable exposure to the “real world” that finally helped Hassan to truly feel the presence of God in his life. He had been studying Islam from the age of six. Prior to the revolution, he was enrolled in college, learning to become an Imam (Muslim religious leader similar to a pastor). Yet it wasn’t until after the revolution, after moving to the United States, in a moment of personal and spiritual anguish that Hassan felt God’s closeness in a way he hadn’t before.
In our conversation, he described a morning in which he found himself in his van in the parking lot of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids. In spite of his new home, new job, new family, he could not stop reliving the memories of suffering he had witnessed during the revolution. His job during the months of protest was to document all the injuries and death inflicted upon the people by Mubarak’s regime. Months later, Hassan could not get the images out of his mind. He deleted all the files on his computer and reformatted his hard drive, but he could not stop the memories.
In this new country, he felt utterly alone. True, his American-born wife and daughter were here, but Hassan had no close friends, not like the people he spent months with in the square. No one around him understood what he had been through. Everyone who knew was thousands of miles away. On top of that, all the struggle and sacrifice seemed to be for nothing. Egypt had simply traded one dictatorial regime for another. In that moment, Hassan was enveloped in powerlessness and despair. He sat alone in his van and cried.
But then something changed. The intense vulnerability opened within Hassan an awareness of God he had never experienced before. Reflecting on the experience, he says, “Maybe that’s why God was introduced to my life in the first place, for a moment like this, when I have no one to rely on or speak to or communicate to, no one that can comfort me. No one can give me insight. And so I just felt this zen moment, this moment of spiritual high, like wow! I really did not have this strong feeling of God’s presence until now, even though I can lead prayers and read the scripture and I teach people and I guide people. But it was not really real until this moment of feeling vulnerable, weak.”
Moving to Cedar Rapids from Egypt was a huge change, very positive in some ways, but also difficult. Like many immigrants, though Hassan is a strong and resilient person, he still struggles with isolation and a sense of powerlessness. “I don’t have many friends, so I get this feeling all the time,” he says. “All the time.”
Knowing that he has been here a few years now and has some distance from the extreme circumstances of the revolution, I asked Hassan if he felt like his time in the U.S. has dampened his awareness or cut him off from a knowledge he had before. Below is his response.
“It’s kind of difficult to carry this with you in a society that really doesn’t understand what this means, and there is no point in explaining it to the world, to the people. People can’t really experience it until they live it. So, I don’t know. I mean, I feel that I don’t have many chances to do this anymore. Like in Egypt, for eighteen days when the biggest number of people were there in the square, you just stay up all night with people, you talk to people, you build relations, you feel strong. You feel this bond with the people. But here I don’t see this. I see people kind of isolated. Like I go to school and I see people on their cell phones. People are not talking to each other. And it just is, it’s not what I felt, what I went through those days of the Egyptian revolution. [Here] people spend all night watching Netflix instead of just hanging out with each other and getting to know one another. So, there is diversity, but I feel like people are living in their own bubbles, which kind of sucks.”
Popping these bubbles, breaking down walls, helping people overcome divisions that cause isolation, building community, especially across cultural boundaries: these are the things about which Hassan Selim is most passionate. He is always on the lookout for ways to connect his community with other groups in the city.
Hassan recognizes the wall that has grown up between Muslims and other Americans, even before September 11th, 2001. He tells a story about his own congregation to illustrate.
“There was a picture that still to this day exists in the Mother Mosque, and this picture was a picture of all the early immigrants, Lebanese, Syrians. And there were the Christians and there were the Muslims. The Christians helped build the mosque and the Muslims helped build the church (which celebrated its hundred year anniversary last year). And so one day this picture was taken out from this place [the Islamic Center], was just taken down from the wall and taken out, because of the belief of some that it has Christians and it doesn’t belong here. This has really left a scar in the heart of many people who founded this place and who had Christian friends from the same towns they came from in Syria and Lebanon, who helped them build this place. And then someone else takes this down. It hurt them so deeply. They just quit coming, unfortunately. So, hopefully I can help bring this spirit [of unity] back.”
Hassan believes pluralism and multiculturalism are a huge part of Islam. He describes the experience of pilgrimage to Mecca, where people from different cultures around the world pray together “and from this difference comes oneness, which,” he says, “is pretty much what Islam is all about.”
“Islam really goes hand in hand with the American culture,” he explains. “It does not threaten the American culture. The real Islam. And I think Islam and Muslims would benefit greatly from American culture if they are open to it. That’s why the conversation that we start together, and the conversation that takes place in organizations like the Inter-religious Council are very important. If we can raise a generation, a whole generation that understands this dynamic and how this works, then we can guarantee a bright future.”
One thing Hassan would like to see in the future are American mosques that feel more a part of their surroundings. He describes this kind of mosque as “a place that when you, as someone who does not practice Islam, come to or drive by you don’t feel like, What is this place? Or, like, This place doesn’t belong here. This place doesn’t look like it’s from here. So, my dream,” he says, “is one day that I will start a mosque that is an American mosque, that does not lose the spirit of Islam, but at the same time it adopts the American form, the American shape.”
In the meantime, he encourages people to visit the Islamic Center. Curious people can call or email the mosque any time to set up a visit, but one particularly good time to visit is during the month of Ramadan. (Next month of Ramadan is June 17-July 17). Practicing Muslims fast during the day throughout the month of Ramadan, and then gather for a feast each evening.
“I always invite people who are not Muslims to come try the food and socialize with people. That’s a good way of breaking the ice. My goal is to really just break this virtual wall that is standing between Muslims–not just in this community right here in Cedar Rapids, but Muslims in America in general–and the rest of America. Because I personally believe that if you break down this wall, the results will be amazing.”
Story by Courtney T. Ball. Photos by Braden Kopf.