CAIRO: With his index finger pointing to the heavens and a perpendicular thumb, the man next to the imam at a Cairo mosque signals the message of Islam to the deaf faithful: Allahu akbar – God is great.
They come to the mosque of Sayeda Zeinab – where the granddaughter of Prophet Mohammed is believed to be buried – in their hundreds every Friday to follow the week s main prayer session in sign language.
But in the city of a thousand minarets, there is only one volunteer who, along with another two outside the capital, can communicate the Quran in sign language to the two to four million deaf people in this country of 76 million.
When we were first allowed to give prayers in sign language, the faithful were supposed to be put to the back but I asked for them to be allowed to sit in front of the imam so that they are integrated with the rest of the believers, says Alaa Al-Din Al-Sayed.
The 34-year-old teacher explains how he set up a non-governmental organization called Sarkha (The Cry) so that deaf people like his sister would no longer be confined to the margins of society and of Islam.
I learned sign language and launched the project to translate prayers and to put an end to discrimination, here and elsewhere, he says, criticizing what he says is the non-application of Egypt s law that reserves five percent of state jobs for the handicapped.
Every Friday, he takes up his position in front of the minbar, the seat from which the imam gives his sermon. Thanks to his lively gestures, Sayed brings the deaf and hard of hearing into immediate union with the congregation of thousands.
A relative used to accompany me and translate a few bits, 67-year-old upholsterer Ahmed Abed-Hal says through an interpreter, having traveled across the city from the district of Zeitun.
Before, we were too far from the message of Islam.
Adel Nemr, a deaf trader from the bustling tourist bazaar of Khan Al-Khalili says the government has not done enough for the deaf. He dreams of a television channel and a special mosque dedicated to the deaf.
When I made the pilgrimage to Mecca [in Saudi Arabia] on my own, I couldn t perform all the rituals because there was no one there to help me. We want to be treated like all other human beings, like all Muslims, he says.
The young imam at Sayeda Zeinab, Metwali Al-Saidi, says there is no reference to the deaf in the Quran. But as a hadith of the Prophet says that the blind will go to paradise, that counts for [the deaf] too.
Islamists with a political slant have taken the lead in providing facilities for education and preaching to the deaf from early childhood.
In a small building in the up-market district of Mohandiseen, an association called Resala [The Message] welcomes around 100 deaf adolescents.
Rehab Abdallah, her face closely framed by a headscarf, says that 70 boys and 30 girls come here every day to follow – in separate classrooms – classes in language, computers and religion.
We try to avoid overcrowding, she says, adding that it is not advisable for girls to pray in a mosque where the crowd of the faithful is made up of men.
Afaf Ahmad, mother of two deaf children, praises Resala.
They educate them and even organize religious competitions through their other offices, my son won first prize in September, she says.
On the bookshelves, copies of the Quran sit alongside CDs of popular satellite channel preacher Amr Khaled and English-language learning books, all of which will soon be translated into sign language by a team of volunteers. Agence France-Presse