2020 | Coronavirus Chronicles

Coronavirus Chronicles: Sounds of Egypt in downtown Bethesda

‘As I strode past a shop's open door, I detected a hauntingly familiar sound. Is that the Quran?’

Cornucopia Specialty Food Market

From Amani Elkassabany

(Editor’s note: This essay is part of Bethesda Beat’s Coronavirus Chronicles personal essay series. Visit the submission page to learn more.)

On a recent afternoon, I heard a sound that stopped me in my tracks. Normally, out walking, I listen to podcasts or music, but I decided instead to tune in to the outdoors: bird songs, rustling leaves, human voices.

As I strode past a shop’s open door, I detected a hauntingly familiar sound. Is that the Quran?

I began to hurry home for a scheduled Facetime call, but there really was no mistaking the slow, measured rhythmic tones. I backtracked and stopped before a brick storefront with lights hanging from its awning.

Just inside Cornucopia Specialty Food Market stood a slender, fair-skinned man wearing a denim jacket. He held a smartphone, the sound of Quranic recitation coming clearly through its speakers.

It’s hard to describe the sound to someone who’s never heard it: part chant, part hymn. The recitation of the Quran is a profoundly moving vocal art form.

Only in my native Egypt had I ever heard it in the streets (and in taxis, shops, and mosques) as a kind of background soundtrack to everyday life. So to hear it in Bethesda during a period of lockdown held a particular kind of pleasure.

I stopped outside the small, specialty-foods grocery at the corner of Norfolk and Auburn. I had a conversation, in Arabic, with the owner, Ibrahim.

I learned that he is the son of an Egyptian father and a Sicilian mother. He greeted me with familiar phrases that convey human hospitality and generosity of spirit.

Ahlan. Welcome.
Sharafteena. You’ve honored us.
Taht amrik. At your service.

Six feet apart and faces covered, we made time to talk. Two strangers, brought together by the profoundly beautiful intonation of a sacred text, sharing one genuine moment of connection.

Amani Elkassabany is an English teacher and Staff Developer at Thomas S. Wootton High School.

Read other essays in the Coronavirus Chronicles series.

To learn how to submit your work for consideration, click here.