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SISTERS Doing It: Heather Shaw

Timea Aya Csányi talks with a one-of-a-kind Arabic-focused housemother in Egypt.

While living in Egypt, I got to know Heather Shaw as an incredibly strong and inspiring American Muslim woman. Raised in a religious Christian family who upheld principles teaching Heather to always stand on her feet, even in the toughest circumstances, it was a natural progression for her to do the same for her sisters immigrating to Egypt.


After defeating a serious illness, she spent some time in several Muslim countries: among the most adventurous are Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. She is a caring mother, a brilliant teacher, a devoted student and a professional translator all at once, who, in addition, provides housing for foreign sisters coming to study Islam in Cairo.


(Timea Aya Csányi): You have been to many other Muslim countries before settling in Egypt. Why did you choose Egypt to live in?
(Heather Shaw): Several years after my conversion to Islam, I had begun to study fiqh (theory of Islamic law), the sciences of the Qur’an, and ‘aqeedah… I arrived at a perplexing point which seemed to me to be an issue of contradictory texts and teachings. I consulted some sheikhs in the US, all of whom were unable to resolve the issue to my satisfaction, causing me a great deal of frustration.


I decided that the only way to deal with it would be to learn Arabic and research for myself, rather than depending on others to translate the texts for me.


Egypt offered me a large number of options to study Arabic with the multitude of language centres there. The dialect is understood by most Arabs and I felt that it would be easier to live and get around as a single woman, as compared to the Gulf States, and slightly less tyrannical in comparison with Syria.


(TAC): You speak both Classical Arabic and the colloquial dialect of Egypt like native speakers. Currently you are pursuing your MA in Azhar University in Arabic language. How have you reached this level?
(HS): I focused on Classical Arabic (Fusha) as it is the language of the Qur’an and I had no desire to learn the colloquial dialect. I began to learn to read the Arabic letters in the US, but it was in Egypt, however, where I actually learned to communicate. I began by studying at a private Arabic language centre, and then entered the Al-Azhar school system until I graduated from the university with a degree in Arabic language. I began my MA in Codycology, focusing on Arabic grammatical manuscripts. I admit, however, that it is difficult to hold to your resolve to speak like Shakespeare in the 21st century, in addition to the fact that there are certain segments of the society with whom you must speak the colloquial dialect in order to be understood. So, gradually, I have become probably too lenient in this issue.


(TAC): How did the idea come to have a flat to help foreign students in their Islamic studies?
(HS): Upon coming to Egypt, I did face a number of problems in adjusting to the cultural differences and in finding a secure, stable place that would allow me to focus on my studies. One brother in particular helped me a great deal during that time by allowing me to stay in an apartment in his family’s building and from this the idea grew to do the same thing for other women. At the beginning, some people helped to finance the project, so I had a rented apartment where we were able to provide for 10-20 women at a time. House rules include only speaking Arabic in the home and sharing house chores.


Since then, Allah has blessed me with an apartment, which I own, so there is no cost for rent, however, there is less financial support available, so the women are asked to share in the cost of food and utilities.


(TAC): Which countries do the students come from and what do they study here?
(HS): The women who study at the house have for the most part been from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Others include France, Algeria, Comoros Islands, Russia, USA, China, Turkestan and Hungary.


The majority are studying at Al-Azhar’s school system ranging in level from beginners, middle school and high school to university level.


(TAC): Besides your family, your life is busy with work and study. What do you do exactly?
(HS): Besides my MA in Arabic manuscripts, I have been studying Qur’an and fiqh often privately with scholars specialised in these subjects.


Regarding work, I help students with their Arabic, Qur’an and Islamic studies; I teach Islamic Culture online at Mishkah University, I have translated several books in part or in whole including ‘Tolerance in Islam’, ‘Opportunities for Reward’, ‘The Islamic Charter on Family’ and books on hadith.


Currently, I am overseeing the English division of an Islamic translation project that aims to create a tool to facilitate Islamic translation globally.


(TAC): What are your plans for the future?
(HS): Right now with the instability in Egypt, it’s hard to imagine what the future will be like.


Ideally, I would like to intensify the studies available to the women at the house, particularly to work with them in developing translation skills. This way, not only will it provide them opportunities to earn a living if they need to do so, but moreover, it will enable them to better benefit their own people by spreading their Islamic knowledge in their own languages.



Memories of a Sister in Heather’s Home:

Arriving in Cairo with the intention of studying Arabic, one of my friends suggested to me staying at the apartment of sister Heather. I still cannot believe that I actually shared this big home with 12 other sisters!


The atmosphere was amazing; living in Egypt, these women dedicated 2-3 years of their lives just to studying the Qur’an. You could truly sense the blessing of Allah (SWT) diffusing all over the home. I have never felt that degree of peace and tranquility before as I felt in this house. That half year dragged me as close to my Creator as I guess I have ever been since my conversion to Islam.


I still miss those moments; sitting on the balcony, listening to the noise of this bustling city while the sun is shining and I am reading my Arabic book or memorising some ayahs of the Qur’an with the sisters. No Internet, no TV, no wasted hours; nothing could keep me away from remembering the Almighty.


Although I’ve been keeping beautiful memories from that period of my life, I certainly faced many difficulties there, too.


Sometimes, I had to sit in the storage room to be able to be with just myself, otherwise, I was never alone; there was always someone awake, praying aloud or studying. Also, I had only a single day in a month to go out for fun and meet other friends. Every day of mine was solely dedicated to attending my Arabic and Qur’an classes.


Among the many rules I had a favourite one: we were not allowed to use any other language at home except Classical Arabic. You can’t imagine how much my Arabic improved because of this.


But speaking Arabic wasn’t the only advantage; I’ve been enriched with so many new skills and experiences. I’ve learned a lot about the customs and traditions of the Middle-Asian Muslims I lived with, I’ve learned how to adapt to others, how to share, but the most important thing I can thank this home for is that it showed me the feeling of truly being close to Allah. I was completely caught up by the spirit of these sisters; I used to sleep usually five or six hours every day spending the rest of it reciting and memorising the Quran and studying Arabic. I was living completely free of any distraction which let me do my really best in every single moment.




Heather Shaw can be contacted via her facebook page: www.facebook.com/heather.shaw.translator.

Timea Aya Csányi is a reverted sister from Hungary living in Egypt with her husband. She works at Onislam.net as social media editor, is a freelance writer in Hungarian and English and an active blogger.