Egyptian teenager, popular Grafton High student, dispeller of Muslim myths
He’s never been to the pyramids or ridden a camel, and he wears T-shirts and jeans most of the time.
He is not a terrorist nor does he know anyone who is a terrorist, said Abdelrahman Essam Abdelkarim, a 16-year-old American Field Service (AFS) student from Cairo, Egypt, and a devout Muslim who is dispelling myths about his country and his faith at Grafton High School.
Abdel, as he is called, lives in Grafton with William and Martha Morse and their sons Drew, 16, and Mark, 13.
“In talking to my friends, I have the best family,” said Abdel, one of 49 Egyptian AFS students, most in the United States.
“I wanted to come to the United States to be fluent in the language, and I want to know what people think about us. Many people think that every Muslim is a terrorist.”
The Morses agreed to host an AFS student two weeks before Abdel arrived at their home.
“We were very excited to find out we were getting a Muslim boy because it’s a culture we didn’t know anything about,” Mrs. Morse said. “I was a little nervous. What if he didn’t like us or couldn’t
“What we learned is he’s a typical teenager,” Mr. Morse said.
“He’s very kind, very smart, and he gets along well with everyone, always joking around. Everyone knows Abdel.”
It’s been a great six months, Abdel and the Morses said, full of learning experiences and plenty of humor. Abdel and the Morses like to joke.
Mr. Morse, a financial planner who minored in major religions while in college, enjoys talking to Abdel about their faiths.
The month-long Muslim feast of Ramadan, which requires fasting, prayer and good works, started a few days after Abdel arrived. He could not eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset.
Since he likes to sleep late, that meant Abdel often went to school without eating.
After sunset, the family ate a big meal, which Abdel sometimes prepared. The family occasionally shops at Middle Eastern and Asian markets in Milwaukee.
“He’s a very good cook,” Mrs. Morse said. “I’ve tried making some Egyptian dishes.”
For the first week or two of school, Abdel avoided the cafeteria because of his fast, but by the end of the month, he was joining Drew and his friends.
The boys, who share a bedroom, do not have any classes together, but they meet during lunch periods.
Abdel prays to God (Allah) five times a day. He turns toward Mecca and stands, kneels and prostrates himself during prayer.
“At home (Cairo), prayer is no problem. Everyone does it,” Abdel said. “But in (Grafton) school, it’s difficult to pray. The times are not right, and maybe people would give me odd looks, so I pray when I get home.”
Mrs. Morse brings the boys home after school so Abdel can pray. When he doesn’t have school on a Friday, she takes him to a mosque in Milwaukee. The Muslim Sabbath is Friday and services are at noon.
Abdel goes through a ritual cleansing process called wudu before morning prayer. He repeats the cleansing if he encounters something unclean. One must be pure and clean to pray, he explained.
A dog’s saliva is considered unclean in the Islam faith, and the Morses have two dogs. If the dogs lick him, Abdel goes through the cleansing process, washing his head, hands, arms, legs and feet with soap and water three times. He also cleanses his nostrils and mouth three times.
One of his favorite Christmas gifts was a T-shirt with a dog’s face, tongue hanging out.
This was Abdel’s first Christmas, and he learned about the birth of Christ.
“It was good. You get presents,” he said.
He also experienced his first snowfall and went downhill skiing for the first time.
The most striking difference between teenagers in Grafton and Cairo, Abdel said, is the interaction between boys and girls. Boys and girls do not date in Egypt unless accompanied by a chaperone, and they do not kiss or hug.
“We don’t hug much like here. Boys and girls do not hug as friends,” Abdel said. “At first, I didn’t like this hugging, but now I like it.”
In Egypt, the only females he can hug are relatives, he said.
Whereas Grafton teens often go to each other’s homes for entertainment, Abdel said he goes with friends to sports clubs, where he can play football (soccer here) and other sports, eat and shop in stores, routinely staying out until 3 to 5 a.m. He is more likely to go to a cyber cafe with friends than stay home to play Internet games, Abdel said.
Abdel is an avid soccer player and hoped to be on the Grafton High team, but he broke his arm in September. He fell over the handlebars of a bicycle. His arm is fine now, he said, and he may join an indoor soccer league.
To introduce his family, Mr. Morse sent Abdel an e-mail saying they like sports and the Packers.
“I didn’t understand Packers and thought, ‘They like to pack things? This is a strange family,’” Abdel said.
When he went to his first Packers game at Lambeau Field, he didn’t understand the game.
“I didn’t understand what they were doing, hitting each other and tackling each other,” Abdel said. “By the second time, I understood what was going on.”
Abdel’s father is a financial manager. His mother is head of the Arabic department at the American immersion school he attends. He has three sisters, ages 20, 13 and 10.
His family has an exchange student, a girl from California, who arrived shortly after he left.
Because of the Internet and video cams, the two families have gotten to know each other, Mrs. Morse said.
“Now that we know Abdel and have spoken to his family, we have to go to Egypt,” she said.
“I think that’s the only way Abdel will get to the pyramids.”
Abdel wore a head scarf and dishdasha for a photo with his Grafton family, (from left) Mark, Martha, William and Drew Morse, but he usually wears a T-shirt and jeans in Egypt. Photo by Sam Arendt