As the sun dips below the Great Pyramids, the Islamic call to prayer echoes across Cairo.
In her apartment next door to a mosque, Ro'ya Zanaty, 21, can hear the muezzin's wail loud and clear as she covers her hair and neck with the traditional veil. But she is not going to pray tonight. She is answering the call to fun.
Her cell phone rings, she grabs her purse, checks her reflection and locks the apartment door. After climbing into a BMW and greeting her friends, Zanaty's first order of business is plugging in her i-Pod and cranking Nickelback.
They sing along at full throat, dancing in their seats. They shuffle between Justin Timberlake and Lebanese pop as the car zips over the Nile, in and out of Cairo's epic honking traffic. They wave at passing cars and start a road game of "truth or dare."
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"What's your biggest regret?" Zanaty asks her friends.
"I dated a jerk," Hanaa Mohammed replies from the driver's seat.
If not for Zanaty's veil, they could be easily mistaken for a group of giggling American co-eds headed to a night club. But by Western standards, these are girls gone mild.
They've never tasted a beverage stronger than Pepsi. They spend more time on Facebook than on dance floors. Until they're married, they will live with their parents or watchful older relatives. And they are saving their first kiss for their wedding night.
Yet a veiled Muslim displaying this kind of Western fun with two unveiled friends is frowned upon in much of Egypt and the Middle East.
"She's wild. She's crazy," says Ayat, Zanaty's older sister. "She is more of the rebellious type, stubborn rebellious. I'm more the quiet type. Blend in with the crowd, she's blend out of the crowd."
The internal tug-of-war for the secular Muslim is obvious when she talks about the opposite sex. Asked if she would ever approach a man and ask him out, she seems nonchalant. "If I liked him that much, sure. Why not? I mean what difference does it make who asks who first?"
Then, she pauses for a beat. "My parents really shouldn't know this."
The Zanaty sisters spent much of their youth in arch-conservative Saudi Arabia and the influence of that culture and their devout Muslim parents is still felt in their modest Cairo apartment. Though she doesn't consider herself religious, Ro'ya Zanaty chose to wear the veil as a sign of purity and self-discipline.
"I'm trying to do the right thing, each one of us has our own way," she says. "You could be good in your actions, but not veiled or be veiled and not [good]. In our circle of friends, I'm the only one that's veiled. I'm a normal girl. I'd like to flip my hair and basically show off. We are in a hot country, layering and covering does start to get at you at some point, especially during the summer. But my unveiled friends are the ones that actually keep me stable. They're like 'if one of us is doing the right thing, we might as well encourage her.'"
Her family would have preferred she attend an all-girls school, but Zanaty earned a degree in mass communication from the co-ed Misr International University and works on campus as a teaching assistant, making around $450 a month. She dreams of running her own advertising agency, but admits she would have to leave her country to make that dream come true. There is gender discrimination, but a more relevant challenge is the woeful job market.
In a country where 40 percent of the population is illiterate, a college degree should guarantee a good-paying job, but that is not the case. Even relatively robust economic growth can't keep up with this country's population explosion. Each year, 700,000 Egyptians earn college diplomas and then scramble for 200,000 jobs, and it is a grim joke that Cairo has some of the best educated taxi drivers in the world. Even upper-middle class freshman students are pessimistic about a change for the better.
"Because every aspect of our life here in Egypt is corrupt," says Kismet Waked, sitting in a computer lab lined with shiny new Apple desktops. "We're not given the chance to speak freely. I personally would like to go abroad and see things from different perspectives and learn new things so I can bring them back here and try and improve."
Egypt counts the United States among its allies, and President George W. Bush often points to Egypt as a commendable model of democracy in a region dominated by authoritarian rule. But for nearly 30 years, President Hosni Mubarak has run this country like a modern pharaoh, clinging to power through police brutality, media censorship and rigged elections. Zanaty and her friends are hesitant to criticize their government on the record, and like the vast majority of Egyptians, they do not bother to vote.
"I don't see how that would affect me," she says. "Recently, I guess they are trying their hardest to open up [elections to opposition candidates]. I stress 'recently.'"
But while she has developed a relatively liberal world view in Cairo, political oppression and economic turmoil have driven millions of her peers to become more religious … some to the extreme. Mosque construction has boomed and Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood have grown stronger, managing to win a small percentage of seats in parliament despite Mubarak's crackdowns. But Zanaty doesn't see her country slipping toward more theocratic rule.
"It's not what the people want."
And she says she and her peers have nothing but disdain for Egyptians like Ayman al Zawahiri and Mohammed Atta, two of the most famous names in al Qaeda. "They are not us. You get radicals in absolutely everywhere and absolutely every religion. I mean, come on, don't tell me you don't have cults or radical thinkers in the States."
When asked for her impressions of America, she smiles wryly and stirs her tea.
"It's a country that should practice what it preaches," she says. "And with the amount of preaching it's doing, it has a lot of practicing to catch up on: Absolute total disregard for state sovereignty. I mean, come on. I'm sorry, but who do you think you are? In the past, if the States was a strong country, it was because it had thinkers. It had amazing scientists, amazing programs, but right now it's like a jock. Very powerful, very athletic, but in a couple of years it will burn out and what's left is a totally useless nation. I don't think it's what the American people want."
She says she hopes to move to Italy soon, but would consider living in America. "If me being there would change even one person's point of view about Muslims and the Arab world, then I'd live there for my entire life."