The eminent South African novelist tells Dani Shapiro how she found peace in the shadow of an ancient mosque in northern Egypt.
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The first place I ever went to outside South Africa was Egypt. I was 30 years old, I had written two books, and I had never been out of the country. My husband, Reinhold Cassirer, had spent 4 1/2 years in Egypt, so it had been important to him—and he wanted to take me there. I had been longing to go; I had read so much about Egyptian history, the Pyramids. I’m a person without any religious beliefs. I’m an atheist. I haven’t spent time in synagogues, churches, mosques. But the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo impressed me with its quietness, with its symmetry and beauty. Being a woman, I wasn’t allowed to go inside, but the arches, the spires rising from the top, the view from the courtyard, all impressed me greatly. I’ve been lucky enough to go back a number of times, and, indeed, I have felt something of the influence—more from people’s moods, their turn towards spirituality, rather than from their beliefs. Being there brings about a kind of silence in oneself.

Getting There

Flights to Cairo depart daily from New York on Egyptair; fly through London’s Heathrow airport on British Airways. For more on Ibn Tulun Mosque, go to