Cairo, Christianity, Copts, Education, Egypt, Pilgrimage, travel
Life has fallen into a sort of rhythm by now. I set my alarm for 6:15 every morning. If I’ve slept poorly the night before, I need the alarm. If I’ve slept well, I wake up just before the alarm goes off. For the past couple of nights, I haven’t been sleeping so well. It’s getting colder at night, and my one sheet-blanket isn’t enough anymore. There is another blanket I’ve tried to use, but it stinks of ancient dust and dirt. I have to do something about that.
When I’ve had my morning coffee, had my time with God, done my exercises and gotten washed and dress, I head down for breakfast. Officially, breakfast is served at 8 am, but the time people actually eat varies some. We eat at a long table, which is covered with a plastic tablecloth. Sister Maria sits at the far end of the table, since she has the most seniority. I, the guest, in a position of honor, I suppose, sit across from her. The sisters seem to sit in rows according to their seniority. Those with the least seniority sit at the bottom end of the table, nearest the kitchen.
A normal breakfast is pita bread, a flat bread slightly different from what they sell in Europe and the States, and more tasty, two kinds of cheese, both something like feta, rucola leaves, boiled eggs, and sometimes foul (sounds like fool when you say it), a delicious fava bean stew. The sisters only drink black tea, which I also drink down in the dining room, but I’m very grateful for my daily cup of coffee in my room.
Then I go off, usually with Rohmy, to the school next to the garbage dump, where I teach my kindergarten group. Later in the morning I return with Rohmy, whenever he manages to come and pick me up, and I buy water to drink, and then go to my room and write about the morning or the previous day.
Lunch is served at 2 pm in the convent dining room. We often have chicken for lunch, unless it is a Wednesday or Friday. These are fast days, and there is no meat. Most of the sisters fast from breakfast as well on these days.
We’ve had stewed beef once for lunch. Normally there is some sort of soup with the meat, either the slimy spinachy molokhia, or some sort of vegetable soup like green beans with homemade tomato broth. There is always delicious rice mixed with vermicelli, and always the flat bread. Dessert is always fruit – fresh guavas, pomegranates or bananas.
Then I’m free in the afternoon until 5 pm, when I go to teach again. I usually spend this time in the convent dining room, where there is wifi. I check and write emails and hang out with whichever sisters happen to be there. A couple of times they’ve asked to hear the CD I have downloaded into my laptop from the Egyptian Christian group “Better Life”. I love it when the sisters translate these lyrics for me, and we sometimes have good talks. Then I go back to my room and prepare my lesson.
At five o’clock I begin teaching with Reda – first the fourth graders for an hour, then the fifth graders and finally the sixth graders.
At the very beginning of the evening, we always pray in the classroom. Reda has taught me to stand facing east with the students, and we make the sign of the cross as we say “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One God, Amen.” The same thing happens with the sixth graders at the end of the evening, at 8 pm. Then I pray in English, saying whatever I feel like saying, and the children recite after me. Then Reda and the children recite blessings together.
When the students write from the blackboard, it’s a lot quieter. But when the fifth graders are there, it is bedlam! I’ve been wondering why that is. For one thing, they shout every time you ask them to repeat something. I’ve started asking them to speak in a normal voice so I can understand what they’re saying, and also to protect my nerves. One day both Reda and I are tired. I, because I didn’t sleep well the night before. This weather change means my body is having to adapt, and that makes me tired. Reda is tired because he’s come down with a cold. He wasn’t dressed for the cooler weather.
We pretend to sleep at our desks, showing the students that both teachers are tired. I count the number of kids in class today – fifteen! No wonder it’s so noisy in there. There are only about nine fourth graders who come, and about five sixth graders.
The afternoon program, I learn, isn’t really a school. The kids all go to some school or other during the day, and come here in the evening for extra help.
Every evening after all the kids have left, Reda and I sit on a bench in the now-school, ex-hospital courtyard and talk about the lessons, or about our lives. He is such a gentleman, and wants to take care of his “mother”, Noreen. Every evening he buys me a juice, like mango or guava, and we sit on a bench, drink our juice, and talk. One evening I ask about the stream of people coming and going from the room next to the courtyard. The old, worn-out sign says “dental clinic”, but it is obviously no longer a dental clinic. I see computers in the room – and a constant flow of people. I also notice that some of those waiting to go into this room listen to us talk. They seem to understand at least some of what we are talking about. I ask him what this room is all about.
“These people want to go to America,” he says. “They’re getting help filling in the required emigration forms.” So many people want to leave Egypt! One man, sitting there with his entire family, tells me he has a degree in hotel management and tourism, but he can’t find a job anywhere – there are no tourists. He thinks he can find work – any work will be fine – in the United States.
I always leave Reda at 8:30 pm to go back to the convent for supper. There, we normally eat more bread and cheese, and often homemade yoghurt that Sister Ologaya has made. Once we had a hard macaroni dish, sort of like a pizza.
During one evening at supper, I ask Sr. Maria about those wanting to emigrate. She says there are large Coptic communities in the States, in New Jersey and California, for instance, that will help these people if they manage to emigrate.
We talk about Coptic lifestyle values. Reda has told me, for instance, that Copts don’t date. There is no premarital sex with either the Copts or the Muslims. Divorce is frowned upon. Egyptian society is conservative and strict. I tell her about the mores in Germany and in the States. This is what these Egyptians will encounter when they land in the States or in Europe somewhere. “I know, she says. It will be hard for the children.”
She tells me that among the Muslims, many are turning away from any faith at all. They had put their hopes in the Muslim Brotherhood, and found through the one-year experience with the Brotherhood that the Muslim Brotherhood were not interested in the common good of all. They have found the Brotherhoold to be just another corrupt political party.
Somehow the sisters find out that I’ve been cold, ever since the weather changed. Sister Monika finds a nice warm, clean blanket for me, and I walk back with my blanket to the hospital. Before I enter the building, however, I am always stopped by a loud “Hello!” It is Romero, one of the handicapped young men. As far as I can tell, he is only physicall handicapped, but quite intelligent. He sells cookies and chips outside to people going into the hospital to visit patients. He wants me to buy something. I don’t mind. I find the suppers boring, and I wouldn’t mind something sweet to eat before I go to bed. Sometimes I buy an Egyptian form of Oreo cookies. Or perhaps Twinkies. I haven’t had Twinkies since I was a kid! I find that I enjoy this bit of sweetness before I fall into bed. The night I carry the heavy blanket, I buy a Twinkie and then go to bed. I read from a Kindle book in my cell phone until my eyes droop. I sleep a deep, peaceful sleep.