Coming back to Cairo always begins in the airport and then continues on the plane. Today I meet Ellen, an outgoing, attractive granny who looks very un-grandmotherly. She, like me, is an English teacher. She tells me she has a mud house in Siwa, a waadi (oasis) in the middle of the Libyan desert. This oasis, she tells me, is about 30 kilometers long and 8 kilometers wide. It takes about four hours to get there from Cairo. Or was it Alexandria? “It’s easy”, she says. “There’s a bus that leaves twice a day. And ask for Ellen. They’ll find me.” I think she’s said she paid around €8,000 to the local sheikh for it. She wanted a house in a warm climate, but couldn’t afford one in Tuscany, so she bought one for a whole lot less in the Egyptian desert. She’s been living here for about five winters, but her children haven’t yet made it down here for a visit. “Siwa is perfectly safe,” she tells me. “It’s inhabited by Berbers, who have nothing to do with these Islamist issues, and they hire guest workers from South Sudan, very peaceful people.”
Each time I’ve been in Egypt (this is the third time), people have expressed admiration for my courage in coming here. “Are you sure this is wise?” they ask. “Don’t you think it’s a bit too dangerous now?” The other times I was with my husband. This time I’ll be completely on my own.
They have a point. This time, Morsi, the first democratically elected prime minister, has been deposed by a military coup, and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are active in demonstrations, trying to get the power back. Neither the Brotherhood nor the military is known for their gentle ways. Recently over 1,000 people were killed in demonstrations. I don’t intend to get caught in any demonstrations, I say. But then my husband tells me about areas in Egypt where Islamists are painting, “A Christian lives/works here” on Christian homes and shops owned by Christians. That sounds a bit off-putting. Copts being targeted. I’m going to be living with Coptic nuns for two weeks.
I find two Dutch-speaking women seated next to me on the plane, and we discuss where we’re from and why we’re going to Egypt. At first they tell me they’re going to travel around Egypt. Then I learn they are part of a film crew. They lead me to believe they’re going to film nice places for people to go on vacation. Then, when I tell them what I’m doing, they tell me they are doing a series on human rights on Dutch television. They’re on their way to Al Minya, between Cairo and Aswan, where there has been persecution of Christians, particularly Copts. The subject for this episode is “freedom of religion”. I’ll be sure to watch it. They tell me I can find it on the internet under http://www.uitzendinggemistnl, if I click “jij bent sterk”. Much of the episode will be in English.
I look around the plane. It’s full of people, and about half of them are Westerners, people with blonde little children, even Americans behind me. I learn they work at the American University of Cairo. Either I’m in very good company, or we’re all stark, raving mad.
At the airport, things look the same as ever. I love this airport, so clean, modern and airy. It feels almost familiar to be back here. I know just what to do. I walk right up to the exchange bank, exchange some Euros for Egyptian pounds and buy a visa sticker for my passport. I see that the film crew has been sent back to buy a visa. Even these experts don’t know the ins and outs like I do!
But then, when I leave the customs area, where people come to pick up their friends and loved ones, I find no one to greet me. No matter, Ellen has become my good friend by now, and she’s friends with half the plane. She’s just met a nice Egyptian family, Copts, she says, and she introduces them to me. The wife, when she sees I am not being picked up, offers to phone someone for me. She reaches Sister Maria, and I know now that for some reason, the person picking me up and I are not in the same place. Sister Maria tells this woman she will phone my contact person. A few minutes later, a woman dressed like a nun in a gray habit, holding a placard with my name, rushes over to me. The Egyptian woman has described my clothing. I meet Sister Ologaya, who ushers me to a car and a man she introduces as Rohmy. Either the car, or possibly both the car and the man are Copts, judging from all the pictures of Jesus and all the crosses on the dashboard.
At first, we speed along the freeway. No traffic jams today. But then, the road becomes rougher and rougher, reminding me of vacation trips I took as a child with my family into the backwoods. First a nice freeway, then paved, two-lane state roads, then narrow streets, and finally gravel. I invariably got sick with asthma attacks after about a half hour of riding on these roads. Today, the windows in the car are wide open. We wind through the middle of an outdoor market, around garbage piles, children running, a dog running through a garbage mound, men sawing pieces of wood, women in headdress seated beside roadside stands selling trinkets or fruit, waiting for customers. We pass a butcher shop with lamb carcasses hanging from the doorway. I learn that the feast of Abraham being spared from having to offer up his son is still going on. I thought it was only one day. No, it runs an entire week. It’s like having Christmas for an entire week, I hear. As I sit here in my room typing this, I can hear the calls to prayer, incessant today, intermingling with firecrackers children set off.
I wonder how my lungs will hold out. At times I smell dust, at others, the sweet scent of fruit, at others, the pungent smell of meat cooking. My lungs will be fine, I tell myself. In fact, in the past two months, I have weaned myself off of all asthma medication. This is an experiment in faith. I am so sick of being hoarse because of my cortisone inhaler, I want to be free of medication, at least the cortisone, and so I’ve weaned myself off it. Not many ill effects. I feel fine. So I’ve also gone cold turkey with the other, less drastic medication, and felt no effects at all. My lungs seem to be just fine! Even after this dust explosion.
I see a building with a sign. “Coptic Sisters…” Are we there? I ask. Yes, we just have to turn the corner, into a sort of gated area. I’m not sure if I’m in a gated compound, but I know I’m in an area with several buildings, all belonging to the Sisters. There is even a hospital here. It is pleasant, as long as you’re not looking for a five-star hotel. There is plenty of sand and dust here within the compound as well, but there are also palm trees, grass, a walkway with a pergola with flowers and grass on either side, a large vegetable garden, a hospital, and a church with a dining room in it. First, I meet Sister Marina, who shows me to my room. Room? I have the entire floor to myself! In my room I have a bed, a refrigerator where I can store the apples I brought with me so that I can eat something fresh most days, a table where I can write, and a wardrobe. I even have a couch, where I can entertain visitors if I get any. There is a ceiling fan, which Sr. Marina turns on. It is hot in here, and we’re in the middle of October!
Sr. Marina’s English isn’t very good, so we don’t talk that much, but she walks me down several flights of stairs. I see a sort of kiosk outside the building and lots of kids running around, women sitting around, one or two with babies, a man here and there. I have no idea who these people are or what they are doing here. I don’t know anything. Sr. Marina leads me past an entry area to a building – the entry seems to be under construction. “This is the church,” she says. I see no sign of a church. It looks more like an apartment building. She walks me into a room with two long tables covered with printed plastic tablecloths, and points for me to sit down.” I have already told her through sign language, waving my arms like wings, and pointing to my mouth, that I ate on the plane and that I am full. But she says, “A little.” And brings me a plate, a soup bowl, cutlery, a plate with a ring of rice mixed with vermicelli, a bowl of alphabet noodles and another bowl of what looks like a tomato/green bean soup. “Eat,” she says. She brings two pieces of chicken and water. “Maya,” she explains. I’m learning Arabic by necessity. The water and all the food is delicious.
And now I’m on my own, in my room, with the sound of the muezzin and children playing downstairs. I’m on my own until dinner, which will be served at nine. In my email correspondence, I have suggested some things to Sister Maria that I could do to help, while here in Cairo. Very nice, she wrote. But I haven’t even met Sr. Maria yet. The sisters are all very nice, but I don’t get the sense, at least on this first day, that they really need me for anything at all. What will I be doing here?
Welcome back to Egypt, the immigration officer said to me. I feel very welcome, but what will I be doing for the next two weeks?