I had already been to Egypt twice before with my husband. Once we had a wonderful cruise on the Nile, just after the January 25 revolution. The sites were empty; we had Egypt to ourselves. You can read about this trip at my old blogsite: http://noreen-masterpieceinprogress.blogspot.de/2011/11/shukran-means-thank-you.html is the first entry of that series. It was wonderful and inspiring. We wanted to go back. We did, and I wrote a series about that trip beginning here: http://noreen-masterpieceinprogress.blogspot.de/2012/02/if-youve-drunk-from-waters-of-nileday.html
That was a wonderful trip, too, but not enough for me. I felt a strong need to come back to Egypt and do some sort of volunteer work, especially as an expression of my Christian faith. I wanted to do something to help Egyptians to move on in their revolution, to somehow be of assistance in their journey to freedom. And God did lead both my husband and me to a gathering of like-minded people who also had Egypt on their minds. I heard about Sister Maria, who runs the Salam Center, I sent her an email asking if I could come, she answered saying yes, and the rest is history – the story you will read here.
The beginning stage in a relationship is perhaps the loveliest. You smile a lot, and everyone is nice to each other. Wouldn’t it be nice if relationships were always this way? Here, I struggle with the words. Of course, I can’t read them in Arabic, but I’m learning to say “good morning”, “good evening”, “see you later”, “what’s your name” and “my name is …” I write them down on a notepad in my normal Roman script. That is enough to keep me busy a whole day. People smile when I attempt to speak Arabic. They are indulgent with me. Will we get past the beginning?
I have met Sr. Maria by now. She sat with me last evening at the dinner table. I asked her where in Cairo we are. “We’re in the north of Cairo,” she said. “This is one of the seven garbage dumping areas of the city.”
Today Sr. Marina takes me on a tour of the hospital and the other buildings connected to the Coptic Sisters’ Center.
My room is in the hospital building, and today I have already seen that there are also administrative offices on my floor. Sr. Marina begins with surgery and admissions, on the first floor. My first impression is of friendly chaos. Today is a Sunday, officially a holiday, but that doesn’t matter here at the hospital. Patients, visitors, I don’t know who all, are all sitting on the sandy stairs. Since many of them are men and some are smoking, I figure they’re on the steps so that the men can smoke. I see Muslims and Copts. Everyone smiles at me, a woman in a black gallabia, her head completely covered except for her eyes peering through glasses, touches me on the shoulder and says in English, “Welcome”. Her eyes are smiling, merry. And suddenly I am inside the operating theaters. There are five in this hospital. There are also a few rooms where patients can stay as in-patients. Those rooms are spilling over with visitors. In one room I count nine visitors visiting a child.
Most of the patients here today seem to be children. One is having an ENT operation. I witness my very first caesarian in another room, where I see a woman lying on the operating table, blood flowing all around her. Somewhere inside her belly, I hear the faint sound of a baby crying.
Upstairs, I look inside the neonatal clinic. All the infants today but one are there because of jaundice. A doctor and nurse are busy trying to insert a canule into the tiny foot of another infant, whose lung is underdeveloped. I say a quick prayer for him.
I see that all the equipment is sterilized, and that is reassuring. I am also told that I have to put plastic covers over my shoes when I walk in the operating area. The doctors are dressed in spiffy scrubs and would fit into any hospital in the west. In all other respects, though, this hospital is unlike any I have ever seen. In a corner of the each floor where operations take place there is an altar with burning candles, and plastic flower-framed pictures of a blonde Jesus, the now deceased Coptic pope Shenouda and other figures I don’t recognize. Inside and surrounding the doors of each room thee is always at least one picture taped to the wall – of Mary, Jesus, Pope Shenouda or other holy figures in the Coptic church.
The hospital is bigger than I initially thought, occupying all five floors of this building. I wonder if the part I’m living in isn’t designated for mothers who have run away with their children from their husbands. Sister Maria told me yesterday that Egyptian law allows a husband to claim his wife back, even if he has been beating her and/or the children. The wife has no legal recourse. Here, the sisters shelter and hide them from their husbands.
Some of the upper floors are out-patient clinics. One area is the emergency room. I meet one of the ER doctors, Dr. Beshoy. Sr. Marina asks him to help guide me through the complex. Her English isn’t adequate to the task. Still, it’s good enough to crack a joke. “His English very good. My Arabic very good,” she tells me. I see an opthamology clinic, an X-ray area, an ENT clinic, an orthopedic clinic, a dental clinic, and much more. All the equipment is there, but the tables or desks are all covered with printed oil paper. And some of the equipment is a bit rusty. Instead of gleaming stainless steel waste baskets, they have to do with those flimsy plastic ones you can buy at a one-euro or dollar store. To ensure privacy for the patients, they have covered some of the windows with red transparent foil. And everywhere there are pictures of Jesus, Mary, Pope Shenouda and other saints, taped onto the walls and doors.
Behind the pharmacy is what looks to be a permanent home for children whose parents are unable to care for them, a sort of orphanage. These children all appear to me to be mentally retarded. One boy is obviously microcephalic, for example. They run to the gate to greet us, and then Dr. Beshoy takes us inside. They hug us, touch us, hold us by the arms. They can’t get enough of us! I begin taking photos of them. They are enchanted, and each wants to see their photo immediately.
The pharmacy is at the edge of the compound, and a guard is sitting at a table there, letting people in and out. I ask about this. “It’s not very safe here,” says Beshoy. Indeed. That’s all I’ve been hearing before my trip. “About a kilometer from here, some people threw Molotov cocktails into a cathedral and also poured oil on people. About four were killed.” I vaguely recall hearing something about this. “But it’s all safe right now,” he assures me.
We greet Sr. Monika, who is instructing some workers working on the granite steps of the church building. I tell her what Beshoy has told me. “These workers are Muslims,” she says. “Most Muslims hate what the extremists do. Most Muslims like it here.”
We see the physiotherapy department, tucked into the corner of another building. It is hard to tell how old the equipment is, but there are machines galore, crammed into a dusty room. It reminds me of an English lesson I recently taught, where we listened to a discussion on a CD about buying equipment for a company gym. “We’d better not buy used equipment,” one of the speakers says, “or we’ll have insurance issues.”
Then we go to the nursery school. It’s closed today, but the staff are there anyway, cleaning and organizing the school. “We have both Christian and Muslim children who come here,” the sister who directs the nursery school tells me. “They all love it here.”
And then I am taken into the former hospital. Rather than tear it down, which would happen in Germany or anywhere else in the west, they have opted to make use of the space. The stairs are partially broken through and plaster is crumbling everywhere, but there are plenty of rooms for an after-school program. There seem to be no insurance issues here. There are desks for each pupil, sometimes even a blackboard. I wonder if I will be teaching English in these rooms during the next two weeks. I have offered to do this.
I comment on the condition of the building. “Why tear it down?” says Dr. Beshoy. “You can see, it works.”
When I return to my room, I find it to be one of the cleanest, most luxurious rooms of the entire center. But even here, in the bathroom, I have just encountered the biggest cockroach I have ever seen, climbing out of the floor drain. Ah, well. I stamp on it and throw the carcass down the toilet.
I hear deafeningly loud music outside, rhythmic, lively, surely not the kind of music Salafists would listen to. I look out the window. The gates to the compound are closed.
I spend hours this day in my room, catching up on sleep lost the night before, reading. What are the sounds I hear? The call to prayer. Many times a day. Children playing, fire crackers popping. Birds chirping. Roosters crowing incessantly, day and night. Car horns beeping, but god only knows where their drivers drive. I have seen the roads outside. They are nothing but dirt paths meandering around and through a maze at the feet of a gigantic range of eight-story mountains. The only things I can see are birds flying, and an occasional child or adult walking to or from the hospital. I feel pretty safe between these locked gates, but I am also locked in.