It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning – time to go to school! I sit inside the passenger seat. There is no seatbelt for me to fasten. I’m lucky that the car starts. Sometimes it seems sluggish. But it’s always clean. Rohmy washes all the cars every day. He sits in the driver’s seat, slams the door shut and hands me the window crank.
There’s only one window crank for the whole car, so we have to share it. I roll down the window and desperately try to see everything there is to see. There’s so much happening, I feel anxious about missing or forgetting important things. Oh, well, I’ll just let the impressions simply drop into my mind. The drive is becoming routine.
I wonder if I could find my way there alone if I ever had to walk. No, it’s too complicated, despite the grid pattern. Today another road is blocked off with a huge piece of canvas about three meters high. A wedding? Rohmy says they sometimes block the road for special occasions like weddings, so he has to drive around the block. Even if I could walk to school, I am told it would not be safe for me, a Westerner, to walk alone. Theresa, the woman who translated for me when I spoke to the ladies last week, walks alone every day to work. It takes her about an hour each way, when she factors in taking the children to school and picking them up in the afternoon. She tells me she lives near the closest metro stop, which is about thirty minutes’ walk from here.
I see a giant poster with a photo of Morsi hanging from the wall of an apartment building. I’ve noticed this poster before, but today I notice that it is only a couple of blocks from the Salam Center. Copts are telling me that the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists. They compare them to Al Qaida. Since my arrival, I’ve experienced Egypt’s first drive-by shooting that targeted Christians. I’ve been told that the Muslim Brotherhood condemns this killing. And yet, this poster makes me a little nervous. Just what are the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood?
I see posters of other politicians, presumably, hanging from walls. I have no idea who these people are, or why their pictures are hanging, but I assume they’re various politicians.
Hanging across many of the streets are giant posters with photos of Shenouda, the late Coptic pope. I assume these placards identify the neighborhood or street as being Coptic.
I see men in clean, pressed shirts and trousers walking along the dirt roads. They must be on their way to work. At shortly before 9 am, I don’t see many men in gallibayas (long robes). Most of the women, however, whether Copt or Muslim, are dressed in gallibayas. I think I’m learning to tell the difference in appearance between a Coptic and a Muslim woman when both are in gallibayas. Their heads may both be covered, but the Coptic woman wears a scarf that may expose some hair, and her gallibaya looks more like a decorative long tunic. It may be made of cotton or velveteen, and may be brightly colored or with trimming or embroidery. A Muslim woman, at least in this neighborhood, is dressed in a plain, dark-colored gallibaya, with her head entirely covered.
The Coptic children are dressed western-style. Many of them are wearing brown/beige uniforms.
There really isn’t that much trash on the roads. I see someone sweeping bits of paper into a little pile. Somewhere else a little pile is burning. Most of the roads are actually pretty trash-free. I realize that the path I take in Cologne, Germany, when I walk to the supermarket, has more trash strewn along the way than I see on these streets.
I see chickens running freely in the road. With this number of chickens running around free, it’s no wonder the nights are so noisy!
I arrive at the school. I don’t notice the smell of garbage anymore. I’ve had these kids for almost a full week now. My students, age five, have learned to say the entire Lord’s Prayer in English. Today they’ve also learned to sing all of “Jesus Loves Me”, and the “ABC song”.
I notice that the classroom is almost twice as full of kids today as it was in previous days. I ask why. Because today, Saturday, the public schools are closed, so Marleen, the principal, has invited them to come to the Coptic school on Saturdays. Imagine kids from Europe or America choosing to go to school on a Saturday!
As far as I can understand it, most Egyptians have Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, off. They work Saturdays. But not those with government jobs. They have Fridays and Saturdays off. I wonder what they do on Sundays.
My lesson is finished at 10:30 am. As I wait for Rohmy to pick me up, a boy, about twelve, walks up to me with a bag of corn puffs and offers me one. I say “Thank you” in English and eat it. He responds, “I love you!” and runs back, giggling, to his friends, who all yell at me from back in the corner, “I love you.” Who wouldn’t want to come back to a country where people tell you every day, “You’re nice,” “I like you,” “You’re beautiful,” “I love you”?
It’s a madhouse when school lets out and everybody, parents and kids alike, are waiting for each other and it’s packed like a school of minnows. But I love it. This is when I get to do my informal teaching. Some days I have the kids write their names, or I show them illustations from magazines and we talk about the words, or I go over an English lesson with someone. There’s always someone eager to interact with me. Today my entertainment is filming them interacting!
The other day I was showing Marleen some of the photos in my smartphone, and she came upon one with me playing my piano. “You play the piano?” she asked me. Now Marleen has asked me to give the children piano lessons next time I come. I ask Marleen if there is a piano here in the school. I can’t imagine there being one. She says no. Assuming I come again, I’ll have to bring my keyboard.
Others are talking about what I can do next time I come, or telling me that I should stay longer. I’m having the same thoughts. In Germany I wouldn’t normally volunteer to teach kindergarten kids English, and giving piano lessons is sometimes tedious. It’s not a skill I usually offer to teach others. But here, it is entirely different. Here, where children volunteer to come to school on Saturdays, I find myself wanting to teach them everything I know.
I’m sitting in my room now, after having taught my morning lesson. Rohmy has delivered me safely back to the convent. I’m drinking a lovely cup of black tea with mint from the convent garden, reflecting on my morning. I, the teacher, have learned a whole sentence today in Arabic: Ana ashram kubay chai. “I’m drinking a cup of tea.” I’m so proud of myself!
I find that I’m teaching some of the same kids in the evening program at the convent as I encounter mornings at the school next to the garbage dump. They too are opting for more lessons. My heart aches for them to succeed in life. I’d love to be able to help. Here, it feels like the work I do is more important than what I do in Germany.
I do wonder about the future of these kids. Will they spend their adult lives sorting through garbage, like their parents? There’s one girl I’ve been thinking about – Marina. She’s very shy, not very good in English, and she’s young – only about nine years old. She comes to school in a training suit and stiletto half-boots she must have inherited from someone. They’re way too big for her little feet. What will happen to her? Will she ever find a good job? And then there’s Rosaria, in the sixth grade. She’s really good, and she always does her homework. But her pronunciation is terrible! Sister Maria has told me that Marleen wants to get her best students into the elite private “language” schools, where lessons are taught in English or German. Sister Maria tells her, forget it. They’ll never get accepted because they’re from poor families. This mirrors exactly the fate of one of the characters I read about in The Yacoubian Building, a novel by Alaa Al-Aswany. In this novel, a boy from a poor family is consistently rejected, even from the police academy, when he’s successfully finished school, because of his background. He ends up becoming an Islamist terrorist.