When I used to live in New York City, I learned a saying: “If you can live in NYC, you can live everywhere.” I often think of that here at the convent, where life isn’t as comfortable as in my apartment back in Germany. But so what? So what if the shower drips all over the bathroom floor and there are also the occasional monster cockroaches? You stamp on the cockroaches and you mop up the floor after the shower. No big deal. I could live here. Life here is so fascinating, all the senses are stimulated to the max. I’m not bored for a second.
There’s the sounds, for instance. Last night I went to sleep to the sound of tuk-tuk and car horns honking, firecrackers (again) and loud music coming from some nearby music. I liked it – first a woman singing along to some sort of flute-like Arabian instruments, and then a man. It sounded foreign to my ears, yet nice, even calming. Rather than read myself to sleep, I let the music do it. At this moment I hear a man speaking over a loudspeaker. Is he selling something? Is he a politician? Is it someone praying? No idea. In the morning I hear the thump-thump-thump of women beating or pounding rugs against the window ledges, getting rid of all the sand from the previous day. A couple of times a day I hear a loud metallic clang-clang-clang. I don’t know what it is, but imagine it to be someone riding on cart, pulled by a donkey. I’ve seen this – huge propane gas canisters used for cooking, loaded onto a cart. I often hear a saw buzzing. There’s the perpetual sound of the roosters screeching. I think they sleep from maybe 9 pm until about 2 am. And in the daytime, there are children from the school and pre-school downstairs, yelling – uh – reciting their lessons. There are the birds chirping all day, and the calls to worship, reminding everyone that there is one God and that we are to worship Him.
And the smells? We’re only a few blocks from the garbage dump, but it doesn’t stink here. Even the garbage dump doesn’t smell any worse than some of the streets in New York City in the summer’s heat. I wonder if the air in this part of Cairo isn’t that polluted after all. There are hardly any cars on the dirt roads, only small craft shops like lumber mills. What I smelled yesterday, traveling through the quarter by tuk-tuk, was the aroma of bread baking and sometimes the acrid scent of charcoal. The churches smelled of incense or of rosewater, sprinkled over relics. Sometimes I smell meat being grilled, or the spicy aroma of meatballs – kofte. And always, the faint smell of baked dust.
Today I am privileged to attend my first Coptic church service, upstairs in the convent. It reminds me of a Greek Orthodox service. For some reason they go up three times for the bread and again three times for the wine. Later, I find out that there is no particular reason for this, except that the entire loaf of bread has to be used up, as does the wine. At the end of the service, the priest sprinkles water over everyone, concentrating on me! And we all share the remaining bread from communion. There have to be at least three loaves of bread for communion.
As we leave the parking lot to go to school, the guard hands the driver a big chunk of communion bread. The driver takes it, kisses it, and hands it to me to break off a piece for myself. Today the driver is Refa’at, instead of Rohmy. Whereas Rohmy always turns on the radio to pop Arab music, Refa’at listens to what sounds like a Coptic church service.
School is wonderful, but tiring. Wherever I go, children accost me, asking me, “What’s your name?” At the center, at the school, no matter whether they’re in my class or not. Today, as we all wait to be picked up, I end up teaching a group of girls my sister, your sister, her sister. Another girl and I read in her English book, practicing the past tense.
I visit the pre-school program today. I am struck by the serene beauty of this building. It must be new. The walls are straight, the paint shimmers a little, and the floors are clean, with smooth tiles. Everything is in excellent quality, in its ordered place. The classrooms have lovely pictures on the wall, and even in the corridor, there are tinsel ornaments hanging from the ceiling. I know from the tour I had on my first full day here, that the “Happy New Year” sign is there, not because they’ve forgotten to take it down, but because the bright colors of the sign make a cheerful atmosphere.
At this pre-school, unlike a German Kindergarten, the children sit at little desks and have to recite things the teacher says. I see no squirming, apparently no ADS children.
As I leave the pre-school, I run into Sister Monika, who is supervising the work on the garden. Work there is progressing nicely. Tomorrow they will be able to turn on the fountain. I ask about the work at the entrance to the convent. There’s nobody working there today. “Again, nobody showed up today to work. Every day it’s the same. Three days out of five, there’s no one there. I could kill them!”
I laugh, and then say, “But you’re a Christian. You can’t kill the workers.”
“Today I’ll kill them. Tomorrow I’ll be a Christian,” she says, and we both laugh.
I want to go to my room, but I need to buy water first. At the shop, I have to engage in small talk. On my floor of the hospital I have to first greet all the workers. I find out that this floor is devoted to training programs. They all want to talk to me. Hanel wants my email address. They are all eating a sandwich, and insist on my eating one with them. I just want to finally get to my room and escape from all these people. Besides, I’m afraid to eat the sandwich. It has cucumber and tomato from the market in it. My bowels have been acting up a little, since I ate some cucumber the other day.
I dutifully eat the sandwich. The cheese is hard and very salty, the same kind of strong cheese I eat every day with the sisters.
“You like?” somebody asks.
“Not very much,” I answer truthfully. But I finish it, and dash to my room, where I can be free of the press of humans for an hour or so, before I walk downstairs and over to the convent for lunch. Those few hours in my room are also precious to me.