No Way Outa Here – 1


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There is a fact that I did not disclose when I wrote “Rubies in the Rubbish” – my separation.  I had separated from my husband a few months before going to Egypt.  We have known each other for over thirty years and had been married for almost thirty years when I decided I needed to live elsewhere for a while.  There were some issues in my husband’s life he was unwilling or unable to deal with, and they were getting worse.  The worse his condition got, the more I sank into anxiety, fear, anger and frustration.  I was unable, no matter how hard I tried, to just detach and let him be.  His problems had begun to spill over into our married life and into the space of my life with him to the point where I simply could not let go.  So I left.  I found a way out of my misery.

In this series I’m going to change the name of all the characters to protect their real identity.  Those of you reading this who know me will know who I’m referring to.  In these posts, I’ll call my husband “Michael”.

I told Michael that I would come back after he had gotten some help with his problems and I could see that he was working on them.  I went into therapy and continued with the self-help group I had already been going to.

It felt good to finally be away, to find my own space, to find a life of my own.  Being with Michael had felt like carrying a huge load of bricks.  Now, the weight was lifted.  I hoped with all my heart for recovery for both of us, but in the meantime, life on my own was much easier.

We continued to see each other, and sometimes Michael would cook for me, or I for him.  Cooking was one of our mutual passions, and talking together while eating another one.  Actually, Michael and I are ideal partners.  We love so many of the same things, and we love discussing all the things of life we encounter.  We love discussing ideas, politics, current events, literature, music, religion, psychology, and of course analyzing other people.  I loved listening to him uncover historical details about the places we traveled to.  We are at our best, perhaps, during our travels.  We had already traveled twice together to Egypt, and Michael was involved in my plans to stay with the Coptic Sisters long before I separated from him.

But now here we were, separated physically, emotionally and spiritually.  I stopped going to the church he was pastoring, needing to also be separate from his spiritual energy.

We lived separately for about a year.  Going to Egypt on my own, living in my own apartment, making my own decisions, I felt like I had been let out of a pressure cooker, with the simple push of a button.

During this time, some things started to get resolved and dealt with.  Michael went into a clinic where he could get help with some of the things troubling him.  He changed some things about his lifestyle, and I could see that he was serious about making these changes.  There other things I could see that lay beneath the suraface, things that would need a lot of work.  Michael was beset with a miserable sense of self-worth, especially since I had actually left him.  And shame, mixed with overwhelming anger at his mother, the cause of most of his problems, but dead for ten years already, invaded our home.  Shame, self-hatred and anger lived in our house, like ghosts who refused to leave.  I was still trying to change Michael, still caught up in a mothering role I had developed over the years.  We had lots still to work on.

Michael had a lot more than emotional and spiritual things to work on.  His back, always a bit sensitive, began emitting excruciating pains in the back itself and also in his legs.  He tried osteopathic treatments, physiotherapy, exercise.  Nothing helped.  His orthopedist finally recommended surgery.

In September, 2014, we went on a trip to Turkey together.  Michael lumbered heavily through archeological sites in Ephesus, Miletus, Pergamon and other places, determined to see it all, despite excruciating pain.  He would have surgery in October, and he wanted to see it all beforehand, just in case anything went wrong, rendering him unable to walk over these sites.  It was a lifelong dream of his to see these sites.  Michael has always loved history, especially from the Greco-Roman period.

Reunited, we had a wonderful two weeks together in Turkey, cooking up a storm in the evenings we ate in our apartment, feeding the cats who came to visit us, traveling in the daytime to archeological sites, swimming before dinner, shopping.  I was grateful for the release I had enjoyed during our separation, and now tranquil in the hope of a future together of mutual healing.   There was lots to work on, but we could do it.  After all, we had God helping us!


Pergamon. What a peaceful place to be, high above all the stress of life down at the bottom of the hill! In Pergamon we felt as though lifted up by an eagle into space.

Then Michael went in for surgery, and things went horribly wrong.


Rubies in the Rubbish – Conclusion


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It’s about ten days before Christmas as I write this, and I’m in the middle of Christmas parties, baking, shopping and all the usual pre-Christmas rush.  And yet, my thoughts are still in Egypt, as I reflect on what this trip, finished more than a month ago, means to me.  I’m still hearing from Reda and Hanel through Facebook, and I read whatever news I come upon that pertains to Egypt.

I sit in my bed every morning, as before, read the Bible and devotional books and pray, but I’ve added a new element to my prayer time.  Sometimes I look at the pictures of Jesus and Mary that Reda gave me.  I think about Mary and what an open, compassionate woman she must have been to agree to mother the most compassionate of human beings there ever was.  I see myself as a woman like her in some ways, certainly with the same capacities.  If she was compassionate, I can grow in compassion.  So I pray for more compassion in myself.  I look at the picture of Jesus, imagining the depths of love, compassion and power contained in this man.  He is, after all, resurrected from the dead, and has the power to resurrect all that is dead in me.  I reflect on the verse in Colossians, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3)  Surely this is the secret the sisters possess in order to live in such peace and joy.  They live, not caring that much whether they live or die, because they know they have eternal new lives, hidden and protected in Christ Jesus.  They consider their old lives to be rubbish.  The sentence St. Paul wrote to the Philippians has taken on a deeper meaning:  “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ.”  Philippians 3:  8-9.  Paul goes on to describe more of the life I have seen in these sisters:  “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”  Philippians 3:  10-11.

I feel some embarrassment writing this, but I am unsure where my embarrassment comes from.  Is it something within me, or am I reflecting an embarrassment burdening our modern Western society?  These words sound so old-fashioned, so far from the way we in the West live our lives.  But it is precisely because this way of living has become so rare that my time with the sisters and their friends is so precious to me.  They have influenced my thinking and my approach to God.  The time I spent there continues to influence how I prepare for Christmas.

Being there was good for me in so many ways.

I had the chance to live around Christians whose very lives depend upon their faith.  They rely on God for everything.  They will not give up their faith, even if it costs them their lives.  Not only that, they refuse to open themselves to hatred or revenge.  They will continue to love and serve other Egyptians, even if some Egyptians hate them enough to kill them.  They remain open, loving and tolerant of differences.

It’s not only the sisters who live such courageous lives.  It’s also people like Reda and Marleen who refuse to join the western, materialistic mindset, even Mary in the gift shop at the airport.  Copts don’t date, they don’t have sex before marriage, and they don’t divorce.  I can imagine many people I know who feel trapped in their lives.  They long for a better partner and they recoil at the thought of a lifestyle that they consider restrictive.  They might consider this Egyptian mentality rigid and reactionary.  But I don’t see the people I met as trapped.  To the contrary, I think they’re onto a secret of happiness – sticking with relationships, even when they’re difficult.  I saw sisters complaining about other people to Sister Maria.  But they try again the next day.  At the Salam Center, they don’t teach putting up with abusive behavior either.  That’s not it.  There, they teach people how to live constructively in relationship.

Living with radiant, cheerful Christians who are true to their faith, to their principles, and who love, showed me that there are groups of Christians who are really good examples of the faith..  They truly live in, for, and love Christ.  This has opened me up to looking for more of the same positive faith here in Germany, where so many people focus on the weaknesses of Christians.  That’s what makes it in the newspapers and on the internet, and that’s what people talk about.  They talk about bishops who build lavish homes instead of humble Christians who live generous, joyous lives.

At the Salam Center I had a positive experience of life in community.  Sister Maria runs the center with a steady, yet gentle hand, and not as an autocrat.  She listens to the complaints and arguments of others, and they state their opinions and grievances openly.  It felt good to be around her and the other people I encountered, day after day.  It felt good not to run away into ever new people and experiences.

I valued my own good qualities because I saw them as valued by those I encountered there.  For instance, people there kept talking about my kindness.  This is something I’ve never particularly valued.  I’ve valued competitiveness more, because that’s what our society values.  But seeing my kindness as something they treasure helped me to treasure it too, and to work towards developing more kindness and dropping the competition.

In the same way, I valued my profession as a teacher of English as a second language, because I could see that my teaching skills were openly valued there.  People could see and hear what I did in the classroom and they expressed approval and sometimes even admiration.  This helped me stop taking what I do in the classroom in Germany for granted.   In Germany, I think native speakers of English who teach their language are seen as people who do this for lack of having found anything more lucrative to do.  I remember reading an interview with the American crime novelist Donna Leon, who lives and sets her novels in Venice.  She said that in the beginning of her time in Venice she was forced into (horrors!) teaching English in language schools.  It took doing it in Cairo and seeing how much the Egyptians value this to place a high value on what I do.  These days, I’m looking at teaching as a wonderful career, and I see the logic and the great sense of purpose I can find in being a teacher.

I loved the openness and candor of the Egyptians I met.  I have found this each time I’ve been in Egypt.  When I meet warm people, there is a synergetic effect – I warm up!  These Egyptians are unafraid of eye contact or of showing who they really are, even if it is their softer, more vulnerable side.  Their heroes are godly people from the past and present, not rock, movie or sports stars.  The people I met are unafraid of admiring the character qualities they find in people, and they even want to emulate this!

Sometimes they would walk right up to me and say things like, “You have beautiful eyes.”  “You have kind eyes.”  “You’re beautiful.”  “I like you.”  I responded to their openness, and it opened me up.  I smiled and related to everyone from my heart, because that’s how they related to me.  I’ve tried bringing this back to Germany.  I recently said to a casual friend of mine as I said good-bye, “You’re so sweet!” He smiled and seemed delighted with what I said.  I hope he was.  In Germany people don’t go around telling each other that they’re sweet.  At a Christmas party I smiled long at another woman, looking directly into her eyes.  I don’t know her terribly well, but I like and respect her very much.  She smiled back at me.  We weren’t making passes at one another.  I wouldn’t have smiled at her like that if I hadn’t experienced the same thing in Egypt.

At the Salam Center, I saw the distractions we have in the West as simply that – distractions.  They do not improve our lives.  I have a deeper desire to concentrate on the essentials, on the important things like love, and to let the other things drop.  Living in that environment helped me to see which activities are distractions and which are life-bringing.

I have rarely felt such supreme happiness as I felt while at the Salam Center.  Sharing my gifts and my self with people who valued this made my days!  And I shared my happiness with God, talking about this in my moments alone with God.  I didn’t care about all the deficits at the Salam Center, things like broken doorknobs and wading through sand to get into the convent, feeling that joy, that happiness.  That is an essential.  That is something worth more than gold.  Well, you can find it at the Salam Center.

At the Salam Center, I felt like I belonged to a group, and that this was a group I wanted to belong to.  I respected their values and even shared most of them.  Those I didn’t share, like the kissing of icons, I could at least understand.  In this community I felt completely accepted, desired, and valued.  What can be better than that!

And so, here I am now, living again in Germany, profiting from the treasures – from the rubies I discovered in a center near a rubbish heap.  These treasures have the ability to enrich my daily life.  They also create a hunger in me for more.  Insha-Allah, Lord willing, I will return to the Salam Center, not only to share more of myself, but also to receive more of what these marvelous people have to share with me.


Rubies in the Rubbish – Day Fourteen


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A breakfast of foul again.  Since it’s Friday, most of the sisters are fasting, but some come down for tea.  We share photos, and I learn new words like “husband”, “wife”, “son”, “sister”.  All the sisters are telling me how much they’ll miss me.  And I will miss them.  Probably more than they could imagine.

In January I felt completely included in my Breakthrough group – a “secular” group.  I don’t believe anymore there is any such thing as “secular”.  We all have differing degrees of awareness of God within us, and differing degrees of openness to giving God room in our lives.  At any rate, this is my first time to feel overwhelmingly loved in, and to wholeheartedly want to belong to a Christian community.  I think I’ve been learning over the years to forgive the weaknesses, discrepancies and hypocrisies I’ve encountered among Christians.  But I’ve been unable to wholeheartedly embrace Christian groups.  Perhaps it’s my culture as an educated Westerner.  We have to qualify everything.  We’re always hedging!  How much do we want to really own the things we say we believe in and cherish?  Where do I really stand with my fellow Christians?  Are they my brothers and sisters?

I’ve always said in the past that I wouldn’t want to belong to a community.  All I’ve seen of communes and communities is either their breakdown because of relationship problems, or the abuse of authority.  But this community is a group that seems to work.  It’s a group of people I’ve felt completely accepted by, and they have healed broken pieces of my soul.  This community amazes me with their frank, unabashed, shameless love of Jesus.  Just as it’s natural for them to tell me they love me, they are unashamed to talk about their love for Jesus.  In fact, their faces take on a radiant expression as soon as they start talking about Jesus.  In this community, I find I’m not embarrassed to hear this.  In fact, I want to grow in this.  I want to be more shameless about what is important to me.  I am moved in a deeper way than I ever imagined possible to be included in this group.  I will savor this and let this feeling of inclusion grow in my heart.

The sisters and staff here are asking me when I’ll come back.  I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that it will be next year.

I share my photos with Sister Maria.  She corrects some of my misperceptions about things I’ve experienced.  When we get to the picture of St. Mary that Sister Amina sewed, Sister Maria tells me amazing things about some apparitions of Mary that she herself has seen.  I’ve written more about this in the section about the faith of the sisters.  Sister Maria is smashing even more of my Protestant convictions.  It is really true that the more you talk to people of other backgrounds and faiths, you will be changed by these encounters.  I think those who are open will be changed positively by conversing openly with others of different backgrounds who are also open.

It’s time for you to leave,” says Sr. Maria, just as I’m about to show her the last of the photos.  “I’m so sorry we couldn’t show you more of Cairo, but it wasn’t possible with the situation we have now.”

I’m not sure what she means by “situation”.

It’s not very safe here for you in Cairo right now,” she explains.  “We are concerned.”

I leave with Rohmy and Sr. Monika for the airport just after noon.  Outside each mosque we pass, the imam’s sermon is being broadcast.  Outside one mosque, I see that the road is blocked by people sitting on mats they’ve laid on the dirt road.  But each voice I hear sounds angry to me.  It’s a little scary.

Some of the nights, when the call to worship wakes me up, I’ve been thinking that the voice of the caller sounds strident, perhaps even angry.  But I’ve been wrong so many times, I would never venture to claim what the caller feels.  But it is a strong, commanding voice, and it does frighten me a little.  When I hear the sisters or Marsa singing Christian worship songs in Arabic as they work, it sounds cheerful, and it lifts my soul.

The other day after classes, Reda, Emed, the school director and I were sitting in the courtyard, talking.  We heard the call to worship, and I said, “I think they and we are praying to the same God.”  They responded by telling me that if a Muslim becomes a Christian, the family will try and kill that person.

“What about educated people?  Dentists, doctors, teachers?  Would they kill a son, for example, if he became a Christian? I ask.

“No, but they would certainly shun him, and there would be no more contact for the rest of his life.  That’s why it’s so hard for a Muslim to become a Christian.  There are, however, many Muslims who secretly follow Jesus.”

It’s hard for me to accept the idea that most adherents of a religion would shun or even kill their own children if they convert to another religion.  The nice Muslims I’ve met on my other trips to Egypt and Turkey?  It just doesn’t fit.  But then, the Muslims I’ve talked to are open-minded people, people who I imagine hold similar beliefs to mine, people who also are changed when they open themselves to people of different backgrounds and beliefs.  They wouldn’t shun their children if they converted, would they?  The thought makes me shudder.  Oh, well, leave it.  I’m an outsider, with little personal knowledge of the Muslim world.  I do know a lot more now about a certain Coptic community.  These are my thoughts as we continue on to the airport.

Sister Monika asks if I’ve left the lyrics to the song “You Raise Me Up” in the dining room.  I have.  “Do you have the song with you?” she asks.  “Could I hear it again?”  I do.  I take out my cell phone and play the song for Rohmy and her.  I tell her about the Breakthrough group I went to in January and how healing that was for me.  I tell her that being at the Salam Center has also been healing for me.  She understands my English, and she smiles.

We arrive, and I have to part from my brother and sister in Christ.  I only hope I can be as courageous as they are, in living my faith.  I pray for their safety and for the safety of their community.

I go into the airport, greet the check-in agent in Arabic, and tell him I love Egypt.  He smiles and says, “I hope we will see you here again.”  I wander around the duty-free shops.  My heart is burning with gratitude for this country, and for the community I’ve been living with for the past two weeks.

I buy a pair of earrings in one of the duty-free shops.  On the receipt, the sales clerk signs her name “Mary”.  I know that Muslims are also called “Mary”, but this clerk hasn’t covered her hair.  I take a chance with this nice young woman.

“Are you a Copt?” I ask.  Yes, she is.  I tell her a little about what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks.  I tell her my only regret is that the sisters were unable to find another CD from the Christian music group “Better Life” for me.  I ask Mary, “Do you know this group?”

Her eyes light up.  “Oh, yes!  In my car I have a CD in my car I listen to and sing along with all the time on my way to and from work.  I love them!”

“Do you think they might sell any of their CDs in the airport?”  I doubt this very much, but I did once see CDs from the Australian Christian group “Hillsong” in the Melbourne duty-free shop.

“No, I’m sure they won’t have any.  I wish so much I could help you.  If I could, I’d go myself and get you a CD, but there aren’t any here.”

We finish our transaction.  “God bless you,” she says to me.

At the gate I start talking to a mother and daughter.  “Are you Copts?” I ask.  They are.  I tell them I’ve just spent two weeks with Coptic sisters.  They are very interested.  They tell me that the Coptic sisters in Egypt are well known for their good works and kind hearts.

I tell these women that I think the Copts are brave people.

“Yes, we are,” they say.  “We’ve been through a lot.”

Rubies in the Rubbish – Day Thirteen


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Remember the chicken I saw in the sink, about to be killed?  It turns out they had to kill it because it had broken its leg.  Mariem said there was no way they could have saved it.  I feel better about eating this poor chicken now.

It hasn’t taken long for the chicken to become a topic of friendly joking.  They laugh about my sadness, but they also understand.   Sister Maria says she wouldn’t like to watch a chicken being killed either.  Today we will eat it, in gratitude that it gave its life for us.  And we will give our lives for others – we probably won’t die today, but we will have given our lives, which is also a sacrifice.

Today is party day.  My last day, for tomorrow I fly back to Germany.  I hand my clothes, now washed and dry, over to Marleen, and work one last day with the kindergarten kids.  Bolla’s still hyperactive, his breath smelling smelling of Doritos, but Jameena has finally learned which direction to draw the half-circle in for the “d”.

Marleen’s daughter Alvera is visiting the school today, so I get to meet her, and we walk back together to the Salam Center.

Marleen and Alvera

Marleen and her daughter Alvera

I love walking back because I can see so much more than in the car, but this is only the second time I’ve been able to do that.

banner/street barricade

A street barricade/banner for a street wedding reception

This time we come to one of those cloth barricades in the road.  On foot, we can walk through it and see why it is closing off the street.  On the other side, the barricade is a festive banner, and the street is full of garlands and lampions.  It’s a wedding, Marleen says.  I take pictures.  Someone sitting at the edge of the road, supervising the decoration, says “Welcome” to me.  What a wonderful country this is!

A lot of meat is being sold today.  Marleen tells me that poorer people have one or, if they can afford it, two meat days a week – Thursday and Sunday.  Today is Thursday.

Today I’m back in plenty of time to visit the center for the intellectually disabled today.  I walk into the center, unannounced, and find that not one of the workers here speaks English.  When I say the name “Tesoni Maria”, though, it’s my entry ticket, and they offer me a chair.  I sit down in a room of happy bedlam – two children today are celebrating their birthdays.  Most of the children are sitting in chairs or wheelchairs along the edges of the room.  I was once a social worker who worked with intellectually disabled children.  I have never seen such a high staff/client ratio as what I see today.  The room is swarming with women.  It seems they’re waiting for something to start happening.  Then I hear it – “Happy birthday to you…” in English, with an Arabic rhythm.  Everyone starts clapping.  At first the kids are pretty quiet, with only a few clapping.  Someone walks around the room, painting faces.  Before long, aides are twirling kids around in pirhouettes, dancing in line, holding kids and dancing with them.  What happy havoc!

Intellectually disabled children's center.

It’s party time! At Seeds of Hope, the intellectually disabled children’s center in the Salam Center hospital

I leave the room and explore the center a little.  I hear more music, the kind adults might listen to.  I find a room of teenagers who are also intellectually handicapped.  One boy is dancing frenetically to Arab pop music.  Some of the staff are also dancing.

One of the highlights of my first trip to Egypt was an evening dancing with the staff (male) of the ship on our Nile cruise.  Today I get to dance with the women and kids.  It’s wild, and I love it, even though I’m a bit embarrassed.  I don’t really know how to dance at all.  The women dance very sensually with each other.  This time I’m dancing with Coptic women.  They dance exactly the same way the Muslim men danced with me.  Last night Reda, one of the teachers I work with, said to me, “The Egyptians are all one.  And we have 4,000 years of unity.”

I love the unembarrassed sensuality of this dancing, but its overtness makes me, who was born with Baptist legalism in her blood, feel uneasy, as though I were transgressing some moral code.  In the evening Sister Maria, Sister Malaka and I chat about the day, and I talk about the dancing.  “It’s like at a wedding,” Sister Maria explains.  And this physical expression is very important for the handicapped children.  They need this outlet.”  I ask if men and women in Egypt dance this way together.   They look shocked at my question.  “No, Coptic men and women never dance together.  Muslims usually don’t either, but a few do.”

It’s party time for my classes with Reda, too.  He has allowed me to plan the lessons for the day, and I’ve planned a song, “You Raise Me Up,” sung by Josh Groban.  This song has a strong personal meaning for me.  It was chosen and played for me when I was at a Breakthrough workshop in January this year, working through a personal crisis.  My therapy group listened to this song with me, and laid their hands on my shoulders, head, and arms.  I felt then, for the first time that I can remember, a truly cherished part of a group.  It was an important time on my healing journey.

But, I quickly see that this song will not work for the fourth-graders.   It’s much too difficult for them.  No problem, I have another song in my smart phone, “I Will Love You Monday (365)”, by Aura Dione.  I’ve used this song with my German students to teach them the days of the week.  The fourth grade class here is now learning the days of the week.  But an unanticipated emergency occurs.  Faida, one of the kids, has cut his hand badly and needs medical treatment.  Reda leaves with him for the pharmacy, and I am left alone with the classroom.  I, who speak next to no Arabic.  I can’t even say, “I don’t speak Arabic.”  But I write the days of the week on the blackboard, and words like today, tomorrow, and yesterday.  We get through it all just fine.  One kid, Ibram, one of the brightest kids in the class, keeps asking me something I don’t understand.  Finally, he simply walks over to the board and writes the words in Arabic with blue chalk.

Thankfully, Reda and Faida return, and we can go into the fun part of the lesson.  But as soon as I play the music, the lesson threatens to disintegrate as the boys start dancing.  “They’re acting like they’re at a wedding,” Reda says.   But I play the song and point to the words on the board as they’re being sung.

I play “You Raise Me Up” for the fifth and sixth graders.  I am amazed that my unruly fifth grade class sits quietly and listens to the song.  One boy mimics playing the violin as Josh Groban sings the refrain and another acts like a schmaltz singer, but generally, the kids are amazingly receptive to the song.  “Good, good,” they say afterwards.  Nessma, the girl who is most disruptive, asks, “How old is Josh Groban?”  I say, “Thirty-seven.”  I’ve no idea if that is true, but Reda is thirty-seven, and I want her to get an idea of the age difference.  “I hope he will wait for me to grow up, because I want to marry him,” she says.

The same thing happens with the sixth graders.  They love the song.  They are open to its emotionality.  And that is precisely what I love about Egyptians.  They are not afraid of their soft feelings.  For them, saying, “I love you,” and “You’re beautiful” are as natural as saying, “I’m hungry.”  I need this frank openness, this candor.  Their openness opens me up, and they respond.  The Egyptians seem to love me, and then I respond with love them, then they love me because I love them.  I love these kids.

I add a game to the sixth grade song activity.  I’ve cut out phrases from the song, and lay them out randomly on the table.  They are to walk single-file around the table as the song is played, picking up the phrases they hear.  The one who picks up the most pieces will get a prize.  But they cheat!  They pick up phrases out of turn, or grab them away from each other.  Soon, it’s a wild free-for-all, with mad grabbing and ripping of papers.   But I’m happy, because they loved the lesson.

Rubies in the Rubbish – The Faith of the Sisters


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The sisters seem to be absolutely serious about their faith, but I’ve never seen such a merry group of women. This confirms what I’ve always thought, that believers should, by nature, be cheerful.

The other day, when we’d had Sister Ologaya’s favorite dish, molokhaya, plus roast chicken and rice, she told me she was stuffed. She’d had molokhaya, two servings of rice, two pieces of pita bread and two bananas. “I’m getting fat!” she wailed, smiling.

Sister Ologaya

Sister Ologaya

“Do sisters worry about things like their looks?” I asked.

“Not usually. Sometimes there is a sister who is truly beautiful in the eyes of the world, but what we concentrate on is having Christ’s beauty grow in us. Then we are truly beautiful.”

She told me a couple of stories.

“A Muslim person was complaining to someone else about the luck of the Christians. ‘Why is it that it’s always the Christians who are the most beautiful – and also so rich?’ this person asked.” I supplied the answer.

“Because Jesus blesses His children. There is blessing in following Jesus.” She nodded her head, and went on to tell another story.

“Someone went to a wise man and asked him what the best religion is. The wise man answered, ‘I won’t tell you, but you go and find the people who are the kindest, the most loving, the most forgiving, the most honest, the most generous, the most cheerful, and the most patient of all those you meet. Find out what religion they are, and you will have your answer.’

“The man went and followed the wise man’s advice. Then he went to the wise man and said, ‘It is Christians who are the kindest, the most loving, the most forgiving, the most honest, the most generous, the most cheerful, and the most patient of all.’ ‘There you have your answer’, the wise man said.”

These are the qualities I find in the sisters here. I think I lack many of these qualities myself, but these are the qualities I want the most in the world. What a wonderful world this would be if we were all kind, loving, forgive, honest, generous, cheerful and patient. That’s why it is such a joy to find this group of Christians who really seem to live Christ-like lives. At least they strive to do that, just as I do, and I see many cheerful faces here.

There are aspects to their faith that I, a Protestant, find bewildering, but also intriguing. I’m incredibly attracted to their combination of joy and gentleness. The sisters and also the staff here all have warm, loving eyes. They have no difficulty looking long and lovingly into mine. That’s nice, but also a little embarrassing. Embarrassment about such things, though, is a feeling I would like to overcome. I wonder how much of this gazing into one’s eyes comes from their gazing into the eyes of the icons of their favorite saints. Sister Elleria is overjoyed to have a picture post card from me of Joan of Arc – so that she can look long and lovingly at her picture, receiving strength and inspiration from it.

Sister Maria tells me one day in an off-hand comment that she often thinks about what it was in Mary, the mother of Jesus that inspired God to choose her, of all women, to be Jesus’ mother. She thinks about Mary’s personal characteristics a lot.

Sister (Tesoni) Maria

Sister (Tesoni) Maria

But then, she’s named after Mary. Come to think of it, so am I. Marie is my middle name. Something for me to think about.

On my last day with the sisters, we look at the photos I’ve taken. We discuss a picture of Mary, and I ask her if the church I took this photo in is the church of St. Maria of Satoun. I show her a picture Reda has given me. “Yes”, she says, “this is St. Maria of Satoun, but that is not where you were. St. Maria of Satoun is the church where the holy Mother has appeared.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“She appeared to many, many people, many, many times. Even General Nasser saw her. Both Muslims and Christians saw her. She appeared especially often during the year before Mubarek was deposed. She looked like a real woman, standing on the roof of the church, with her arms outstretched, like you see in this picture. She looked so real, people climbed up onto the roof to tell her not to jump off, but then they found out that it was St. Maria.

“Many miracles happened through her. People were healed of diseases. She was very good for Egypt. We were all blessed by her appearances.”

“Did you see her?” I ask.

“Yes, but not there,” she replies.

I am dumbfounded. Sister Maria is a woman with her feet on the ground. She is not crazy, she’s not a dreamer, and she would not lie to me. But this is confounding some of the foundations of Protestant beliefs. Protestants have always criticized what they call excessive devotion, or even worship of Mary.

“You know, she also appeared here at the Center. About a year later. Not like at St. Maria of Satoun, but she appeared here many times too. Here she appeared as light, in the sky, above the Center. She had her arms outstretched, as she did in Satoun. I saw her, as did many others. People, Muslims too, would come to the Center looking for her, thinking she was staying here. She left a scent, a perfume like none other you have smelled. People thought it might be something from relics – you know, they perfume the relics.”

I had noticed that on the day Sister Marina showed me the relics of Santa Marina.

“We had a volunteer here at the time, a French woman. She was skeptical about all of this, so she was unable to see Mary, but she did smell the perfume.”

I wonder if I’d be able to see Mary if she appeared.

These revelations intrigue and puzzle me, but they don’t discomfit me. They leave me marveling. Now I understand why Reda gave me this picture, and also a lovely picture of Jesus. He obviously meant for me to contemplate them. That seems to be what Copts do. I will hang them on the wall near my bed and gaze at them, allowing the thoughts to come. I will not let embarrassment or judgmental thoughts about the taste of the artist stop me from it. I will welcome what comes.

Rubies in the Rubbish – Day Twelve


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Today is not my day.  Do things go in cycles, or what?  Day Five was also difficult.  Day Ten wasn’t so easy because I was tired.  Funny, you never know at the beginning of the day what your day will bring.  It could be glorious, or in more and more places in the world, there could even be a bomb.

I read today in my devotional, “I am with you.  I am with you.  I am with you.”

The day starts out well enough.  I’ve had a lovely time of reading, prayer and meditation with my delicious cup of coffee, I am calm inside; I’m ready for a new day.

I walk over to the convent, and someone lets me in.  But when I get inside, the table isn’t set for breakfast, and there’s only one sister in the dining room.  “Fasting day,” she says.  “Wednesday.”  I didn’t know that they fast on Wednesdays.  “But only breakfast.  One eat lunch.”  I see a pot of beans boiling.  I get to eat a sumptuous breakfast on this morning when practically everyone else is fasting.  The foul is there, all of it for just Nagette and me.

As I prepare to leave for the school, I see Marsa, the cook, with a live chicken in the sink.  The chicken is squirming, but silent.  I can tell what’s coming, though.  Protest wells up inside me.  This must be one of Sister Mariem’s chickens!  I’ve already asked Mariem if we’ve been eating her chickens, and she has assured me, her chickens are only used for the eggs.  Just to make sure, I ask Marsa if this is one of Sr. Mariem’s chickens.  It is.

I haven’t seen one killed since I was a little girl.  My grandfather killed a chicken every time we came for a visit, and that really upset me.   I almost didn’t eat the chickens, but the smell was always too tantalizing for me to resist, no matter how sorry I felt for the poor chicken.

I leave the kitchen quickly and go to the bathroom.  From the kitchen, I hear loud squawking.  And then silence.  By the time I return to the kitchen, the chicken is dead.  Even as I write this, it brings tears to my eyes.  That poor chicken didn’t want to die.  It protested for all it was worth.  But it had to give its life for our sakes.  Possibly for my sake.  I have no idea if this chicken will be cooked just for me, since today’s a day of fasting.  Did that chicken have to die?  We eat chicken and meat heedlessly every day, amidst laughter and jokes.  We may even compliment the cook, but we give no thought to the life that was spent on our behalf.  A life that didn’t choose to be given.  We humans have tremendous authority over the animal kingdom, and we rarely even think about it.

One of Mariem's chickens

One of Mariem’s chickens

That chicken could have been someone’s pet.  I know a little girl in Germany, Leah, who had a pet chicken she taught tricks to, like riding down the slide.

I have a pet dog , Toffee, whom I pet and kiss every day.  I’ve just been reading an email from my husband about how Toffee is doing.  Toffee is almost like a person to me.  Here, dogs run wild in the street and no one pays any attention to them.  They look mangy and unkempt.  You wouldn’t even want to pet them.

Two dogs

Two dogs have found a resting place on the hood of a car.

The same thing goes for the cats.  And chickens, apparently.

If I could, I’d refuse to eat this chicken, but that won’t do any good.  I’m a guest here.  I have to eat what’s served.  Besides, it’s already dead.  It’s also organic, free of antibiotics and hormones.  But it had to give its life for us humans.  I consider going back to being a vegetarian.  But I do love chicken, and I know I won’t give it up, sad as I am today.  I will treasure and be thankful for the chickens I eat in the future, though.

I arrive punctually at school, and basically everything goes fine except that one kid, Bolla, a wild little clown, continually interrupts the lessons, dancing like someone on MTV, and he’s only five.


Bolla, who never sits still, not even for a picture

You just can’t get him to sit still.  He has a bag of Doritos he shares with Mahaariel, who also turns into a jitterbug.  She even starts licking the leftover salt off the table when I take the empty bag away from Bolla.  I later talk to Marleen about this.

“I think he may have ADHD,” I say.

“I know,” she sighs.  She says she has repeatedly told his mother and other parents not to give their kids chips and sweets, that they need to eat healthy food, but they don’t listen.  She suspects they give in to the pleading of their kids.

I have plenty of time to talk to Marleen because my driver hasn’t shown up yet.  I know Rohmy knows I need to be picked up because this morning as he dropped me off he asked me if he should come at ten o’clock, and I answered yes.

One hour later, Marleen is finishing up a teacher’s meeting they’ve held in the lobby.  A kid walks into the lobby with some of that soft, lovely bread they eat for communion.  He gives it to Marleen, and she takes off a bit and gives the rest to the teacher next to me.  I’m engrossed in my cell phone by now, since there’s no Rohmy, looking at the New York Times headlines, and don’t notice that she’s trying to give me her bread.  It’s after eleven by now and I’m kind of hungry.  I start eating the bread and go back to the news.  It’s delicious.  I take another bite.

The teacher nudges me.  “Excuse me.”  I look up.  “Give the bread to next person.”

I finally get it.  This is communion bread, meant to be shared.  I quickly pass it on, as the others smile.

I’m supposed to be visiting the handicapped center this morning, but it looks like it’s not going to happen because of this driver situation.  It’s twelve noon now and still no Rohmy or any other driver.

I keep talking to Marleen, who then asks me if I could give up some clothes I don’t want, for some people at the school.  “They are needy people,” she says.  I think she means that I should mail clothes from Germany, but no, she means the clothes I’ve brought with me.  Actually, I like all the clothes I’ve brought along.  I don’t really want to part with anything.  But I tell her I’ll find some clothes and wash them.  There happens to be a state-of-the-art washing machine on my floor.

Finally, at about one o’clock, Marleen spots another driver from the Salam Center passing the school in his car.  He’s on the way back to the Center with one of the sisters.  She yells and he stops, confused.  She asks him to take me back.  Finally, after three hours, and a morning wasted, I’m back in my room.  I only have about a half hour before I have to go to lunch.

I hurriedly gather clothes together.  I’ll have to hang them up to dry because they need to be dry before I give them to Marleen tomorrow.  I throw my jeans and almost all my shirts, and some underwear into the washing machine.  I change into some black slacks, and still have my black top on, which I have decided to hold onto.  I walk through the training center to go to lunch when Teresa stops me.

“Your clothes,” she says.  “You’re wearing all black.  In Egypt when you wear only black it means someone has died.”

Actually, it feels like I’ve given up a part of my own life by giving up these clothes.  I’m also going to donate my nice ankle boots that I was going to wear on the plane back home.  All I have left is dirty, ripped up walking shoes and flip-flops.  I won’t give up my flowered Italian flip-flops for these women.  But then again, maybe I will.

I tell Teresa I’ll go back and see what I can find that isn’t black.  I find a turquoise printed blouse and a turquoise necklace, and return.  Teresa has already left to go home, but a male worker there assures me I look fine now.  “Gameel!”  Beautiful!

I go back to the convent to go to lunch, but the buzzer doesn’t work.  Someone working on the entrance has actually shown up for work today, and he comes to the gate to let me in, but his key doesn’t work.  Another worker has to come and help him open the door for me.

And then, when I’m finally ready to hang up my clothes, I discover they’re all full of paper bits.  I think it’s Kleenex until I start looking for the list of Arabic words I’ve lovingly prepared.  It’s my lifeline!  I go over this list many times a day.  This list is what is helping me to speak the few words of Arabic I can manage!  But it’s gone.  Now I realize where it’s gone – into the wash, torn up into shreds.

Is there a lesson in all of this?  I think so.  It has come to me while typing this account.  But I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to find the lesson you think is in this day.  Is there a lesson in your day today?  One of the things about being on a pilgrimage is the awareness that all of life has something to teach us.  We just need to be aware of it and ready for the lesson.

Rubies in the Rubbish – Eating with the Sisters


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Even though I understand barely a word of Arabic, I can see that these sisters know how to get down and have a good time! They laugh a lot at the dinner table, when Sister Maria allows conversation. They laugh and converse afterwards.

Sometimes I think they’re gossiping about some sister or other, but there doesn’t seem to be any bitterness among them. The sisters don’t all eat together. Some are off at various jobs, or not available, so you never know how many will be at the table.

For breakfast, served at around 8 am, we usually have pita bread and a couple kinds of cheese. One is a really strong, salty cheese. Nagette, who lives with the sisters, indicated to me that if she eats this cheese she throws up. I find it pretty unpleasant too. The other cheese is more like a creamy version of feta cheese. They tear off pieces of rucola, tear off a little bit of bread, a little cheese, and eat it all together. There are usually hard-boiled eggs from Mariem’s chickens on the table. The sisters drink black tea for breakfast. Sometimes they get foul – cooked fava beans – for breakfast, which they eat with pita bread. This is a real highlight for them. Then out come the limes, oil, tahini, cumin, and salt, which make foul a tasty meal.

Egyptian breakfast

An Egyptian breakfast, made just for me

Lunch, at 2 pm, is the highlight of the day. We have chicken about every other day or so. The sisters don’t eat pork. They don’t like it, Sister Maria tells me. Sometimes they eat is stewed beef. The sisters eat soups like a green bean soup or the famous molokhaya, to which they can add rice, or just pile some rice along with their chicken or other meat. The rice is always a combination of rice and vermicelli noodles. Once or twice we’ve had a meat-filled dish something like puff-pastry quiche. Sometimes, particularly on Fridays, the food is vegetarian. It can be a macaroni dish, or French fries. There is always fruit for dessert.

The evening meal, served somewhere between 8:30 and 9 pm, is usually the same as breakfast, but sometimes there is a raw vegetable like cucumbers or tomatoes. There is also usually plain yoghurt, served in glasses. Sister Ologaya, who directs the hospital during the day,  makes the the yoghurt every evening from milk and a starter she buys at the market.

Sister Ologaya

Sister Ologaya

After the meal, the sisters collect their dishes and the leftover food and water pitchers, bringing it all into the kitchen. Then someone starts hand-washing the dishes, while someone else rinses and puts the dishes onto a drying rack hanging from the wall. A third person will put the dishes away.  The first week I was here, I wasn’t allowed to help at all, but by now they let me help in the kitchen.


Marsa, the cook

Marsa, the cook, came to the convent as an orphan. I’m not sure how old she was at the time, but the sisters adopted her as their own sister. She is always smiling. Every day she has a new English phrase for me, with something in Arabic she wants me to learn. I love this beautiful, tender woman. She works very hard in the kitchen.  For some reason I can’t discern, she doesn’t eat with the sisters.  I know she is beloved by them.  Still, they can be pretty hard on her when she neglects to do things they really want, like warming up their pita bread in the oven.  Martha’s cheery statements she reads to me, messages like, “You are welcome here anytime!  Please sit down.” are part of why I love this place.

Rubies in the Rubbish – Day Eleven


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This morning I wake up refreshed, having slept comparatively well last night.  The extra blanket the sisters gave me really helped.

On the way to and from school I notice parents touching their children lovingly.  Here, mothers always carry their babies in their arms.  The roads are probably too bumpy anyway to push a stroller.  I see a father with his arm wrapped around the shoulder of his son, about twelve.  The son appears to have been crying.  I love how these people are so open with their emotions!  When they are sad, they cry.  When they are angry, they also let that out.  I’m not used to that, and when I see anger or irritation, I feel afraid.  But what tenderness there is here!  I love the way these children smile at me, looking long and warmly into my eyes.  I feel almost washed away by this tenderness.  Josuf, one of my sixth-graders, comes to me so eagerly when I ask him to come to the front of the classroom.  Every time I praise him for a correct answer, his entire face lights up.  It melts my heart.  I see some of the girls looking at me with open adoration when I try and explain something.  It embarrasses me, but also moves me profoundly.  I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the number of kids who crowd around me, wanting to shake my hand and say hello.  But I’m also deeply touched.

This morning we do our usual “ABC” song, “Head and Shoulders”, and “Jesus Loves Me”, plus writing the alphabet.  Some of the kids are up to “W” by now.  Kindergarten kids.

While Mariem waits for her mother and I wait for my driver, I help her with her English.  She also looks at me adoringly after I praise her for her perfect rendition of, “Mona baked a cake”.

I ask Marleen, the school director, about the life of the garbage pickers.  They have certain customers they travel to by donkey and pick up their garbage.  It has to be in the area – they are not allowed to travel long distances with their donkeys, or they’ll get picked up by the police.  They get paid to pick up the garbage.  Once they’ve collected all the garbage, they bring it to the garbage area, where they sort it.  Apparently the glass area is next to the school, because I always hear glass being sorted.  Marleen says they sort it by color.

A father and son, presumably, sorting glass across the street from the school

A father and son, presumably, sorting glass across the street from the school

They separate paper and cardboard, and also plastic.  They also collect food waste.  In the past, pigs that lived in the area ate the food waste, but the government has made raising pigs illegal, so I don’t know what happens to the food waste now.  Does it go to the chickens?  To the dogs running around loose in the streets?  The zebaleen (garbage pickers) are able to sell some of what they collect, for a little money.

According to the British newspaper, the Guardian, the zebaleen do raise at least some pigs in the back of their houses.  The article goes on to say, however, that with the swine flu scare in 2009, all the pigs in Cairo were killed.  More than 300,000 pigs were killed in one day, reducing the income of the zebaleen, who raised these pigs to be sold, in half.  In all the days I’ve been working in the school, I have never heard a sound from a pig, although I’ve heard plenty of chickens.  My school is in the second largest garbage area of Cairo.  I guess I’d have to get invited to a few homes to find out for sure.  One thing I do know – these garbage pickers are really poor.

Rubies in the Rubbish – Digging through Trash to Find Truth


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One thing about our evening chats – they’re stimulating, and sometimes downright confusing.  I cherish all my conversations with Marleen, Reda and Emet, the afterschool director, who also presides over the Mahaba School.  These are the only people I can talk about life outside the convent with.  When Emet joins us, though, I have to rely on Reda’s translations.  Emet speaks very little English.  I think he understands a lot, though, because when Reda and I speak in the evenings and Emet is also there, he nods his head as though he understands us.  With Emet, I get a third perspective on Egyptian life.

It seems that every time we talk, at one point the subject comes around to Obama and the Americans.  “Sorry,” Reda says each time.  “You are a wonderful person and I like Americans personally.  But we don’t like your president.”  Emet echoes his sentiment, as does Sister Maria and everybody I meet who mentions the name “Obama”.   I tell Reda that I voted twice for Obama.  The first time I was really excited about having him for President, but by the second time, I wasn’t sure whether President Obama and I shared the same values at all.  After all, Guantanamo is still there, there’s more internet spying than there ever was after Bush signed the Patriot Act, America is still high-handed with other nations, and now my military uses anonymous drones to kill non-military “objects”.  I don’t really know what Obama is trying to do when he talks about easing sanctions on Iran, when it seems obvious that the Iranians are hell-bent on developing their atomic bomb.  I know the Israeli government is really afraid of this happening.  If anything, it seems the world is a more dangerous place under Obama’s presidency than before.  So I’ve got my questions.

“Why did Obama support Morsi?” Reda asks me.

“Because Morsi was elected democratically.  We want to support democracy.”

“But he wasn’t elected democratically,” say Reda and Emet in unison.  “Amed Shafik actually won the election.  It was rigged.”  It’s the first time I’ve heard this news, but I later find the same claim in the internet.
“Morsi supports terrorism!  The Muslim Brotherhood is like Al Qaida – they’re terrorists!  Why did Obama spend American money for the Muslim Brotherhood?”

“To promote democracy,” I answer.

“You are deceived,” they answer.  “How can the Americans support a terrorist?” they ask.  I want to say that my government wants to support a democratically elected leader, even if he may have some undemocrtic ideas.   In a democracy, you don’t have a revolution every time someone who has different ideas than you are in power.  You try and work together.  You support the process, even if it isn’t a smooth one.  But what do I know?  My government has supported plenty of undemocratic tyrants in the past, and even helped to overthrow democratially elected leaders.

Reda tells me that he loves the military.  “Egyptians love the military,” he adds.  “Each time I run into one of the soldiers, I walk up and shake his hand.  I tell him that we support the military.”

He goes on to say that what happened in July was not a military coup – it was the will of the people.

“We, the Egyptians, wanted no more of Morsi.  Not just the Copts – the Muslims too.  They want no more of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Eighty per cent of the Egyptians are in favor of the military takeover.

“You should have seen the demonstrations!” he says.  “Fourteen million Egyptians on the streets.  I was there too.”

I seem to recall that about a year ago, everybody hated the military, especially those who favored democracy.

One evening I tell Reda about an article I read in the New York Times about a man named Tomahy.  He’s never heard of Tomahy.  “He is the new head of the intelligence service,” I say.

“It says in the article that Tomahy was responsible for the military killing about a thousand Islamists.”

“No, the military didn’t do that,” answers Reda.  “Where are these thousand dead?  These are lies.  The American press is deceiving you.”

As with each other time I’ve been in Egypt, at some point I feel almost dizzy with disorientation.  The version I hear about my government’s role in Egypt is diametrically opposed to what Egyptians tell me.  Last time I was in Egypt, I heard that the young Americans and Germans working for nongovernemtal organizations were actually spies sent to foment agitation among the Egyptians.  Now I’m hearing that Obama is a sponsor of terrorism.  I wonder if it is possible to know the truth here.  I think Egypt is a country rife with conspiracy theories about everything.  But when I’m in Egypt, I start to wonder if the powers at be in the world aren’t indeed parties to conspiracy.  Who is to know?

One thing about Obama and the US government that does disturb me deeply is all the internet spying that’s been going on, and their witch hunt for Edward Snowden.  I tell this to Redy.  He’s never heard about the internet spying.  He’s never even heard of the name “Edward Snowden”.  I wonder who is being misinformed.

“You think we are a divided country,” Reda says.  “You Americans think the Muslims and the Christians are opposed to each other.  But it’s not true.  How old is America?”

I tell him the US declared independence from England in 1776.

“You see?  Your democracy is only a little over 200 years old.  Our country is over 4,000 years old, and we are united.  I’m not sure whether your nation will survive.  Ours will.”

At one point, Reda notices that I am visibly uncomfortable with our discussion.  “Shall we talk about something else?” he asks.  “This talk makes you unhappy.  You shouldn’t be unhappy.”  This immeasurably considerate thought delights me, but also throws me into further confusion.  My own German-American son would never try to protect me from an unhappy discussion.  I’m not even sure I’d be unhappy in such a discussion.  I might be confused, but I’d be in the thick of a stimulating discussion.   I’m not sure if I’d be any surer of the truth at the end, but there’d be a heck of a lot to think about.  As there is now.  I’m grateful for these discussions, because they show me what concerns the Copts and perhaps a lot more Egyptians, and it makes me a bit more hesitant to swallow everything I read in my own press.

It seems that, the older I get, the less sure I am about the truth of anything.  It so often depends upon one’s perspective on things.  I grew up in a dogmatic, in some ways fundamentalist Christian family and church.  I was taught to tell the truth, and I was told in no uncertain terms what the truth was.  Either I was on the side of their version of truth, or I was opposed.  The militancy of these conservative Christians in their religion – and their politics – intimidated me so much, I believed I had to know where I stood on everything, and I had to be able to defend my position.  If I was on the other side of an issue, I had to even trump their arguments, because I’d have to prove to them that they were wrong.  Someone was always wrong and the other one right.  This put me under a lot of pressure.  Looking back, it was pressure I never asked for, and demands for me to hold positions on issues the others were concerned about.

This need for truth is deeply ingrained in me.  I’m grateful for it, for the most part.  I still try to tell the truth as much as I understand it, but I find it really difficult to discern what is true in some areas, particularly in politics.

My fellow Americans always seem so sure of themselves, whatever side of the issue they’re on, and whether they’re fundamentalists or die-hard liberals.  I’m not sure those liberals are any more tolerant than the fundamentalists they love to mock.  I’m not sure of a lot of things anymore.  How glad I am not to have to work in politics, or in a job where I’d have to persuade people of my version of the truth.  It feels good to know that my cut-and-dried job of teaching English suits me much better.

I decide to leave the conversation and go to dinner.  I doubt I’ll never know whether Obama intends to support terrorists or not.  I can’t imagine this reasonable, calm-sounding man could ever be on the side of terrorists.  But I’m finally learning, late in life, that I don’t have to have a position on every issue.  There are some things I don’t know, and that I don’t have to know.  And that is a relief.

Rubies in the Rubbish – At the Salam Center


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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.

convent dining room

Convent dining room

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.

Sixth graders at the Salam Center.

One of my evening classes. These are 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.