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.

Rubies in the Rubbish – Day Ten


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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.


Refa’at, one of the drivers at the Salam Center

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.

Kindergarten groupo.

Kindergarten group.

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.

Sister Monika

Sister Monika

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.

Heba, Hanel, and me

Heba and Hanel, two of the office workers, and me


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.

Rubies in the Rubbish – Day Nine


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Today’s adventure begins with a simple request at the breakfast table.  I ask Sister Maria if the next time someone goes shopping at the souk (the market) if she could pick up a few things for me.  I’ve got it all written down on a list.  I try to explain to her what I want.  She understands most what I mention, but she has no idea  what coriander is.  “Why don’t you go with Sister Marina to the souk today?  Then you can pick out what you want for yourself.”

Hurray!  This is the only request I have for the entire two weeks, to have someone buy spices and hibiscus tea for me.  To be able to go to the souk myself – a local one at that, is a dream come true.

At eleven in the morning we head out with one of Sister Marina’s friends, Nermeen.



Sister Marina, Nermeen and Noreen are out for an adventure on a Sunday morning.  Much to my surprise, the souk begins right outside the gates of the Salam Center.  Soon after we begin our walk, I spot something that looks like coriander (cilantro) leaves, but they could be flat parsley – it’s hard to tell them apart.  I ask what it is in Arabic.  “Khosbara”, she says.  Sr. Marina leads us down a block or two to a spice, rice and dried beans shop.  She orders everything from the man in the shop.  I walk over to a barrel of what looks to me to be coriander.  What is this in Arabic?  “Khosbara”, she replies.  Bingo!   I order hundred grams, a big bag of kerkaday (hibiscus tea) and a hundred grams of cumin.

Man selling spices

Man selling spices

I don’t know how to say “chili pepper” in Arabic, so I use the word “pepper” and then point to my mouth and pant.  Aha!  I leave the shop with fifty grams of chili pepper as well.  All this for fourteen Egyptian pounds, about €1.50, or about $2.00.  Mission accomplished.  We saunter back towards the center.  Sr. Marina stops in a mobile phone shop to ask about something.  In the shop, I notice posters of Pope Shenouda, Jesus, Mary and various saints.  I make a mental note of it.  I’m in a Coptic shop.

Coptic phone shop

Coptic phone store

I see a strange-looking red fruit or vegetable.  It turns out to be dates, which come in various colors.  I later learn that red dates are Sister Maria’s favorite fruit.

red dates

red dates

Once outside, as we pass a spice shop much closer to the center, I ask Sister Marina if the shop we bought the spices in is owned by a Copt.  She nods her head.  Just as I’m about to jump to the conclusion that all the Copts mark their shops with their posters, and that the Center only shops with the Copts, she stops at a cucumber stand where Muslim women are shopping.  By now, I think I can tell the difference.  There is a bit of haggling about something, but soon we leave, and Sr. Marina is content.  She’s even purchased some sweet potatoes for me when I mention that I love sweet potatoes.

After we arrive back at the center, Sr. Marina announces that we’re going to visit a church.  We head out onto the street again.  I notice that the building adjacent to the Salam Center has a loudspeaker.  This must be the source of all those deafeningly loud calls to prayer that wake me up at 4:30 in the morning, and sometimes keep me awake.  I ask Sr. Marina where the mosque is.  That’s it – the building next to the center.  “Two mosques,” she says, and points down the street.  That’s what I’ve been thinking – that there are two mosques near the center.

Apparently it is a long walk to the church, because Sister Marina tries to hail down a tuk-tuk.  We struggle inside, three women with generously padded hips, trying to fit onto a seat built for two.  I notice that the driver has a picture of Pope Shenouda on the windshield.  A Coptic tuk-tuk.  Before we even have a chance to get started, two menacing-looking young men accost the driver and Sr. Marina.  I have no idea what the problem is, but Sr. Marina and Nermeen decide this ride is not worth getting into trouble over.  We walk to the church, which is about a half hour away.

This church, Abousefin, says Sister Marina, is the local church, the one the sisters worship at when the priest doesn’t come to the center.

When we first walk into the building I notice a huge lobby.  Its vastness reminds me of the mega-churches in America, with their huge everything.  There is a huge poster of some man hanging on the wall.  In contrast to those of Shenouda and other popes and saints, this man is dressed in a suit and has no beard.

I notice that at the back of each of the three sanctuaries, where there are icons (paintings of saints and various popes), there are also glass cabinets with embossed velvet objects.  Sister Marina stops before one of them and kisses the cabinet.  “Santa Marina,” she says, her eyes dreamy, her voice reverent.  They lead me through the entire church, a seven-story building.  Each of the three is nearly identical except for the saints honored in each one.  Occasionally Sr. Marina and Nermeen touch a picture reverently or kiss a cabinet holding relics of saints they’re particularly fond of.

Sister Marina at shrine

Sister Marina with the relics of Saint Marina, her patron saint

The other day when I was walking with Sister Elleria to the hospital, a postcard with a picture of Joan of Arc happened to slip out of a folder and fall to the ground.  She almost jumped to pick it up.  “Who’s that?” she demanded.

“Joan of Arc,” I answered.

“You mean Jeanne d’arc?  I love her!” Her eyes glistened like wet wave-washed sand, sparkling in brilliant sunlight.  “Do you know anything about Jeanne d’arc?”

“A little.”

“Could you tell me what you know of Jeanne d’arc? I love her very much.”

“Here.  Would you like the postcard?”

“Would you really give it up?”

I was only carrying the postcard in case I’d be giving a talk to women.  Then I could possibly have used the card to illustrate Joan of Arc as an example of someone who knew her destiny and had the courage to go “outside the box” to fulfill it.  I’d already given the talk, and hadn’t even used the card, so I handed it to Sister Elleria, who held it reverently.  In her lab, where she analyzes blood samples, we sat and talked.  She has a poster of various saints in her office.  She explained each one to me.

“Do you like the saints?  Do you pray to them?”

“Well, not really.  I’m a Protestant and we believe that talking to God in Jesus’ name suffices.”

She tried to explain to me why studying, thinking about, imagining the faces of, and talking to the saints is such a wonderful thing.  Judging from her beautiful, soft, glowing, cheerful eyes, she must have an advantage over me.

I see this same phenomenon today in Sister Marina and Nermeen, who often look dreamy-eyed as they kiss this cabinet and brush this picture or that.  We come across some red velvet curtains shutting off the altar areas.  Each curtain has beautifully sewn, glittery appliqués depicting St. George and St. Mark.

St. Mark, by Sr. Amina

St. Mark as created by Sister Amina

I learn that Sister Amina of the Salam Center has designed and sewn these marvelous pieces.  An elevator attendant takes up seven stories, to the baptistery.  Sr. Marina introduces me to the priest, a man with those same soft eyes I am seeing everywhere I encounter Copts.

We leave the church.  Outside the church, I spot a soldier, dressed in the white uniform they wear during the summer months.

soldier guarding church

Soldier guarding church

Later, after my return to Germany, I learn that this church was attacked by Islamists a few months ago.  When they arrived at the church, a crowd of people, both Muslims and Christians, formed a line in front of the church to protect it.  The Islamists didn’t fire.  They tried a second time, and again people around the church formed a human shield.  This time, though, the Islamists found a man who had a picture of Mary in his workshop.  They killed him.  I wonder if the man whose photo I saw isn’t the man who was killed by the Islamists.

Sr. Marina stops a tuk-tuk driver.  We climb in.  Another Coptic tuk-tuk, but this time we actually get to go somewhere.  We’re off to another church or two.  This is my first tuk-tuk ride ever.  The time I went whitewater rubber rafting a few years ago with my nieces and nephews was not more exciting than this.  Our hips alongside one another are simply too wide to fit into the seat.  Nermeen motions for me to sit on her lap.  I sit there, my head almost bumping the roof, so I lean over the driver and hold on for dear life.  We laugh a lot on our joy ride to the church.

tuk-tuk driver

Coptic tuk-tuk driver in front of the church

The church, the one they call a cathedral is nicknamed Santa Maria by the metro stop (Ezbet El Nakhl).  We’ve been in the same neighborhood as the Salam Center all this time!  The church is actually two churches across the street from one another.  One of the buildings has a bookstore, and Sister Marina shows me a book with Soeur Emmanuelle, the founder of the Salam Center, on the cover.   How I wish I could have met her!  After my return to Germany, I listen to an interview with her in French, and she sounds so lively, so human!  But seeing her photo, I feel I have a connection to the founder of the Salam Center, as well as to those living there now.  Unfortunately, the bookshop is closed.

Again, I notice Sister Marina and Nermeen kissing and touching a lot of pictures.  In one of the churches, again separating the sanctuary from the altar area, there is another beautiful appliquéd curtain.  It’s the Virgin Mary.  I am particularly struck by the beautiful work on Saint Mary, as well as her soft eyes.  Again, the seamstress was Sister Amina.  Sr. Marina, Nermeen, and I reverently touch the curtain.

Virgin Mary, by Sister Amina

Virgin Mary, as depicted and sewn by Sister Amina

In the cathedral church of Saint Mary, there is an icon of Saint Marina.  I take a photo of Sister Marina next to her favorite saint.

I ask her who gave Sister Marina her name.  She stops, turns to me, looking at me with soft eyes, and says in a hushed tone, “Father Shenouda”.  It was the Pope himself who blessed her, who gave her her habit, her cross, her name.  Five other sisters at this convent received their names from him at the same time.

We look at the pictures of the twelve apostles at the front of the church.  Unlike the gothic paintings or statues of the various saints I see in Catholic churches throughout northern Europe, these saints all look wonderfully kind, soft, and gentle.  I think the Copts must value kindness and gentleness above everything else.  They study and collect pictures of the lives of these saints like teenagers collect pictures of sports or movie stars.  The difference is, the saints are truly positive role models.  At this moment I wish I had grown up in a Coptic culture rather than in a sober, icon-less Protestant church.

“We don’t worship the saints,” said Sister Elleria.  “We admire them. We honor them.  I hope to be a saint one day, but I don’t hope to die for my faith, like Jeanne d’arc did.”

We look at a large photo hanging on the wall of a man from our time.  He’s a priest, says Sister Martina, who was shot dead by Islamists.  A martyr.

“I fear for you all here,” I tell her.

“No need for fear.  We have Jesus in our hearts.”

Sister Marina’s cell phone rings.  It is Sister Maria.  They talk for a minute or two and then Sr. Marina hangs up.  “I love Mother Maria,” she says in English and again in Arabic.  We’ve been practicing the phrase “I love…”  Nermeen nods her head.  “Me too.”  I agree.  Me too.

It’s time to go back to the convent.  We’re all hungry.  We find another tuk-tuk.  We bump and jerk along dirt streets and avenues until we reach the center.  And then a nasty scene takes place.  The driver is not content with the money Sister Maria has paid him.  Nermeen and I each offer to contribute some money of our own, but Sr. Maria won’t let us.  “He got the same amount as the other driver – five pounds.”  Judging from his face, I’m hoping there won’t be a terrorist attack on the center.  Sister Maria later tells me that he wanted more money because there was a foreigner in the group.  Whenever there are foreigners present, people want more money.

Back at the center, we find Sister Amina still seated at the table, finishing her lunch.  I show her the photograph in my cell phone, her depiction of Saint Mary.  She looks at it, smiles, kisses my cell phone and hands it over to another sister who wants to see the photo.  She also looks, smiles, and kisses it, without a hint of embarrassment or shame.

Sister Amina

Sister Amina showing someone baptismal clothes she has sewn

I don’t understand this culture, but I like it.

Rubies in the Rubbish – Day Eight


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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.


Rohmy, my usual driver, and just about everyone else’s.

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.


Theresa, who heads the social work program

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.

In front of the school

In front of the school

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.