Breakthrough at Caron, Cairo, Christianity, Coptic wedding, Egypt, intellectually disabled, Josh Groban, Pilgrimage, Salam Center, travel, You Raise Me Up
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.
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.
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!
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.