Thursday, December 22, 2005

Christmas Celebration

Last night we had our Young Adult Volunteer Christmas celebration. Teri, Jennifer and Sarah put together a gingerbread house from gingerbread they baked the night before. Stephen, Jay and I sang Christmas carols. Later we exchanged our “secret Santa” gifts. I got some art supplies from Sarah. She gave me colored pencils, oil pastels, and a drawing pad. She has definitely been paying attention as I recently made a watercolor for Carole, our site coordinator who is retiring.

Jen corresponded with Young Adult Volunteers from years passed, got them to write letters and send photographs, and then compiled them along with our own letters and photos in a scrapbook. The watercolor was my contribution. Carole gave us each a personalized key chain with cartouche that spelled out our names.

As things wound down, Eric, Stephen, Anne Catherine and I started up a doubles table tennis game. We played until 2AM.

Tonight we will leave by bus to travel overnight to the border of Israel and then on to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We will be there for about a week, including Christmas Day. We will worship at The Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. It is the church that is built upon the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. I can’t even imagine all of the people and sites that I will encounter while I am there. What an opportunity this is! I am sure it will be an amazing trip. I do ask that you all say a prayer for us. I can’t help but think about all of the news reports I have seen over the years about this region of the world. I recently spoke to an American named Brice who works at the Evangelical Theological Seminary. He has a history of visiting the Palestinian territories and told me that we would be far from any harm. That was reassuring, but I still ask for your prayers for a safe and fulfilling trip.

I obviously will not be updating my web site until I return, so I hope you all have a Merry Christmas. May the love of our Lord Jesus Christ fill your life with happiness during this Christmas season.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Covert Ops at The Egyptian Museum

Thursday I arrived at the Synod of the Nile to find that Jackline (she pronounces it Zhack-LEEN), one of our secretaries had returned from her two-week stint in the hospital. She pantomimed having something removed from her throat and that’s about all I know. I have missed her ever so much because she basically gives me Arabic lessons and is incredibly nice.

That afternoon Jay, one of my fellow volunteers called me up to help him out with a web site. Since I didn’t have much going on at the Synod of the Nile, and there wasn’t anybody there that could give me work, I went ahead and helped him out. Care with Love is an NGO that trains men and women to be in home healthcare providers. They take care of the elderly and children with cancer. Jay’s supervisor wanted to get a website together and he knew I could help with the graphics. I came up with a quick design that he seemed to like. Now Jay is fleshing out the text and hopefully we can have it up and running sometime next week. I will post the address once we complete the site.

Friday morning I had my last day of English class. I passed out a test based on the vocabulary words I had been teaching them. The first half was matching, the second half was fill in the blank. Several of them did really well. One girl was distraught because she didn’t know any of the answers. I assured her that it was okay, that the test was just an evaluation so I would know how to be a better teacher for my next class. This did not seem to comfort her at all. After the test I had THEM read ME a story. They did pretty well. Finally I broke out the tray of sweet goodies I bought on the way to class. The organizer of the program told me that kids are used to having a party on the last day of class so I supplied the sweets. I broke out the Pooh/Tigger ball and we threw it around for some time (it’s a BIG classroom). And that was it. I hope they learned something out of our time together. The organizer asked me to teach a class again next term and I said I would.

Anne Catherine, the French teacher at RCG who lives with us at Dawson Hall, had a birthday party on Friday night. She invited all kinds of French people and French-speaking people that live in Cairo. There were Egyptians and citizens of France sitting around singing popular French love songs. Then the Egyptians sang popular Egyptian love songs in Arabic. We Americans didn’t do a very good job representing our language. Jay and I sang a song that we could barely remember the words to. It was still a great night of international singing.

Saturday I decided I would use my day off to go to The Egyptian Museum (AKA The Cairo Museum) again and go at my own pace this time. I took my camera again even though they didn’t allow me to take it in last time. I figured I might act like an Egyptian give some baksheesh to the security guard and see if I could get my camera in. Baksheeh is the Arabic word for tip.

I took the Metro because there is a stop just next to the museum. For once the volume of people was low and I actually got to sit down. As I’m flipping through my guidebook, checking out the details of the artifacts I’m about to see, I hear this little Arabian tune playing over the speakers inside the car. I find myself humming along with it and am shocked when I realize I know the tune. It took me only a few seconds to figure out how I knew it… it was used in the old Game Boy video game Tetris.

If you look on the web site for the Egyptian Museum you will discover that for a low, low fee of 10 Egyptian Pounds (about $1.75) you can carry your camera in with you. When you get to the security gate of the museum you will discover this is not true. They don’t let cameras in at all. This of course is designed to force you to buy the expensive souvenir books, which are a lot more than 10 Pounds I can assure you. They are probably in the neighborhood of 250-300 Pounds ($44-$53). I mean come on, the Art Institute of Chicago let me in with my camera. I could even use it as long as I didn’t use my flash. What’s the big fuss here? Money of course. Egyptian tourist sites are AWFUL about fleecing tourists, so I hope you will understand my complete lack of respect over the next few paragraphs.

I got to the metal detector where I was turned back with my camera on the last visit. The guard patted me down and seemed interested in the medication bottle in my other pocket. I said “Medication.” He made the international “Oh” nod and waved me through. He didn’t even check out my camera. And here I was, prepared to give him 20 Egyptian Pounds (about $3.50). I scooted on through the area and headed to the first room.

I discovered between visits that my Lonely Planet guidebook to Egypt had a section on the Egyptian Museum, which is great because barely anything in the museum is labeled. The guidebook tour didn’t have information on all the rooms, and it only covered a few items in the rooms that it did have information for, and it still took me two hours to go through the tour.

Once I had seen everything I wanted to see, I went back through the museum and discreetly took pictures of some fascinating items. I want to make it absolutely clear that I didn’t use my flash, so I wasn’t harming anything. I got some really great pictures of statues and items that belonged to kings and queens of ancient Egypt. I did this for an hour before I got really brave and decided to take a picture of one of King Tut’s caskets. I pretty much knew I was going to get busted, but I gave it a shot. Sure enough, I had just barely clicked my shutter when a guard came up and emphatically told me that no cameras were allowed in the museum. He escorted me out of the room where Tut’s caskets were and told me I would have to take my camera out of the museum. He summoned a security grunt and all the while I was playing dumb. “I didn’t know cameras weren’t allowed,” I said. “I’m sorry,” I said and shook the man’s hand. As the grunt approached, I asked him some rapid-fire questions like, “What do I do with my camera?” “Who do I give it to?” “Where do I find this person?” I think he was a little perplexed by my questions and finally he just said, “Keep your camera. Put it in your pocket and don’t take it out again.” Having gotten all the pictures I wanted, I casually walked back out of the museum and made my way home. Check out the photos on the photos page. I think they are quite good considering that I took them all without a flash.

That night Teri and I went to the Ramses College for Girls Christmas/New Years celebration. We hung around long enough to see the guest of honor arrive and pass out Christmas gifts. That guest of honor was Santa Claus!!! Santa handed out all kinds of presents to all the little boys and girls, Christians and Muslims alike. It really baffles me how Muslims have taken on Santa as a part of their own culture since he is so closely related to Christmas. It was so fun to see the children’s eyes light up as Santa passed out the gifts. They extended their hands, eager to receive their colorful gift bags.

Tonight Laura Mendenhall and her family visited Dawson Hall at the invitation of Teri. Laura is the president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, the seminary that Teri graduated from in May. Laura and her family arrived a few days ago and were here to visit her daughter for the Christmas holidays. Her daughter works with UNICEF in Sudan and was unable to go all the way to the States to be with her family, so her family came to her… well, to Cairo to meet up with her. They all visited us to see what we are doing, to learn what jobs we are doing, and to listen to our impressions of Egypt. We chatted for about 45 minutes before they had to go to the Ramses train station to catch a train to Luxor for a few days’ relaxation on a Nile cruise.

We helped them get to the Ramses train station by taking the Metro. We made our way to the station but once we got to the platform the Teri took the three ladies to the far end, the front end of the platform so they could get on the women’s car, while I hung back with the three guys. We hoped that the ladies would get by without any harassment by splitting up.

As I stood with the gentlemen on the platform, I thought back to my first few days in Cairo. Our site coordinator did a great job of easing us into the chaos of Cairo. One day she walked with us down a swarming stretch of road to get us accustomed to our neighborhood. A few days later she took us on the cramped, claustrophobic Metro for the first time. She got us used to the experience in stages. And now Teri and I had just taken this family and did the same thing all in one night. I couldn’t imagine what must have been going through their heads. In the end they did all right. Laura was as cool as a cucumber, seemingly unshaken by the entire experience. We said our goodbyes, parted ways and Teri and I headed back to Dawson Hall. I hope they have a good, relaxing time on the cruise.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, December 12, 2005

Mosquito Mania

Lately at the Synod I have been helping Venis by formatting her dissertation according to the instructions she was given. She is submitting it to San Francisco Theological Seminary, hopefully by the end of the year. The work is going slowly but surely.

I came up with a really fun game to play with the kids in my English lesson. Several weeks ago I bought a 12” diameter bouncy ball decorated with the face of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. We used it to play a game that helped the kids recall English words they know. I started off by saying a word in English and then I bounced the ball to one of my students. The student had to come up with another English word that began with the last letter of my word. For instance, I said “elephant” and then bounced the ball to my student who had to come up with a word that started with a “T”. Then that student would pass the ball to another student who would do the same. Not only did this make them recall English words, they also had to think about how English words are spelled. They ended up being pretty good at the game, and helped each other if they got stuck on a word or spelling. It seemed like they enjoyed the game a great deal.

Saturday I went to Zamalek, a neighborhood on Gezira Island which in the middle of the Nile. It’s the same neighborhood where we had our Arabic lessons back in September. It turns out there is an art college there, and therefore some art supply stores. Ever since I arrived here in Cairo I wanted to tap into my creative side and paint some pictures. To do that I need some art supplies, so I struck off for Zamalek.

This was my second adventure getting around Cairo all by myself (aside from my commute to work). The first was a few weeks ago when I met up with some folks to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in a theater (which was really good by the way, even if it did have subtitles in Arabic). I was quite proud of myself that I could speak Arabic well enough to get around using taxis.

Zamalek is a great neighborhood in which to go walking. The neighborhood is less crowded than most others and the people stare a lot less. Once the taxi driver got me to the Gezira Island I decided to walk the rest of the way. The streets are lined with green trees that are quite refreshing, and are quite a contrast to the gray, dust-covered sidewalks of Ghamra, the neighborhood where I live.

I wandered the streets near the art college looking for an art store. I passed young Muslim men and women, probably in their early twenties, with art supplies tucked under their arms, so I knew I wasn’t far away from what I sought. I saw an alleyway that extended back to some hidden stores and impulsively turned a sharp ninety degrees to do some exploring. I don’t know what drew me down the alleyway exactly, but I was surprised when I found not one, but two art supply stores tucked away in the shadows. I found some great watercolor paper and some good brushes. I am excited about the prospect of tapping some of my traditional art talents, talents that I haven’t really used since I graduated from art school over five years ago.

Sunday I met with a woman after church who was interested in having a web site designed to help her efforts in getting prisoners released from Egyptian prisons. She said in some cases the prisoners don’t even know why they were imprisoned and she tries to get them released. She took me to her home where we had lunch (a vegetarian dish because she is Coptic Orthodox and is participating in the Advent Fast in which they cannot eat meat) I looked around her living room and saw icons of various saints. She told me the stories of some of them. Then she talked to me about her husband who lives in Switzerland. After having listened to her for some time, I had this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach that this woman had been taken advantage of. I have a feeling the Swiss man married her so that he could have his way with her, and then he moved back to his home where she cannot go without a tremendous amount of effort. The Coptic Orthodox denomination prohibits divorce, so she cannot end the marriage and begin anew. She told me she hoped she could raise enough money from her tourism business to give him a gift of land to attract him back. She said she needed a foreigner to come and run her business, someone who could speak proper English and produce good marketing materials. She said she would be willing to give this person 30% of her profits and a piece of land to do with what he wanted, perhaps run a restaurant or a bazaar. I had this image of some corporate guy in a suit with a briefcase, an investor type that would come in and help the lady set up her business. I told her I thought that was a great idea.

Our conversation wandered through several topics including the Israel/Palestine conflict. I was surprised to find out that she supported Israel. I had just assumed that Egyptians would be sympathetic to Palestine, but this lady is devout Coptic Orthodox, and because of the bible she believes the Israelis are the rightful “owners” of the land. In a few weeks I will be traveling to Israel and Palestine to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, so I am acutely interested in this issue and I welcome all viewpoints. I was startled to hear what inflammatory things she had to say though. I even found myself arguing (albeit in a polite way) with her over the issue because her opinions were so black and white and allowed little room for communication between the two sides. At one point I even asked her if she thought this was a Christian way of solving problems. I didn’t think they were in line with the lessons of Jesus who taught us to love our neighbors, to love our enemies and pray for them. She simply wouldn’t budge on her viewpoint.

Over the course of our four-hour conversation she mentioned the 30% cut of her profits and the piece of land several times before I realized she was not-so-subtly referring to me as the foreigner she wanted to run her business! Also, the website I was to help her with wasn’t really about helping prisoners, but more about promoting the lady’s tourist destinations. It didn’t seem right for me to participate in this because I KNOW the PC(USA) would not be keen on me working for anything other than a nonprofit organization, not to mention I’m not going to be here past July of next year… oh, and also the fact that I have no desire to be a part of a business venture in Egypt. Eventually I told her I would have to leave in twenty minutes to make it home for dinner with my fellow volunteers. Then she came right out and said she wanted me to think about the opportunity of joining her in business, and gave me an extensive list of websites she wanted me to look at as reference for her web site. I told her I would look over them, but that I needed time to think over her offer. I intend to write her an email in the next several days to decline not only the business “opportunity” but also helping her with the website since it is for profit. I talked to my site coordinator Carole about this and it dawned on her that she had seen this lady at church before and had gotten some strange vibes off of her then. It seems she goes trolling at churches to see if she can find foreigners to help her out. After all she is Coptic Orthodox, and a devout one at that. What was she doing in a reformed church?

I was disappointed that she was looking more to boost her business instead of trying to help prisoners. At least I was able to converse with someone with a Coptic Orthodox background and hear some different viewpoints, even if they conflicted with my own. After all I think that’s the only way to truly discover what is going on in complex political situations, to listen to all kinds of viewpoints.

A month and a half ago we started experiencing a large number of mosquitoes at Dawson Hall. Even with my air conditioner and ceiling fan in my apartment on full I was getting mosquito bites on my arms, legs, hands, feet, and even my face during the night. At any given time I had 15-20 mosquito bites. We were all assured that this was quite normal for the time of year, and that in a few weeks the mosquitoes would die down, and in time they did.

Recently we had an unusual resurgence of the mosquitoes though. We have attributed it to the large amount of “fertilizer” that was dumped on the grounds of Ramses College for Girls (RCG). We have been somewhat astonished by the way the fertilizer was used. It was just dumped in heaping piles all over the greenery, and then never spread out (It produces a lovely smell. Yeech!). It has basically killed everything green that it was put on instead of nourishing it. What’s worse is the groundskeepers keep watering the fertilized areas creating large pools of water for the mosquitoes to breed in. Naadia and I agreed this is more out of ignorance than anything. The groundskeepers simply don’t know they are creating a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. We continually clap mosquitoes out of the air all through the day and night. Teri has been sick recently and I can’t help but wonder if all the mosquito bites have contributed to her illness. Hopefully the weather will have a nice cold snap soon and take care of them. We are almost at our wit’s end with them.

Tonight Teri had some of the graduate students from Evangelical Theological Seminary over for dinner. We had a great time eating and laughing. Egyptians have such a wonderful sense of humor. I showed one of them a great card trick I learned years ago. He is a pastor at a church in the Nile Delta and said it would go over really well with the kids, so I taught it to him.

Later we sat around the table and joked and laughed as we ate. We also had a serious conversation about smoking, how it affects your body, and how Evangelical pastors in Egypt are not permitted to smoke. One of the graduate students recited a passage from First Corinthians. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

Teri asked the student if a guest preacher from the United States would undermine his own message simply by being a smoker. He replied, “Yes.” The she asked if the student whether he would tell the preacher to refrain from smoking or not, and he said he would not. He said it was out of respect to another culture. At the same time he detests smoking, he is tolerant of another culture in which it is permissible. We Americans looked at each other in a sort of shock because everywhere we go we see people smoking all the time, much more than in the U.S. Something I had to remind myself of was that we were speaking with Evangelical Presbyterians, not the Muslims we normally encounter on the streets and in taxicabs. It was interesting to see such a stark contrast in beliefs between the two religions.

However, another student argued against the smoking policy because he used to be a smoker and is now frustrated since he is a pastor and can’t smoke at all. It was a very interesting conversation.

It’s so wonderful to be around people that can find humor in nearly anything and yet are willing to have serious conversations and be “real.” The people I work with at the Synod are the same way. They are always easygoing and always ready for a good laugh, yet are wonderful to talk with about real questions of faith.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

English Lessons and Getting to Work

Work has stalled a good bit at the Synod of the Nile. I have been writing one or two letters in English per day to people who are making arrangements to come to Cairo, or are interested in what the Synod does. That’s been the extent of my work there. Supposedly over the next few days I will be helping Venis, a lady I work with at the Synod, with her dissertation. She is set to send it to San Francisco Theological Seminary by the end of the year.

On Friday, November 25th I had a really tough time with the kids in my English class that I teach at the Coptic Cathedral on Fridays. I was reading them a story about Joan of Arc, but several of the kids were fidgeting a lot and having conversations while I was reading to them. Two of the students were deliberately standing up over and over after I had expressly asked them to stay seated several times. I finally had to be “mister tough guy” and be stern with them. This is not something that I like doing, especially with kids. To be honest I’m not even good at it. Even still, I managed to upset two kids enough that they were crying. It was a rather unpleasant lesson for everyone involved. So, for the recent lesson on December 2nd, I changed things up a bit and didn’t even read them a story. I think since reading to them isn’t interactive, it was boring them. So this time I taught them songs that had motions like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and then had them color in a drawing of a man. The man had blanks for the different parts of the body, which they had just learned through the song. I helped them fill in the blanks as I walked around the class. I also asked them what Santa Claus brought them in years past and what their favorite toy was. The organizers of the program also wanted me to teach them the Lord’s Prayer in English, so we went through that. At the end of the class several of the kids were writing the prayer in English on the whiteboard. Overall the kids seemed much more attentive and enjoyed the class much more because they were the ones doing the talking, which is the way it should be anyway if they are trying to learn English.

Teri and I recently went to a Toys ‘R’ Us store we found near a grocery store where we buy food. We saw several things of great interest. We saw “Fulla” dolls, which are the Middle Eastern answer to Barbie. Fulla had many, many different styles of colorful clothing, and many, many different hairstyles. All of these boxes were labeled “Indoor Fashion.” They were a stark contrast to the “Outdoor Fashion” dolls, which were dressed only in a black robe with a black veil covering the doll’s hair. What was interesting was the bland, boring “Outdoor Fashion” dolls were much more expensive than the colorful, fun-looking “Indoor Fashion” dolls. I managed to get some photos of these. Be sure to check them out on my photos page. On the way out I saw a Christmas Tree in the window display. It looked great, except it had a shiny, plastic, red crescent moon on the top in place of a star or angel. That was quite unexpected. Interestingly, we have discovered that Santa Claus visits all boys and girls, not just the Christian ones. It seems Santa has become a secular figure in the Middle East too. Well, in Egypt at least.

I remember an alumnus of the Young Adult Volunteer program telling us at orientation that we could write a book in the first day at our placements, a paper after a month, and a paragraph after six months. By the end of the year we wouldn’t be able to write anything at all. What she meant was that when we first arrive at our placements, everything is new and there is a wealth of experiences to write about. After a year all of the amazing things from the beginning of the year are commonplace and seemingly not worth writing about. I find myself slipping into this already. What I intend to do is try to take a fresh look at something I do often, and try to describe it in great detail so as not to lose that fresh perspective. From this entry forward these detailed descriptions will be titled with a bold title like this:

Getting to Work
Getting to the Synod of the Nile is quite an experience from the moment I step out my front door. Our YAV apartments are located on the third floor of Dawson Hall, the Secretarial School is on the second floor, and the Synod of the Nile Schools office is on the first floor (note that this is the Synod of the Nile SCHOOLS office, which is different from the Synod of the Nile office where I work). In order to get downstairs I have to descend steps that take me by the classrooms for the Secretarial School where Christian and Muslim women ages 18-20 learn to be… you guessed it, secretaries. Once I leave Dawson Hall it is a short walk through the courtyard to the gates out of Ramses College for Girls (RCG). In the mornings the entire second floor, the steps down to the first floor, and the courtyard are filled with young women, many of whom are veiled, waiting to enter the Secretarial School. The males of our group were told to be very wary of these ladies as they are at the age when they are looking for husbands, and American men are quite a catch. We were told to avoid eye contact with these women as much as possible because it just encourages them to talk to us. I have to say it’s quite a long walk from the second floor to the gate. Many eyes follow me as I walk this path.

One morning I was strolling down the steps when suddenly I could tell this young woman was staring intently at me from the staircase below. I could see a big grin on her face in my peripheral vision. She actually began ascending the stairs until she met me, and finally she was so close I couldn’t do anything but look her in the eye. She flashed her broad grin and her eyes lit up. “Do you speak English?” she asked me. We had a short conversation about where I was from and what I was doing in Cairo. I found out her name was Dina. It all seemed very casual and innocent enough. I finally told her I had to go to work and she asked, “Will I see you again?” I said yes, she probably would as I took this route to work every morning.

It was week before I saw her again. This time I had actually left the gate to RCG when I heard, “Jason, Jason!” I turned and there was Dina with a friend running to catch up with me. We had another conversation in broken English. She asked me if I had a cell phone and I truthfully said no. She told me her friend’s name was Christine, making it a safe bet I was dealing with Christians, especially since they weren’t wearing veils. I politely told them that I had to get to work. Again Dina asked, ”Will I see you again?” I replied yes and went on my way. It wasn’t but a few days later that I heard Dina and Christine call out my name again, this time in the courtyard. After a little bit of conversation Dina asked me again if I had a cell phone. Again I told her I didn’t. “Mefeesh mobile” I said in Arabic. [There is no mobile.] Dina offered to buy me one. I was surprised that she would want to talk to me that much and finally became a little suspicious of what was going on. I said no thank you. “Lay?” she asked. [Why?] I pantomimed a cell phone ringing a lot and acted frustrated with it. Dina and Christine laughed. I told them that I had to go to work and we parted ways, but not before Dina pushed her cell phone number on me. I was growing increasingly anxious about leaving the building in the morning. Would they call my name today?

One morning I told Teri what was going on and asked her to walk me to the gate. I thought if Teri was me, surely Dina and Christine wouldn’t try to talk to me… would they? Teri and I were halfway to the gate before I heard my name called out. Wow, they ARE persistent. We kept walking, pretending to be engrossed in conversation. We reached the gate where I paused to tell Teri that I would see her that evening. The pause gave Dina and Christine the time they needed to catch up to me and start talking to me. They were very curious about Teri. They asked her questions about where she lives and what she does for work. I could tell things were somewhat awkward. In a way that’s what I had hoped for. That evening Teri asked, “Why don’t you just ride the elevator down to the first floor, and then walk through the Synod of the Nile Schools office and out the back of the building?” It turns out that plan works very well. The elevator bypasses all of the women on the steps and lets me off right at the office door. I walk through the lobby and out the back door where there’s not a single Secretarial School student to be seen. It’s a longer walk to the back gate of RCG, but I get a lot less attention that way. I just feel bad that I have to avoid people when I am actually here to meet them and understand what it is like to live here. But when you think about the intentions of these ladies, it’s just not a good situation to be in. I can begin to understand how the female YAV’s feel. They are hounded by men who are much more aggressive than these ladies ever will be.

Once I leave the RCG campus I turn left and walk down a sidewalk between the RCG campus wall and a busy street and make my way to the Metro station. As the cars rush past me they create a wind that kicks up all kinds of dust and crud into my face and eyes. It’s really quite a disgusting experience. I have been wearing my sunglasses, even on foggy days, just to keep the grit out of my eyes. The cars expel an unholy amount of exhaust, enough to make anyone cough. A few times the fumes have even made me nauseas. I walk about a quarter mile before the street passes under a bridge. This is where I cross the street to get to the Metro station. As the cars bottleneck into less lanes they are forced to slow down, which gives me my opportunity to weave through the cars. Sometimes it is a harrowing experience with cars, trucks, busses, and motorcycles rushing at me, sometimes narrowly missing me. In order to cross the road safely I have to move at a consistent speed so the cars can judge how much to swerve to miss me. The drivers only seem to stop if the car in front of them is stopped. Traffic is a gigantic fluid beast where vehicles weave around each other, and pedestrians are just thrown into the mix. Upon reaching the other side of the street I find the spot in the metal fence where a few bars have been removed. I duck through the hole and find myself under a staircase that rises to the bridge over my head. I squeeze my way out from under the staircase on one side or the other. At the foot of the steps I cross over the litter-strewn tram tracks to the Metro station.

At the station I purchase yellow Metro tickets for 75 piastres each (about 12 cents, as opposed to the slower tram ride which costs 25 piastres, or 4 cents) from the ticket window. In the States you would expect a line of people waiting to purchase tickets. Here it’s just a mob of people that you have to push your way through. The only understanding in this entire situation is women get to go directly to the front of the mob. I guess that’s at least one good thing for women in Egypt. I usually buy my tickets twenty at a time to avoid this craziness on a daily basis. With my ticket in hand, I turn around and feed it into a turnstile making sure to snatch up the ticket as it is spat out the other side. I need it to get through the exit turnstiles at the destination station. I descend a staircase to the aboveground platform of the Ghamra station where I wait for a train to arrive.

This is a prime place for people watching. People of conservative and modern lifestyles, Christians and Muslims, the rich and the poor all stand there expectantly. Veiled mothers herd their children and businessmen inspect their suits. Some men wear turbans and robes while they lean against their staffs. Some women balance large loads on the tops of their heads while they wait for the train to arrive. All the while there is a cacophony of Arabic all around me. I can understand a word or two, but never what conversations are about. The Metro platform is truly a cross section of the population of Cairo.

The train pulls into the station and people crowd around the doors. When the doors open, people getting off the train have to push through the surge of people trying to get on the train. Nobody waits for anyone. After cramming myself aboard the train along with everyone else, the doors close and we are off. Sometimes we are packed in so tightly that even if the car surges forward, we can all stay upright without holding onto anything. I had a tough time riding the Metro at first, but I think I have finally become used to the press of people around me. I still have some anxiety from time to time, but I am doing much better. Three or four minutes later the train arrives at the underground Mubarak station (named after the current president, Hosni Mubarak) and we all surge off the train as others are trying to get on. I transfer to another platform where I cram myself onto another train bound for the Attaba station. I exit that train, climb some steps, slip my yellow ticket into the exit turnstile, and climb more steps to the light of day. I cross a small street, dodge a few cars, and walk about fifty yards to the entrance of the Synod of the Nile thus ending my daily trip to work.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving and Pyramids

Thursday, as you know, was Thanksgiving. This is not the first time I have been away from home for Thanksgiving so I knew what it would be like to be away from family. But knowing what it will be like does not make it any easier or lessen the desire to be with them. However, having a good Christian community to share Thanksgiving with was the next best thing.

Thursday I started off my day by going to work. I didn’t have much to do, but the day was not a holiday here. While at work I learned that Anisse, the man from my work that was hit by a car (see previous entry), was not doing as well as I had been led to believe. I found out from Emil that Anisse had been unconscious since the time of the accident and that the cause may be hemorrhaging of blood around the brain. This news sounds rather dismal, but hopefully it is an injury that can heal. At times it is hard to truly understand what is going on when there is a language barrier, especially in the midst of an emergency. You want to get accurate information, but when language doesn’t quite jive, sometimes all you get are vague bits of information.

I returned to Dawson Hall in the early evening to find the preparations for the Thanksgiving feast underway. Over the last several years it has become a tradition for many Christian missionaries to gather at Dawson Hall for a traditional American Thanksgiving meal. This year nearly fifty people attend. There were all the usual Thanksgiving dishes including green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, turkey (of course), and even canned cranberry sauce (one of my Thanksgiving favorites!) We all had a good time chatting, sharing past Thanksgiving experiences and gorging ourselves on tons and tons of food. Afterwards, as our stomachs settled, we broke out the old red hymnbooks and sang several hymns. It was a good time had by all.

Friday night we had dinner with Samia’s family. Samia is a wonderful Egyptian lady who works for the Synod of the Nile Schools’ administrative office, which is in the same building as Dawson Hall. She is the person who takes care of all of our maintenance needs. She invited us over to her home where we met her son and two daughters, the husbands of the daughters, and her grandchild. It was almost like we were having Thanksgiving all over again, Egyptian style. The table was overflowing with food that looked and smelled wonderful. I didn’t know what most of the food was called, but that didn’t stop me from eating it. My favorite was a meatball and potato dish. After finishing the meal we sat around and talked for a while. Samia’s son passed around some photos from his time in New York State while he was attending school. We listened to some popular Egyptian music with Arabic lyrics as we chatted. Samia asked us all to gather around because she had some special words to say about our site coordinator Carole. Carole is leaving at the end of December and Samia shared with us how much she would miss her, almost to the point of tears. I could hear a little quiver in her voice as she spoke. Samia presented Carole with a very nice jewelry set that had earrings, a necklace, a bracelet and a ring. Carole has been so influential in the lives of so many Egyptians and it is evident now that she is about to leave. Everywhere we go we hear stories about how Carole has helped someone. She will be sorely missed, and not just by the Egyptians. The Young Adult Volunteers have been spoiled by her wisdom and knowledge that she garnered during 13 years of mission work in Egypt.

Yesterday, on Saturday, all of the Young Adult Volunteers (YAV’s) got together for our first trip to the pyramids. And I’m not talking about just the three famous ones at Giza. We started the day by going to Memphis to see the remnants of that once glorious city. All that’s left now is a handful of ruined statues, and slabs of stone with hieroglyphics carved in their surfaces. There are several gigantic statues of Ramses there. One of them has a somewhat unusual story behind it. Our Egyptian guide Adl told us that it was shipped in pieces to Memphis, Tennessee to be restored. It toured the U.S. for a year or two and then returned to Memphis, Egypt. Adl told us that he was on site the day they crated the pieces. He found it humorous that the crate bore the words “From: Memphis, To: Memphis” in large letters.

From Memphis we traveled to Sakara and saw the famous step pyramid of Zozer. It was the first pyramid built with cut stones. This is evident from the other pyramids in the area that are now just a bunch of hills. They were built using rocks that were not fitted together. Adl told us that the chamber beneath the pyramid of Zozer was once excavated, but was very unstable, so the excavators filled the chamber once more with sand. Many of the places we have been to have similar problems with underground structures. Adl explained to us that the water tables are rising because of the damming of the Nile. It’s amazing to think that even after 30 years the Aswan High Dam project is still causing environmental changes. The dam was officially completed in 1970. Adl said that just in the last few years the humidity level during the summer consistently reaches 80%. This is a vast change from the last several thousand years. For millennia the dry air of Egypt has helped to preserve the treasures of the ancient Egyptians. Now many structures and statues are rapidly deteriorating because of the increased humidity.

On the way to Giza, Adl had the driver stop at The Valley of the Kings Carpet School where we got to see large carpets being made… in some cases by children. The proprietor assured us that the children work no more than three hours a day, but one look around the factory at the multitude of carpets, and you get the impression that the children are working many more than three hours a day. I think the idea was that we would buy some carpets, but I think showing us the children working backfired on them. Not to mention that a small carpet was 2,200 Egyptian Pounds. Yikes! That’s more than one month’s stipend.

We arrived at Giza where the others in our group got their first close encounter with the three famous pyramids. As you may recall, I got to visit them briefly back in September. This time I got a chance to visit the Solar Boat Museum. In a chamber just south of The Great Pyramid, archaeologists discovered a complete boat broken down into over a thousand pieces. They managed to figure out how to assemble the boat and it now sits in a museum next to the hole where it was discovered. No nails were used in its construction. Only rope holds the boat together. The boat is not watertight, as it was never meant to float on water. It was more of a symbol of the pharaoh passing into the afterlife. Supposedly the pharaoh would use the boat to travel to the sun after his death. What I thought was amazing was the rope that was intended to hold the boat together, rope that was 5000 years old, looks like it was coiled up yesterday. Modern rope was used to assemble the boat, but the original rope is kept in climate-controlled chambers.

Well, that’s it for this week. I hope you are all well back home. Take care.

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

St. Paul’s and Saint Anthony’s Monasteries

Saturday we got up very early and arrived at Dar Comboni, our Arabic school from September, at about 6:30am. Dar Comboni was taking a group of people to two monasteries near the Red Sea several people in our group decided to go. I think Dar Comboni managed to get about fifty people to go.

I had been feeling a little under the weather in recent days but had gradually been getting better. However, when I woke up my throat had gotten worse. I figured if I didn’t go on the trip, my throat would be fine in a few hours and I would regret not going. So I packed some of the antibiotics I had brought from The States, some Advil for pain and a bottle of water to stay hydrated.

I fell asleep almost immediately once we boarded the bus. I had been sleeping a lot since I was sick. My body was just trying to heal itself. Poor Jay sat with me. I felt bad because I wasn’t much company. I woke a few hours later to see the Red Sea on our left and barren desert mountains on our right. Within a few more minutes we had arrived at our first destination for the day: St. Paul’s monastery. Away from Cairo the air is very clean and thin which makes for beautiful blue skies. This day was no exception. The sand-yellow rock walls of the monastery stood in front of us as we piled off of the bus.

We gathered outside the entrance and met with a Coptic Orthodox monk who told us he was the only monk at the monastery that particular day that spoke English. He also told us this was his first time giving a tour of the monastery. He started off by showing us the mill that the monks used to grind grain for hundreds of years. The monks had to manually push a log in a circular motion to grind the grain. He did say sometimes the monks used a donkey to do the work.

Next he showed us a room with relics from long ago. Some of them had to be at least a thousand years old. We later found out that St. Paul was born in 228AD, so the monastery has been around for quite a long time. The monk demonstrated how some of the old instruments worked. Some were tools that were used around the monastery, and some were vessels or jars.

Next he led us through a wooden door and down into a crypt where St. Paul himself was buried. We had to remove our shoes so as to be respectful. There were many paintings on the walls. Though I never heard any specific time period, I expect the paintings were several hundred, perhaps even a thousand years old. St. Paul’s casket was covered in a velvety cloth with the visage of St. Paul embroidered on it. I was surprised when several Coptic Orthodox people entered the room and kissed the cloth covering the casket. There were several scraps of paper with prayers written on them laying on top of the casket. The monk told us how a raven used to bring bread to St. Paul and that when St. Anthony visited, the raven would bring bread enough for the two of them. has this to say about St. Paul and his monastery:

“St. Paul of Thebes, while born to wealthy parents, was a contemporary of St. Anthony and also abandoned civilization to live in the desert for 85 years. It was St. Anthony who pointed out his sainthood. It is said that he was fed by a raven which would bring him half-loaf each day. The monastery (Deir Mar Boulos) has three churches. It was plundered several times during the 15th and 16th centuries, but was later repopulated by the monks of nearby St. Anthony's Monastery. The Church of St. Paul, built underground, was originally dug into the cave where the saint lived and where his remains are kept. The monastery has had few alterations, thus keeping its ancient heritage. This monastery has many illustrated manuscripts, including the Coptic version of the Divine Liturgy and the Commentary of the Epistle of Saint Paul the Apostle to Titus by Saint John Chrysostom.”

Our guide led us up a cramped flight of steps that opened into a worship space filled with all kinds of paintings. I was in heaven. Images of St. Paul, Mary and Jesus, and St. George adorned the walls. Who knows how old these paintings were. Take a look at my photos page to see some of them.

We spent the rest of our time strolling around the grounds of the monastery, enjoying the peace and quiet. I got a little picture-happy and took pictures all over the place. I found a monk just sitting and petting the cat that was lying on his lap. I asked him if I could take a picture of him and he didn’t mind. It’s one of my favorite pictures thus far. Check it out!

Later we all piled onto the bus and headed for St. Anthony’s monastery. On the way my throat started burning like it was on fire. Swallowing became a very unpleasant experience. Also, the sun was on my face and the bus was rocking just enough that the combination of all these things made me nauseas. By the time we arrived at St. Anthony’s I was in no shape to move around. I found a bench and slept on it for forty-five minutes before I felt well enough to get up and take some pictures. I didn’t go on the tour, but I managed to take some pictures of the outside of the fortress-like monastery. I even went in the entrance just enough that I could get some good pictures of the lush plants trees, and flowers. We got back on the bus where I began to feel very bad again. I tried to sleep but was too uncomfortable most of the time. I could barely swallow the whole way back to Cairo.

I spent most of Sunday in my apartment sleeping and trying to feel better. Carole scheduled a doctor’s appointment on Monday. It’s a clinic under the medical branch of the Synod of the Nile, the place where I work. In fact it’s next door to where I work. Carole and I arrived Monday afternoon and waited for about half an hour before we were greeted by one of the “big dog” doctors and the hospital administrator. They introduced us to the doctor that would be examining me. This is one of those instances where being an American can be embarrassing. When Carole and I arrived there were probably ten or so Sudanese refugees waiting to be seen. We skipped ahead of them because of the hospital administrator’s intervention. I felt really awful about that. I feel like I am supposed to be apart of the community, not a leach upon it. How do you explain that to someone who is trying to get you good medical care though? While I appreciate being seen swiftly, I couldn’t help but feel guilty.

Perhaps the doctor that examined me thought the same thing because my appointment was short. The doctor listened to my chest, looked at my throat and then prescribed me an antibiotic and something to gargle. That was it. The appointment didn’t last more than ten minutes. The doctor was professional and courteous. He was friendly but brief. Carole and I thanked him and picked up the prescriptions at the pharmacy downstairs. After taking the antibiotics I am feeling much better. I still have a cough, but my throat is no longer sore.

Today I went into work and found the office dark with all of the doors locked. I asked the one guard at the entrance “Egahza Enaharda?” [Holiday today?] He replied by telling me that Anisse when to get some tea. I thought, “Okay… so why isn’t anyone else here.” Then he pantomimed a car screeching with an impact. After several minutes of listening to the guard I finally understood that Anisse had gone to get some more tea for the office, but when he stepped off the curb just in front of the Synod office, a car struck him. To make his point completely clear, the guard found Anisse’s broken glasses on the ground and showed them to me. Sure enough, they were Anisse’s. There was no mistaking them. I felt awful. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. To make things worse, the guard made a motion to indicate head trauma. I asked if he was at a hospital and he said yes. All I can figure is the entire office shut down and took him to the hospital.

Anisse has been amazingly nice to me. He seems to get more than anyone my elementary level of Arabic. He speaks little English but has always communicated with me in broken Arabic so I could understand. He also has been patient with me and taught me many words in Arabic. He always makes sure that I have a drink if I need it and generally takes care of any need that I may have. This news of his injury has been very disturbing to me.

I did manage to find out later that he had some x-rays at the hospital that showed he has no broken bones. He does have cuts and scrapes on his face, but is generally okay. The hospital is going to keep him for 48 hours for observation and then they are going to release him. I hope to see him back at work very soon.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Strange Pizza Toppings

Thursday I ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut and asked for pepperoni and sausage. I was thinking the sausage would be like the sausage at home, but I was wrong. There was even a red flag that I ignored. When I ordered the pizza the Egyptian lady on the other end of the line told me that sausage was “hotdog.” I just figured she was getting her English mixed up and she wasn’t saying the correct word. Twenty minutes later the pizza arrived, and sure enough, the pizza had little cut up circles of hotdog on the top. Yech! Whose idea was it to put hotdog on a pizza? I’ve heard of some strange stuff, but that was just weird. What are you thinking Pizza Hut? I ate it anyway, but I learned never to ask for sausage on my pizza in Egypt.

Friday night I babysat for the Graftons. David Grafton is a professor at Evangelical Theological Seminary and is in charge of the graduate program. I don’t know yet what his wife Carla does, but she is very busy, so she does something important! They have three children, two girls and a boy. They were the best kids I have EVER met. We began watching The Incredibles at about 7:30pm, and when the girl’s bedtime came around an hour later, they didn’t even complain that they hadn’t finished the movie. They just got up, brushed their teeth, said goodnight, and went to bed. At about 9:20 I told the boy that it was his turn. He didn’t look up from his game boy, but said, “Okay.” I went to the kitchen to put a glass in the sink, and when I returned, he had gone to bed.

This week has been a slow week for various reasons. First, the 150th Anniversary Celebrations are over, so my work at the Synod has dropped off significantly. I have started on a website design to update their current one. You can view the current one, if you like, at I am basically going to give the site a facelift and finish some of the incomplete pages from last year. I haven’t really told the folks at the Synod that I am doing this, but in the mean time, I don’t think it will hurt anything to generate my own work.

Another reason this week has been slow is I got terribly sick. I think the cleaning ladies here at Dawson Hall stirred up some strange dust and it irritated my throat. After a few days, that irritation had turned into an infection and I was congested, coughing, and had a sore throat. On Saturday, I went to sleep around 5:00pm. This particular Saturday I had scheduled to talk to my parents on the phone at 10pm, so I got up and called them, but told them I was in no shape to talk. I had to cough every few words, so it wouldn’t have been a very good conversation anyway. I could tell I had a fever and I went immediately back to bed… and slept till about noon on Sunday. Unfortunately I missed out on hearing Marian McClure speak to the Presbyterians on Saturday night. Marian is the Director of the Worldwide Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church, and had spoken recently at the 150th Anniversary Celebration. She came to Dawson Hall to speak to the Presbys, but I was completely out of it by the time they were meeting. I ended up staying in my room the rest of Sunday and just took it easy. My fever ended up breaking Sunday evening. On Monday I felt like a new person. I would hope so after all that sleep! I still have a bit of a cough and some nasal congestion, but I am doing much better.

This weekend we will be visiting St. Anthony’s Monastery near the Red Sea. It is the very first Christian monastery EVER, and it is still operating. I’ll report on that more when we get back.

Take care. Rabbina My-ak [God be with you]


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Sadness Amidst Celebrations

If you have visited my website in the last few days you will already know that my girlfriend Teri’s mother passed away recently. She had been fighting cancer for about a year now and had been fighting a good fight. Shortly after Teri and I left for Cairo she took a turn for the worst. As Teri tells it, her mother Beverly went to the hospital because she was in a tremendous amount of pain. The doctors said there was no reason to stay at the hospital but Beverly insisted. The doctors told Teri’s dad David, that there was no immediate danger, but at about 7AM on October 31st Beverly died. Teri returned home two days later.

I think the hardest thing for me out of all of this is not being able to be with Teri to support her. We discussed the possibility that Beverly might die while we were here and that I would not be able to return with Teri. Now that it has actually happened, I very desperately want to be with her. This is more difficult than I thought it would be.

Teri’s family went to the Pacific Ocean to spread Beverly’s ashes, so I haven’t had much contact with her since she left. I hope in the next few days I will be able to get more word from her. Please keep her and her family in your prayers.

Meanwhile I have stayed rather busy in Egypt. On November 4th, all of our Young Adult Volunteer’s (YAV’s) gathered (with the exception of Teri, which left a noticeable hole in our group) for the first time since we parted ways to our respective cities. Jen and Jennifer have been living Alexandria, Stephen and Eric went to Minya, while the rest of us stayed in Cairo. We met up in Alexandria (commonly referred to as Alex by the locals) and headed to a conference center called Beit El Salem (House of Peace) for the 50th anniversary celebration of it’s founding.

The organizers managed to bring in some of the original volunteers who helped build the center back in 1955, many of which were Americans. They were not called YAV’s back then, but they were the 1950’s equivalent, so the organizers wanted us there to show the old volunteers with the current volunteers. The celebration was joyous but long. We sang hymns, there was a gigantic cake (a photo is on my photos page) and there was a lot of talk about fundraising. But as it turned out, we didn’t play into the celebrations at all. We were pretty much there as witnesses. I don’t look at it as a waste of time though because it afforded us some good rest and relaxation away from the hectic streets of Cairo.

At work I had been putting together a book for the 150th Anniversary of the Synod of the Nile, which had given me several nights of diminished sleep, so I was happy to take a break. We strolled around the grounds of the conference center, and played on the beach. It was too cold to go swimming, but breathing the dense salt air helped to clear the lungs. All of us guys slept in a dormitory just inside the fence from the Mediterranean. There were twenty or thirty men sleeping on bunk beds. I slept up top, something I haven’t done since I was probably ten years old. The sound of the sea cashing nearby and the wind howling outside made it very easy to go to sleep when I settled down for the night.

We woke the next morning and waited for our bus to arrive and take us to Alexandria. It ended up being some four hours late, but it didn’t matter because when we finally got to the library, it was closed for the holiday called Eid. Strike TWO! The same thing happened to me last month when I visited Alex with some American tourists, except it was closed for Ramadan then. The only thing we did after that was visit a mall so the Jen and Jennifer could see it and know where it is. The mall was just like a mall in America. It even had a food court. I got some photos of some western restaurants with Arabic marquees. I don’t know why, but this just amuses me. I’m a dork.

We boarded the train and headed back to Cairo. This wasn’t the usual Metro subway train I’ve been riding to work. This is a commuter train with seats. All in all it was an enjoyable ride through the countryside, but I had a rather nasty experience in the bathroom. It was disgusting. Six words: No toilette paper… at all… anywhere. Luckily I brought my own. I’ve learned to be prepared where that’s concerned.

On Monday, November 7th I returned to the Synod of the Nile to help with the final preparations for the 150th anniversary celebrations. I sifted through nearly a years’ worth of emails to collect information on who was and was not going to attend. I helped with some last-minute PowerPoint glitches and still managed to have an Arabic lesson with the secretary. I showed her pictures of my family (many thanks to my Dad who gave me a stack of them before I left the U.S.) and learned the words for aunt, uncle, grandfather, grandmother, and so on. Something I found interesting is there are different words for a maternal aunt and a paternal aunt. Same thing for uncles.

Tuesday, the 8th was the big day. We wrapped up last minute stuff and then, in the evening, we had the 150th Celebration of the Synod of the Nile at Kasr Al Doubara Evangelical Church, which is just about half a mile from the Nile. I don’t think I’ve given any history of the Synod on my website so I’ll give you a little now as best I understand it.

In the 1850’s, the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America sent missionaries to Egypt and evangelized up and down the Nile on a houseboat. An Indian prince had come to Egypt to select a bride, and when he married an Egyptian woman, they had their honeymoon on a houseboat. After the honeymoon, the prince donated the boat to the Presbyterian Church. It was christened “The Ibis,” and the church used it for years, up and down the Nile.

Eventually they set up permanent missions in cities such as Alexandria, Assuit, and Minya, and built a seminary in Cairo. Their main focus was on education, so they built schools for children all over Egypt. That tradition is still alive today. In fact, I live at one of the schools: The Ramses College for Girls. Currently there are around 30 schools in Egypt run by The Synod of the Nile.

In 1891 the first batch of Egyptian ministers graduated from the seminary. Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evangelical means Presbyterian in Egypt) still exists today, and is only a 20-minute walk from where I live. Last year they graduated 35 students and the enrollment is on the rise.

You have probably heard about the civil war in Sudan in the news. Well, Sudan is Egypt’s southern neighbor, so there are a lot of Sudanese refugees that have fled to Cairo. Most of them are Christian because Sudanese Muslims are oppressing and killing Christians. The issue is much more complicated than that, but that’s it in a nutshell. If you want to know more on the subject, visit Sarah Sevcik’s blog at She is a YAV like me, but she works directly with Sudanese refugees and has a better perspective on the situation.

Anyway, several Sudanese refugees are going to the seminary now. Sudanese Christians have been coming to the seminary for years, but enrollment is on the rise because many more now live in Cairo.

In the 1920’s Egyptians gained independence from the Americans and have been running the Egyptian Evangelical Presbyterian Church since then. The actual name of the church varies depending on who you are talking to or what time period you are reading about, but for all intents and purposes, it is the same as the PC(USA), it’s just in Egypt, run by Egyptians.

For those of you not in the Presbyterian Church, a synod is simply a governmental body. In the U.S., the structure of the Presbyterian government goes like this: Local Church Session à Presbytery à Synod à General Assembly. Each level encompasses a larger geographical area than the last, with the General Assembly covering the entire country. The church in Egypt has the same structure but the Synod is the largest level. There are eight presbyteries and 312 churches in the Synod of the Nile.

So when we talk about the History of the Synod of the Nile, we are really talking about the history of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt, beginning with the first missionaries from the U.S. Whoa! That was a mouthful.

Now back to the present day. Last night at Kasr El Doubara Church we celebrated the 150th Anniversary of the Synod. The large church was packed with Egyptians from all over the country, forty some odd foreigners including Americans, Scots, Dutch, Germans, and Canadians, and representatives from each major religion/denomination in Egypt, including Islam. In fact the most prominent Muslim from Al Azhar Mosque, the center of Islamic thinking, attended and gave a very inclusive speech. His name in the program is Grand Imam Dr. Mohamed Said Tantawy. Marian McClure, Director of the Worldwide Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church (effectively my boss) gave the keynote address. There were representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and The Coptic Catholic Church, and the Mayor of Cairo delivered a speech. This whole celebration was a BIG DEAL, attracting all kinds of “powerful people.” Martha Roy, the 92 year-old musicologist who plays the organ at St. Andrews was given special recognition. Victor Makari (a native Egyptian who now lives in the U.S. and works for the PC(USA)) spoke about Martha said she had known five generations of his family starting with his grandfather, down to his grandson. Amazing!

I hope all is well with you. Be sure to drop me an email sometime. I always enjoy hearing from home. Take care!

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Falling Down the Elevator Shaft of Technology

Tomorrow is the big day. Happy Halloween everyone.

This has been a very busy week work-wise. The big 150th Anniversary Celebration of the Synod of the Nile looms ahead of us on November 8th. Evangelicals (Presbyterians) from all over the world are coming to celebrate this momentous occasion. In order to commemorate this time, I was charged with helping to put together a book that told the History of the Synod of the Nile. The printer needs ten days to print it and bind it so Saturday was the big deadline for me.

Long before I got to The Synod, a very nice lady named Venes had been compiling information and typing up the book in Arabic in Microsoft Word. Microsoft Word is not the friendliest program when trying to print a book on an offset printer, but I thought it was no problem. I would just convert the Word document to a PDF, and then import it into my graphics application. Then I could spruce up the book, give it an appealing look with snazzy graphics and layouts, and then it would even be in a format that the offset printer could easily use.

Thursday, at the end of the day, I got the approval of the “final” version of the text. Now was the big moment. I would convert the Word document into a PDF, place high-resolution images into the layout and give it a nice design. I sat down in my apartment at Dawson Hall on Thursday night to do this, and ran into a problem. The Word document would not convert to a PDF. The only message I received from the program was “ERROR.” That certainly helps a lot! I tried the conversion over and over, each time removing something from the document to see if I could isolate the problem. No dice. I did this over and over for nearly four hours before I gave up. The key to setting this document up for print was not working and I was more than a little stressed.
I went to bed and had a very strange dream. I was falling down a large elevator shaft with three of my fellow volunteers. The dimly lit shaft was about 20 feet square, and had grungy pipes running down the length of the grungy walls. At regular intervals there were television screens rapidly flashing still images. If I stared in a single place as I fell, the effect was like film running through a movie projector. The images ran in sequence to create a movie. I can’t remember what the movie was now, but I think this dream deals directly with what I was stressed out about. First, I was falling down an elevator shaft, a sign of loss of control. It dealt with being in Egypt because my volunteer friends were with me, and the dirty elevator shaft was like a lot of places I’ve seen here. And the televisions represented technology; say the technology that I needed to finish this book.
Usually on Fridays I don’t work at the Synod because I teach English at the Coptic Cathedral, but my class had been cancelled, opening up the necessary time for me to wrap up the book. Early Friday morning I walked into work, dreading the moment that I would have to tell Emil and Venes that I had not been able to set up the document for print. When I told them, they saw how distraught I was over the matter and immediately told me that it looked great as it was. I looked down at the printout of the book, at the blurry, low-resolution images and the bland layout and thought this is awful. What are they thinking?!?

Later that afternoon we went to The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), a Non-Government Organization that happens to have a rather impressive print shop in the basement. They also have a top-of-the-line design department. Venes and I showed one of the designers, Mary, our Word document and she echoed exactly what I had been telling Emil and Venes all morning, that the quality of the images were not good enough to print with. Fortunately they said they could print from the Word document (how I don’t know, but I’m not holding my breath) and all I needed to do was replace the low-res images with high-res images. I spent the rest of the afternoon, and the rest of the night doing just that. I hadn’t counted on how difficult it would be. Arabic is read from right to left which brought about new challenges I hadn’t thought about before. I finally finished around 11:00PM, ending a 13-hour workday. The next day I passed off the Word document and a printout of the book to the design department at CEOSS. I expect the book won’t be pretty, but we’ll see how it comes out.

Something we were told at our orientation was that we might encounter people who had lower expectations of work than that of the average American. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. I learned that I definitely had higher expectations of how this project would turn out than Emil and Venes did, and I was unnecessarily beating myself up over it. Oh well. The project is out of my hands now.

Friday, October 21st was Teri’s birthday. To celebrate, Teri and I went to Garden City, which is a neighborhood next to the Nile, to walk around and enjoy the color green. There are many more trees and plants there than anywhere else in Cairo that I have seen. Then we walked along the Nile on the Corniche, the place where young Egyptian couples go to spend time together. We copped out again and finished the night with dinner at an American restaurant: Chili’s.

Ramadan will be ending this coming week. Since Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar, they don’t decide exactly when it will end until practically the day of. As Ramadan winds down, the partying in the neighborhood has been getting louder and louder each night. Last night I heard the thump, thump, thump of dance music through my bedroom window for hours. Again, I’m ready for Ramadan to end.


Saturday, October 22, 2005

Bloody Nose, Bruised Ego

Wow! Several of you wrote me today and asked why I hadn’t done an update lately and if was I was okay. I have just been busy at work and been doing things in the evening with my fellow volunteers. It’s good to know though that there are folks out there who are really following along and are interested in what I am doing! I had already started an entry but hadn’t posted it until now. So be sure to read the entry from the 19th “Iftar”. Read it before you read this entry.

So now it’s Saturday morning. Yesterday was my second English class with the kids. I came up with a game that we all found to be very fun. First we started off by singing the alphabet song. Then I went down the row of students and had them say the letters one at a time in succession. The first student said “A,” the second one “B” and so on. Then I had them do the same thing but I pointed randomly at students instead of just going down the row. We did this several times and got faster and faster as we went. I also read a book called “The Magic Smell” which was cute, but again, some of the girls had read it. Then something very scary and unexpected happened. The smallest, most quiet girl in the class walked up to me with her hand cupped around her nose. She pointed towards the door as if to ask to go to the restroom. I nodded yes assuming that she had a runny nose. As she turned to leave I saw a red streak just below her hand. She had a bloody nose! I followed her out of the class to make sure she got to the restroom okay, but she breezed right by it. She was trying to find her mother. She got to the end of the hall and panicked when she couldn’t find her. She turned around, dropped her hand from her face, which was now completely covered in blood, and completely freaked out. She opened her mouth and let out a scream that rattled me to the core, and I had no idea what to do. I saw a Copic nun walk by. She smiled at me, oblivious to what was going on. I gave her a panicked face and motioned towards the girl but she apparently didn’t know what to do either. Long about that time the mothers of the children showed up, snatched her up and urgently rushed her into the restroom. They told me to go back to the class and they would take care of the situation. I went back and I was so stunned I just stood there for a few seconds before I snapped back to reality and picked up where I left off. About ten minutes later the girl came back to the class as if nothing had happened. I talked to the girl’s mother after the class. She had a big reassuring smile on her face and told me that the girl just had random nosebleeds from time to time. She said “No problems.” I still apologized profusely. I don’t know what for… I didn’t cause the nosebleed, but I felt awful for the little girl.

Yesterday was Teri’s birthday and we had a little celebration for her. Originally she wanted to cook a Mexican meal for everyone. But Carole found out there is a Mexican restaurant in Maadi and we convinced Teri to go instead of cooking for everyone else on her birthday. The restaurant was in a Western style hotel and was decorated like a pueblo. There were kitschy decorations like “money bags” with big dollar signs. I ordered a Stella beer and the “Jackson Ville Salad.” Hmmm. Teri ordered the vegetable fajitas. It wasn’t quite the Mexican meal I expected. The beer was a local Egyptian beer and was quite good. But my salad had that weird crinkly green lettuce, cubed bits of processed chicken, and was ringed by slices of tomato. It was a bit of a letdown. There was a weird look on Teri’s face. I couldn’t tell what it meant but I took it as one of two things. Either “this isn’t Mexican,” or “this is why I wanted to cook Mexican at home.” Teri is a little bit picky about her food. She will even admit it. Good food is very important to her. You can tell this just by reading her blog at Anyway, I hope she wasn’t terribly disappointed. On the upside, we got to take pictures of her with her birthday sombrero on. Apparently that is a tradition even at Mexican restaurants in Egypt!

On the way back from the restaurant we rode the Metro and I finally got very angry about the way Egyptian men treat Western women. I was well informed before we even got here about how men just completely ogle Western women, say inappropriate things, and will touch and grab them in really inappropriate places. I was even prepared to become very angry about it. It finally happened last night.

Teri and Sarah have been telling me accounts of what men say and do to them over the past two weeks, so I was hyper-aware of anything going on last night. The tricky part is most of the time Egyptian men don’t touch Western women in the presence of Western men. Even if they are brave enough to do it, they touch the women in such a way that it goes unnoticed, even if you are watching them closely. They are very sneaky and seem to have practiced doing it a lot, which in itself is creepy. But they certainly will stare at Western Women intently, even in the presence of Western men.

The ride back from Maadi is a long one, about half an hour to forty minutes. The train arrived just as we got to the station, so the women in our group didn’t have a chance to get to the women’s car. We got on the train, which was packed. We settled into a tight circle so we could talk to one another, and as we did so, men positioned themselves so they could look at Teri, Sarah, Jen, and Jennifer (Jen and Jennifer came to Cairo to celebrate Teri’s birthday and get away from Alexandria for the weekend). I was facing Sarah and Teri, and as we talked I felt the presence of a man just over my left shoulder. I looked over at him and he was staring directly at Teri, VERY intently, looking her up and down. After a few minutes I became very irritated about this. At the next stop I turned to face him, all the while looking outside the train as if to see what station we where at. It barely fazed him. I continued to face him and did various things like scratching my head, which placed my elbow right in his face… still no response, except he leaned a little to his left to get a better view. Then little by little I got closer and closer to him, thinking if I could make him uncomfortable enough, maybe he would look away. It worked for a few seconds, but then I was so close to him he could look directly over my right shoulder at her. So he did. I turned to face him dead on and looked directly over his head. He was shorter than me, so short I could have put my chin on his head. Since he was looking at Teri I hoped the impression he would get was that I was looking him directly in the eye. He would only know I was looking over his head if he looked me directly in the eye. I did this to be just short of confrontational. Out of my peripheral vision I saw his eyes dart around a little, wondering what I was doing, but he never looked at me. Then he just went back to staring at Teri. Our station finally came and we got off the train. Sarah and Jen then told us about the men palmed their behinds and the men that were grinding against them as we squeezed out of the train. This type of harassment has intensified over the past few weeks. It wasn’t always like this. All I can figure is that the men are deprived because of Ramadan. They can’t have any physical contact with their wives, so they take out their frustrations on Western women. All I can say is I will gladly welcome the end of Ramadan. I can’t wait. Ramadan has become very tiresome for many reasons, this just being the worst. As we walked down the sidewalk towards Dawson Hall I noticed that my right fist was clenched and Teri commented that I had my “angry face on.” She said, “It looks like this…” I looked at her, and she tightened her lips, squinted her eys, and furrowed her eyebrows mockingly. It made me laugh, and cut the tension, which is what I’m sure she meant to do. I don’t know how the women here put up with this harassment on a daily basis. I can walk home from work without incident, but when Sarah does the same thing she is hounded, grabbed and even followed sometimes. They won’t ever do anything to harm the women physically, but they do everything they can to assault them emotionally. It’s horrible. Well, that’s my rant for today.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Teaching English, The Iftar, Graphic Design at the Synod

Last Friday was the first time I taught English at the Coptic Cathedral. I teach children ages seven to eight for an hour and a half. The kids really blew me away during this first class. I had no idea what their level of English was, so I went in and started with the basics. I began with the alphabet, which they all knew very well. I then read them a story called “The Napping House.” The story of The Napping House starts off with a Granny in a bed. A child snuggles up on top of her. Then a dog lies down on the child, a cat lies on the dog, and a mouse lies on the cat. A flea bites the mouse, who scares the cat, who claws the dog, who startles the child, who wakes the granny, who breaks the bed. They all go outside and nobody is sleeping anymore. That’s the entire story. The pages are beautifully illustrated though. Each page after the flea bites the mouse, as there is more and more chaos, you can see each animal… even the flea, though you have to search for it. I thought that was really neat, so I had the kids search for each animal on each page. Unfortunately one of the kids had read the book before and quickly pointed out the location of the flea on each page. Suddenly I realized what I thought was going to take quite some time didn’t take very much time at all, and there was still a lot of time left. I had them draw pictures, which were heavily influenced by “The Napping House.” A sun here, a cloud there… oh, and a house here! I had them each describe what they had drawn; in English of course… that’s the point. I drew a bunch of animals on the board and asked them to name them. Then I asked them what noises each one makes. This prepped them for the final lesson of the day: a rousing chorus of old MacDonald… which they all knew, and didn’t take anytime at all to sing. I ended up finishing the class 15 minutes early. When I opened the door, one of the fathers was already standing there. I barely got “Hello” out of my mouth before he asked me how his daughter’s English was and whether she had much of an accent. Whoa Nelly! Eager much?!? Anyway, this coming Friday will have to be a bit more challenging for the kids.

Each night, Muslims all across the Middle East await the setting of the sun so they can break the daylong fast at the Iftar. This is done all through the month of Ramadan. Mohammad started the discipline after receiving the Koran from Allah, but when he broke the fast and had his Iftar, he ate a simple meal. Nowadays, Iftars are extravagant meals that are held nightly, making the month of Ramadan one big festival, block party, and cookout all rolled into one. We Christians joke thinking that the point has totally been missed. Mohammad meant the fast to be about discipline but breaking the fast has practically become a college kegger (without the keg since Muslims can’t drink alcoholic beverages). But who are we to poke fun? Don’t we have Christmas… the most obnoxiously overdone religious holiday ever?

Lynn, our oncoming site coordinator, recently got us invited to an Iftar. During the four years she has been here, she befriended a Muslim family that gladly welcomed us and showed us what it is like to experience an Iftar. We went to the Iftar by taxi, and as we drove along we saw smoke billowing out of buildings, one every block. It turned out the smoke was coming from gigantic grills just outside the buildings. The grills were big enough to feed everyone in the neighborhood at the time of the Iftar.

Our experience was intimate as Iftars go. There were ten or eleven of us crowded around a small table that sat a few feet off the ground. The table was JAM-PACKED with food. I took a picture of the table just as we arrived (you can see it on my photos page) but even more food was added after the photo was taken. Plates were stacked upon plates. Traditionally the breaking of the fast was announced with a canon blast so everyone could start eating at the same time. Nowadays people just watch the clock and begin eating at the appropriate time. The patriarch of the family we were eating with, named Yaya (my best approximation of the spelling) began our Iftar by saying, “Okay, eat, eat!!!” For the next ten minutes we did nothing but eat. Fried chicken, roast beef, pita bread with hummus dip, chips, lettuce and tomatoes were all devoured. When we all became too full to eat, it looked like we had barely made a dent in the food. Lynn assured me that none of it would go to waste. Yaya’s wife brought out tea and for the next several hours we sat and talked with the family as best we could. I listened to Jay, one of my fellow YAV’s, chat away in Arabic to Yaya. Jay works with a group of women who speak nothing but Arabic, so by necessity he has learned a lot very quickly. I was able to follow along with the conversations very well because I could recognize a good many words, but there’s no way I could join in on the conversation. Yaya also tried to teach a few words to us less gifted Arabic-speakers.

Yaya’s son and daughter-in-law were also there with their baby son. The little boy was a beautiful child with large bright eyes. His mother gladly passed him around the table so we could all get a good look. The mother had no head wrap or veil on, which felt very strange since every Muslim woman I have seen here has had her hair neatly tucked away where nobody can see it. The difference was we were in the woman’s home. The rules are different in the home. Women can literally let their hair down.

My job at the Synod of the Nile has fallen into a routine of sorts. The 150th Anniversary Celebration is rapidly approaching and I have been diligently scanning photo after photo for a pamphlet I am designing for the celebration. I feel crunch-time coming, as there is still a lot to do before then. The secretary in the office next to me continues to find amusement in teaching me Arabic. I hope she continues to be amused by it for some time. She has taught me a list of nouns such as sunglasses, belt, shirt, ear, nose, mouth, filing cabinet, key, key ring, key chain, and many of the colors. We learned the colors in Arabic lessons but they never sank in. Verbs still confound me, which makes communication very difficult. For instance, when I ask someone if I can take his or her picture the question comes out literally as “I… picture?” As my old Arabic professor would say, zis iz not zee way.

On Sunday we took a cab to church and I was finally able to connect points A, B, and C on the surface streets. I realized the geographical relationship between Dawson Hall, where I live, and my office and the church. I also noticed that they really aren’t that far apart. Since it is becoming much cooler with each passing day, I have decided I will walk home from work in the evenings. Since I am moving a little slower on the streets this gives me a better opportunity to take photographs and look at shops and people. It’s a bit of a hike, but I need the exercise. Oddly, it takes only a few minutes more to walk the route than to take the Metro, which has been a source of high anxiety for me.


Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Great Pyramids and Alexandria

So, after my first two days on the job with the Synod of the Nile, I took a little detour. Emil, the Secretary General of the Synod and my supervisor of sorts, proclaimed that we would be going to Alexandria to attend a prayer conference. As it turned out, seven Americans had just arrived from The States to do a little tourism, and two of them were to speak at the prayer conference. Harry, Thelma, Emily, Anne, Najy (sp? Sorry if I misspelled your name!) little Jonathan, and even littler Sebastian all became my new friends and were great companions over the course of the trip.

I met Anne first. She is originally from Egypt, but immigrated to Michigan where she lives with her husband Najy, and their two boys Jonathan and Sebastian. She picked me up from Ramses College at 8am on Wednesday morning in a van (driven by a Muslim. More on that later). We then scooted over to the hotel where Harry, Thelma and Emily joined us. They are all very educated in theology and at times spoke waaaaaay over my head, but were very nice people and were very curious about Egyptian customs. We became acquainted on the drive to Giza for the first tourist stop… THE GREAT PYRAMIDS!!!

This was a totally unexpected treat for me. I didn’t think I would be going to them until later with the rest of the Young Adult Volunteers. I got to have a sneak preview of sorts.

If you have been keeping up with the photos on my web site, you already know that the Great Pyramids are just on the edge of town in Giza, NOT in the middle of the desert as most people (including myself until recently) think. We could see them in the distance, getting larger as we got closer. Then, we turned left off of the main road into the parking lot… just like that. Our driver parked near the largest one, Khafre, and we got out. This was almost a religious experience for me… aside from the fact the pyramids have nothing to do with Christianity, and for that matter were built almost 3000 years before Jesus was born. Anyway, the pyramids are HUGE!!! I thought the base of Khafre was just over the rise. I crested the hill and saw the teeny-tiny people at the base, and suddenly the sheer size of the pyramid was thrown into perspective. Anne took my picture in front of the pyramid, then I wandered away from the group to have a little “me time” at the pyramids… a little time to reflect on what I was seeing.

That’s when the Tourist Policemen, trinket salesmen and random Egyptians converged on me, trying to sell their stuff, letting me take pictures of them (for a price, which I got suckered into), and offering to take pictures of me with my camera (also for a price, which I also got suckered into). They wouldn’t stop hounding me. Ugh! I got away from them, we all piled into the van and were on our way. I would like to go back and spend more time there at some point, preferably somewhere away from the tourist hounds.

We drove a short distance to the panoramic view, a hilltop where you can see all three Great Pyramids at once. We got out, started snapping pictures, and AGAIN I was suckered by some guy wanting a buck. He was dressed in a long robe that fell to his ankles and a loose turban. With a big grin on his face, he asked me where I was from and then he asked me to take a picture of him. Then he said he would take a picture of me. I had a sense of déjà vu. I handed him my camera, he put his loose fitting turban on my head, he turned, said follow me, and struck off toward a herd of camels.

The whole way I was saying things like “Sir. Sir? I need to stay close to my group. Sir? SIR!” The loose turban was awkwardly flopping around my ears. Just a little further he said. Fifty yards later we arrived at his camel. He insisted I get on the camel. I knew this trick. He would get me on the camel and then wouldn’t let me down until I paid what he wanted. I REFUSED to get on the camel. He INSISTED. Again I REFUSED!!!! Finally he snapped a few pictures with me standing next to the camel. He gave me my camera back and then asked for a contribution. I practically threw 20 Pounds at him and skeedadled out of there as fast as I could. I met back with the group and again we piled in the van. We were off to the Sphinx.

The Sphinx was much more enjoyable. There were barely any money-leaches and we were all hip to their techniques by that time anyway. We got some great photos, and enjoyed a few moments admiring the Sphinx with the splendor of the pyramids behind it.

We hit the road to Alexandria and arrived after a four-hour drive. We promptly went to the prayer conference where Emily delivered a speech just moments later. I wish I could tell you what the speech was about. I am not a good aural learner. All I could focus on was how Anne was translating Emily’s speech into Arabic. I listened intently for Arabic words that I knew. The conference closed for the evening, and our group parted ways for the day.

I was lucky enough to stay the night at the Fairhaven Residential Commons where my fellow YAV’s, Jen and Jennifer, had just moved in two days prior to my arrival. Also, Teri, Sarah, and Jay managed to get some time off from work in Cairo and rode a train up to Alexandria. They also stayed at Fairhaven making this one big YAV reunion (after two whole days of separation) on the Mediterranean Sea.

The next morning I woke up and attended the second day of the prayer conference. It was Harry’s turn to speak. Again, I didn’t understand what the presentation was about, but I recognized some Arabic words in Anne’s translation.

After the conference ended for the day, we toured Qaitbay Citadel which sits on the Mediterranean Sea, guarding the harbor of Alexandria. It was a castle that was built on the ruins of the Alexandria Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. I even saw remnants of the lighthouse. That made two of the Seven Wonders in two days (the Great Pyramids are also one of the Seven Wonders).

We looked across the bay and could see the Library of Alexandria, which we later visited. Unfortunately it was closed due to Ramadan. Its futuristic appearance reminded me of a spaceship from Star Trek.
We drove an hour to a Presbyterian retreat called Bate el-Salam (lit. House of Peace) to eat dinner, tour the facilities, and watch the sunset on the Mediterranean Sea.

Now for some details on Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the daylight hours. No food, drink, or cigarettes are to pass their lips. They are not even allowed to swallow their own saliva. Also, no sex or impure thoughts AT ALL, even after sunset for the whole month. As I mentioned previously, our driver was a Muslim. So, our driver did not eat or drink anything all day long. Everyday at sunset we had to be at our destination because he wanted to eat the moment the sun was out of view. He was also a smoker, so the cigarettes were not far behind. Both Thelma and I thought the same thing… how well was this guy driving if he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day?

On this particular day the driver was able to eat before we left the retreat center. But once we left I noticed something strange. The streets were deserted. Everyone was indoors eating their hearts out; they had broken their fast all at the same time. The trip to the retreat took an hour, but the return trip took only thirty minutes! Similarly the streets of Cairo, a very large city with an enormous population, are deserted from 5:30pm to 8:00pm. There will be more about Ramadan in future journal entries.

The next morning I woke up at Fairhaven. Teri and I made breakfast for the other YAV’s before we parted ways. We made pancakes, scrambled eggs, and hash browns. Yum!

I attended the last morning of the prayer conference, and then my traveling compatriots and I piled once more into the van with our fasting driver, and made our way back to Cairo. I’ve had the weekend to rest, but I will start back bright and early at the Synod tomorrow. I’ll also begin teaching English at the Coptic Cathedral on Friday!

Yours in Christ,

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Coptic Cairo and the Cathedral

Whoo boy! It’s been some time since I posted a journal entry and plenty has happened in the mean time. In fact so much has happened that I am going to write two different journal entries. One posting today, one tomorrow.

Reaching waaaaaaaaay back in my memory I am going to recall the last few days of my Arabic classes. I was still lost with every passing hour and I was sure that I would fail the upcoming final exam. As it turned out, the exam was more about simple conversation. Introducing yourself, telling where you are from, what you are doing in Egypt and how long you will be here… that sort of thing. I had a little trouble, but for the most part I did well.

After the exam, we decided to go to the Chili’s restaurant on the edge of the Nile. Yes, that’s the same Chili’s restaurant any of you can find within five miles of your homes. We all decided after our intensive Arabic course we needed a treat… something that we could find comfort in, something from home. We were not disappointed. We walked through the door and found ourselves transported 5,000 miles away to the United States. On the walls hung the same doodads and photographs of chili cook offs from Anywhere, U.S.A. that you would find at any Chili’s. The subtle differences were the large amount of women wearing veils, the Egyptian accent our waiter had, and the surprisingly upscale atmosphere. The food was expensive, but good. Well worth it!

The next day we returned to Dar Camboni, our Arabic school, for a few more lessons and then had a celebration. Egyptians love sweets, so our instructors had provided many, many deserts including a large chocolate, chocolate, chocolate cake. The feeling I had was a little bittersweet because I enjoyed getting to know our instructors and was sad that we would not be seeing them on a regular basis. And at the same time I was very glad to have Arabic lessons behind me.

One day (they all blend together now) we took a tour of Coptic Cairo, which is the home to many early Christian churches. We met up with Dr. David Grafton, a professor at Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo who kindly took time to show us around the area. I believe the earliest Coptic church we visited was built in the fifth century. It was so old the pillars that lined the sides of the sanctuary were columns from Greek ruins. Icons wallpapered the… well, the walls. A large pulpit carved from marble towered over the sanctuary. Thirteen columns held up the pulpit, one for each of the disciples and Jesus. Dr. Grafton pointed out that two of the columns are made from black marble. These pillars signify Judas and Thomas. I remember seeing a shrine on the periphery of the sanctuary. People had stuffed scraps of papers with prayers written on them into nooks and crannies of the shrine and donated some of their money in a glass chest.

There is also a Greek Orthodox church in Coptic Cairo called St. George’s. It is lavishly decorated with lots of hammered silver and gold. Towering archways loom overhead. Gold leaf covered most of the paintings including the painting of Jesus high overhead in the dome. Downstairs we found the implements used to torture one of the saints and the pillar he was tied to. I don’t get the fascination with saints. Dr. Grafton told us that people look to the saints because they were so devoted to Jesus they died for him. I can understand that, but the morbidity that goes along with that… the fascination with the devices of torture that were used and so on, just creeps me out. Ugh! Anyway, I digress. We left the sanctuary and walked through the cemetery. There were mausoleums that looked like miniature churches or ancient Greek temples.

We also toured a synagogue, if you can believe that! The building once housed a Christian church but had changed hands to a synagogue… Ben Ezra Synagogue. The building was built near the traditional site where the Pharaoh’s daughter drew Moses out of the water. The inside of the synagogue is decorated like most of the Coptic churches, like a mosque. When these churches were built, Muslim architects and craftsmen designed them so there is a very obvious Islamic influence.

We parted ways with Dr. Grafton and returned home via Metro to our apartments. Later that evening we attended one of the weekly services held at the Coptic Cathedral by the Coptic Pope, Pope Shenouda. We arrived late so when we had to walk all the way down the main aisle to our reserved seats all eyes were on us. The place was packed! I got the slight feeling we were being paraded around again. “And if you will look at the center aisle you will see our American visitors arriving.” Nobody actually said it, but that’s what I felt was going on. We found our seats just as the music stopped and moments later the Pope began to speak. First he answered questions from the congregation. People had written questions on slips of paper and turned them in. The Pope selected a few that had to do with marriage, concerns about moving to the U.S. to go to school, and lack of employment. Later he delivered a sermon. All of this was translated into English for us via headphones. The sound quality wasn’t that great so I didn’t keep up with the sermon very well. Just like the old Coptic churches from Coptic Cairo, the cathedral had many icons. I really liked the last supper painting that hung just above the Pope as he spoke. As the Pope left, something happened that I never would have expected. He stepped down from the stage and walked just in front of the first few pews out the side door. As he did so, people in the front rows surged forward and began to scream and wave. I felt like I was in the Ed Sullivan Theater with the Beatles walking by. It was very strange.

I suppose everything I have done, with the exception of Arabic school, has looked like one big vacation. Rest assured, the work has begun. I started working on Monday at the Synod of the Nile. My job description said I would be doing some graphic design, but I wasn’t holding my breath. I have been told numerous times that missionary job descriptions always change and I shouldn’t be too attached to mine. As it turns out, there is a real need for a graphic designer. I started right away on a pamphlet that will give details about all of the Evangelical (Presbyterian) churches in Egypt. There are twenty-four in the country. The twist is the pamphlets will be in English AND Arabic. I don’t know how that’s going to work out yet.

The Metro subway continues to be a source of fear for me. Often times the cars are packed full of people with little room to move about. I went by myself for the first time this week and everything worked out okay, but I could noticeably feel my muscles relax and my blood pressure drop when I got off the train. I am just hoping that with time I will become used to it all.

Tomorrow I will write more on my trip to Giza and Alexandria, and what Ramadan is like in Cairo. I hope you will come back and read it. I will also be posting pictures! Thanks for your continued interest.