Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I Heard Nothing but Prayer and Car Horns

A few days ago our volunteer group was given an unexpected treat amid the craziness of Arabic lessons: a trip to Al Azhar Park! Al Azhar Park is a new feature to Cairo, which is evident in the gleaming white, perfectly laid marble walkways (in complete contrast to the grungy, patchwork of sidewalks we walk on daily). The park is a peaceful oasis in the middle of the dusty city, with green grass that stretches as far as the eye can see, trees, fountains, and even a small lake! One edge of the park sits upon a cliff, which we looked over to see a sprawling section of Cairo. We happened to arrive at this view just as the sun was setting. If you’ve lived in Cairo for nearly two weeks, you are certainly aware that when the sun sets, the calls to prayer at all the mosques begin. So there we stood looking over Cairo, watching this giant orange orb slowly descend behind the city, finally letting it sink in where we were, listening to the faint car horns, when all of a sudden a cacophony of voices washed over us. The lilting tunes of what could have been a hundred prayers from a hundred different mosques rose up from Cairo. For a moment we all stood there speechless. I closed my eyes and just let the sound engulf me. It was then that my muscles relaxed. Tension that I didn’t know I had been carrying just seeped away. To our left an elderly couple had laid out their prayer mats, were facing East and had begun the ritual of repeatedly bowing towards Mecca. A cool breeze rustled through the trees, and just as quickly as they had begun, the prayers were over.

We stood around and chatted for another half hour before we met up with a contingent of folks from the main offices of the Presbyterian Church. Most of them were international mission coordinators that worked out of Louisville, Kentucky. They had stopped in on business, and to tour around and meet the folks that are missionaries in the region. We were also joined by some of the long-term mission workers that have been in Cairo for years. We walked across the park to the opulent lakeside restaurant and had a tasty Egyptian style dinner, complete with shish kebabs. Just as we were wrapping up dinner, our new site coordinator was announced. Carole, our current site coordinator, will be retiring in December and will be replaced by a lovely woman named Lynn. Lynn will come onboard in October, and for a time we will have two coordinators at the same time. This will give Lynn a chance to learn the ropes before Carole leaves. In the short time we have been here, we have come to adore Carole. She is sweet, caring and has the laidback attitude you HAVE to have to oversee a horde of young volunteers living in Cairo. She will be greatly missed.

We had a reprieve from Arabic lessons for two days. Instead we went to the Coptic Cathedral to learn how to teach English as a second language. I learned that each orthodox branch of the Christian faith has its own pope. The Russian Orthodox Church has its own pope and so does the Coptic Orthodox Church (The word “coptic” is synonymous with Egypt). The pope of the Coptic Church lives at the Coptic Cathedral, making it the “Vatican” of Egypt. It is a sprawling complex with many, many buildings. The sanctuary looks like a special effect in an Indiana Jones movie because it is so improbably large. I took a picture of the sanctuary exterior as viewed from our classroom. You can see it on my photographs page.

Yesterday was the birthday of Stephen, one of my fellow YAV’s. He turned 23 so we had a little celebration. One of Stephen’s favorite foods is macaroni and cheese, so Carole found the Egyptian equivalent. It was a combination of meat and macaroni covered in cream sauce. Something that has surprised me about Egyptian food is that most of it is served at room temperature, even if it contains meat! We poked fun at Stephen for a while, sang to him, and then scarfed down Carole’s delicious chocolate cake.

After dinner we walked down to the gate of Ramses College, where we live, and visited the friendly guard that has taken great pleasure in teaching us Arabic words and phrases. I think he loves having an American audience. His excitement is evident from the moment he sees us. The guard chats with us and sings us popular Egyptian/Arab songs. In exchange we struggle our way through a popular American song. Last night we “sang” Bye-Bye Miss American Pie. The Ramses College just brought on a new French teacher, Anna, who lives with us at Dawson Hall. She joined us and sang some French songs making the evening thoroughly international. Just then a group of teenagers walked by us, about to walk out of the gate. Jay noticed one of them had a guitar and asked him to play. The teenage mob surrounded us as the young man pulled out his guitar and played “MalagueƱa,” a beautiful Spanish guitar piece, on the spot. We were blown away! You just never know what is going to happen in Cairo. Everyday is an adventure.


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