Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Whirling Dervishes, Arabic, and Subways. Oh my!

We have nearly completed our first full week of Arabic lessons, and let me tell you, this is no easy language. We have three wonderful teachers. The older gentleman (I am not using their names for their protection) is very demanding. He expects you to learn very quickly. While some of us dread his class, including myself, he is an exceptional teacher. The woman is a lighthearted teacher who encourages us and affirms us. She laughs with us when we misspeak and calmly walks us through Arabic conversations when we are frustrated. I think she is my favorite! The last teacher is a 30-something man who knows all about the inner-workings of the mouth and tongue. He seems to know the exact the problems we will have with pronunciation before we even say a word. There are two or three sounds in the Arabic language that are not even made in English. He tells us that since we do not regularly make these sounds, our mouths and tongues do not have the proper muscles built up enough to make them properly. I can’t tell you how many times I have made the sound “heh” and he corrects me with what sounds like “heh!” In a week we have learned the alphabet, begun to sound out words and even conjugate sentences.

Recently we went to the Citadel, a fortress from the times of the crusades, to see the Sufi dancers, also known as whirling dervishes. Teri told me that the dancing is a form of prayer, but it is put on as a performance in this case. Much of the music sounds exactly as you would expect Middle Eastern music to sound. Some of the Sufi play reed instruments that sound like oboes, two-stringed Asian violins, and many of them play drums. The pounding beat gets your blood ‘a pumping. There is also a person singing the actual words to the prayer and his lilting voice sounded sad and mournful. The whirling dervishes begin their dance by spinning in place, which causes the hem of their skirt (for lack of a better word) to billow out around them. Each dervish actually wears several brightly colored skirts, stacked one upon the other. A dervish will unfasten one skirt and lift it above his head, spinning it rhythmically to the beat of the music. He will discard it and then unfasten a different one and do the same, showing off the beautiful patterns of the newly revealed skirt. The performance was finished off by three dervishes spinning on stage at the same time!

On Friday we went to St. Andrew’s for worship. We began the day by taking the Metro, the train/subway system, for the first time. We did it during a time when not many people were riding so as not to be overwhelmed by the experience. The stations were much like any subway system in any major U.S. city, except a good bit grungier. We arrived at St. Andrew’s and found a beautiful gothic style church that was built by the Church of Scotland in the mid-19th century. It was the first Sunday for their new pastor who had just moved with his wife and son from Florida. The pastor and his wife had Caribbean accents, and I rejoiced when I heard such friendly phrases as “Honey child, I’m from the Bahamas.” The wife had a brightly colored head wrap and was very pleasant to speak with. Despite the fact that there was an organ, we had no organist, but we still managed to sing some hymns a capella. There were about 30 people in attendance with a strong African following. After worship I met a married couple that had been doing missionary work in Cairo for about six years. They had brought their two young children with them, something I cannot imagine doing! I also met another couple that had retired from missionary work but continued to live in Cairo. The wife teaches Scottish country dancing on Mondays at St. Andrew’s and several of us have decided to go. I will let you know how that turns out.

On Saturday we went to an Egyptian restaurant to see what the local food was like. We had to take the Metro again, but this time we went at peak travel time (women only in the front two cars). We had to push our way onto the train… Eric barely made it. Once on board, we were crammed in like sardines, a very unnerving feeling. A small boy that barely stood as tall as my chest was smothered from all sides by tall men. At the next stop we pushed our way out of the car. It’s the Egyptian way. The experience left me so disturbed that when we got to the restaurant I could barely eat anything. I will get over this fear soon enough though, because I will be taking the Metro to work every day when we finish our language classes.

Yesterday we went to Fayoum, a city about an hour and a half away… through the desert. The Synod of the Nile Schools program is building a new building there, and we arrived just in time to see the unveiling of the cornerstone. We listened to a speech, all in Arabic except for small bit of English when we were asked to stand and be recognized. I felt like a token American, ha! I have a feeling we will experience this quite a bit. The children were very curious about us. While on a tour of the old school building, which was 104 years old, I could see a group of girls timidly grinning at us down the hall. Being an introvert, it’s strange being noticed and examined closely wherever I go.

Our tour guide was a teacher at the school who had studied there as a child. She was extremely nice, spoke incredible English, and happily taught us Arabic words along the way. After seeing the school, our guide took us to the famous water wheels of Fayoum. The wheels move water from a tributary up to a trough. Then gravity takes effect and the water is fed out to the nearby fields. She said this is the only place in the world where this technique of moving water up and out is used.

Today we did not have Arabic class because today was election day! It was the first supposed democratic election in Egypt. I was a little concerned that there would be some unrest, but I haven’t heard of anything happening all day long. We went to a nearby market where I bought a kilogram of eggplant for about 23 American cents. Check out the photo of me buying them on the photos page. We all combined our veggies to make stir fry tonight.

Well, I didn’t keep this entry short, but there is SO MUCH TO SHARE and I want to share it all. Thank you for your interest.

Yours in Christ,

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