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.


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