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.


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