Rakam Taleta (Post #3): Impressions of Cairo
Having lived in Cairo now for two full weeks, we are, by definition, experts on all things Egyptian! For example, we note that the weather is hardly the topic of conversation that it is in Canada. It was sunny yesterday, it is sunny today and it will be sunny tomorrow. I can guarantee that. We also know that Arabic allows one to spell words just about any way you like, provided the consonants are in the right place. Vowels are randomly, often annoyingly, interchangeable. The streets of Cairo are described as zahma (in German it would sound like “zachma”) and dousha, crowded and noisy. No North American would disagree with that. A large percentage of Cairene cars show the effects of bumps and scrapes which draw neither the attention of the police nor the insurance companies. Crossing the street as a pedestrian in Cairo is not for the faint of heart.
Our living conditions are comfortable, but like all things in Cairo, crowded. If we knew Egyptian Arabic better, we would be quite aware of the intimate goings-on of many families all around us. Privacy is definitely exercised differently here than it is at home. Conversely, I am quite certain that our immediate neighbors probably know much more about us than we care to acknowledge. Every cough, sneeze, and flush of the toilet is heard by somebody, somewhere.
Material wants are few. We can get almost everything we need to have a sensible diet. Clothing stores of all kinds abound. Small shops, higglers (street vendors) and street merchants (those that come right by our place shouting one thing or another) are common. Calls to prayer from the local mosques are frequent and echo throughout the city. The city is a dynamic mosaic of people going about making a living, holding political demonstrations, cars going to and fro, people trying to stay clean in a city that is just simply not clean. The city goes to sleep late at night and wakes up early.
Cairo is one of those cities where worlds meet. The African south, particularly the Sudan, the Arab Middle East and North Africa mix with Egyptians. The Ottoman Turks, the Greeks, Romans all have had influence in how Egyptians see themselves. Above all, Islam, and to a lesser extent, Orthodox Christianity interact in an uneasy co-existence, made ever more uneasy in recent years. While things have died down somewhat in recent months, Cairo remains a city on edge. As with other places we have been, it is sometimes hard to sort out what is religious, or political and what is economic/poverty-related. (In Southern Africa during the 1970s, for instance, it was hard to sort out what was economic/poverty and what was political/racial.) More than ever, one is convinced that there is a very dynamic relationship between a perceived sense of justice and fairness and the distribution of wealth and power. On a very real level, people may be poor, powerless, illiterate and dispossessed, but they are not stupid. In our work, we cannot separate out peace and justice from the important issues of quality of life.
Christmas is coming and it is striking to note the difference between Christmas here and Christmas at home. In contrast to the self-absorbed orgy of accumulation all mixed up with the cute little baby in the manger, (sort of like the crazy blend of the risen tomb and the Easter bunny at Easter time), Egyptian Christian churches approach Christmas with fasting. Advent is for five or six weeks and Egyptian Christians treat Advent in much the same way that we pretend to observe Lent….or at least some of us pretend. Here, Christmas is mostly observed according to the Orthodox calendar, very close to what we might know as Epiphany. Egyptian Christians pride themselves in the role that it played in providing a hiding place for Mary, Joseph and the Christ-child shortly after Jesus’ birth. Many, many Egyptian Christian women name themselves after some derivative of Mary (Mary, Mariam, Mariham, etc.). Mark, the writer of the first gospel, is remembered reverently for his connection to Alexandria and part of his body rests in the Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo
As for ourselves, we are completing a fairly intensive Arabic language study and will begin our transition into MCC’s work in Egypt in earnest in the next two weeks. We have many pages of vocabulary; now the trick will be to try and find a way to use it! We have had to very pleasant experience of learning from Madame Fadia, an elderly and delightful Egyptian woman who makes language study as pleasant an experience as it can possibly be.
Since the current unrest, MCC’s commitment to having service workers is diminished due to security risks. Our work with local Egyptian partners, however, remains active and strong. Our main partners include the Coptic (read Egyptian) Orthodox, the Anglican and Coptic Evangelical churches. In a recent 50th celebration for BLESS, MCC was publicly recognized as a valued partner in BLESS’s work among the Coptic Orthodox constituency. In broad strokes, MCC’s work in Egypt is framed in terms of addressing issues of peace, literacy, health and economic development. Jane and I will be meeting the principle “movers and shakers” in our partnerships in the coming weeks, in advance of a December 1st hand-off of responsibilities from the current country representatives, Tom and Judy.
We have developed a profound respect for their work as country representatives. While they are saddened by the lack of growth and movement within the MCC program in Egypt during their stay, their achievement, under the circumstances, is that MCC remains alive and well in a country where MCC might easily have decided to leave. Sometimes, just enduring is the achievement; this is something that the Egyptian Christian community would well understand.
This has gone on far too long. I end here for now.