Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Writing a Letter of Recommendation--for grad student!

I have been sitting in front of the computer for a good hour now writing a recommendation letter for one of my teachers. This past week when she approached me to write such a letter, I responded with, “Sure, no problem!” Then I realized this isn’t a simple recommendation letter, but part of an application for a master’s degree in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language graduate program at the American University of Cairo. As I am filling out an AUC form and typing the letter, it occurred to me that most people who write these letters are professors from creditable universities.

In fact, on the form in the section “for the evaluator” is states that my “evaluation of the student’s academic performance, research capabilities, and overall ability at the graduate level based on past performance is a critical element of our selection process…” and “Please be as candid as possible, since it is often impossible for AUC to interview its potential graduate students.” Yikes! So, here I am, a young adult writing a very important letter to a very prestigious school and holding myself somewhat accountable for another woman’s dreams. Needless to say, I am making every effort to write the best recommendation I can, because the teacher definitely has the knowledge, ability, and motivation to succeed in the graduate program. I’ve heard AUC’s graduate program is a tough one to get into as well as a tough one to get through, but I know this teacher would succeed. Now let’s pray the school sees it too!

It’s ironic, though, to be on this side of the coin; that is, having the same responsibilities as people with much more education and experience. In a year’s time, I’ll be back on the other side of the coin, one day praying that the man or woman who fills out such a recommendation spends as much effort writing a good recommendation for me. Just another day of life in Cairo, eh?

Christmas Celebration

Last night we celebrated Christmas since it was our last night with Carole Landess, who will be returning to the states on Christmas morning after spending 12 years serving in Egypt. We came up with the best Christmas meal we could think of—Pizza Hut and cola. Oh, yeah! And for dessert we ate Carole’s pumpkin bars, Eric’s date balls, and Jennifer’s chocolate covered pretzels and strawberries. Yum yum yum!

Oh, the fun didn’t stop there! After seeing the gingerbread house at the Marriott a few weeks ago, Teri and I decided it would be fun to make one ourselves. So, we baked some gingerbread, only after going to three different stores to be the ingredients, as well as the pharmacy to pick up a suspicious bag of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). After the baking was done and the gingerbread had cooled, Teri strategically cut out pieces to make our home. What we came up with was a slightly lopsided house that more or less resembled a church, especially after we added a cross on the front door. Due to the lack of fun candy materials in Egypt, we had to make do with a few sweet items to spice up the home. We made a dog with Twizzler bits, a snowman with gummy lizards, frosting, and M&Ms, and a bush and tree with chocolate covered strawberries. (Yes, you must use your imagination.) We even had a rose patch and an ice rink with two ice skaters skating in a figure 8! (Yeah, we know it is winter, but again, use your imagination.) Unfortunately, not everyone has good imagination, because Jen thought our ice skaters were fire hydrants and Carole thought our rose bushes were parking posts for the gingerbread church. Hmmm...looks like some people have grown up too fast!

As we decorated our lovely home/church, Jay and Stephen lent their musical talents on the piano and guitar so we could sing a number of Christmas Carols. Ah, nothing better than men playing music, singing along, and praising God. This led into our Secret Santa gift exchange. Eric and Jennifer wore Mrs. Claus hats with two white-haired pigtails to symbolize their function as the elves who brought the presents to each person. I absolutely love Secret Santa time—it’s such a fun surprise! I bought art supplies for Jason, and Jay bought me a beautiful scarf and a surgical mask to keep the pollution out of my nose and mouth (kinda). Perfect! We had two special presents. One was from the group to Eric; shampoo and conditioner to encourage him to shower. J The other present was a scrapbook for Carole, and she loved it! We were able to get in contact with a number of people from her past, and she was so shocked and excited! What fun it is to give people the “perfect gift.” Speaking of incredible gifts, Carole bought us cartouche necklaces with our hieroglyphic names engraved in silver and gold—Wow!
The night ended with the destruction of our gingerbread and chowing down on the frosting and gingerbread. It was a great night full of friend, fun, and sugar!

Field Trip with Mariam

Yesterday I partook in a field trip! Being that Tuesday was the last day of fall semester for St. Andrews (even though it was suppose to be Thursday, but that was changed due to the fact both Dick and I are leaving the country tonight) Mariam decided to take her class to a governate about 45 minutes away from downtown Cairo for a day of games and bike riding. I invited myself along, and I’m sure glad I did because it was a blast!

We rented a microbus and traveled out of the city to a smaller town in the delta region. After hopping off the bus onto a bridge over a Nile tributary we made our way to a park where we found a mini Ferris wheel, bumper cars, and an Egyptian DJ playing American rap music. We weren’t there for the wheel or cars, however. Instead, we found a grassy spot to play some football (soccer), dodge ball, and Steal the Bacon (also known as Steal the Luncheon Meat—pigs are unclean in Egyptian standards). Mariam, Amany, and I (the staff) where quickly knocked out of the games—probably so the kids could be more aggressive without “hurting the misses!” Cute! As we were sitting on the sidelines watching, a few of the boy students bought flowers for each of us. Later I found Ashraf pulling the pedals off of one, I think to figure out if “she” (whoever she is) loves him or not ;-)

Then it was bike time! Whoo-hoo! We rented about a dozen bikes from outside the park and we were given one hour to tour around. These kids were ecstatic to go biking! It was like Christmas morning for them. We had a hard time taming their excited energy enough to keep them near us so we could keep an eye on them and make sure they were safe.

As I learned at FLBC, safety is the NUMBER ONE thing to consider on these excursions, and I certainly experienced some fear of safety regarding those bikes. Because a few of the girls had never biked in their life, Mariam and I rented bikes that had a flat wired platform on the back used to hold groceries and other supplies, or in our case, another person. I was nervous in the first place to be riding these rickety old bikes (Globalites—remember biking in Luxor? Yeah, like that.), and I spent the first few minutes testing the pedals, breaks, and tires. I’m not sure what it is about these cheap bikes, but they stink when it comes to turning around. Like a big truck, one must make a huge loop starting from the curb and pray you can make it around before hitting the curb on the other side. Now, add another person sitting side-saddled on the back. Then, throw in some other road distracters such as other bikers, boys on motorbikes (who should NOT be riding motorbikes!), vehicles, donkey carts, and horse-drawn carriages—all without traffic regulations as we know them. Mix in a dozen enthusiastic kids and you have yourself a recipe for “Fear On Egyptian Roads.”

We managed all right, however. I started off extra cautious and conservative. Over time I gained more confidence and gave the student a faster, more fun ride! There was one major unfortunate aspect to this fun, however—the Egyptians. Since I don’t speak Arabic, I had to ask the students to tell me what the men were saying as we rode by. Sometimes they would tell me the nasty things that were said, and other times they said it was so bad they wouldn’t repeat it. Of course this just boils my blood, but there’s something even worse—the way some (not all) Egyptians treat Sudanese. It went so far as having an Egyptian man drive past us, then stop to wait for us to catch up, only to shout out the window that we are different colors and shouldn’t be together. Other young boys would ask the girl sitting on my bike if she and I are friends, and when she said yes, they said they wouldn’t believe it. Why would this white woman want to be friends with an African? It’s sick, isn’t it? I tried to teach a couple students how to bike, but it’s a bit different when they are 12 instead of 6. They are much too heavy for me to do much good and eventually we went back to riding two on one.

After biking time, we played “hackysack” with a football, and each time a student got the ball the others would yell out his or her tribe and crack some jokes--all in good humor. Even though I don’t understand Arabic and had no clue what was going on most of the day, actions speak louder than words and it was obvious how much the students care for one another. They get along so well and look out for each other. Back in Sudan these tribes are/were killing one another, but our students in Cairo are learning to love and respect each other. Only an hour ago before on the street we experienced the differences that separated us (Egyptians, Americans, and Sudanese), but within our group the differences made for sharing and bonding. As we left the playground, Mariam said, “Let’s sing!” and they came up with none other than “I Lift My Eyes Up”—one of my favorite songs from FLBC, and so appropriate for all of us!

Staff Appreciation and Closing Ceremony

In the past week St. Andrew’s has held two of the most important events of the year—Staff Appreciation and the Fall Closing ceremony. Both required a lot of preparation, and in typical Egyptian fashion there were a lot of loose ends until minutes before event time, but I’m happy to announce both ceremonies went really well and we had a great time!

Staff Appreciation was held last Thursday evening for both the Children’s Education Program and the Adult Education Program. Ahmed (Office Manager) and I worked together to prepare a night of food, awards, and entertainment. After rounding up some teachers to help decorate the hall with garland and balloons, we brought in loads of Pizza Hut and KFC. Even if you are Pizza Hut and KFC fans in America, it’s at least ten times a bigger deal here. McDonald’s, for instance, is quite high class for Egypt and people who eat there are either wealthy or celebrating a special occasion. Pizza Hut and KFC are similar. For some of the staff, the dinner was one of the best meals they’ve eaten all fall, especially since there was meat involved. (If that doesn’t but things into perspective for you, I don’t know what will!)

For gifts we gave women staff a large bar of Swiss chocolate while the men received three pairs of socks. Apparently we’ve given chocolate and socks in the past and it goes over well. Women love chocolate, of course, and most men could really use the practical gift of socks. Of course, since we are working with Muslims and Christians, these are not “Christmas presents,” rather “Year End presents.” Our volunteers received photo albums made from refugees in The Arc program.

A play entitled “A Recipe for Civil War” concluded the evening. It was written by the actors and actresses who performed in it—including two of my teachers, a few students in the Adult Education Program, our electrician, and one of the artists from The Arc. All actors come from war-torn countries; Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia were represented. The play was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar since it deals with issues of civil war; that is, the need for revolution, the mind of the revolutionaries, the mind of the rules, the mixture of good and evil in all of us, and the consequences of war. We certainly have some talented people at St. Andrews!
The Closing Ceremony for the Children’s Education Program was held on Tuesday, and it turned out to be a blast! For the past month each class has been working with the music teacher a couple times a week to get ready for the big day of performances. It was such a joy to watch these kids get excited for their show! On Monday as I walked around the school I could hear the students practicing their songs and talking about what they were going to wear. Tuesday morning the nerves and energy was high as the girls gathered in the one small bathroom to get all dolled up while the guys played it cool out on the courts playing soccer.

Parents were invited to the closing ceremony, and I was pleased to see a good 30-40 parents show up! (For many it’s nearly impossible to leave work—they depend on that money so much.) After short speeches from Dick and me, and a long speech from Henry (who also had to say goodbye since he’s moving back to Sudan), the Flower class (youngest kids aged 6-8) started the event by singing “Head and Shoulders,” “I am a Child of God” and dancing a Shulluk Traditional Dance. (The Shulluk tribe is located in South Sudan.) From there we heard such songs as “You Are My Sunshine,” “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” and “Oh, Dear my Father, I’m Going to Leave You Now.” By the time the teenagers were performing we were hearing such songs as “My Heart Will Go On,” “I’m Walking Away” (Craig David), “You Are Not Alone,” and “Everything I Do; I Do It For you.” Between each classes’ performance we handed out blankets to each student in the class as their “Year End” present. We even gave a blanket to little Sarah, the 4-year old granddaughter of Atia (our Egyptian guard) who decided to take part in the ceremony by standing on the stage with the Flower class and touching her head, shoulders, knees and toes with the rest of them. Cute! J

We also gave out a lot of certificates this fall. Rather than just giving awards for good attendance and overall achievement, I decided to add awards for good conduct and each subject area (sports, language, music, art, computer, science, math, and general studies). In fact, I really had a good time making the certificates with a funky art program on my work computer, putting a graphic of a man kicking a soccer ball for the sports award and a new-age computer on the computer award…too bad we can only print certificates in black and white!

I think handing out certificates managed to do what we hoped it would—reward the exceptional students while motivating others to work harder. In fact, one student came to my office crying because she didn’t get a certificate. On the other hand, some students received their certificates and immediately just folded them up and put them into their pockets. Others received their certs with joy and brought them to their parents who showed proud, smiling faces. It was especially important since under the current curriculum we don’t give the students a grade. (I’d like to change this for next semester.)

The fall semester ended with a bang. Dick and I interviewed three candidates for the Program Administrator position to take Henry’s place. I’m excited to see all three of them would be able to do the job, and now it’ll just take a few weeks of Dick/Sarah discussion to figure out the best fit. I can understand how difficult it must be for people working in a Human Resource Department—sometimes the selection process is quite complicated and sifting through many good candidates (or no good candidates) proves to be a bit tricky (but fun!).
I also received some wonderful Christmas presents. One student gave me a matching beaded necklace and bracelet as well as an “evil eye” bracelet (to ward off bad spirits/omens) from her mom. A couple people from The Arc embroidered my name around a couple pens, and another gave me a black handkerchief and candy.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The streets of Cairo

The other day it occurred to me how much I’ve grown into this culture in the sense that what used to be a picture-perfect moment has now become my every day routine. One morning last week I decided to purposefully pay attention to as much as I could on my walk to work so I could share the experience with you. I hope you find it interesting.

I leave Dawson Hall around 8:30am for work most mornings. The first thing I encounter is students…students galore. I may remind you that I live on the third floor of a building that houses the administrative offices of the Synod of the Nile, a school for mentally handicapped children, and a secretarial school for young women who want to become secretaries. Beyond that, the building is in a school complex for not one but two schools: Ramses College for Girls and New Ramses College.

So, actually, let me back up. The morning begins around 5:00am when I hear the 20+ buses start roaring to life and adding to the extreme exhaust pollution of Cairo. Then, starting around 7am, students come rolling into the compound and spend time hanging out with their friends for the next hour. Many of these kids decide to play on the mini playground, which is located below my window. They certainly love this, as I hear many laughs and shrieking. Then, around 7:45am the megaphone roars. This megaphone is also located just below my bathroom window, and every morning I hear the teachers call out “wahead, itneen, teleta, arba… wahead, itneed, teleta, arba” (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4) as the students of the mentally handicapped school yell the numbers back. It’s obvious the keyboard is also hooked up to this system, because within no time the keyboard blares and the students sing their song. It’s the same song every day. I enjoy this routine J Besides, you never need an alarm clock—you know you’ve slept in when you hear the song!

Okay, so I leave my haven called Dawson Hall and descend the stairs, hoping this time there won’t be too many students around. These girls just STARE at me. At first I figured it was out of curiosity, but I think there is some issues of jealousy mixed in. Sometimes they make fun of my clothes or giggle at me or act in some obnoxious way. I am thankful, however, in this one instance, that I am not male. You should see how these girls treat the guys! Jason has actually starting going through the Synod of the Nile offices and out a back door just to avoid some of the girls who come running to him yelling, “Jason! Jason!” They LOVE the guys. Hehehe…

Since I am the only person leaving the complex, I have to work hard at forging my way through the mob of students entering the side gate. At this point I am on Ramses Street, making my way towards the metro station. This is one of my least favorite moments of the morning, as I am walking towards traffic and instantly feel a desire to stop breathing to avoid any more pollution reaching my sinuses or lungs. This 5 minute walk to the metro offers a good determination of the weather for the day, and I don’t mean rain, sleet, snow, warm, cold, windy, cloudy, or sunny. When we talk about the “weather” in Egypt, we’re talking about the amount of pollution in the air. Some days are better than others, and you thank God for those days!

On an especially bad day for pollution, I put my sunglasses on (protect the eyes from the grime) and hold a scarf over my nose and mouth. Yes, awkward, but it’s worth it. At one point, just before the metro, I must cross two busy streets. It’s game time! Truly, I feel like I’m in a video game when crossing the streets. Street signs basically do not exist in Egypt—it’s everyone for his own. So, I start walking out into the street, halt for a car to whiz by, take a few leaping steps, move back a couple feet to avoid the next car… okay, now to the left, no, to the right…okay, now walk normal 5 paces, halt again, okay…okay…NOW!--rush the rest of the way. Actually, it’s quite an art to cross the street, and I really think I’ve gotten a good handle on it and usually walk with ease and confidence despite the fact my life is constantly in danger. (It’s okay Mom and Dad, I’m careful!) I’ve discovered one of the best ways to know if someone has been in Cairo long is to watch them cross the street—do they hesitate? Do they look uncomfortable? Do they stand on the edge of the street and wait for long? Are they paying more attention to others than themselves? Truly, it’s a sure-fire way to figure out if someone is a tourist.

After crossing the second street I come to an opening in the gate “daht da cobri” (“under the bridge”). It’s a secret shortcut to the metro that is really not a secret so much as the only people who use it are local people. So, one reason I love going through it is because it makes me look more commonplace…I think. Certainly a normal foreigner wouldn’t know of it, or even if he did, probably wouldn’t use it. In this spot under the bridge you can smell urine and pass by a couple beggars in the morning, and in the afternoon it’s full of vendors selling sweets and roasted corn on the cob (yes, they roast it right there, and it’s delicious!).

I am now ready to climb the stairs on my way to the metro train. I pull out my 3-month ticket and send it through the machine, walk through the turn-dial, and grab my ticket on the other end. Nearly every day I see many people cheat this system by grabbing hold of the turn-dial before it clicks shut from the previous person and sneaking through. Really, though, it’s not sneaky, because everyone seems to do it and no one seems to care. In fact, there is a guard at every station whose job is to watch for these people, but they never (or rarely) do a thing about it.

Walking on the train platform I make my way to the left and walk past rows and rows of men until I reach the far end where the first two cars are for women only. I wait patiently for the metro to come by and hope it’s not completely crowded. If I’ve timed my morning right, I am able to squeeze on the first metro that comes by, making sure I keep at least one hand and arm on my purse at all times. If the timing is not right, I might have to wait for a train or two before there is enough room to get on. Regardless, it’s a mad dash to get on the metro as people are pushing their way off the train at the same time you’re pushing your way on.

I keep my sunglasses on at all times during this excursion to work, even on the metro. First of all, it keeps you from accidentally looking into a man’s eyes, or at least they can’t tell you did. Second, and probably more importantly, it helps in keeping pollution out of your eyes. I even keep them on during the metro ride.

Three stops later I’ve arrived down town Cairo and get off at the Nasser station, where I find St. Andrew’s Church on the corner of Ramses Street and the 26th of July Street, where life is hustling and bustling. This intersection (which also includes two other major by-passes) is considered one of the most, if not the most, polluted section of Cairo. So, here I am in the 2nd most polluted city in the world working in the most polluted spot in that city. I actually take some pride in that!

Today I decided to take a walk down 26th of July Street towards Zamalak Island, where I needed to meet Sister Enrica to get another student ID. Walking along the street I first see rows of men sitting against a gate along the edge of the sidewalk. In front of each of them sits a 1 ½ foot wooden cylinder with rows of metal “pointers” wrapped around it, sticking up towards the sky—very Buffy the Vampire style. These men are waiting for work—they are masonry workers and their pointers let passer-byers know they are open for business.

Continuing down the street I see venders on every corner with carts full of fresh oranges, imported apples, and guava. Some men are cooking cous cous or laying out carts full of fresh ish baladi—the Egyptian bread. You find men carrying ish baladi on a huge wooden platforms above their heads as they bike along the crazy, congested roads. I truly do not understand how they can do it. (I mean, how do you get that above your head in the first place, and then balance and bike, especially when you have to constantly stop or swerve to avoid people and cars? It’s a skill few have I believe!)

Children are walking hand in hand with their mothers or fathers down the street. They are wearing bright backpacks on their backs and many of the girls have ponytails full of accessories in their hair. Some kids walk to school with their siblings and you can tell they love the freedom of being able to run around the streets without a scolding.

The stores are starting to open, although most are still locked up and deserted. Even though by most standards one would say the city is already alive, things don’t really start moving until 10am. Some men are sitting outside store doors, reading the paper or reciting prayers from the Koran. Others are sitting in dirty plastic chair smoking the sheesha water pipe and watching people as they wander the streets. Still others are sweeping the dust and dirt away from the door to the stores, or washing down the sidewalk. Wherever there is a bit of space you find overweight women wearing long dark gowns sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk surrounded by the bright colors of green peppers, red tomatoes, green beans, cauliflower, onions, potatoes, zucchini, and eggplant, waiting to sell their goods for good prices. They shoo away the hundreds of fifthly cats who roam the streets and garbage looking for leftovers from the night before.

As I near the Nile I get a great sniff of bread and croissants being baked at a local bakery, and I debate whether or not to take a big whiff, even if it means black boogers later. I don’t have to think for long, because the sweet smell suddenly turns into the stench of urine. Ooo…someone just went there, and he is certainly dehydrated!

I approach the Nile and walk up the ramp to cross over the bridge. In the evening you’ll find many young kids spending every night on this bridge, trying to sell a flower or two to the lovebirds who spend time gazing in each other’s eyes as they stand over the romantic Nile. I look out over the river and see that indeed it’s a bad ‘weather’ day in Cairo—everything is a big haze—guess I need to cover my nose and mouth better so I don’t get a headache or feel sick later! Below I see small fishing boats, each with three men. Two men hold the net while the other guides the boat with his long oar. They mostly keep to the river’s edge, and I pray they stay away the stacks of trash piled up. (Well, I guess it doesn’t matter where in the Nile fish come from, I wouldn’t want to eat it!).

On my return from the Island I find the sidewalk much more crowded than before, and the streets are full of buses, cars, and taxis swerving left and right to avoid another vehicle or person. I wonder again how those men can dare bike in those roads with one hand balancing stacks of bread above their heads. How do you ever learn how to do that—in the middle of the night on some back-road alleyway? (Since that’s about the only time you won’t find the street full of people and cars.) Hmm…

I dodge a few women carrying heavy bags of food on their heads and try to avoid unwanted stares or comments from the men who now have their stores open for business. I try to find a walking pace that is fast enough for me to avoid too many distracting comments but slow enough that it doesn’t look like I’m in a rush. Egyptians DO NOT rush. Rushing is another sure-fire way to know spot a foreigner.

During prayer time most store owners pull out large green mats and place them in front of their stores on the sidewalk. Often there is a smaller mat for shoes. Any Muslim man is allowed to take off his shoes, wipe off the dirt from his hands, feet, and face, and pray towards Mecca on these mats. In some areas you’ll find row after row of men kneeling, postulating, standing…kneeling, postulating, standing. It’s quite a sight.

I make it back to St. Andrew’s and walk into the complex. Suddenly I’m not surrounded by the dark skin, dark haired Arab men and woman, but surrounded by the dark skin, dark haired and TALL African men and women. As much as St. Andrews is a haven for them it’s also a welcome haven for me, and I finally relax enough to smile at a few of the student’s mothers as I make may way to assembly that morning…

"I'm looking to get married."

On Friday Teri and I had a good day with Egyptian men. By noon, we had dealt with a young boy on the metro who wouldn't stop staring or trying to touch us, a couple "I love yous!" on the street, and a marriage proposal. See below (from Teri's blog).

"Actual conversation had with older (maybe mid-40's to mid-50's?) Egyptian male church-goer but non-partaker of communion, during coffee hour after church...after my attempted brush off because my last conversation with this guy was never ending. and he stares. incessantly.

The Guy: blah blah blah listen to this about my great job...which i told you about before but i'm recapping for you now.
me (Teri): I remember, that's great.
Guy: Well, I'm looking to get married.
me: I hope not to me!
Guy: why not? You don't want to stay in Egypt?
me: no, I can't stay in Egypt. I am not allowed to stay.
Guy: but if you were married you could stay.
me: no, I'm not allowed to get married.
Guy: You could work here.
me: My church, the church that sent me here, doesn't allow me to get married or to stay in Egypt. I have to go back to the US.
Guy: well, maybe you could go back and then come back here to be with me.
me: No, I don't think so.
Guy: Why not? Just go, then come back and we can be married and you can work here for a church.
me: I don't think my fiance would be very happy about that.
Guy: Oh, you already have a fiance.
me (showing my right hand which does have a ring on it): yeah.
Guy: Oh. Well, what about Sarah? Does she have a friend too?
me: I don't know, but she isn't allowed to get married here either.
Guy: Will you talk to her for me?
me: I can't promise you what she'll say. (even though I definitely could)
Guy: you won't talk to her?
me: Oh, I'll talk to her alright. (side note: I don't think he caught my tone on this)
Guy: Do you have any other friends who are beautiful like you and live in Cairo?
me: No.
Guy: What about the girl who was with you last week? (Jen)
me: She doesn't live here.
Guy: okay. Well, will you talk to Sarah?
me: We'll talk.
Guy: I'm going to get some coffee.
me: okay.
me: Sarah, we have to leave now. let's go. bye everyone!
me: Sarah, this guy asked me to marry him. I said no and he asked if you would marry him. (repeat conversation)
Sarah: Oh, I'll talk with him. I'll tell him that I will never settle for second best, so forget it!
both of us: ecstatic crazed laughter."

We both agree this approach to marriage will not work. ;-) According to Carole, he's been using this approach for a decade. I guess you have to be impressed with his perseverance.


Never a day goes by without some type of harassment on the street of Cairo. It might be a verbal “You are beautiful!” (or something much less tasteful than that which I cannot repeat), a physical slap of the butt or bump into the breast, or a visual masturbation as we pass by. Whatever it may be, it’s disgusting, obnoxious, and intolerable. Yet, living in Cairo, one must learn to make it tolerable or else you just go crazy or hate living here. Some days I can just let the harassment roll off my back, and other days I want to burst into tears.

Lately, however, Teri and I have found a way to vent our anger, and that’s by fighting back. At first I felt horrible about this, and at times I still think, “Would Jesus be happy about this?” but as Teri said, “If I only let them do what they want, I am neither loving myself nor the other women these men will victimize.” So what do we do now? We push, we shove, we hit men with our water bottles, and we nudge them in the stomach. Of course we only do this to the men who first approach us, and we are getting much better and knowing who that will be.

The problem is many men grow up thinking this kind of behavior is appropriate. Women are property, used for the enjoyment of men, so why not harass them a bit? And American woman—well, they just LOVE to get this attention I’m sure! (HA!) Teri and I like to think that by fighting back we are saying, “You are ridiculous and have no right to treat me this way.” Just last week as I was coming home a man started masturbating in front of Jennifer and me. We kept walking and talking as normal, acting like it was no big deal, and then seconds before approaching the man I took out my water bottle and slugged him HARD in the arm. He didn’t fight back. No one has ever fought back. In fact, they usually keep walking and trying to pretend they didn’t do anything.

Last week I was on the metro with Jay and as we were getting off a man touched my butt twice, even though my hand was there ready for it and I grabbed his arm and threw it off of me. As we stepped onto the platform I turned around and pushed the guy. Jay saw what was happening so he got involved and started yelling at the guy in Arabic. Soon other Egyptian men came around, and thankfully were on “our side”, but not in the way they should be. Basically, they kept saying, “Malish, malish,” which means “Ah, no problem, don’t worry, it’s over.” This angered Jay and me even more, because in essence they are saying the harassment is no big deal, move on, get over it. EXCUSE ME?! Man, this society needs a wake-up call.

Today’s harassment was almost hilarious. Teri and I took a tram to Heliopolis where we shopped at the Metro food market for some ingredients to make gingerbread houses. On our way home we had to wait a good 30 minutes at the tram station before the tram arrived. During that time we had 5 obnoxious young men/boys trying to talk with us. One of them was your classic punk—he called himself “Batman”, said “I am alcohol!” and continuously shined his oversized silver NY necklace (which, by the way, was put on backwards so Teri and I had a good laugh at that).

They poked fun at us, tried to get our number and email addresses, and took pictures of us with their cameras. The saddest part was that a younger guy (maybe 12) got involved in this harassment because the other men would laugh with him and egg him on when he called out nasty comments to us. Again, this society needs a wake up call, because it’s turning young men into jerks! They didn’t know English very well, though, so we had fun with it too. We’d ask, “Do you like to swim around in toilets?” and they would answer, “Yes!” “Do you think you are a jerk?” “Yes!” “Are you crazy?” “Yes!” Yeah, sometimes I wonder…

Thursday, December 15, 2005


I can’t stand them. I have always had bad luck with mosquitoes. For some reason mosquitoes are always attracted to my blood, and my body tends to react strongly to them. I am always the one with huge welts on my forehead, feet, and neck from mosquito bites. If fact, this summer I was bitten so bad on my forehead people thought I ran into something to produce such a big bump.

After last night I decided one of the worst things about Egypt lacking the snowy winter of the Midwest is the mosquitoes are still alive and thriving. On top of that, RGC dumped pile after pile of manure all around the complex about 3 weeks ago and we know buggers like that. Last weekend a few people were in my room and all of us were getting eaten alive by those mosqies so we took a “break” to kill those nasty inhibitors who needed to be evacuated (or killed, preferably) immediately. Within a few minutes, Stephen noticed a few were flying up to my high ceiling, so he hopped on a chair and grabbed my flyswatter (which I bought two months ago for the sole purpose of killing these blood-suckers). “Oh, no, Sarah,” he said as he was squinting up at the ceiling. “What?” I asked. “There are tons of little mosquitoes up here!” Gross, gross, gross.

Thing is, these are not regular mosquitoes, oh no. They are smart cookies, they are. They do not make a sound. It’s practically eerie how silent they are. Secondly, you don’t start itching until they are long gone from your flesh, so you never know you’re getting bit! You can’t feel them; they are quite tiny and light so you never notice them land on you. When you are lucky enough to notice them flying around, they are nearly impossible to kill (hence the flyswatter). They anticipate your swat so well they nearly always get away. Crap! They are the devil I tell you!

At least two nights a week I wake up in the middle of the night because I’m getting eaten by these buggers. Last night was one such night. It goes something like this. I wake up and realize I’ve been bit because I’m all itchy. I try to fall back asleep before I get bit again. If I manage to fall back asleep, I might be okay for the rest of the night. But usually I don’t make it. Instead, I start itching somewhere else. And a few minutes later in another place. By this time I’m annoyed and awake. I turn on the light and sit up, waiting patiently for the bugger to dare make his way near me again. He’s usually too smart and I end up sitting for a good ten minutes with no action. I turn off the light.

Within a minute or two I’m bit again. And again. And again. I turn on the light and try to talk some sense into the mosquito. “Come on now,” I say out loud. “You’ve already bit me six times, enough is enough.” But, no, it’s not enough for that one little twerp. I either have to wait until I can kill it (which can take 20 minutes or more) or I move to another room. Sometimes I use this opportunity to read my bible as I wait. It’s usually calms me down to read about patience and love and forgiveness during these moments. “Okay, Lord, I forgive the mosquito, but he’s still not going to survive the night!”

Needless to say, it’s sad when your Christmas wish-list starts with “Two sticks of After Bite, please.” (And that’s no joke!)


CHILDREN. This is the subject. NEED. This is the desire. CLOTHES. This is the object. The idea? CHILDREN NEED CLOTHES.

One of my projects for the past 3 weeks has been to gather and organize clothing for the students. After sending some fliers to a few communities and making an announcement in church (and a special thanks to the Oles who graciously left a lot of their clothes with us), we received a few suitcases and large garbage bags full of clothes.

My office has turned into a thrift store. I started out by dividing the clothing into piles based on size and gender. I then folded them nicely and tried to make some type of logical set-up between Dick’s and my office. At a teacher’s meeting a couple weeks ago I told the teachers to start sending their most needy students upstairs during the breaks to get clothes. That didn’t work so well at first. The teachers felt uncomfortable choosing certain student to come up—they worried about embarrassing the students or leaving some kids out. So, I tried a different approach. I told them to take note of which students are still coming to school in flip-flop, skirts, and t-shirts, and I will personally come find them and ask them to come up with me. I only had to do that a couple times before the concept caught on. The kids would go back to class, and then another student would want to come up for clothes. It’s now at a point where each teacher has assigned two or three kids a day to come up to the office and pick out clothing and there is a line-up outside my door. The children have been unleashed!

Unfortunately, now that the ball is rolling, we are out of clothes again, and many students still need clothing. Also, the teachers need clothes for their family members, so we are trying to help them as well. It’s hard to turn the kids away, but I keep telling them we should get more soon (insha-allah). On the positive side, I’ve defiantly noticed the clothes being used. Yesterday at assembly I saw one kid wearing a Minnesota Vikings t-shirt under his thin jacket and for a split second I thought, “So cool! What a small world?! Where did he get that…oh, yeah, duh.” Although it’s odd to see an eight year old wearing a shirt I saw a college student (Ole) wearing a month ago or a teenage girl wearing a “Lizzie McGuire” t-shirt, it’s good to know this place is making a difference in every way for these children; not just their mental and social health, but their physical health as well. That boy who was wearing a thin hot-pink Mickey and Minnie Mouse jacket with pants that looked more like capris two weeks ago now has full-length jeans and a warmer green poofy jacket.

FYI—If you are one who tends to donate to shelters, let this be known—most places always need more socks, shoes, undergarments, and feminine products. Better yet, the next time you are donating your old clothes, take a detour to Target to pick up some brand new black shoes, warm socks, and Superman underwear to add to the mix. It’s amazing what those three things can do for someone.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The first TINY bit of Christmas!

Thursday evening I attended a Cairo Choral Society music concert held at All Saints Cathedral on Zamalak Island with Teri and Jen. It was the largest group of ex-pats I have seen since Chicago, but it was so great! The church was packed solid (we had to sit on the floor) and the sounds of Beethoven’s Mass in C and selections from Handel’s Messiah could be heard for almost two hours. I spent most of the time with my eyes closed soaking in the sound. I’ve come to appreciate music, especially classical music, so much these past couple months that I’ve been trying to attend at least one concert a week. This was a special concert, however, as it was the first sign of the Christmas season I have experienced yet. For those of you who have never been outside the country during the Christmas season, it is darn strange, especially when you are in a place where most people do not celebrate Christmas. Without experiencing advent (or seeing snow!) it’s not ‘beginning to look a lot like Christmas.’ As much as we (I included) complain about the commercialization of Christmas in America, it certainly adds to the Christmas spirit in ways you can’t imagine until you don’t have it!

After the concert we walked through the Marriott hotel and found more Christmas decorations—YIPPEE! We saw trees and fake snow and little figurines ice skating. The Marriott Bakery even had a huge gingerbread house! Ah…even though the Marriott screams “WEALTH, WEALTH, WEALTH!” I have to admit I felt more comfortable in there than I have anywhere in Cairo for at least the past two months.

As a random comment, today I saw Harry Potter IV with some friends from work and Jason. In Egypt, there is an intermission in the middle of the movie. I think this just stinks, as it completely cuts the mood and brings you back into reality when really you just want to live in the screen for a couple hours. Also, you buy your seats (much like going to the theatre in America). I ended up sitting next two a couple of rowdy kids throwing around popcorn instead of the rest of the group, but at least I was a bit closer to the screen! Also, as we were walking back to St. Andrews from the movie theatre it occurred to me we were representing 5 countries—Sudan, America, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and Eritrea. Gotta love that!

Saying Good-Bye

As a missionary, it is inevitable that we will have to say good-bye to almost everyone we meet this year, and this month we are getting a taste of what it will be like. Carole Landess, our site coordinator, is returning to America after serving in Egypt for 12 years in order to attend seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. We are all extremely sad to see her leave. Carole is Mom here and we really can’t imagine living in Egypt without her. Of course we’ll be fine, since she’s trained us well J, but life will be very different without her. When Carole’s around we just feel so safe and secure.

We wanted to do something extra special for Carole, so we planned a surprise party for her that occurred last night. All eight volunteers came in for the evening and we took Carole on a felucca sail-boat ride on the Nile during sunset—one of her favorite things to do. When we returned in Dawson Hall a good 30-40 people were waiting in a beautifully decorated Hall ready to jump out with a big “SURPRISE!” She certainly was surprised. The night went so well—people came from hours away and we even managed to get Martha Roy (92 years old) out of her group home and over to Dawson Hall for the celebration/good-bye party. Other than a broken florescent light from the kids kicking an exercise ball to the ceiling (Ha!), the evening turned out beautifully.

On top of that, I’ve already had to say goodbye to three people at St. Andrews. This next month will be especially difficult, as my assistant and now good friend, Henry, is leaving. Henry is from south Sudan and after working for the UN there he fled to Egypt for his (and his family) safety. Now, he has been offered a good job with the International Rescue Committee in Sudan and he is determined to help rebuild his mother country. I am very impressed with his passion and desire to go back to this place of so many painful memories. His family will stay in Egypt for at least a year, however, because there is nothing for them in Sudan—no schools, hospitals, decent water facilities, etc.—at least not yet. I know it’s not an easy decision for him to leave his family and return to Sudan, but he’s determined and hopeful. Thanks to people like Henry and organizations like the IRC, Sudan will be rebuilt. Losing Henry is a huge loss for St. Andrews; he is one of the most competent, devoted, and trustworthy persons to walk through those doors. I have become very fond of him and trust him with my life.

I wanted to take Henry and his family out to celebrate, and after a lot of planning and re-planning what materialized was an evening at Al-Azhar Park for just Henry and me. I was really hoping to meet his children, but it was also a great blessing to have time to get to know him and ask him questions outside of the work environment. That night we had a nice meat dinner in the park and had time to talk about Henry’s history of living in Sudan and his past couple years in Egypt. I absolutely love the park—it’s the only area in Cairo where you can be standing on vegetation and still see greens 40 feet in front of you. (I’m biased, but I think the park is one of the best things Egypt has fashioned in the past 10 years!) Henry really enjoyed being there as well—he had never been anywhere on that side of the city and certainly had not seen the park.

As we strolled around the fountains and flowers he started comparing the trees we were seeing with the trees of Sudan. “Sarah, the trees in Sudan are so huge it takes more than 5 people holding hands to hug the tree all around,” and, “There are miles and miles of the tallest trees you’ll ever see…” I was happy to see him reminisce about his homeland and I could hear the peace and joy in his voice. We made it to the far side of the park that over-looks the city listened to the call to prayers being sung all around us at the various mosques during sunset. The outing also gave Henry a chance to give me some advice for my future—such as searching for a husband and some day starting an NGO in Sudan. Hmmm…we’ll see about that…

Oles in Cairo

I love being an Ole. Every time I get to tell someone I graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, I have a healthy dose of pride in my voice. Especially being away from Manitou Hill during the Christmas fest season, I feel a strong connection to my alma mater and rejoice for all the people there who are enjoying the blessings of living and serving on a hilltop in southern Minnesota.

One exceptional benefit about being an Ole is an extraordinary world-wide connection. Wherever you go, Oles are tied together with an inescapable and deep understanding of shared experiences and similar morals, ideals, and lifestyles. Like camp folk, I feel as though Oles always have each other’s back and tend to be so sympathetic and helpful with each other.

And then the time comes for Oles to reunite in Cairo, Egypt! For the second time this fall, I’ve met a group of Oles traveling through the area on a study abroad program. Back in Sept/October the Global Semester was studying in Cairo—the same program I participated in two years ago when I first discovered my love for Egypt. This time it’s the Global Term in the Middle East (T.I.M.E.) led by Jackie and Mack Gimse passing through for 5 weeks.

We’ve had the fortune of spending some quality time with these lovely Oles. We first met them when they came to St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo (yes, where I work) for worship one weekend. We instantly clicked—partially because we’re all young adults in a foreign country, and for me, partially because they are my Ole peers! We had some of them over on two occasions for hanging out and watching movies, and one day Jason and I were graciously invited to attend the Sunday brunch at the Marriott.

In typical Ole fashion, a number of the students were interested in learning more about St. Andrew’s Children Education Program and they decided to come to school for a couple days to volunteer. It was such a blessing for them to come! I had them help out in two children classrooms during English class so the St. Andrews students could have more personal attention and hear a native English speaker. I know the students absolutely loved having them around, and I was pleased to hear the Oles enjoyed it as well. It also served as a time for me to see just how much some students are struggling in their English. One lesson was all about the weather and even talking about something as simple as the temperature and weather in Cairo versus Sudan or America was hard enough for these children to understand and communicate. (Please pray we have more tutors next term; we really need them!)

One morning Dick set up a time for the Oles and me to talk with the lay leaders (James, Ayed Samuel, and James) of the Dinca and Nuer tribes. The Dinca and Nuer are two tribes from south Sudan who have their own worship services (in their tribal languages and customs) as St. Andrews. For over two hours we sat in the conference room and shared stories and ideas. We spent a lot of time asking them questions and learning more about their needs and concerns (resettlement vs. repatriation vs. staying in Egypt, harassment and racism, being recognized by the UNHCR and the benefits (or lack therefore) of having a blue card, the vast and troubling medical problems dealing with sex, rape, prenatal care, AIDS, diseases, malnutrition, FGM, etc., the need for bibles written in their own language, the need for more money to pay for daily necessities and shelter, etc.). In the end, when we asked what we could do, they said, “Please pray for us, for the future of our people. Pray that God will help us. Also, pray for the education of our people.”

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

working when sick

I didn't go to school for more than 3 1/2 hours today. I went to bed with a horrible headache last night and woke up feeling the same, only more pressure in the sinuses and feeling like I was going to vomit. So, for the SECOND TIME already this fall, I stayed in bed instead of going to work. All of us have noticed our health is just not as good here, and I for one blame it on the pollution. Truly, it’s amazing how much the pollution can affect your physical wellbeing—your appetite, your level of energy, your nose and head (we wake up congested every day and when blowing our nose the buggers come out black…sorry, that was gross), your respiratory system (cough, cough), etc.

I couldn’t stay in bed all day, however, as I had scheduled two staff meetings with my two groups of teachers today. We have a lot of work to do before the end of the term, especially with Staff Appreciation night next week and the Closing Ceremony the following week. I rolled out of bed, put my glasses on, and went into work. People kept commenting, " look so professional in your glasses, Sarah!" I replied, "I just woke up." I arrived at school in time to deal with a fight and wrote a letter home to the parents saying the students are suspended (one for two days, another for 4 days); certainly not my favorite thing to do.

Ironically, just yesterday at morning assembly I spoke with the children about respect and cooperation. I told them they must listen to their teachers and respect each other, going on about the fact that they are in a wonderful place and they are VERY lucky to be students, as many kids their age (and their nationality) do not get an education. Even when other kids want to get an education, it can take years to get into a school because the waiting list is so long. I told them it is a gift to be here where they receive free education being taught by teachers who REALLY care about them.

So, I was totally out of it, because for the first half of the first meeting I kept referring to Francis as Dominic. Finally John Peter said, "Ah, Sarah, this is Francis. Dominic is not here." I looked like a complete idiot. Of course, we all had a good laugh and then I said, "My excuse is that I'm sick and just woke up" but still, that was BAD. And, of course I know the difference between the two. Goodness, Sarah!

After that I had about 30 people wanting to talk with me or ask me for things or whatnot. My office was full of people every moment today, and I felt so bad because I was just feeling like crap and really didn’t want to talk with anyone anymore. Instead of getting ahead today, I have another 5 things on my list to get done tomorrow. Let it be known---those principals at your elementary and high schools work darn hard for the teachers and students and they try darn hard to please people’s needs, even if it doesn't all work out that way! I have new found respect for Mr. Lyzsak.

I slept another 4 hours after work and just ate some Velveeta Shells and Cheese that Brice brought back from the states for me. Although it's now gone, it was good to have one of my favorite "comfort" meals on a sick day.
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