Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Monday, February 06, 2006

Henna and a shared meal

Whenever I need a break at work, I spend time in The Arc with the women and men creating artwork. I sit around the sewing table talking in broken English with the woman who drink tea and we make great attempts at communication. A couple weeks ago, one woman, Miriam, decided she would like to dress me up for a Sudanese wedding, minus an actual wedding. So, near the end of the day on Thursday I made my way down to The Arc where Miriam and a few other women where waiting for me. The commotion began.

First, the women shielded me from the men by putting up a large sheet at the back of The Arc. This way I was able to properly undress down to a tank top with modesty. The women told me where to walk, where to sit, how to sit, and how to move. Miriam’s henna artist friend (her cousin) started her drawings, beginning with my upper arms. With the henna paint she drew flower designs around my arms, down my arms, and all over my hands. While the henna was drying, Miriam pulled out her bag of ‘goodies’—huge golden jewelry and headdresses to complete my wedding day outfit. After the henna dried, the woman pulled me out of the chair and led me outside to the hose, where they washed the henna off my skin to see the brown dye underneath. They then lathered me with a particular cream used to darken the henna into black markings. As the cream dried, the woman joked around about this “wedding day” for me…for a woman with henna is a married woman. Unfortunately, there was no man in my life to share it with. :-)

More ‘goodies’ came out of the bag full of Sudanese wedding materials. There were huge, heavy necklaces, gold bracelets, dangling 5-inch earrings that also clasped onto my nose, headdresses with black hair and jewels, purple and green scarves, etc. As the women put layer over layer of beads and fabrics over my head, around my arms and wrists, and around my shoulders, I felt completely at their whim, completely humbled. I was pampered. Miriam’s daughter and son, both students at the school, used my camera to take pictures. It was like taking senior pictures. They oohed and ahhed over me, telling me to put my hands here or head there and put the shall this way or that way. After each shot the children would giggle and show me the photo, then fight over who could take the next one.

Really, I felt like it was my wedding day, with all that attention and pampering. It is uncomfortable for me to have people serve me in such a way, so I had to keep reminding myself, “Be humble, be humble, this is their gift to you, just let yourself enjoy it and not worry about how much they are serving you.”

Still, I wanted to do something to show my appreciation, and after some thought I decided I should use my camera to photograph the family. I mean, the kids were going nuts over that thing, so photos could be a cool gift! Before I knew it, I basically invited myself over to Miriam’s home to take photos of her family. I suppose there’s no better way to meet the whole family, but I immediately realized that once again I’d be the guest, the one being served, in their home.

Yesterday was the day. Miriam’s oldest son Mohamed met me at St. Andrews at noon to bring me to the home. Mohamed is probably in his late 20s and spoke English pretty well. In fact, he’s the only one in the family who can really speak much English. Together we hopped on a microbus and it sped through the Cairo streets past the pyramids out to a suburb of Cairo. I didn’t realize we’d be out so far (it took an hour or so) but what a treat! The air was so fresh out there and I spent quite a bit of time on their porch soaking in the sun and breathing deep—a major blessing living in Egypt!

We took a quick stop for bread at Hyper One, the grocery store. As we walked into the mall we saw huge signs at every entrance and exit stating, “To Protect Our Islamic Identity Hyper One is Boycotting all Products from Denmark." Now, I've heard a lot about this issue of the Danish cartoons depicting Mohamed with a bomb-shaped turban, and know a few NON-practicing Muslims who are extrememly offended by it, but this really hit home. Teri just told me she saw a street full of cars with a sign stating something along the lines of, "Down with Haters of Islam, Destroy Demark today" in the back window.

When we arrived at the home, Miriam and the kids—Lubaba, Asga, Hadeel, and Sadam—were busy cooking. I took time to wander around the modest home, taking pictures of people in action. Like many modest Egyptian homes, the rooms are quite bare with very few material possessions with the exception of a huge satellite TV as the heart of the room. The kids took turns cooking and channel surfing the 200+ channels. Often they watched the Sudan channel with a music contest show and random talk-shows about the Danish cartoons and what it really means to be a Muslim. During the music contest the kids would shyly dance in their couch until I noticed and then giggle and stop. Miriam came into the room and danced a little for us, to which the kids giggled again and felt more confident to dance themselves. Eventually everyone was dancing in his seat.

As Mohamed made fruit salad, I helped the kitchen folk make the meal. It literally took FOUR hours before we were finished. We would cook one dish and I would think we were finished, but suddenly more food would come out and we’d start cooking again. A couple times Miriam said [in Arabic], “Today, I cook, you watch. Tomorrow, you cook, I watch!” and we laughed. I assured her I would come back and cook for the family one day, but for now I wanted to continue slicing potatoes. By four o’clock we were finished cooking and ended up with tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant stuffed with meat and rice, home-made french fries, chicken nuggets, spaghetti with mushroom tomato sauce, a potato-meat dish, and babaganouh with bread. We had fresh orange juice and strawberry ice cream as well. Everything was cooked with a load of oil, and I was a bit nervous about my stomach (being that I’m still quite ill), but it was a wonderful meal.

It’s incredible what can be communicated without words. A lack of a common language is frustrating, no doubt, but the majority of our communication comes through body language, facial expressions, and a lot of gesturing. I spent most of the time observing, however. I was so impressed with the hospitality and servanthood of this family (and the Sudanese and Egyptian culture). I, as the guest, was consistently served first and given the best of everything. Then, all the kids made sure Mom was all set with food, drinks, and when she needed it, rest. Everyone was quick to help with the food preparation and the dish washing--no questions asked.

By 7:00pm I was thinking it was time to get going, so I started taking the family photos. Miriam's younger cousin, the woman who painted henna on my body, arrived with her husband and joined in. As I was getting ready to leave, she asked me to first come to her home and take photos with her daughters, as she only lived a 10 minute walk away. Sure! On the way I started teaching her English, explaining the difference between "in" and "on" with such sentences as "the car is ON the road" and "the mobile is IN my purse." The family plans to resettle in Australia someday and wants to learn English.

Boy was I glad to visit her home; her three children were absolutely adorable. Within the first minute of being in the home I sat down and the youngest, a one or two-year old, came over and sat on my lap. She never left that spot and occasionally buried her head in my chest. At first she was a quiet one, but once she started talking you couldn't stop her. She told the family I was her "aunt"--not a guest, but a family member. She played with my hair, twisting and turning it. She told Asga to braid my hair, since he's the one with special braiding skills. When I finally needed to leave, she wouldn't go back to her mom and insisted that I stay. Oh, it was so fun! I love children!

Just before I left, Sadam ran up to me and held out his hand. In it was a picture of famous Moroccan woman singer in a heart-shaped plastic keychain with a light. Assuming that these children have very few positions, I couldn't believe it. I insisted that he keep it for himself, but he wouldn't have it. Wow, so humbling. I can't wait for the next visit when I cook for them!

(Addition: As I was looking around the house, I noticed a few familiar things---a plastic blue bowl with yellow flowers on it, some Panteen Pro-V shampoo and conditioner, and various articles of clothing--all from donations at St. Andrews.)


  • At 2/08/2006, Anonymous Sarah said…

    I am so fascinated by your stories. Wow, what a gift you have had to be with these people and experience life through them. What a blessing you are to them, and them to you.

    Thanks for the update on the Danish situation. It overwhelms the news, and, as you can imagine, frightens people. Maybe you could speak more about it and the reactions your students or people you know have or speak about. What is the Egyptian government saying? Do you get a sense that the Islamic society will cease these demonstrations? How will we ever end our religious divides and come together nonviolently as a human race and as God intended...?


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