Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Placement Exams

This weekend we conducted a day of placement testing for all children who are interested in being St. Andrew's students. For a couple weeks I was feeling a bit overwhelmed trying to figure out how this all works and what my role in it should be, and I had to depend on staff to guide me through what needed to be done. Thankfully Mariam stepped up to spend a Saturday morning with our staff, teaching them (and me!) how to administer the tests.

When I arrived at work Saturday morning there were loads of people waiting for the exams. Here comes nervous excitement! Hadaf lined the students up according to height, starting with the smallest children. Scattered around the Guild Hall were a dozen tables covered with a series of exams and a handful of colored pencils. Each table had two chairs; one for the teacher and one for the student. Each student had to start at Pre-Beginner and if they passed at a certain level, they move don to the next placement test. So on and so forth.

It's certainly not a fail-proof system, of course. Not exactly standardized testing here, and I knew that each of us was going to administer the test differently, catered to our own understanding. The two main rules were to not give the answers, and to never speak in Arabic, which apparently has been difficult to control in the past. After going through the process, I can see why. You so want the child to do well and find ways to help them understand what is being asked.

I totally thrived on giving out these placement tests. I was so excited to be spending time directly with the children and trying to help them feel comfortable. Some of them were so very scared and shy. When I first met a prospective student I would slowly say, "My name is Sarah" while making outrageous hand and body gestures to make it obvious I am saying my name, just in case they didn't know any bit of English. Almost every child knows this phrase. The next question (before getting to the test) is, "How old are you?" I had 5 year-olds tell me they were "twenty" with some confidence. Adorable!

I met with a huge range of students that day, from children who couldn't figure out how to draw a line from a picture of one ball to a picture of another ball, to one child who soared through all five exams (this was a unique case). There was one young woman who was probably about 17 or 18 years old and has a moderate to severe mental disability. She was so frightened and kept stuttering as she was signing up for the exam. Peter asked me if I could work with her, because she knew me from the time I've spent with her family in The Arc and once at their home. He said she wouldn't feel comfortable with the other teachers. I was delighted to work with her, but also so sad when we worked through the exam and she only received 7 out of 41 on the Pre-Beginner exam. At the age of 17, I don't believe there will be a place for her at St. Andrews, and all I could do was say a prayer for her and thank God that in America we have resources for a case like this.

The exam itself is quite difficult, and I now have a greater understanding of just how bias tests are in regards to culture! These children had to know things like gingerbread man and dinosaurs and words like "robbers" and random things like weird-looking teenage guys with long hair wearing a duck inter tube, snorkels on his head, a coke in one hand and a hot dog in another, running. (I know, odd.) In one question there is a goofy picture of a personified pencil sharpener. In one exam children are asked to write the dates. One question is "Today is _________, __________, ___________." The next is "13/01/2005________________________" and the last is "Yesterday was ________________________." First of all, time is expressed very differently in different cultures so in general these questions might be strange, and secondly, I don't even know what they are asking for the student to do!

All in all, it was so fun to watch these kids try to come up with ANY English they knew to get through these exams, even if it made no sense at all. Fiona told me that in class once, Rob asked, "What is the opposite of tall?" and one student shot his hand up and yelled, "Small fish!!" Ah, so cute!

Monday, May 22, 2006

End of School Year

I cannot believe the school year is already over, but it is! Last Wednesday was our closing ceremony day at St. Andrews. The last day of school was supposed to be Thursday, but we had to change that last minute due to the protests going on every Thursday around our school.

The ceremony was much like the fall; we invite parents to attend as each class presents a song or dance (this year included Jump, Jump, Voices of Peace, When you are happy and you know it, Boom Dee ah Dah, I love you, The Lost Children (Michael Jackson), Let's Talk about Love (Celine Dion), Let Me Love You) for the audience and then we give out certificates. Oh boy do we give out certificates. We had certificates for attendance, good conduct, math, science, sport, computer, language arts, music, art, and general studies. Also, every student received a certificate of 'attendance in the st. andrew's children education program' with their report card on the back of it. These thick paper certificates (that I had the privilege to design and sign!) are, to some people, as important as a high school diploma fis or Americans. A couple weeks ago when we realized time was running out and we had to cancel a couple days of school I was thinking of just giving out 3 types of certificates but Yohannes was quick to tell me that would not be good. The certificate is so very important to them in their culture.

Actually, an interesting story about a certificate. During the ceremony one young student came approached me as Yohannes and I were annoucing something to everyone and it was clear he was quite nervous and upset. He wanted to tell me that his certificate was not right. He was trying to explain that his second name was incorrect. I told him to sit down and talk with me after the ceremony. So, hours later he and his mom took the certificate to Yohannes and the mother (who I know well) was very upset. She told Yohannes that if the name wasn't spelt correctly, her husband could divorce her! It needed to be changed! I was trying to figure that one out. In this woman's case, her husband is Christian and she was a Muslim until just last month when she converted to Christianity. (Secretly of course because you must be secret about conversion or else you could be killed.) I was told she was probably really upset because an incorrect last name would be a disgrace to her husband, and even if he didn't want to divorce her he might have to in order to "save face", which is often one of the most important things to do. In many African and Arab cultures one's second name is his or her father's first name, and the third name is the grandfather's name, fourth name is great-grandfather. I actually know some people named such things as Mohammed Ishmail Mohamed Ahmed or Sadam Sadam Ahmed Sadam.

This weekend I received the final tally of report card marks for each class. Many students passed their classes and are able to move on. Some, unfortunately, are not. The most disturbing thing was to look at the Teen 4 class. Out of 15 students, 11 failed. Eleven! I knew that wasn't the whole story, however. There is more to it than meets the eye. Immediately I spoke with Dick about this and also with the Teen 4 teacher, Amany (who is an excellent teacher). Amany said that a few of the kids did indeed fail, but some of them just froze and didn't test well. At least two of the female students got so scared they just couldn't think and did poorly, even though they had done well all year.

However, there is a bigger issue--most of them just don't want to pass. Why? Because they don't know what else to do. Teen 4 is the highest level for our children's program, and most of the students are in the late teenage years. If they want to, they can join the adult program in a year or two, but they don't want to do that. These poor kids, they don't have a college to go to, they don't have plans for their future, they don't have jobs to apply for and work towards, they don't have reason to be motivated and work hard to get a good education because what ever comes of it? (Of course, we know for those who end up resettling to a place like America, they need an education and it matters. But here, it's not the case. A lot of the most educated people are the ones without jobs.) We are trying to think of what we can do to help them, such as providing more internet classes, an accounting class, and maybe some writing and literature courses. But when you think of it, it's just so sad. What do they do?

Cairo Choral Society

This spring I joined the Cairo Choral Society, full of mostly ex-pats from Europe and America living in Cairo and wanting to sing semi-professionally again. In December Teri and I went to their Christmas concert (where they sang the Messiah) and it was completely wonderful and one of the most spiritual events for me during that time of the year. Well, Teri got the idea that we should join the choir. Ha! Join THAT choir?! Sure, Teri, who has great musical background, could think of it, but certainly not me. I've never had a trained voice before, and the first choir I have ever been in was last year with my home church. But, Teri wouldn't give up, and kept telling me I'd be just fine. Finally I said, okay, I'll go for the first night, but I'm probably not going to sing and I'll just go there for you.

That was back in January. We went to the first practice and I was scared out of my mind. The practice was 2 1/2 hours long and we started with all these breathing techniques I didn't know or understand and all these scale practices that I couldn't figure out. The director was intense (still is). We stood next to the woman who ended up being our soloist for the concert. We didn't know anyone, but everyone seemed to do the ex-pat-Cairo thing; that is, join something and be INTENSE about it. That first night we had to sign up and we were given a couple sheets of information about the choir--the concert dress code, the choir dues, the names of the people on The Board. For Le 150 we could join the choir, and that money helped pay for the ORCHESTRA that would play with us for the concert. We were given music and noticed almost all of our pieces were in German. Yikes. Oh, and some French and Latin. So, not only do I need to learn how to carry I tune, I need to learn to speak another language at the same time. Wow. Scary.

Somehow Teri convinced me to keep trying it, even though that first night I don't think more than a couple sounds left my lips. I didn't want anyone to know I really couldn't sing and certainly didn't belong in this choral society. I've always loved singing, but I've also always been self-conscious about it. Anyhow, Teri was a good support and told me of course I could sing, and she would know--after all, she does know what she is talking about.

So, four months later and a lot of long singing practices, it was time for the concert this past week. By this point I just thought it was a success that I could sing for more than two hours and not go home with a sore throat. Well, the concert was AWESOME! After a couple days of dress rehearsal and some set-backs (such as our hired tenor soloist backing out the night before the concert--our director has never seen anything like it!) we held two concerts; one at the American University in Cairo and the other at All Saints Cathedral in Zamalak. And Teri told me I was GOOD at singing. Yes, really pretty good, in fact. Darn tootin' sweetness.

I invited six of my St. Andrew's teen students to attend the first concert, and they all showed up, some bringing a cousin or two. They all said they've never seen anything like it--none had been to a music concert. We went out for some ice cream afterwards too. Such a great time! After the second concert the choir was invited to a home of one of the deans at AUC to celebrate with food and friends. I made zucchini bread and received compliments on it all night, mostly people talking about it without knowing I made it. People were trying to figure out how to make it and suggesting it to other people. The word "tremendous" was even used. Oh, what a great night!

The songs we sang:

"O Nuit" -Jean-Phillippe Rameau
"O sing unto the Lord a new song" -Henry Purcell
"Cantata No. 34" -J.S. Bach
~O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe
"Regina Coeli, KV 276" -Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
"Die Harmonie in der Ehe" -Franz Joseph Haydn
"Der Greis" -Franz Joseph Haydn
"Die Beredsamkeit" -Franz Joseph Haydn
"Mirjam's Siegesgesang" -Franz Schubert

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Demonstrations turn violent

Only two more days left of school at St. Andrews. Tomorrow is the last day of regular classes, then one day of the closing ceremony. I can't believe the school year is already over. I feel like I just arrived. In a sense, I have just arrived. It's taken me these 8 months to get acquainted with Egyptian culture, and then again with African culture. It's taken me 8 months to start learning the names of our students and remember just who is a Dinka or a Nuer. It's taken me 8 months to realize the situation in Sudan is more complex then you can imagine and there is no easy solutions. It has taken me 8 months to (hopefully) earn the trust of the teachers and students, even though I'm turning around and leaving them so soon. It's taken me 8 months of making many mistakes, learning from them, and finally feeling at the point where i could be prepared to be the Director of a Children's Educational Ministries for displaces people living in Cairo.

Well, there will be a lot of time to think more about that soon, but what I want to write about right now is why we only have two days left of school. See, we were supposed to have school this Thursday, as well as last Thursday, but both of these days were cancelled. Why? Massive demonstrations going on just outside our school. They are so massive and becoming so violent we've had to gate up our doors and close school so that the students don't find themselves in an unfortunate situation. I'm sure some of you have heard about these demonstrations. At least I certainly hope you have.

What are they all about? Well, it started when a couple judges spoke out against the presidential elections of last September in which Mubarak received about 90% of the vote--and he's been in office for, well, longer than any American president in history. After the judges spoke out against what they saw as some fraud and corruption, they were thrown into jail. The word on the street ( i.e., from my Egyptian friends and students) is that it has really only been in the last few years that people have been able to speak out against the government and talk about politics. Even at that, it's still not 'okay'. A lot of things are not 'okay' here. For instance, if I was ever to try to convert a Muslim to Christianity I would be thrown into jail or forced to leave the country. Scary.

Well, I'm not so involved in Egyptian politics, but I am all for democracy and people having the freedom to voice their opinions. Unfortunately, what starts out as a peaceful protest has turned into violence. I witnessed the first demonstration a couple weeks ago by climbing to the roof of Atia's home (our bohab, whose home is on the corner of St. Andrew's property and overlooking one of the busiest, loudest, dirtiest parts of the city.) The demonstrators came out around 11:30 a.m. and gathered in the streets. But, the police were ready. Thousands of riot police, wearing their intimidating black uniforms and helmets, carrying clubs and shields, lined up row after row to block the demonstrators and be ready to stop them at any given time. The demonstrators were shouting out things against the government, against the emergency law, against Mubarak. Just before noon they were given a warning that they had 5 minutes to leave. Well, then came the call to prayer, so men lined up and started praying towards Mecca. They didn't stop after the noon-time prayer, however. Instead, they continued in praying for the next call to prayer. They knew the police wouldn't attack them while they were praying.

I didn't see that demonstration get bloody, although I heard it did as it moved down the street. What I did hear was that the emergency law was officially re-instated only a couple days after this, infuriating Egyptians all the more. The last major demonstration was last Thursday that did turn violent. Speaking of journalists alone, almost a dozen journalists were beaten in order to keep them away from the scene taking photos. Still, Egyptians are not ready to let it go; apparently they will demonstrate every Thursday until something changes. Insha Allah.

New York Times Egyptian Forces Beat Back Demonstration for Judges

Egypt Police Beat Pro-Democracy Marchers;_ylt=AryWDJ4PDmK2ieU0uw23HKnFCBEB;_ylu=X3oDMTBiMW04NW9mBHNlYwMlJVRPUCUl

Baheyya, An Egyptian BlogRegime, Judges, and Public: Take Five

Monday, May 15, 2006

Ethiopian wedding

The Fira sisters invited me to an Ethiopian wedding last weekend. I absolutely love weddings, and a chance to attend one of another faith (Muslim) and another culture (Ethiopian) provided weeks of growing excitement. For a couple weeks before the wedding Mariam, Faiza, and Gitu where daily reminding me of the wedding date and asking me what I was going to wear. Will I wear their long silky silver dress? What about the fun, frilly, orange-peach summer dress? What kind of make-up will I put on?

A week before the wedding I visited the Fira home to meet the bride, some sort of distant cousin of the girls. Amina, the bride, was writing out invitations and transferring her friends and family's contact info. into a new address book. I spent the day learning how to make Ethiopian food. I was given the chance to make the flat bread, made like a crepe by spreading a thin layer of dough in a big pan. We cooked some lentils and vegetables, added a lot of spice and tons of onions and oil, and eventually, three hours later, produced some good cookin'. (Although it was fun, I certainly don't want to spend three hours cooking very often in the future!) It was my job to set the table, and after not finding enough forks I decided we would be fine with just spoons. Why not? It wasn't until we started eating that I remembered they don't use spoons. The bread and fingers are their utensils. They had a good laugh watching me start with the spoon only to soon ditch it in order to grease up my hands like them. Nothing like fitting in! :-) I brought some white chocolate--Mariam's favorite--over for desert that I bought in Prague, to conclude the meal.

Before I left, Amina gave me three invitations for the wedding; one for Khalil and me, one for Aaron and Alice, and one for Jay. The Fira girls cleaned Aaron, Alice, and Khalil's apartment once, and they knew Jay from St. Andrew's field trip. Amina had never met any of them, and probably didn't know who they were. Yet, here we were given real invitations! Sweet! Here's some new vocab for you, from a tribal Ethiopian language: "Kabajamtoota Keenya Cidha Obbo Mahdi Hassan fi Aadee Amina Abdallah". This means "Our Honorable Guest we kindly invite your honor to attend a wedding ceremony of Mr. Mahdi Hassan and Mrs. Amina Adhallah."

The first 'odd' thing about the wedding is that it was on Sunday night. That's weird for us Americans, but even in Egypt Sunday night is a working night. Anyhow, the invitation said the wedding ceremony started at 7pm at the Sofitel Hotel in Maadi. Jay, Jay's friend Shile, and I showed up at 7:05pm. We rushed up the stairs to find the banquet hall....empty. We searched around--maybe the wedding was being held somewhere else? We pondered...well, it wouldn't be held in a church...would it be in a mosque? Are weddings ever conducted in mosques? Was there even a wedding going on in our preconceived notions of what a wedding is? Finally we noticed one other woman sitting in the lobby; she had the invitation in her hand. Okay, so at least we weren't the only people who didn't know where to go.

Actually, we were in the right place. Our mistake was thinking in American time, not Ethiopian time. If a wedding starts at 7pm, it really means 9pm. Duh. We are in the MidEast, after all. Time is different here. Still, I think we got caught up in the idea that this was happening at a really nice hotel, a very western hotel. Heck, we even received an invitation!

Well, by 9pm most guests had arrived, and the wedding party was on their way. We were sitting in the banquet hall, over a hundred people sitting around tables, and we were the only Westerners/white people in there. The only English-as-first-language people. We were totally out of place, but not uncomfortable. For the most part, no one paid any attention to us, and I was relieved. I can't go anywhere in Egypt without getting noticed!

I received a call from Mariam then, who said they (wedding party) was downstairs in the hotel lobby and I needed to come see them. I made my way down to greet the wedding party and see Mariam and Faiza dressed in beautiful matching dark green gowns and gold headscarves; they were both flower girls. (But instead of having flowers they had a lot of confetti they would throw into people's hair.) Mariam shrieked when she saw me and came running over to me, grabbing my arm, and pulling me over to the wedding party. From then on, nearly everywhere they went, I was asked to come along by Mariam and take photos. At first I felt really odd doing this (obviously, I'm the one out of place here--I can't even speak to these people!) but I started to recognize that my role as a photographer was not only accepted, it was desired. Okay, great!

Before the wedding party came up the stairs, the bride and groom stood side by side while an Egyptian music group played a combination of Ethiopian music and Egyptian music (at one point including bagpipes--I have no idea what that was all about!) and the bridesmaids and flower girls perform traditional dances around the bride and groom for awhile. I was busy trying to get close and take pictures, when I suddenly realized the hired video camera man was asking me to go dance as well. What? No, way...there is no way I should go into this--I have no part in this. Before I could back away Mariam noticed what was going on, and she came over to grab Jay and me and lead us into the dancing circle. Well, okay! If you can't beat them, join them right? Jay and I started dancing and following along, trying to not look too silly as we imitated the amazing dance moves these women were making.

I soon discovered that the "wedding" had already taken place earlier in the day at the home with just a few family members around. I'm really not sure what that entails (as a Muslim wedding, as an Ethiopian wedding) but the wedding ceremony I attended was similar to what I would expect back home. We danced a lot, sat around talking a lot, and ate a lot (dinner didn't start until 11pm though.) The bride and groom sit in huge queen and king-looking chairs that are elevated on a platform facing everyone. The spend most of the ceremony sitting there, watching people. When the food first came out they stepped down from their thrones to exchange some kofta (a minced meat food) in the same way we share wine--Amina fed Madhi and he fed her.

It didn't take long to realize that Khalil, Jay, Shile, and I were the honored guests of the night. Mariam, Faiza, and Gitu made sure we were very comfortable all night, but it was more than that. When we got in line to eat, a number of people tried to let us pass to get in the front of the line. When the bride and groom danced, we were often the first people pulled into it. I later heard that it's good luck for them to have a "white person" at a wedding ceremony--brings them years of happiness and good luck or something. Part of me wasn't at all comfortable with this--there is no reason we should have special treatment and it was really hard to accept, but then again, it was really sweet. Unlike most of my experiences in Egypt, people weren't treating us this way to get something from us, to use us, to expect more from us. In fact, no one really gave much attention to us other than to just make sure we knew we were a PART of what was going on; they were being hospitable in the way they knew was best.

Before I left for the night (around 2am) I was asked to give a speech. A speech! The best man gave the first speech, and then Mariam stepped in and told the announcer that I was next in line (because I needed to get going home). Um...what do I say? I knew some people knew English, but I assumed most did not. Also, who even knows me? How strange! But, okay, if she wanted me to talk, I can talk. I said I was so happy to be a part of a beautiful celebration, I wish the couple the best, and other good-feeling stuff like that. Ironically the husband lives in Minnesota; he works at the U of M as a lab technician and has been in America for about 7 years. I mentioned that I would love to see the couple in the future. Now it's a matter of how soon Amina can move. Amina is a refugee, so there is a process involved. In fact, Mahdi came to Egypt to get married in order to help the process move along more. They hadn't seen each other for 7 years. Although they talk on the phone and know they were/are interested in each other, I think it was a classic example of how family ties help one choose the 'perfect' spouse. In other words, this marriage has been 'in the making' for some time now. And they were lovely!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Elias Chacour

Elias Chacour

For the spring Cairo Lectures, Elias Chacour, described as a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Palestinian Archbishop of Galilee, and renowned "Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation", visited and offered his words and wisdom. His vision has been to create a school for all children of Isreal--Christians, Muslims, Druze, Palestinians, Israelis. Today the Mar Elias Educational Institution exists for nearly 4,000 students from kindergarten through univeristy to learn together with a goal of building peace in the Middle East. Earlier this year I read one of Chacour's books, "Blood Brothers", which gives detail to Chacour's childhood and how he became a refugee in his own land. I absolutely loved his book, and I was ecstatic to hear that he was coming to Cairo.

One big struggle I have witnessed and experienced this year is the large (at times extreme) misunderstandings between people of various faiths. Muslims hating Christians, Christians hating Muslims, Christians hating Christians. I was not unaware of this before coming to Cairo, but living in it makes it so much more real, and makes me feel that much more sad, frustrated, scared, confused, and helpless. Every day I wake up trying to think of ways to bring people together, to increase the listening and decrease the talking.

Chacour was a breath of fresh air for me because he brought these issues to light. As I listened to him speak of the Palestinian and Israeli issues, I was awestruck and fully moved. This man, and this man's family and friends and people, have been through hell. Yet, he never showed signs of hatred. Rather, he said, "I was not born a Christian. I was born a baby. We are all born babies." Later he repeated this and then said, "But I was also born as the image of God. Do not try to convince your neighbor he is less than the image of God. When you persecute your neighbor, you are killing the image of God." Below I typed out some of the things he said that night I thought you might enjoy. But, more than anything, I encourage you to read his book. You'll love it.

"Everyone is the same. Everyone is a mixture of good and evil. It all depends on what we give more attention to."
--"...look for the hibernating friend in that person, do not look for the hibernating evil that is in BOTH of our hearts."

"Go to your Galilee--that place where someone needs forgiveness from you."

"In Aramaic the word we translate as "blessed" means "straighten up" and work to your destination. Do something if you are hungry and thirsty for justice."

"What starts on a large scale? Nothing--things start small; as small as a mustard seed."

"No one says, 'the land belongs to me also.' People say 'the land belongs to me.'"

"We need to read scripture to find inspiration, not justification for your preconceived ideas. It should storm your mind, bother your quietness and look at your left and right hand... to see what God has made most beautiful."

"Our God is not a Christian God; it would be miserable. God is God, otherwise he would be a reformed, not reformed, not yet reformed God."

"Peace doesn't need contemplaters. Peace needs actors."

"We are to witness to the fact that God loves everyone."

"I did not immigrate to Israel, Israel immigrated into my Palestine."

"Is Israel a state for Jews who tolerate Arabs? I hate "tolerance". I will 'tolerate' you until I get rid of you. Everyone is expected to be a danger, no one is expected to be a friend."

"I am a law-abiding citizen, unless the law is unjust, then I don't care."

"We people from Galilee, we do not make appointments, we make appearances."

"We hit the bottom of hope, but never hit the pit of despair."

"Peace takes much less weapons, much less dollars, and much more recognition that both sides are right, but in exaggerating that right they are wrong."

"We do not negotiate peace, we live it together."

"Don't raise hell, raise hope. But not from the top, make peace in and around you."

"You will find what you are looking for--enemy or friend."
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