Doctors and Dentists: Maladies in the Land of the

Trip Start Jan 18, 2006
Trip End Jun 02, 2006

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Thursday, March 9, 2006

Doctors and Dentists: Maladies in the Land of the Pharaohs

May You and All Your Years be Happy: Turning Twenty-One in Cairo

If you're going to have a bad day it is better to have the whole thing plummet down the hill of misfortune rather than teeter between mediocre and awful. My birthday fell into this category of bad, it was a comedy of errors from the start and by noon I had pretty much surrendered to Egypt and its inconsiderate ignorance of my birthday wishes. On the bright side though, there was quite a bit of humor in it all and I was able to avoid complete misery by thinking how unique the whole situation was.

At 5:30 am my alarm went off and aroused me from my Dramamine induced stupor. I've been taking to drug to fall asleep since my hall is so loud. I now sleep soundly but it makes getting up that much more difficult. When consciousness finally settled in two thoughts formed in my brain. I feel awful and it's my birthday. When both mingled I came up with the only logical conclusion. I should skip class and crew.

But I had already decided to skip crew the next day, and if I was going to practice I mine as well go to class, so dejectedly I started putting on my shoes. Once downstairs I found out that three of the girls on our team were sick so we wouldn't be able to fill out the boat. Coach is getting frustrated with the Americans on the team because we're always getting sick at the drop of the hat. He's suspicious and thinks we're just lazy. We're too embarrassed to explain traveler's diarrhea to him in Arabic.

Weather in Egypt is practically constant compared to the extremes I face in Pittsburgh, but occasionally something changes and throws the country into chaos. Right now we are in the middle of the hamsateen, fifty days around March when strong winds come and fill the whole city with dust. The air turns cold and the dust fills the sky, blocking the sun for days. A fine layer of smoggy powder covers clothing, food, textbooks, anything that is exposed to the air for more than a minute.

On my birthday, the winds were particularly bad and our coach decided to cancel practice. Apparently it is bad for your health to be doing something aerobic in such toxic air. I believed him, 15 minutes on the rowing machines and we were all coughing. So after waking up, getting a taxi, and barely completing a warm-up we were all being sent home. But a cancelled practice is still a birthday present.

I headed to campus and helped a friend of mine study for her Arabic class. We were shivering as the wind blew our papers everywhere, but we got to share some delicious fatir and a piece of chocolate cake a friend had bought for me. Two coffees later, I was finally waking up and headed for Arabic class.

Arabic is great, I love my prof and the classes are becoming easier and easier because of all the time I spend with Egyptians on the weekend. On this particular morning though we were talking about grammar and I'm a complete dunce when it comes to this subject. I just sort of butcher my way through phrases, conjugating a verb when I feel like it. An English translation of my Arabic might go something like this:

President Bush, she ruler on America. He will be elected in 2000 in America. In the election there is many problem. But President Bush, she is nice guy.

You get the idea, verb tenses all over the place and a constant bumbling with the feminine and masculine.

As the professor was explain something about 10 cases and an exam on Tuesday I started feeling sick. I had been having stomach problems before, but this felt worse. Many of you know I swear by my stomach of iron and so far in Cairo I've fared better than anyone else I've talked to. But Cairo could topple any digestive giant and it seems that I am no exception. This week all my "knock-on-wood" statements caught up with me and after six weeks of Egyptian food my stomach went on strike.

At the break I begged some meds off a friend, politely called "No-vomit" by the Egyptians who could use some tact in their pharmaceutical marketing. It promised to keep things from coming up our out to quickly, so I took a pill and hoped for the best. Still, I was the first in the bathroom after class ended.

Back in my dorm I had plans of studying for my upcoming math midterm. I kept collapsing on my bed, holding my stomach and wondering what was causing so much pain. Every half hour or so I'd force myself to my desk, knowing that if I didn't start studying some proofs I wasn't going to pass the test on Saturday. Every time I sat up nausea overtook me and I'd have to sit still and catch my breath. For most people, the entire experience would have been uneventful, but I get sick so rarely that I'm a real wimp.

After two or three naps I was able to chat with my mom, which was great. It was the highlight of my day along with a phone call from my dad. Still, I was relieved when she said she had to go because I needed to lie down again. I willed myself to catch a cab and take the metro to Ain Shams even though I was feeling worse and worse. Along the way I kept thinking about what I would do if I got sick, especially on the packed metro.

At the Yousefs there was soup for lunch, I was glad it was such a mild dish. It became obvious that they had some surprise planned. First, because I had told them so many times it was my birthday that they had to do something. But second, because they kept speaking to each other in Arabic as fast as they could. Nancy was mixing gibberish with whatever she was saying to try and throw me off. I stirred the pot by smiling and pretending I knew what she was saying. This produced more lightning conversations full of babbled syllables. It was hilarious.

Nancy tried to make me eat seconds, but I was determined.

"Mish tannee." I said blocking my plate with my hand as my stomach did flips inside of me.

"No, you didn't eat enough!" Nancy is offended so I decide to try and explain.

"I have a" I say pointing to my stomach.

"Oh, ok." She says nodding. "You must drink something." Not exactly the
results I had wanted but at least I had avoided seconds.

Sometime that night my stomach finally revolted and I got sick in the Yousif's bathroom. It was the first time I had thrown up since sea sickness on SAS. It brought back a whole wave of ship memories and afterwards even made me a bit sentimental. But at the moment, it was a purely chaotic event. The sound of me in the bathroom produced instant alarm in the house and the whole family quickly crowded around me, filling the tiny room with Arabic questions.

"What's the matter?! What's the matter!?" They ask as I am still bent over the toilet.

"I'm sick." I manage in Arabic. They continue questioning until I throw up again. "I'm really sick. I have a problem here," I say pointing again to my stomach and hoping my little demonstration will have clarified things. I remember that I have just eaten Mama Masrea's cooking and I want to make sure she doesn't think it's her fault.

"I ate a problem at the University," I say. This produces instant nodding.

"No, Cacouta, you must not do that. Only eat things that are wrapped in plastic," Margo says clucking. The whole family is deeply suspicious of any food not made by an Egyptian mother. I have to laugh though because everything at American University is wrapped in plastic, smushed and sealed into tiny containers. Still, the cafeteria is legendary for food poisoning.

I wobble over to the sink and try to rinse my mouth. I feel faint and the string of questions from Margo isn't ending. Soon they are all diagnosing the problem. I know what has happened. I ate something bad, I have food poisoning, I need to lie down. Margo, Regina, Nancy, and even eleven year old Sandra are not convinced and are proposing a thousand explanations.

"You aren't dressed warmly enough. You're stomach got cold because you aren't wearing long underwear. You must wear it," Nancy is saying.

"You take too many showers. This makes you cold and that is why you are sick," Regina postulates.

" Don't eat anything from the street. Don't eat anything that is in the air. The dust is on the food, it will make you sick," Margo is telling me. And inevitably, she poses her one question.

"Kayte, do you want to eat something?"

I feel too terrible to be polite and I go into the other room to lie down. Everyone keeps asking me how I am, how do I feel. Finally, I lie and tell them I am good. They all sigh with relief. Regina is making me tea. I'm still warding off the threat of more food.

"You must eat, you feel hungry?" Margo is saying. The room is spinning. I miss my parents. I muster enough patience and Arabic to try and explain things to Margo.

"No, thank you. Margo, I don't want to eat. I'm afraid I will do it again," I say slowly.

"Do what again?" She asks. I pantomime the vomiting incident and she teaches me a new word, it sounds kind of like "to make exit" to me.

"I don't want to make it exit again," I say and she finally withdraws her offer of food. Nancy, Margo, and Sandra eventually need to go on an errand and after I have convinced them that I don't want to go and that I'll be just fine in bed, they leave me alone with Regina.

I lean my head back on the wall and try to imagine where my family is, what they are doing at that moment. I'm incredibly homesick and completely fed up with Egypt. I want saltine crackers and an American movie. My grouchy mood increases as I silently calculate how many days until June 2nd.

Regina is watching God TV, her favorite channel. The program suddenly switches to music and an Egyptian worship song comes on. I can barely understand, but the words are salve to my soul. The Arabic is chanted in a minor key, the singer is singing of joy and hope in Christ but there is in his voice some pain. He knows the cost of his faith and it adds a depth to the words that I don't hear in English hymns. It is one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard.

The melody calms me and my stomach is settling. Once again the beauty of Arabic reverses my mood and I'm happy to be in Egypt. I think how amazing it all is. If you had told me two years ago that I was going to live in a Muslim country, that I was going to be speaking Arabic, I never would have believed you. I'm so grateful for my faith; it is the ballast of my emotions anchoring me to truth when everything else is swaying about me.

The women return from their errand and then Hany arrives with cake. I come out of the bedroom to see presents, pastry, and coffees spread across the table. My camera is broken so I can't document any of it. The cake is Hany's present to me so I force a piece down, my stomach growling angrily as the chocolate pastry throws it into acidic turmoil. They've gotten me two beautiful Egyptian T-shirts and a picture frame. The picture frame is my favorite, it says in English "baby's christening" beneath the photo.

There are hugs and laughs and they're all babbling on in Arabic when I decide it is time to give up on the day. I crumble into bed, never so grateful for a soft pillow. And in keeping with tradition, my birthday ends with prayers whispered into the dark. My mind skims over twenty-one years, trying to hold memories in my mind. I am thinking of Mrs. Bailes 5th grade history class and of reading The Golden Goblet. I remember my birthday in India on SAS and in Italy the year before that. I imagine Mike and Destiny's wedding and celebrating my birthday again when I am home in some American restaurant with clean bathrooms and thick slices of whole wheat bread. God has been good, he has been so good.

Sunday School on Fridays

The next morning I awoke feeling better. It was Friday and Nancy and I were off to Sunday School. Nancy is very American in her observance of punctuality so as usual we arrived almost and hour before everyone else. The children stream in from the streets, dirty and grinning as they munch on chips or pastries. They're thrilled when they see me, a real live American, and there is a lot of jostling to see who will sit
next to me.

Today I am yet again enlisted as a teacher by Nancy. Last time I had to struggle through the Arabic memory verse, this time Nancy has decided I should teach them a new song. It is in English, so there are no linguistic problems, but the singing part is a bigger issue. There I am, in front of 50 Egyptians, butchering my way through "my God is so big, so strong and so mighty..." No one else could pronounce the English words so it was a long and painful solo.

The kids caught on but had a lot of trouble with the word "mighty" until I blocked out the "gh" on the lyrics. The word doesn't make any sense when you think about it. Then I acted in a mime which was a bit tricking because I was worried about missing my cue to come in as Nancy narrated in Arabic. But I managed and it went off without a hitch. When I sat back down a three year old climbed into my lap and I rested my head on her soft curls. Her eyes are riveted on the next skit and all the children are leaning forward to catch every word.

After Sunday School, I go back to Nancy's to study theoretical mathematics. All day long I am solving puzzles, finishing a math proof or sorting through cultural differences. It is all the same, search for patterns and make a good guess. The math is comforting; something so orderly and consistent is rare in Cairo. Sandra is studying next to me and occasionally I try and explain adding fractions to her. Finding a common denominator is always so confusing and one problem stumps me. I'm about to take a college midterm and I can't finish an eleven year old's homework.

That night Regina and Sandra have dentist appointments. Sandra is in the process of getting braces and since I, like every middle class American kid, have already experienced this she is always questioning me.

"Does it make a pain?" Her brow is furrowed with worry.

"Yes. Not a lot but not a little." I say trying to smooth over the truth. She groans.

" You have it in America?"

"Yes, I had a lot of problems in my mouth." I pull my cheek back and show her the scar tissue on my left gum left over from an oral surgery. Nancy wants to look as well.

"Oh, it is very big!" She exclaims when she sees the white bulge. "You could get it fixed in Egypt for very cheap." I politely decline this offer.

The waiting room at the dentist is packed, but in typical Egyptian style the lone dentist is taking his time. Sandra is in the chair, squirming and wailing. She has been given no novacaine and he is poking and pulling at her teeth. Her face is tear-stained and every time he turns around she tries to bolt out of the chair. I'm feeling even more nauseous watching it all. Regina is next; he is fitting her with a cap. It isn't made quite right and he is forcing it into her mouth. Regina doesn't cry like Sandra but she does squirm and yelp occasionally. At one point, when the dentist is ignoring her moaning, she grabs his arm to try and stop him. I walk out of the room, never so grateful for my dentist in America.

The weekend passes, I take my midterm, and it is Sunday night yet again. Leaving the Yousefs is the saddest moment of my week. In their house I am an Egyptian, attached to a family unit and looked after by a dozen worried mothers and aunts. On the metro I am a foreigner again and the entire women's car stares at me, commenting on my clothing and the MP3 player I am holding. Sometimes a Muslim woman calls out prayers during the ride and I stare at my feet as they all answer in chorus. Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! The metro is always packed and I'm often stuffed between women. When I look right into the face of a woman completely covered in black I try to imagine what lies behind those floating eyes. Her world is so completely different than mine and in a few months I will leave. Will I forget her?

The metro arrives at last I take a taxi to my dorm. I'm back in the bubble of America and Ain Shams is already fading from my memory.
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kcbell on

I enjoyed your post
Thanks Kayte,

I enjoyed reading your adventure. As Beth said - you tell a great story. Thanks for sharing.

From PA

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