May Peace Be Upon You and Your Family
Trip Start Jan 18, 2006
27Trip End Jun 02, 2006
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After my mom left and I returned from Malta, I assumed that the next week and a half would be purely scholastic. I had finals to focus on and I resolved to camp out in the dorms and ace my exams. Thankfully, God had other plans for my final moments in the Middle East and all my plans were dramatically altered.
On Monday night I went to Azar-Dubara, my Egyptian church, for the last time. I was so excited about Mike and Destiny's wedding and about seeing everyone in the U.S. again that I had become rather flippant about leaving Cairo. But when I walked into the church for the last time, saw the three hundred or so Egyptians gathered to pray, and heard the first strains of an Arabic hymn, my eyes welled with tears. Throughout the service I fought to control my emotions and the thought of the fellowship that awaited me at Living Hope and Providence Church of Pittsburgh was my only consolation.
"You are Tea, I am Milk."
Wednesday, two days before I left Egypt, my phone was ringing off the hook. Walid wanted to know if I could grab coffee, my friend Mohammed invited me to his house for lunch. The gang of Americans at the dorms wanted me to come to their farewell dinner. But my friends from Ain Shams won the day, Hany probably called three times while Erenie continuously text messaged me. I was touched and forsook studying so I could pack up and leave the next morning for Bolbo's house.
As it turns out, I was taken instead to Rebecca Rashid's apartment. Rebecca is the wife of my Egyptian doctor in the U.S.; Dr. Rashid was one of the most influential people in convincing me to study in Egypt. His wife comes regularly to Cairo to serve orphanages in the area. On this trip she had brought her two kids, Debbie and Jonny, as well as three other American girls. Sarah was a certified English teacher who had just returned from a one year stint in Thailand and was about to sign a two-year teaching contract in Egypt. Her cousin, Ashley, was a brave sixteen year old who had decided to come along for the summer. Finally, there was Jenn, a college graduate who was going to start teaching in the fall. We all chatted over a delicious breakfast of fu'ul and eggs. Rebecca may have left for the U.S. twenty-five years ago, but she hasn't forgotten how to cook Egyptian food.
The group was eclectic to say the least. Debbie is almost done with grad school and very involved with an inner city program in Lynchburg, VA. Quite frankly, I've rarely met someone that I admire so completely. She never speaks of herself and her whole life is built around service. She loves her family and spoke with so much respect to her mom, but she is also willing to set out on her own and take a risk if it will bless others. Jonny, her younger brother, is a hyper twenty year old studying history at Temple. We shared stories about our mutual friend, Chris Brinton, and in general squabbled and teased like brother and sister for most of the day. Sarah would tell the most amazing stories about Thailand and was completely at peace despite the fact that she had just moved to a foreign country. And Ashley and Jenn braved there way through the Arabic-saturated activity, nodding and smiling courageously in the midst of a linguistic whirlwind.
The one thing that I hadn't done in Cairo was visit an orphanage, so I was overjoyed when Rebecca suggested I spend the day with them. The next thing I knew I was surrounded by a crowd of over eager girls ranging in age from three to seventeen. Some of them had been orphaned but most were abandoned by their parents. To be an orphan in Egypt is a bleak situation, the culture is so relational and almost all contacts are made through family. Orphans are the downtrodden and outcast, the forgotten children. Adoption is illegal so even that hope is taken away.
I have never been so grateful that I could speak Arabic. The children knew no English, but were adorable in their persistent efforts towards friendship. "You are milk, I am tea!" One girl kept saying, pointing to my light skin. My hair was a great attraction, and soon I felt them undo my barrette and run their hands through the cascade of unruly locks that have turned golden in the sun. Amoura! Inti asul! They exclaimed but I can assure you that in the ninety degree heat I was hardly looking "sweet, like honey."
The afternoon passed too quickly and soon we were being hurried to the van. Urgency turned to panic and I realized too late that we were taking one of the children to the hospital. A tiny five year old with epilepsy, Gargis had just taken a new medication for the first time. He had gone stiff and stopped talking and now he was laying rigidly in the lap of one of the workers as we rushed down the crowded street. Debbie held his hand, prodding him to talk or respond in some way. Everything was very confusing and the only thing moving faster than the van was Rebecca's Arabic as she took control of the situation. We pulled up in front of a hospital and the worker took Gargis in. I never found out if he was ok or what happened to him. But now the image of his curled up body and blank eyes is stuck in my mind, added to a pile of memories that I don't know how to respond to.
We ate lunch at Margo's and I exchanged warm embraces with the whole family. She made us koshiri and then the adults all fell asleep as the rest of us talked about our lives back in America. I was drowsy; I had been up at six to prepare for my stats final, but the thought of my departure the next day kept me from sleeping.
That evening we went to an Egyptian version of a nursing home. It was a building run by nuns housing elderly or handicapped women. But in Egypt this is very shameful; it is so counter-cultural to put your parents in a place like this rather than having them live with you. I didn't want to go; I was tired and not sure I wanted to see anymore suffering that day. And more honestly, I was worried about what I would say and how awkward the whole situation was going to be. But we went anyway and soon I was standing in a dim hallway that was filled with wheelchairs and the dark, crinkly faces of twelve or so women. For a moment I stood there, afraid and not sure what to do next. Then one of the nuns introduced me to Tanta, a woman sitting over to the side.
"She speaks French," the nun said. I have no idea why the nun told me this since Tanta also spoke Arabic. But I knew instantly that God had ordained my encounter with Tanta, my Arabic was getting me nowhere with the women and I gratefully switched to
"Bon soir, Madame," I said respectfully, her face broke into a wide smile.
"Bon soir. I speak French, I was educated in France," she responded and then plunged into a rapid narration of her life. Her words were repetitive; she often retold me about her sons in Canada and Turkey and had to ask me my name three times before she remembered it. But between the circular maze of stories I discovered a tale of heartbreak.
She was well-educated and spoke five different languages. Occasionally she would break into Greek to my great confusion. She was Greek orthodox and had lived in Egypt, France, and Lebanon. Her husband had died when she was thirty, and with tears in her eyes she told me they had only been married for five years. Throughout her life she had worked as a seamstress until she was diagnosed with glycoma. It had damaged her brain and she went blind. The illness left her dependent on a nurse's aid and this was why, she explained, her sons had left her in Egypt. She had been there two and half years and although she assured me the place was nice and clean, her voice still cracked when she spoke of her sons.
The women sang hymns and Tanta and I chatted happily in French. She was particularly interested in Jonny, the one boy in our group. She wanted to know what he looked like and whether or not he was my boyfriend. She wouldn't have been Egyptian if she hadn't asked about my marital status. At least Tanta proclaimed that I was still young at twenty-one and that I had time.
When we left I was biting back tears. My heart was so full; I didn't want to leave Tanta. I thought of how I could brighten her existence with just a weekly visit. And I felt that she had encouraged me as well.
The Rashids' example was convicting me; they seem to go immediately to the weakest and most dejected souls. Debbie embraces dirty orphans and sits happily for hours next to the dying. Jonny had bounced throughout the day, leaving a wake of joy behind. Perhaps Christianity is not a complicated thing after all. When I think of my future I become consumed with grad school and marriage. But maybe all God is asking of me is to go to the forgotten, to sit at bedsides or play a game of soccer. These things require no preparation, only faith and a willingness to go.
That night we returned to the apartment and talked over coffees. I was pensive, thinking about returning to America and all the things I had seen that day. I prayed in between lattes, feeling that the adjustment from third world Cairo to Walmart America might be too great for me. But it is not as if God's grace will leaves me when I step off the plane in New York. There are no blank pages between the chapter of my life that is Cairo and the next chapter of adventures. Summer promises to bring even more great discoveries of His character.
For awhile I thought that we were actually going to go to bed before midnight and I was beginning to doze off. But then Erenie called and she started a stream of visitors. New people were stopping in at 2:00am. I felt God's spirit in the room as Erenie and I hastily informed each other of God's most recent works. Worship broke out spontaneously when someone started singing and then we were all gather in the living room, praising and praying. I whispered translations to Ashley.
You have justified us.
You have changed us.
We share in your glory.
It was a bittersweet night, full of embraces and ma salaamas as I promised again and again that I would be back. Hany wanted me to skip Mike's wedding and stay longer; Sandra wanted me to come back in two weeks. Pathetically, I tried to explain that eventually I needed to actually study at Pitt since it was my school and that my family would hardly appreciate an extended absence. But as I stood in the midst of them and remembered all their hospitality, how they prayed for me and cared for me so faithfully, I was almost convinced by their pleas.
They drifted out the door one by one. Regina vowed that I would forget her. I misunderstood the Arabic and nodded fervently, saying "yes, I will." Emil, who had recently returned from America met and parted with me on the same day. Dozens of cousins protested that I had never eaten in their homes, and I found myself committing to future dinners the next time I was in Egypt. And then there was Nancy, joyfully standing at Emil's side. She was the hardest and our hug lasted just a bit longer, there was a look in both of our eyes that recalled the private discussions we had shared.
Sandra had been sobbing at her house so they said she could stay the night at Rebecca's. Debbie offered her a bed, but Sandra and I had been bunk buddies from the beginning and we were more than happy to share a skinny mattress and blanket again. We climbed up into the bunk bed at 3:00am, only two and a half hours before I needed to get up. I held her hand and we whispered jokes in a mix of Arabic and English, but she was crying and I was on the verge of tears.
"Ana zahlana," she said expressing her sadness.
"Let's not talk about it Sandra, I don't want to think about it," I responded in English.
"You will come back?"
"You are sure?"
"I don't know, maybe in a year. Because I have school until next summer," I
thought this was a compromise. Sandra went quiet.
"This is long time," she muttered and buried her head in the pillow. I fell asleep to the sound of her sobs.
Two planes and seven time zones later, I was miles away from Sandra. The Bell house was in the final stages of wedding preparations, and I found myself greeting a lifetime of friends at Kristen's graduation and rushing around to dress fittings and hair appointments. I slipped back into my American life so seamlessly it startled me. I felt as if I had never left, but then my screensaver would come on and I would see worship at Azar Dubara, Nancy making rice, or the kids from the orphanage. And when it goes quiet, when there is a lull in the conversation about American Idol or Living Hope my mind drifts and I am remembering a sand dune and a camel, a beggar reminding me that "Allah is merciful."
When I left, my next trip to the Middle East was all I could think about. Now that I've rediscovered Pennsylvanian strawberries and country music my resolution has faded. The Middle East has been temporarily relegated to a pile in the corner of my bedroom, a chaotic mess of hijabs and cedar soap. But when I see a headline on Iraq or pop in my Amr Diab CD, all the joy and pain of the past five months wells up inside me. It wasn't like Semester at Sea, it wasn't like any other trip I've ever taken. Egypt struck a chord inside me, awakened some undisturbed realm of my heart that will not slumber again. Someday I will return, I must return,...inshallah.