Monday, December 28, 2009

Prenatal Visit #1

This morning I had my first official prenatal visit at the health unit. Finally! It's only the third time I've been to the health unit since I knew I was pregnant ... but it seems like things are on track now. The doctors are acknowledging that there's a baby growing inside me, not just a miscarriage waiting to happen. As the doctor said, "You're never completely out of the woods, but getting that heartbeat was HUGE."

If you go by the date of my last normal period (off by a few days based on when I know I ovulated, but the doctor wants to go with it, so okay), I'm around 9 weeks along now. My official due date is 3 August 2010. I guess that means that officially, the baby is gestationally 7 weeks old, since the date of pregnancy is assumed to be two weeks before a woman actually ovulates and becomes pregnant. So, according to my pregnancy book, the baby should be about an inch long now. He or she should have elbow, wrist, and knee joints; fingers and toes; and external ear folds. Primitive neural pathways are forming. It's estimated that one hundred thousand new nerve cells are formed each minute. Wow! That's 100,000 a minute! What a HUGE little miracle God is working inside me!

Now on to the next big milestone ... early screening for potential problems. There are four options: (1) no screening, (2) an early invasive procedure--I forget what it's called--that risks miscarriage but can be done earlier than other screening, (3) amniocentesis, or (4) nucal translucency ultrasound plus blood tests. This ultrasound focuses on whether or not the baby has a nasal bone and on the thickness of the fluid at the back of the baby's neck. Apparently, this information, in conjunction with my blood tests and my age, is a highly accurate predictor of various problems with the baby, including Down's syndrome.

Jeff and I have decided to go with option #4, the only one that provides information about potential problems without increasing the risk of a miscarriage. We'll need to have it done in late January. We aren't at high risk, but the test is available and safe for the baby, so we've decided that we want to know. Many people want to know early so they can abort if there are problems; that isn't an option for us. No matter what, this is our baby, given to us by God, and we'll keep him or her as long as possible. But if there are problems, we'd prefer to have time before the baby arrives to prepare ourselves as much as possible. But of course, we aren't expecting problems--this is a routine screening that's offered to everyone, although the nucal translucency option is a new one. I don't think we would have had any screening done if the only options were the invasive ones that could potentially cause miscarriage.

Anyway, I just wanted to provide a pregnancy update. I'll continue to post updates as the situation warrants. Please continue to keep us in your prayers--as the doctor said, you're never totally out of the woods. We're so happy to know that so far, the baby is doing well and developing normally. We just pray that the baby continues to develop in a normal and healthy way.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sandboarding


On our way back from Whale Valley, the chitchat was all about our upcoming offroading adventure and sandboarding experiment. We flew down the dirt track until suddenly, the driver swerved off the track and into the desert. The ride was still smooth--so smooth, in fact, that the driver started angling the vehicle to catch a few humps and allow us to feel like it actually was an adventure. Every time we hit a bump, most of us groaned as we jerked unceremoniously into the air. The exception was my mom--she loved it. I'm convinced she encouraged the driver to keep it up, but that's okay.

Before too long, we pulled up in front of a large dune and stopped. The drivers and tour guide got out and took a good long look at it, and a couple of us tourists got out and snapped some pictures. Then the drivers and tour guide all returned to the vehicle, rounding up their errant charges along the way, and we were off again. It wasn't until we stopped again that I realized what was wrong with the first dune--it wasn't large enough!

When we stopped again, we all piled out of the vehicles without waiting for permission. I looked in awe at the huge dune. We were supposed to climb that and then race down it on boards?

I wasn't too sure about that ... but there was no way I was going to not sandboard, either, so I compromised. I grabbed a board and headed up the dune, but I only went halfway up. I looked at those crazy people who were going all the way to the top. I may have muttered something along the lines of "I'd break my neck!"

I wasn't the only one who was hesitant to try full-fledged sandboarding from the get-go. A friend and her husband also went only halfway up, and it turned out to be a very good thing for me. We watched from our perches halfway up the dune as our guide showed those brave souls at the top how it was done. About the only thing we could make out was that you sit in the sand, put your feet in the straps on the board, then stand up and go. So I sat in the sand and tried to put my feet in the straps. Much easier said than done! The slippery board kept sliding away from my feet. Finally, my friend's husband stood in front of me and propped my board up with his foot. After that, getting my feet in was easy. But I quickly realized that I would not be standing up on my own. Luckily, the kind man who had just helped me with the board was willing to help again. Offering his hand, he hauled me to my feet and then prepared to send me on my way down the dune. Much to his surprise, I had developed a case of the jitters and didn't actually let go of his arm. As his wife laughed--and Jeff took pictures from the bottom of the dune--he helped me steady myself and eventually convinced me to let go of him.

I started sliding down the mountain ... and suddenly stopped. The front half of my oh-so-slippery sandboard was buried in the sand! Being unable to bend over to wipe it off without tumbling, I hopped around a bit and tried to lift it out of the sand. I slid a few more inches down the dune. Good enough. I stepped out of the straps, picked up the board, and turned to climb back up the dune, not quite sure what I had done wrong.

I went a little higher this time than I had the last time. I sat back down in the sand and tried--unsuccessfully--to put my feet back in the straps. I had no help this time, as my assistant was busy helping his own wife. About that time, I saw the guide fly past me from the top of the dune on his way to the bottom--and he was lying down on his board this time. Facefirst down the huge dune--I don't think so! He was followed by one of the kids, sitting on her board. Hmm ... now that looked like a position I could get myself into. So I positioned the board on the sand and plopped myself onto it.

As soon as my feet came off the sand and onto the board, I started sliding, faster than I had when I was on my feet. Excited, I leaned forward in an attempt to go even faster. The tip of my board promptly buried itself into the sand. Aha! That was the problem--if the weight is on the back of the board, the tip rises out of the sand; if the weight is redistributed to the front, the tip gets buried and the board comes to an inglorious stop, no matter how steep the dune. Armed with this new knowledge, I tried it again, starting from my highest position yet. It worked much better this time, and I got a good fast ride all the way down to where the dune started leveling out.

About this time, Jeff got tired of taking pictures. He grabbed his own board and started up the dune. After a couple of practice runs from halfway up, it became obvious that he was going to the top. I decided that it was time, and I was going all the way up too.

The going was easy enough for the first half of the dune. Then it got steep, and the sand fell away under my feet, preventing me from making upward progress. I had to use the board as a brace, shoving it into the sand ahead of me, then climbing to it. After several minutes of hard work--how did the others make it look so easy?--I made it to the top. I sat down beside Jeff and rested while he prepared for his run. I looked over my shoulder at the other side of the dune, just inches away from me--it was a vertical drop. I wished I had my camera, but it was at the bottom with Mom, who was happily documenting our adventures. Then Jeff was ready to go, and I cheered for him as I watched his ride.

Finally, I felt ready to make my own run. I carefully positioned myself on the board, making sure to keep as much weight as possible toward the back. I lifted my feet from the sand, and I was off! The board followed a path chosen by the contours of the dune, as I never did figure out how to steer. I looked ahead and saw the young daughter of Jeff's coworker, climbing the dune directly ahead of me. "Look out!" I shouted. "I can't steer this thing!" I'm honestly not sure if she managed to get out of the way or if the dune's contours altered my path or if both factors came into play, but I missed her by a good two feet, much to my relief. She just cackled like a madwoman as I passed her, so I knew she was fine. I sped on down the hill, gradually slowing and stopping at the bottom.

I decided that it was a good run to end on, especially since I was still a little out of breath from the climb. (I didn't know yet that I was pregnant, although I wondered why I was having a more difficult time physically than I expected based on my admittedly not-great physical condition.) I joined Mom and took over some of the responsibility for the pictures, watching as the kids in our group quickly became expert sandboarders. A few of the adults learned quickly as well, but most of the adults ended up coming down the same way I did--sitting on the board.

As the sun made its way toward the horizon, we realized that we were still many kilometers from Cairo. Because we were supposed to be back before dark--a goal we already knew we would miss--we decided to head back. Happy, exhausted, and incredibly sandy, we climbed back into the vehicles, wondering whether we'd find the opportunity again to participate in this fun, surprisingly painless (even when falling) sport.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!!

This won't be a long post--it will quite possibly be the shortest post ever--but I do want to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas. Jeff and I are enjoying a lazy day at home. I hope that whatever you're doing today, you're having a wonderful and blessed time on this day when we celebrate the ultimate gift.

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" Luke 2:11



Sunday, December 20, 2009

Heartbeat

We have one! I saw the flutter myself on the ultrasound. Hamdulilah, praise Jesus!

Now for the saga of the ultrasound ...

When I made this appointment two weeks ago, the saga showed signs of being more complicated than necessary. In the States, you'd call the doctor, make your appointment, show up, maybe wait a while, have the procedure, and then your various doctors would coordinate amongst themselves so the report ended up where it needed to be. No real surprises.

Not so in Egypt.

First, the health unit people called the local doctor. She told them to call someone named Magda. They tried to reach Magda, to no avail. Eventually they reached Magda. Magda said that the appointment had to wait for two weeks, until I was seven weeks along, and two weeks was too far out to make the appointment.

I like making appointments early.

I called the clinic myself, with the blessing of the health unit people. The operator told me to call back two days later, between certain hours, when Magda would be working. I called back during the set time. Magda wasn't working. I was to call back the next morning at 7:30 a.m. I got frustrated with the incorrect information I had been given previously and tried to clarify whether the information I was getting that time was correct or not. Apparently the operator's English wasn't good enough to deal with the non-Egyptian trait of not accepting what you're told and hoping, insha'allah, that the information is correct this time. I got even more frustrated and hung up.

I called the next morning at 7:30 a.m. Lo and behold, Magda was there! We spoke. I explained the situation and told her that even though I couldn't come in for another couple of weeks, I wanted to make the appointment. She agreed, and we made the appointment. I made it clear that I needed an intravaginal ultrasound, and I needed to take the report with me so I could give it to my embassy doctors. She agreed; there would be no problem.

Fast forward to today. Jeff and I showed up shortly before 9, the time set for our appointment. The receptionist obviously had no idea why we were there. I told him I had made an appointment with Magda. He told us to sit down. A few minutes later, he called us back over and told us that Magda was on the phone, which he handed to me. Magda didn't seem to remember me at first. Then she suddenly asked, "Are you pregnant?" When I answered affirmatively, it was like something clicked in her mind. She said, "Ok, you should sit down and wait. I'll tell them what you're going to have done." I handed the phone back to the receptionist, and Jeff and I sat back down.

A few minutes later, the receptionist called us back over. He told us to go to the cashier downstairs and pay LE100, then go to a different reception area and tell them that we were there for an ultrasound with a specific doctor. So that's what we did.

We were told to wait in the other reception area, which we did for a few minutes. Then the receptionist there came over to me and started speaking in Arabic. I looked at her blankly and said, "Ana mish fahma. Arabi schwayya-schwayya." ("I don't understand. Arabic little-little.") So she motioned me to follow her and led me to the other receptionist in that area. This one told me in English that the doctor I was supposed to see was running very late today, and instead I was to see Dr. Mohammed Someone-or-another. I told her I was supposed to get an intravaginal ultrasound. She agreed and said that Dr. Mohammed would do it. I declined. I told her I needed a woman doctor. Even in the States I have not yet been forced to endure a pelvic exam from a male doctor, and there's no way I will allow it with a male Egyptian doctor, not with the stories I've heard of doctors who apparently ask women to disrobe for no reason other than to see if they will.

Completely unsurprised, the receptionist told me to wait a moment, and she made a phone call. She then told me to go back to the first reception area and wait for Dr. Laila. So we went back and made sure the original receptionist knew we were back. He told us to go to a third reception area and wait for Magda. On the way, we had to pass by the second reception area. The English-speaking receptionist there stopped us and told us to go back to the first area. We explained what the receptionist there had told us. She shook her head, told us to wait, and picked up the phone. After a brief conversation, she told us to go back to the first area.

Back in the first area, the receptionist motioned us to go into a separate area that seems to be reserved for those who have paid. After a short while, we were called in to the ultrasound room. The technician/doctor/whatever she was took the basic information that all doctors apparently want when you're pregnant, then asked if I was still taking a medication that I'd been prescribed previously. I said no, because my research had shown that it was not appropriate for pregnant women. She told me to go back on it in order to avoid a miscarriage. I said okay, mainly to acknowledge that I'd heard her, because I will not go back on it unless my embassy doctor tells me to ... and even then I'd probably want to do more research on my own first. She asked if I was taking prenatal vitamins, then told me to only take them for the first trimester. (Somehow I think I'll be taking them longer than that.) All in all, this woman wasn't really acknowledging that she isn't my primary physician.

Finally, though, we got around to the reason I was there--the ultrasound. She turned the screen so I could see it. She pointed out the gestational sac, which I'd seen on the previous ultrasound (unbeknownst to her, because it was at a local hospital, not the clinic). She showed me the embryo--the baby. She pointed out the fluttering, which is the developing heartbeat. At one point, she had to explain why I suddenly saw two embryos where previously there was only one; apparently it's normal to get echoes. She measured, and I don't remember the size, but she said that the size was consistent with a mom who's 8 weeks along. She said that everything looked normal and good, and the baby appears healthy. At this point, I readily forgave any and all inconveniences that had occurred while making the appointment or earlier this morning.

Afterward, she wanted me to meet with a specific doctor. My choices were to wait today for "one or two hours," most likely meaning three or four hours, or to come back "tomorrow or after tomorrow," when there would be clinic hours. "Clinic" means I come and sit in the waiting room for who knows how long until the doctor gets to me. Um, no, thanks. I've got better things to do and more comfortable places to sit. So I just asked for the report so I could take it back to my doctors at the embassy.

This is the point where my temper almost made an appearance. She said no. I couldn't have the report. What they had done today was for their records. It didn't matter what Magda had said when I made the appointment (which Magda had apparently not actually made anyway, reviving all the frustrations of the morning). If I wanted a report for another doctor, I'd have to talk to the doctor here and ask for it. It wouldn't be a problem to get it, but I'd have to spend untold hours waiting for the opportunity to ask for it. I was furious a little upset to hear this news. But with a heroic effort I easily contained my anger, held onto my temper, and calmly announced that I would not see the doctor today.

My husband and I calmly left the clinic. Once outside, we agreed that, as soon as I got home, I would call the health unit and let them deal with this nonsense. Meanwhile, Jeff announced that unless it is absolutely necessary, we will not be returning to this clinic. I fervently agreed with that judgment.

To make the rest of the story short, the health unit people did their thing. The report will be picked up tomorrow, and I won't even have to pick it up. I will never have to deal with this clinic again.

Still ... they made it possible to see my baby for the first time. And there was a heartbeat. So even though I'm glad not to have to deal any more with their inefficiencies and absurdities, I guess they're not all that bad.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Loosely Held

We see it all the time with kids. They have something, and they want to keep it. We want to take it away for one reason or another--maybe it's dangerous, maybe they just took it from another child, maybe it's simply time to put the toys away and go to bed. So the child hangs on for dear life, gripping it tightly, curling his body around it, fighting tooth and nail to keep it. I saw it at least once every time I visited the orphanage. Most of the kids did it at one point or another. It always reminded me of that Charlton Heston quote, when he said that the government could take away his gun when they pried it from his "cold, dead hands." That's the attitude you see in children--you can take this toy away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hands, because I'm not letting go of it while I still have breath and energy to fight.

Adults often have that attitude too. Sometimes it's appropriate. As a conservative, as a gun-owner, as someone who believes that the right to keep and bear arms is what keeps our other rights from slipping through our fingers, I agree with Charlton Heston's attitude. But this isn't a political post, so I won't say more about that. When you're protecting your child or fighting for justice, it's perfectly appropriate to fight tooth and nail, to never let go, to not give up. Sometimes the right thing to do is to grab hold, grip tightly, and fight to keep it.

But sometimes it isn't.

John, one of the first children I met at Mother Teresa's, had a game that he liked to play. He'd walk up to me and hand me whatever toy he had been playing with. He'd hand it over without hesitation, without being asked. Because he knew what was coming. Every time he gave me a toy, I gave John my biggest, brightest smile, and I would say "Shukran, ya John!" ("Thank you, John!") Delight filled my face and my voice as I commended him for sharing with me. His little face would light up with sheer joy. Often he'd laugh. He 'd just stand there and delight in being delighted in. Then, usually but not always, I'd give the toy back to him. He'd wander off, then come back and do it all over again a few minutes later.

A few times, when John handed me a toy, I didn't hand it back. I always smiled and commended him, but sometimes while I was doing that, whatever child was in my lap would pluck the toy from my hand, or it would be time to put the toys away, so I'd put it in the toy box. John never protested when he didn't get the toy back. But if I did give him the toy back, and then another child plucked it from his hand, he would weep and wail and hit and do everything in his power to get it back. If I had to take a toy away from him--one that he had not given me--he tried desperately to keep it. It was only when he'd given it to me freely, and then I chose not to give it back, that he didn't mind the loss. Once he made the choice to give me the toy, he was at peace with whatever I decided to do with it.

I've been thinking a lot lately about John. I think I'm a lot like him, in both good ways and bad ways.

You see, I was an authority figure to John. It shouldn't have mattered if he volunteered to give me a toy or if I told him to; he should have been okay with obedience in either case. I know that's a lot to expect from a one-year-old, too much to expect, but ideally, that would have been the case. But how different am I? During this pregnancy, I've been forced to contemplate the fact that the ultimate Authority--God--may choose to take this baby away from me. I should be okay with that. After all, I know that God wants the best for us, that He loves this baby even more than I do, and that there is no better place for any of us than in Heaven by His side, which is where this baby will go if God takes him or her away from me. But I'm often not okay with that. I weep and wail, internally, if not externally. I vow to do everything in my power to keep this baby--which admittedly isn't much. I rebel against His authority and demand that He do things my way.

But there is another way, a better way. I can give this baby to God, just as John gave his toy to me. When I'm able to do that, to truly give this child up, I feel a peace that can only come from God. I can put this child in God's hands and trust that God will do what is best, whether that means letting me have this baby or not. And I can be content with that. Don't get me wrong; there is still a deep sadness at the thought of losing my child. But there's also peace. There's a confidence--a rock-hard certainty deep in my soul--that if my baby dies, God is still good and God is still in control and, as a kind soul recently reminded me, God still works all things together for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

So just like John, I have a choice.

I can hold on tightly and fight to not let go. My life can be a struggle to keep what's mine. Even if this baby survives to be born, I can worry all the days of my life about what's going to happen to this child, and if the child lives, I can teach the child to live a life of fear, anxiety, and struggle.

Or I can go to One who is bigger and stronger than I am, and I can say, "Here You go. I trust You. Do what's best." And then I can lift this baby up to Him, loosely held, ready to let go, ready to let God be sovereign. I can have peace, no matter what happens. I can delight in my God and know that He delights in receiving my trust. And if this child lives, I can teach the child to live a life of trust, joy, and peace.

The choice is mine.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Trip to the Desert



My mom came to visit me just a few weeks ago, and while she was here, we did tons of shopping and sightseeing. Most of the places we went, I'd already been. I may do some blogging about those trips later on, but today I want to tell you about an expedition to a place I hadn't seen before: Whale Valley.

A couple of friends had taken a tour into the desert with Desert Adventures. They really enjoyed it and decided to organize a group trip to Wadi al-Hitan, or Whale Valley. It ended up being a pretty big group of us who went, including 12 adults and 5 children, if I'm counting correctly. Oh, and don't forget the dog. Cute little thing, isn't he?

So it was a pretty large group, which I think just added to the fun. Most of us met up with our tour guide and drivers in Maadi shortly after 7a.m. Then we went to Zamalek to pick up the rest of our group. Then we were on our way into the Sahara Desert. We traveled for around 130 km, or around 80 miles. On the way, we passed a huge "city" that appeared very well-kept and totally empty. Our driver told us that it was the burial area for all of Giza. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a picture. It was amazing--it just stretched for miles, block after block of mausoleums in the desert.

After driving through the desert for quite a while, we made it to Fayoum Oasis. This area was beautiful. It contained lush green grass, picturesque canals, a huge lake--it even smelled like the sea. Again, though, I wasn't able to get pictures. Our driver was on a schedule, trying to get us to our destination with plenty of time there and back to Cairo by dusk. He was flying. I barely had time to point my camera before we were gone; there was no time to actually take the picture.

Not too far outside of Fayoum, we came to another area where there were two large lakes. The literature provided by our driver indicated that the lakes were artificially created by agricultural runoff from the nearby oasis. However the lakes were created, they were beautiful, and we stopped to get some pictures.

Shortly after our picture stop, we left the paved road behind. The last leg of the trip to Wadi el-Hitan was on a dirt road through barren desert. The road was flanked with signs cautioning everyone to "Stay On Track." For now, we obeyed the signs.

Once we arrived at Wadi el-Hitan, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were in fact real bathrooms. Granted, there was no toilet paper, but we had been warned to bring our own, so that was no big deal. They even came complete with signs by the sink: "Water drop equals life. Conserve it." Very appropriate in this desert land.

After stopped at the restrooms, we took off up the trail to see the whale bones. After all, that was the point of the whole trip, right? Whale Valley is a protected site because of the fossils of ancient whales, which must be truly fascinating to see.


Okay, maybe not so much fascinating, those whale bones. However, there was still plenty to see. The rock formations were much more spectacular and beautiful. Take a look at some of those.


After a nice long hike, we enjoyed lunch in the picnic area before heading back to Cairo. W still had one more adventure: sandboarding. But I think that may be a post all its own.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Malya's Laughter

This Thanksgiving, Jeff and I again participated in his stepfather's family tradition--the annual Christmas Ornament Competition. This year I won't go into detail about all of the ornaments, but I would like to share mine.

My ornament this year was inspired by my weekly visits to Mother Teresa's orphanage and daycare. As I've said before, Mother Teresa's is located in Medinaat ez-Zabbaleen (City of the Garbage Collectors, usually shortened to Garbage City by English-speakers). Because the residents of this area are so poor, many of them are in great need of daycare centers or preschools where their very young children can stay while Mom and Dad both work. Mother Teresa's provides such a center, as well as functioning as an orphanage for abandoned children. Beginning last spring, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Mother Teresa's once a week until recently. (My pregnancy-weakened immune system, combined with the children's habits of rough play that include bouncing into my abdomen and occasionally hitting it, caused my husband and me to decide that it was best for our own child if I forgo my visits.)

Not long after I started visiting Mother Teresa's, I met Malya. This little girl is probably around a year old, and she stands out at the orphanage for two reasons: (1) Her face is just so incredibly beautiful, sweet, and innocent; and (2) she doesn't play like the other children do. She tends to just sit or stand where she's placed, even though she's capable of walking and running. She doesn't usually play with toys, although she'll occasionally hold one if it's handed to her. Her favorite activity seems to be sitting quietly in an adult's lap or--better yet--sprawling across an adult's chest and shoulder, lying quietly as if she's going to sleep, although her eyes stay wide open. If she's in a lap and other children try to join her, jostling her or making too much noise, she simply climbs out of the lap and walks a short distance away, where she sits or stands and looks mournfully at the commotion surrounding her previously peaceful refuge. She appears healthy, and she eats well, but she remains aloof from the other children, rarely smiles, and in general makes me worry about her.

One morning when I was at the orphanage, I was sitting with my legs stretched out in front of me. I had two children sitting on my legs, which I was bouncing up and down, much to the delight of the kids. My hair was pulled back into a low ponytail. Suddenly I felt someone behind me, pulling said ponytail. I tried to reach behind me to free myself, but it was difficult because of the kids in my lap and the fact that they were hanging onto my hands so they didn't fall off of my bouncy legs. I couldn't even turn my head to see who it was without my hair being pulled harder. I looked to one of the workers for help, but she didn't notice--she was too busy staring open-mouthed at the child behind me, who had started to emit loud, delighted peals of laughter as she shook my hair the way a child would shake the reins of a toy horse. During this process, her grip loosened enough for me to turn and see what was happening behind me.

It was Malya. She stood there behind me, laughing, shaking my hair. She even did a little dance, bouncing up and down herself in time to the rhythm she created with my hair. I was stunned. I just sat there for a moment, laughing with her as she pulled my hair out of my head. By then, the kids in my lap had abandoned me, since I wasn't bouncing them anymore, so I turned and pulled Malya into my arms. She just kept laughing, and I laughed with her.

My ornament this year made me think of that event. I chose this ornament to commemorate my trips to the orphanage, the relationships I developed with the children--with Malya, Mary, Najar, Julia, Nabil, Phoebe, John, and so many others--and most of all, to commemorate Malya's laughter.



Thursday, December 10, 2009

Big News

So much has been going on that's prevented me from writing anything here for a while. First I was sick and didn't feel like doing much of anything. Then I was getting ready for Mom's visit, and then she was here (more on her visit in later posts, I hope). Right after she left, I was very busy getting the apartment ready for a newcomer whom Jeff and I are sponsoring. The day the newcomer arrived, I got my Big News, and since then things have just been a little crazy.

Most of you reading this probably already know my big news, but there are a few who don't know yet. Here goes ... I'm pregnant. Jeff and I are expecting our first child in early August 2010.

Of course we're excited. We've wanted a baby for a while, and we're as ready as a couple can be to become parents. But mixed in with the joy and anticipation is a significant dose of anxiety, even fear, for our baby. You see, in the week before I actually took the pregnancy test, I was spotting every single day. I had very painful cramping on the left side of my lower abdomen on four or five occasions. I didn't think anything of these symptoms before I knew I was pregnant; my menstrual cycle has always been weird, and my body occasionally experiences all sorts of aches and pains for no apparent reason. But once I knew I was pregnant, I realized that my symptoms were spot on for an ectopic pregnancy--a pregnancy in which the fertilized egg implants somewhere other than the uterus. In an ectopic pregnancy, the baby can't survive, and if the baby isn't removed, the mother could die too. So I became very worried very quickly.

I went to see a doctor at the embassy's health unit, and although he tried to be reassuring, it was pretty obvious that he didn't think my baby would survive. To make a long story short--I wrote another post as it was happening that contains all the details; I may or may not publish it some other time--I ended up having an ultrasound on Tuesday to see exactly where my baby is. Jeff and I both grinned like idiots when we saw the gestational sac firmly implanted in the uterine wall, exactly where it ought to be. It's still too early to see the baby him- or herself or to detect the heartbeat, but our major fear was eliminated. As I had been instructed, I called the health unit to schedule another appointment--my first official prenatal visit (or so I thought). I made the appointment for this morning.

Tuesday afternoon, I received a call from the doctor I was to see this morning. She just wanted to check on me and confirm that the ultrasound looked good. But the tone of the conversation changed when she found out that I had come home from the ultrasound only to discover more spotting. Then she started talking about how 20% of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and it isn't the mother's fault; there are just problems with the embryo, and it can't survive. She seemed to want me to be prepared for a miscarriage while also pretending that she wasn't expecting one (I think she is expecting one).

Over the next couple of days, I vacillated between being at peace and being anxiety-ridden. At times, I was able to acknowledge that God is in control, and He will do what is best for my baby, my husband, and myself--if this pregnancy ends in miscarriage, my baby will be waiting for me in heaven. At other times, I just begged God to let me have this child.

For my appointment this morning, I was at peace. It turns out that it's a very good thing I was at peace and accepting of the situation this morning. My doctor still acts like she thinks my baby is going to die. She won't do the first official prenatal visit until after my next ultrasound, in two weeks, when we should be able to see the fetal pole and the fluttering that indicates a heartbeat. In the meantime, she offered (and I accepted) a series of blood tests that will tell us if my pregnancy hormone levels are increasing like they should be--they were at 12482 on Tuesday, and they should roughly double by tonight, when my blood will be drawn again. But she was careful to tell me that if there's a problem with the embryo itself, my hormone levels will behave normally. She seems to want that heartbeat before she accepts that I may actually have a viable baby-to-be in there.

So I'm back to waiting. I'm still at peace, though I expect to struggle with that at times. I do believe that this baby is going to develop normally and that in early August I will hold a healthy baby in my arms. If God has other plans, I will grieve for my lost child. In the meantime, I'm trusting God and praying.

My next ultrasound is scheduled for Sunday, 20 December. I'll keep you updated.




Monday, October 19, 2009

Water

In my last post, I talked a little about contentment. I wondered what deprivations I would be able to experience while still being content. Today, I realized yet another thing that I take for granted and not all others have. Indoor plumbing.

Yes, that's right. Indoor plumbing. It's a great privilege to have it. Many people around the world get all of their water from canals, wells, rivers, or other such sources. They have to go fetch their water, and what they get is what they get--microbes, pollution, and all. Although my water ultimately is obtained from similar sources, I have the great convenience of having it delivered right into my home, in exactly the quantity, temperature, and location of my needs and desires. Furthermore, because of where I live, my water is filtered inside my housing compound. Egypt apparently has a good water filtration system for Cairo, but the clean water then goes through dirty pipes, so the water that actually comes out of the tap is not safe for expats to drink. Not so in my home--the tap water is clean enough to drink without worries.

How often do we think about the clean water that is delivered to us on demand? Speaking for myself, not too often. I've thought about it a bit more than usual lately because there have been a few times when this luxury has not been available to me. I'm not sure what's been going on. The water was out a couple of times last summer, but on those occasions, it was for some type of work that was being done, so we were given advance notice. The three or four most recent occasions--all within the last month--occurred without warning.

The most recent occasion happened just this morning. In fact, the water is out now, unless it's come back in the last 45 minutes or so. It went out at a particularly inconvenient time for me today. I delayed my shower this morning until mid-morning. As I was soaping up, I noticed a marked decrease in the water pressure. Because of the recent outages, I realized immediately what was happening and started rinsing. No sooner had I gotten all the soap off of me than the water went out entirely. My washcloth is hanging in my shower, still full of soap. There was no time to rinse it. I didn't get to wash my face in the shower like I usually do. I didn't get to condition my hair, although I had washed it.

I was a bit annoyed.

Then I started thinking. Even though our tap water is potable, Jeff and I have chosen to drink bottled water, as most expats here do. So we have plenty of bottled water on hand. I was able to wash my face in the sink using bottled water. I was already mostly clean when the water went out, and one day of not soaping up my legs won't hurt anyone. I had washed my hair. So I ended up with a clean face, clean hair, and a half-clean body. It's enough for today. It's more than many people throughout the world, and throughout history, have had.

Most days, I am able to shower, brush my teeth, wash the dishes, and do any number of other tasks with minimal inconvenience. I don't have to haul water from the well, river, or canal in order to fill a bucket to wash my clothes. The easy availability of water on demand means that I don't even have to scrub my laundry myself--because we have indoor plumbing and electricity, I can have a machine for that, and another for cleaning my dishes. In the grand scheme of things, I'm spoiled rotten. Even now, with the water out, I can be confident that it will be back, probably within a couple of hours if not even sooner, and definitely by the end of the day. It may even be back already.

Why should I complain because my indoor plumbing stopped working for a short time, even if it was at a particularly inconvenient time today?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Contentment


Cleo--the cat who can't decide if she's a cat, a human, a dog, a monkey, or what--recently happened upon me as I was taking care of the laundry. My jeans were still warm. As I folded them, I stacked them on the sofa. As you can see, she jumped onto them and promptly went to sleep. I just kept stacking them. After I was done, I left them there until she decided on her own to move. She stayed snuggled up in her warm little bed for a good 15 minutes before she came looking for me ... at which point, I petted her for a couple of minutes, then gathered up the jeans and put them away.

Sometimes I'm in awe of my cats. They need so little to be content. A warm place to lie down. A small, enclosed area to feel safe--they love their airline crates. Fresh water to drink. Nutritious food twice a day (although they really would prefer that it be available all the time). Occasional petting and brushing. A small ball, bottle cap, or cable tie to chase. A clean litter box. Each other. That's all they need.

So what do I need to be content? It's hard to say ... I know the difference between a need and a want. I know the things I need in a physical sense. But the things I need psychologically ... that's where it becomes a little more complicated, more difficult to determine with certainty what is a need and what is a want. I know I need my relationship with God--that's fundamental. Could I be content without anything else, just me and God? The Sunday school answer is yes. But I also know that isn't how God created us; there's a reason why He said it wasn't good for Adam to be alone, even though God Himself was there. We're made to need human companionship. So I need interaction with other people--my husband in particular, but also my extended family and my friends. That's what I need relationally. How about physically? I'm pretty sure I could give up my creature comforts. I could be content with a lot less stuff than I have now. But then I think ... if I really gave up my creature comforts, to the extent that I lived like the zabbaleen (the Egyptian garbage collectors, who live surrounded by the garbage they collect, sort, and sell for recycling) or like many villagers (not surrounded by trash, but in extreme poverty, like in my last post)--if I really gave up my creature comforts, could I be content? Probably so, I think, but only after God had used the circumstance to stretch and grow my faith well beyond its current limits.

The sisters at Mother Teresa's chose to have their faith stretched and grown in just that way. They willingly gave up creature comforts to live in Muqattam and pour out their lives to help the children of the zabbaleen. And they aren't alone. There are people all over the world who sacrifice immensely for a cause greater than themselves. From what I've seen of the sisters, they are content--more than content--with the life they've chosen. They don't seem to see its deprivations, only its joys. They are content because they trust God absolutely, welcome all that they have as a gift from Him, and view the things they do not have as opportunities for their faith to grow--either by seeing how God will carry them through without it, or by seeing how God will provide it.

Now that's a worldview worthy of emulation.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Sisters in Minya



A few days ago, I wrote about my desire to visit the village of Mensafis, in Minya province. As you know, that desire will have to remain unfulfilled. However, I do have a friend, Halina, who has traveled to Mensafis to see the work that is being done there. She recently wrote an article that appeared in the Maadi Messenger, and she graciously gave me permission to reprint it here, along with some photos she took during her visit. It is this article that first drew my attention to the need in Mensafis and to the work that is being done there. After reading the article, I showed it to Jeff, and it was he who suggested that we support this work to the extent that we can. I hope it opens your eyes as it opened mine.

The governorate of Minia[*], 240km [note from Deborah: about 150 miles] from Cairo, is best known among tourists for its important archaeological sites including Beni Hassan, Tourna El Gebel and Tell El Amarna, a capital city established and built by the Pharoah Akhenaten in 1353 BC. However, visitors to the area do not catch a glimpse of the reality of life that is marked by the highest unemployment rate in Upper Egypt with around 1 million poor, including ultra-poor, living on the margins of poverty.
In 2007 an Order of nuns, that has been working tirelessly among poor rural communities in Egypt for 50 years, set up a mission in a small village in Minia with the aim of living among the poor and deprived families to help improve their health and living conditions and give the children hope for a better future.
Most of these families rent a small plot of land and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. They live in dilapidated, badly ventilated and windowless houses that are damp in winter and stifling-hot in summer. Few have electricity and often families are crowded into one single room in which they cook, sleep and even shelter their farm animals.
Inadequate access to clean water and the lack of sanitation in the village leads to a high rate of kidney problems and intestinal diseases - hepatitis C is rife among adults and children and few have any possibility of being cured. For most villagers the nearby canal is their only water supply and a place for children to bathe, for women to wash their clothes, pots and pans, and for everyone to dump their garbage.
Children can attend government schools but the standard of education is low. As parents struggle to earn a living, few can afford to send their children to better schools and many children do not go beyond preparatory level or drop out of school to help their parents working in the fields.
Villagers look forward to regular house calls by the Nuns who listen to their problems with compassion, distribute donated clothes and shoes, help pay for medication in extreme cases and teach and encourage women to improve hygiene in and around their homes. As community life is centered on the local parish that provides the only recreational facilities in the village, the Nuns have set up a mothers/toddlers play group and hold regular literacy classes for adults and children that are always well attended.
The Nuns have a big challenge ahead of them. As some of the Nuns have nursing qualifications, one of their immediate projects is to set up a dispensary clinic in the village where they can treat minor injuries and illnesses on the spot, detect symptoms of serious ailments in advance and help to pay for vital medical treatments. By donating to the Gold Basket you can help them to lay the ground work for this clinic so they can continue their mission to better the lives of the villagers.


The Gold Basket that is mentioned in the last paragraph is the reason why Halina wrote this article for the magazine. Each month at the meeting of the Maadi Women's Guild, one charity is highlighted. It is featured in that month's
Maadi Messenger, and a brief presentation about the charity is given at the meeting. Then the Gold Basket is passed. All of the money that is put into the Gold Basket is given directly to the charity.



* The Arabic alphabet is very different from the English alphabet. Therefore, when writing Arabic words and names using English letters, various spellings are equally valid--even though I write the province name as "Minya" and Halina writes it as "Minia," both are equally correct.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Submission

I am an independent person. I like to make my own decisions. If a joint decision needs to be made, I like a lot of consultation. If the other person doesn't care too much about it, I'll just make the decision and present it to the other person for approval.

I often have made major decisions and acted on them before anyone else knew I'd made them, even in situations where it's typical to consult with others first. For example, when I decided as a child to follow Jesus, I prayed the sinner's prayer alone in my room, then walked the aisle at church the next morning to announce my decision to the world. My parents, my pastor, and my Sunday school teacher all were taken by surprise, even though I'd wrestled with the decision for weeks.

When I was in the eighth grade, a teacher told me about a public boarding school for academically gifted juniors and seniors. I went home and announced to my parents that I would be moving out in three years in order to attend this school. I just assumed they'd support my decision (they did).

So you may think that I would have a hard time with submission. An independent person who tends not to consult others before making life-changing decisions probably wouldn't do too well when she has to relinquish her own decision-making capability to someone else, right? For the most part, you'd be right. I've rarely had problems with authority, but that's because most of the authority figures in my life were wise enough to give me general guidelines and then leave me to make my own decisions within those guidelines. That was a good strategy with me. Whenever some authority figure has made me feel the limitations on my autonomy, I've reacted with strong assertions of independence.

There are only two areas where I have not experienced problems with submission and where I would not expect to experience such problems: my faith and my marriage. I believe that the Bible is the accurate and authoritative Word of God, to whom I submit willingly to the best of my ability because I believe that He really does know what's best for me and He really does love me. I can't profess those beliefs and not also believe Ephesians 5:22-24, where it says, "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands" (ESV). I believe that this statement is true because God says it is; I can accept this command because I trust God--and it also makes it easier that I believe Ephesians 5:25, 28--"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ... In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself" (ESV). I made darn sure before I said my marriage vows that my husband is a Christ-following man whose judgment and love for me I trust. He doesn't abuse his authority; he has 51% say and I have 49% say, and we talk about everything. Often he yields to my wishes because I care more about a given issue than he does. He makes it easy for me to submit to him. If he didn't, I'd have real problems, and I think he knows that and chooses to make it easy for me.

But what happens when my husband can't give in to me even if he wanted to? When he is required to defer to someone else's judgment, and his submission requires me to submit as well? So I'm not really submitting to my husband, but to some other man? When I'm pretty confident that, left alone, I could convince my own husband to let me do what I want to do (although he just told me that my confidence is misplaced), but this third party is required to be involved, and there's no convincing him? This situation is where I've found myself.

I want to go to the village of Mensafis, in the Minya province of Egypt. There's some work being done there by Catholic nuns, and I was offered the opportunity to go see it. What an amazing opportunity--to go see some of my suffering brothers and sisters in Christ, to participate in the work that's being done to help them, to publicize what's being done on their behalf! I want to go so badly I can taste it.

I came home all excited about the possibilities, and I told Jeff all about it. It never occurred to me that there would be a problem with me going. At most, because Jeff and I both are aware of some recent problems in Minya, I thought that it may take a little convincing before we agreed that it was safe enough, and I could go. But Jeff said, "It sounds like a great opportunity, and I hope you get to go. But I have to check with the RSO first." My heart sank. There's no way the RSO would approve a trip to Minya.

The RSO is the Regional Security Officer. He's responsible for the safety of mission personnel in Egypt. He lets us know what's going on from a security standpoint, and he makes rules about things we can and can't do for safety reasons. We're supposed to notify him of any planned trips outside of Cairo and the normal tourist destinations, and his position requires him to nix any plans for visits to dangerous areas. Minya ... well, there have been some problems there lately ... but not in Mensafis! I'm convinced that I would be safe. One of my friends has visited once already, and the Catholic sisters live there. It would just be a small group of us--three of us, plus a driver and possibly one sister--not enough to attract attention. I'd even cover my hair if Jeff insisted. But he isn't insisting on that. He's insisting--as he is required by his job to do--on deferring to the RSO's judgment. And the RSO, as expected, is not allowing any unnecessary trips to Minya on his watch.

I respect the RSO. I've met him a few times, and I'm friends with his wife. He has a job to do, and his job involves protecting me ... even when it's against my own wishes. I don't hold it against him. This is just another aspect of embassy life that I hadn't thought of before I signed up. And I'd still sign up, even with this limitation, this subjugation of my own judgment to someone else's. But I certainly don't have to like it. I just wish I could convince myself--in my heart, not just in my head--that I'm really submitting to my husband, not just to the RSO.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Volunteering in Cairo

I spent this morning downtown at the embassy. There was a seminar about employment opportunities for the "trailing" (i.e., non-foreign service officer) spouse, and four wives had been invited to share their experiences here at Mission Cairo. One works within the mission, one works on the economy, one has delved deep into study of the Arabic language, and one occupies some of her time with volunteer work. Guess which wife was me. That's right, I gave a very short (maybe 5 minutes) presentation about volunteer opportunities here in Cairo. The response seemed fairly good, although most of the people there were interested specifically in paid work. [Update: I just got an email from someone interested in going to the orphanage, so it was a successful morning!] I decided to present the same information here, basically because I can (even though a lot of it has been presented in earlier posts). At least I think I can. I didn't write anything down before the presentation this morning; I just thought through what I wanted to say over the last day or so, then winged it during the actual presentation. So maybe I should say that here, I'm going to present something similar to what I said this morning ... plus a few other details I forgot to mention.

I've been here in Cairo now for around 15 months. Since it's our first tour, I did a lot of research about Egypt and what it's like to live here. Two things really jumped out at me right from the start. The first was how much Egypt has to offer us--there's a large mission and expat community to make the adjustment easier, there are a ton of cultural opportunities, and of course there are the antiquities and the amazing opportunity to live near them and see them in person. The other thing that jumped out at me was the overwhelming need.

Soon after I arrived, I started looking for ways that I could help meet the needs that are so abundant here. In the last year, I've started volunteering in two organizations. The first is the Baby Wash program, which is a part of Caritas, a Catholic charity. A group of English-speaking ladies goes once a week; each individual lady usually gets to go around once a month. Egyptian mothers bring their babies in, and we bathe the babies. While we have the babies undressed, we give them a quick once-over to see if there are any obvious medical problems. If there are, we send them to the on-site clinic. We also can see if the babies are being cared for--bathed properly, diapers changed often enough, that kind of thing. Most of the mothers are doing a great job with their babies, but some need a little instruction, and we provide that. We also give them things like diaper rash cream if it's needed.

The other charity where I'm involved is Mother Teresa's orphanage in Mokattum, in the area known as Garbage City. This is also a Catholic ministry. Some of the kids live in the orphanage; others come for daycare because their parents both have to work, and the kids are too little to go to work with their moms. The sisters who run the orphanage hire a few local girls to help care for the kids, but the bottom line is that there are too many kids and not enough workers. So volunteers go in and play with the kids and help feed them and change their diapers and in general take care of them. They need help in the morning and afternoon six days a week, and they need whatever help they can get. The only thing I would recommend is that if you go, take your own disposable wipes because what they use ... well. Just take them.

As you can see, my "thing" is working with babies. If that's not your thing, there are still plenty of opportunities for you. If you like working with children, there are refugee children who need to be taught an entire English curriculum. If you like working with adults, there are refugees who need to learn English. There are opportunities to work with deaf people. There are charities in need of administrative assistance. If your thing isn't people at all, but you're an animal lover, there are shelters that could use your assistance in caring for and playing with the cats and dogs they've rescued. There are so many needs, so many different needs, that whatever your skill or talent or gift is, you can find a way to use it to benefit others. There's a long list of charities in your packets if you want to see some of the options. {Each participant in the seminar received a packet from the embassy's human resources office; that's what I was referring to there.}

One other opportunity for an immediate, short-term project: the Maadi Women's Guild is an organization that supports several local charities through grants. The charities have a need and apply to the Guild for funding to meet that need. A lot of the money for those grants is raised at the annual Christmas bazaar. The planning for the Christmas bazaar is starting now, so if you want to help with that--especially if you have experience with similar things, but even if you don't have experience--I can put you in touch with the woman who's organizing it.

Volunteer work, by definition, isn't paid with money. But it's so worthwhile. You can meet some great new people, have some fun, and also know that you've done a good thing.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cleo's Perspective

I watch the woman as she goes into the forbidden room. The room where adventure awaits--so many options of things to do! If only I could get in there without her knowledge, I could gnaw to my heart's content on the bristles of the broom. I could explore behind the two large machines where she puts her clothes--one making them wet and the other making them dry. I could climb to the tip top of the wooden ladder, then jump over to the shiny silver tube that connects the loud, dirty machine on the wall to the hole in the opposite wall. That's the machine that the two men looked at earlier today. They said it was broken and they'd replace it tomorrow. I wish they'd never replace it--ever since it's been broken, the living room has been so nice and comfy and hot, not all cold like the bedrooms are. Apparently the similar machine in the room off the hall still works. Drat it, I wish it would break too! Then the whole apartment could be toasty warm and I wouldn't have to freeze if I follow her, no matter where she goes.

But the other machine still works. And she won't let me into the forbidden room. Even now, as she comes out with her arms full of clothes, she nudges me away from the door with her foot before she closes it. She walks off down the hall to the room where she sleeps. I follow her. I am haunted by the thought that if I let her out of my sight, she'll disappear forever. So is my sister, Isis, who trails along with me. I sigh as I pass through the invisible boundary where the functional machine takes over for the broken one, making the air chilly.

The woman dumps the clothes on her bed and starts to fold them one at a time. I jump onto the bed and walk over to sniff the clothes; I want to know exactly what those machines in the forbidden room do to them. But what is this? They're warm! This could be the solution to my problem. I lie down on the warm clothes and snuggle down into them. Oh, perfect, heavenly bliss! I'm warm, the surface underneath me is soft, and I can see her as she laughs down at me. I also see my sister, crouching by the door to another forbidden room--the one filled with shelves, shoes, and dangling pieces of fabric that are oh-so-fun to climb! She's hoping to get in when the woman opens that door, as she always opens it after bringing in clothes from the forbidden room down the hall. But I'm not tempted to join her; she won't get in; she never does, and meanwhile, I'm warm!

The woman continues to pluck clothes from the bed and fold them. She jostles me as she takes some clothing from underneath me. She seems to be picking up the big pieces first. It won't be long now--yes, there she goes. She's picked up a stack of folded shirts and is heading toward the forbidden door where my sister waits. She opens the door--Isis darts in--but the woman is too quick again. She grabs Isis with one hand, still holding the clothes in the other, and Isis is put back outside the forbidden room. I watch as the woman uses wooden hangers to make the clothes dangle temptingly toward the floor, keeping one eye on Isis the whole time. She comes back out of the forbidden room, closes the door, and pets Isis apologetically. Then she repeats the whole process with another stack of clothes and the door to the other forbidden room.

I get bored watching this process. I start to groom myself lazily. She comes back and starts folding the smaller clothes. As she pulls the clothes from around me, I get cold. I see one of the long, narrow tube-clothes that the man uses to keep his feet warm. Maybe it will work for me, too. I grab it with my mouth and place it against my neck and head. Aah, that's better. Nice and warm again--wait, what's she doing? That blasted woman just took that carefully placed piece of fabric away! She can't do that; that's mine! In anger, I bite her hand. Not hard--I don't leave marks or draw blood. It can't really even hurt her; it's just enough to let her know that I'm displeased with her.

But now she's displeased with me. She isn't laughing as she grabs the skin at the back of my neck and pulls me out of what's left of my warm, soft nest. She tosses me unceremoniously to the floor. "No biting!" She sounds angry. I know better than to try to reclaim my nest. She's now folding the clothes that I was lying on. I sit on the floor and watch her balefully as she puts the rest of the clothes in drawers--drawers that she always hauls me out of if I manage to climb in. She's no fair. I'm not allowed to go anywhere exciting or do anything fun.

But I still can't let her out of my sight. Maybe she'll at least--yes, she is! She's going back down the hall, back to the cozily warm part of the apartment. She sits down at the desk and opens the lid to her typing-machine-with-a-screen. Oh, yes, I recognize that! She calls that screen "Blogger." Whenever she makes the machine show that, I know she'll be there for a while. Here we go ... I curl up in my basket, pleasantly situated where the warm rays of the sun would hit it if the woman hadn't stopped opening the curtains when the cold-making machine broke. But I don't need to be in the sun right now; it's warm enough, with that stupid machine broken. Oh, yes, so pleasant! I think I might (*yawn*) just take a little ... zzzz ... zzzz ...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Private Message

I joined Expat-Blog so that I could list my blog there and possibly attract a few readers. Even though I joined the site just to list my blog, they offer other services as well. One service is the ability to send private messages to other members. This service can be useful if you want to ask a question of someone who lives where you're about to move, but you don't want to ask the question publicly on their blog. Unfortunately, the service also can be used for other purposes.

I recently received a private message. Do you want to read it? Here you go:


hello and welcome to Egypt


I am Arabic Teacher for the foreigners, I have certification from AUC ( American Unvi in Cairo ) about how teach Arabic as a foreign language, if u need help I am ready and with pleasure


Sister. I am Muslim person and looking for a foreign wife, cos i tread with them a lot, and most of my family are American, Sister i am swearing i dont need green Card or live in her country JUST marry for my God, this is my Intention, I don't care about her nationailty, i want nice and polite girl Really. Can u help me? I am swearing by Allah I am very kindhearted, handsome and polite soooo much

So, ladies, whaddaya say? Are there any "foreign" ladies who are interested in marrying this fellow?

No? Well, I guess he'll just have to keep soliciting help from strangers on the internet.

Messages like this are all too common on sites like Expat-Blog. Most men try to be a little more circumspect--they do offer help in language study, finding an apartment, or other things that expats often could use help with, as this guy offered. But they usually don't say explicitly that they're looking for a foreign wife. They masquerade as nice guys who just want to help, or as lonely guys who just want a friend to meet for coffee every once in a while. But their goal is to meet an expat woman and marry her.

Why are they so set on marrying a foreign woman? It may be one of any number of reasons.

For one thing, many Egyptian men think that western women are beautiful, more beautiful than Egyptian women. It's the "exotic" factor. Most Egyptians have dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin, although there are some that have lighter coloring, mostly along the coast where there's been more interaction with Europeans. So they see a woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, or other light coloring, and they think she's gorgeous. Personally, I think that the Egyptian preference for light-skinned people blinds them to the amazing beauty of many Egyptian women. I can't vouch for the beauty of most Egyptian women's hair, since it's usually covered, but some of them have stunningly beautiful faces. But in any case, there seems to be a preference for women who look western. (Of course, I was the kid who, for years, secretly wanted black hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, so maybe I'm just expressing my own biases!)

Another contributing factor is the financial status that is required for marriage to an Egyptian woman. A couple cannot get married until the man has an apartment and can support his wife and their children. However, the Egyptian economy is in trouble, and jobs are difficult to come by. Even university graduates often can't find work or end up working in jobs that don't pay enough for them to save for an apartment, much less the wedding itself. I also have been told--but have no written source to cite--that it's customary for Egyptian men to give money to their brides; in the case of future divorce, this money remains with the wife and is used to support her. An Egyptian woman would be insulted if a man asked to marry her without being able to give her a substantial amount of money; it would be like saying she isn't worth much. Western women, on the other hand, just assume that they will be working and will help to provide and support the family home; most western women would be flabbergasted if her groom gave her money that was to be set aside for her use in case of divorce. So it's less expensive to marry a foreign woman than to marry an Egyptian woman.

Finally, there is the reason that the author of my private message explicitly denies: the reality that marriage to a foreign woman is the quickest way to get a visa to move to another country. With jobs difficult to come by, and salaries low even if work is obtained, the solution to financial woes often is perceived to be a new life in a new country. Convincing that new country to let you in, though, can be a problem, particularly if you want to move permanently rather than just visit, and if you don't have a job or a relative already there to sponsor you. If, however, you marry a citizen of that country, you'll almost certainly be allowed in. Single western women are warned that men may marry them just for the visa; once the happy couple moves back to the woman's home country and the husband is granted permanent resident status, the divorce can follow quite quickly. That certainly isn't the case for all Egyptian-western marriages, or even for most of them, but it happens.

And let's not forget the Egyptians who want to marry foreigners, but not westerners. I met one Egyptian man who was very anxious to travel to ... where was it, Libya? I'm not sure anymore ... to find his wife. When asked why he was so anxious for a wife from that country rather than an Egyptian wife, he said that it was because the women there were more pious Muslims. So Egyptian women just can't win!

Of course I do need to add a disclaimer ... not all Egyptians prefer foreign spouses--most Egyptians marry another Egyptian, after all. Some who did marry foreign spouses did so for love of the individual, not merely because of physical appearance, finances, the possibility of a visa, or perceived religious piety. I have met western women who are very happy in their marriages to Egyptian men. These women know others in similar situations. They have struggles in their marriages at times, as we all do, but overall, they are content that they made the right choice.

But I am pretty sure that they did not meet their husbands by responding to a private message such as the one I copied above!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ramadan Kareem

I believe that today is the first day of Ramadan. It's supposed to start on or around today, but you can't know for certain until the night it starts. You see, Ramadan is a month in the Islamic calendar, which is lunar. The month begins when religious authorities see the first sliver of the new moon with the naked eye, and it will end when religious authorities see the first sliver of the next new moon, probably around September 19. It was anticipated that it would be seen last night, and if it was, it will have been announced via TV, radio, and newspapers. But since I don't watch Egyptian TV, listen to Egyptian radio, or read Egyptian newspapers typically, I would have to make a special effort to find out, and I just haven't done that yet.

So why does it matter if Ramadan has started yet? After all, for most purposes, Egyptians use the same calendar we do, so I don't even know the names of the other Islamic months, much less care when they start or end. But Ramadan is special.

Ramadan is considered a holy month by Muslims. It is the month in which they believe that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Mohammed by Allah. One of the five "pillars" of Islam concerns the month of Ramadan: Muslims--at least the ones who are not prevented by health reasons--are to fast from sunrise to sunset during this month. They are to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and having sex during the day. The fast is supposed to turn their hearts and minds toward Allah and spiritual concerns, including prayer and worship. It disciplines their bodies and helps them to regain control of their earthly desires. Because of the benefits of observing Ramadan, a typical greeting is "Ramadan kareem" (Ramadan is generous). The appropriate reply is "Allahu akram" (God is more generous).

The fast is broken each evening. The sunset call to prayer signals the end of the fast; at that time, the iftar meal begins. (I believe that iftar literally means breakfast, but I'm not certain of that.) Traditionally, the meal begins with a thin soup followed by a main course of fuul (a yummy bean dish) and/or meat served with vegetables, starches, and pickles. Drinks include karkadeh (hibiscus tea), tamr hindi (tamarind tea), and 'amar il-din (apricot juice). Dessert is always very sweet: konafa (a raisin and nut cake), 'atayif (a crepe with syrup, usually stuffed with nuts and raisins), or khushaf (fruit and nuts soaked in apricot juice). Iftar often is celebrated communally, with extended family, friends, and neighbors. It is popular among those who can afford it to go to a restaurant for iftar, as restaurants often have special menus for Ramadan. (If I were a Muslim woman, I'm pretty sure I would prefer going to a restaurant for iftar--can you imagine preparing a feast when you're hot, thirsty, and hungry, yet you still can't have so much as a sip of water? I do sympathize with Muslims who work in restaurants during this time!)

After iftar, life often turns to what would be normal during the day at other times of year. Many stores stay open until midnight or later (often not opening until late morning or afternoon, and closing during iftar), so people do their shopping then. They also socialize and celebrate until the wee hours.

Just before sunrise, Muslims eat another meal called suhoor. Suhoor usually is a lighter meal than iftar. It consists of fuul, yoghurt, fruit, cottage cheese, and/or eggs. Wise Muslims also will drink water at this meal, since they won't have any more throughout the long, hot day!

During the day, life is much slower than it is at other times of year. Many will go back to sleep after suhoor, since they stayed up so late the night before. Many businesses have shorter hours during Ramadan, and most restaurants (at least those that don't cater mostly to expats) will close. Traffic is very light in the mornings, which makes for the easiest and quickest commutes ever known in large cities. However, non-Muslims would do best not to leave work in the evenings until sunset, because traffic in the hours preceding iftar--beginning around 2pm--is at its craziest as people race home. For the unlucky ones who are not able to make it home in time, it is common to see people standing on street corners around iftar time, handing out bottled water and dates (a very popular food here, particularly during Ramadan) to passing motorists at no charge, as a charitable activity, which is one of the pillars of Islam. Wealthy individuals also support the ma'idat al-Rahman (literally, "table of the merciful"), which are iftar feasts held in public venues where anyone--particularly the poor or homeless--can come to break his or her fast.

The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr. During this 3-day "Feast of Fast-Breaking," parents give gifts of money and clothing to their children. Families and friends share large meals. Large congregational prayers are held. Small villages hold fairs. Jeff should get two of those days off work (it'll probably start on a Saturday, so the last two days will be embassy holidays).

Last year during Ramadan, I had only been here for a few short months. I was still getting used to being in Egypt at all; Ramadan was simply a month to get through, waiting for things to get back to normal so I could continue adjusting. This year, I probably still won't do much in observance of Ramadan--after all, I'm not Muslim. However, I would like to participate in an iftar meal as a cultural experience (maybe even skip lunch that day so it feels a little more authentic; I won't even pretend that I would fast all day or not drink water, though). Some of Jeff's friends from work are planning to go to a restaurant together for iftar one evening, and I'm looking forward to that. Other than that, my "participation" in Ramadan probably will consist of not eating or drinking in public during the day, although I'll eat and drink normally at home, and I won't avoid going to restaurants that are open during the day (I will avoid outdoor seating areas and window seats, however). I'll also be extra-careful when out and about between around 2pm and sunset--I've gotten accustomed to Egyptian traffic, but during the race-home-for-iftar rush, it reaches new heights of insanity.

I don't know if any Muslims read this blog, but if so: Ramadan Kareem! (And I whole-heartedly agree, Allahu akram.)


Information for this post was taken from two articles in the 20 August 2009 issue of The Niler (the newsletter for the "mission community"--everyone associated with the U. S. mission to Cairo). One article was a management notice providing information to mission members about Ramadan, what to expect, and appropriate behavior. The other was adapted from Egyptian Customs and Festivals by Samia Abdennour.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hijabi For a Day

Not too long after we arrived here, I started thinking that I would like to have a very conservative Egyptian outfit. Very conservative. As in, I wanted not only hijab, but an abaya. Actually, I wanted niqab. I wanted one outfit that I could put on and totally disguise the fact that I'm Western (at least until I tried to speak and my shwayya-shwayya Arabic gave me away).

[Okay, I'll translate that last paragraph for you ... Hijab refers to a modest style of dress that many, if not most, Muslims believe is required of them. For women, that means covering the hair and all skin but the face and hands, as well as a few other requirements. The word "hijab," though, is more commonly used to refer to the hair covering itself. "Hijabi" is someone who is wearing hijab. I found a blog that had several pictures of hijab here. An abaya is the long, loose, dress-like outergarment worn by conservative Muslim women. You can see a picture of a woman in a traditional Saudi abaya here, and you can see a couple of pictures from an abaya fashion show here. When combined with the head covering, it covers all but the face and hands. Niqab takes the modesty one step further. Niqabis (women who wear niqab) cover their hands and faces as well. There's a good picture of a niqabi here. Usually, the face covering is a veil that leaves the area around the eyes visible, but some veils actually have an additional, very thin, optional layer that can be worn over the eyes, so that no skin at all is visible. The women can see through this thin layer over their eyes, but no one can see them. These ultra-conservative women usually wear gloves as well, so that their hands are not visible. Oh, and "shwayya-shwayya" means "little-little." It's how I answer when someone asks if I speak Arabic.]

Like I said, I had toyed with the idea of niqab since I arrived here, even before, actually. But I never bought the outfit because I didn't know where to go, what to ask for, how much it should cost, or even how to put hijab on. I mentioned this desire for niqab when I first met Molly, the Multicultural Muslimah, and she kindly offered to help me shop for it. We were going to make an outing of it after I returned from my R&R, since I was leaving just a few days after I first met her. By the time I got back and we were able to try to get together, things were in full swing for Molly getting ready to move back to the States, so I really didn't think it was going to happen. But I'm lucky: Molly likes me, and she made it a priority to go shopping with me before she left. We went just last week.

Molly asked me if I minded wearing hijab while we were shopping. She recommended that I do so because it would look very odd, to say the least, if an "uncovered" (non-hijabi) woman was interested in buying not only an abaya--which could very well be needed by any woman traveling to Saudi--but particularly the veil, which is worn by only the most conservative women. I had no problem wearing hijab; before I arrived in Egypt, I thought that I would be wearing hijab all the time. I hadn't realized how common it was among expat women and Egyptian Christians, and even a few Egyptian Muslims, not to cover. So Molly offered to lend me hijab.

We met at a bookstore over on Road 9. I arrived wearing my natural linen shirt--very loose with long sleeves--and a pair of trouser-cut jeans. Molly had brought me a brown ... I don't know what you call it, but it's like a headband that goes under the scarf to keep the scarf from slipping and to cover all the loose hairs around the face. So she brought me a brown one of those and a brown and cream plaid scarf. We went into the bathroom, where she showed me how to put it on. She secured the scarf with a single pin that she pulled out of her own hijab. Apparently, it only takes one pin to secure it, although many women wear two or even three for extra security and style--the pins are often colored or sparkly, so they can be a fashion statement.

Then we went to eat lunch. It was interesting eating with the hijab on. The brown headband goes under the chin, and the scarf wraps around the neck area--part of hijab includes covering your neck and chest with the scarf. As I ate, the brown thing inched its way forward on my face until it was shading my eyes. Molly noticed and told me to just put my hands against the side of my head and pull it back. The really interesting thing, though, is that the waiter pretty well ignored me. He looked at me only when I spoke to him or when he was required by his job to speak to me. I even had a hard time catching his eye from across the room to signal that I needed something, although that part could have just been poor service. When I've been in similar restaurants before, uncovered and with another uncovered woman, the waiters always have been friendly. They're respectful, but they usually smile and engage in a tiny little bit of small talk. I don't know if it was this particular waiter or if it was the fact that I was in hijab, but this guy was purely professional.

After lunch, we went to a couple of shops near Road 9 and then to Maadi Grand Mall. We went all over the mall. First we looked for the abaya. We checked in several shops. Molly showed me one that was all cotton, with a modern design that had several zippered pockets. It was loose but more form-following than more traditional abayas. I decided to go with a more traditional one, so that the veil wouldn't look out of place and so that it would be more appropriate if I can ever convince Jeff to take me to Saudi. (He insists that I really don't want to go there, but I would love to go see what it's like.) We visited a Saudi abaya shop in the mall that had very soft, very thin, and therefore as-cool-and-comfy-as-possible-in-the-heat abayas. But the abaya itself cost more than the amount I'd brought with me for the entire purchase, so that was a no-go. Finally we ended up in a shop that had a variety of abaya styles. There were colorful Lebanese ones that had attached hoods, "soiree" ones that serve as evening gowns for fancy parties, and a variety of conservative black ones, which is what I wanted. It was very interesting to see how even the all-black ones had different styles. Some were a little looser than others. Some had various patterns stiched on them with black thread. Some had zippers; others had buttons. We found one that fit me well and that I liked. It was on sale (woo-hoo!). I bought it.

Oh, something I found strange: there was a fitting room for trying on the abayas. The abayas that go over your clothes. I guess maybe it isn't all that strange if a woman who always wears abayas is shopping for a new one. She probably wouldn't just take off the old one to try on the new one in the middle of the store. Especially if she's one of the women who actually aren't fully--or modestly--clothed under the abaya, since it's hot and the abaya covers everything anyway. However, it was strange for the sales attendant to show me to a dressing room so that I could have privacy while I put on an abaya over the clothes I was wearing out in public for all to see.

After I bought the abaya, we started the hunt for a black headband, scarf, veil, gloves, and scarf pins. We also decided to get the "sleeves" (tight armbands that cover wrist to elbow) that most abaya-clad women wear so that their arms aren't visible when the loose sleeves flap open. So we visited several more shops. In every shop, Molly greeted the sales attendant in Arabic while I smiled, nodded, and in general tried to behave like I wanted to be friendly and polite but didn't speak enough of the language or understand enough of the culture to do it well. I assume that most of them believed that I'm a recent convert (or revert, as Muslims consider it) to Islam. Had any of them asked, both Molly and I would have told them the truth. However, none of them asked, so we made our purchases without discussing why we were making them.

I quickly became accustomed to wearing the hijab. It didn't feel particularly hot or uncomfortable, although Molly kept apologizing because she didn't have a lighter-weight scarf for me to wear. But the strangest thing was how completely comfortable it made the shopkeepers. When I've gone to that mall before, I did not feel comfortable even stepping foot in an abaya shop. I was an uncovered, Western woman who really had no business being in a shop that targeted conservative Muslim women. It was totally different as a hijabi. Part of it, I'm sure, was that I was trailing Molly, and she obviously was comfortable and competent in these shops, both with her Arabic language skills and with her familiarity with cultural norms. But there was more to it than that. We were welcomed as those people for whom the shop existed. When I've been in that mall before and went into a scarf shop, the sales attendant looked at me as if I were a Martian. When I went in as a covered woman who was shopping with another covered woman, however, the sales attendants were very friendly and helpful. I wasn't a tourist or an interloper checking out an Egyptian mall; I was a customer.

Even walking from shop to shop within the mall was different from when I was there before. Before, I was with my husband, so no men spoke to me other than shop attendants who were helping us--and even they spoke mostly to my husband. But that didn't stop them from looking. When I went back as a hijabi with Molly, I'm pretty sure I didn't get any second looks. I was safely anonymous, even though my fair skin made it obvious that I was a westerner. I was a covered westerner, and that made all the difference.

My favorite reaction, though, was the one I got once I arrived at home. Molly came with me. She was coming up to my apartment to help me put on the whole ensemble so we could see how it looked and so we both could be confident that I could put it on by myself. She asked me if I wanted to remove my hijab before I arrived at my compound, since I had expressed a little discomfort when I first put it on about how I would feel if other westerners saw me wearing it. But by that point, I was comfortable with it, and besides, I knew my hair would be sweaty, tangled, and matted to my head, so I'd just as soon keep it covered until I could brush it out.

So we showed up at my housing compound--two covered women. We had to ring the doorbell for admittance, because I don't have a key to the front gate, which is always manned by a guard. No one--not the guards, not the groundskeepers, not the domestic help, not the residents--no one is accustomed to covered women seeking unescorted access to the compound. No residents cover. Most of the maids and nannies don't cover. The guards and groundskeepers are all men. Most of the groundskeepers and maintenance men, and all of the guards, know the residents on sight. The guards would let us in without question no matter what we were wearing. But the guard on duty that day was new. He didn't know me. He--rightly--didn't want to let a non-resident in unescorted. He stood in the gate, mostly blocking it. I stepped around him, greeting him in Arabic. He became concerned. I'm not sure what he said, because my attention was diverted to one of the groundskeepers, who knows me and my husband and who was standing near the guardhouse.

At that moment, he was holding out a hand toward me (the polite Egyptian form of pointing at me), and he had the biggest grin on his face that I have ever seen. He started talking at the same time the guard did, and I couldn't understand either of them. Remember, my Arabic is only shwayya-shwayya, and they both were speaking Arabic. The groundskeeper knows shwayya-shwayya English and always speaks to me in Arabic (he helps teach me), and the guard probably didn't think about it, just spoke Arabic to two covered women because covered women in Egypt always speak Arabic.

By then, Molly and I were inside the gate. I stopped because I knew that Molly, as a guest, needed to sign in. The guard was still trying to figure out who I was and what made me think I had the right to waltz right in when he obviously wanted me to remain on the sidewalk outside until he knew who I was and what I wanted. Finally I realized just how confused he was. For some reason, it was natural to me at that moment to speak in Arabic instead of English. "Ana sakna henna," I said. ("I live here.") He asked, in Arabic, what apartment I lived in. The groundskeeper--still grinning--and I both said my apartment number, in Arabic, at the same time. The guard took his word for it moreso than mine, I think, and allowed Molly to sign in before we went, unescorted, to my apartment. I would love to have overheard the conversation at the guard booth after I left! The four or five men who were gathered there at the time probably got an earful about that crazy woman who's trying to learn Arabic and who apparently is willing to defy the American diplomat norms by actually wearing hijab. Oh, if only they knew what I had in my shopping bags!

Molly and I went up to my apartment and I put on all my new clothes. Molly was kind enough to take a picture of me. What do you think--could I pass for Egyptian? Maybe even Saudi?



This is probably the only picture of me that will appear on this blog. My husband doesn't want me to be too recognizable on the street. Somehow I don't think this particular picture is a risk!