Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Camel Market

Last Friday, Jeff and I participated in a "CLO on the Go" trip. (The CLO is the Community Liaison Office, an office within the embassy that produces the newsletter, provides orientation briefings, organizes fun trips, and basically provides information and tools to make this whole living abroad thing as stress-free and fun as possible for mission members and their families.) This particular trip promised to be unique and entertaining . . . the Camel Market!

Jeff and I, along with several other mission members, showed up at the Maadi House last Friday at the unfortunate hour of 7a.m. We piled into two of the embassy's vans and pulled out around 7:30. (We were delayed because the second van had gone to a downtown housing compound in order to pick up people who never showed, so it had to wait on them, delaying all of us. Shame on those inconsiderates!) We headed out to the Corniche and drove north to the Ring Road, which we used to cross the Nile. We took the Giza exit and headed north, passing close by the Giza pyramids. But we didn't take the main road that headed north; we stayed on a much narrower road that . . . I think it was dirt. I don't remember. Anyway, we headed north, then eventually took a left onto a road that definitely was not paved. After another left, we arrived at the gates to the camel market.

Our CLO representative paid the entry and camera fees, and we walked in. This is the sight that greeted us:

The camel market was a single, wide road, with enclosures on either side. There were camels everywhere. There also were many Egyptians, mostly men, with a few children and even fewer Egyptian women. We were told to watch out for camels and trucks, because neither would likely do much to avoid us.

Basically, while we were there, we just walked down the road, looked around, took pictures, and then went back to the vans. We were there for maybe an hour or so. But some of the pictures were amazing, so that's what I want to show you, with just a little commentary added in.

Almost all of the camels had one leg tied up. This was to make it easier to catch the camels when they tried to run away. At first, I thought it was to prevent them from running away, but I realized my mistake quickly when I saw a camel making a run for the gate on three legs. It was going pretty fast. The dash for freedom was unsuccessful, but if it hadn't had a leg tied up, the outcome could very well have been different.

This is how the camels were transported to and from the market. It's the first time I've seen that many camels in a truck, although I have seen pickups transporting a couple of camels in the back. The camels seemed pretty willing to sit down when their handlers wanted them to, and they were content to stay seated rather than trying to stand back up, so I guess it was safe enough to travel with them in the back. Of course, in Egypt, it doesn't always matter if it's safe.

While we were there, I also received a lesson about the attitudes of Egyptian men toward women. This man was in charge of a camel that was targeted for petting by one of the women with us. He was very cooperative, allowing anyone who wanted to pet the camel. He also showed us how the camel could "lip" someone--like biting, but using only the lips, with no teeth. He was very insistent on having many of us experience this, including me. I allowed it, knowing that Jeff was there if there were any problems. Then, he indicated that he'd like to have Jeff take a picture of him and me, with the camel in the background. During the picture, he took the opportunity to reach over and give me a big smacking kiss on the cheek. I shoved him away, but he was still pretty proud of himself. Of course, I didn't learn my lesson, because I allowed a picture to be taken with another Egyptian man, who started with his hand respectably (by our standards) in the middle of my back. However, that hand slid a little lower before I put a stop to it, and that particular man almost left the camel market with a nice big bruise on his cheek.

There's no particular story for this picture. I just thought it was cute, so I decided to include it. For some more pictures from this excursion, click here. I don't think I've put most of the best pictures on the blog, because they don't have stories, but there were some that I thought turned out really well, especially given the conditions. It was really bright and dusty, and most of the time, I wasn't able to actually see what the picture would look like when I snapped it. I just pointed toward something interesting and hoped it turned out!

This fellow was quite happy to pose for me in such a way that highlighted the stick that he's carrying. In fact, when I first started to take the picture, he was just standing there. When he saw my camera, he chose this pose for himself with no prompting from me. Most of the men and boys at the camel market carried sticks like these. They were used to "encourage" the camels to do whatever the person wanted them to do at the time, be it sit, stand, walk, stop running, or whatever.

Obviously, the camels are hit with the sticks. Most of the camels showed no obvious sign of injury, although there doesn't have to visible injury for it to hurt. One man, however, was sporting a gallabeya that was stained with blood from a camel that had resisted being put on a truck. My stance of trying to understand the Egyptians' viewpoint, rather than just seeing the camels' pain, didn't work so well when I realized what had caused those stains.

I don't remember if it was this little boy or another one, but one of the kids did infuriate me because of his cruelty, which went beyond a simple lack of empathy for the camels. He was roaming around the market with his stick, randomly hitting camels that were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. He'd just walk down the street, hitting whatever camel happened to be nearest to him. The camels obviously were accustomed to this type of behavior; they just stayed sitting or standing wherever they were, while the boy roamed on down the street. I didn't see adults engaging in this type of wanton cruelty, so I really hope that the kid will grow out of it. Of course, no one stopped him, so maybe the adults just weren't bored enough to go around hitting the camels like the kid was.

All in all, I'm glad I went on this trip. The camel market isn't someplace I want to go again and again, but it's definitely a good place to go once. I'll close with just a couple of my favorite pictures that don't necessarily have a story, just to encourage you to visit my Picasa page.

Oh, and here's a short video that Jeff took. It shows a little bit of what it was like to walk through the market.

(I promise, I didn't pose them like that!)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Mother Teresa's Orphanage

On Thursday, I finally had the opportunity to do something I've been hearing about and wanting to do since soon after my arrival here--visit Mother Teresa's Orphanage. This facility is run by a small group of Catholic nuns and it is much more than just an orphanage, but we'll get to that in a minute.

I had heard about Mother Teresa's from a couple of different sources. Ibrahim, the CSA guide who took us to Saint Macarious monastery and to Anafora, suggested it when he learned that I was more interested in volunteering than in finding a paid job. Then, one month, I forget which, it was the "Gold Basket" charity at the Maadi Women's Guild meeting. At each meeting, a representative from a charity comes and gives a brief presentation on the charity, and then a basket--a golden-colored one--is passed around, and all the money that is placed in the basket goes directly to the charity. When Mother Teresa's was featured, there was no representative of the charity. The sisters don't believe in asking anyone but God for help; they pray over their needs and trust that God will provide, but they don't go out and ask people for help. So the chairwoman of the MWG benevolence committee told us a bit about what the sisters do and a little about their known needs. I also learned at some point that Linda, one of the baby wash volunteers, goes to the orphanage as well. She invited me to go with her once, but I wasn't able to go that day, and then things were crazy with the bazaar and the holidays.

On Wednesday, I emailed Linda and asked her to let me know when she was going back to the orphanage. She replied that she was going the very next day. She had a couple of other volunteers who were going, too, and I was welcome to come along. She agreed to pick me up at CSA shortly after 10 on Thursday morning. When she arrived, in the company of Tami and Debbie, I found out that we needed to make a detour to rendezvous with a driver who would be hauling some cabinets up to the orphanage. When Linda was home over Christmas, she was able to raise some money for the orphanage, and the sisters had told her--after some coaxing--that they needed locking cabinets in which to store the children's clothing, and they need to have the orphanage painted in the spring. So the cabinets were being delivered Thursday, and Linda is holding on to the rest of the money until spring, when she will make it available for the sisters to pay local workers to paint the orphanage.

After our detour to allow the other driver to follow us, we got on the Autostrade for a few minutes. After taking the Al Mokattum exit, we immediately took a sharp left and were in Garbage City's narrow, fragrant streets. Just a few minutes later, we reached a point near the orphanage where the vehicle was blocked by an unwieldy trash truck. We decided to walk the rest of the way--just a couple minutes' walk--and let the other driver bring the cabinets whenever he could get through.

As we approached the closed gates, I was struck by how different the orphanage compound looked, even on the outside, from the surrounding area. The walls were smooth, the gates well-maintained. They swung open at our approach. Once inside the courtyard, the stench of Mokattum was muted by the wall (by the time we got into the buildings, you couldn't smell the trash at all anymore). We were greeted by one of the sisters, a woman who had gone blind due to the amount of time she spent sewing in poorly lighted conditions in Alexandria. After the greeting, we were allowed to roam freely through the compound. Linda had been right when she told me that the sisters don't keep track of volunteers, but rather, allow them to go wherever they feel they can be of the most help.

We crossed the well-swept courtyard and went up some stairs and into one of the buildings. The building seems to have been built without a central hallway. Instead, there are enclosed rooms on the right side of the passageway. On the left, the hallway itself is open to a series of large rooms. The first such room we came to was used as a playroom. A waist-high mesh wall had been constructed to block off the room itself from the open hallway. Around 20 small children, 2 workers, and 2 volunteers were in this makeshift playpen when we came by. We dropped off Debbie and Tami in this room, while Linda took me on a tour of the rest of the facility.

Linda showed me the large room, filled with cribs, on the same floor as the playroom. She showed me a small kitchen, which we walked through to get to an outdoor walkway. We walked down some steep stairs and crossed a small courtyard into another building. Not long after, we entered a large room. Linda walked through it to a smaller room in its corner, but I stopped to chat with the smiling Egyptian girl who greeted me. She was maybe 7 or 8 years old. I learned later that she probably was the daughter of one of the paid childcare workers. She seemed impressed that I was able to ask her name in Arabic, understand her response, and tell her my name. I used the pronunciation that is more common in this part of the world--DeBORah, rather than DEBorah--and she understood me the first time around. (If I use the English pronunciation, I often have to repeat it several times before it's understood.) After a couple of minutes, I followed Linda to the smaller room.

Linda had told me that this room was the handicapped room. You see, it used to be the case that when handicapped children were born to impoverished families, the parents couldn't afford to care for these special children. One or both parents had to work for barely sufficient food, clothing, and shelter, and caring for the special-needs child meant time and money that the family simply didn't have. So the handicapped child would be given to an orphanage. Recently, things have changed to some degree, because the government now subsidizes the care of handicapped children. But nothing changed for the children who already were in orphanages when the subsidies started. When Linda first started coming to the orphanage, there were ten or so handicapped children who lived at the orphanage. Now there are four or five, as some have moved to other facilities and others have died.

I was expecting to find the four or five handicapped children in this room. I was surprised to walk in and find the four or five handicapped children plus an additional ten to fifteen babies. I had thought that all of the non-handicapped children were in the other playroom. Linda explained that the sisters had moved the youngest children into this room with the handicapped children, because there wasn't enough space in the other playroom, and because the toddlers tended to run over the infants. So there were a lot of children in this room, as well as one or two paid workers and three other volunteers, all of whom were feeding the children their lunch.

A word about the workers and volunteers--the workers are young girls, usually in their teens, from the surrounding community. They come from impoverished families, and they are hired by the sisters to provide childcare, as there are very few sisters. These young girls usually leave their jobs when they are married around age 18, although some keep working, bringing their children to work with them. So, much of the care at the orphanage is provided by women who are little more than children themselves. Care also is provided by volunteers--expats who live in Egypt, and college students who come on mission trips. The other three volunteers in the room on Thursday are participating in a 3-month mission trip. If I'm not mistaken, they're housed in or near Garbage City and come to the orphanage every day to help with the children.

The small handicapped room was crowded with all the children and the volunteers. Even with the workers and volunteers, though, there weren't enough adults to attend to all the children. The workers had two or more children clustered around them, and they used a common spoon and bowl to feed the children gathered in and around their laps. Some had one handicapped child and two babies who were being fed at once. Even with this, there were a few babies lying unattended on mattresses placed on the floor. While Linda helped with one of the handicapped children--Paul, whose family comes to take him for visits whenever they can, so that he knows he's loved, even though they can't care for him full-time--I picked up a whimpering infant from a mattress. She immediately quieted; she just wanted to be held. A slightly older child apparently also just wanted to be held; he toddled over to me and tried to climb in my lap as well. As I situated the little girl so that there was room for the little boy as well, he gave up on me. He went to one of the workers and forced his way into her lap beside the other child she held. Meanwhile, Linda reminded me that there was more to the tour. The little girl I held went to one of the sisters, who came in looking for a child to feed, and Linda and I continued the tour.

We went back outside and crossed the courtyard, but instead of going back up the stairs, we entered a large, shady room with 8 or 10 beds in it. This was the room where some older women lived. I'm not clear on exactly why they are there--at least one of them seemed to have some mental problems, but it's possible that they simply are old and without husbands or children who can care for them. Linda spoke with one of the women (the only one who speaks English) to find out if they needed anything, while the woman in the bed nearest the door claimed my attention. This woman, I was told, likes to make people laugh. She made funny shapes with her hands and funny sounds with her mouth . . . she even did the trick where you put your hand under your armpit to make a rude noise. I smiled at her and laughed with her, mimicking some of her motions and sounds.

In the meantime, I kept one ear on the conversation between Linda and the English-speaking woman. The women needed thread to make clothes. They also needed underwear, and the lotion that Linda had brought in the past was gone. Linda assured her that she would bring needles and various types and colors of thread next week, as well as underwear and more lotion. Linda also was introduced to the young Egyptian girl who was working in the room. This girl was 18 years old and was soon to be married. Linda asked a question that never would have occurred to me: Is her soon-to-be husband a good man? To most Westerners, this question is unnecessary, because no woman would marry a man whom she didn't believe to be good--but then, I haven't been in Egypt long enough. Here, young girls often marry whomever and whenever they are told to marry by their families. Girls marry young, both because a woman's purpose is to marry and have children, and because marriage helps relieve the financial burden on the girl's family. The girl's response to Linda's question: No, her fiance is not a good man. My heart broke for her.

We left the women's room and went back to the large playroom where the older children were kept. Feeding time was over, and the new task was to keep the children awake until noon--around 40 minutes away. Their schedule had been changed recently; they were used to going to sleep at 11:30, so we had some very sleepy children on our hands. I picked up one little boy named John and put him in my lap. He leaned his head against my chest and tried to go to sleep, but I lifted him high in the air and gently lowered him, loving the huge smile that lit his face. His face was a sight to behold--from the bridge of his nose to the base of his chin, and all over his cheeks, he was scratched and scraped. One of the volunteers said that he must have fallen, and that is probable, as he could take only two steps before falling down. He must have fallen on rough or rocky ground--which is most of the ground in Mokattum, where I have not seen a single blade of grass--and it looks more like he fell and slid. We can only hope that his wounds are being kept clean and that they'll heal like they should. They didn't seem to be causing him any pain, judging from the smile when I played with him.

As I played with John, Linda told me about the children. Most of them aren't orphans; the orphanage doubles as a daycare for the poorest of the poor. Their mothers drop them off at 8am before going to their jobs mucking out donkey stables or sorting garbage for recycling. The children arrive in filthy clothes and are changed immediately into clean clothes, kept at the orphanage. (That's why they needed locking cabinets; sometimes these luxuriously clean clothes disappear.) They stay at the orphanage until 5pm, when their mothers pick them up. The rest of the children live at the orphanage, but only a few of them came there because both of their parents, or even their father, died. Linda pointed out one child, another little boy named John. He was the youngest of 6 siblings. His mother died giving birth to him. His father promptly dropped off all 6 children at the nearest orphanage, then remarried. There was another little boy, whose name Linda didn't tell me. His mother was feeding him one day--probably nursing him--when her male relatives called her to come and prepare food for them. She didn't follow their command quickly enough, so they beat her to death. Her husband gave their child to an orphanage and remarried. Needless to say, I was appalled at these stories.

My heart goes out to these children. The sisters, workers, and volunteers do the best they can, but there's only so much they can do. They're responsible for so many children that they can meet physical needs only with a great deal of effort; there's no way they can spend the time playing and cuddling with the children as much as they deserve. They grow up in a series of orphanages, moving on to the next one when they reach a certain age, with caregivers who often are loving but exhausted and overworked. During these first formative years, they have little contact with men. One of the mission volunteers was a male college student, and it was amazing to watch the children with him. The children were happy for attention from us women, but many were obsessed with the one man in the room. He held one or more children in his lap at all times, and he usually had another three or four clustered around him where he sat on a mattress, leaning against the wall. Children need men in their lives, and these children sought him out.

All too soon (for the volunteers, not soon enough for the kids), it was time to put the little ones down for their afternoon naps. The workers and sisters took the children, one by one, into the room with all the cribs, gave them a bottle, and left them to sleep. As the last children disappeared, we said goodbye to the mission team--inviting them to Maadi Community Church for some much-needed worship, teaching, and fellowship with other English-speakers--and waved our goodbyes to the sisters and workers. The old blind nun let us out the gate, encouraging us to come back (she speaks English), and we stepped back out into the stinky, ugly world of Garbage City. We walked back to Linda's vehicle, with her driver watching over it, and headed back to the world that, while still foreign to us, has become much more familiar--the expat haven of Maadi.

Update on 12 October 2009:
I now go to Mother Teresa's regularly. John's cuts and scrapes are all healed now, and he's a happy boy. There are several babies who recognize me now when I come in, and I enjoy playing with them. Naptime has been moved back up to 11:30, which is such a relief for the children. We're also now being more sanitary at feeding time--we no longer share bowls or spoons among children. This new practice spreads fewer germs but unfortunately results in confused, hungry babies watching a trusted adult feed someone else while refusing to feed them. They're not used to waiting for one child to finish completely before the others get to eat. Sometimes when I go to the orphanage, I'm the only volunteer there. Other weeks, there are teams, and things are much easier with more adult hands. More volunteers are needed to come on a regular basis.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Imagine this:

You are born and raised in a country where there isn't all that much separation between religion and government. Your family is of the dominant religion, and you are raised in that tradition. In young adulthood, you are exposed to a different religion, and you believe that this minority religion is true. You convert. You don't hide your conversion, but you also don't take steps to change the religion listed on your government-issued identity card. You know that it is practically impossible for people whose official religion is the dominant one to change that official religion, even though the law says that it is allowed.

Fast forward in time. You're now 56 years old. The mismatch between your personal religion and your official religion has caused problems for your family. Your nephew is denied a government job because of your "double life." Your 14-year-old daughter is required to attend religious classes at school. Because you are officially of the dominant religion, she is required to attend those classes. She is prohibited from attending classes in the minority religion, even though that is the religion in which she was raised. In two years, she will be issued an identity card. The religion listed on her card will match the religion listed on yours, despite the fact that neither of you are part of that religion. She never was. Nevertheless, one day she will want to marry, and she will not be allowed to marry outside of her official religion. So if her official religion is the predominant one, she will not be allowed to marry someone of her own faith, unless her prospective husband also has a mismatch between his personal religion and his official religion.

So you decide to take steps now to change the religion listed on your identity card, in order to solve the problem for your daughter and to eliminate your "double life" that has been used to deny your nephew a job. You take the appropriate legal steps to make the change. According to the law, you should have to sign a paper, be issued the new card, and be done with it.

If it were that simple, you would have done it 30 years ago. In reality, only one person in your country who was born and raised in the dominant religion has been allowed to convert away from it, although people can convert to the dominant religion with no problem at all. (If they ever decide to revert to their original religion, though, they have problems.)

Your request to change your official religion is denied. Even though the law allows anyone to change from any religion to any religion, the constitution also says that the dominant religion is the law of the land. According to the laws of that religion, there is no conversion out of it. It simply isn't allowed. The judge concurs with religious law, despite the official, secular, law.

You appeal. Your lawyer cites a precedent--the aforementioned only case in your country's history in which someone born and raised in the dominant religion was allowed to change his official religion. Your lawyer intends to submit the official court records of that previous case in support of your own case. The judge refuses to acknowledge the existence of any legal documentation that it ever happened. Your lawyer argues. The judge has security escort your lawyer out of the courtroom.

Your case is suspended for an unknown length of time. It should eventually resume under a different judge. Your lawyer intends to file a complaint against the original judge. You have no idea how long this will take or if you will be allowed to change your official religion at all, much less in time to save your daughter from going through all of this herself one day.

What would you do? How would you feel?

This situation is happening right now. Read the full story here. For a related story, see this.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Why Spare Sheets Are a Necessity

When Jeff and I got married, we bought a brand new queen-sized bed. Of course, neither of us used a queen-size bed before we married, so we had to buy new sheets--which we would have done anyway, but it meant that our old sheets couldn't be used as spares. We decided to splurge on the new sheets; we used gift certificates and cash gifts from our wedding to buy some super-luxurious, 1000-thread-count, wonderfully soft and smooth sheets. But they were ridiculously expensive, so we only bought one set.

We planned to buy another set of sheets, but we kept finding other uses for our hard-earned money, such as getting out of debt. And we didn't have a spare bedroom in our old place, so ours was the only bed in the house. I seriously dislike trying to fold fitted sheets, so I didn't like the idea of pulling out spares to put on the bed when I washed the sheets anyway, because I wanted to wash the fitted sheet, then put it back on the bed, thereby avoiding the need to ever fold it. So there was no need for spares.

When we found out that we were moving to Egypt, we also discovered that we were going to have a spare bedroom. We figured we'd need it, since both of us have family members who intend to come visit us. We realized that the time had come to buy some spare sheets. So we did. We bought a super-soft but inexpensive set and left them nicely folded in their tiny little space-saving packages until our shipment arrived in Egypt. Then we took them out and washed them prior to folding them up and hiding them away in the guest room to await their usefulness. One slight problem: the flat sheet disintegrated in the washer. It was very annoying, but we couldn't exactly head back to the store and return them, so we threw away the flat sheet, kept the fitted sheet and the pillow cases, and decided to buy more. But we never got around to it.

Oh, what a mistake that was!!

Yesterday afternoon, Jeff asked where Cleo was. I didn't know, but I didn't get up to look; she likes to nap on the bed or hide behind the refrigerator, and she always comes out eventually. Jeff agreed with this reasoning; he went back to surfing the internet, and I went back to reading my book on the sofa. A couple of hours later, Jeff mentioned that Cleo still hadn't come out . . . and I went looking for her. I knew we hadn't closed her in anywhere, but she does sometimes manage to close herself into our bedroom while messing around near the door, trying to get toys that she's thrown back behind it. Sure enough, the bedroom door was closed. I opened it, and Cleo came trotting out. I didn't go in; I just let her out and returned to my book.

Fast forward to 11:30 last night, when I've finally finished my book and realized how tired I am. (Jeff is still on the computer.) I go to the bedroom and start getting ready for bed. As I empty my pockets onto the nightstand, I glance over at the bed and--hold up, wait a minute, what is that? That brownish stuff on my green duvet? Oh, no, surely not . . . but yes. It was. While Cleo was locked in our bedroom, she had no access to the litter box, and apparently, she had to go.

In the process of cleaning it up, Jeff and I realized that Cleo had tried to be a good little kitty and bury her mess . . . thereby getting her poo on the duvet, the flat sheet, the fitted sheet, and two pillowcases. Oh, and the stuff that was on the duvet soaked through onto the down-alternative comforter as well. Great.

While I pre-treated everything and put the sheets in the washer to soak overnight, Jeff went scrounging for sheets and blankets. We ended up with our spare fitted sheet and two matching pillow cases, but no flat sheet. Instead of the comforter and duvet, we had two light blankets and two light throws. It was plenty to keep us warm, especially since we knew we could actually turn the heat on if we needed it. We put the softest blanket on bottom, but it was still pretty scratchy, especially considering that we're used to the 1000tc sheets. It's a sign of how spoiled I am that I tossed and turned until 4am, when I got up and put on some super-soft long pajamas so that the blanket didn't touch as much of my skin . . . after that, I slept fine.

We got up this morning and I let the washer finish the cycle. We were lucky--the poo all came out of the sheets. They're back on the bed now, with nothing to indicate how gross they were yesterday. The duvet still has a stain; it's in the washer for its second cycle now. I've been thinking about replacing it anyway, as it's no longer the nice hunter green that it used to be--it's faded quite a bit in the last two years. The comforter is in the dryer . . . it still has a little bit of a stain, but we won't put it in for another washer cycle since the first one left it with a couple of holes, since the washer apparently wasn't quite big enough. Oh, well, it'll be hidden inside a duvet or under a bedspread anyway.

The moral of this story? Simply this: if you want to sleep well while your poo-stained sheets are soaking in the wash, you should have a complete spare set of sheets, not just the fitted sheet and a couple of pillow cases. Oh, and if you ever notice that your cat is missing . . . go make sure she isn't closed up in your bedroom. Your bed is the thing in there that most resembles a litter box.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Merry (Coptic) Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everybody!

I know, I know, Christmas was 25 December . . . but not if you happen to be a Coptic Christian, as most Christians in Egypt are. The Coptic church was founded here in Egypt by Saint Mark on his missionary journeys. And, like the Muslims have an Islamic calendar, Copts have a Coptic calendar. On this calendar, Christmas is the 29th day of Khiahk. Up until 1582, the 29th day of Khiahk corresponded to the 25th day of December, when Westerners celebrate Christmas. However, in 1582, the Gregorian calendar was introduced or changed or something--I haven't done all that much research into this--and the two fell out of alignment by 10 days. Since then, every four years when we have a leap year, the 29th day of Khiahk gets one day later with respect to the Gregorian calendar. So for now, at least, the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 7 January.

Christmas is much more religious, and less commercial, here than it is in the United States or most of the rest of the western world. It's preceded by a 43-day fast, during which Christians aren't supposed to eat meat products. (It's a fast more in the tradition of Catholics, who fast by avoiding certain foods, than in the tradition of Muslims, for whom fasting means that you eat nothing at all during daylight hours.) Forty of those days are in remembrance of the 40 days when Moses fasted while receiving the 10 Commandments, and the remaining three days are in remembrance of the three days of fasting that preceded the miraculous moving of the Mokattum mountain. Apparently, most Copts don't fast for the full 43 days, only for the last week--beginning after the New Year. On Coptic Christmas Eve (I don't know if they call it that), there's a late-night church service that goes until midnight or later. The most prominent mass is in Saint Mark Cathedral in Cairo. Mass ends with the ringing of bells after the congregants receive a special bread, the Qurban bread, which is decorated with a cross surrounded by 12 dots, to represent the 12 apostles. After mass, Copts go home and break their fast together as a family. They give new clothes and toys to the children--most of the gifts having been purchased at charity bazaars rather than in regular shops. Christmas Day is spent visiting friends and neighbors.

Since 2003, I think, Coptic Christmas has been a national holiday here in Egypt. Before that, it was a religious holiday only; Copts were entitled to the day off, but everyone else had to work as usual. In 2003, President Mubarak declared it a national holiday for everyone. This is partly because the Nativity is a big deal to all Egyptians, as it was shortly after that that the Holy Family fled here to escape Herod. Even Muslims recognize that Jesus was a prophet, although they don't recognize His divinity, so they have no problem celebrating His birth. In any case, it now is a national holiday . . . so Jeff gets another day off work. (I know, I had said that he'd have to work a full 5-day week this week, but I had forgotten that Christmas isn't quite over here.)

Jeff and I have no plans to join in any of the Coptic celebrations. If we had Coptic friends, I'd be tempted to tag along, but I don't really know any Copts other than as the owners of a business I frequent--it isn't exactly a personal relationship. I have to admit that I'm tempted to go to one of the masses--there's a Coptic church not too far from here--but I know myself well enough to know that it would be a bad idea. I'd think it was beautiful for the first half hour or so, and then, with me not understanding the language, my attention would start to drift . . . and then I'd start to fall asleep . . . that would be incredibly rude and embarrassing, not to mention possibly distracting for the people who did understand what was going on. No, I'll just stay home. Maybe I'll hear the bells ringing. If I'm still awake at midnight, I'll open the door and see if I hear them.

(Okay, any of you who noticed that I just talked about the Christmas mass and the bells in the future, even though this blog entry didn't post until the next day--you caught me, I wrote this post on the 6th but set it to post automatically on the 7th, so it would post on Coptic Christmas while still allowing me to write it early so I could spend the day with Jeff.)

In the interests of full disclosure, I'd like to admit that I obtained my information about Coptic Christmas from the following websites. I have no clue whether or not any of it's true, but they all said mostly the same things, so I'm going with them on this one!
World of Christmas
Egyptology News
Viator Travel Blog
Tour Egypt