Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Husband

My husband had a birthday not too long ago ... no, I won't say exactly when. He's a little on the paranoid side when it comes to privacy, and birthdays are used as personal identifiers, so he'd just as soon me not say exactly when it was on this, a public blog. But anyway, it was recent, and I wanted to take the occasion of his birthday to write a post about him ... but I couldn't publish it on his birthday; that would have given it away! But I can publish it now.

What can I say about my husband? He is the man God created for me, and the man for whom God created me. We are symbiotic. We both have been on our own in the past. We both prefer being together. In our household, his work outside of the home provides the income we need to sustain the home; my work inside the home transforms the house--or in this case, apartment--into a home. Our work together--on our relationship--makes us a family.

I met my husband in the fall of 1994, when I first started attending a public boarding school in my home state. No, it wasn't a disciplinary school; it was for students who weren't being challenged enough in their home high schools. Jeff was a year ahead of me, and our social circles overlapped but did not really include one another at that time. He actually dated one of my roommates that first year. But he had my attention, even though I never thought we'd actually end up together.

Jeff caught my eye very early on in the school year. I'd been at school for just a few weeks when a controversy erupted. A group of students--if I'm remembering correctly, it was something like 8 seniors and 2 juniors--had broken the rules in a major way. They were drinking alcohol, and a lot of it. One of the juniors had been left outside the dorm, so drunk that he could have died of alcohol poisoning. The others had left him there, alone, while they scattered, hoping to avoid being caught in the fallout. After all the facts came out, most of those involved were expelled, and the others were put on probation. The entire student body was called into a meeting. The faculty, some of the administration, and the housing staff filed into the room, faces like stone. After an intense lecture, we were told that we were being left alone to discuss amongst ourselves what had happened, how it impacted the school--which could have lost its state funding over the incident, sending us all home--and how we as a student body would respond. Then all the adults filed out, and we students were alone.

After a few moments of silence, someone stood up and started talking. I was shocked--the student was defending the students who had been expelled. The next student who spoke did the same. And the next. I sat there, quietly, not believing my ears. Those people had risked the life of one of their friends by not stopping him from drinking too much and then again by not seeking help for him. Those people had brought controversy down on our school in a time of statewide budget cuts, knowing that we depended on state funding to keep our school open. I wanted to speak up, to point out what irresponsible fools those students had been, to say that they deserved to be expelled; we had an honor code, they agreed to it, and they violated it--and in the process, they put someone's life in danger! But I was a chicken. I was painfully shy at that point, new to the school, without many friends yet ... I wanted to speak, but I felt like I was frozen in my seat, without the courage to stand or the words to say even if I did stand.

But then someone else stood. And this young man was angry. Angry at the people who had jeopardized one person's life and all of our educations. Angry at the students who were defending their idiocy. He stood and he spoke of responsibility, and values, and honor. And I fell in love then and there, although I didn't realize it until much later.

Some of the students branded Jeff a traitor for siding with the faculty over the other students; a few of the students vocally defended him; many of us quietly supported him. But it was clear that whether anyone supported him, whether anyone defended him, whether anyone even listened to him, he had principles, and he would stand by those principles.

We didn't date until around 15 months later. Even then, the relationship only lasted a month. It's a long, complicated story. But from the moment when he stood to speak in that student meeting, every young man I met was compared to him. I had seen a man of courage, of honor and integrity; that was what I wanted, and that was what I got ... eventually. Maybe if I remember, I'll tell you the rest of the story next year.

Happy birthday, Jeff. I love you, and I am grateful every day that God created you, just as you are, for me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


There is a woman--a British woman--who lives here in Maadi. She moved with her mother to Egypt many decades ago, as a child. She continues to live here, although her mother died a long time ago, because Egypt feels more like home to her than Britain does. Her name is Mary, although she more commonly is known as Blind Mary.

But this post is not about Blind Mary.

Blind Mary has a maid, Miriam. She cleans Mary's home and helps control Mary's diet. (Mary is a diabetic who does not always regulate her own sugar intake like she should.) Miriam provides companionship to Mary and sometimes brings her family to visit the lonely woman. Miriam and her husband both have eye problems of their own, although they are not blind.

But this post is not about Miriam.

Miriam has a son, Ungat. He is 13 years old. Ungat, like his parents, has an eye problem. Ungat, like his parents, is not blind. But Ungat, unlike his parents, will become blind.

This post is about Ungat.

I met Ungat one time, just before Christmas. One of the ladies in my life group visits Blind Mary, and she suggested that we go to Mary's home and sing Christmas carols with her. Our life group was joined by another life group--or maybe we joined them--who also has a member who visits Blind Mary. We agreed to visit Blind Mary as a group, sing carols, and share sugar-reduced goodies for the diabetic woman with a sweet tooth. One man brought his keyboard to accompany us, and the ladies who visit Mary brought her small Christmas gifts. Miriam and her family were invited to join the celebration.

Ungat was a happy boy. He was polite, though reserved, with our group of strange people. After some encouragement, he agreed to join his sister in singing "Jingle Bells" in Arabic. He laughed with his sister and his other younger siblings. He was caught at the last minute and barely prevented from drinking from a small cup of wine that he had poured for himself from the bottle that had been brought for the adults. He laughed good-naturedly and willingly relinquished the cup. He had a mischievous sparkle in his eye most of the evening.

It wasn't very long after Christmas when the doctor gave his family the bad news. Ungat has a congenital eye defect. There is nothing that can be done. He will go blind. The expat woman who took Ungat to the doctor now regrets trying to help; maybe it would have been better for him not to know, since nothing can be done.

Can you imagine the pain of this boy and his family? I can't. I've never received news so life-altering, so catastrophic. This boy is on the verge of manhood. He was completing his education in preparation to find work, find a wife, support his family. Now he will not be able to work, probably will not be able to marry, and will have to rely on his impoverished parents for lifelong support. He doesn't read Braille, and I don't think he has any opportunity to learn.

Some of the expat women who visit Blind Mary want to help. It is possible, though doubtful, that a doctor outside of Egypt could help Ungat. Many times Egyptian doctors say "nothing can be done," when they really mean "with the amount of money you have, and the methods and equipment available to us in Egypt, nothing can be done." But if Ungat's problem is congenital, a local expat nurse says that even the best doctors with the newest equipment and latest methods probably would be unable to help him.

So now the group is trying to find a church that can help Ungat make the best of his situation. They want a church to "adopt" Ungat and provide for an appropriate education. He needs to learn Braille and to learn a trade that he'll be able to do even when his eyesight is completely gone. It will be expensive. He may have to leave Egypt to receive such an education. His family can't afford it. Blind Mary doesn't have much money, so she can't pay Miriam much. Ungat's father does the best he can, but like so many others, his family is poor. It's a desperate situation for Ungat and for his family.

I pray that God will reach down His hand and help them, either with a miraculous healing or with a God-sent source of funding for education.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Moulid el Nabi

Today is a holiday in Egypt. It's an Islamic holiday, Moulid el Nabi, and it celebrates the birth of Mohammed. I don't know much about the birth and life of Mohammed, so I won't try to give any history of this holiday or its origins.

I looked online for information about Moulid el Nabi and how it's celebrated, so I could share that information here. However, I wasn't able to find anything. Fortunately, my Arabic teacher, Hatem, likes to share information about local holidays and practices when the occasion comes up. For example, just after his first son was born, he taught me the words for "pregnant" and "give birth"; he also taught me about the subua (a celebration held seven days after a baby's birth).

According to Hatem, there are two primary ways that Egyptians celebrate Moulid el Nabi. The first way is not something that the Quran or Islam dictates, but I bet it's the celebration that the children enjoy the most. They make sweets to give to the children. The most well-known sweets for Moulid el Nabi are sugar dolls for the girls and sugar horses for the boys. However, they also make hummuseyya (hummus and sugar), sudaneyya (peanuts and sugar), mishmisheyya (apricot and sugar), and gozanhind (made of figs, coconut, and rolls).

The second way that Moulid el Nabi is celebrated, and the Islamic way of celebrating (according to Hatem; I have no idea myself), is with the reading of the Quran. This usually occurs at home. The celebrant is to read the Quran and to remember and emulate the life of Mohammed. On this day, a few large, well-known mosques may hold festivals, but this type of celebration is not the best way of celebrating Moulid el Nabi. Arabic-language television stations also show Islamic movies on this day, rather than the usual more secular fare.

Hatem also told me that the traditional greeting on Moulid el Nabi is "Kollesana tatuib," which means roughly the same as "Many happy returns." I know that "kollesana" means "all years," but I'm not sure of the literal translation of "tatuib." I'll just take Hatem's word for it that it's the appropriate greeting today.

So I say to all the Muslims and Muslimahs out there ... Kollesana tatuib!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Tale of Two Tour Guides

I've posted before about my first trip to the cave churches at Mokattum. I recently made another visit, with a friend, her parents, and their tour guide. There was such a stark difference between this tour guide and the one that took me up there before that I just had to write about it.

On my first trip, either the tour guide or the driver was able to go straight from CSA to the cave church complex, using the most direct route, with not a single wrong turn.

On my second trip, we got to Garbage City with no problems, although I think we went the long way. Once we were in Garbage City, however, the driver immediately took a wrong turn. After stopping to ask directions two or three times, we finally made it to the cave churches.

Once you enter the cave church complex, there is a map carved into the mountain wall. On my first tour, the guide had the driver slow so we could see it as she explained it to us. On my second tour, we drove right by it, and the tour guide looked surprised when I pointed it out to my companions.

Not far after the map, there are a few small churches carved into the mountain. On my first tour, we got out of the vehicle there, went inside the churches, had some of the carvings explained to us, then proceeded to the arboretum, where we were told about the miracle of Mokkatum, and to the zoo. On my second tour, all of this was skipped.

Just past the arboretum is the area where the largest church is located. On my first tour, we saw the church and had the carvings and natural rock formations pointed out to us by our guide. On my second tour, the tour guide located a monk to tell us about the church while she translated. The monk did a wonderful job telling us about the miracle and a few of the carvings and rock formations. He also touched on the life story of the artist, about whom my first tour guide had told us as well. My first tour guide and the monk both took us to a large auditorium, also carved into the mountain, and told us about the carvings in there. The second guide rolled her eyes every time the monk talked about the miracle, how Jesus had changed his life, or how happy he was that he was able to read the Ingil (Bible). She really hated it when he peppered his remarks with "Hallelujah!"

After leaving the cave churches, both tour guides took us to the recycling center. For the first guide, it was a standard part of the trip. For the second, it was the second destination we had requested of her employing tour agency. She had to ask the monk how to get there.

At the recycling center, our first guide gave us a knowledgeable tour of the facilities, including an explanation of the processes by which the women there make their cloth products and their recycled paper products. She pointed out how this center provides an income for some of the poorest women in the Cairo metropolitan area. She said nothing either good or bad about the quality of their products or their prices.

Our second guide translated while two women who worked at the recycling center gave us a knowledgeable tour. While we looked around their two showrooms (one for cloth and one for paper), she told us that the quality was poor and the prices were high, not like the shops in Giza, where we should go. I pointed out that I had purchased their products before, had been very happy with them, and had seen them for sale in Maadi shops for much higher prices. She insisted that the products I had seen in Maadi shops couldn't have been from the recycling center; the quality isn't good enough. (I know they're the same; the tags on the shop merchandise said where the products came from.)

While driving through Garbage City, our first tour guide asked us not to take pictures. She explained that the people who lived in that area were ashamed of their poverty and their living conditions. The garbage collectors are in the lowest socioeconomic class in a country in which class matters a great deal. When pictures are taken of them, they feel like animals in a zoo, being ogled by their betters. This tour guide also told us that although it is mostly Christians who live around the cave churches, there is a significant Muslim population in Garbage City.

Our second tour guide neither encouraged nor discouraged us from taking pictures. She said that the garbage collectors are not that poor; they are happy. She also told us that there were very few, if any, Muslims who live in Garbage City. It is almost exclusively Christian. Although the monk had told us that 10% of his neighbors were Muslim, the tour guide said he must be wrong, because no Muslim would live among such filth. It's against their religion.

Our first tour ended at the recycling center; the second tour continued to the factory and showroom of the Luxor Alabaster Company, which is located just outside of Garbage City. My friends and I were fascinated at the stunning pieces in the showroom, which is huge, probably ten times larger than the small shop they have here in Maadi. I have purchased several of their pieces, two for myself and many others as gifts to send home. I always have been happy with the quality of their work, and their prices are reasonable, although it's possible to find lower prices at the Khan. Our tour guide, however, insisted--repeatedly, in front of the factory owners and workers--that good alabaster comes from and is worked only in Upper Egypt, in Luxor ... which is where this company obtains its raw alabaster and where its other factory is located.

As I'm sure you can guess, by this point, I was openly glaring at this tour guide and contradicting her fairly often. When we returned home, we gave the tour guide exactly her fee and not a piastre (the Egyptian equivalent of a penny) more, which we know good and well is a calculated insult here in Egypt. My friend did tip the driver, whom she's used before and really likes. I, personally, had already given my tip to the monk at the cave churches. He earned it more than the tour guide did.

For the last several days, I've been trying to figure out the difference between these two tour guides. It was obvious that one was very familiar with the cave churches and recycling center, whereas the other had never been to either. It also was obvious that one saw the people of Mokattum as people who deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. The other saw the garbage collectors as deserving of their status, the monks as crazy fools, the women of the recycling center as inferior, and the men of the alabaster factory as incompetent. Both tour guides were Muslim, so it wasn't just that a Christian viewed these people more sympathetically. One tour guide did have a higher fee and a higher level of professionalism to go with it, but that's a result of their differences more than a cause of them. I guess it just comes down to character. One had good character; the other was significantly lacking in that regard.

It just goes to show--you find all types in all cultures. Arrogance, incompetence, and spitefulness exist in all societies. Fortunately, so do dignity, integrity, and kindness.