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Voices Online Edition
Lent - Easter 2001, Volume XVI, No. 1
by Father Anthony Frank
"Cairo Diary" is a priest's account of his two-week stay with the Missionaries of Charity in Cairo, Egypt, last Christmas. We believe our readers will find it a source of fruitful reflection.
December 22nd. Left the house early right after Mass, and realized I had no bus tickets. I found a coffee shop open on the Via del Corso and got tickets there, got to the airport ahead of time, and spent a couple hours reading Barchester Towers with pleasure. Rome to Milan Malpensa, another wait, and then Milan to Cairo, a four hour flight. Night had fallen by the time we were across the Adriatic, and I was surprised to see lights beneath us indicating almost continuously populated land from the time we hit the African coast until Cairo.
Sister Pascal (Indian) and Sister Lucille (Egyptian) met me at the airport at about 10:15. We then drove in a rickety VW van to the old airport to await the arrival of six Lebanese medical students coming to volunteer for two weeks as well. It was a four-hour wait in a very chilly wind, as non-passengers are not allowed inside the airport building itself. Finally we packed the students and their gear in the van and drove into Cairo. I was struck by two aspects of Egyptian driving: first, headlights are not used at night, but only flashed once in a while to warn oncoming traffic of one's presence; second, the horn is used on almost every occasion: one short honk to signal overtaking, or a lane change, or acknowledgement of someone else's lane change, or a turn, or a stop, the desire to pass, and so forth. The impression was of frenzy and mass chaos. The streets were quite full even at 3 a.m., and I was told that traffic was lighter than normal because it was Ramadan.
We made it into the Faggala section of town, pulled up to the Christian Brothers' high school, Collège de la Salle, and found rooms for the volunteers in a kind of dorm. I saw a small animal scurrying through the garbage on the street outside; first I thought it must be a rat, and then realized it was a weasel. From there to the sisters' house on the Rue Kamel Sidqi. To bed at 3:30.
Footnote: the thing that made me realize with particular vividness that I was back in the Third World was not the ambient squalor, but the sound of roosters cock-a-doodle-ing from the roofs of five-storey apartments.
December 23rd. Up at 6:30. Taking stock of my surroundings. The sisters have a compound of three buildings including a former Syrian Catholic church. I have been given a room built on the roof of one of the buildings, containing two cots and a table. Clean and cold. I had a cup of instant coffee, then went down to help sluice out the men's quarters.
There are about 18 old men in the floors beneath my room: blind, lame, mentally and emotionally defective, some just old and sick. Perhaps the same number of women (with the same infirmities) are housed in the other building, along with the 10 sisters. A smell of urine and orange peel. Sister Eveline cheerfully shooed out the men who could walk, then I helped her pick up the others and put them into wheelchairs and push them into the bathroom for morning ablutions. Then we stripped off the soiled bedding, washed the plastic-covered mattresses and pillows in carbolic, then scrubbed the walls, doors and floor with carbolic and sloshed pails of clean water over the floor. One blind man, clearly somewhat demented, kept padding his way through our midst, feeling for a wall with one hand.
He had a coffee-colored scarf wrapped around his eyes and nose, only his mouth was exposed; that and his tentative gait gave him an odd, Lazarus-like appearance.
I'd forgotten one of the common inconveniences of working with the sisters: they use little Susie-Homemaker brooms and mops with handles meant for Asian women, which means I have to hunch over to reach the floor. It gets to the lower back quickly.
The Sudanese Sister Bakhita came in and treated the grotesquely swollen feet of one of the men, like giant eggplants with pink patches where the skin was ulcerated. She swabbed the ulcers with Betadine and he trembled slightly.
Later I rode to the second Missionaries of Charity [MC] house in Cairo with Sister Grazia and Sister Lucette. This is located in another, rapidly growing slum area called Mukattam. The people live by hauling the refuse and garbage here from the rest of the city in donkey carts; then they sort through the trash and scavenge bits of metal, plastic, bone and rag, from which they somehow extract a livelihood. Sister Lucette told me that the women, for example, will slice a plastic milk bottle into strips and weave them into baskets for sale.
On the edge of the slum is a huge expanse that looks like part dump and part gravel pit, with small mountains of filth, fires from burning garbage, packs of wild dogs, horse carts, donkey carts, and Japanese pick-ups. Not only in the dump itself, but throughout the slum is a very characteristic, very strong sour smell compounded of fermenting garbage, excrement, and, unaccountably, the plastic-and-pus smell of a soiled Band-Aid. It's a curiously penetrating odor, stinging the nostrils almost the way ammonia does, lingering afterwards in clothes and hair.
The streets are unpaved, as narrow as those of a medieval hilltop village in Italy, and crazily crooked, with oddly angled intersections and steep inclines. The van had to creep along, lightly scraping the side mirrors on walls and parked vehicles. The roads are lined with organic and inorganic garbage and panicked chickens and, as in most of the city, serve not only as thoroughfares but as loading dock, playground, shopping mall, mechanic's grease pit, and patio dining facility.
A curiosity: we were twisting through one especially muddy uphill alley, passing women in Muslim garb with milk cans balanced on their heads, and a dented motor-scooter came down past us driven by a 16-year-old boy, and demurely riding side-saddle behind him was a pretty 25-year-old woman dressed for work in a New York law office: skirt, matching jacket, gold jewelry, nice shoes, the works.
We honked for admittance at the sisters' house and the doorkeeper opened the gate, and we drove into the courtyard where the laundry was hanging from clotheslines. Sister Matthew (Slovak) showed me the women's ward, maybe fifteen women. Then we went upstairs to the Shishu Bhavan, the infants' rooms.
It was explained that the children here are either orphans or abandoned, or are so severely disabled that their parents cannot take care of them. Several babies were severely malnourished. I had of course seen many magazine photos of starving infants but was unprepared for the effect of holding the reality in my arms, and pretended to have a cold so I could cough and rub the wetness out of the corners of my eyes without drawing attention to the fact. These babies all had slow, underwater movements, and their eyes were not dull but wide-open and unnaturally bright; they seemed to wear an expression of continual surprise, occasionally interrupted by a concentrated frown, as if they had forgotten something important and were trying to recover it.
Three of the girls were clearly palsied, I assume from birth trauma, one very severely. She lay on her back in a crib staring at the ceiling with a trembling chin, arms pushed back like chicken wings and stiff fingers hooked into claws. I saw one baby girl less than two weeks old; perfectly healthy, but girls are not always welcome additions and I was told she was given up by her mother. Adoption is illegal.
It was now lunch time, and I was given a dish of rice and gravy and a spoon and asked to feed two 20-month-old girls, one exceptionally beautiful and beaming, and one who was mentally damaged and had a cancerous protuberance on her face. The sisters warned me not to let the dish within her grasp, but nonetheless four or five times she pounced like a snake and got a hand into the dish before I could react and fed herself a dripping handful. Each child also got a ripe banana. I had to break off bite-size bits with my fingers for my feisty customer and bob, weave, and feint to get past her guard and pop the morsel into her mouth.
I celebrated mass (in English) for the sisters in the chapel.
We came back to Faggala, and I gave Extreme Unction to a dying woman there. Lunched on rice noodles and carrot.
Later in the afternoon I rode with Sister Grazia to see an apartment being offered to her as a residence for street children. On the way we passed a street vendor whose wagon was stacked with colossal cauliflower, every bit as large as basketballs, and stacked in a perfect rhomboid as neatly as in an upscale supermarket in the burbs. The donkey was still standing between the harness poles, browsing on the cauliflower leaves and stalks the vendor had thrown down for him. Also passed an old woman selling bread, stacks of flat loaves the size of dinner plates. At her feet was a homemade wooden cage, with two dusty black ducks sitting on top. I was told the daily fast for Ramadan ends at 5 p.m., and shortly before this hand-pulled carts appeared in the streets carrying a large earthenware jar, from which customers were served a red slurry of cooked beans and tomato.
Arriving home in the evening we found that one of the men, Muneeb, had died in the ground floor ward. I said some prayers over his body and the sisters simply pulled the sheet over his head to await the doctor's certificate and other formalities.
December 24th. The electronic muezzins from the several neighboring mosques began their chant, as usual, at 5 a.m. These are cassette tapes of the morning prayers piped out by old-fashioned bullhorn-style loudspeakers, with weird distorting effects. The voice hardly sounds human, more as if four or five off-key bagpipes were droning together. The effect is made even more surreal by the men in the floor below who begin howling and singing at the same time.
Sister Bakhita, bless her, brought up a bucket of hot water for me, and so even though it was chilly I was able to bathe in relative comfort by standing in a shallow plastic tub and pouring water over myself with a pitcher. I said Lauds and Office of Readings [OR], then went to the house chapel to say morning Mass at 6:30. Still pretty dopey from the short night's sleep yesterday.
Changed bedlinens and swept and mopped in the men's ward with the indomitably cheery Sister Eveline.
Then Sister Lucille and Sister Lilly Grace (Rwanda) and I gave the corpse of Muneeb a thorough washing, then dressed him in white drawers, white socks, and an alb-like robe, put him on a litter, and carried him into the church, placing the litter on a table in the main aisle, with candles lit at the head and feet. The sisters have paid for his burial, and he's supposed to be fetched later this afternoon.
I had a couple hours free after this, and so went to the Cairo Museum; tremendously rich in artifacts, but structurally a hodge-podge, showing the effects of spurts of still-inadequate funding amid long dry spells of poverty and neglect. It was dusty, ill-lit, and most of the displays and labels belong to the 19th century; here and there was some cloudy Lucite or Plexiglas left over from some touring exhibit sponsored by a Japanese or American multinational.
I was especially impressed by the stone masonry of the funerary work, in particular the perfect step joints between the coffin and its lid, all the more remarkable since the coffins are not rectangular but have tapered sides and a kind of double-dome shape for head and shoulders. Also, the accuracy with which animals are represented even in Old Kingdom painting and sculpture is staggering. I spent a lot of time looking at the ploughs, boat gear, rope, and so forth that were included in the royal graves. In one display case, there were some fish spears and snelled fish-hooks, with the following English explanation:
"Fishing was in ancient Egypt in source to their food, and the same for sports were acting the noble classes."
There were also some interesting non-human mummies, including a falcon, alligator, baboon and an ibis (whose wrapped bill resembled the proboscis of a boll-weevil); there was a mummified fish, unwrapped, which looked to me exactly like a smallmouth bass, and as dead as any other mounted fish. There were some bizarre fetish-figurines representing a deity in the form of a malignant dwarf and one with the head of a hippo and the body of a woman squatting in childbirth. Postmodern. The bovine god Hathor was identified as "The Holy Caw".
On the way back, I saw a parked panel truck with the bed piled high with straw. Inside the straw new toilets (in various pastel colors) were nestled. Other Third World evidence: colossal posters and billboards with the face of President Mubarak; small herds of long-eared sheep by the roadsides. It was explained to me that these were being sold for the family feast at the end of Ramadan. Somehow it was reminiscent of those hillbillies who sell Christmas trees out of their trucks in the last few days before the 25th.
I concelebrated the Christmas Vigil Mass in the sisters' church (in Arabic). The principal celebrant was an Egyptian Franciscan. He preached a bilingual sermon against bodily impurity. During communion, I was dispatched with a candle-bearing sister to go over to the sickrooms to give the Eucharist (by intinction) to the Christians. Many were confused and needed to be made to understand what was happening. One dying, demented woman opened her toothless mouth briefly and I slipped the moist host in, then she made some kind of cry and spat it out on her pillow. I immediately picked it up and consumed it, knowing that if I stopped for a second to think about what I was doing I would gag. After Mass, the congregation sang "Jingle Bells", in English, with unusual vigor.
At 10 p.m., we were driven to Mass at a Sudanese parish staffed by Italian Comboni fathers. It was staggering to walk into the crowd awaiting the church to open, as it was mainly composed of Dinka tribesmen from southern Sudan, and it seemed I was at a convention of NBA centers; certainly I never saw so many seven-footers in one place in my life. Nor, for that matter, had I ever seen, anywhere, such a high proportion of men at a parish Mass, and most were 17-35 years old. I'd guess 65% of the congregation was male; most dressed in suit-and-tie. Mass in Arabic; again I concelebrated.
Before heading home we drove first to Mukattam to drop some sisters there. I saw a cart being pulled by three small donkeys at a fast trot, piled high with bundles of rags, with a third year girl sound asleep on the top of the cargo, maybe nine or ten feet above street level. Finally home by 1:30.
December 25th. I awoke this morning at 5:15 to the ordinary oily diesel smell in the air. Even in the early morning the smog is thick. Christmas morning Mass at 7:00 for the sisters, in English. Changed soiled bedding and gave the men's quarters a wipe-down. One very old, very dark-complected man the one with the open ulcers on his feet grabbed my forearm as I passed by and looked as if he had something very important to tell me.
"Zion our mreekn", he said. I didn't get it, and shook my head. "Kink jo-ridge in glaze". After a few seconds, the penny dropped. "Right, Eisenhower was American and King George was English". He gave the sort of nod you give to a dull but dutiful pupil and let me go. Then I helped unload big pans of cheese pies from a van for the folk's Christmas lunch, and spent a couple hours peeling eggplant, after which my hands were stained the color of tobacco. Loaded rice and noodles onto a truck to be taken to shut-ins. Once I heard harness bells outside on a passing horse pulling a wagon; the first time I've heard bells on a real working animal that was not a rich man's hobby; I revised my earlier ideas on the appropriateness of "Jingle Bells" in Cairo.
Christmas dinner of a chicken leg roasted with thyme. Rice and eggplant.
Crossing the Nile this afternoon I was slightly disappointed to discover that its color is not noticeably Eau de Nil; it could just as well be Eau de Cuyahoga. I saw a lateen-rigged that was clearly a tourist shtick: the hull was painted blue and red like a jeepney. I don't think I could handle driving in Cairo; I notice that even on the five lane streets where the four outside lanes carry more or less one-way traffic, the middle is a kind of `chicken lane' in which the vehicles drive directly at each other madly flashing their headlights, and at the last moment someone yields. I don't grasp the decision-procedure yet.
Another puzzle is the local construction technique. It seems that almost every building except for the very ritziest is unfinished or rather, they seem to be partially demolished. You always see masonry "crusts" of outlined rooms on the sides of buildings, and the ends of projecting re-bar are visible on the upper floors. A mystery. I was also struck at how corrosive the atmosphere is in Cairo; even the newest slick downtown offices like Lufthansa and Crédit Suisse look dingy, and the burnished stainless steel letters on the company logos are pitted and discolored. I assume this must be a joint effect of the pollution, which is as bad as I've seen it anywhere, and the superfine sand constantly blown by the wind. (Checking the stats later I find that the cumulative annual rainfall in Cairo averages two centimeters. That means that the dust and grime are never washed away naturally. And seldom unnaturally.)
At 7:30 we went again to the Sudanese church for Mass. The church was jammed, and several hundred more had to sit outside in the courtyard.
Mass lasted over two hours, as there was much music and much dancing. Ordinarily this would have made me cringe, but I was deeply moved by the dancing as well as the music. The dancers were girls, ranging in age from five to about twelve, barefoot, dressed in t-shirts and short pants and "grass" skirts obviously made by unraveling the plastic fibers of commercial sacking. Their dancing consisted in a kind of shuffle, but one that used the whole body, and they carried colored pieces of cloth to highlight their arm movement. Even though I would find the description repellent myself, there was such a complete absence of self-consciousness, of "look at me", in the dancing, that it almost deserves another name: it was as if they were "humming along" but with their bodies. The musicians sat in the front pews, in the same direction as the rest of the congregation. No "ministers of music". They played on drums with short, inch-diameter sticks. One woman, seated, held a tambourine close to her chest and beat it as demurely as opera-goer tapping her palm with her fan. The singing was spectacular; again, not a choir "performing", but the entire congregation, men, women, and children belting it out.
It was almost eerie that, when the singing would stop, there was no applause. But, obviously, you don't applaud a prayer. It struck me that I had the extraordinary privilege of seeing a "native" church in its state of pristine innocence, when its people don't yet realize that their music is folk music, and they don't yet know that their movement is dance-ministry. I'm sure it will all change once they are "renewed" by Western liturgists and take their mature place as angry, neurotic exhibitionists, but while it lasts it's profoundly edifying.
Once again, the heavily male congregation was blue-black with Dinkas and extremely tall. To give Communion to one guy I needed the full stretch of my arm to reach his mouth.
December 26th. After my usual 5:30 bath in a bucket, I went to the sisters for Morning Prayer and Mass. After breakfast, a couple hours' work in the men's ward with pail and scrub brush. I cut an imposing figure before the Arab men patients, carrying my toy mop, dressed in clerical collar and a blue plastic apron with a bunnies-and-buckets pattern (made from an infant's bedsheet), pants rolled up over my knees, and too-small flip-flops on my feet. I think they must believe that I'm a kind of jester brought in to amuse the sisters. After this, I helped the Lebanese volunteers wash the breakfast dishes and peel vegetables.
One of the patients, a mentally impaired 23-year-old, helps out as well with the sweeping and dishes and other simple tasks. She is wall-eyed with pretty but over-large features, dressed in dirty yellow pajamas, and expresses herself in metallic monosyllables. Her emotions change rapidly from simple glee to indignation to hauteur to glee again, and each in its turn seems to possess her entirely. Her principal recreation, tolerated by the sisters, is to go from bed to bed among the ill and dying women and polish and paint their fingernails, with the somewhat surreal result that these bald, semi-conscious women with milky eyes and concave cheeks mumble and thrash and squeeze their pillows with perfectly manicured fingers with magenta-glitter nail polish.
Said Mass (Stephen Proto-martyr) for both MC houses at 11:00.
I had a good lunch of papadam, rice, and spiced lentils. The sisters got new assignments after their own lunch today; difficult farewells, some tears. I spoke with an Egyptian priest named Father Hani (Syrian rite Catholics) who had been a Franciscan for some years and so knew Italian. Adoration and Benediction from 3:30 to 4:30.
Helped carry tea to the men. I was needlessly concerned that the blind would scald themselves, but they handled the cups perfectly, chanting in Arabic.
Went to bed relatively early for the first time. I thought it would be easy to get to sleep, but the flies are bothersome. They are very numerous, breeding I think not in the compound, which is very clean, but in the garbage lining the streets outside. In any event, throughout the day there are nearly always two or three on my person and another dozen looking for a landing zone, and most people seem to have adopted a continual slow-motion swimming action with their arms to keep the greater number at bay. It's odd that, in no building inside or out, have I seen a spider so far, nor even a spider web or cobweb.
December 27th. Ramadan ended this morning about five, with much noise outside. Mass at 6:30. Then I swept and mopped the courtyard pavement and shelled peas, not sweet peas but large, starchy peas that tasted like lima beans.
I got to talking with Sister Grazia about the local volunteers, who are much in evidence. She said that they are a great help, but also can at time create problems of their own, as they have their own ideas about what needs to be done and how it should be carried out. Apparently some locals come to help at Christmas or Easter and try to discharge a year's worth of charity at one go, grossly overfeeding the people, for example, or giving them food that's too rich for them. "They cannot digest, father, and we have problem all next day."
While carrying the men's urinals to the bathroom to empty them I managed to drop one.
Adoration, Rosary, and Benediction in the sisters' chapel. The nail-polish girl brought me a cup of tea and a kind of apricot leather with pistachio and coconut that was surprisingly good.
In the evening we drove to the house in Mukattam. Across the alley from the MC house was a little parlor where men came to smoke hookahs. Some sat in the shop and others sat out in the alley itself. A twelve-year-old attendant took live charcoal embers from a two gallon can and walked back and forth and topped up the customers' bowls. A couple guys were looking into the engine compartment of an ancient Fiat and using the international sign language that says, "You got a problem here, buddy."
I said Mass again for the sisters there; two or three helpers were also present. After Mass the sisters said good-bye to Sister Jesse and I went up to visit the babies. Most lay on their backs, three or four to a mattress. Some toddled about. It was odd to find myself watched constantly by sixteen pairs of eyes, as if all were controlled by the same optic muscle. One baby held out her arms to me and I picked her up, then others did the same. When I put the first gal down she began to wail. I sat down and one eighteen-month-old boy climbed into my lap on his own initiative (a first) and two others each got a couple fistfuls of my trouser leg and cried to be picked up. A music box was playing Lo! How a Rose e'er Bloometh. After twenty minutes or so I pried myself (literally) free and left, having given little comfort and spread much alarm and despondency, I'm afraid.
When I came back to my room, Moussa, who is blind, was propping himself with one hand against an outside wall relieving himself on the tiles.
December 28th. Up at 5:00. Mass of the Holy Innocents at 6:30. Swept, mopped, helped the old boys onto the johns, peeled eggplant with a dull knife.
Adoration at 3:00. I've noticed that the saccharine decorations and hymnody don't disagree with me the way they would usually. It occurs to me that there is a biological analogy. In normal circumstances I don't like sweet things and turn down desserts, but if I've been doing a lot of physical work, especially outdoors, a little sugar is welcome when my energy is low. By the same token I generally find the sweeter kind of piety off-putting. But after a day of exposure to unusually unlovely things squalor, madness, disease, etc. I find I have a much higher tolerance for the kind of prayers and hymns that ordinarily cloy.
Sisters Lucette and Jesse travelled to Alexandria today, and I was asked to go along so as to accompany Sister Lucette on the return trip. They walked to the train station, but for obscure reasons I was dispatched alone in a taxi with a heavy cardboard box. The taxi was a Russian Lada, incredibly dilapidated, with all kinds of wires and strips of shredded foam rubber hanging where the dashboard used to be. The trunk lid was closed with a piece of twine. When we turned onto the main street near the station we were going at a pretty good clip when we hit a pot hole and I heard a loud "sprang". A few seconds later I noticed our right front wheel rolling along beside us about six feet to the right of the taxi. I said, "Houston, we have a problem." The driver turned to acknowledge the pleasantry and saw the separated wheel and braked to a halt, shouting all the while. The taxi was stopped in traffic listing to starboard while the driver went off to fetch the wheel, and I was listing to starboard as I carried the cardboard box to the train station; fortunately we were less than half a mile distant.
The sisters and I got into a dusty carriage with tattered seats, pulled by a West German diesel locomotive. We left Cairo on time and arrived in Alexandria five minutes early; let it be credited unto the Egyptians as righteousness. As we left in late afternoon heading due north, I could see the train's profile in shadow to my right, and noticed a couple of boys climb on top of the cars at a suburban station and run back and forth from car-top to car-top while the train was at full speed. I was pleased to see the ibises in the fields following the harrows. It seems that a lot of the work is still done by draft animals. Some of the smaller towns we passed had mosques in 60s-style concrete as deplorably designed as any suburban Catholic church of the same vintage (Taco Bell balustrades and pre-cast "minarettes" hung with green outdoor lights).
We were met at Alexandria by a lay helper and taken to the MC compound, consisting of low building built in the 70s and a 19th-century house with 16-foot ceilings previously used as a kind of sanitarium. As soon as we entered, our bags were taken from us by a perpetually cheerful young man with a two days' beard and a remarkably fine set of teeth, the more obvious as he was always smiling. He was deaf and mute and mentally impaired, but continually sweeping or mopping or running errands, gurgling with pleasure.
On the opposite extreme, I saw a very sad spectacle of a twelve-year-old girl who sat off by herself in a chair. She would watch her arm slowly raise itself from her lap to about chin height, then she would beat herself on the forehead, hard, using the ball of her thumb, then she would give a scream and sob for a few seconds, and the cycle would repeat itself, over and over again. It was distressing to watch, especially because she herself was obviously distressed, even terrified, and judging by her facial expressions the whole process seem to be out of her control. Her face and neck and the collar of her pajama top were wet with tears. She had black and mulberry bruises over one half of her forehead; I grabbed her hand and opened it and saw that the ball of her thumb was badly bruised as well. As soon as I let go she started beating herself again. The sisters told me that they have tried restraining her (Diyan is her name), but that she hurts herself worse in fighting the restraints. Is it the kind of thing that Dilantin would stop? I felt even more than usually useless.
Another inmate was a very small, almost dwarfish woman with dark reddish-brown skin and oddly malformed feet. Between 60 and 70, I'd guess, but it was hard to judge. I was told she was half-wild and had lived outdoors, scavenging in the streets, all her life. The sisters said she was totally ignorant of indoors life, and would often be found in the morning sleeping outside on a roof or in the courtyard, and that she didn't understand that some places were better than others to relieve herself, for example. I was advised to lock my door at night for this reason. She did not speak at all, but could be made to understand simple instructions with patience. I watched her eat stew with her hands, scooping a mouthful, chewing a while, spitting it back into her palm and examining it carefully, then chewing again.
There is also a Shishu Bhavan upstairs with babies and young children, most disabled, some orphans, all ravenous for affection. I spent fifty minutes or so going from crib to crib. As usual, the furniture is a mixed bag: some steel hospital beds, some massively built mahogany cribs with Beatrix Potter scenes painted on the headboards, dating I'd guess from the `30s.
I heard confessions, then said vespers. I was shown to a room with two cots used to store blankets and sewing materials, and given an excellent supper of minestrone and focaccio. Compline, and to bed at 9:30.
December 29th. Up at 4:30, the muezzins kicked in at 5:00. Lauds followed by Mass at 6:00.
All the people were brought to the ground floor vestibule, because Santa Claus made his appearance with conventional beard and boots (the Orthodox Christmas is yet to come). There were about a dozen layfolk, Orthodox, who help out regularly and who had made up gift sacks for each patient containing candy and toys. There was a cassette player with Arab music playing, and some spontaneous dancing from some of the children. The happy porter stood off in a corner watching the scene, drooling and hopping on one leg in delight. The girl Diyan was much calmer, and simply rocked herself back and forth in her chair. I unwrapped toys for the kids and fed pretzel sticks to an old gal one at a time.
Afterwards the sisters took me to the Orthodox Church of St. Mark, where Mass was in progress. As the priests, deacons and acolytes passed in and out of the sanctuary with the thurible, I noticed that, while their vesture was entirely traditional, the acolytes wore Nikes and Reeboks. They seem to have become the single universally uniform feature of Christian liturgy.
On leaving we met a priest, clearly well disposed to the sisters, who pressed on me a copy of a paperback book called Theological and Dogmatic Problems, by H .H. Pope Shenouda III, the current patriarch of Alexandria. Among the topics addressed: "Do human beings get married to devils and procreate"? He answers: "We do not believe this at all. It is not supported by any creed or historical evidence". I was moved to wonder, if diabolic unions are excluded on credal grounds, what would count as historical evidence for or against the phenomenon? We also get a discussion of the mystery of the Trinity: "Perhaps one may ask how 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. We reply that 1 x 1 x 1 = 1". Very true.
The courtyard outside the church was a good example of an oddity that I saw often in Alexandria: the blocks used for paving in the middle ages were some kind of sandstone; the mortar, for whatever reason, was considerably harder. As a consequence of erosion the blocks were worn down such that the mortar joints are about an inch higher than the paving stones they're holding together. It looks like a honeycomb where the honey is depleted and the wax remains.
Next, I was taken to the remarkably shabby Orthodox church of St. Moussa and St. Mary. The stone floor was being mopped, and the "pews" were K-Mart style stackable plastic patio chairs, piled off to one side while the floor dried. The iconostasis was a velveteen curtain strung from a curtain rod, and the icons themselves were pictures cut out of books and magazines and fastened to the curtain. There was a 19th century German Annunciation a kind of holy card illustration, and a scene of St. George and the Dragon done by pouring different colors of glitter on wet glue and shaking off the excess. Behind the sanctuary was a cinderblock and dirt wall lit by a bare light-bulb, like an unfinished basement.
About this time, a very bad migraine began to install itself behind my right eye, and for the next thirty hours it felt as if I had a plum-sized colony of ants in my brain trying to eat its way out. I let myself get towed around from place to place by the sisters, but I was more concerned in trying not to vomit than in paying attention to my surroundings. Sister Lucette and I got a train back to Cairo in the evening and we got back to Kamel Sidqi about 10:00; she to supper, I to bed.
December 30th. A miserable day. Up at 4:30 with the migraine, and pretty much spent a normal day, as it doesn't feel much different no matter what one does. Lauds, O.R., Mass at 6:30, then a major scrub down of the men's ward. Washed breakfast dishes. Was taken by the sisters to get my return ticket confirmed, but the Alitalia office was closed. Saw McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken en route, in familiar color schemes but in Arabic script.
We stopped to visit the church where the infant Moses was found in his basket. Good of him to remember the spot. After this, I went upstairs to my room and entertained myself with the dry heaves for most of the morning and afternoon. Flies in the vomit and deranged howling down below. Adoration and Benediction and more nausea.
December 31st. Feeling much better. After Mass I had some breakfast and kept it down. Helped Sisters Bakhita and Lucille clean the men. Nothing seems to dim their cheerfulness, not even the most disgusting chores.
Drove to Mukattam. My ten days' experience has changed my initial impressions of the traffic chaos. After a while the constant and ubiquitous one-tap beeps on the horn start to make sense; there must be a kind of Doppler Effect that helps the driver know who is approaching and who's receding, and at what rate; maybe there's a bat-like echolation effect as well. I also came to realize that, when you drive at night with your headlights off, you have a much better view of the periphery on either side of where the headlamp beam would be, which is important when there's a lot of children, goats, bicycles and fowl on the move at night on and around the roads.
It occurred to me that I saw no 18-wheelers in Egypt; even Albania has them. No contrails in the sky.
After Adoration, a prayer for the pope: "Deliver him not into the will of his enemies".
On the way back I saw a traffic cop standing in the middle of the street with a white helmet and whistle, totally oblivious to the maneuvers of the vehicles around him, entirely absorbed in eating a tangerine. Also a remarkably young boy, not more than nine, who wove a donkey cart with incredible precision through stopped traffic, barely moving the reins. Also groups of Catholic schoolgirls in uniform: white blouses and blue plaid skirts.
At 6:00, concelebrated Mass in Arabic in the church. Communion by intinction.
Vigil Mass at 11:30; my third Mass today. The New Year's celebrations outside were barely noticeable, nothing like the end of Ramadan. After Mass, a cake was cut.
January 1st, 2001. Up at 4:30 for Lauds and O.R. "Late" Mass at 7:00 this morning. Spent some time cleaning the roof terrace and bathrooms. Peeled oranges. Changed into clean clothes, joined the sisters for litanies, said my good-byes. Got to the airport on time, and re-read Barchester Towers. Mrs. Proudie would not have liked Cairo.
Father Anthony Frank (a pseudonym) is an American priest who lives in Rome.
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