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Cairo Update

Date Written:
  15 September 1998
  Day Trip to Suez
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Just when we thought that the summer was over, the temperature is getting over 40 degrees again. The fans have gone back on again at night and we eagerly await the coming of October where the temperature will get down to something a bit more bearable.

On Friday I went to Suez on the North coast (yes, the same Suez that's given it's name to the canal). This has been a long-standing commitment after I met the Head Teacher of the S School at another conference near Cairo. Actually, in typical Egyptian fashion he used some underhand tactics to get me there, namely emotional blackmail- and being the real softy I gave in!

I had previously explained that I was short of time because I'm finishing off some computer work for a company in London but reasons like this rarely work in Egyptian culture- deadlines and work schedules have little importance here.

I met him along with my translator at the main train station in the mid afternoon, there we hired a car and driver to take us to Suez. The journey there was incredibly hot. With the windows up it was like a greenhouse inside, but with them up there was a 70 mph blast of air at 40 degrees. I opted for the latter option and arrived a couple of hours later covered in sandy dust from the desert and feeling dried up like a prune.

Upon arriving I discovered that the meeting didn't start for another couple of hours, and even then I wasn't due to speak until an hour after that. I was a bit disappointed because I had tried to explain previously about only coming for the minimum amount of time in order to get back to continue with other work. I think that this was just seen as an excuse for not staying so it was promptly ignored. He tried to convince me to stay overnight but I explained that I had another meeting the next morning at 10am. "No problem", he said, "We can put you in a car at 5am and you can sleep on the way there". I explained further that I had to actually prepare for the meeting, and besides there was still the other work that had to be done. Rejecting hospitality like this can be a real minefield in this culture and I came very close to offending him. We eventually agreed that the next time I came I would stay much longer and bring Alison and the children along too- only then he agreed that I could go later that evening!

After this long discussion he told the car driver to come back at 12 O'clock at night to take me back to Cairo. It was said quietly in Arabic in the hope that I didn't understand. I interrupted and explained again that I must get back soon in order to do some other work and prepare for a meeting in the morning. Eventually we arranged for the transport to take me back at 9:30pm when the meeting finished. I didn't know at the time that the meeting was actually to finish at 8pm so he was able to keep me there for another one and a half hours!

I've concluded that life would be made much easier by thinking like an Egyptian but I still have a long way to go- I just can't ignore deadlines and preparation for meetings . . .

The actual meeting went quite well. It was a special one-off event, there were about 120 children present. I was originally told that there would be one speaking slot but after I arrived I was informed that I now had two points in the program where I was to speak. This kind of thing has happened many times before so I had already gone prepared with an extra sheet of sketchboard paper just in case . . .

The first slot went really well, I explained the meaning of the cross and 12 children made a first-time commitment. My translator is very good at getting the response at the end so I usually just leave it to her.

Between speaking slots I went downstairs. The upper room where I had been speaking was the highest room in the building. This is a problem because the sun heats the ceiling and it was very hot and stuffy on the stage area. By the end of the first talk there was not a single dry spot on my shirt (yes, REALLY) . Several times during the talk I had to wipe my brow because of the sweat getting into my eyes! On the lower floor I spent the time sitting in front of a fan and drinking lots of water- I knew that I was in danger of dehydration because my joints were starting to ache (one of the first signs).

By the time the second speaking slot came along I think that the children had come to the end of their attention span- three hours is a long time, even for Egyptian children who can sit down and concentrate for much longer than English children. There was a lot that I had planned for this final slot but in the end I cut it short because the children were too restless.

Afterwards we waited for the transport back to Cairo at street level. By then it had become a pleasantly cool evening. We sat with the head teacher outside the shop he owns. Several children came to speak to us then I remembered that I had some modelling balloons in my bag. I made a couple of balloon animals for some of the young children present, then the whole street seemed to fill with both adults and children to watch what was happening, along with people on the overlooking balconies. Egyptians love this kind of impromptu entertainment and it proves an ideal opportunity to do some low-key teaching. I'd like to do more of this kind of talking but I have to tread very carefully when it is done out in the open.

The transport arrived and took us back to Cairo- the journey back was much cooler since it was at night. I arrived back shortly after 11:30pm and didn't particularly feel like preparing for the meeting the next day, so I followed the Egyptian way of doing things and didn't bother . . . a resounding success in cultural adaptation at last!

Hope the weather is bearable for you in England,

Toodle Pip,

Jason, Alison, Hannah and Esther

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It's a Fact!

Facts about Egypt:

  • Egypt's population is 66 Million

  • Egypt is four times the size of the UK

  • Only 3% of the land can be used for arable crops

  • Cairo has 18 million people and is growing by 1 millon each year.

  • Cairo is the Largest city in Africa and the Middle East

  • Official literacy rate is only 45%

  • A total of 11 languages are spoken in Egypt

  • Public Debt per person is $790

  • Average annual income is $630

  • Unemployment is estimated to be 17%

  • Religion: Approx. 85% Muslim and 15% Christian

  • Most Christians are affiliated to the Orthodox Church, less than 1% of the population are Protestant

  • There are an estimated 100,000 street children in Egypt


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