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Cairo Update

Date Written:
  18 march 2002
Subject:
  Coaxed into service
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Greetings,

Well, I said in the last Cairo Update that I would only write again when there was something worth writing about. As you know, I have suspended all meetings for the first three months of 2002 in order to concentrate on studying Arabic. Previously I've been too busy to study, or at least used the meetings as an excuse why I couldn't.

Well, so far so good. I can't say it has gone really well, but progress has certainly been made. My goal was to be able to take meetings without using a translator, and I think that I'm almost at that point. Admittedly, I can now only do a limited amount of talks but that will improve with practice. I have found that there are now many more distractions apart from taking meetings!

I have taken just a handful of meetings since January. One was a meeting that I cancelled in December, and therefore felt a moral obligation to re-schedule. I was glad that I went. It was a conference for about 60 boys from a deprived area (deprived by Egyptian standards!) These were *real* children, and not church children, if you get my meaning. The boys were in their early teens, had many questions, and were really searching. By the end of the meeting about one third of them made a commitment.

Many of the boys had come from difficult situations. I spoke with one who had problems with his father, who drinks a lot and often gets violent. The boy had been thrown out of the house many times and he was asking how to deal with the situation. This was typical. The ones who made a commitment wanted to know how to apply it to their own situations. We hope they will be attending a local congregation in the area in which they live. There are some who are members in the congregation who have organised follow-up.

Another conference I attended was one which was forced onto me. To understand what I mean, you must know something about Egyptian culture. Usually when someone asks you a question, you have to try to give them the answer they want to hear to be polite. So when I am asked if I can take a meeting, I cannot repond with a straight forward "no", that would be quite inappropriate. Now that I am concentrating on Arabic, I have suspended all meetings, but to be polite I tell people to phone me first and I will check the calendar. If they get round to giving me a call, I will tell them that I am already busy on that day (they assume another meeting, whereas I am studying Arabic!)

One lady asked me if I could do a one week conference in upper Egypt, I gave the set response- "Get back to me with some dates and I will check the calendar". As she told me later, what she heard was, "Tell me the dates and I will book them in the calendar". She went ahead and booked the conference with me as the main speaker, booked the music leader, arranged a series of meetings and advertised them to the church. A couple of weeks before the conference was about to start she called me to tell me the dates. Well, either she genuinely misunderstood what I meant, or she used typical Egyptian tactics to out manouver me (and this wouldn't be the first time!). I reluctantly agreed to go for the week.

So, in the middle of Feburary I went to a village of about 4000 people. It was in the midst of a farming community of Si'eedies. I've written about these people before, they are the ones who are the butt of many Egyptian jokes. It is said that they are big, strong and have the mentality of a retarded labrador dog, but when angered change into savage rottweilers. When I was with them I was careful not to share any of the Si'eedie jokes I have heard.

To be honest I like these people a lot, the characature that the other Egyptians have about them is unfair. I left on a Sunday, and during my time there I had about two or three meetings a day. I returned exhausted but rejoicing. I can split the time into different areas of the village, security, food, health and ministry.

The Village
As I mentioned, the village was in the middle of Si'eedie farming community. There were no facilities that you might find in a city like Cairo. During my stay I didn't see a single pharmacy, supermarket or phone booth. Neither was there a proper road system in the village. Despite these difficiencies the village could be considered quite affulent compared to other places in upper Egypt since each house had electricity and running water. The village was about 25% Christian, with four congregations present. After I arrived I heard that there had been problems between the two communities, some Christians had been killed. (It has to be said that with these types of problems, it is always churches that are burnt, or Christians killed, never ever the other way round. There is little publicity about it on national or international news).

Security
Because of the problems of attacks, I had to have an armed escort throughout my time in the village. The pastor had to register my visit before my arrival so that security arrangements could be made. From the train station to the church I had an armed escort. During my stay in the church building there was a 24-hour armed escort outside. I was allowed to venture outside the church once since we wanted to visit a small village to do a meeting. The four of us left the church and were surrounded by an armed escort of five soldiers and government security agents during the short walk. In the village we were not allowed to take a meeting, so instead we sang and prayed with the people in the street. At one point I got out some modelling balloons to entertain the children - for this type of area modelling balloons are quite a novel idea and it got a lot of attention. Some security guards approached me during my light entertainment and I initially thought that it was to stop me because what I was doing could be considered as being a "meeting". Instead they insisted that they wanted modelling balloons too. I believe it was Al Capone who said "You can get further with a nice word and a gun, than you can with a nice word alone". They got their balloons, and whilst walking back it seemed a bit surreal to see them wearing sunglasses, carrying a kalashnikov AK47 in one hand and balloon rabbit in the other.

Food
Even after five years I still have difficulty coping with many types of Egyptian food. My experiences during this trip were fairly typical; many times I had to surpress my natural gag mechanism in order to not insult my hosts. My first meal was a bad omen of what was to come. I was served liver, olives, salt-cheese and bread. Man, I had difficulty getting the liver down. The salt-cheese (by the taste of it) I imagined as being half cheese and half salt, and completely unpaletable to anyone from England. I was pleased that I only had to endure molochaya once. This is the stuff I have referred to in the past as being exactly like mucus in terms of sight, texture and taste.

Health
As a result of the food, and maybe something to do with the cloudy water, I had to remain within running distance of a toilet from the start of the second day. In addition I contracted a sore throat which grew into a full head-cold. The situation became worse when I started to be eaten alive by body-lice which took up permanent residence in my bed. These persistant little parasites kept me awake most nights. I got up on the Tuesday morning after having very little sleep the night before, I guess about two hours. I looked forward to a shower to scrub my body with a brillo pad, however, the water was off for a couple of hours (this is typical) so I had to wait until after lunch. By the end of the week my bed and all my clothes were infected. I had many bites - I counted 12 on my right hand alone. I cat-napped during the daytime, but still I was exhausted by the end of the week through lack of sleep.

Ministry
Despite the discomforts the my time in upper Egypt was well spent. I am limited by how much I can say about it. Beforehand the normal attendance was about 80 per week. During the week of special meetings that grew to about 300, and even people listening from outside because they could not get in. Before the meetings officially started, people were coming early and starting off impromptu worship sessions before the worship leader arrived. People responded, numbers have stayed up in the weeks since we left. I wondered why the response was so good, but after attending a women's prayer meeting I understood completely. They prayed with loud, gravelly voices using non-sophisticated words- but they were persistant, they cried out to God to touch them.

As a Westerner it is easy to feel that you are in a deprived area with simple people who need help. After visiting the prayer meeting and seeing how they prayed, I realised that I was the person who came from a deprived country and in terms of praying I needed their help. After taking a meeting for the same women I did the mistake of making a couple of balloon models for the ladies present to take to their children. Afterwards they all wanted one. They weren't polite about it either, they were insistant and wouldn't be passified by my words. The really persistant ones stayed with me and followed me- in the end I had to give in. I realised that's why they are good intercessors - they prayed like the persistant widow in Luke 18.

So as you see, I have been kept busy with things in addition to Arabic, and the time in upper Egypt gave me the incentive to work on the Arabic even more.

Until next time, toodle pip,

Jason

PS I've attatched a photo of the church in upper Egypt. There is a partition going through the middle of the church to separate the men from the ladies (this is necessary for cultural reasons). The photo was taken at the beginning of a children's meeting, it just shows the half of the church to the speakers left hand side. The photo doesn't show the fact that to get the children in the building there were many surrounding me on the stage area too!


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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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