Exploration and Reformation

Blood ran down the streets of Cairo last Tuesday, October 15.  It was the first day of the Eid al-Adha, when Muslims commemorate Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son.  In the days leading up to Tuesday, sheep and cows showed up in the streets.  Sheep munched on hay thrown on the streets, milling about with no clue about what would be coming in the days ahead.  Cows were tied to railings and lamp posts.  One of our friends was introduced to the sheep the bawwab had in the garage.  We headed down to the main street in the neighborhood a little after 6:00 on that Tuesday morning, feeling like it was something that we needed to see while we were here.  People prayed at masjids (prayer rooms) along the way, spilling out on to the sidewalks, on this holiday.  All the while, butchers prepared themselves, making sure knives were sharp and meat hooks were secure.  And once the prayers ended, people gathered around the front of the shops.  With ropes securing the hooves, a butcher swiped a sharp blade across the neck, and the blood began to pour out.  Over the course of the day, thousands of sheep and cows were slaughtered in Cairo.  Muslim families are to keep a third for themselves, share a third with friends and family, and a third with the poor.

We took advantage of a relatively quiet day to explore the city a bit.  We headed toward the Citadel, but couldn’t seem to find the gate.  As we walked around the base of the fortress that was established in the 12th century, men sat at cafes, drinking tea and smoking sheshaas.  Children played in the streets.  Young men shaved hair off of sheep heads.  Others drove around in little trucks collecting hides that would, presumably, be scraped and treated for leather.  Butchers chopped and their assistants washed the blood from the stoops.  At one point, I had to walk around the bloody water that ran down the small hill.  The smell was, um, less than pleasant.

And then we arrived at Ibn Tulun mosque.  We walked through the huge doors of the complex and it was quiet.  With the exception of a couple sharing lunch, and a few middle school aged boys hanging out on the holiday, we were the only ones there.  We marveled at the beautiful 9th century architecture.  Simple, yet grand.  The mosque has recently been renovated as is no longer used for worship, but one can imagine the huge courtyard filled with people praying, and the acoustics allowing for many to hear, even from a distance.  Before we left, the guard offered to take us up the minaret, which afforded a picturesque view of the Citadel, Muquattam Hills, and Downtown Cairo.  It was lovely, and nice to finally get out to explore a bit of the old part of the city.

Before we left the compound, we took a tour of the Gayer-Anderson museum.  A beautifully preserved 17th-century home, the house was a maze of rooms, filled with the extensive art collection of Major Gayer-Anderson.  We’re still working on our Arabic, and the guide only knew a few words of English so we didn’t understand everything, but I think we got the general gist.  The wooden screens and huge windows are lovely.  Inside the walls, it was quiet and serene.  The guide knew “picture” and insisted on taking many of us, seeming to enjoy posing us in various poses around the house.  It was a little bit like senior picture day, but since we were still inside the walls of the mosque and I wasn’t quite sure about the protocol, I had a scarf covering my head.

After a quiet holiday week, it was nice to walk in the church yard and have the students back on Monday.  It was strange to be there alone during the holiday week.  I didn’t realize how much I love the constant chatter of the StARS programs.  The coming and going of the staff and clients.  The soccer ball dodging during recess.

I had a couple of meetings around the city this week and it was fun to get out and explore a bit more.  One of the church council members showed me around, taking me to some of her favorite little stalls and markets, while we walked to the train station from our meeting at the seminary.  She reminisced about growing up in Cairo and lamented about the current instability making it harder for people to get around.  On Tuesday afternoon, though, it was as normal as normal can be here.  Shop keepers swept their stoops, children ran and played in the streets.  Vegetable vendors from the country brought their produce in on donkey drawn carts.  I am still amazed by the ways you can move so quickly from a loud, busy street, packed with taxis, buses, and cars, to a quiet side street/ally, where people smile and say sabbaH ilxeer (good day).  She pointed to Arabic signs for me to read as we walked.

Today, we sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” at the English service and I preached at the Sudanese Lutheran service.  The worship is mostly in Arabic and I listened to the familiar cadences of the Apostle’s Creed and Lord’s Prayer.  Though I recognize only a few words, the cadences were there and it was a good reminder of the ways that we are made free to worship in so many languages, yet called into one body of Christ.  As I looked into the faces of my Sudanese brothers and sisters, I saw a vision of an always reforming church.  Had I remembered to wear my red shoes, it would have been a perfect Reformation Friday.

Our Arabic is coming along.  We are making new friends, from all over the world.  Justin’s classes are going well and I feel so blessed to do the work I do.  We’ve now been in Cairo two months.  I can even say “I have been in Egypt for two months” in Arabic.  There’s lots more to explore and experience.  We continue to learn and are challenged by contexts completely different than anything else we’ve ever experienced.  But tonight, as chicken soup simmers on the stove, I’m content in a place that is increasingly feeling more like home.

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3 Responses to Exploration and Reformation

  1. Deborah Kolb says:

    As always, I savored every word of your beautiful prose. Thank you so much for bridging the gap of miles with your uplifting blog. I can’t wait to get there. Counting the days!

  2. Linda says:

    Oh, Kisten, thank you for the wonderful update. Gary and I are holding you and Justin close in our hearts. We look forward to hearing of your life in Cairo and knowing that all is well. Yes – you and Justin are exactly where you should be and we send you our love.

  3. Andrea Sununu says:

    What a lovely description you’ve posted, Kirsten. I’m so glad that my asking to become a Facebook “friend” has given me access to your evocative entry. And of course I’m delighted to know that Cairo is “increasingly feeling more like home.” Incidentally, in preparation for a new course I’ll be teaching in the spring, I’ve just reread parts of Penelope Lively’s _Making It Up_: each chapter consists of a few autobiographical details juxtaposed with fiction. In her preface she explains, “This book is fiction. If anything, it is an anti-memoir. My own life serves as the prompt; I have homed in upon the rocks, the rapids, the whirlpools, and written the alternative stories. It is a form of confabulation.” I mention it because it includes two chapters that mention Cairo–the Cairo of her childhood in her first chapter, “The Mozambique Channel” and her chapter “Comet,” which includes details about a locket filled with Mokattam sand that remind me of the detail about the ring that Tom gives Claudia in _Moon Tiger_. I don’t know whether this note will go through, but I hope it does–I’m a novice with Facebook technology!

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