Friday, July 6, 2018

2018:7 - The Dance

Hans' arrival on Thursday of last week has meant less time in writing and reflection and more time out and about, taking in some of the cultural richness of Cairo. Having traveled here before, we've not taken in the Pharaonic monuments, and have opted instead to explore more of the culture of the Common Era. We've spent time exploring Coptic as well as Islamic Cairo.

Bread delivery in progress
Traveling to various sites has meant maneuvering Cairo's infamous traffic guided by Mohammed, a driver we know and trust, as well as Uber. Driving in Cairo is unlike anything I've experienced before. Lane markings are suggestions - a three lane road will regularly have five or more streams of vehicles flowing. Cars, tuk tuks (3-wheeled open-sided, covered passenger vehicles), motorcycles, donkey carts, bicycles, and pedestrians are intermingled everywhere, from neighborhood streets to main roads. It is not an exaggeration to say that one of the highlights of touring around Cairo is that it gives you an opportunity, from the seat of a car, to see how resourceful and efficient Egyptians can be. Just this week, I've witnessed pick-up trucks packed several feet high with fresh eggs being delivered to markets - not one was broken. I've seen a large dog being transported by motorcycle while being firmly held in place by two passengers. I've witnessed multiple delivery boys navigating traffic by bicycle while balancing a four by six-foot pallet of fresh bread on their head, often with both hands steering the bike. All of this is accompanied by a steady flow of car horns.  

As you might guess, "safety first" is not a motto that I've ever heard spoken in Egypt and it's true that much of what I see out my car window makes me cringe with worry. I would not allow anyone I know to do some of the things that pass for legal on the roads of Cairo.

Stock image, when I've seen it, there's often a man on top. 
That said, I've realized something as we made our way through Monday morning rush hour traffic this week. The constant flow of horns around us are rarely an expression of frustration - the way I often hear horns at home. Instead they signal presence and caution to other drivers: Toot! Coming up on your right side. Honk! Merging in from the left. Beep! Beep! Beep! Motorcycle coming up the path between cars.

I've long thought Cairo traffic was simply chaotic. This week I've begun to witness the complex dance that is being choreographed outside my window. To maneuver traffic in Cairo is to make your way through a complex and crowded environment where the safest thing is to maintain flow and movement, but where drivers do that with constant awareness of everyone and everything around them. Traffic in Cairo is an exercise in awareness that we are not the only people in a hurry with places to go and people to see. And what looks like chaos, may actually be a complex exercise where everyone is doing their part to meet their needs, while also caring for the wellbeing of their neighbors surrounding them.

Maybe that's a more poetic analysis than traffic deserves. But there's something about what I see from my passenger seat that looks to me like a beautiful, chaotic, choreographed dance.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

2018:6 - Heat

 When you live in the desert, you learn to seek the shadows. Years ago on a bus trip to the Eastern desert to visit the monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul, I looked out my bus window and was surprised to see a single tree in a vast expanse of desert, and under the tree, a man. I blinked, expecting the vision to have been a mirage, but when my eyes refocused there he was, a single man sitting in the shadow of a single tree.

Finding the shadows is a survival strategy when you live under the glare of the desert sun. The surest way to stay cool is to keep from getting hot. And if you must be out during the day, the surest way to keep from getting hot is to stay out of the sun as much as possible. I used to be surprised to find the streets and markets of Cairo teaming with people of all ages at 10 or 11 or even 12 at night. The reason is simple though, temperatures can cool considerably once the sun sets for the day and so Egyptians who can, spend their daytime hours enclosed in their homes expending as little energy as possible and waiting for the darkness to come when they can finally emerge into the cooler evening air.

When I am out and about in the daytime I've learned to traverse the streets with the most trees, which provide the most shade and the greatest chance for protection from the hot desert sun. But at midday when the sun is directly overhead, shade is hard to come by, even on tree-lined streets. At these times, I zig-zag my way down neighborhood streets, making my way from the shadow of one tree to the shadow of the next. I can imagine the women and mostly men who sit along the neighborhood streets watching the world pass by as they drink their tea and talk to their neighbors, comment on the crazy Western woman who doesn't know enough to stay inside during the heat of the day.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

2018:5 - Pace

Egypt can tax the patience of even the most laid-back and patient Westerners. Laid-back and patient are rarely words that are used to describe me. Here schedules are often suggestions, appointments signal desires, and Insha’Allah (God willing) is the tentative confirmation of every plan that's made. At seminary, classes end at 10 minutes to the hour, but the class bell might ring anytime from 15 minutes before the hour, to three minutes before the hour, to never. For an agenda-driven person like myself, this can be maddening. But it can also be eye-opening when I let it be.

The fluidity of time, the tentative nature of all plans, allows for a responsiveness to the present moment. When a friend appears at your door, you stop and invite them in to visit, rather than excuse yourself because someone else is expecting you. When a stranger asks for assistance, you stop and help rather than pass by because of the appointment awaiting you. Biblical Greek describes time using the words, chronos and kairos. Chronos is the time we measure by dividing into seconds, minutes, hours, days and years. Kairos is God's time - the time of ripeness when what needs to happen in the moment, happens. By these definitions, Egyptians, in general, live more in kairos. I have been taught my whole life to live by chronos.

There are days, I confess, when the frustration caused by the collision of these two concepts of time bubbles over the surface and I snap. But there is gift in living more kairos than chronos. Guided by kairos, I am more attentive to my surroundings and circumstances. I dare to cancel appointments because I realize I'm not at feeling up to it or I acknowledge my spirit is not into the task at hand. I stop to sit with a friend, rather than pressing on to the next thing in my calendar or the next task on my list. When I'm focused on chronos -- keeping schedules, being "on time" -- I rarely pay attention to what's happening around me, or even within me. I simply press on with the list, the task, the to-dos in the hope that in the end it will be enough.

I learn the most about myself, however, when my clock is set to chronos and people around me are living kairos. This often happens to me on my teaching days at seminary. The other day I was waiting for students to return from their 10-minute break between classes. When the appointed time for their return came and went and my classroom remained empty, I found myself setting the stop watch on my clock to count precisely the seconds until they returned. Somehow I thought knowing exactly how late they were would make me feel better (not my best moment, to be sure).

When the final student strolled in several minutes late, I suppressed my urge to give a lesson in American time and Egyptian time. God knows they've heard that lesson before from me. Instead I asked, what had caused his delay. "My friends needed to talk with me." My friends needed me ... now ... in this moment. Maybe there isn't a better reason to live.