International Series: Egypt, A New Adventure
We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.
Today’s post comes from Dorothy, who is a retired middle school teacher, and who got to go to the place where author Elizabeth Peters set her Amelia Peabody stories. It was her first chance to live in a foreign country although she had traveled throughout Europe during the summer. She was born and raised for the most part in the Los Angeles Area, so these six years in Egypt were an opportunity to make a dream come true.
I had the opportunity to move to Egypt when my husband took a job with an Egyptian company in 2005. Being in a Muslim country was quite an experience since we could not talk about the Church in any manner. If questions were asked you answered briefly and left with the comment that we were Christian.
Egypt is a country where you could hide from the church since it was a difficult process to contact the Middle East Desk to find information about the branch or talk to someone who had been there or find a new friend who was already there. Members knew of military and embassy people who were not interested in attending Church, but they had to be careful talking to them about the gospel and or inviting them to attend church.
The branch population averaged between 45-100 members depending on who was posted there. The numbers increased when the BYU group came in the summer. Unfortunately this is no longer the case because of the unrest in the country. The branch was fully organized with a branch presidency, priesthood quorums (small but mighty), Young Women, Primary, Young Single Adults, extra Sunday School classes such as temple preparation, family history, marriage and family and of course Early Morning Seminary. The Boy Scouts worked with the local school, Cairo American College (college is K-12th grade) to advance towards an Eagle award.
I think the biggest challenge of the youth was that most of the activities including sports and prom were held on Friday which is the Sabbath there. Kids had to make a very conscious decision on what they would or would not do. Dating was also a challenge as there were not many young men or women in the branch at any one time. Even scouting was a challenge with the activities on Thursday evening to Saturday afternoon. I was surprised that when you asked a Muslim what was special about Gomma (Friday) besides going to the Mosque at noon, they answered that it was just Friday and nothing special.
Many of the Young Men earned their Duty to God and Eagle awards. Projects may have been different, but the results were the same. Several created projects that included going to the Leprosarium in Zig Zag city. Most of us had only heard about the horrors of the disease and were a little squeamish about going out there but it was an experience that can never be forgotten. We painted and repaired benches and walls and ourselves, planted gardens to beautify the area, cleaned dorm rooms, planted plants for sale in the local markets and did whatever needed to be done. There was a French lady that coordinated all the work. We also learned about their lives there and how they made palm frond broom, created their own shoes to fit the misshapen feet of those that were affected and met their families who lived in a village nearby. Those that were able helped us with the project. For the branch members young and old, it was a time to get to know a different type of Egyptian who were so grateful for the help. I remember an elderly Sheik who was in his 90s, blind, and both legs had been amputated. He always had a smile and a hug for those who came to visit him. We always made an effort to meet with him when we came.
The Humanitarian Volunteers were awesome to work with. While we were there, we had four different couples who worked with the local NGOs. They provided wheelchairs, as well as materials for something similar to the McDonald’s houses here for families whose children were in the hospital. Medical care is not the best and families had to try and take care of their own patient so much was done in this area. The Church donated a bus to a Ophthalmologist who spent each weekend and holiday going into the villages to help with the seriousness of eye problems. Diabetes is a major issue in the country and can cause blindness. They worked with orphanages to provide needed supplies, schools to enable children to go to school with some materials, villages to get clean water for their populations. In fact once there was an earthquake in Makkadam, one of the poorest neighborhoods, where a cliff collapsed onto many hovels. The first ones called were the volunteers because they knew how to rally the forces to give the needed help.
The Church provided the Family Home Evening Manual in Arabic to be passed out to families to support strengthening the family. Families are very important to the Egyptian people. All references to the Church had to be removed, but after several editings there was one reference that escaped notice. The call went out to the sisters and seven came and we tore out that one page from several hundred books. We had a great time visiting and tearing. Unfortunately, the revolution of 2012 came and to my knowledge they were never distributed.
Opportunities to serve were everywhere. Many sisters were involved with Baby Wash where new mothers were shown how to care for their babies and were given a hygiene kit, a visit with a doctor, and diapers. Others volunteered to help teach in the orphanages in the neighborhood. One sister taught her housekeeper how to make quilts that she could sell to help supplement her earnings. I taught a Nigerian sister how to make Iris folded Christmas cards which she in turn make a small business to help support her family and provide money when they were relocated by the UN to Kentucky. Several of us had the opportunity to teach English to college graduates at St. Barbara’s to help increase their job opportunities. When you would see them on the streets they would smile and give you a big hug. The Young Women even enlisted their home wards to help provide blankets for the Heart Institute. The Primary painted a wall that was covered with graffiti replacing it with a tree of life. This was directed by an artist living in the branch. They also cleaned the trash away from the wall for a block. Even the youngest child got to help.
Most of the Young Adults were there attending either AUC (American University of Cairo) or a language institute to perfect their Arabic or complete a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies. They were a great group of young people, many of whom I am still in contact through FB. Most are working on a PhDs, or have already gotten jobs with various government agencies and are serving throughout the world. Two sisters who were members for less than six months came to Cairo and were called as Primary workers. Since then they have completed their education, married in the temple, and have started families of their own. Fridays were always dinner at my house and I never knew who would be sleeping on the couches when I got up to prepare for the seminary students.
We lived across the street from the school so the students would come to my house for seminary at 6:30am, and then walk across the street to begin another day. Most of the students have gone on to serve successful missions, attend university, and have been married in the temple. Often the younger siblings of my students would come and do homework or sleep on those couches while seminary was going on.
This summer I had the chance to reunite with a young Brazilian woman who was a nanny for an Egyptian family and attended church with her charge. The branch sponsored her to go on a mission to another part of Brazil where she served until there was a medical problem with her knees. The Church assisted with several surgeries to correct the problem so she could continue to live without pain. She taught herself English to pass the TEFOL test, worked for two years to get a student visa (with the support of a former Cairo Branch member to guide her through the process), became a TA for professors at BYU-I, graduated with honors, and is now a Registered Nurse. She will be married in the Salt Lake Temple this September. This is quite an accomplishment for a person whose second language is English.
Being far away from the mainstream of the Church, we had the opportunity to have General Authorities come to visit, both planned and unannounced. Elder Holland and his wife Patricia came to the branch and gave an inspiring talk. With his busy schedule he took time to visit with all the members and have his picture taken with individual families before and during dinner. We were lucky enough to have an apostolic blessing pronounced on the branch and the Middle East. Another time he came to Jordan and we were the first to have broadcast from there to Cairo. This again showed how the church supports its members far and wide.
Not many people can say that they had the opportunity to have lunch with Sister Holland in an Egyptian Mansion owned by the Embassy (the only mansion still owned by the US government in the world). We took her to the Khan, the ancient market place, and had a great time visiting and introducing here to the crazy shopping and bargaining there. If you don’t bargain you lose the respect of the merchants and they can be very pushy. We also went on a Felucca ride, the traditional sailing boat on the Nile, for a cozy dinner with the Hollands and the branch leadership.
Branch activities were always fun: a trip to the desert, a journey to the Fayouum, hiking in Wadi Digla, a felucca ride and meal, riding horseback riding at the pyramids, shopping, a branch trip to St. Catherine’s in Saini, and a trip to Israel. If one group was doing something you wanted to do all you had to do was show up and participate. In fact, one time it took 8 Relief Society members to buy one small angel.
Another special event was the yearly visit of Dr. Griggs and the group from BYU, Joyce Smith, Paul Evens, Giovani Tata, Kristin South, and Kerry Muhlestein when they came to work at the cemetery site studying early Christian graves. There was always a family and friends fireside usually at our home in the great room where we learned what has happening in this area of archeology. He also gave a lecture on the temple ordinances and what they have found in ancient religious rites. Fascinating! They also came and taught seminary for me and allowed the students to ask any and all questions pertaining to their work and expertise.
One of the funniest times was at a Relief Society Christmas social. The activity was an auction with points you got from Visiting Teaching, service, etc. A man no one knew joined in the activity as an auctioneer. We all thought he was a friend of one of the members. After all the craziness of the day and a good meal he left. Come to find out, no one knew him. He was part of the police force checking us out. Fortunately there was no church doctrine being taught at the event as there were guests of members who were Egyptian.
As far as we knew at the time, there were only five Egyptian members of the Church in Egypt, all men. They live far and wide so they were not always able to attend. They were all baptized when they were working outside of Egypt. They are wonderful men having the gospel deep in their hearts.
Many people have heard of Tito, who wrote “My Name Used to Be Muhammad,” who spend 15 years in prison for becoming a Christian and a member of the Church. Branch members would go to see him in prison they would take food, art supplies, and other necessities for him or for him to trade for items. He would always write his testimony to be read at the next sacrament meeting.
Summer is unique since all the women and children leave as soon as school is out and return just before it starts again. The men join them for their three weeks of R&R. The branch is then very small but functional. Usually they have Sacrament Meeting and then alternate Sunday School and Priesthood and Relief Society for a second hour. No Primary, Young Men, or Young Women.
During the revolution of 2012 we held a Sacrament Meeting with only five members. The rest of the branch had been evacuated or if their position was considered critical they had to stay in their apartments until an armored truck came and picked them up. They were on 48 hour duty, then 48 hours at home.
We were lucky that we were not involved with the government in any way so our small group of five visited those that were leaving and sang “God Be With You Til We Meet Again.” These were very touching moments. We do meet again. Sometimes there is a Cairo Branch Reunion, casually, or on Facebook.
I have the feeling that was like the experience of the early Saints where you had to support each other in all that you did. Families were often separated because of assignment, callings, or vacation. We learned to love each other and truly become a family. What Bishop would not want to be over a branch where attendance was almost 100% and everyone cared about one another at all times because they wanted to be there and be examples to the community and to each other.