Thursday, October 14, 2010

A City of Surprises - Cairo

September 23, 2010 Pre-Pilgrimage Old Coptic Cairo and Islamic Cairo

"Lord, awaken me from the sleep of desire
That makes me oblivious to my
heart's longing.
Lift the illusion that hides the truth
That giving up self is really gaining." Sapira Journal

Waking up in Cairo. Where did the past two days go? Lost amidst planes and flying hours - learning to practice my presence with seat mates, kicking toddlers & foreign ambassadors. Meeting and greeting my fellow travelers, then venturing into this vast city of Cairo and praying jet lag will not cloud the magnificence of this experience. Using my breath to lead the way. I crave filling my lungs with fresh air. Two inhales. Two exhales. YHWH. Visiting the Coptic churches, Amma Regina reminds us God is as near as our breath.

Now I sit outside the Coptic Museum - enclosed spaces and jet lag taking their toll. I can walk or stand no longer. I am pulled toward sunshine and fresh air. Sitting on the sandstone ledge, I know my shirt will be covered with Cairo dust. Letting go has already begun and I sink back against the solid wall. This morning we've traveled through the Coptic churches in the enclosed area of Old Cairo. We've learned Coptic actually means Egyptian although many like to classify Coptic as Christian Egyptians (a population of 5% in this 95% Muslim city).

Our personal Egyptologist, Hany (pronounced Honey), leads the way with worlds of knowledge enthusiastically spilling from his mind and mouth. His heavy accent brings lovely new adaptations to old words like Deuteronomy and Pentateuch. We travel through the narrow alleys learning to say, "La la-la" (No No) to the hawkers of their "special ware." The day doesn't seem so hot, although a trickle of sweat slides its way down my back. Listening to the voices surrounding me, I can make no sense of this Arabic language that sounds guttural, but seems to come mostly from the throat. I'm saddened that the first word I've learned is "no" although perhaps I could slide "Salaam" in there and find rest with "go in peace."

I've been reminded today that I don't prefer history lectures and group tours, but rather enjoy the small and tiny sections of life - a backlit tree of life in a 4th century church - the trill of a bird I cannot see or name. I am grateful for Regina who invites us to slow down and reminds us to touch the portals and gates as we enter new territory. A dragon fly drifts by and I'm curious about the message she has to offer. I could lay down and sleep right here in this ancient courtyard pressed against hard stone. The breeze calls to me to drift and move back outward - onward.

Evening

Today was a day of attuning to the voices around - calls to Midday prayer, haunting and beautiful in the same moment - pleading vendors - laughing children - weary pilgrims - new-found friends.

When journeying in an unknown land, can a smile be enough? In the midst of the maze-like bazaar, a tattered vendor gives thanks for a beautiful smile. A pilgrim grieves over the poverty surrounding us. Do our "hosts" believe they are impoverished? Cairo exudes the mystery of a city both ancient and half-finished all at the same time. We are reminded of Marco Polo and his stories to the Great Kublai Khan as he says:

"Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within... many are the cities like "Cairo", which elude the gaze of all, except the (wo)man who catches them by surprise." Sapira Journal

Did we catch the city by surprise today or did it catch us?
Following our trip to Old Cairo, we entered The Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha or Alabaster Mosque. We were met by the call of tinkling bells as the wind whispered through the magnificent chandelier. Shoes in hand, we entered this sacred place and waited to hear our own 100th name in our hearts. Words drifted through my mind - were the whispers my own or Another's? Tinkle Bell - Breath - Breathe - Breeze - Beauty - Be - Be still and know that I am God - BE.

The pull to stay here was strong. Spread across the tapestry rug, we, pilgrims, commingled with God, Allah, the 99 beautiful names as well as fellow travelers from around the world. A little girl caught our eye with her curly locks and sassy walk as she moved toward and away from her own family including her mother in full burka. Many of us pondered the question of when this little beauty would come to an age and be draped in black from head to toe. Would she look forward to this right of passage? Would she rebel? Those questions, however, were wrapped in the future and at that moment it was time for us to don our shoes and move from here.

Our next stop was the Cairo bazaar. Our first adventure included finding local bathroom facilities as we dug in our wallets for Egyptian pounds and searched our pockets for tissues and hand sanitizer. The brilliance of color and winding pathways felt like something straight out of a Middle Eastern movie. I could envision a chase scene where the heroine (or hero) knocked aside stacked baskets, swung from brightly colored scarves and swooped in and out of narrow passageways to escape the ensuing villain. Scarves, trinkets, and hidden treasures were tucked in every nook and cranny. Vendors promised they had the "best price" on all their wares and if you showed the slightest interest, the game of negotiation began. Intimidating to some, it reminded me of bargaining in Cozumel or Cancun - although here with a level of hospitality I was just beginning to see as wonderfully Egyptian. Alas, our time in this place felt too short to me. I would have loved to wander slowly (slowly) through the pathways and practice my negotiating skills for jewelry and scarves (a practice near-well perfected by our dear, Regina.)

Loading up the bus and heading back toward the Pyramids Park Hotel, we made a slight detour at an authentic Egyptian Cotton store. A few of us opted to stay on the bus while others emerged in a short while with treasures for loved ones - including themselves! Today, I caught a better glimpse of the Nile and then the pyramids rising through the haze like my own Mt. Rainier peaking out of the clouds - majestic, haunting, & ancient beyond belief.

The contrasts of this city are full of surprise. A woman passenger in royal purple burka rides sidesaddle on the back of a scooter. A donkey pulls the family cart amidst taxis, buses and automobiles via intersections with no traffic signs. Horses graze between buildings and a camel trots down the street with master atop the gaily decorated hump. Indeed a mixture of sights, sounds and surprise.

Back home, we parted ways to dine and rest. My evening included a light dinner, followed by a full Egyptian moon, gentle breeze, strawberry shisha, laughter, fun, fellowship and a photo by Andre Bottecelli's photographer. What a day!!!

"I will commune with my own heart upon my bed,
and be still... I will both lay me down in peace,
and sleep: for thou, DEEP SILENCE, only makest
me dwell in care." - Susan Muto

photos ©lucy
  • steeples in coptic cairo
  • "tree of life" - 4th century
  • old cairo alleyway
  • view from alabaster mosque and me :)
  • glimpses at the bazaar

5 comments:

Maureen said...

You travel with grace, and an open heart and eyes.

lucy said...

thank you, maureen. i pray those traveling mercies continue here at home. :)

kate i said...

I'm enjoying your travel thoughts and stories. It sounds like it was an amazing journey.

lucy said...

kate - it truly was an amazing journey and one i'm definitely still unpacking. i appreciate knowing someone's reading even though i intend to keep writing no matter what :-)

Karen said...

You are truly making this come alive for me...