Archive for the 'Mokattam' Category

Law and Order? Outlawed Pigs in an Outlawed Land

The New York Times ran a feature on Mokattam and interviewed a couple of my friends in Cairo among the garbage city with the recent order to slaughter the entire pig population in Egypt in scare of the swine flu.  This order was given despite no recorded cases of the swine flu in Egypt, and the fact that pigs do not transmit the disease to humans.

In other words, my brother who closed down the school of which he is principal in southern rural Wisconsin had more actual dealings with H1N1 than the folks in Egypt who decided Wilbur and friends can’t play with Charlotte in the barn anymore because they have a date with the butcher.

So why in the world would the Egyptian government do such a thing?

I don’t know the certainties, but I can certainly can speculate.

The government is responding with the line that they are “trying to make things more sanitary for the Zabeleen.”

I’m sorry, but political rhetoric belongs with the organic waste being eaten by the pigs. Perhaps the officials have more in common with them than they thought.

The truth is the land where the Zabeleen live is attractive, and beginning the systematic removal of a people for the expansion of tourism by first dismantling their income source is the most strategic way of enabling their removal.  But covering it up with lies is disgusting.

It’s sad when power is abused to silence voices without power, but even worse when those in power use lies (actively telling falsehoods) and deceit (passively – concealing the truth for the purpose of misleading) for the sake of maintaining power and suppressing what might actually expose the truth.

If you are an American reading this, your privilege is all the more apparent and I’m grateful for those we honor on Memorial Day who have provided it for us. Thank-you to our service men and women who continually provide freedom for us.

But if you were among the Zabeleen, an oppressed minority without access to power, how would you address this issue?

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Slumdog & Oscar: The Danger of “Awareness”

When Slumdog Millionaire came out in theaters, at first I was very excited to see it.  Some of the students I took to Cairo to live among the poor organized a reunion around the film so they could see it together – I couldn’t make it, so I told them to enjoy it themselves without me.

Then things with my late-Grandma Lois became the priority in my life, and seeing a movie was pretty low on the list.  Finally, I just up and saw it a couple weeks back.  I was preparing myself for it, mainly because I thought the shock value would be something that would remind me of my experience living in the slums of Cairo and continue to remind me of my commitments I’ve made to live as an agent of God’s justice, his shalom, in a broken world.

And it did. The shots in India and the subtle exposing of the caste system is something that is important.  The scene where you see the children collecting garbage and the ones who are stolen by the villain – that location could easily have been shot in Mokattam with no one knowing the difference.  

I was brought back to Mokattam once again for glimpses. The way my memory works is that emotions and imagery tap thought trails that cause me to relive experiences again.  Slumdog did that for me – it was a rush of sensations back to living among the poor, seeing their smiles and saddness, laughter and tears, sights and smells, recalling stories and statistics.

Yet at the same time, I was incredibly bothered by the overriding premise of the film that interwove itself into the gameshow, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  While it is an incredibly effective device to create a sense of anticipation and excitement with the question, “Will he win?” I was more concerned that it created a false hope that people get out of this through such fanciful ideas.

Hollywood does a good job of exposing people to just enough of the problems of the world to make us feel a little more informed s0 we care a little more about what happens. But then the lights go up and we leave the half-eaten jumbo popcorn and box of raisinettes on the ground for the kid paid minimum wage to pick up, who makes more than some families combined and would be glad to enjoy the popcorn and raisinettes we leave behind.

Here is what is interesting to me: Slumdog Millionaire had a production budget of $14 million.  It has a current worldwide box office gross at $153 million.  Now, I don’t know about you, but a profit of $139 million is pretty incredible in a down worldwide economy.  I know that Slumdog has likely brought to the attention to people around the world more about child slavery, forced prostitution, human trafficking, slum communities, and other problems of the world.

But awareness is not our issue anymore. We are aware. We need more than awareness these days – we need real, tangible efforts and dollars to make real change. People need to be aware that awareness isn’t enough, and awareness without action is worse than ignorance.

I don’t know if Slumdog Millionaire is giving of their profits to end the problems they filmed and made a bunch of money on.  I hope they have. But if they haven’t, then I think it would be exploitative to get rich off of filming poverty and making a whole bunch of people feel better about themselves for becoming “more aware.”  Again, I hope this isn’t the case and would be happy to be shown otherwise.

It’s hard for me to imagine my friends in Mokattam among a group of people dressed in the best clothes they’ll ever wear, walking on red carpet with the paparatzzi, enjoying fine dining and waiting for their names to be called, walking to the podium giving an acceptance speech about how thankful they are, and then getting cut off by the orchestra in mid-sentence. The talking heads celebrate and say, “Wow, what a great movie. Such an important work.”

Important work? But what about those whom you portrayed? They don’t get picked up for red carpets and game shows, and they need our help. Do we choose to or not?  

If not, then we should really consider that our Oscars belong with the grouch in the trash. At least the real “slumdogs” could have their just reward.

Mourn with those who Mourn: Mokattam Rockslide

Rockslide at Mokattam

I’ve got much to share with you about the conference I was recently attending in Egypt with the IFES, but that must pause for a much more urgent matter.
Less than 72 hours after my visit to Mokattam, a rockslide has killed at least 20.  Lots of things come up for me in this – part of me really wishes I was there, another part of me was grateful to not have to endure such suffering.

I’ve heard back from my friends that all seems to be OK with them, but nonetheless it’s a preventable tragedy.  Governments turn blind eyes to slum communities like Mokattam because it’s the easiest way to deal with the issue.

“We are following the case step by step and providing the care and comfort for the residents,” Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said in a statement. “We would like to remind people the danger of building informal housing in dangerous areas.”

The former engineer in me winces when I hear things like this.  When tragedy can be averted through simple bricks and sticks, my blood boils.  When I walk through Mokattam, my old skills flash back to me in thinking in how to build trenching for sewers, provide safe water, even using solar heating to do so.  And others have done the same.

But my anger burns on this…when those who are powerless and marginalized lack justice by those who receive power through a corrupt system live in luxury and rule incompetently and refuse to repent because of losing status…yeah, I need to stop writing now and put my anger before God.  Because that is the only place where it can be used for good.

Please pray for those who mourn in Mokattam.

Please pray that someone takes action to care for the marginalized through simple policy efforts that allow for justice to be had by all.  Pray for engineers who will be mobilized to provide plans for civil services like water and sewage.  Pray for funds to be available to implement plans through generous donors who will give.

And, if you are daring enough, be open to being the answer to one your own prayers.

Out to Egypt I have called my son…

My Luggage

My Luggage

When I left Egypt last year, about 13 months ago now, I wondered when I would return.

Note when, not if.

When I was at the airport saying goodbye to all of our friends, I didn’t necessarily think that I was saying goodbye forever. In fact, I felt like I should have been much more emotional since I really had such deep feelings for them.

Turns out my instinct was right – I would return to Egypt. I’m sitting in my living room, with two carry-on bags, getting set to make my return to Egypt. I’ll be serving at the conference with the Middle East and North Africa with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).

When I was asked to go, I went primarily because I knew I wanted to return to Egypt. So I asked God if he didn’t want me to go, he should stop me.

Gently, of course.

So here I am, sitting in my living room, with an empty fridge and a brand spankin’ new passport…singin’ leavin’ on a jet plane by John Denver (don’t ask me why…it’s just in my head…)

Have you ever been on a trip, knowing that something would happen, but you didn’t know what was going to happen? I love this feeling. It’s this weird sense of wonder, anxiety, curiosity, fear, expectation…all in one. I love it. Love it love it love it.

Pray for the folks in the Middle East and North Africa. It is arguably the most difficult place to be a Christian on the planet, where heavy restrictions, fear, and isolation lead them to fear that they are “a minority of a minority of a minority.” Even those who are ethnic minorities in our country, I’m not sure if we in this country can comprehend the amount of fear they live under.

When I am among people who are oppressed in the world, whether it be my neighbors on the West Side of Chicago, poverty in Latin America in Belize and Mexico City, my experience among those ravaged in Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army, my time in the Garbage Village of Mokattam, what continually draws me to wonder how often those who are oppressed and poor have so much to teach me of who God is.

As one who has straddled many different worlds, I continually love to see how the poor educate me on the nature of faith. I like to think I’m brighter than your average bulb, but I’m humbled by real, authentic, genuine faith. We have resources abundantly that we can consume whenever we want – whether it be food for eating, knowledge for learning, or entertainment for enjoying – it’s around us all the time.

When I limit myself to just these two suitcases right in front of me, traveling gives me the opportunity to simplify enough to be able to hear Jesus in fresh new ways.

Would you pray for me?

I need ears to hear, a heart to feel, and a mind to know, and the guts to act.

“Is Heaven” interupting “is-hell”

I was reminiscing about Cairo the other day, and thought I would re-post this for all of my friends to see.

(Warning: Potty humor advisory. If you don’t like potty humor, don’t read.)

There seems to be one inevitable symptom that plagues most westerners that travel to the two-thirds world: diarrhea. Every member of our team has had it, some more than once, some never stopping since they’ve arrived. Bowel movements are regular conversation at the dinner table, as we look at the food and wonder in what form it will leave our bodies the next day.

I learned the Arabic word for diarrhea very quickly: “is-hell” I smiled as I thought the Arabic version sounded much like the feeling in English.

But I stopped smiling when I ended up getting is-hell. I was the second to last on our team to get it, but it was bad when I got it. I braved through it for the first day, resisting the urge to take Immodium AD because it simply stops me up and prolongs the bacteria rather than flushing it out. But day two was worse. At lunch that day, someone asked simply, “how many times?” I won with six visits to the toilet before 1 PM that day.

We left lunch (after I visited the bathroom for the perfect seventh time) and toured what would be a new facility for the handicapped of Mokattam. It will be beautiful and wonderful – six floors (not a large footprint of a building) with amenities for the handicapped that will bring the marginalized of this culture to their proper place of dignity before Jesus.

It was like a bit of heaven breaking into hell.

Except when we visited the construction site, we saw the standing water with garbage and our host told us that the water had been contaminated by the garbage that had been stored there in the past. Like the bacteria in my stomach.

And that thought prompted my contaminated bowels warn me of an immediate and required toilet visit. We made our way back to our place of residence, and we were greeted by the gatekeeper and one of my friends I’ve made in Mokattam.

One of the friends I have made here stopped me at the gate and wanted to speak English with me. And by now I had to go. Really bad. And while I wanted to be engage cross-culturally, I thought the consequences of a prolonged conversation could have far worse ramifications for both him, myself, anyone within smelling distance, my last clean pair of underwear, and any remnant of my reputation. So after about 5 minutes, I said, “I have to go, please – ‘is-hell.’ Please pray for me.”

“Oh, you want me to pray for you? I would love to pray for your healing.”

“Thank-you – Shokran,” I replied.

“Yes, let us go to pray for healing now.”

Oh no. What have I done? Dear Lord…please help.

The man proceeded to show me into a room and asked me to hold out my open hands and to receive healing. So I opened my hands and squeezed my cheeks and quickly prayed for a special dispensation of grace to avoid a stinky dispensation of something else.

But as he prayed for me, and placed his hand on my stomach, I felt something move. And I didn’t have to go. At all. For the next 24 hours. And I was healed.

“Wow.” I thought. “I was just healed. That’s never happened before.”

My second thought wasn’t as holy, “If I just got miraculously healed, why did it get spent on diarrhea? Why not cancer?”

But I came back to the first thought again, and finished the walk home. The power of heaven just overpowered the “is-hell” that was reigning in my belly. Not the most glamorous picture, but I think it’s a good picture of a God who entered a broken and “is-hell” filled world for the sake of reclaiming the world for what it was meant to be.

The next time I went to the bathroom, everything came out clean. I flushed, and then I praised the Lord.

Cairo and Mokattam in the News

Many of you have indicated interest in my last summer in Cairo, Egypt.  Mokattam were recently profiled on NPR in their series on climate change, and a few of my friends were interviewed.

The sounds bring back wonderful memories…I want to go back…

Why contrast is helpful

I’m colorblind.

I found out when I was in third grade in Mrs. Witek’s class when we were looking at some of the pictures in our workbook and I commented on the brown grass. One of my friends said, “That’s not brown! That’s green, Andy!”

I cried.

Shortly afterwards, I got glasses and I took one very visible step further along the path to geekdom. For any third-grade boy where I grew up glasses were a symbol of “emerging geek” and impeded the progress of an eight-year-old’s social standing and dominance of the diamond or gridiron at recess.

My colorblindness was confirmed later when I was a high school senior applying for an Air Force ROTC scholarship. I took one of those color blindness tests where there are several dots that combine to form a alpha-numeric character. The retired lieutenant opened up the first page and asked what number I saw.

“There’s a number?” I replied.

After a couple more pages, the initial assumption was made pretty clear – putting me in the cockpit of a fighter plane would be a bad idea. A very bad idea. The United States did not achieve world superpower status by employing pilots who couldn’t tell the difference between communist red and jihad green. So I chose to study things where color didn’t matter – like dirt, spreadsheets, steel, and how many tons a concrete beam can hold until it busts. Cool stuff like that.
But there are a couple advantages of being colorblind – my visual receptors that pick up darkness and brightness, contrast, have become more sensitive and allow for me to see things that not everyone sees at first glance. I see better in the dark. And because most folks are so dependent upon their color vision, in rare instances I actually see things that others can’t.

(It still is a lousy trade off. I just live this life with a closer understanding that what I see now is, as the Apostle Paul put it, “but a poor reflection as in a mirror.” Heaven will definitely be far superior to technicolor.)

This last week, I got to see contrast that most others don’t. I lived in a village just outside of Cairo, Egypt called Mokattam (pronounced Mo-ah-tam in Egyptian Arabic) where the economic engine of the community is built on garbage. Literally – this is a village of garbage collectors. Over 3,000 tons of garbage enter the community each day, and are manually sorted by the people of the village. The result is that over 65% of the waste is recycled – which is nearly triple the efficency of the United States. Often the waste is processed and sent back as raw material to be reused to produce other products. It sounds amazing in theory.

Until you actually go there. The smell as you enter the area is pungent – and that is putting it kindly. I went in spring – when it is still cool. The blistering hot summer of Egypt only increases the strength of the stench. I was walking around with my colleague and she gagged twice. She still feels sick days later.

There were some things I saw that made me sick in my head. In a meeting among some folks trying to make a difference by creating a recycling center for boys, one of their leaders makes his living by recycling medical waste.

Let me say that again: he makes his living by sorting medical waste. By hand.

And he doesn’t have hot water in his home to wash his hands afterwards – he has to go to a neighbor. For $50 US, a friend of mine (ironically, who works in the medical waste industry) provided the resources to have hot water to wash his hands. He only asked for the opportunity to share the situation with those in leadership in his company to end such practices.

Later I was walking with a friend in Mexico City who has spent significant time in Cairo working among Sudanese refugees. She recounted a story where she witnessed a pedestrian get run over by a car and die in Cairo. She was horrified – unbelievably shocked. Shocked at the lack of response of the pedestrians, and letting the man die on the street before getting him to a hospital. As she told the story to one of the Sudanese persons she worked with, the Sudanese person said, “Yes, sometimes that happens.”

Sometimes that happens!? Like a certain bodily function?

This is the reality of life for the half of the world that live on less than $2/day. Yet, I can’t say I’ve been more welcomed by any group of people in my life. I was welcomed in peoples homes, laughed heartily with what little Arabic and English could be said, and realized how the gift of hospitality can transcend language.

Contrast helps me understand why affluence satisfies so little and provides a false veneer for community, yet poverty brings the necessity of community closer to reality. More contrast to come and I begin a deeper journey in understanding why the poor are blessed.


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