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Lessons in the rain

There has always been plenty of water in Cairo. It just doesn't stick around very long. In fact, it is mostly contained within the banks of the River Nile and flows through the city on its way to the Mediterranean, without causing any real problems.

The past few days however have been different. All the water has not been in the Nile. It has come from the heavens in torrential fashion flooding the streets, interfering with sports events and even disrupting and temporarily closing the metro when the tunnels through which the trains normally travel became filled with water. As Bishop Mouneer said to me "in your country, when it snows everything grinds to a halt. In Egypt, if it rains, nothing happens."

In a city like Cairo, built in the desert, the sudden onslaught of wet weather catches everyone unawares. And so it was yesterday evening when the first of my two English classes saw only half the students turn up and they all looking bedraggled and damp. I myself was in similar shape.

By the time the second class was due to start the rain was even heavier and the person in charge of the programme had taken the decision to cancel. He was, I suppose, justified because, apart from myself, only one other person turned up. She was a Sudanese lady of a certain but indeterminate age who had to date been attending with a young woman, who I took to be her daughter. Indeed, on the first evening, the younger woman was accompanied by a toddler, who I assume is the older lady's grandchild.

The older lady rarely speaks in class but she smiles a lot and takes copious notes. In truth, her spoken English does not appear to have progressed much but she is always enthusiastic and she smiles a lot. Yesterday evening I tried to explain to her, against the background of falling rain, that the class was cancelled and she should return on Wednesday evening. In reality she seemed to understand perfectly that the class was not proceeding.

I should say that I have a certain familiarity with this lady as she runs a little confectionery and drinks outlet close to where I am staying and I have engaged with her on occasions as I have made my way down the street.

As I spoke with her about the cancelled English class yesterday it became apparent that she was offering me something: a present? I suddenly apprehended that she was handing me a disposable food dish covered in tin foil. I accepted and slightly peeling back the tinfoil cover saw that the dish was filled with steaming hot rice and a portion of grilled chicken. It was for my dinner! The provender of my evening meal smiled broadly, gathered herself and we walked through the rain together towards the gates of the cathedral complex where the English classes are held.

Today I spoke with my new friend again; I in my terrible stilted halting Arabic, and she nodding enthusiastically and correcting me when, as frequently I did, get it wrong. There were other ladies present and she proudly introduced me as her English teacher. I assured them she was a good student, a very good student.

Throughout today I have pondered on the incident in the rain last evening.

As a Westerner coming to this part of the world, I travel with presuppositions and baggage. These people, the refugee community, have suffered and life is tough. So it is! We come and try to help because we feel compassion towards those who have been dealt a very different hand than us. And yet even with the refugees we need to understand that we are entering their territory, their world. We are visitors and this is their place. We do not have a monopoly on compassion, nor on kindness.

This was wonderfully illustrated last evening by a very poor woman who despite the grinding difficulty of her life took the time to walk through the sodden streets of Cairo to bring her rather bumbling English teacher a hot meal on a cold February evening.

Blessed are the poor!

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