Volunteer testimony in Egypt - "Find a reason for the unexplainable and push back its limits."

EN - Monday, 04 May 2020

Some parts of this text may affect the sensitivity of the uninformed reader. The writing style of his author has not been corrected to keep the authenticity of his discoveries and of his thoughts. Volunteer doesn't make a man a hero. A young man comes with his stereotypes and fears.

SOS Chrétiens d'Orient sends volunteers in mission throughout the year. Like Matthieu, come and live an unforgettable experience in Egypt. Don't ask yourself any questions. The only limits are those in your mind.

Per day, the mission of a volunteer costs 33 € to the association. If you can't leave, support a volunteer on a mission, donate.


Construction site at the old lady's house in the slum.

Ten streets away from the "Kinissa", the church of the slum of the 500, lives an adorable bunch of blacks scarves. A square of wrinkled old skin with a discreet smile but sparkling eyes. Our good mother of the slum lives in three rooms of dust on the ground floor of a building.  The iron gate opens onto a narrow concrete staircase, right at the end, unmistakable.   

Yet it took us a long time to find our way around, the streets are unnamed, and nothing looks more like a dirt alley than another dirt alley. We had been shown the way the first few times. 

Intelligent, we had, like Little Thumb, keep in our memory some clues: after the street at the beginning paved, perpendicular to the sign with the phone numbers, halfway a shady courtyard. Having fought to be autonomous and to return there alone in Tuk-Tuk, we are victim of our own trap and we have to zigzag for a long time.Strange and almost supernatural appearance for these forgotten people from the balconies who, while putting their laundry to dry, fall on four Europeans looking for their way among the garbage cans.

There we carry out our first construction site in the village.  I have never witnessed such a miserable interior. Many of the interiors are simple and one could therefore say poor: the fisherman's shacks on Lake Ganvié in Benin, the mud houses of the Iranian Dasht-e Kavir, the stove and the carpet bed of the Mongolian yurts.  No running water, no electricity, a simplicity that far from being repulsive gives the image of a happy, almost enviable frugality. You can find water and electricity but the place is miserable. Already unhealthy, cockroaches swarm in every corner of the furniture, cobwebs, gnats swarm like in a cave.

Moreover no furniture strictly speaking, rather a heap of brocades, bits of cardboard and pieces of wood, torn newspapers, icons moldy by humidity. The old woman lives and dies slowly in this mess.  Her room, left open, without shame, is in the same state, full of dust, stinking, the vermin can easily be guessed under the sheets. The toilet closed with a canvas in the kitchen itself.  I am feeling ill when I enter,.. natural rejection of the guts.

sos chretiens orient egypte chantier renovation bidonville des 500

We work In the second bedroom for her son, who is not married. Storage room without windows, the red bricks are bare, everything has to be done. First, we move the innumerable jugs populating the room. It seems that the less you have, the more you keep, each trinket, however insignificant it may be, embodying property, the common right of the last of the underprivileged.

Ali Baba's caverns of rags are the prerogative of those who have nothing and therefore pile up for fear of losing. One must then go up to the front of the undesirable, all this commotion having awakened the vermin from below.  With the insecticide spray, we gaseous not without a certain pleasure cockroach nests, spider's nests, mosquito conglomerates. Later, the worker will make the first coat of plaster, then we will plaster it and finally paint it.  Apart from the satisfaction of manual work which, for us, small urban students with white hands and no dents, lifts the soul in the same way as the daily cleaning of the apartment on Thursday morning, we live a striking social experience.  A kind of laboratory of humanism, a test project on human contact.

The old lady doesn't speak a word of English and we're alone without our translator.  Nobody knows us in the neighbourhood and it is not without apprehension that we are stared at the first times. The faces are naturally closed, almost hostile.  We are greeted with fingertips.  We arrive with our trowel and squeegees, lock ourselves in the room and rarely go out. The magic of time and curiosity work without our knowledge.  Visitors, young boys, snotty babies with their big sister, upstairs neighbour, sneak up to see us in action.  Sleeves rolled up, boys and girls spread the plaster in the room of this old lady who was still invisible to them the day before. At first shy, some are more enterprising, daring a few monosyllables in English. As we spread the white paste, the faces relax, smiles spread like a coating of friendship. Our host also changes at a glance from day to day. Tired and withdrawn, she is getting younger as the work progresses, at the same pace as the new beauty of her room.

sos chretiens orient egypte visites aux familles pauvres bidonville

But our good mother is also becoming more enterprising to our greatest despair. One afternoon, she forces us to break bread with her.  The verb "to force" may seem a little excessive but the effort of will was truly colossal. Usually a good table public, including for culinary novelties as folkloric as they may be, this lunch taught me humility towards the supposed adaptability of my stomach. After an hors d'oeuvre of scrambled eggs smelling like the yolk of a bad day, Madame brings out the cheese. From a tin can, a grey substance, compact although easily crumbled into small crumbs, no worms but an insurmountable smell, pheromones to turn the guts of a legionary thug.

The chief reaps the honors of the first handshakes, of the spittoon that is passed to him like a rattle, but being a chief also implies duties, a spirit of sacrifice. There is no escape, our host has nothing, no other window of friendship, redemption, joy than to offer us the little she has. Hospitality in the East is a due but also an almost sacramental duty. The exchange must be physical, carnal, the translation of a gift and a counter-gift. For the poorest, sharing is often in the field of food.  With my chin high, breathing through my mouth, I swallow a piece of the substratum with a piece of bread. Unsurprisingly, it is to vomit, strong, almost acidic. I take one more, twice.  And victorious before the satisfied smile of the old woman rests the cleaver of my poor intestines.

Each time, we were treated to a token of alimentary solicitude. Our good mother having guessed our embarrassment, she concentrated on hot drinks and safe food to peel: oranges and bananas. Putting on the plaster and pauses to drink the tea.  The ball that we kick with the neighborhood boys, pinching the cheeks of babies who are walking around barefoot. Little by little, people get attached and wait for us to come. 

Some Muslim mothers, with their full, plump cheeks overflowing with their headscarves, also give us smiles and raise their hands as we pass by. These are heart-warming victories. How from an initial mistrust, we were able to initiate a friendly contact, to break the ice of differences to find ourselves in the universal language of handshakes and children's smiles. At the risk of playing sententious, there are few people who are not suitable for twenty-year-olds.

Too young to arouse mistrust, envy and jealousy.  Enough freshness and simplicity to soften even the most circumspect of hearts.


The Cooking Family

We don't come to give. This is what I try to make clear to the leaders we meet. We, SOS volunteers, twenty year old kids parachuted into the Middle East with our good will and our rosary between our teeth, are not aid professionals. Far from it, we are on the contrary, amateurs, eternal novices whose trial and error is a guarantee of freshness in the action, of naturalness in the constantly reinvented approach.

Many large NGOs are already giving, real expeditionary corps, they drop in one day what we can give in a year and then leave immediately. 

At SOS we are looking for something else, a contact, a reciprocal exchange in giving. Probably more selfish, we constantly remind ourselves that giving calls for counter-giving. I didn't put my studies on hold, give my mother a cold sweat so as not to bring anything back in my bag of memories.  Without a few paving stones for the path to my personal fulfillment. We force sharing, the dignity of balance in the balance of exchange. When we visit our poor, we put the families in a position to be the first to give. They offer welcome tea and coffee.  It is only afterwards, during the second visit, that we give: food parcels, medicines, diapers. It takes a bit of imagination and a lot of energy to find new activities.

The Cooking Family is a clever find. The observation is simple: with people who have nothing or very little, sick or old, with the barrier of language, culture and standard of living, how to initiate a sharing, a barter of good intentions a little bit fair. Cooking is a practical solution. A universal manual activity, the prerogative and pride of mothers, a well-kept secret of grandmothers, it embodies transmission. Even more so in poor areas where food is an important part of the household.

We arrived in the apartment of these two unmarried sisters with all the ingredients of Cochari in the shopping bag. Half serious, half mischievous, we asked our two mothers for the sesame from the recipe of this Egyptian specialty. The youngest of the sisters gets caught up in the game. With her soft and flabby face suddenly awakened by a sense of duty, she grabs two of the boys to pull them into the kitchen.  Noises of pots and pans, bags being torn open, orders in Arabic, bursts of laughter. The preparation of the dish begins.  It's a team effort.

I am well aware of the risks run by an uninitiated person in a kitchen governed by the mistress of the house. The rice, lentils and pasta are cooking in three different pans, the red sauce is resting next to it, the fried onions are already ready. Then we all sit down together in the living room.  Let's say grace.  We are told the famous anecdote of the Cochari. 

During the construction of the Suez Canal, Indians, Italians and Egyptians worked there. The first ate rice, the second pasta, the third lentils. One day they decided to break bread together.  A clever man must have said to himself, let's seal our friendships in the pot, in the flesh of a shared dish, friends, let's mix our food, let's all have supper in the same dish. Thus was born the Cochari. We make good meat and scrape the pan down to the last lentil. The two sisters seem happy and ask us to come back. Come and have supper at Easter and with meat!

Dr Jeannette and the « Drelin drelins »

Once a week, we spend the morning and lunch with Dr Jeannette's disabled patients.  In the House of Hope, a large, banal house with a small garden, a dozen or so girls live there.  They are young, they are cheerful. 

It is a bit commonplace, a sententious jam, to immediately associate handicap and joy of life, as if to prevent the pity of the newcomer visitor: "Look how cheerful they are! “.

sos chretiens orient handicapes egypte ezbet el nakhl

I am honest with myself and it is not really pity that came to me first hiccups, rather an embarrassment, a terrible embarrassment in the face of ugliness.  Desire to run away.  The old lady, the old gentleman of auspice were handsome, strong one day.  One can still distinguish, with a glance, a sensible word, a gesture, the man or woman who lived fully, the plant that blossomed before withering.  Here, the flower is deformed, spoiled from the seed.  A truncated humanity spoiled from the start in the bad painter's watercolour.  No sublime because imagination does not work, cannot weave anything backwards from the physical given in front of you.  A monstrosity of birth that cannot be explained, with no past, no future, no hope of beauty.  Terrible impression of departure.

The activities are simple and almost ritual: praying all together, playing dominoes, Kapla figures, dancing in the living room, playing outside when the weather allows us.  The mental handicap, more or less heavy according to the girls, decides the level of the day's occupation. 

sos chretiens orient egypte maison de l esperance volontaire

Each one has her own character like a troupe of naughty dwarves from Snow White: Fahima the joker, Ana the drama Queen, Catherine the cheerful one, Boga the sweet one etc.  It is after several sessions that my perception changed.  Certainly, the habit may have forced approval, the bursting of meaning, the bursting of religio-mystical meaning. 

Faced with incomprehension, the mind and imagination work in the background, find a reason for the inexplicable.  The long wait for the domino games has to be legitimized.  Do not admit to having wasted your time.  Maybe I'm lying to myself, but the beauty suddenly blossomed.  Maybe after the third or fourth session.  When I went down into the basement, picking up the girls for prayer, one of them came and took my arm, instinctively to go up the stairs. Nothing new except that at that moment I found her face beautiful.  From the still prominent jaw, the decayed teeth, the hunchbacked back and the smell of pee, harmony had sprung up, was there as if found again.

Everything was easier from then on and I realized how lucky we were.  This rare chance to be able to bring a lot of joy with very little.  The girls were waiting for us every Tuesday morning and that was what mattered.  Once we bumped into them by chance in the basement of a church during a parish animation for the handicapped.  Immense joy when they recognized our faces, ran around us in front of the dazed looks of the assembly.

Like an Orthodox icon, Dr Jeannette is the soul watching over the house.  She was a pharmacist and dedicated her life to others, to the most fragile.  Extreme modesty, we know nothing about her life, she hardly speaks at all.  Only the photos of the living room testify: one of her is taken with Pope John Paul II.

From the bed to meals, from washing up to dirty dishes and laundry, to little heartache, she works with her slow pace, her sure gestures, in a few words, low, sometimes hard, solving situations, making this curious madhouse work.  A firm gentleness with the girls who adore and venerate her.  Mother, housekeeper, worker, she does everything.  When she talks to us, she doesn't talk about herself but about the girls: such a new friendship, such a little argument.  Discreet kindness and sincere benevolence.  One of the volunteers had appendicitis one day, in catastrophe, she had to have surgery during the day.  A senile man with a beard and white coat was sent for the operation.  Quickly informed, Dr. Jeannette intervened before the tragedy, the safe and experienced hands of her surgeon son replaced the shaky hands of the old designated doctor. 

In the world acts in the most total anonymity, luminous sanctities. Dr. Jeannette is part of the nation of forgotten goodness, of lives freely given. Hats off.


Some figures mark us more than others, remain in the memory by I don't know what maneuver of the mind.  Two close feelings contribute to this: the fright and the sublime.  Fear, a kind of fear mixed with curiosity that paralyses in front of a flagrant novelty, another profoundly different one.  The terrible face of the Mongol on his horse, the Kurdish man and his chalva at the bend in the road, the old Zoroastrian witch coming out of a hole in the desert.  The sublime, an impression which, with a little sensitivity and sense of image, follows the primordial fright.  The sensation of raw beauty, of a harmony of the first days, of a type of life, of a universal character held in a face.  This is the effect that Paulette, a 99-year-old grande dame, had on me the first time I saw her.

Visiting the auspices of old people is not one of the funniest things to do at SOS. Easy to set up, costing nothing but smiles, it can fill in the gaps of weeks.  We're in the pure social, the greasy presential.  Going and staying at the bedside of senior citizens for an afternoon for the sole comfort of being present. 

For young people who are used to action, it seems quite ungrateful at first. Going to the Middle East in search of the rattling of coat of mails, we find ourselves waving the sword in the middle of old crumpled skins.  Old age rejects us.

sos chretiens orient egypte volontaires visitent personnes agees

Kissing those skinny, drawn cheeks with a full mouth, taking those hands, heaps of trembling blue veins.  The smell is hard too.  The European standards are of course not up to date and the general air of mature urine replaces the betadinous air of the Parisian EHPADs.  I had a hard time at the beginning. 

This old lady is not my grandmother, what right does she have to deserve my tenderness?  You have to take it upon yourself.  In these Egyptian auspices, one dies slowly in the anonymity of a dark room with dirty sheets.  Everything exudes failure.  This people is alone and has been abandoned.  In the East, the family is the ancestral old age insurance, the sons, the grandsons watch over their seniors in their own homes.  When one finds oneself in a home, it is because one has not had children or because a tragedy has occurred: premature death, abandonment, immigration to a faraway country.

Paulette lives in the international asylum for the elderly run by the nuns.  The place is charming, in a large period house with high ceilings and spacious rooms.  If you want to visit her, Paulette lives in the penultimate room at the back right, on the first floor.  You will first be struck by her face, mask of life, mask of death.  Lying in what will probably be her last bed, she invective the opportune visitors.  She makes us sit down, two on the bed, the others on chairs.

One would think that as the great inexplicable approaches, the senses calm down, a languorous serenity takes hold of the being and soften it, gently leading it, almost rocking it, towards that great journey that is death.  This is not the case for Paulette. 

sos chretiens orient egypte asile des vieillards noel volontaires

This woman is a volcano of insults, doubts, remorse and hopes.  With all her mind, she's afraid, deeply afraid of death and what awaits her. “Is there such a thing as the afterlife?  Have I been good enough?”  I only gave the Lord one son, I wanted more.  A boil of suffering that has been going on for eight years, dates from her arrival in that great white bed.  She speaks French and spits on the girls in service who in eight years have not made the effort to learn the language of Molière to talk with her: "They are ignorant and the worst thing is that they want to remain so.

She calls a religious friend to unravel her metaphysical questions.  As she never got clear answers, she stopped.  A rage of not knowing, of not being sure.  The incessant back and forth between great hope and great despair.  "God take me."  Every time we visit, she begs us tirelessly to pray for this to end.  A black anecdote, when she heard about the beginnings of the Coronavirus, she renewed her hugs: "Give me the damn virus!”.  In spite of everything, there are moments of joy, small, fleeting moments like an apparition disappearing between two sobs.  A light that you catch in the radiance of her two blue eyes. 

Paulette was a great lady, beautiful, a love success.  She sometimes tells us about the time when she "liked" her.  Why the feeling of the sublime?  It is not an attraction for the morbid of acute despair, for the poignant of high suffering, but for the features of this human figure, deeply human.  This banal equality of beings before death, this universal weakness that binds us before the great leap.

How many before her cried like she did of not knowing, of not being sure?  This doubt as the seal of our existence, of the vanity of our knowledge, of our intellectual glories.  We know everything and yet we still do not know the main thing, the unavoidable for all men.  Not the moment, later, afterwards.  One day, we'll all be like Paulette and we'll cry for not knowing.  We come out of these interviews, weak, exhausted.  Let's put it off until later.

Matthieu, volunteer in Egypt.

SOS Chrétiens d'Orient sends volunteers in mission throughout the year. Like Matthieu, come and live an unforgettable experience in Egypt. Don't ask yourself any questions. The only limits are those in your mind.

Per day, the mission of a volunteer costs 33 € to the association. If you can't leave, support a volunteer on a mission, donate.