Head of mission's testimony - The East is a virus! I didn't resist its call.

EN - Tuesday, 30 June 2020

After studying at the Institute of Political Studies of Aix-en-Provence and the Institute of Business Administration of Nice, I started working and getting involved in my birth city. Knowing Benjamin Blanchard, the director general and founder of the association, for the past few years, I quickly followed the evolution and actions of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

Benefiting like all French from 5 weeks off plus a few recovery days, I decided in May 2016 then in October 2017 to leave 1 months with the association as a simple volunteer. These two missions took place in Syria, Damascus and Sednaya for the first time and then in Damascus, Aleppo and Maaloula for the second.

Deeply touched by the spirituality and courage of the Syrians, especially Christians who, in some villages still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, I must admit that I did not think I would find so much happiness, joys, faith and inspiration by doing the choice to leave.

sos chretiens orient syrie bergers de maaloula

At the very beginning, the thirst for discovery and the desire to help take over the rediscovery of my Christian faith and the selfless need to serve my neighbor. This is how my adventure with SOS Chrétiens d’Orient started: in mountain villages and in ten thousand years old cities where men smile to the foreigner, build their homes while helping their friends who build theirs.

A country in the East where people don't pray like us, where the songs are different, where the oldest talk to stones and men, they drink the plants of the erg, drink with their friends and sometimes they stop, watch the stars, and don't say anything... shh! They pray: for them and for us...

So, after these two humanitarian experiences, my life couldn't be the same when I got back. From the very first days of my return, I felt the urgent and heavy call from the East that attracted and sometimes trapped so many French people; and I didn't wait long before I had the opportunity to go back! Indeed, at the beginning of 2018, I learned that the association wished to open a new mission in Egypt.

It was God's sign. I had to apply to create this new mission. Sending the resume, the job interview, the departure to Paris leaving my native Provence! Everything happened very quickly between May and June 2018 and in July I settled down in Cairo, a huge capital of more than 20 million people!

sos chretiens orient egypte communaute copte caire

This new job is for me like a jump into the unknown or almost. Everything remains to be discovered. I have to admit, on the announcement of my new assignment; I did not know anything about this people of indigenous Christians, descendants of the pharaohs and among the first Christians who were converted after the passage of the evangelist St. Mark. Drowned in the midst of more than 80 million Muslims, the Copts are together and aware of their identity, I'll talk about it later...

On 12 July, the plane was announced for 2pm... I don't remember exactly when. In any case, I was at the airport early as usual because too early is better than too late.

It's almost time to board for the unbearable heat of the months of July and August in Egypt. There, the earth is burning and the sun is said hard-heartedness with the bare necks. I'm from Provence, I'll survive...

After more than 4 hours of flight, the plane gradually goes down and turns on the left, Egypt reveals itself: the desert, the pyramids I see on the right of the aircraft, and then the Cairo megalopolis, gigantic, consuming, endless like the desert of stone and sand that surrounds it on both sides.

sos chretiens orient egypte bidonville ezbet el nakhl caire

I was far from imagining this when I left the airport but already the overview of the Egyptian capital offers a taste: gravity, pollution, overpopulation. Cairo jumps to your throat, blink you and takes your hand to lead you into the maze of thousands narrow streets. Egypt is an "organized" chaos, the saturated air that clutter up your lungs and hides the missing perfumes of the East.

We are at a geographical and historical crossroads and when these two concepts get married, they can give birth to a confusing, surprising and beautiful child. A child both gifted and idle, beautiful and ugly, explosive and calm.

Africa is growing. It is here at home but the heart of the nation is Arab in its mentality and in its behavior, the mosques sing and cover the sweet whistle of the Nile and its ibis.

Here, the pharaohs built their graves, the Greeks their library, the Romans their fortresses, Christians their churches, and Muslims stayed there slowly making their marks, way and conception of life in society. The indolent and insurmountable sand had done the rest by engulfing past remains or letting the men of the caliphs build on pagan ruins.

Among the jumble noises: uninterrupted horns, street traffic and “screaming” dust, plastic rubbish, which rises everywhere. 100 million Egyptian people meet from Alexandria to Aswan and the sprawling capital of Cairo. Here Egypt is suffocating but elsewhere it can be otherwise, the desert is a great refuge and it remains untamed by man. There are still places, exclusive domain of God and the unknown.

So it is here, after Lebanon, Syria twice and Iran, that I have packing, at least for a time according to the obligations of my work and according to the will of God. Egypt offers a confusing and grandiose show. For a long time, the Egyptians have dominated other nations but their time is over. History has changed and the peoples of the past have lost their essence.

sos chretiens orient syrie shisha et cafe dans les ruines d alep

The East, you need to know, is a virus. Brother of poison and father of passions, the virus insidiously and secretly inoculates. There it is in the ancient paved streets, in the shadow of minarets, in front of the gates of monasteries, in the vapours of the shishas, at the detour of a Turkish coffee where a harem, a hamam or maybe a Sufi fellowship .. Kessel was there, Saint-Exupéry was there, Lawrence of Arabia found his name there and the French have been inexorably attracted for centuries by these peoples of the desert.

Carols, cries, noises, tears, laments and laughter are the calls of the East: strong, they contrast with the modesty of hidden women and the secrets of the mashrabiya but they respond indirectly to the calls of the muezzin and the orthodox prayers.

No, actually, I didn't imagine it like this my Egypt, but maybe I was hoping, yes, to be surprised by chaos, by the continuing flood of slowness exacerbated in its highest point: God provides.

So, I am learning on the job from Tanneguy my trainer and former head of mission in Iraq: administrative work, public relations in Middle East, finance, security, employee management, volunteer management, Planning, the Accounting, budgets, tables and reports, places etc... A maximum of concepts need to be learned in a few months because my trainer is moving towards new horizons after more than 3 years at SOS Chrétiens d’Orient.

A few months after this Dantean arrival, things have not calmed down. Administrative tasks, activities, appointments, budgets, volunteers, employees, many things require my daily attention.

I discover Egypt little by little: the Pyramids of Giza, huge geometric stone, three overwhelming graves become open-sky museums for "instagrameuse" in pain of photos and easy livelihood for former Bedouin who came from the Western desert.

sos chretiens orient egypte volontaires monastere saint antoine

There are also monasteries, churches, old Christian Cairo, the great souk Khan El Khalili, the Nile, the great Egyptian museum... yes definitely this country and this work goes well together: rich, extensive, complicated, exhilarating and tedious but so beautiful and surprising.

At the detour of some tasks, I discover and learn to know the Copts, especially via our local employees, our translators of my age, our Egyptian friends and some priests or "abouna" (father in Arabic) that we meet over time. I will be able to describe them one by one but the whole thing would be boring after two years in Egypt, because friendly encounters and brotherly ties are created very quickly in contact with Christians of Egypt.

I could speak about Dr. Adel Ghali, a doctor who work with Sister Emmanuelle for 17 years and true living saint!

Lord Krikor Coussa, Bishop of Catholic Armenian, the first bishop we met.

Ayman and Saleh, our friends from the slum of May 15.

Sister Maria, superior mother of the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary in the slum of Ezbet El Nakhl.

Father Marcos, monk in the world's first Monastery, St. Antoine.

My meetings push me to go forth and know in every detail, the Copts, their Church and their traditions but also this country so rich in its past and its gargantuan history.

Coptics are mostly poor. Out of 17 million Egyptians, 9 million live below the poverty line and more than one-third can't read or write. Disseminated in major cities, villages of Upper Egypt and slums on the streets of the governorate, they suffer from discrimination throughout their lives: mention "Christian" on the identity card, impossible to exceed the rank of captain in the army, a dozen MP in parliament on 596 seats etc.

sos chretiens orient egypte bidonville ezbet el nakhl

All the faces of poverty are there and especially among the rejected Christians living in slums and in the villages of Upper Egypt! Yet what has always touched me is their pride, dignity, impressive strength even. These people, these Christians of the slums have something hard, extremely worthy. They look at poverty in the face for many generations and from their birth, they live with it, proud of their ancient Christian origins. A cross tattooed on the wrist when they are baby, a pendant of Saint George around their neck and the mention "Christian" on their identity cards make their stories and help to toughen them up in faith and hope.

Jérôme, head of mission in Egypt.