An Orphanage and Silver Linings

I have decided to keep a sort of diary about my life in Cairo, where I will be spending the next month. For the sake of letting my subscribers know that I have posted something new, I will add these diary postings to my normal post list, but you can also find them in the page entitled “The Cairo Diary.” It’s kind of nice to do a more informal musing on Arab culture. 🙂
“You’ll have many hassanahs because you did this,” my sister-in-law, whom I’ll call “Re,” told me as we watched her older brother and mother load bags of oranges, clementines and bananas into the back of the car. It was my first full day back in Egypt, and I had found myself volunteering  to go with some of my in-laws to bring fruit and sweets to a local orphanage.

Hassanahs are like freckles, she explained: to Egyptians (or Muslims, for that matter) hassanah’s are marks of good deeds. I don’t really believe that freckles mean that one has done good deeds, otherwise a girl like Re would be covered in them (then again, how do I know; she wears a hijab, so maybe she is).

The orphanage was located just a few blocks away, in the masjid (mosque) complex that we passed all the time. At night, the small minaret is lit up in green. We climbed all the way up with our bags of  fruit to one of the many floors, where we were let in by one of the boys. The house mother–what would you call her?–greeted us and took stock of our gifts while we sat on a pair of aging yellow couches and were greeted by the boys. There were about 13 or 14 of them, all between the ages of 7-9yrs old, and most of them had been there together as babies, as the photograph on  the wall witnessed. They were running about and watching TV, as they had finished studying for their exam, and they came up and shook our hands. I tried to utter a “salam alaykoum”–perhaps a bit too formal for a bunch of elementary-age children–and I’m sure they thought I was crazy because I didn’t speak any Arabic to them, since I don’t think anyone explained that I was, in fact, American.

Thus, as my mother- and sister-in-law chatted with the house mother, and young hijab-wearing aid girls bustled around moving a huge washing machine, I was able to observe with my usual silence. The boys lost interest in us, except for in my brother-in-law, whom they gathered around and sat in his lap. There were two common rooms with the bedrooms grouped around; to me, it didn’t look much different than the sparse flat my husband and I are staying in. A couple of the boys started playing a form of soccer with a pink balloon, and in a gesture of friendliness I would hit the balloon back to them when it came my way. We stayed for maybe an hour, and then it was time to go.

“Tell me, was it really sad? Did you feel sad?” My husband asked me when I met up with him and we went out with one of his friends to a Cinnabon (yes, that staple of every American mall exists in Cairo, and like all American brands is considered ‘expensive.’ Interesting note: I had yet to ever eat in a Cinnabon until Cairo). I looked at him and said, “Yes it was sad, of course.” I couldn’t imagine having no parents, and especially no family who would want to look after you.

But yet, at the same time, it wasn’t really that sad. Sure, those boys had no family and had to rely on donations to live. But there they were, (presumably) healthy and taken care of, getting their education and having fun. They didn’t seem sad or constantly preoccupied by their situation. In fact, I bet they mostly gave it thought when people like us came with donations and sympathetic smiles. My husband’s question got me thinking  about what I would call “set” or “stale” emotions. Set/stale emotions are those emotions that we feel that we are obligated to feel during a certain situation, like when someone dies or something seemingly bad happens. But I think that sometimes these set/stale emotions prevent us from seeing the bigger picture, and especially from seeing the good in a perhaps unfortunate situation.

If a person dies, it is certainly saddening; but what if that person was in extreme pain, with a disease like cancer? At least when they die they are at peace, and no longer suffering. Or if you lose your job: as long as you have enough money to survive until you find a new job, perhaps losing the job is a blessing because you have the opportunity to reevaluate your life and what to do. In retrospect, this is what “every cloud has a silver lining” is all about.

The boys at the orphanage were being taken care of, and they have probably learned two of the best lessons a person can learn: humility and gratitude. Those lessons alone are enough to merit a person, in my person, a hundred hassanahs.


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