Twenty-two years ago, a blue airmail envelope traveled from Manheim, Pennsylvania to Cairo, Egypt with my Grandma’s handwriting on it. I was finishing my lunch of 50 cent kosheri when the director of the Middle East Studies Program I was in handed me the letter.
From Lancaster County my mother’s mother wrote of hanging laundry just before the neighboring farmer spread manure on his field, and asked me what I was eating “there”. My mind on Grandma and her well-weeded flower beds along a neatly-kept rural road nearly 6,000 miles away, I took the elevator to the street and caught a taxi across the city. Walking in from the highway to my afternoon community service assignment, I passed donkey carts loaded with the city’s garbage, returning the greetings of friendly children with “masa el kheir”.
At the Environmental Preservation Center, Awatif, Mona, Leila, and Samia greeted my fellow American classmate and I as we took our usual Tuesday places at their worktable. Sometimes they practiced their English with us (our purpose for showing up was to help with conversational English practice), others, they sang.
Many of the women who came to the project were Coptic. Singing and working alongside religious women, including conservative religious women, was a familiar experience for me. I grew up singing hymns with my plain dressing Mennonite aunts and cousins. I wished Grandma could join me here, now with these women— in such a worlds-away place as this room in Cairo’s Garbage City.
Grandma wrote that she had taken in her damp laundry before the manure spreader was upwind. Walking through the winding, Mukhattam Hill streets stacked with Cairo’s recycling and trash, beneath zigzagging washlines, the smell of incinerating garbage left a stench on our clothes such that once back in our dorms we would have to immediately shower and hand-scrub our clothing in the shower with us. A Tuesday afternoon tradition was helping one another to wring our sopping wet jeans by hand.
I returned to Cairo two years later. I only managed to leave my group to visit Garbage City for one afternoon. I went looking for the women I’d spent Tuesdays with. I brought notes and small paintings I’d made for two of the women who had invited me to their homes during that first semester– Leila and Rasha. Leila was not there. Rasha was, and it was a good reunion.
My grandma died that same year.
Before I left Cairo the first time, Leila gave me her ring to keep. I kept it safe in a box on my dresser until a portion of the Coptic Ankh symbol broke off when my children tried it on and left it fall and one of them accidentally stepped on it. I think of Leila and wonder if she became “a sister in the service of the Lord,” a desire she had expressed to me through a translator. I have a recording of her voice, lifted in song, a force of virtuosic, sacred beauty. I have played it for my children.
The last time I visited Grandma, she returned my gaze with her beautiful blue eyes and whispered that me she loved me, too. Her voice haunts my memory. I hope we can meet together again someday, in a place where the air is clean, and our voices rise up together in song.