The characteristic of Cairo that most alarms visiting Westerners is the constant river of pedestrians amid swiftly moving traffic. Residents of this impoverished megalopolis of 20 million dart into traffic with a fatalistic nonchalance, missing oncoming cars by mere inches. My colleague asks our driver whether people are often struck by cars. He smiles and nods, “Yes, sometimes.”
Some with expertise in the region attribute this fatalism to the belief that each action and motion is prompted by divine will, that human will exists in no meaningful way. “The most terrible words in Arabic are ‘God willing’ and ‘God has willed it,’” says one Westerner who has lived in Egypt for the better part of the last 30 years. He is not alone in the belief that these concepts are not mere conversation filler but ideas that inform the worldview of millions in the Middle East — an outlook altogether alien to Western attitudes of personal autonomy and responsibility.
Doug, a gruff missionary in his 60s, speaks fluent Arabic and has adopted many of the attributes of the Egyptians he has lived with for more than two decades, including candor and a suspicion of outsiders. Echoing a view commonly expressed by Egypt’s Christian community, which numbers several million, Doug voices concern that highlighting the challenges Christians face in Egypt only tends to worsen relations between Christians and Muslims here.
At the Church and Monastery of the Virgin Mary in Maadi on the Nile, where tradition holds that the Holy Family stayed during its flight from Herod, Doug treats us to a morning espresso and we discuss some thoughts on the region’s culture and politics, and on the integral role of religion. He decides we must make time for a nearby stop. “I’m taking you to see the sisters.”
The “Sisters of Maadi,” as they are known locally, are nuns of the order of St. Charles Borromeo, and they have been tending to Cairo’s sick and injured for more than a century. While some elderly German nuns remain, the sisters are now predominantly Egyptian, Coptic in ethnicity and rite. Among Cairenes, the sisters are best known for their health clinic, which treats approximately 200,000 impoverished Egyptians annually.
Each morning, the line of patients outside this diminutive but pristine clinic stretches down the street. The clinic’s patients — women in the hijab and niqab; young men with broken limbs; toddlers and the elderly — are 90 percent Muslim. For many of these Muslims, Christianity is strongly linked, if not synonymous, with the West, even though not all Westerners identify themselves as Christian. Were it not for encounters like these, Muslim concepts of Christians would be almost exclusively informed by their understanding of America — shaped by American film and television, which are often deeply at odds with Egyptian values, and by Middle Eastern journalism, which tends to present America unfavorably. These daily encounters with the sisters are therefore vital to American interests, although most of America’s people and policymakers have no idea that the Sisters of Maadi exist.
Sister Petra, a short, middle-aged Egyptian woman with a stern but loving countenance, has run the convent and clinic since 1995. The similarities between Sister Petra, indefatigable and iron-willed, and a rather well-known nun who committed her life to the care of the poor of Calcutta are unmistakable. She is able to meet with us only after the morning’s hundreds of patients dwindle to dozens. Though a native speaker of Arabic, she mostly converses with Doug and me in German, the language of her religious community in Europe. When I ask whether the sisters have a website, she smiles and produces a cellphone and says, “This is enough.”
Inside the clinic a mother and father hold their son, perhaps three years of age, who has sustained serious burns on his shoulder and back after spilling boiling water on himself. Sister Petra tells the mother that she must be more careful. “It was God’s will,” the mother replies. Later, in a conversation that bounces from Arabic to German to English, Sister Petra says that too often she sees the same patients back time and again after they failed to take sufficient precautions. Clenching her fists with a smile, she says, “I want to shake them when they say this, but I love them.” This love is reciprocated by the predominantly Muslim community that surrounds the convent.
During the revolution in 2011, Egypt’s prisons were emptied and criminals roamed the streets. Christians frequently became targets of violence as Egypt’s police force, whose treatment of Christians had never been exemplary, largely withdrew from the chaos that suddenly gripped the country. Throughout the upheaval, the Muslims in this Cairo suburb stood watch in the night outside the convent in Maadi.
The revolution also ushered in increased medical costs, which have significantly increased the number of patients seeking care at the convent in recent years. With this growing dependence in the community, awareness of the sisters’ work has spread throughout Cairo. “When patients take a prescription to the pharmacy and say that it’s from the Sisters of Maadi, they are given a discount,” says George, a Coptic Orthodox Christian who lives in Cairo.
Sister Petra takes us to a room filled with patients and introduces us to the clinic’s physician, an imposing figure. The doctor smiles and says, “I am the doctor, but I am not in charge,” nodding in deference toward Sister Petra. He sees only the most severe cases — he has already treated nearly a hundred patients that day. In the next room, Sister Bernadette, who is related to Sister Petra, although her disposition is gentler, treats a young man whose leg and arm were broken in an altercation. Outside, an elderly Egyptian woman approaches and says in English, “We love the sisters here. They are very good.”
The convent also has a preschool for Egyptian children, three-quarters of whom are Muslim. It is run by Sister Regina, who shares Sister Petra’s diminutive stature and kindhearted but firm approach. Like her students, she is Egyptian, but she teaches in German, which seems to enhance the natural command she has of the classroom. These students will have better academic opportunities than most of their peers, which is why Christian schools tend to be highly regarded in the Muslim world. “The odds of these kids becoming radicalized are minimal,” says Doug.
Among some observers of the Middle East, there is a tendency to regard the region’s Christian minorities with casual indifference, as a footnote that needlessly complicates matters — if they are regarded at all. This Christian complication may rankle policymakers, but it offers nuance that is vital to the region. Without it, Egypt will come to resemble the Gulf states, with all their extremism. As one moderate Egyptian Muslim put it: “Today, the Christians. Tomorrow, us.” In fact, Muslims are often the first to suffer at the hands of the extremists. The first to be killed by collateral damage are Muslims. And those who stood guard in the night to protect the convents and churches and monasteries of Egypt’s Christians were Muslims.
Senator Harry Reid wrote in his 2008 autobiography that “the American government is the greatest force for good in the history of mankind.” Many in the Middle East would challenge this contention. American policymakers, typically hardened secularists, tend to see religion as only a source of problems, not bothering to learn the importance of faith, its effect on politics, and how it can be a force for peace. A day with the Sisters of Maadi might open policymakers’ eyes to an entire world they have missed — to help them kick the secularist habit, as David Brooks has put it. It would enable them to understand that the most meaningful encounters between the West and Islam occur not in the halls of power but in places like the medical clinic and preschool of the Sisters of Maadi.
— Andrew Doran served on the Executive Secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State, where he has since worked as a consultant. His views are his own.