Monday, December 15, 2014

Egyptian Christmas Carol

Asalamu Alaykom,

I am directing a production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol in Egypt with middle school students.

What follows is

My Director's Diary

Start reading here for the newest entry.
Latest Update:  

Week Six

Cutting the Show in Half

Some weeks speed by and certainly the final week of rehearsals went by in a flash.  We weren't able to get through the whole show in the 50 minutes allotted to our club time.  It was then that I made a major decision:  we would not perform the whole show on the following Monday.  Sunday would be our final rehearsal; Monday would be only ACT I and II (or the first half of the show); Tuesday would be ACT III and IV (or the second half of the show).  We would repeat this performance schedule of first half on Wednesday and second half on Thursday.  The performance for the parents after school on Thursday would be the only time when the whole show would be performed.


Doing a show is stressful.  We were under a big time constraint of 50 minutes.  Sure, I had timed out our show at 40 minutes but...what if there were delays?  Even if we performed the show at  40 minutes, those students had to change out of costumes and make it to their 8th period classes.  That's tough!  I made it easier.  It goes against convention but it made sense.

What's funny is that, if you think about it, Dickens' stories were not originally intended to be taken in a one lump sum.  They were the original cliff hangers given out in drips and drabs to the paying public in magazine formats.  Making the audience come back to see the conclusion is in keeping with the way readers first got to know the story of Scrooge.

Time is So Short

Scrooge.  He has been a challenge for me.  He went AWOL for a week earlier on in the process.  When he came back, there could have been some bad feelings towards him from the cast members who had been coming loyally.  I made the decision then not to do or say anything which would push him away.

It was so nice to see him getting scenes memorized.  He was so happy to know the first scene by heart.  I didn't want to be a downer so I didn't tell him that he was mostly stating either, "Bah Humbug!" or "Good afternoon".  The great thing is that his enthusiasm to learn lines kept going.  Sure, he became overwhelmed and I did have to cut some great lines at the end.  Yet, he found a way to eat the elephant (one bite at a time).  I'm proud of this boy.

As we sat there, the cast all excited about the week ahead, I asked him in front of everyone about that week he didn't come to rehearsals.  "If you could magically go back in time and live that week again, would you still have stayed away from rehearsals?"

"No.  Time is too short."

I patted his back and said most sincerely, "Then I'm happy because you've learned a really important lesson."

Time is too short!

The Land of Long Dresses

One of the crazier problems has been getting the kids to find costumes.  I thought it would be a breeze!  It's true that they're used to highly financed costumes being made-to-order but I knew that they could find their own ready-to-wear outfits in their own closets.  They could look in mom's stuff or their cousins'.  Little by little, the troop would bring in clothes.  One boy was so interested in dressing the part that he brought in five different ideas until he found the right look.

Not everyone could handle this assignment.  I started bringing in clothes that I had.  I figured that something was better than nothing.  What was weird that my clothes on these young girls looked so different.  Subhanallah, it actually worked.  We added some boots and some shawls and piled up their hair.  Voila! Victorian!

One girl drove me nuts telling me that she still couldn't find a long dress.  "What country do you live in?"

"What do you mean?" she asked as the school bus bumped along.

"Don't you live in Egypt?!  That's like the Land of Long Dresses!  Don't tell me you can't find anything."  I chastised.

"There was nothing at City Stars," she explained.

Everyone around us on the bus told her how you don't go to the Westernized mall to find baladi clothes.  We told her to look at places like Khan Khalili.  I had the feeling her inability to find a long dress might have something to do with her favoring pants.

Busted Up Belinda

Unbelievably, the Cratchit family ended up with two lame children  Tiny Tim is the usual one to walk with a limp.  Tiny Tim is supposed to have a lot of brothers and sisters around to care for him.  Our show kept losing the actors in these small parts so I cut them all except Belinda.  Yes, Belinda would be the one to help Tiny Tim.  And then...Belinda broke her leg.  She's been in a cast for weeks.  Really, only Tiny Tim can be the lame one in the Cratchit family or the impact becomes lessened.  What to do?

I hated to tell her that she was out of the show for two reasons.  First of all, it wasn't her fault that she had been injured.  She was already having a hard time and I didn't want to make it worse.  Secondly, we didn't have anyone else!  Waiting for her to stop using crutches has been a drain on my patience.

When I get stressed over things like Belinda in a cast, I have to laugh it off.  A show can become very stressful but it's supposed to be fun.  What are the chances, I tell myself, that out of allll the kids in the show, the broken leg had to be on the one character who has to help Tiny Tim?  Laugh it off and keep it going!

Let it Go

It's what I needed to do when the posters for school walls and the invites to the parents didn't show up on Thursday.  That was something that was out of my hands and out of my control.  I'm working on not freaking out if I literally can't do a thing about it.  That's hard when you're a director!  You've been creating a little world but in the end you have to live in the REAL world with real constraints.  I let it go.

My voice was almost gone.  I had been sick and using my voice in class is a must----I simply can't not talk.  People think that if a teacher loses their voice it's due to shouting at the kids but it isn't.  I am projecting pages and pages of material over seven hours.  How can I not lose my voice after being sick?

I did find a little extra volume for the cheerleaders who are in the show.  I love them and they bring so much to the play.  The problem is that they want to do it all and be in two places at once.  Even though they have permission from their coach to be with me this week, they keep asking to leave rehearsal if their part is done.  No!  Cast members have to stay and support the others.  I've talked with them about giving the show 100% but I think they still are torn between the two clubs.  It makes me wonder if I would cast cheerleaders in the next show.

It's funny.  "A Christmas Carol,"  is not even up yet and I'm already thinking of the next.

Start reading here if you want to go back to the beginning.

It's worth stating that I wanted to be an actress from a very early age and my B.A. degree is in theatre.  I have performed in dozens of shows.  I've written many and directed a couple of shows with my KG students at my former school in Egypt.  When I switched to my current school, I was told that two other teachers were involved in theatre.  I waited that first year until I understood the situation more.


Last year was my second year at the school and I had a weekly theatre club which went very well.  Mostly, we did improv but I started to bring in scripted scenes and even an adaptation I had written of a Winnie the Pooh scene.  That scene had gone so well that I started to wonder if a full show could be performed.

Before clubs were finished for the year, I asked my group of girls about the idea of putting together a show.  Would they be interested or not?  Their enthusiasm helped me decide to push forward.

In my head, I began planning how I would pull a show together.
  • start rehearsals in the fall and aim for a December show.
  • make the show's theme connected to Christmas.
  • chose a classic story to portray since our school values classic literature.
  • have many roles with many scenes to facilitate the amount of students.
  • include some music for music-loving Egyptians.
  • keep production levels low-key without purchasing costumes.
  • work on the show alone since few seem to have a process-over-product vision.
Students and teachers kept reminding me that no one had ever pulled off a show.  They were telling me that it couldn't be done.  I countered that I had never been given a chance and I put into practice that, "the show must go on."  If I started the process, then I would finish with a production inshahallah.

Writing the Script

After five weeks of school, we had a week of vacation for Eid Al-Adha.  In those first weeks, I had waffled between being sure that I had to direct a play and feeling that I was setting myself up for ridicule.

I made up my mind that I really could pull this off a production of "A Christmas Carol" in Egypt at a school which has never had a play produced.  A couple teachers had tried and failed.  I adapted the script from the actual story rather than use a free adaptation.  This way, I knew what I was putting in or leaving out.  I did not make up any of my own dialogue; I was faithful to Dickens because (frankly) he's a better writer than I am.

Week One


The first day back after Eid, I prayed that my bus would arrive on time to school---and it arrived early!  I swear to God that this never happens but for some reason it happened that first Sunday back.  I asked permission to go the microphone for morning announcements.  It's funny but no matter how many times I speak in front of an audience there is still an "OH MY GOODNESS!  What am I doing up here?" question in my mind the moment before.

Hearing my voice boom over the campus for the first time ever, I greeted the crowd below and asked students interested in acting to show up for auditions.  I maybe should have sounded more selective but I really wanted to drum up as many people as I could.  That moment when students spontaneously applauded for me felt really good.

After lunch, I held auditions.  There was a large number of very competitive students.  Confidence was not lacking!  That's one great thing about Egyptian kids!  Each wanted to read a scene that I had printed out from the script.  I did a preliminary casting by types and English ability and then grouped students into scenes and had them rehearse.  Then, I sat down the whole group on the floor as I felt like I had to clear something up.

"I'm looking for good actors and actresses but I really have to find a people who can work with others because that's what theatre is about.  Actually, that's what life is about too.  You can't tell me "no" that you won't read with the person I give you because that means you don't listen well to me and you don't treat others the way you would like to be treated."

Then I had them read.   I only had 50 minutes total to cast all the parts!  I would listen to their short scenes and jot down the quickest notes you ever saw.  Maybe I'd end their audition there or maybe I'd switch the parts around.  If I saw potential in an actor, I would have them read as a different character.  Of course I was most interested in finding our Scrooge.

Casting Scrooge

I had already hand-picked a boy for Scrooge.  He was perfect.  He looked the part physically with his tall, angular frame.  He was volunteering to read in class whenever he could AND he did a great job.  Also, he was an 8th grader so he brought some maturity to the cast.  I had met with him right before the auditions and had had him read.  He did a great job!  However, he didn't want to make the time commitment.  Meet everyday?  No, he would not.

During auditions, there was one very eager 5th grade boy.  He didn't want to stop reading.  I looked at him with new eyes.  Sure, he was young but he had that old soul look about him.  I started to consider him for Scrooge.  I had him read different scenes again and again.

While he was reading one scene, I was borderline obnoxious with him by giving lots of comments.  I wanted to see his patience level.  Would he lose it if I pushed him?  He didn't!

"How many days can you meet?"  I asked.

"I can give you all the days," he answered with complete conviction.

The next day, my first choice for Scrooge asked me how it had gone.  I told him that a boy had done well trying out for the part and told me that he could, "give me all the days."

His eyes widened in surprise.  "You should give it to him then, " and I did.

Cast List 

When I put the cast list up, I surprised how the students with big parts weren't happy.  They wanted BIGGER roles.  They were pouting about not being in every scene.  I had to convince them that having a NAME and LINES was a big enough deal and not to ask for more since some cast members didn't have either.

First Meeting

Soon after the cast list went up, it was to be our first meeting.  I gathered them on the floor of our rehearsal space.  I had made-up my mind not to have any chairs involved in our time together since there would never be enough for everyone.  It was better to sit on the floor in a circle and feel more egalitarian.

The older girls, who had begged me for roles, came in late with books to study.  I told them that they couldn't study during the meeting.  One of them tried to challenge my rule.  I was firm.  She wondered if she really had to attend the meeting and of course she did.  While I was talking about costumes, she tried to sneak out.  When I called her back in, she then started to study aloud with another girl.  Unbelievable!  I told her right then that she was out of the show.  It's too bad but showing that kind of disrespect not only for me but for the process had to be addressed directly and severely.

First Three Rehearsals

I jumped right into blocking.  I decided that we really didn't have time for a read through.  Since I had organized rehearsal by act, it was nearly impossible any way to do a full read-through. In a way, blocking the scene gets the actors physical and in the "now" better than sitting with their voice disconnected from the rest of them.

I had a great scene for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (this is the creepy ghost).  The girl I'd cast had been with me in my acting club last year and I knew I could count on her to deliver.  She has zero lines but her stage presence needs to be communicated through her body language.  I'd seen some Japanese Noh actors talk about how the spirits in their very stylized plays are given very long sleeves.  I told her to think of moving about long sleeves; it wasn't in slow motion but in a very weighted down heaviness as if through water.  

Scrooge's reaction to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was priceless.  The Ghost enters up through the aisle and keeps her back to the audience (which I explained is usually a no-no in theatre).  Scrooge's fearful face signals to the viewer that THIS is a terrifying experience more than showing the Ghost's face.  Remember:  the unknown is always more frightening than the known.

I blocked Scrooge backing up, falling over and then being on his hands and knees crawling over to the Ghost.  There's this part where he states that he wants to change so I put him center stage kneeling as if in prayer to a Merciful God but an uncaring ghost.  It was powerful in that moment.

It was that Thursday rehearsal that had me feeling that I was putting together an important experience.  All the week's efforts seemed worth it.  There was a show I was directing and it was going well.

Week Two

Understudy List

The word got out that we were doing something fun.  I couldn't walk anywhere without being accosted in the hall.  Everybody wanted a part in the show!  I decided to have them add their name to a piece of paper I called "The Understudy List".  In an emergency, I could ask them to drop their other clubs and just attend ours.

Attendance List

I also put together an attendance list.  The sheer number of students involved was mind-boggling!  Every time I thought I knew who all was in the show, someone else would show up at rehearsal and remind me that they'd been cast or replaced someone else.  It felt out of control---and as a director that isn't a good thing.

It is however a great way to meet more kids.  I know it's not wise to cast kids you don't know but at the same time I hated when I was new in school and no one gave me a chance.  

Work with What You've Got

Despite the rehearsal schedule, I am not getting kids showing up on their days.  No matter how much organization on my part, I have to bow to the scholastic needs of the kids.  They have tutoring, exam re-takes, and sessions with teachers.  I can't get in the way of all that.  So, I work with whoever we have when we have them.

The other actors get bent out of shape but I can't get that way.  I know that it's better to keep it all rolling along by working around those absent (me or someone else reading lines) than acting as if we can't do a thing.

Week Three

Where is Scrooge?

Our Sunday rehearsal didn't have Scrooge.  He didn't show.  As a director, your pivotal actor missing is a big deal---even if you pretend that it doesn't matter that much to your other actors.

Scrooge Quits

The next day, my actors told me that Scrooge had quit.  I told them that NO ONE can quit because all of us made a commitment to do the show.  I gave my talk about how we all wanted to put on a show and if anyone saw him then they need to remind him of how we are all counting on each other.

The day after, I saw him.  He had a big grin on his face and told me that he had quit.  I sent his friends away and spoke very straight like a coach.

"You told me that you really wanted this part.  You told me that you could give me all the days.  Remember?  If you think that you can just walk away from all of us, it's not that easy.  We expect you to do the right thing and come back to rehearsals so we can do the show."

I wasn't sure if I'd said the right thing.  I worked on contingency plans.  Maybe my stage manager could do it?  Maybe...

Day after day, he didn't show.  The whole week went by and, despite my cast member's efforts to coerce him, it didn't seem like he was coming back.  How can anyone do A Christmas Carol without Scrooge?

Tiny Tim

Even without a Scrooge, we had to keep going.

 At auditions, there had been a girl who REALLY wanted to be Tiny Tim but the problem was that she was just too healthy looking.  Honestly, if Tiny Tim robust, then Scrooge (and the audience) won't feel that extra pull on heartstrings.  I couldn't cast her.

There was another girl who didn't even try out.  She was one of my smallest fifth grade students both in terms of height and width.  I wanted to know if she would be in our show.  She was perfect for the part with her big brown eyes pulling you into her angelic little face.  With a cap pulled down, she would be the perfect little boy.

She agreed but she didn't show up.  Day after day she didn't show and that other girl who REALLY wanted the part was anxious to replace her.  Other cast members questioned when we would ever see her.  I held my ground.  The truth is that, while being a pivotal role, Tiny Tim doesn't have a lot of lines.

The day she showed up was worth the wait.  She learned the song and worked with me to tone down that Arabic hard "r" sound in "Merry".  She sounded great.

It was time to tell her that there's a problem with Tiny Tim's leg.  I asked her if she had a leg that ever hurt and she told me the left.  So I told her that for the show her left left would not work as well.  Her foot would not point out straight but rather point in.  I then told her to walk with her foot pointing in.  She walked slowly watching her foot slid heavily across the floor.  I then had Mrs. Cratchit call to her and told Tiny Tim to walk with that difficult leg quickly to her mom but while looking at her face.  The effect was so amazing.  You saw this huge effort from this sweet child and you yourself wanted to cry.

Time to carve the Christmas goose.  This is the scene that Scrooge watches with the Ghost of Christmas Present.  I filled in for Scrooge and read the line, "Will Tiny Tim die?"

There was an audible gasp from Tiny Tim and those big brown eyes searched for me with wonder.  "Will I die?" she asked in all innocence.

"No, Habibi, " I soothe.  "You'll be OK."

Scrooge Found

By Thursday, I was desperate for a Scrooge.  I had already tried out the stage manager.  He had been too reluctant to even read a scene at the auditions but had readily accepted the responsibility of coming every day.  He knew the scenes so I had him read one.  It was as wooden as can be.

"I'm not a good Scrooge," he told me after his scene reading.

"No, you're not," I had agreed.

"I'm not?!" He said incredulously.

"No," I said sadly about it because he had been my back-up plan.

Maybe I had been wrong for not choosing only based on the audition.  All of a sudden, I realized WHY high school directors have favorites and rarely chose based on talent alone.  Losing our main actor was beyond tough.

When boys I knew walked by our rehearsal space to check out the haunted house, I grabbed them for a try-out.  Neither one was known for good behavior but I knew them both. First one read and I had to admit that he was an impossibility.  The second one read and I saw a real chance to cast him.

This time, I asked him to take home the script, read it and talk to his parents about it.  I wanted their support.  The show couldn't handle another AWOL actor.

Week Four

Scrooge Shortage

Unfortunately, that possible savior came back and declined the role because it was too much of a commitment.  When I told the cast, they felt down but I told them that it's better than him accepting the role and then not being able to handle it.  They agreed.

We brainstormed different ideas.  They liked the idea of a teacher doing the part.  I talked it over with the teacher they named and he nixed the idea immediately.  He told me to postpone the show.  I can't.  I have made a commitment that "the show must go on."

We rehearsed the opening scenes without Scrooge...or his nephew Fred.  Where was he?!

Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig

One of the problems about directing pre-teens in a show is that boys think girls are icky and vice versa.  There are characters who are couples in the show and SOMEHOW I have to convey that they are connected...without any physical touching.

I had to work on this before with Bob Cratchit and his wife.  He comes home from a hard day and his wife greets him at the door with a kiss  a hug a handshake a helpful unwrapping of his scarf and a removal of his boots.  It's funny:  in the U.S., the obvious physical contact between a husband and wife would be played out without question.  Yet, because I'm under constraints here, I have to find other ways of displaying this kind of love.  You know what?  It plays better!

The same thing happened today with Scrooge's boss Mr. Fezziwig and his wife.  I had originally asked them to do a dance together.  They refused.  I had to think how to handle it.  How could I show the festive atmosphere of Fezziwig's Christmas party and their love for each other?

I had Mr. Fezziwig get very physical with Young Scrooge and Young Jacob Marley (I added the actor playing the Ghost of Marley to this scene).  Fezziwig claps them on the back and spins each one around.

Mrs. Fezziwig then enters from the right with two big trays of cookies.  When her husband tries to take one, she swooshes the tray in her left hand through the air away from him.  He then goes for the right hand tray and she backs up with him in hot pursuit.  He is after her cookies and she goes around the back of the two young employees in order to come to offer them cookies.  After standing up, she sees her husband and offers a tray of cookies for him to pick but he takes the whole tray!  He is acting silly and takes a cookie of the tray he is now holding.  What does he do?  He takes that cookie in his hand and gives it to his wife.

This is love without one touch.  I swear to God, on stage is a deeper moment of that true connection a husband and wife have.  I love theatre with constraints because this is when I am more creative and the production is richer.

The Return of Scrooge

He came back.  I convinced him to come back---even if he wasn't going to play the title role.  He had signed up for the show and we could give him a small part and we could give Scrooge to someone else.

I sat the cast down with them in our regular meeting circle and we welcomed him back.  Then, I explained to him that we didn't have anyone else so asked if he could please read Scrooge's line today.  He agreed.

At the end of the rehearsal, we sat together again and I had the cast tell him what a good job he was doing.  In talking together, he admitted that he tried twice to learn the lines and couldn't.  Poor guy!  He actually had thought that he could learn alllllll those lines in two study sessions.  The cast helped me explain how learning lines works.

I told him that I would make note cards for him so that his lines could be held in his hand better and he could learn them easier than in the script.  If he never learns all his lines, we will just have to deal with that in the show.

I cast him.  I still think he's brilliant in the role.  I know another director would have let him go a week ago but I don't want to do that.  I'd rather work with young actors than castigate young actors.

We are building a program.  I need everyone---even if they might need to carry note cards.

God Bless Us Everyone!

We spent more time on scenes from Act II when the Ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge around London and into the Cratchit home.  Once again, we faced the problem of boys and girls working together since Tiny Tim is actually a little girl.  No, her "dad" couldn't touch her in any way while stating, "There's a hearty lad!"

I had to think of HOW to show that sense of big love without any physical connection.  Bob had been seated and I had him get up to make more of an entrance for Tiny Tim.  I thought of having him make a grand gesture but then cancelled that.  No, Bob is not a showman.  Instead, I realized that Tiny Tim needs to sit down so dad would offer him his seat and he would stand (even though we saw him almost collapse from tiredness in the chair earlier).

Tiny Tim's next line is "God bless us everyone!"  I didn't want it sitting down.  It's a big moment!  So I had Tiny standing up and praying loudly with hope that everyone would be OK.  Then, because Scrooge needs to be concerned about Tiny Tim's health, I had Tiny Tim put a hand back on the chair and sit carefully down, then put a hand to his chest and breathe a couple of quick breaths (as if that exertion had been too much).

Seeing our Tiny Tim do this moment was God blessing us.  I swear that I have had faith in my cast---when they didn't show, when they weren't sure, and when others wrote them off.  I was right with my casting alhumdulillah.  I didn't base it on grades, or behavior (as some told me I should); I based it solely on talent at the audition.  Whatever else happens, I want to remember those magical moments I've seen in rehearsal.

Week Five

Coming Back to Rehearsals

Our school's policy is that clubs do not meet during the weeks for revision and final exams.  I knew this when I scheduled our show.  In my planning, it seemed absolutely fine to start rehearsals again on December first, and after two weeks, have the production before winter break.

After being gone from rehearsals for those two weeks, the cast came back together again.  Needless to say, their lines weren't all memorized.  Actually, I shouldn't say that was true across the board.  The quiet girl who plays Scrooge's sister Fanny had memorized her little speech and to see her scene was inspiring.

Another moment with this girl had inspired me as well.  I had been passing through the halls during exam week when we saw each other.  Of course I said hello to her.  She stopped me and asked me about seeing the show on youtube.  I recommended The Muppet Christmas Carol because Micheal Caine plays Scrooge so well.  As I walked away, I thought of how this girl, so interested in soccer, was now interested in Dickens.  It's a small victory for an English teacher in Egypt.

Many of the smaller parts didn't have names.  I knew this was a problem.  It's hard for a any actor (let alone a student actor) to embrace a nameless role.  Originally, I told them that I'd find a list of Victorian names and we'd chose some together.  During the two-week break, I had another idea.  I went to wikipedia and looked up all the various character names Dickens ever used.  He was especially clever in naming.  I took names like Lady Jemima Bilberry and Mrs. Flora Finching for the Charity Collectors, Mrs. Bagstock and Polly for the thieves and Betsy and Lucretia for the gossipers in the street.  It feels so much better to have a name and I saw how happy it made the girls.

 I then had new scripts printed out.  This time, I used a much larger 14-point font so they could see their lines easier.  I took those scripts and cut them up into half size in order for them to be held on stage.  I highlighted everyone's lines.  Yes, I made it incredibly easy on the cast.  In the beginning, I had wanted them to take responsibility to a much larger degree but it wasn't working.  They were overwhelmed and failing in their attempts to learn lines.

We started our new rehearsals with a new-found emergency.  You can't really envision how quickly the time flies by when you are in October.  It seems as if December is miles away.  Suddenly, those lines you never managed to learn, become more of an immediate need.  I hit that point home with telling them, "In the end, it will be you on stage, not me.  You will look better knowing your lines.  The play will run quicker and smoother.  If you have to carry that card, then you have to but see if you can push yourself more."

These kids are already pushed in many directions.  They have many other interests.  The salsa class was meeting at the same time on Wednesday and Fred wanted to attend that instead.  He felt that he had done his part in the show and could therefore leave rehearsal for that other club.  I understood that I could give him free choice in the matter but that would mean losing him and perhaps doing him a disservice in the end.  His lengthy speech about Christmas was not yet memorized.  I gave Fred a very straight talk in front of the others that I would cut those lines if he didn't know them by next week.  He stayed and the others got the message too.  Suddenly, seeing actors off stage learning lines while others were acting on stage became the norm.

We didn't lose anyone this week alhumdulillah.  I had been getting reports that Mrs. Cratchit had dropped out (an impossibility) but I found her on the basketball court and got her back on stage.  She has such a great no-nonsense demeanor in the role.  It's funny how we often cast girly girls in mother roles whereas a tomboy, with all that driven energy, is closer to the kind of woman who runs the home and guides the family.

Scrooge.  God bless that boy!  I handed him his script---impossible to only be on hand-held cards.  He is in every scene and has so many lines that the paper is mostly yellow from the highlighting.  Our Scrooge, who thought at one point that he could drop out, is "in it to win it" now.  You should have seen him when he memorized his first scene with Fred!  He was proud.  Yes, his task is more daunting than the others but he is rising to the challenge.  If he fails to memorize all his lines, it will not be his failure but a real success for the attempt.

Another English teacher asked me what is happening with our show.  I explained the basics and then added, "They are all memorizing Charles Dickens.  To hear a room of Egyptian children memorizing and acting out the words of Charles Dickens is a joy."  It is.

I've been too busy this week.  I've forgotten some of the joy of the process.  I even showed one crack of stress.  For weeks, I'd been able to balance my teaching duties and my directing duties but this week I also had to substitute---for not just one but two teachers who were gone.  Suddenly, I was needing to be three places at once!  I'm not joking.

There was even a chance that the administration might pull me from rehearsal to sub instead.  My twenty-minute lunch break was a bit tense while it was decided.  It was a moment of truth.  Would my theatre program be valued?  Sure, I could be giving the show my all but if I didn't have support for my efforts, then maybe...but alhumdulillah it was decided that I should be with my cast and the show carried on.

Next week, we will have five days of rehearsals before we open inshahallah.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Searching for Islam

Asalamu Alaykom,

This sweet little girl, mashahallah, is show in a Dubai shopping mall with her American family.  Watch how she reacts to the azan.  It's her first time and she is mesmerized.  Her eyes scan the space for The Source.  Watch how she instinctively points her finger out as if she is testifying.  See how she touches her fingers together as if in tasbeeh (done when remembering Allah).

If only we could all react with such open wonder to the azan.

Egyptians tend to disregard the call to prayer like so much garbage in the street.  Astragferallah.  It's there; they don't notice it.  Yes, the music is stopped for azan but the talking and yelling continue.  Astragferallah.  It's only three to four minutes long, yet people raised Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country, still blather on like...well, I'd say animals but even animals are seen showing a quiet respect for the azan.

For me, I've at least stopped my own mouth from yammering.  I can also, over time, convince my husband and son to wait to speak.  As for the others, I can only be a role model in that regard.

Yusuf Estes says in this video that too many Muslims are in name only and that they also need to come to Islam.  Whether you are Muslim or not, watch how this video shows the power in finding your path.

Yusuf Estes is a former Christian preacher who left the church in order to follow his faith in Islam.  Mashahallah, he is a powerful speaker with enough knowledge to back up his words.  Yes, this video is long but stick with it until the end.  

I cried three times and those tears washed away some of the hardness that has built up in me.  Only when we are softened by the Mercy of Allah are we able to change and grow.  I also laughed because Yusuf Estes knows that laughter can be a part of dawah---the spreading of Islam.

There is a section around 20 minutes where the audio is dropped.  There is no explanation but I believe it was done for privacy in order to protect the questioner from the audience. 

There is another section after that in which the women from the audience are not show.  I don't know how I feel about that.  I wish that women could come to a microphone and not be objectified but maybe that is not possible.  Their privacy is also protected.

One nice thing about the video is that it has Arabic subtitles.  This enabled me to share it with my husband.  Yes, he has enough English to basically understand the video without subtitles,but they really helped him grasp the concepts easier.  Sharing Islam together is the biggest blessing of our marriage.  Alhumdulillah.

Do not miss out on the chance to be a witness of God's great power.

Let me know if it makes you cry too.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Wash or Wipe?

Asalamu Alaykom,

I started reading Karen Armstrong's latest book, "Fields of Blood:  Religion and the History of Violence."  The introduction makes a really good point:  the Western concept of religion is a personalized concept disconnected from daily life whereas Islam, although thought of as a religion, is really a whole lifestyle.

Yes, Islam has ways of living which are interwoven throughout your days.  The ways of dressing, eating and even using the bathroom are prescribed for you.  Yes!  It isn't just the prayer hall where Islam reaches you as it follows you into every room----even the bathroom.

After eliminating waste, washing your privates is mandatory.

Before Islam, I was very American in my actions.  I did whatever the culture had deemed normal although I did use a spray bottle after having my first child and my c-section.  The hospital had given it to me and I used it, even after I had healed because it seemed useful.  I liked that idea of being really clean. 

Take a look at this video.  It's not Islamic or even from a Muslim country---it's from Taiwan.  We Muslims are not the only ones who believe in a cleansing rinse of water after using the toilet.

Now, I can't imagine not cleaning with water after using the toilet.  The toilets in Egypt all have some sort of washing device---though not like the robo-washer in the video.  There is a jet spray built into our toilet bowl; others are fit with a copper tube; while others have a hose hooked to the wall.  In American homes, many Muslims have a plumber install that tubing or the hose; barring that they leave a pitcher of water next to the toilet.

If you are interested in installing a sprayer in your home, here is a DIY video on it.  This handyman first learned about using a sprayer in Thailand and spends about 13 minutes demonstrating how to hook it up yourself. 

While out of Egypt, I have to improvise.  If I'm staying in a place, then I have a plastic water bottle in the bathroom.  If you screw on the cap and poke holes in it, the water sprays out very effectively.  If I am outside of the home, I bring along a small plastic bottle.  It doesn't have to contain water, because I can fill it up at the sink before heading into the stall.  If I've forgotten that bottle, I can take a wad of toilet paper, wet it and re-enter the bathroom.  

If you think about what sounds clean and good, you will realize that (Muslim or not) washing up down there is sensible.  A mother does what is best for her child, and if there were two mothers changing diapers, you'd say that the mom washing away the filth off her baby was better than the mom who only wiped it with a dry paper tissue.  Wouldn't you?

Women have to contend with not only urine and feces but also blood.  Can you honestly tell me that you'd rather walk around with these substances on your skin rather than washing them off of you?  Blood?!  It feels so much better to rinse off throughout the day.

There's also the matter of fluids from sexual intimacy.  Being able to wash those fluids away is very important to Muslims.  There's a whole ritual shower we must take to get clean after intercourse.  The cleaning starts with making sure we are free from those substances which is easier done on the toilet than in the shower.  

Being free from dirtiness is a learned behavior.  Small children, as they are being potty trained, would rather keep their poop with them; they created it so they hate to part with it.  You often have to smell them and confront them before you can clean them ---often chasing them around in the process!  We can laugh about their inability to part with poop yet if you are not washing off yourself then you really aren't much different.

There was a viral photo in 2009 which showed a woman's rear end being attacked by flies.  Obviously, they were attracted to that spot on her pants due to a smell.  It was disgusting to see and I'm sure embarrassing to be that woman.  Although her face isn't shown, she is a real person who knows that her secret behavior in the bathroom became extremely public.  I won't show the picture here because I don't want to perpetuate the hardship she's faced. No one would ever want to be that humiliated woman.    

That story makes my final point: 

Dirtiness is attractive flies    

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Speed Bump

Asalamu Alaykom,

At school, I stopped two 9th grade girls from playing tic-tac-toe on the freshly painted wall.  They pointed out that someone else had written on the wall first.  Didn't fly with me; they still had to erase what they did.

"Didn't you notice, Miss, that there's a lot of bigger problems in the world?"

"Of course I did, but I'm going to work on the ones in my own little space first before I move on to them."

In light of that conversation, I give you my tough-as-nails sister-in-law who protested in the street for the army to come and fix the local school's speed bump.  It was on that same spot in 2010 where I witnessed a child being hit and killed by a bus.  She felt strongly that accidents like that should never happen again so she stood in the street and demanded action.  It was caught on video and broadcast.

Again, I get that a speed bump won't stop all the problems in the world but GOD BLESS my sister-in-law.  She did her part (mashahallah) to work on what she could.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Groundhog Day in Egypt

Asalamu Alaykom,

Seriously, some weeks you don't know if you're coming or going.

I've been living with two YES, TWO! pregnant sisters-in-law both due this month.  One got her scheduled c-section appointment for Tuesday and we all planned for that (with an "inshahallah").  In Egypt, there's an awful lot of c-sections and about zero VBACs.  So, all of us counted down the days until that sister-in-law's third child would arrive.

Three days.

Two days.

Then, the night before her surgery, in rushed my husband's sister in a near hysteria.  This is a big, strong lady; she's as tough as they come and she was barely holding it together.  Something bad had happened.  She told my husband to call one of their cousins.  I know enough Arabic to get the basic THERE'S A BIG PROBLEM but I don't know enough Arabic to know exactly what is going on.

Someone had died.  I waited to find out who it was.  Turns out that their aunt had died.  She had lived most of her adult life in Libya (with the last years being especially tough) but came home to Egypt for medical treatment.  When my rock of a sister-in-law fell down to the floor crying, I knew that she must have had a special love for her aunt.  It turns out that my sister-in-law had been nursed by that aunt and looked on her as another mother (which Islam says is an actual bond after three full feedings)

Game changer!  The doctora was immediately called.  No, the c-section couldn't be postponed another day but it could wait until later in the morning.  This would give the men of the family time to pay their respects down the street.  My husband would help his brother bring his wife to the hospital at 11 and then he would go to the funeral at duhr.  He hates that feeling of having been in a hospital and he hates that feeling of having been in a cemetery; he would experience a double-whammy of dislike.

Meanwhile, I had to go off to school and teach English.  My story about the death of a Native American chief included the line, "Death is a part of life."

A boy blurted out, "That doesn't make sense."

"Raise your hand if you have something to say," I had to admonish.

He did raise his hand to state again, "That doesn't make sense.  How is death a part of life?"

Our school's curriculum is often far reaching in its goals.  Now was one of those times because I had to get all existential with fifth graders.  Our fact-filled lessons don't really allow for a lot of elaboration either so I had to be very succinct.

"When you read a biography, does the story only include the person's life?  No!  The story has to include when they died; their death is part of the story of their life."

Life and death live so closely together.  They aren't really opposites.  I mean, if you were calling out opposites in some kind of word association test, you might very well shout out "DEATH!"  if you heard "life" but death is actually a continuum of life.  It is the last thing you ever do in your life.

I thought of this auntie who lived for so many years in Libya.  She had wanted to marry her cousin but he picked someone else so she married a Libyan airline pilot instead.  What an adventurous lady!  God bless her.  Made me think of my own adventure moving here and about my own eventual time to "come home."

In this house, Libya had always been associated with her and prayers said for Libya's peace to ensure her safety. Most Americans don't think of actual people who live in the countries where the U.S. government sends bombs on their behalf.  Who do you know in Iraq, Mr. Midwest?  Do you know someone in Syria, Ms. West Coast?  When we know real people, we really care.

When I came home, I heard that the baby had arrived safely, alhumdulillah.  Three is really too many children for the average Egyptian couple to afford but what can you do?  Those three children will share that one bedroom for many years to come.  I, no doubt, will hear them fight over the limited resources they have but I will also hear them laugh and play.

Around one o'clock in the morning, the other pregnant sister-in-law's water broke.  I went off to school not knowing this.  No one knew except the expectant parents.  When my husband came home from helping us catch the bus, he found his brother in need of help.  It was a kind of Groundhog Day deja' vu.

When I came home, I heard that the baby had arrived safely, alhumdulillah.  Wait...I already wrote that.  Oh, that's OK because it happened twice.  Ya, my head was spinning but just imagine my husband:  funeral, hospital, hospital, funeral.

Oh, I added one more funeral because sure enough there was another.  Yes, an elderly cousin died today.  He was a very proper gentleman and the picture I have of him shows me a side of Egyptian man that I wish more would emulate.

In the midst of all of this, my husband and I had a major disagreement.  My mother-in-law added her own rant to the proceedings.  It was the stress of it all.  It wasn't us.  In the end, we made up and moved on because that's what life needs.

People are still so connected here---to one another and to both life and death.  As much as Egypt drives me crazy, I do value that connection.  People are fragile; it's a miracle anyone is ever born and a blessing that anyone ever survives a day, let alone until old age.  That realization also connects you to God.

The only guarantee we have is to be born and to die.  Again and again it's true.  It was true for the four lives that touched my life this week; two entered this world and two left.  Subhanallah.

May the time we have in between be used wisely.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

University Shootings in Egypt

Asalamu Alaykom,

My oldest son is a university student, alhumdulillah.  I worked REALLY hard to get him there, even if I haven't been there these past years.  Getting your child to adulthood is a looooong process.  When you start to see the fruits of your labor, you realize what a sad day it would be to watch it all go to waste.

My oldest son is in the States at a really good school, alhumdulillah.  I don't worry about him getting mixed up in the politicized climate at Egyptian universities, yet I know that there are strong convictions in him that might get him into trouble wherever he is.  If you are a bright person, striving for better, you often go against society.

At the Egyptian universities now, there is discord and it's not being reported by the Egyptian government.  It's mostly unknown by the Egyptian public. Here is a video taken on October 14 in Alexandria. If you recall, we just got back from Alexandria.

Whether news should or shouldn't be told is something that goes against my grain.  I am still American in the belief that all information is good information.  My husband and I have had many disagreements over me just needing to know what's going on:  in our family; in our house; in our neighborhood; in the country.

When I see what's going on here, I think about my oldest son.  I don't know exactly what he's doing and thinking because he's become independent.  I think how he is 20 years old and prone to strong convictions.  I doubt he would consult me if he were spurred to protest.  I bet he'd join friends to lend his voice and even put his body on a front line.

Of course, I wish that the university students could focus on their education.  If they REALLY want to change the country, become a leader academically and see what avenues that opens for them.  The "us vs. them" mentality is crippling this country and we don't really need to see it play out at schools.

Having said all that, a young person's decision to protest at their university shouldn't end in injury and death from live ammo being fired at them.  It shouldn't be like this.  It's sad that many people around me don't know, and those who do know don't care.

"They're just protesters," was the throw away line from a dad with two young children of his own.

I once had only young children but now that they are growing, I sense how my eldest are young adults.  I pray daily for their safety as they will always be my babies.  Any protester ever killed anywhere was once the hope in a parent's dream of the future.  Let's not casually dismiss the inability to protest without being shot at.  Let's not vilify those idealists even if their hopes for Egypt differ from yours.

May God protect places of learning all around the globe.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Destroying the Mosque of Abu al-Abbas Mursi

Asalamu Alaykom,

What would you do if you saw people defiling a mosque?  

Throwing garbage on the steps.

Letting it fall into disrepair.

Spray painting the walls.

Bringing dogs to defecate and urinate.

Littering the area with used needles from their heroin habit.


For me, I don't have to imagine because I saw this at a mosque in Alexandria.  

While every mosque is important to believers, what makes this especially difficult to stomach is that I'm talking about the Mosque of Abu al-Abbas Mursi.

El-Mursi Abul-Abbas Mosque (Arabicجامع المرسي أبو العباس‎) is a famous mosque in Alexandria,Egypt. It is dedicated to the 13th century Alexandrine Sufi saint el-Mursi Abul Abbas whose tomb it contains.
It is located in the Anfoushi neighborhood of Alexandria, near the Citadel of Qaitbay.
The Mosque was redesigned and built in today's current form by Eugenio Valzania and Mario Rossiin the years 1929/1945.

This beautiful mosque, with its high minaret and four domes, is Alexandria's largest and one of the most important Islamic monuments.

Abu Al-Abbas Al-Mursi is Alexandria’s largest mosque; with a cream coloured façade, four great domes, arabesque designs and a high minaret, the mosque is a beautiful sight.

Built in 1775 to commemorate the life of an Andalusian Sheikh that was buried on the site, it is one of the most visited mosques on the White Med coast.

While visiting this amazing sanctuary, do not forget to have a long and thorough look at the colonnade of elongated arches, the eight monolithic granite columns and the beautiful marble floor. 

from Travel Guide to Alexandria

This stunning mosque, with its high minaret and four domes, is considered Alexandria’s
largest and most important Islamic monuments. It was built in 1775 A.D. on the eastern
harbor of Alexandria over a tomb of a Spanish saint and scholar. El-Mursi Abu Al Abbas
Mosque was dedicated to the Muslim hermit, el-Mursi Abu Al Abbas who was born in
Murcia, Spain, in 1219. He came to Alexandria to teach the Islamic theology in the Mosque
of El Attarin. He died in 1287 and was buried in the site where the mosque now lies.

Built in 1929, the present mosque was modeled on the Andalusian style with a 

unique octagonal plan with sides measuring 22 meters. The entire area the 
mosque covers 3000 square meters. His tomb became a pilgrimage for Muslims
from Egypt and other Islamic regions when the rich trader El Sheikh Zein El Din Ibn El
Qattan founded a mausoleum and small dome for the tomb in addition to a small mosque in
1307. It was occasionally restored until a much larger mosque was built by Sheikh Abu Al
Hassan EL Maghrabi, and its renovation was finally completed in 1863 when the ritual of
celebrating the birth of Abu Al Abbas became an annual festival.

This mosque is the place where architecture becomes an exploration. If you are an

architect, you will feel that you have found your perfect inspiration, and if you’re a tourist
then you have found the subject of your next gorgeous photos that will be added to your

I hope you read some of what others are saying about the importance of the mosque.

This is Islamic architecture  at its finest.  Here is a 1945 document from Yahia Qadri detailing the well-planned construction of the complex.  Large teams of dedicated people really cared that this building would last through the ages.

Remember that many people discover beautiful Islamic buildings first and then search deeper into the faith which was the initial inspiration.  Truly, Islamic architecture is dawah or religious outreach; if the place of worship is a peaceful sanctuary then perhaps the religion itself is a pathway to that peace.

The Mosque of Abu al-Abbas Mursi is many things:

a place to worship The Almighty;

a resting place for an important Muslim scholar;

an instrument of dawah;

an architectural achievement;

a historical site important for not just Muslims in Alexandria but worldwide, and not just for Muslims but for all of humanity.

For all these reasons, seeing the Mosque of Abu al-Abbas Mursi was on our "Must See" list for our visit this week in Alexandria.

Our plan was to be there for the magrib prayer at sunset.  We walked along the Cornish as if we were heading back to the Fort.  There was the upscale Fish Market restaurant on our right.  A little further on, we reached the fountain.

Walking through the large crowd, we could see a wide range of couples, families with small children and roaming independent teens.  Everyone was enjoying the carnival atmosphere of ice cream, face painting, trinket sellers and carnival rides.  It was a fair of sorts that took precedent over the needs of a holy place.  Litter was everywhere as was disregard for the mosque.

When we reached the steps, a man inside motioned us in but I couldn't.  I was really sick from seeing the condition of the entrance.  How could a place that values cleanliness be this dirty?  I didn't take any picture of that entrance.  I was too sad.

We walked past two sedentary police officers around to the side of the mosque.  We looked to be the only tourists that night.  Yes, I wanted a picture of a place I'd dreamed of seeing but it needed to be a picture from my imagination and not reality.  The whole place was so chaotic and messy.  We walked to the side and I tried to take a photo like how I used to for real estate brochures.  There's a way to focus only on the best while cropping out the worst.

The gate which used to protect the courtyard was open to all.  We walked in and the the scene was dismal.  The courtyard was filthy.

There were children who had brought two puppies to the courtyard and the dogs were using the place to relieve themselves.

For Muslims, having a dog in a holy place is considered very bad.

I then saw the graffiti.

There has been some publicity about Egyptian churches suffering since the Revolution.  I know that is true and it is heartbreaking.  What I hadn't realized is that the majids/mosques are also suffering.  That destructive thoughtlessness is not limiting itself to one religion.

Take a closer look at the names.  I see Muslim names.

Some boy named after the Prophet (pbuh) has his name spray painted on the side of the mosque.  Shame.  That's a big shame. In another section, there was the name "Ahmed".  So, if you're wondering who is responsible for this graffiti, look for Muslims not Christians, Jews or Hindus.  Muslims themselves are destroying their own masjids.

Remember that there was a whole HUGE crowd of Muslims outside this area, laughing it up, eating until their buttons popped, spending money and time on frivolities.  I have no problem with people having fun---I was on vacation myself.  What I hate is that I had only to spend two days in Alexandria to discover this problem yet no one  in Egypt's second biggest city has.  How is THAT?

It gets worse.

My husband decided to walk ahead of me and called for me to go down some stairs.  He thought there might be a better area below.  I followed him in a bit of a daze.  My son (El-Kid on this blog) was tagging along although he'd been begging to leave because the place, "really creeps me out".

Three steps down I saw the hypodermic needles.  A click went off in my mind.  I remembered the strange scene of a young man freaking out on the sidewalk.  He'd been so wild with agitated shouting that I'd been reluctant to pass by.  Now, his antics made sense.  This was a place for drug addicts to shoot heroin or mix.

"T'allah delwaty---DELWATY!"  I commanded my husband to come right away without telling him anything more.  To his credit, he took me at my word that we needed to leave immediately.  It's not easy for a woman to order an Egyptian man around but in a marriage built on trust it can happen. Thank God that he followed me up the stairs.  Once we were up into the courtyard again, I told him that I'd seen needles.  He then told me that he'd seen a man down there.

We were clueless and we would have been helpless if that man had turned on us.  Really?  Going to one of the most famous mosques in Egypt should not have to be life threatening.  We could have been attacked by someone high on drugs that night.  Addiction is a very powerful force and can produce unpredictable behavior.

What's important to remember is that we're NOT typical tourists.  I'm very world-wise and careful.  My husband is actually from this country and is always looking for trouble to avoid.  We fell into a big dangerous situation.  If this is what happened to us, then what could happen to first-time tourists to Egypt?

The sun was setting.  We quickly made our way out without looking back.  Through the crowds we went again.

I had a bad feeling towards all the people----sorry, but I was mad at them for allowing the destruction of such an Islamic treasure.  They were like the people of Jahiliyya the time before Islam; basking in the Dunya the worldly pleasures and forgetting the Akhira the after life.

We walked away and I felt guilty to leave the mosque in such a state.  It was as if I were leaving a sick old man to die.  Astragferallah. The truth is that I couldn't do anything that night.  We walked and it was a kind of escape.

My husband said that he felt like throwing up.

I felt like washing---and then I realized that washing my skin wasn't enough.  I said, "I feel like I need to wash my soul."

El-Kid was grossed out and said he couldn't believe we'd brought him to such a place.  As a Muslim mom who has always tried to instill pride in my son, that comment hurt.  He was right that it was a bad place.  You could feel the evil.  How very sad that one of the most majestic Islamic landmarks in the country had that affect on him.

When we had set out our walk, we were going to have dinner after our tour of the mosque.  Now, we weren't hungry even though we were at the restaurant.  We went in, washed up and tried to make the best of it.  The meal wasn't sitting well with us because our eyes had already taken in too much.  My husband complained to the manager about everything; he was in a horrible mood.  I understood.

Do you understand?  There is a real need to rectify this problem.  What I'm doing now is publicizing this and I hope you can also pass this along to people and groups who care.  It is an embarrassment for Egypt but that is not my goal.  My intention is to clean up a treasured jewel of Islam.

May God make it easy on those who can find a way to help.