Member witnesses Egypt’s revolution – Holli Niesner

Editor’s note: FFRF member Holli Niesner is in her second year teaching in Cairo, Egypt, where she lives with her cats Bella and Luciano. She filed this report in late February.

I grew up in Liberty City in the buckle of the bible belt in northeast Texas. I’m an only child who turned 31 Feb. 19. My mom was raised Baptist and my dad Lutheran. For a long time we were Christmas and Easter Christians at a “liberal” ELCA Lutheran church, but my parents wanted to get more involved as I neared confirmation age, and we did. I taught music at vacation bible school during the summer.

Lutherans are pretty rare in the South, and no one at my school knew I even went to church because 99% of them were Baptists, and they all attended church together. In high school when I told some friends I was Lutheran, they asked, “Is that a cult? Do you believe in god?” I remember thinking, “How can you be so ignorant of the history of your own Protestant church. You know, Martin Luther.”

My parents encouraged my questions about religion. Our pastor was accepting of gay couples and helped my dad change and become more tolerant.

After graduating from high school, I enrolled at Texas Lutheran University, a small college in Seguin near San Antonio. Most students were Lutheran, but there were Catholics and nonbelievers and a gay and lesbian student group.

I started to wonder if I was really a Christian. I knew too many amazing people who weren’t Christian to just say, “Yep — they’re all hellbound.” I thought there was no way that a loving, merciful god would allow that.

After graduating, I attended church only as a paid choir member (I double majored in vocal performance and math and sang opera professionally before I started teaching math in San Antonio for a living). I went because I was hired to sing and because I had friends also attending church there.

Though my journey to atheism started in college, about three years ago I picked up Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Dan Barker’s Godless. After reading them, I definitely decided that yes, I am an atheist.

After a few years in San Antonio, I wanted an adventure and signed up for a job fair in Anchorage, Alaska. I got an offer from a great school in (hold your laughter) Wasilla. That was before Sarah Palin became famous, but she was definitely around. I taught advanced math for three years, then signed up for an international schools job fair in San Francisco. In two days I had eight offers, including Colombia, Turkey, Kuwait and Egypt. I chose Cairo.

I like living in places that put me outside my comfort zone and make me adapt to a new way of life. I’m fluent in Spanish and know enough conversational and written Japanese and Arabic to get by.

Teaching in Cairo

I teach at a prestigious American K-12 international school in Cairo. Most students are fantastic and very motivated. Annual tuition is as high as $32,000. About half of the 1,400 students are U.S. citizens.

We have many Egyptian students who, due to the high cost, are from wealthy families. Hosni Mubarak’s grandson attended, or did before the revolution. In the past, children of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Anwar Sadat and other names you might recognize also attended.

Our numbers are projected to drop next term, which means staff cuts. About 60% of our high school students have returned since the revolution, but enrollment is projected to be down about 500 for next year. I’m also providing online virtual schooling to students who are out of the country.

Cairo, with about 17 million people, is very crowded. I live in an expatriate “bubble” of sorts, the suburb of Ma’adi. Daily prayer calls blast from a mosque 50 feet away, especially on Fridays, when instead of the few minutes of call to prayer, we are treated to an hour of yelling for the “service.”

It’s a bit scary. At least in America, if I want to be yelled at about religion, I have to go inside a church. Here, you have no choice. A friend dubbed the one at 4:30 a.m. the “call to pee” since it wakes him up, and as long as he’s awake. . .

Traffic lanes are universally ignored. Drivers just move into wherever a space opens up. Crosswalks are nonexistent. Young and old literally have to run across five lanes of fast-moving traffic.

No ‘nones’ allowed

Religion is pervasive. To get a government ID card, you must check one of two choices: Coptic Christian or Muslim.

I have many Christian and Muslim friends. It seems, as everywhere, that the more educated and wealthy a family is, the less religious and more tolerant they are. I have observant Muslim friends and others who do not fast or pray and drink alcohol whenever they like. But the tolerance extends only to believers.

Although Copts and Muslims often don’t get along, they are united in their distaste for atheism, so I have to be extremely careful about revealing my nonbelief.

As a foreigner and a woman, I wear skirts that are knee-length or lower, avoid low-cut shirts and anything sleeveless. My first summer here I wore jeans but switched to mid-thigh-length shorts the second year. As expats we have some latitude, but wear a shawl or wrap when going out.

A blue-eyed blonde sticks out like a sore thumb. When I run errands, I try to take a male friend. Alone, I get followed and prodded to start a conversation, hissed at, etc. I’ve never been groped yet, but most expat women I know have, usually in crowded situations, which I avoid.

Comes the revolution

The first demonstrations were Jan. 25 (Mubarak resigned Feb. 11). I felt very unsafe only twice, on nights when gunfire went on all night and prisoners from a nearby jail had escaped.

During that time, an Ethiopian couple and their two young children who live on the ground floor of our apartment complex stayed with us for two nights. Then it quieted down, with a curfew still in effect.

The government had shut down Internet and cell phone service, but my parents were able to call me on my landline. Our school was closed for a week. The only TV channel I had on was CNN. I played hundreds of games of FreeCell and Minesweeper on my computer with CNN on in the background.

On Feb. 23, police burned cars at the Ministry of the Interior. A day later in New Ma’adi, a policeman shot a bus driver dead during a traffic argument. People tried to set fire to the police station. They do not like the police but love the military.

Early on, when things got bad and police were off the streets, people pulled together and patrolled neighborhoods themselves, setting up roadblocks at intersections to let in only people they knew belonged in the area. They were my protection. I felt safe knowing they were keeping looters and criminals out.

[In a later e-mail, Niesner links to a story about the military beating peaceful protesters with clubs and electric prods and sexually abusing women: “Egypt’s revolution has entered a new phase as reform efforts are now aimed at reducing the military’s role in political affairs. The violent suppression of protests reveals an Army determined to hold onto its influence in the volatile country.”]

During this time, my boab, a man who takes care of the apartment building, washes everyone’s cars and acts as a general handyman and doorman, was struggling because banks were closed and markets were running low on supplies. I gave him two bags of groceries from my refrigerator and 200 LE (about $34, livre égyptienne, i.e., Egyptian pounds). When I had fattir (a local version of pizza) or other food delivered, I bought extra for his family.

Once when I was leaving for a faculty meeting after a night of really bad gunfire, I told him the teachers might have to leave, and he started to cry. The Egyptian people are wonderful and extremely hospitable overall. I’m very lucky to have lived through this time in history and weathered the storm.

My school pays for my apartment, so the only fees I have here are basic living expenses and utilities. My apartment is huge (three bedrooms, two baths) and it’s just me and the cats!

As an expat, if you’re paid in U.S. dollars, pound sterlings or euros, living here is extremely cheap. The average Egyptian lives on about 11 LE a day, or less than $2. I’m able to save 50% of my paycheck. Some examples of average prices I pay for things:

• Use of a driver and cab to take me anywhere in the city, run errands, etc., is $6 an hour.
• A 45-minute traditional, authentic Chinese foot massage (heavenly) is $13.
• A beer or drink at the expat pub is $1.50.
• Maid service, three days a week, four hours a day, is $200 a month. My maid is Filipino and more expensive. Egyptian maids tend to work much cheaper but also, in general, will take food from your fridge, clothes from your closet and tend to not have the same work ethic.
• A nice dinner for two at a gourmet restaurant, including appetizer, bottle of wine, main course and dessert is $60.

My plan was to stay in Egypt until 2013 or 2014. I want to take a year or more off and become a nomad, backpacking around the globe. Afterward, I plan to return home to stay with my parents and complete work on a master’s degree in math education. Then I’ll attend another international schools job fair and head somewhere else for a new adventure on planet Earth!

Freedom From Religion Foundation