Mariam Gherbaway used to be afraid to venture beyond the corn and wheat fields of her village, Eshneen El-Nasara, in rural, upper Egypt. She would become disoriented when she visited nearby towns because she could not read street signs.
“In the past, I ignored the street names,” the 17-year-old says. “I got lost when I decided to go somewhere, and it made me feel helpless.”
Illiteracy is a daily burden for many Egyptians. Nearly one in three adults cannot read, often because they were unable to go to elementary school. While school enrollment has risen in recent years, people who grew up without a basic education say that illiteracy affects nearly every aspect of their lives, from running errands to raising a family.
However, thousands of adults and teens, including Gherbaway, are learning to read every year through the work of an MCC partner organization, Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical and Social Services (BLESS).
BLESS, an agency of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, offers free literacy classes for Christians and Muslims in hundreds of locations throughout Egypt. MCC provides financial support to BLESS.
Learning to read can be a profoundly life-changing experience.
It's like a dark room and you open a window."
Students describe how, for the first time, they could help their children with their homework, read the expiration date on a bottle of medication or study the Bible for themselves. Some speak about literacy in spiritual terms, as moving from darkness to light.
“It’s like a dark room and you open a window,” says Saod Sobhy, a former literacy student in Egypt’s capital, Cairo.
In late 2007, Mariam Gherbaway and her 16-year-old sister Manel started attending a BLESS literacy class four evenings per week at their family’s Coptic Orthodox church. Their teacher, an Orthodox nun, gives reading lessons and leads discussions on topics such as personal health.
The Gherbaway sisters never attended school when they were younger, in part because their father, a tenant farmer, did not believe that education was necessary for girls.
“Girls were going to be married and there was no need to be educated,” says their father, Gherbaway Azer. “In the past, we weren’t aware of the importance of education, but now we are aware.”
Azer says he dropped out of sixth grade to work as a farmer, and he did not learn to read and write well. He could sign his name but he could not always read the agricultural leases he was signing.
Five years ago, Azer completed a BLESS literacy class and passed a test to earn a literacy certificate from the Egyptian government. He says his teacher emphasized the importance of educating girls and raising their social status.
Since then, the family’s simple, three-room house has become a place of learning.
Mariam and Manel Gherbaway and their younger sister Nura read piles of books and store them under their parents’ bed. Nura is in fourth grade, and her father often helps her with her math homework.
Azer’s wife, Nadia Ishak, says she does not have time to learn to read but speaks admiringly of her daughters.
“I see them reading the Bible all the time and other materials,” she says.
Coptic Orthodox Christians like Azer and his family make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population and constitute the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is an ancient church that has coexisted with Muslims ever since Islam arrived in Egypt more than 1,300 years ago. Yet tensions between Christians and Muslims have clouded Egypt’s recent history. Part of the mission of BLESS is to build better relationships between people of different faiths.
I don’t want this only for the Christians. I want this for Muslims and Christians so they can learn together, study together and live together."
The literacy classes — like English classes and other interreligious activities BLESS offers — provide a forum where students can build friendships and break down mistrust between religions. A Coptic Orthodox priest, Father Youssef Andrawas, points to the relationships fostered by BLESS programs as one factor that has helped encourage peace.
While Muslims make up only about 5 percent of the literacy students in Maghagha district, which includes Eshneen El-Nasara, Muslim students such as 18-year-old Reda Mohamed Abd El Hamid say the classes are changing their outlook toward Christians and providing a chance to form relationships with them.
Literacy teachers often lead discussions on health topics, such as vaccination campaigns and expired medications. They also encourage students to participate in community decisions by registering to vote and advocating for better government services, including public schools, garbage disposal and running water.
These discussions often go hand in hand with reading lessons, as students are encouraged to write about issues important to them.
“If we educate people, we will solve a lot of our problems,” says Bishop Agathon, who leads the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Maghagha. “I don’t want this only for the Christians. I want this for Muslims and Christians so they can learn together, study together and live together.”
For Mariam Gherbaway, learning to read is a milestone en route to further personal goals.
She plans to obtain a literacy certificate and go on to complete high school. She hopes to marry an educated man and raise a family in which learning is prized.
For now, however, she is enjoying a newfound sense of self-assurance as a teenager who can navigate the world around her. For the first time, she says, she can shop for clothes with ease and run errands for her parents in unfamiliar places.
“I feel freedom,” she says. “I go anywhere without fear. I can read the signs.”
Editor’s note: This story is from the November/December 2008 issue of A Common Place magazine.