Priest runs 125 free schools on faith, hope and charity
By Reginald Reynolds
yOU might meet him in a little office in Cairo. Next door Is a
small chapel. It is also the waiting-room, for many come to consult him. You might meet him in any part of the Nile Valley up to the Sudanese frontier. Fr. Ayrout, S.J., is perhaps the busiest man in Egypt.
He bristles with energy. Even the hair, short and worn en brosse, suggests it. His short, pointed beard suggests it. Hair and beard are black, tinged with grey. With complete courtesy he lets you know that his time is short; yet it was my good fortune to meet him a number of times in Cairo.
But I was also fortunate to see some of the results of his work in the villages of Upper Egypt. Fr. Ayrout is the man chiefly responsible for the 125 free schools of the Coptic Catholic Church.
The need for education in the villages is something which nobody in Egypt would dare to deny. Free compulsory education for all was ordered by law in Egypt 30 years ago, but there have never been enough schools or enough teachers. Twenty years passed; and in 1943 only 16 per cent. of the rural population were literate.
Fr. Ayrout started his great work in 1939, when the 53 Catholic schools were threatened with extinction. They had depended on regular subsidies from France and Rome, but the war had made it impossible to continue this support.
There was £392 in the bank to maintain 53 schools, and pay the teachers' salaries, if the education of 3,612 children was to continue. Then Fr. Ayrout stepped in. He had studied the fellulteen (the Egyptian peasantry) closely. He not only knew and understood them, but he loved them. Ten years later Fr. Ayrout was able to say : "We have spent more than E100,000 in 10 years. We have no capital and no regular income, but plenty of faith, hope and love." And the schools had more than doubled.
He inspired people. He made them give freely— not only their money, but their time. On one of my journeys in Upper Egypt I travelled with two very charming young women. They had good looks, gaiety and culture. They were the kind of people one might have expected to meet in the "smart set" in Cairo. Instead of that they were working for the Catholic Foyer, They were Responsables.
Fr. Ayrout gave that name to the young women who spend much of their time helping in the 60 village dispensaries of the Catholic Association, visiting the schools, studying peasant life and collecting money for the work.
Their job is often an arduous one and the money raising expeditions may expose them to snubs and insults. It is only a very real inspiration which takes an attractive girl away from the normal pleasures of young people—especially if she is cultured and comes of a well-to-do family—
in order to undertake work of this kind.
One thing that struck me from the first about Fr, Ayrout was the way in which non-Catholics and even non Christians admired him. Not knowing that I was already in touch with him, many people, on hearing that I was going to Upper Egypt, said : "You'd better see Fr. Ayrout first."
Of the young women who help him, the first I met was Coptic Orthodox. Of the two who travelled with me, one was a Russian girl (married to an Egyptian), the other nonCatholic. Moslems and Jews gladly subscribe to the good work of education and the village dispensaries. Jewish women have been among the active assistants.
In his devotion to the cause of the poor and his ability to touch the hearts of the rich, Fr, Ayrout makes me think of two men especially— St. Francis of Assisi and Gandhi, whose life and work I knew from first-hand experience.
His assessment of the grandiose schemes sponsored by international agencies impressed me 'at once by its intuitive realism. "Technical assistance" to the village could not, he said, be regarded as a merely technical problem. The house was for the fellah, not the fellah for the house. He quotes Romano Guardini : "We are no longer able to look, we only register. And, in the long run, always registering numbers, statistics, records, facts, diseases, we have lost sight of men."
The way of the Foyer Catholique is directly opposed to this modern trend. Fr. Ayrout told an audience at the American University in Cairo that "progress, like life. is a move ment which comes from within . otherwise it is an annoyance or another kind of pressure , . . or else it is like artificial feeding with glucose injections."
Hope of progress
Like Gandhi, Fr. Ayrout has realised that an education system which merely takes the best brains from the village to use them in the towns does great disservice to the countryside. "Dough without yeast cannot rise" is his comment on this educational tendency.
So far from removing the yeast, the Catholic Association aims at increasing it. The Coptic Jesuits, the Catholic teachers and the Responsables are all part of the yeast that now leavens village Egypt. Against them is Kismet, the fatalistic resignation of centuries. They say that the fellaheen have not changed since the time of the Pharoahs. And there is Kaif, a word which Fr. Ayrout (in his book, The Fellaheen) explains as
"a semi-consciousness which abates suffering."
Can there be real progress? Fr. Ayrout offers a curious proof that there can. There is a word you see in Arabic in every village today. I have seen it so often that I can recognise it from a great distance, and 1 can easily write it, though I know no Arabic. You might think it had some religious, or at least political, significance. Actually it means. Coca-Cola.
To the good Jesuit Father it has been a matter of profound meditation. "It leaves me dreamy," he says. Does it prove the defenceless, credulous and childish character of the peasant that Coca-Cola established itself as a village institution after two years of advertisement? Does it indicate a need for narcotics? Or is not the really important thing the fact that the fellah is receptive of new ideas? But if we are really to help we must learn "to take one step with him rather than 100 steps for him but without him." The great hindrance to progress, as he sees it, is fear. It is fear that has held the peasant for centuries in serfdom, fear that cramps his mind with superstitions; and this fear arises from a sense of insecurity which it is the sworn task of the Catholic churches, schools and dispensaries to fight.
"If there has been such slow progress," says Fr. Ayrout, "it is not because these people are stupid or bad, but because there has been no affinity . . . no love . . . between the leaders and their people. All official measures are conceived by offices very far away from the fellah and put into action by officials who do not love the villages."
The work of the Catholic Association is conceived on lines as human and intimate as the State is — too often — inhuman and remote. I am not writing as a Catholic apologist. I am not a Catholic, but a Quaker who is trying to find out the truth about some of the countries in Africa.
As I write now (in a third-class railway carriage, crossing the desert of Northern Sudan on a 24-hour journey) Egypt is already behind me. Summing up my impressions, one of the few things of which I am certain is the magnificent work being done by Fr. Ayrout and the Coptic Jesuits, the teachers and the Responsables who are his loyal and devoted colleagues.