Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Final Thoughts from a Balcony in Cairo . . .

We have 8 days left in Egypt, and in 9 days I’ll land in Portland. Tomorrow I have 5 papers due, on the topics of: if political Islam is compatible with democracy, what the biggest obstacles to peace are regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if the U.S. should continue its special relationship with Israel, and two “engagement” papers dealing with Muslim-Christian relations and how to solve conflict in the Middle East. The last week has been spent mostly just camped out in our apartments, writing papers, drinking cup after cup of tea, and leaving only to walk down the street for schwerma or koshary for dinner. I finished writing last night and now I’m just focusing on editing my papers and final touches. We’ve also heard three debates over the last few days – I was lucky that I had mine before travel component, it’s made my life a lot easier now. So we all hang out in our flat, spread out all over the place, in our own little spaces that we’ve claimed. I camp out on the floor in the living room, my books all around me; another girl sits on the couch, several sit around the two tables in the dining room/living room, two girls stay in their room, and another stays in her room, although she comes out every 10 or 15 minutes because she doesn’t stay focused that well. Tomorrow we’ll turn in our papers and then have discussions about the two engagement papers since they’re more opinion driven. Then Friday we have a free day, when I think some people are planning to go to the pyramids and then to the Khan el Khalili (the big bazaar). On Saturday we leave for Anafora, which is a monastery/retreat center where we’ll spend the weekend for processing and “re-entry” talks about ending the semester and going back to the states. Tuesday and Wednesday are more free days, with our “Ma Salaama” (goodbye) party on Wednesday night. Then Thursday really early we go to the airport and catch our flight to Frankfurt and then to Washington, D.C.!
I’m ready to be home, especially now that my papers are done and class is over. This semester has been so great, but I’m tired and I miss home. Sitting on my balcony right now and looking at the apartment buildings in the afternoon sun makes me think that I will miss Cairo and the Middle East, but then I hear a car screech by or suck in a deep breath of polluted air and remember how wonderful home will be. And it will be Christmas time! It totally doesn’t seem like December, even though we celebrated Thanksgiving last week with great homemade food, and even though I celebrated my 21st birthday on Sunday. (Which was great fun – my friends took me out to a Chili’s on a boat on the Nile.) We’ve even started listening to Christmas music in our apartment, and the program assistants hosted a Christmas party/study break today with cookies and decorations and music, but it’s just not the same when no one outside of our little community is getting ready for the holidays. I’m so excited to go home and decorate the Christmas tree and have Christmas treats and spend time with family and friends.
I will never forget this semester, and I’m hoping that I can incorporate the things I’ve learned over the last 3 months into my life at home. Some of the biggest things I’ve learned are the power of peace and words to change situations. So many of the people we’ve talked to have simply asked us to share their stories with people at home, to portray the human element of these conflicts and issues. This trip has taught me the value of a balanced view, as well as the fact that being well-informed can really change minds. If education systems were balanced and people knew both sides of issues, I think there would be a lot less conflict in the world. Also, if the human aspect was emphasized and people took the time to get to know each other on an individual level I believe that violence could be seriously decreased. That is a very idealistic and simplistic view, but I truly think that it would solve problems. As Christians we are called to be salt and light to the world, which has always been one of my favorite descriptions of a faithful life. We are to flavor the world, to bring God’s light to all those around us. That means sharing with others, not just the message of the Kingdom, but also truth that we’ve seen around the world or at home. God is at work in the Middle East, just as He is at home in Newberg, Oregon or Seattle, Washington. My hope is that through my experiences here this semester I have brought salt and light to this region, and I bring salt and light back to the states, to share with those around me what is going on in the Middle East and what we can do about it. I would love to honor the requests of those we talked to here and share their stories with all of you at home, so if anyone would like to talk with me once I get back, I would gladly sit down for coffee with you. I will need a chance to relax and gather my thoughts after this busy 3 months, but once I’m recuperated I will be open to share pictures, stories, and thoughts.
Thank you to all of you who have been reading this blog throughout this semester. My mom kept telling me the great number of people who have kept track of my adventures, and I cannot describe how blessed I feel to have so many people care about me and my experiences. Apparently my support base is even bigger than I thought, and so I thank you. May God bless you as we enter the holiday season, and may He continue to bless your lives throughout the next years. Thank you again.
(And everyone should travel to the Middle East if you have the chance! It’s a great place!)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Israelis and Palestinians

We've been in Israel for almost a week now, and it's easy to see why this situation is so complicated. Since we've been here we've heard from an Israeli human rights organization, an Orthodox Jew, a representative for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, someone from the U.S. Embassy, a Palestinian activist, former militants from both sides, and Palestinians who live in a refugee camp in Beit Sahour. We spent all day Saturday in the West Bank, meeting with Palestinians and observing the situation in and around Bethlehem. (Historical note: The West Bank was not a part of Israel until the 1967 War when it was reclaimed from Jordan. It is supposedly under the Palestinian Authority, but is really controlled by Israel.) There is currently a wall of concrete and barbed wire surrounding Bethlehem and much of the West Bank, curving around aquifers, illegal Israeli settlements, and Palestinian communities. It makes life miserable for Palestinians, especially those who rely on tourism for their income, or those who have to journey into Israel proper to work everyday. They are subjected to humiliating searches and checks as the cross the "border." We walked along this wall for a while, looking at all the graffiti and pleas for Israel to remove the barrier. While we were in the West Bank we met with a Palestinian man who had led the al-Aqsa brigades during the second intifada and who has since become a nonviolent activist. It was cool to be in Bethlehem, but it was also hard to see the Israeli settlements on the hills surrounding the city. We also went to a refugee camp in Beit Sahour, a city right next to Bethlehem. The wall ran right through it, and the bullet holes from Israeli soldiers were still visible in the walls of a mosque and school. Little boys ran around us playing soccer, and we helped push a car out into the street for a young guy. The refugees were hopeful, but hold out for their return to their villages.
Today we got another side of the issue. We went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. It was an intense presentation of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, with hundreds of pictures depicting the concentration camps and deportations of Jews. There was a room where there were hundreds of shoes piled up under a glass panel in the floor, and in other places personal items were on display, sometimes the only surviving proof that the owner once lived. It is unbelievable what human beings can do to one another, and how much the human body can endure before death. The Holocaust was so calculated; the Nazis planned exactly how to systematically exterminate an entire people group. This is the textbook definition of genocide. After seeing these horrors, it is amazing to think that anyone survived, and thus makes the creation of the state of Israel as a home for the Jewish people quite a feat. The problem is still present though. Even though the Jews were intensely persecuted in Europe and survived the worst genocide the world has (and probably will) ever see, does that mean they can persecute another people group under their authority? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has so many facets, and will take compromises on both sides for something to improve. The things we're learning every day make this so much more real, and it becomes ever clearer that change will not come easily. I still hold faith in the power of human relationships though, and the power of nonviolence and peace to change people's lives.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Entering the Holy Land

We've reached the culmination of the travel component of the MESP semester. Yesterday we came across the Israeli border from Jordan, after spending a couple days in Amman. We heard from a couple speakers and spent an afternoon at the Dead Sea. It is ridiculously salty, but the mud and sand make great exfoliants. We had fun doing our own skin care.
Let me back up and talk about Syria also. On Thursday last week we crossed the border from Turkey to Syria, which took a while, then spent the night in the city of Hama in northern Syria. (This city was almost completely obliterated in 1982 by the government of Syria because it was seen as housing Islamic militants. It has since been rebuilt, but the legacy of the destruction and despair continue.) The next day we went to the Krak de Chevaliers, an old Crusader castle in the hills of Syria. It was so cool. We climbed all over, and I think most of us reverted back to about age 8. After the castle we visited Maaloula, the only Christian Aramaic-speaking village left in the world. (Aramaic is the language that Jesus is thought to have spoken.) We visited a few monasteries and churches, and heard the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic - so beautiful. Then we drove to Damascus, where we spent the next three days. We stayed in a monastery in the Christian quarter of Damascus, not far from the Old City, so everyday we walked to the Eastern Gate and did some shopping. There was lots of beautiful things in the Old City, and amazing chocolate-filled croissants that melted in your mouth if you bought them hot. (I've decided that America has failed at bread, and the Middle East has stolen my heart for its baked goods.) In Damascus we also heard from a couple working for the Mennonite Central Committee, who told us about Biblical nonviolence and putting that into practice. I really appreciated hearing from them because I have thought seriously about working for an organization like MCC. We also toured the house of Ananias in the Old City, where Paul was converted to Christianity, and went to the U.S. Embassy to hear about U.S.-Syrian relations. On Monday we drove to Amman, then Tuesday was our Dead Sea day.
Yesterday we entered the Holy Land. The border crossing took a while because Israeli security is very tight, but we all made it through without too much trouble. Crossing into Israel from Jordan actually meant crossing into the West Bank, and so we drove on an Israeli-controlled road until we got to Jerusalem. On the way we passed many settlements on the hills, Palestinian towns (such as Jericho), and Bedouin camps. We're staying at the Austrian Hospice in the old city of Jerusalem, right on the Via Dolorosa, which is the route that Jesus carried the cross to Golgotha. We walked around the city last night, passing by the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and David's Tower. The view from our roof is amazing; you can see the Christian quarter, Muslim quarter, Armenian quarter, and Jewish quarter from a distance. Today we heard from a pastor of an Anglican church (supposedly the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East) who talked about the Jewish roots of Christianity, and also a representative from an Israeli human rights organization working in the Occupied Territories. A few of us walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during our lunch time, which is widely considered to be the holiest site in Christianity. It is the site where Jesus was crucified and buried - the church is built on the rock of Golgotha. There are places in the church where you can reach down and touch the stone, and the slab of stone where they laid Jesus after he died is one of the first things that you meet when you walk in the door. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an interesting phenomenon. Hundreds of tourists crowd in, touch the stone where Jesus was laid, praying and laying religious objects on it. There are icons and gold decorations everywhere, and the atmosphere is rather overwhelming. It seems gaudy and honestly, not very spiritual. Many Protestants prefer the Garden Tomb as the place where Jesus died, which I want to visit sometime soon. It is just a tomb in a garden, very simple but apparently it feels more spiritual for those of us who don't particularly appreciate icons or gaudy decorations. Tomorrow we're having shabbat dinner with Jewish families after we visit a synagogue, and then on Saturday we're crossing into the West Bank, where we'll see Bethlehem, including the "security barrier" that Israel has constructed between many parts of Israel proper and the West Bank. I'm really excited to visit a refugee camp and see how the Palestinian situation really looks.
This is the most fought over piece of land in history, and from what I've seen so far, it's mostly a barren desert. But when the authority of God intersects with modern nationalist ideals and a powerful state, conflict is inevitable.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

On the Road to Damascus

We've spent the last week in Turkey, first in Istanbul and then in Ankara, the capital, located in the interior in the country. Turkey is interesting historically because Constantinople was the seat of Christianity under the Roman and Byzantine empires for over 1000 years. Then the Ottoman Turks from Central Asia moved in during the 15th century, changing Constantinople to Istanbul and founding the Ottoman empire, which lasted until the end of World War I. This transition from Christianity to Islam makes the architecture and feel of Istanbul very interesting. We visited the Hagia Sophia, a huge church built in the 5th century, and probably the most impressive building I've ever seen. It was converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Anatolia, and then became a museum in the 20th century under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Hagia Sophia has amazing domes and mosaics depicting Christ, but also Islamic symbols from the Ottoman empire. All the mosques in Turkey are modeled after the Hagia Sophia, so they all look the same, and much prettier than the ones in Egypt. In Istanbul we visited the U.S. Consulate, and heard from politicians and a Turkish Protestant pastor. We also visited the famous Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, which was basically a big covered maze of shops selling all sorts of tourist items. In Ankara, we visited the Turkish foreign ministry and toured Ataturk's mausoleum and museum. Ankara is a lot less interesting than Istanbul, so we've also spent a lot of time in our very nice hotel.
Today we head to Syria, where we'll spend the night in the town of Hama and then visit a Crusader castle on Friday. From there we'll go to an Aramaic-speaking town, and then to Damascus where we'll meet with a couple that are working for the Mennonite Central Committee, something I'm particularly interested in. We're also visiting the U.S. Embassy in Syria to discuss our foreign relations. We won't have internet in Syria, or at least not very accessible, so I won't be updating until we get to Jordan or Israel next week. For now, we're heading off on the road to Damascus . . .

Friday, October 30, 2009


On Wednesday we flew from Cairo to Istanbul, and landed to rain and greenery. It was amazing. I have never been so excited to see rain. We drove through the city to get to a harbor for a boat tour of the Bosporus, and on the way those of us from SPU kept commenting on how Istanbul reminds us of Seattle. The city on the water, the hills, the rain, the green-ness, the bridges - it was so nice. We had our tour of the Bosporus, during which we crossed the halfway point of the strait and journeyed into the territory of Asia, successfully completing a trip to 3 continents in one day - Africa in the morning, Europe in the afternoon, and Asia in the evening.
We've enjoyed wandering around Istanbul, through the European-style streets and in clean air. We're doing touristy stuff in between meeting with journalists and politicians. Tomorrow we're seeing the Hagia Sofia and going to the Grand Bazaar. I'm excited, and loving Istanbul!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Al-Azhar, Americans, Alexandria, Anticipation

Last Sunday we went to al-Azhar University, one of the foremost authorities in Sunni Islam. We heard from the head of the “missions” school and then talked with many of the students over schwerma sandwiches. Mostly what we heard in the informational session was the same politically correct stuff we hear all the time; “Muslims and Christians get along fine, Sunnis and Shi’a get along fine, the government does not interfere with al-Azhar, Egypt does not have very many problems,” etc. Talking to the students proved a little more interesting. The majority of them were not from Egypt, but rather other countries in the Muslim world: Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and others. I talked with an Indonesian girl about my age, who I soon discovered spent far too much time on the internet. Through broken English she asked about September 11 and who I thought was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center. When I said I think that al-Qaeda was behind it, she referenced something she’d read online, saying that there was no way the towers could have collapsed unless there was a bomb placed in the building by someone; someone like the U.S. government, perhaps. We started talking about Christianity also, and she again quoted something from the internet about a Muslim sheikh asking a Protestant pastor what the key to salvation was, and the pastor didn’t know. She told another boy and I that we should ask our pastors when we get home, but we were ready to give her an answer then and there: we said the key to salvation is faith in Jesus Christ, including the belief that He died on the cross to save us from our sins. As our conversation about Christianity and Americans continued she mentioned something about The Da Vinci Code and her impressions about Christianity resulting from seeing that movie. I wanted to cry. Immediately we told her that the movie is completely untrue and gives a false message about Christianity, and also that she should not believe everything on the internet. It was so frustrating to see firsthand the power of false testimony when people do not take the time to gather more information and a deeper understanding of a subject. My reaction was frustration toward our American culture for putting these false statements out into cyberspace, not thinking about who might read them and form life-changing opinions about them. But if that is limited, it becomes censorship. How can we balance the impressions we give and the truth behind it? I hope that being here in the Middle East is giving me an opportunity to show what it means to be Christian so that people’s preconceived notions can maybe be overturned. St. Francis of Assissi said it well: “Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words.”
Last week we also had a session with students from the Dutch-Flemish Institute in Cairo. That presented an interesting juxtaposition to some of other conversations with students here because these were Europeans, fellow Westerners, non-religious for the most part, and way more willing to voice the true feelings and issues. The religious questions that we have faced for the last 8 weeks (how do we reconcile Christianity and Islam? who is saved? what does salvation require? is one religion right and everything else wrong?) were not an issue for these students. They face a much more real situation with Muslims at home in Belgium and the Netherlands though – high levels of immigration that results in unassimilated North Africans who then tend to be stuck at a lower socio-economic level and resort to criminal activity. We also discussed perceptions of identity. As Americans, every Egyptian knows where our country is and even who our leaders are. Not always so for these students, who are caught between the powerhouses of the European Union, not sure quite where they fit sometimes. It turned into a very long, but interesting discussion.
On Friday most of our group went to Alexandria for the day, which is the second biggest city in Egypt, located on the Mediterranean coast. It was really nice to be on the sea with the breeze and fresh air, although it was still hot and humid. We ate at a Western restaurant (where my friend Anna and I actually got the menus first and were treated like ladies!), went to a juice stand, then visited the rebuilt Library of Alexandria. The library and lighthouse of Alexandria together used to be one of the seven wonders of the world, so it was very exciting for me (as a geeky history major) to be in a place of such a wealth of historical significance. Plus I love books, so the library, which can hold 8 million titles, was doubly cool to me. (Another funny thing happened when we got our bags back from the check-in counter. My backpack was on top, so when the man handed it to me he said, “Ladies first,” and when the boys agreed with him he added, “Ladies first in every country!” I laughed and said to my friends as we walked away, “You should tell the rest of your countrymen that.” But the experience in Alexandria helped to counter the sexism of the rest of Egypt, at least for a little while.)
We’re down to our last week in Cairo. Next Wednesday we leave for Istanbul, Turkey and a month of traveling around the Middle East. We have a test in Islamic Thought and Practice tomorrow, as well as a paper due for it. Then Sunday is our final Arabic test, followed by 2 papers (one on imperialism in the Middle East and the other on human rights and religion) due Monday. I also have a debate on human rights and religion, and then we have one more service project next Tuesday and we’re done! For now anyway. After travel component we have 4 more papers due. But we get a little bit of a break while we see Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. I’m so excited.
(If anyone wants me to clarify anything, or if you just want to say hi, you can email me at

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Homestays, Arab League, Siwa

Whew. It’s been a full couple weeks. Homestays started Sunday, September 27 with our host families coming to the villa in the evening to meet us and then take us back to their homes. I met Muhammad and Amany Salah, a brother and sister from the neighborhood of Mohandesseen, which is very close to our neighborhood of Agouza. Muhammad, probably around age 22, was pretty much fluent in English, and Amany, around 19 or so, was trying to learn more English. They took me back to their home by microbus, which is an experience in itself – little vans made for about 10 people, but usually packed with about 15 people, some hanging off the sides while the driver careens through the crowded streets. (Luckily, the rest of the week I just took a normal bus back and forth to the villa.) The Salah family consisted of the parents, then Sayed, Adnan, Muhammad, Amany, and Achmed. Four boys and one girl ranging in age from about 28 to 16, and they all spoke at least a little bit of English, which was a great blessing. They were all really funny, and very gracious and welcoming. The family was not very wealthy; we sat on the floor to eat and watch TV, and the shower consisted of buckets of water. They were also raising a flock of chickens, ducks, and turkeys on the roof, and I helped Amany feed them several times. (There were also turkey chicks in my room all week – they cheeped and rustled around all night.) I spent until Saturday with them, taking the bus to the villa in Agouza in the mornings then taking it back to my host family’s house in the afternoons and hanging out with them for the nights. We spent a lot of time just sitting around, and the TV was always on, which is very characteristic of Egyptian homes. I would read or ask my host siblings for help on my Arabic homework, which they added onto by teaching me new words. They thought I was very clever because I could pick up new words pretty quickly (although I often forgot them day to day). One night I was reading Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa calling Muslims everywhere to kill any Americans they could, and Muhammad asked me to tell him what I was studying. This began a conversation about jihad and the true Islam, which he told me is about peace and self-defense rather than attacking others. We talked about the United States foreign policy in the region, and I explained how I’m anti-war and how I believe strongly in peace. This made Muhammad very excited, and later in the week we discussed peace with two of his brothers and they told me I have a kind heart for all my talk about loving and serving people. I also talked to Muhammad and Sayed about Islam and Christianity; we exchanged descriptions of our faiths and the similarities between them, and the things that cannot be reconciled between the two religions (like the Trinity for them and the reverence toward the prophet Muhammad for us). Sayed teaches Qur’an to little kids, so he recited a few verses in the sing-song way that the Arabic of the Qur’an requires. It is a very beautiful sound. Then the two brothers asked me to say something from the Bible, so I said my favorite verse, 1 Corinthians 13:13 – “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” I had to explain a little what it said, and then the boys asked me how I would go about praying. So I got to explain to two 20-something Muslim men how a Christian prays: thanking God for the blessings He has put in my life, asking for help or courage or guidance, and praising Him for all His greatness. The cross-faith correspondence is amazing. Later in the week they also asked me about how the Arab countries could catch up to the West, to which I had no answer, and what the steps to success are. To that question I told them it depends on your definition of success, and I said that for me, as a Christian, I would hope that success to me would be measured in how well I love and serve and help others. This made all the brothers very happy because they could see the similarities between Islam and Christianity. Before that week I had never had to defend the basic tenets of my faith before, but now I found myself describing how I believe Jesus is the Son of God, and that he was crucified to save humanity, rose from the grave after three days, went back to heaven, and will come again sometime in the future; or explaining that Jesus didn’t come calling himself a Christian and inciting a new religion, but that he came to show people the right way to live. It was a very interesting experience.
During the week I also watched the mother of the family make bread, an all day process for a family of 7 with only a small gas oven on the landing outside the door. The technique was fascinating – she put all the dough in a huge plastic tub and scooped it out with her hands, deftly turning it a few times with floured hands, then plopping a perfectly round ball on a floured pan. Then when it was time to bake, she would cut the balls in half and stretch and flatten out the pieces to make the delicious flat bread eaten everywhere in the Middle East. It was so cool. She also explained to me how to make koshary, a very traditional Egyptian meal that I’ve really enjoyed. It’s basically a casserole – made up of rice, noodles, lentils, fried onions, garbanzo beans, then covered with different sauces, either tomato or spicy or garlic. It’s delicious, and pretty easy to make.
Along with all these great experiences of the week, there were also difficult times. The whole week was completely exhausting to me, emotionally, physically, and mentally. It was hard to be “on” and happy all the time, when sometimes all I wanted was to curl up on my bed and sleep the week away. Some hard things came from cultural differences. Egyptians are very quick to make friends; they can meet you randomly on the metro and ask for your number and want to hang out again. So very quickly my host family was calling me a member of the family (which was great, and very nice of them) and became very attached to me, while I was still in the awkward uncomfortable stage of the unknown. At the end of the week they professed how much they were going to miss and how they would never forget me, and I felt so bad because I was so ready to get back to my flat and shower and have a flush toilet and talk with native English-speakers. Another cultural thing that really started affecting me halfway through the week was the personal space difference. I have a large personal space bubble, as some of you may know, and some of that just comes from being an American. Most other cultures have smaller ones, and I realized this quickly during the week because I was in close contact with Egyptians on a regular basis. I started feeling like my host brother Muhammad was constantly too close to me, which I’m sure was not a deliberate thing, but rather he was more comfortable with me than I was with him. When he would talk to me I found myself leaning back to put more space between us, or walking slow and then fast so he wouldn’t be right beside me when we were outside. That was another thing – it was often just Muhammad and I walking around Cairo, which I felt a little uncomfortable about. Girls and guys don’t hang out one on one in this culture, and I felt very conspicuous walking around with him, or sitting and drinking tea at an outdoor table. But through all this, I made it through the week with some great experiences and conversations to talk about.
On Sunday, the day after homestays were done, we went to the Arab League, which is basically the European Union of the Arab countries. We met with the secretary general’s chief of staff, Hisham Youssef, who answered questions about policies and issues concerning the Middle East. We got to sit in the conference room where the 22 member states’ representatives discuss regulations and agreements. (I sat there thinking, “I wonder whose seat I’m sitting in right now. Which country would I be representing?”) After meeting with Mr. Youssef we got to sit in on a panel discussion about Gandhi, since it was the International Day for Non-Violence. After that we were allowed to mill around the reception, and we literally brushed elbows with delegates from as far as Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, and India, as well as the secretary general of the Arab League himself, Amr Moussa. It was so cool. We were all wondering how in the world we get to meet all these people and do all these cool things. The word in Arabic is “wasda” – connections.
Today we got back from a three day excursion to the Western desert oasis of Siwa, very close to the border with Libya. We swam in natural springs, went sandboarding on the dunes of the Great Sand Sea, rode bikes all over the oasis, met with a Siwan family, and last night we slept out in the desert under the stars. The Siwan culture is very different from the rest of Egypt because the oasis was settled by a group of Moroccans on their way back from pilgrimage to Mecca; they don’t speak Arabic, but Berber, and life is significantly varied, especially for women. After marriage (usually at around age 16) Siwan women must have permission from their husbands or relatives in order to leave their homes, and when they go out they cover with long shawls that completely hide their faces. It’s basically a burqa, Siwan style. We girls got to meet with the women of a Siwan family, and we were completely taken aback by their acceptance of this lifestyle. Their repeated answer to our questions was, “This is normal.” To us it is completely repressive and unthinkable, but to them, it is the way of life as it has been for hundreds of years. This is something my American, Western mind continues to struggle with: the status of women in the Middle East, and the distinct sociological implications of our separate cultures.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Religion Week . . .

The last week has been filled with many cross-ideological conversations. On Wednesday we heard from Reverend Paul Gordon Chandler of St. John's Episcopal Church in Maadi. He talked to us about Muslim-Christian relations, a lot of which was very similar to the book I read this summer: "A Deadly Misunderstanding" by Mark Siljander. (I asked Reverend Chandler about the book afterward and he said that the author is actually a friend of his.) The main point of both is that Muslims and Christians have a lot more in common than we realize. Many of the practices of Islam were adopted from Christians and Jews of the time of Muhammad, and we share many prophets and concepts. Muslims hold Jesus up as a special prophet who performed miracles and spread the truth, although they do not believe in His divinity, which is very hard to reconcile. Reverend Chandler talked a lot about Mazhar Mallouhi, a "Muslim follower of Christ," and the growing interest among Muslims about the person and message of Jesus. This brings up many interesting discussions about salvation - can those Muslims who believe in Christ and follow His teachings be saved? Or is it necessary to recognize His divinity, death, and resurrection?
Yesterday we met with a group of young Coptic Christians at a retreat center called Anafora outside of Cairo. We spent the day talking about our different traditions and the position of Christians in Egypt and the Middle East. It was so interesting to hear them talk about their traditions, which they trace back to St. Mark. Their faith hasn't changed for thousands of years, and the Copts go all the way back to ancient Egypt and the pharoahs; their language (only used in the Mass) is a combination of Greek and hieroglyphics. Copts practice infant baptism and strictly observe the other sacraments, but they are not to be associated with Catholics or the rest of the Orthodox church. One thing that we took some issue with is the fact that infants are baptized into the religion, which is a completely normal thing for this culture. Children inherit the religion of the parents (for Muslims, specifically the father) and are not really given a personal choice, something that is so central to our culture. In some ways though, the longevity of their tradition is refreshing - the person who founded their church walked and talked with Jesus. It was definitely an interesting day, although the best part was when we were driving back to Cairo, all crowded onto one bus, and everyone started singing. Their were songs in Arabic coming from the front, with Disney songs coming from the back. We even busted out all three national anthems - American, Egyptian, and Canadian. It was great.
Today we spent the day with young Muslims from Islam Online, a moderate, popular website. We discussed topics like U.S.-Middle East relations, culture, relationships, and human rights. It's great to be able to talk person to person and get firsthand opinions about things. Like the higab, or Islamic dress. Before I came to Egypt I thought that wearing headscarves and full length dresses was a way to restrict women, which can be partly true. But so many women here take power in covering themselves. One woman we talked to said it makes men take her seriously, paying attention to her intellect and personality rather than her appearance. There are many other arguments on both sides, but it has been really good for me to hear from women firsthand so I can have a more informed opinion, even if that means that that opinion changes a little.
Tomorrow we head into a week of homestays. I'm still a little nervous, but I've decided that the worst that can go wrong is that I will have to practice a lot of Arabic, and there might be awkward silences sometimes. But it will be a great experience, and it will be so eye-opening to a new part of Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Islamic culture. (So I won't be on the internet for a week most likely. Hold down the fort everyone. Prayers would be appreciated. I'm sure I'll have lots to write about next weekend.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Back from Ancient Egypt

This weekend we took a 10 hour train ride south to Luxor, in Upper Egypt (called that because the Nile flows south to north). Most of Egypt is agricultural and traditional, dotted with villages and communities that have probably seen few changes in the last thousand years. It was interesting to travel south along the Nile and see the expanses of fields and farms with donkey-drawn plows and farmers working the land. Cairo is not representative of much of the population of Egypt. We got to Luxor at about 7:30 Friday morning, after riding the train all night. When we got to our hotel we all crashed for several hours, then spent most of the day chilling at the pool on the roof of our hotel. On Saturday we went to the west bank of the Nile for a tour of the Valley of the Kings, which included walking into several tombs. The preservation of the hieroglyphics is incredible! The colors are all original and often strikingly clear. And this is from thousands of years before Christ! We also got to visit Habu Temple and the temple of Ramses II, who was most likely the pharaoh of Exodus. So we were all saying that now we’ve been to two spots where Moses tread – Mt. Sinai and the temple of Ramses II. We might have stood in the very place Moses asked pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. In the evening we explored the bazaars and markets of Luxor, where the vendors are extremely pushy and vocal. (If one of the guys was walking with a couple girls the shopkeepers would yell out, “Lucky man! Three wives!” and sometimes offer to buy one of us for something like 50 camels. Mostly they’re joking. We hope.) On Sunday we went to Karnak and Luxor temples on the east bank of the river. The impressive columns have been standing for so long! It’s amazing how the architecture of the ancient Egyptians is so durable. Will our culture have things last for that long?
We got back to Cairo at around 4:30 Monday morning, and so we all collapsed into bed again and had a more relaxing day. My flat invited the other girls flat over in the evening for a girls’ night, and we even succeeded in making oatmeal chocolate chip cookies in our sketchy oven. (Granted, it was one big cookie, kind of like a cake, but it tasted great. We even had ice cream to go with it.) It was a nice time to just hang out. We don’t get many times like that because we’re always so busy.
Today I was supposed to have my service project, although many people didn’t since it’s Eid (the holiday at the end of Ramadan – which is very evident in the streets. There are fireworks going off late into the night and people riding horses through the streets.) We went all the way to the preschool this morning, but it was dark and closed, so we got back on the metro and came back to our building and got back in bed. It’s nice to have another day to relax and get some reading done. Some people are going to a football match later tonight, but I’m really not a big soccer fan, so I decided to pass.
Next week we start homestays, which is probably the thing I’m most nervous for. I’ve never had to do anything like that before, and the religion and language barriers make it even more daunting. Egyptians are incredibly hospitable though, and MESP chooses great families, so I’m sure it will be a great experience. Also, this weekend we’re going to be participating in some inter-faith dialogue with young Coptic Christians as well as Muslims, so there is bound to be some good conversation on the way.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Deep Conversations

We’ve had some interesting speakers this week, starting with the young man who started a human rights organization that I mentioned last time. We’ve also heard from our interim director’s husband, Jim, who is a Cambridge-educated lawyer who started his own law firm here in Cairo, and a political official from the U.S. Embassy. Both have started deep conversations, ranging from salvation and philosophy to the success of U.S. foreign policy and the benefits of democratization. With the lawyer we began our time with a discussion of inclusivism and exclusivism as salvation models. It got theological and scriptural very quickly, with good arguments on either side. I found myself nodding along to many people’s thoughts, thinking all the while that it is not our job to judge others and decide who will be saved and who will not. It is hard for me to claim to know the will of God, especially when it comes to the fate of others (who may make up millions around the world). Jim joked with us that MESPers are often divided into conservatives who know what they think and keep quieter, and liberals who spout off criticism but don’t really know what they believe. That was an interesting thing to think about, in regards to where I think I fit.
The man from the U.S. Embassy proved frustrating to listen to. He often skirted issues and gave placating answers that sounded like state department sound bites. He said he was surprised at our level of tough questions, which ranged from topics like Egypt’s internal political situation to the role of oil in foreign policy and our “strategic allies” in the region. Mostly what I got out of the time was solidification of my desire to not work for the U.S. government. I would have too many moral dilemmas with the policies enforced by our government around the world.
Tonight we’re heading by train to Luxor, the biggest tourist attraction in Egypt. We’ll explore some museums and ancient Egyptian temples, a cool chance to see some of this country’s pharonic history. (Plus our hotel has a swimming pool on the roof!) We’ll get back Monday morning and have the rest of the day to relax. Sunday and Monday mark the beginning of Eid, the end of Ramadan, so Cairo will be full of celebrating and many places will be closed for the holiday. It will be nice to have Ramadan end so that restaurants will actually be open during the day, and so we can feel like we can drink water openly in the streets without treating it like a covert operation.