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.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cairo is our Classroom

Last Monday we had our first Islamic Thought and Practice class. In three mosques around Cairo. We learned about Islamic theology, architecture, and history in the oldest surviving mosque in Egypt, as well as two other very impressive ones. The oldest mosque is the Ibn Talun mosque, built in 879; the Sultan Hassan mosque in 1362; and the al-Rafa'i mosque was built in 1869, and it houses the tomb of the last shah of Iran (who was exiled to Egypt during the 1979 Islamic Revolution). It was incredible. Cairo is literally our classroom.
On Tuesday I went to my service project for the first time (there is another MESP girl with me at the same one). It is a preschool for Sudanese refugee children. There were 20 kids, ranging in age from about 3 to 7. And they only speak Arabic. We're supposed to help teach them English, but I have a feeling more language learning will happen for Caitlin and I. It was a little overwhelming to be thrown into a situation and expected to teach English to little kids who really have no grasp of the language, other than the word "teacher" and the numbers up to 10. I'm hoping that this week I'll feel more comfortable in the situation, perhaps with some preparation as to what I want to teach. It's funny to be at the same language level as 4 year old kids.
On Wednesday in class we heard from Dr. Mediha Safty, an Egyptian sociologist who spoke to us about the development issues facing Egypt. We learned about the demographic concerns facing the country, such as overpopulation and "poor utilization" of that population. There are issues in Egypt because education is free for all, but then there is an over abundance of people with degrees with no jobs to employ them. This can lead to the rise of extremism and violence, as well as discontent with the Mubarak government. Egypt is essentially a police state, but a police state that wants to appear democratic and free. The government enacts laws so that they are in place in case they want to use them, meaning that you can break them most of the time until the government thinks you've gone too far, at which point, you're punished, sometimes brutally. Today we heard from Hossam Bahgat, a 30 year old Egyptian who started his own human rights organization to protect personal rights in Egypt. He was fascinating; I asked what (in his opinion) is the biggest human rights issue in Egypt and he said that the problem is in the structure of the government: its opposition to change, impunity, and corruption. It was amazing to hear the stories of successes his organization has accomplished, although they focus on small situations, knowing that broad changes cannot come about until the government changes. It is interesting - the people of Egypt are collectively waiting for President Hosni Mubarak to die, but they are completely unsure of their future. No one knows who will step into the power vacuum that will ensue, or if the people of Egypt will revolt. It's very interesting to watch this from outside the situation and to watch it from the perspective of American government.
Anyway, on Wednesday night we piled onto a bus and headed to the Sinai peninsula (which included driving UNDER the Suez Canal - so cool!). We got to Mt. Sinai at about 1 am, tired already from the 6 hour bus ride. But we headed up gabal Musa (Moses' mountain in Arabic) in the dark. The moon was so bright that we actually cast shadows along the path, and Bedouin men with camels asked every 2 minutes if we wanted a "very good price" camel ride up the mountain. It was an exhausting climb, the most epic hike I've ever done for sure. We made it to the top, with shaky legs and sweat rolling down, at around 4 or 5 am. At the top we sat and watched as the sky gradually grew light and the sun finally popped over the mountain tops. It was amazing. (Mom - I told everyone that you totally would have been singing "How Great Thou Art" or something like that. Hope you don't mind.) After taking lots of pictures we hiked back down the mountain and went to St. Katharine's monastery, which has a huge collection of old icons and houses the burning bush. Whether it's the real burning bush is up for debate, but needless to say, it was not still burning. After leaving the monastery we collapsed onto the bus for the two hour ride to Dahab, which is a small touristy town on the eastern finger of the Red Sea. You could see Saudi Arabia from it - it was so cool! We spent most of the weekend swimming in the Red Sea or eating at little restaurants right on the water. I've never been to a tropical place before, but now I totally understand why people vacation at spots like that. On Friday morning we went snorkeling at the Blue Hole, which is second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling apparently. It was awesome! There were tons of fish (as well as people) and we swam right along a huge coral reef. The water is so clear and reflects so blue. It was incredible. I'm sorry that words cannot do it justice. You have to go sometime. We got back to Cairo last night, showered the salt off, and headed to bed. On Thursday we're going to Luxor in southern Egypt, a huge tourist location for ancient Egyptian sights.
Pictures up on facebook! Friend request me if you need to!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Innaharda (today)

A typical day here at MESP looks like this: Breakfast at 8 am, followed by devotions led by one of our group. Then we have Arabic class from 9:30 to 11 am and then a class session for either "Cultures and Conflicts of the Middle East" or "Islamic Thought and Practice." The first class is actually one huge class that is split into two classes worth of credit. We cover history, politics, religion, cultures, conflicts, and especially the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Some days this is taught by our interim director Dr. Heather Keaney, and sometimes we'll have guest speakers, ranging from the U.S. Ambassador to development workers, to members of the Arab League. The Islamic Thought and Practice class is taught by an Egyptian Muslim, but we haven't started that class yet. After our first class session we have lunch, followed by another class session. Today that was followed by "Cultural Activities;" we could choose between cooking with the MESP cook Kareema, belly dancing (girls only), dabka (Palestinian dancing), or tabla (drumming). I chose belly dancing, and we had our first class today. It was really fun to try to imitate the movements of the Egyptian women who were teaching us. It was interesting to see them come in with long shirts on and heads covered, and then take them off to end up in tank tops and shorts just like us, only to veil again before leaving the flat. We were all struggling with the hip movements, and very sweaty by the end. Looks like I'm getting my exercise this semester, in one way or another. A typical day at MESP is Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Tuesdays are service projects and Friday and Saturday is the weekend. Many weekends we will be traveling around Egypt to places like Dahab, Siwa, and Luxor. On Wednesday we leave for Mt. Sinai, to climb it before sunrise, and then we head to Dahab on the Red Sea for snorkeling and chilling. Don't worry, it's not all hard work over here on the Nile.
As this was our first free weekend (and possibly one of the only ones we get) a group of us went to the pyramids yesterday. Now, don't be fooled by movies set in Egypt. They depict the pyramids as being out in the desert away from civilization. False. The three Giza pyramids sit just south of the city, separated by a wall, and just a 15 minute taxi ride from where we live in the neighborhood of Agouza. It costs 30 pounds for a student to get in to wander around, which amounts to less than 6 dollars. We walked around for a couple hours, taking pictures of the sphinx and pyramids, and getting accosted by salesmen from age 8 to 70, selling scarves, postcards, sphinx and pyramid figurines, horse and camel rides, and anything else you can imagine. A few of us met an American who not only turned out to know about MESP, but to be hosting the SPU missions group that is in Cairo right now. He just happened to be at the pyramids that day. Small world. (Even better story - in the Frankfurt airport I ran into a guy from my graduating class at Newberg who I'd had classes with and who I think was on ASB. It just so happened that he was heading to Russia to study for the semester with a Lewis and Clark program. Small, small world.) The pyramids were really fun, although really hot. It was incredible to think that they were built on only slave labor, with no modern technology, and they've lasted for thousands of years.
My sister has requested that I describe the food we've been eating, so here goes. Every day we have class, Kareema makes breakfast and lunch at the MESP villa. Usually for breakfast we have eggs accompianed by some sort of carboydrate, whether that be french toast, oatmeal, or this delicious pastry thing that is like a thin, crunchy pancake, reminiscent of baklava. Lunch usually consists of rice with some kind of meat (Funny thing - when ordering at a restaurant, you have to specify between "meat" and "chicken." Apparently there's a big difference.) There is always fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as juice, Tang, Nescafe coffee, tea, and whole milk. I have not tried the most classic Egyptian dish yet - it's called foul, and consists of beans in a pita. The bread here is delicious; it's called aish and you can buy bags of it off the street for about a pound, which is somewhere around 20 cents. My roommate and I want to eat it with everything.
We're all trying to get as much reading done as we can because we have two papers due before we travel in October, then the rest due after that. Procrastination is sure to set in later, but for now we're trying to beat it off. It's hard with so many things to see and do and try, but time management will be the name of the game this semester. I'm loving the classes so far; it's really what I'm most interested in, so I'm eating it up. I miss all of you back at home, and I hope everything is going well! Ma a salaama!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Week In . . .

Sunday we tested out the Metro system, which is the subway here in Cairo. It is very cheap, only 1 Egyptian pound. (The exchange rate is about 5.5 Egyptian pounds = $1 USD) My group took the subway to the very end of the line, to an area called Shubra, which has lots of factories and lots of people. We wandered around neighborhoods, strangely quiet but decorated beautifully for Ramadan. A couple little boys started following us, and then pulled us into a compound that we found out was a school. A few adults were sitting around, surrounding by about 15 children. The men quickly found chairs for us, and started asking all sorts of questions about where we were from, what we were doing, and why we had come to Shubra, since they thought it wasn’t a very nice place. One man was the English teacher for the school, so he interpreted a little for the other man. They mostly talked to the boys in the group, but they were very friendly and excited to talk to us. The kids all crowded around and stared and giggled. We walked away saying, “That was so cool!”
Monday we went to Garbage City, which is an area in southern Cairo known for extreme poverty and a significant number of Christians. The garbage of Cairo is taken to this area, and the people of Garbage City go through it and recycle things they find. It is a depressing place. Looking in doorways, you can see bags of trash piled to the ceiling, and kids run around playing in the garbage. Adults sit in the middle of bags of garbage picking things out to use again. We walked through the streets to get to the Sisters of Charity orphanage, a compound open to children and the elderly, run by the same organization as Mother Teresa’s in Calcutta. For a couple hours we played with kids, held babies, and talked to elderly people. Walking into the room with little babies was overwhelming and heartbreaking. There were not enough caretakers, and the babies just sat on mats on the floor, some crying and some playing. A couple handicapped children lay on mats with flies buzzing around their faces. We went in and immediately picked up crying children, but over the hour and a half or so that we were there, others would cry and there was no way to comfort them all. Leaving was the worst, because all the little ones started crying again, and the poor caretakers were left with a room full of upset children. Some of us will return to the orphanage though, for service projects on Tuesdays.
After leaving the orphanage we walked up to the monastery and church carved into the cliffs above Garbage City and Cairo. The story is that way back in the day there was a Christian man in Cairo who was told by the leader of the city that he had 3 days to move the mountain back 3 kilometers or no one would believe in God. So all the Christians in Cairo got together and prayed for 3 days, after which there was a huge earthquake and the mountain moved back 3 kilometers. Now there are several churches carved straight into the cliffs, with biblical scenes carved everywhere. It was incredible. We walked around the rock churches for awhile and then drove back down into Garbage City to another compound, this time an environmental protection initiative. There they teach mainly women to weave, make paper, and create other things out of the garbage they find. They sell beautiful cards, bags, rugs, and even quilts. (Don’t worry Mom, I took a picture for you.) It recycles material as well as provides a livelihood for many women, most of whom can then avoid being married off at a ridiculously young age. The items were very cheap and really nice, so we spent some time in the shop buying things.
Yesterday we started a more regular schedule. Tuesdays we will be doing service projects, ranging from helping in the orphanage to teaching English to doing administrative work for an NGO. I am helping in a preschool for Sudanese refugee children, probably mostly just helping in the classroom. Today we started classes, and we got a 10 page syllabus for the semester. Yes, this isn’t all fun and touring and chilling on the Nile. There is work involved. We also received 3 big readers full of articles from news journals that we’ll use to write our seven 6-10 page papers throughout the semester. And the work begins . . .
Everyday I’m getting more and more accustomed to walking the streets of Cairo, and I’ve started staring when I see other white people, thinking they look out of place. My Arabic still needs a lot of work, but class started today!