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.