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 firstname.lastname@example.org)