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.