In Honor of a Birthday – Marty’s Balcony

My friend Marty had a birthday the other day. I haven’t lived close to Marty in years, but just the fact that she had this birthday brought back beloved memories of this friend, and of the many times spent together, often on her balcony. So I remembered this piece that I wrote when I first began blogging, and I thought it fitting that I should repost it, and remember – because there is strength in remembering.*

The picture could be anywhere. It shows a balcony railing, two roses in a slender vase on top of a table, and a votive candle. Sunlight shines through dusty flame trees.  The caption underneath it reads: “Breakfast on the balcony — my favorite place on a summer morning while it’s still cool!”  

One simple picture brought on many memories from around the globe. 

It was my friend Marty who posted the picture on her Facebook accountMarty lives in Maadi, an area about 20 minutes from the center of Cairo in Egypt. An international school is the hub of much of expatriate life in Maadi. While the school is called Cairo American College, it boasts a student body from all over the world. Maadi itself is an area heavily populated with expatriates raising global nomads from Holland, Germany, France, Lebanon and too many other countries to name. Along with Cairo American College there  is a British school, a French school, and a smaller international school.

Green space is a luxury in the city of Cairo, and Maadi has much of it. By western city standards it’s still sparse, but for those who live in Cairo it feels like Kensington Park. We once heard someone describe the grounds at CAC as “almost like Wimbledon!” I remember laughing with my sister-in-law wondering if he had been to Wimbledon recently or perhaps was making the comparison based on 10 years living in Tahrir Square.

Maadi has been an extraordinary place for many people. While it is criticized for being “15 minutes from Egypt” and there is no doubt the area enjoys many luxuries that the rest of Cairo lacks, many have experienced life-changing events surrounded by an international community located a metro ride from downtown Cairo. As you walk around Maadi it is almost impossible not to run into someone that you know, whether you walk to Road 9, a major shopping area or head toward Gomaa Digla Supermarket to pick up groceries. The area is rich in friendship and community.

Whether you’re there for one year or twenty, both Maadi and Egypt are unforgettable and you are destined to return.

If the community in Maadi is unique, Marty’s balcony is extraordinary. It has been a place of peace and blessing and seeing the picture evoked those memories in many people.

One person attested to the talk and tears that the balcony had held; another mentioned the many memories;  another remembered “lots of coffees and tears and good conversations and prayers.”

I remembered being saved from many a melt-down through the peace and comfort of the balcony along with the laughter and strength of Marty’s presence.

A lot of people have  balconies in Cairo. It’s on the ‘must have’ list when looking for rental properties, but this one has served an uncommon purpose through the years. Marty brings people not only to her balcony for tea or coffee, laughter or tears, but also to her heart. She is exceptionally gifted at listening and being fully present. Marty knows that life is messy at best, downright impossible and intolerable at worst, but continues to live with purpose and a remarkable sense of humor.

It’s these friendships that give us time and love, and guide us into truth that are uniquely precious. And that is what Marty does on her balcony.

As I wish Marty a happy birthday, I am acutely aware that Cambridge is over five thousand miles too far away.  My response?  I went immediately online and priced tickets to Cairo to make the balcony and Marty a little closer.

Happy Birthday Marty! Thank you for your heart and your balcony.

A Life Overseas – Offending and Mending

Readers, would you join me today at A Life Overseas? I’ve retooled an old piece!

view-of-the-city-700x469

Of all the difficult things we do in cross-cultural moves, finding places to live is near the top. We want to create space and place – we want to create home. And often our expectations are a planet away from our reality.

At one point while living in Cairo, we were hunting for a flat (apartment) on the island of Zamalek. After a day of searching in the heat and walking endlessly down dusty streets and alley ways, we were tired and had seen some of the ugliest apartments imaginable.

My husband and I were getting increasingly frustrated, feeling the cross-cultural disconnect of trying to communicate what we were looking for in a flat to what we were being shown. Precisely at this point we walked up 8 flights of stairs and, on a scale of ugly to uglier to ugliest we were shown the ugliest flat we had seen. Ever. Anywhere. When the man showing us this particular flat asked us if we liked it, my husband looked at him and said clearly “No. This flat is the ugliest flat we have ever seen.” With a toilet seat cover made of a deck of cards, a kitchen that resembled a tiny sauna, and mirrors all over the gaudy red bedroom, it was hideous.

In that moment, by the look on the man’s face, we realized he had insulted the landlord, mistaking him for the bowab, a man who guards the front door and asks for baksheesh (a tip) once a month. “You don’t like my flat?” He said in a loud and puzzled voice. We had the grace to pause and look at each other, suddenly realizing that we had committed a no-no in apartment hunting in Cairo – insulting the landlord. But we were tired and defeated, so my husband said emphatically “No – we don’t like your flat. At all. We would never live here. It’s ugly,” and off we went. Once back on the street we took one look at each other, and in the exhaustion of the day, burst into laughter. It was completely inappropriate given we had just insulted our host, but we couldn’t stop. The incident was only one of many times when we realized we had a lot to learn about living cross-culturally.

Read the rest here at A Life Overseas!

Transition – Building a RAFT

RAFT Reconciliation  •  Affirmation  •  Farewell  •  Think Destination

In their landmark book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, the authors Dave Pollock and Ruth Van Reken have a chapter devoted to transition and dealing with leaving one place and starting in a new one. The chapter is a constructive and practical look at leaving well, at closure, at saying our goodbyes in peace. While transitions are never easy there are concrete steps we can take to make them as smooth as possible, always bearing in mind that no matter how well we prepare some situations will arise that are completely out of our control. The authors suggest four steps that make up the acronym RAFT. They are these:  reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, think destination. 

Reconciliation is the first step in building a RAFT. I’ve written before that I believe it is important to leave in peace, that when we leave in peace we can begin in peace. By contrast when we leave with unresolved conflict we carry that with us to the next place we go to. That’s exactly what reconciliation is — it means leaving in peace as far as is possible. When we’ve struggled mightily in a place this is difficult. I remember leaving Massachusetts and the small town on the North Shore of Boston where we lived. We loved our house and throughout our time there we had laughed hard, cried some, partied much, and grown in extraordinary ways. But we struggled with choking provincialism of the area and felt good eyes upon us, criticizing at every turn. It was not easy to leave that town in peace, and so I didn’t. Thanks to some beloved friends in a nearby town we were able to return and create new memories, but I still wish I had been able to leave with greater peace. It’s this move I think about when I think about the advice to have the first log of the raft be reconciliation. It’s an obvious first step — if we are able to do that well then we can better move on to the other three logs.

Affirmation moves us into acknowledging and letting those we love, those who have become our dear friends know how much we love them, how much we will miss them. Affirmation is about talking to a teacher and saying “Thank you! Thank you for your role in my kid’s development.” Affirmation is about saying thank you to coffee shop baristas and favorite bakery vendors, people who worked in church nurseries and pastoral staff. It’s about affirming the time we had in a place and the people who knowingly or unknowingly helped us create a home.

Farewells – Honor the goodbye. Those goodbyes are critically important. As I wrote last week “We grieve as we say goodbye because we are losing places and people that we love. Each goodbye is a little like death, it’s saying goodbye to permanence and the relationships as we know them. They will change, they have to change. Comfort and hope will have their place, and they are part of the process, but sometimes we need to just sit with the grief before being forced to move on. The global transnational family has developed an amazing capacity to adapt, to move forward, but sometimes we need to just stop where we are and honor that moment.”

Think Destination is the last log that the authors recommend. This can be either tremendously difficult or really easy. When our family left Cairo we thought our hearts would break, the collective grief in our family was palpable and as long as we live I don’t think any of us will forget our last night in that city of 18 million people.  A last meal eaten with laughter and joy; saying goodbye to dear friends Jenny, Len, Yasmine, Neelam, and Tariq as they sang to us a hymn of blessing; hugging tight, not knowing when or if we would ever see each other again – these friend who knew our lives in Pakistan and Egypt; and then finally walking down the road toward our home just steps from the Nile River with the smell of jasmine in the air. How could we think destination? How could we think ahead when we were leaving so much? And yet we did. We thought destination as we sorted and packed and began reestablishing connections back in our passport country. We thought destination as we sent out emails asking people advice on housing, schools, churches. We thought destination as we prayed and planned, even while tears formed at every thought and our hearts began to bleed in anticipation of that final goodbye when we would look out the plane window and feel grief too deep for words, too heavy for tears. At the time I didn’t know the acronym RAFT. The first edition of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds was not released until three years later. The research was still being conducted, interviews with third culture kids and adult third culture kids were not yet complete. A few years later when we left Massachusetts for Phoenix this last step ‘thinking destination’ was easy – I could not wait to exchange ice and snow, the dog days of New England winters for the desert sun and vast blue sky. During that move other logs on the RAFT were more difficult.

Each move we make varies. Intuitively I think many of us know this RAFT, we know that this RAFT is critical to take us over the sometimes calm, sometimes rocky, always unpredictable thing called ‘transition’. But to see it in print, validated and researched, gives many of us a life line to draw from, a method to keep us afloat.

How about you? Are you familiar with the acronym RAFT? How have you used it in the past? Are you in the middle of a move? How has it helped you transition? Join the conversation through the comments! 

Blogger’s Note: If you’ve not yet read the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds I highly recommend it. Full of practical information and both qualitative and quantitative research it is a tremendous resource for the transnational family.

“On Good Friday – A View from Above” at A Life Overseas

Today in the Christian Faith is a day we set aside. I recognize that many readers do not share the same truth claims and I am so grateful that you still come by and read! But today I am at A Life Overseas where I stop and reflect on some of what this means to me. I hope you’ll stop by! 

Bab ZuweilaTwin minarets

In the city of Cairo twin minarets stand tall, their silhouettes marked against a clear blue sky. They stand distinguishable from the thousand other minarets because of their fame as a city landmark. The minarets frame a gate still standing since the 11th century, the gate of Bab Zuweila. The minaret towers are so high that they were used to look out for enemy troops coming up to attack the city. Now, centuries later, the minarets of Bab Zuweila provide an unparalleled view of the old city of Cairo.

Climbing up the minarets is a journey. Around ancient steps you walk – farther and farther up, dizzy from the spiral and half frightened from the dark staircase. You make it to the first area where you go out and stand looking over the vast city of 18 million people. But you’re compelled to go farther. So on you go. And it gets more rickety and frightening, the centuries-old steps become even narrower and darker. You can see nothing and you are grasping on to the steps in front of you for fear of falling. But you keep going.

You arrive at the second level. And it’s even more magnificent than the first. To your right you see Al Azhar Park, significant for its large and beautiful green space in a city that has so little. In this 360 degree view you see vast numbers of minarets, you hear the call to prayer going off at split-second intervals across the city – a cacophony echoing around you. You see thousands of people, tiny as they go from bazaar to mosque to bus. You see the tent makers bazaar, making out the beautiful colors even from this distance.

It’s the view from above. And it is glorious, breath-taking and conversation stopping. But you can go even farther…..READ THE REST HERE! 

Bab Zuweila

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Remembering “The Square”

On Friday night we watched the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Square (Al Midan). This movie captures what happened in Egypt from a few weeks before the momentous ousting of Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011 through this past summer.

“Let me tell you how this story began….It began with a group of brave, young Egyptians battling injustice, corruption, poverty.” Ahmed Hassan

Tahrir Square, in the center of Cairo is the place that became the epicenter for all the events leading up to Mubarak’s downfall. It represents to the world the fight for freedom and democracy as hoped and fought for by the Egyptian people. The title of the movie is fitting as nothing captures the spirit of this time more than Tahrir Square.

The movie follows Ahmed – the 20 year old who has known the streets of Cairo since he sold lemons as a little boy and realistically represents the youth of Egypt; Magdy – a family man who identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood and goes to Tahrir Square day after day to watch change happen; and Khalid – a movie star who has been living in England but comes back to Cairo to participate in the change he knows is coming. Initially the movie shows a people united at the ousting of Mubarak, ready for a new day in Egypt. But the story moves forward and divisions arise, an army the people trusted turns on them, hope turns to despair. But Ahmed, Magdy, and Khalid continue coming to Tahrir Square – their differences obvious, their desire to see change united.

The documentary vividly captures the crowds, the masses of people — men, women, and children shouting “Al-Horreya!’ (Freedom!), the tension between the people and the army, talking heads on state-sponsored television. Throughout the film we were immersed in crowds and chaos, anger and joy, hope and despair.

But for us, watching the movie was personal.

Tahrir is a familiar place for all of us from the seven years we lived in Egypt, but it is even more familiar for our daughter. For three years, from September 2009 through September 2012 she lived in Cairo. She was in graduate school at the American University in Cairo and lived just two blocks from Tahrir Square. She has friends and acquaintances featured in the movie and this was her world. It was this I couldn’t get out of my mind on Friday night. These were her friends, this was her neighborhood, whatever was happening on any given day affected her going out, affected where she ate, who she was with. She lived, breathed, slept what I only briefly experienced while visiting her and then watched in a movie. It was a powerful and difficult film to watch.

It has now been three years, and Egypt still faces massive challenges. As we remember this day, 3 years ago, I ask you to read these words of an Egyptian friend from a news email written on January 9:

As we begin 2014 the biggest concern of most Egyptians is whether or not they, individually and as a nation, can afford the price of the new “democracy” which was achieved by our “Revolution”!

In January 2011, when Egyptians in large numbers toppled the government by protesting against the autocratic rule of the Mubarak regime, there was hope that the country would become truly democratic. We dreamed of a nation where everyone could freely express his or her perspectives and opinions and yet also work together in harmonious tolerance.

This dream was quickly crushed when the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) took over the government and imposed what increasingly resembled religious theocracy. When that regime was ousted by popular demand last summer, there was new hope that the dreams we’d had during the Revolution would finally be realized.

Unfortunately, since the dispersal of the MB’s 48 day sit-ins on August 14, 2013, disruption of daily life and violence on the streets has become a normal part of Egyptian life.  We often hear of people wounded or killed in clashes between MB supporters and the police, the army or angry civilians who want to live a normal life. In an attempt to restore peace on the street, the government’s aggressive response to continued MB disruptions sadly seems to create more violence rather than less.

As we prepare for a national referendum on a new Constitution, the violence continues in an attempt to intimidate the general population and scare them from going to the polls on January 14 and 15.

Having just celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace, Christians in Egypt yearn for that elusive peace in their hearts and in the country as a whole.” from Ramez Atallah 

Tomorrow marks the 3 year anniversary of events that happened on January 25th when the people of Egypt came together to demand more. I’ll end the post with more words from Ramez: “Pray with us to know creative ways to better reflect what the Prince of Peace would say to Egypt.”

I highly recommend the documentary. To watch a preview click on this link: The Square

All photos were taken on our trip to Egypt in December 2011. Gas MaskCairo, Egypt, Islam, MinaretTahrir SquareMore graffitisunset from the roofFriday Tahrir 2Boys with peace signWe three kingsGas mask graffiti 3eyepatch graffiti 2January 25th Revolution

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Books and My Moral Dilemma

English: All 24 John Griham novels as of June ...

I remember the first time I did it. You do it once and you can never go back.

It was a John Grisham novel – The Firm. We were living in Cairo and my husband was traveling. I had little kids — four at the time. I had bathed, storied, and kissed them and as I passed bedrooms I could hear their soft, rhythmic, innocent breathing.

This was My time.

I lay in bed and picked up the book. The only reason I hadn’t read during the day was time. And now I had time.

I began reading. And I read, and I read, and I read some more. I was deeper and deeper into the novel. I knew it was late but I avoided the clock. When I finally looked, it was already 2 in the morning. I knew I had to go to sleep. But I also had to know the end. I had to. I couldn’t stay up reading — I was single parenting, making sure four children were where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there. But I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t know what happened. Would the lawyer and his wife make it?

It was a moral dilemma. I knew that ‘real book lovers’ don’t read the end of books. I knew it was a moral code that could mark me for a long time.

So I did the unthinkable – I skipped to the end. I read the end of the book.

Even now I feel the shame of it, the magnitude of that one act, that one time. Because I knew if I could do it once – I’d do it again. And maybe again. And then maybe I’d do it one more time…..

I would be whispered about and bear the shame and humiliation of being one of ‘those’ people, one who reads the end of books. “Who does that? Who reads the end of books?” would be the conversation and I would shake my head and say “I don’t know! Who does that?” While inside I would hang my head and pray they never found out.

What about you? Have you ever skipped to the end of a book? Did you break the unspoken law of book reading? Tell all through the comments.

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Readers – Today Communicating Across Boundaries celebrates 1000 posts! You helped this milestone happen by reading, contributing guest posts, and interacting with pieces that you read, posts that resonated in your heart and soul. Thank you! Here’s to 1000 more! (If blogging even continues as a ‘thing’, right?!)

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A Life Overseas – Sacrifice, Sheep, and Raising Kids Cross-Culturally

sheep

It’s Saturday and we have a house full of college kids and young adults. Pumpkin croissants, courtesy of Trader Joe’s, are baking in a 350 degree oven, taking the chill off this fall morning. I’m awake early, grateful and full.

I wrote this post for A Life Overseas–retooling an older, shorter piece I had written a couple of years ago. Would love to have you take a look and tell your stories of connecting across the cross-cultural divide.

Beginning Monday evening through all day Tuesday, Muslims around the world will celebrate Eid al Adha – the feast of sacrifice.

Eid al Adha is the second of two feasts that occur after Ramadan. This feast is the biggest and most important holiday of the Muslim year and concludes the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the five pillars of Islam. It is considered the ‘Greater Eid’.

Significant to Eid al Adha is the sacrifice of an animal. A goat, sheep, camel and sometimes even a cow, is sacrificed and cooked to perfection, a feast for family and friends.

Thinking about Eid al Adha takes me back to both my childhood in Pakistan and to raising children in the Middle East. My mind returns to a walk-up apartment, a dark stair-well, and a bleating sheep.

Every year as Eid al Adha came around our neighbors purchased a sheep and, in the absence of green space, the sheep made its home in our stairwell. At the time we had no household pet and our children bonded with the sheep, delighted with the plaintive brown eyes and the friendly “baa” that greeted us every time we came and went from our apartment.  This was ‘their’ pet. All the while my husband and I knew that this sheep had a preordained purpose – to be fattened in anticipation of the Feast of Sacrifice. The leftover vegetables on our stairwell were indicative that this would be one fat sheep to slaughter.

And so the day would inevitably arrive. The stairwell was silent as our children trooped downstairs.“Where’s the sheep? What happened to the sheep?” 

Read the rest here! 

Whether you’re in Pakistan or Brazil, Cambodia or Istanbul, Cairo or Chicago, Rochester or Kansas– May you have time for tea and reflection today. And as I’ve said before and will continue to say as long as I’m blogging–Thanks so much for reading. I never take it for granted.

Egypt – a Call to Pray

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Egypt, Cairo, Minarets

My love for Egypt is no surprise to Communicating Across Boundaries readers. Despite no longer having a vicarious presence in the country through our daughter, we keep up regularly through friends and acquaintances.

As our newsfeeds fill with news from Egypt, it is hard to know what is really going on. With the west condemning Egypt and shaking their heads in despair I am glad to pass on an article written with clarity and wisdom. One of the authors is head of the Bible Society in Egypt and a long time friend of ours.

Here is an excerpt:

“In the past 6 weeks the Muslim Brotherhood has occupied a number of public spaces, to demonstrate for the reinstatement of the former President (currently being held by the army and facing charges related to abuse of power, including substantial material and intelligence support to Hamas). Unlike the peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square by demonstrators in January 2011, and again at the end of June 2013, these Muslim Brotherhood occupations were dominated by calls for violence against the army, the police, the liberals and, specifically, the Coptic Christians in Egypt – all resulting in the violence witnessed on August 14th, when police stations, hospitals, private and public property were destroyed. Many Christian churches (at least 40 so far), homes and businesses were also attacked, as well as a monastery, three religious societies, three key bookshops belonging to the Bible Society in Egypt, three Christian schools and an orphanage.”

You can read the entire article here.

He ends the piece with a Call to Pray.

Prayers for Egypt:

  • The current violence will end soon.
  • The effective rule of law and order will be re-established for the benefit of all citizens.
  • There will be effective protection of church and other property against attacks by extremists.
  • Egypt will be governed for the benefit of all its citizens, with people of different persuasions able to live alongside one another peaceably.
  • Egyptian Christians will have opportunity to play an increasingly prominent and effective role in addressing the needs of all Egyptians and helping to bring healing and reconciliation in the country.

The Morning After Easter – Sham el Nessim (a Repost)

English: People receiving the Holy Light at Ea...

Orthodox Easter, otherwise known as Pascha, was this weekend. This means that much of Christendom celebrated Easter after a Holy Week that led us to a final, triumphant service, beginning just before midnight on Saturday and ending around three in the morning. While this may seem daunting, I assure you – staying awake is not an issue. How can you doze off when a priest periodically comes into the congregation and with joy shouts “Christ is Risen!” to which you respond “Indeed, He is Risen!”. 

As is the duty of those who call themselves Christians, the challenge is moving from Pascha into the week after. From celebration into the ordinary. From Sunday into Monday. It is easier to do this in some places than in others, and Egypt is one of those places where the Monday after Easter is Sham el Nessim – a national holiday.

So today I am reposting a piece I did a couple of years ago – Enjoy and Happy Sham El Nessim!

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Stale cigarette smoke, morning coffee breath and Marc Jacobs perfume mingled together in a crowded morning bus. While faces differed in color of eyes, skin, and facial features, one thing was the same – the look of Monday resignation after a weekend that brought jelly beans, promises of spring, and, for some in the crowd, the remembered hope of resurrection.

The bus door closed just as a flushed and out of breath young woman arrived, knocking at the door with hope that the driver would have mercy and let her on. He did and she breathed heavily with relief, her glasses fogging with the moisture and change of temperature inside the bus. The rest of us held on for dear life as the bus driver, clearly annoyed with the 5-second delay it had taken for him to succumb and display an act of empathy, sped miles above the neighborhood speed limit to drop us off at the central stop.

This is Easter Monday – a day given as a holiday in some countries but business as usual in the United States, perhaps particularly so in the Boston area.

And today I miss Egypt, for in Egypt the mood is not depressed and resigned, but instead light and celebratory as people celebrate Sham el Nessim. Almost as old as Egypt itself, the holiday celebrates spring and creation. Literally meaning Sniffing the Breezes”, Sham el Nessim is always held the day after Eastern Easter (Orthodox or Coptic Easter) and celebrated by all Egyptians, regardless of their religious affiliation. This makes it especially meaningful as a national celebration, free of some of the tension that inevitably marks other religiously based holidays.

In celebration of the event picnics are packed and from crowded cities, to rural areas families head outside. With a dearth of green space, crowds in the cities descend on any area remotely resembling a picnic spot, sometimes heading to the Nile River and opting for picnics on feluccas — large wooden sailboats popular for relaxation in Cairo and a way for people to escape the crowds of a city that by day boasts a population of 22 million people. Significant to the event is the dying of hard-boiled eggs symbolizing life, similar to Easter celebrations in other parts of the world. And there you have the holiday in a nut shell: Unity, picnics, eggs, and springtime.

So though my body is present in a small cubicle with a sun-blocked window, boasting a view of an eight-story parking garage, and my spirits are pressured to conform with the depressive atmosphere that only a government organization poised for layoffs in the form of pink slips can produce, I will slip into memory-mode.

Memory-mode takes me away from this for the moment, and puts me into a space where there is sunshine, and holiday, and my world is full of Egyptians celebrating life itself in the spirit of Sham el Nessim.

Do you find the day following a holiday particularly difficult? What do you do to go from Sunday celebration to Monday mundane? Also – don’t forget to participate in the giveaway and send suggestions my way! You can read about it here. 

My Response to the Gosnell Case

Trigger warning – the first part of this article holds a graphic description.

Only hours before I boarded our flight to Istanbul I read the first article I had seen about the Gosnell case. It was an article easily missed in the NY Times. For those who may have missed this story, this is a doctor on trial for the murder of seven babies aborted in the third trimester of pregnancy. He thrust scissors into their necks and cut their spinal cords. He called this “snipping” and had allegedly done this to hundreds of babies through the years. He was also responsible for the death of a woman who was pregnant. He was operating out of a licensed clinic in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health, though given ample reason to be concerned, did not act in any sort of responsible manner.

As I read the account I felt I would be sick. I wanted to immediately respond – but I couldn’t. The response to this kind of horror is not easily articulated with mere words. In the week following, I would periodically think of it and rapidly push it from my mind. Then my nephew, Tim, sent me a long article from The Atlantic, urging me that Communicating Across Boundaries folks needed to hear the story, that it was a story that would elicit righteous, appropriate outrage.

Since that time many others have written and the articles range from excellent to completely frustrating. I knew I couldn’t respond in the way others had so I’ve decided to tell a story. A story that happened 17 years ago in Cairo, Egypt. I ask you to join me in this journey back in time.

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“Take care of your baby!” 

The words were authoritative and stern, coming from my Egyptian doctor. He knew the value of babies – he was a fertility specialist and women from all over Cairo came to him because they wanted a baby. The irony of this was not lost on me and my husband – I was pregnant with my fifth child.

To say this was unexpected was a royal, first-class understatement. Our fourth had been born three years prior and everything ‘baby’ was gone. Crib, snuggly, swing, walker, toys, clothes – maybe even a rocking chair had been willingly and eagerly given away. With four children ages three to nine and a half we were set.

Two boys. Two girls. Two Egyptian Siamese cats. A life overseas. Done we were!

I had it all planned. We would live in Cairo until we retired. Our kids would enjoy and thrive as third culture kids, knowing how to navigate the world at early ages.

But earlier in the fall unexpected events had catapulted into a crisis. The joy and comfort that surrounded our lives crumbled to pieces like some of the artifacts around the ancient pyramids. Our life was crumbling before our eyes and this was the last straw, the proverbial needle breaking our poor, aching camel backs.

And so there I was, in a sterile examining room watching the strong heart beat of a tiny babe through the wonders of modern technology.

Truth is – I though I had lost this babe. I had been in London only a couple of days before and had begun to bleed. Bleeding in the first trimester often means one thing – a miscarriage. I was with my best friend Betsy and she had begged me to rest, begged me to be careful. I had said a tearful goodbye to this baby that was unexpected to me, but fully known by the God who weaves all life together, sperm and egg uniting to form a unique being. God – author of our stories; creator of our lives.

And now? This baby was alive! It would live and a Muslim doctor was exhorting me, no – commanding me to “Take care of my baby”.

He knew the value of life. 

I headed out of the office and I began to weep. My tears fell on dust-covered streets that had not seen water for months. The crisis of the fall, the dark night of our souls, had given birth to Life.

In a blur of tears and with the help of tomato soup and bread made with the loving hands of a friend, I knew without doubt that this baby was His Grace. God’s opinion that our marriage, our family, our lives would go on.

I write this today as my statement, my response to the Gosnell case. Because the two physicians could not be more different.

For one scorned life, while the other protected it. The one discarded life as though it was food that had rotted in his dirty, godless refrigerator. And the other? He valued life and saw it as a fragile gift from God, to be nurtured at all costs.

Challenging Assumptions

This piece was first posted in February of 2011, soon after I began blogging. I was reminded of it recently when a favorite blogger of mine, Rachel who writes at Djibouti Jones as well as various other places on the web, began a series “Let’s Talk About Hijab”. I love what she is doing with this topic, inviting several voices into the conversation. And here is a glimpse of my perspective.

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In my adult life, I have often been asked questions about Muslim women, more often than not put in a defensive position as I speak to what I know and have experienced. In everything from the hijab or burqa to a view of family and work, western women are curious, incredulous, or judgmental   

While I am in no way an expert, I am privileged to have life experience that included growing up in Pakistan until I was 18, and living in both Pakistan and Egypt as an adult for a total of 10 years. What is most important to me in my conversations is challenging the assumptions that are made through limited contact and knowledge of the Muslim world, more specifically women in the Muslim world.

I grew up with Muslim women surrounding me and friendships developed at early ages, some that continue to this day-but I am always aware that my words and thoughts are inadequate to the complexity of their role on the local and world stage. There is one thing I can say with surety: one of the first assumptions to be challenged is that Muslim women are monolithic. The diversity at every level is astounding and the image often conjured up of a fully veiled woman walking behind her husband is only occasionally correct.

It is because of this inadequacy that I continually read books and articles, but more importantly, ask questions of my Muslim friends.  This is also the reason I was so excited when my husband came home with the book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. In an earlier post I wrote about this small red volume and wanted to expand a bit on this today.

The part of the book that is of most interest to me is the section on women.  While I love narratives and they resonate with me, I am aware there are many who want “just the facts”. This study works for the ‘data’ people and has information that cannot be ignored.  Several examples of vast differences in view-point are given.  For example, when western women were asked what they admired least in the Muslim world the response was ‘gender inequality”. Interesting to note is that responses from Muslim women did not include gender inequality. Equal legal right and gender inequality did not appear, rather the three most significant concerns for women were lack of unity of muslims, political corruption and extremism.

Undeniable in interviews with Muslim women was disapproval of the way western women are treated in the west. The perceived promiscuity, pornography, public indecency and lack of modesty were equal, in the eyes of those interviewed, to a degraded status for women.

Even as I write this, I am aware that books can only take us so far, that there is no substitute for relationships to challenge our assumptions and move us into friendships with those who think differently. I have two voices in my head as I write this: my mom – who spent over 30 years in a Muslim majority country; and a woman Bettie Addleton who spent the same amount of time. Both are examples of people who worked to form relationships in a part of the world that was different from the homes in America where they were raised.

In her book The Day the Chicken Cackled: Reflections on a Life in Pakistan Bettie recalls a Halloween party that she was putting on for her family and ours when we were little kids. The party was interrupted by a note from two Muslim women in the town who had heard of Bettie and were curious, and the note stated, “bored stiff” in this smaller town as compared to the larger coastal city of Karachi. Bettie goes on to say this

“Improbably, this single event marked the beginning of a wide network of friendships with Muslim women living in Shikarpur. Their generosity provided a window into a world that I otherwise would never have experienced. Indeed, the young woman …who sent me the note became the closest friend I ever had in Pakistan. She also became a willing and trusted source of information for the many questions I had about customs and traditions of our corner in Upper Sindh.”

Being willing to have assumptions challenged is not easy, but it is critical, particularly in a world often driven by stereotypes posed by the loudest voices on both sides of the divide.

As the quote by Dr. Daniel Brown on the back of Bettie’s book says, we need a balance to media driven images of Pakistan and Muslims” and “an account of real Muslim-Christian encounters that (are) filled with humanity, humor, and hope.”

“Talking Together Makes Wise”

I first published this post in January of 2011. It is as true today, as it was then! Enjoy.

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Egypt, Cairo, Minarets

In a book titled “Tomorrow, God Willing a Norwegian anthropologist writes from her experiences befriending a family in a poor neighborhood in Cairo. The book gives a portrayal of life in Cairo primarily through the perspective of Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) with others from the extended family lending their voices to the narrative. It is one of my favorite books for a variety of reasons, one of those being my love for the city of Cairo and Egyptians.

The prologue quotes Umm Ali saying:

“I like talking with people, Talking together makes wise. Where had we humans been and what had we understood if we did not tell each other what each of us thinks and feels….it is a life necessity to be able to talk.”

She then proceeds to let the author enter her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love, allowing these stories to be communicated on paper, public for the world to see.

Umm Ali gets the importance of ‘talk’ in communicating the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.

The back streets of Cairo are an unlikely setting and Umm Ali perhaps an unlikely source of wisdom, but wisdom it is. She viewed talking as a gift to “purge you of sorrow/anger and invigorate your soul”. This quote from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no education. In light of a media frenzy over the power of words over people, Umm Ali recognized their power in the best way possible. To communicate to express her feelings and life story, and in doing so create understanding between people who don’t live or think in the same way that she or those around her do.

Cairo is a city of over 16 million people. That’s a lot of voices and a lot of stories but sometimes one story is all it takes to “make wise”.

In Which I order Two 25 Kilo Turkeys in Cairo, Egypt

We did our shopping on the weekend. The turkey, potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, jello (you must have jello) and so much more. As this time of the year comes around I think of Thanksgivings we have spent all over the world and all across the country. Pakistan, Chicago, Essex, Haiti, Egypt, Phoenix, Cambridge – all the memories make me smile.

But one stands out in my mind and to this day makes me laugh. 

To give context I did not cook a turkey until I was 34 years old and had four children.

Attending an international boarding school while growing up in Pakistan meant that we were never at home for Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. Instead, the boarding school I attended graciously took the holiday and created their own version of a special meal (skinny chickens and mashed potatoes) followed by a musical concert. We called it thanksgiving and it was, for we were grateful for those scrawny but tasty drumsticks.

Furthermore turkey as known in the United States at that time was not available anywhere in the country outside of the American commissary, so Christmas dinner was generally chickens filled with homemade stuffing or the rich meat of wild duck.

It meant that I  never helped my mom cook a turkey. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew nothing about making a turkey or a roast, or any of those things that are considered good solid American fare.

But how hard could it be?

At 34 we found ourselves in Cairo on the Island of Zamalek responsible for 18 American college students in a semester-abroad program. I decided now was the time. So armed with my best Arabic I headed to a grocery store I knew well in Maadi.

The conversation went like this:

“Hosni, I would like to buy two 25 kilo turkeys for our feast”.

“Madame – I don’t know if I can find turkeys that big!”

“Hosni! I am having a lot of people. A lot of people ….I need TWO 25 kilo turkeys” He shook his head muttering but he had dealt with the likes of me before and knew there was no arguing.

When he called to tell me the turkeys had arrived, he apologized – he couldn’t find two 25 kilo turkeys, instead he had one that was 13 kilo and one that was 10. “I told you I needed BIG turkeys” I wailed. Hosni laughed “Oh, they are big!”

And then I went to pick them up.

They were massive. They filled two large boxes and packed beside them were their severed heads. In an instant I realized I was forgetting the weight difference between the metric system, used worldwide, and the American system, used only in America.

I had ordered over 110 pounds of turkey.

I was duly rebuked and humbled – no wonder Hosni muttered. We both laughed – he with glee and me with chagrin.  I often wondered if he enjoyed telling the story of this insistent white woman and her huge turkeys. Each year after we would laugh together about the 25 kilo turkeys.

It’s a good story to remember. The arrogance of my white-skinned insistence makes me cringe. This was only one of many times of having to admit that I was wrong; I didn’t have a clue. One of many “25 kilo turkey” moments of cross-cultural learning.

When we cross over into other cultures, we function most effectively when we can take 25 kilo turkey moments and recognize our need to listen and learn.

Thanksgiving dinner that year was amazing, the turkeys cooked to perfection. And the 25 kilo turkey moment remains a reminder, not only of an amazing Thanksgiving, but of the need for cultural humility, ceasing to be an expert and being willing to be a student of the culture where I was making my home.

Do you have cross-cultural holiday stories to share? Share your story in the comment section! 

When Our Hearts are Heard

Bird - Blue Jay

I sit and drink tea on her balcony and she hears my heart. The leaves and trees are dust-covered — evidence of life in the desert. Birds noisily converse, talking about the day’s worms.

And she hears my heart. She asks the right questions, the ones that get underneath my words and sentence structure. At first it’s my mouth talking but soon after my heart begins to talk.

That’s what happens when our hearts are heard. 

There is comforting encouragement and gentle rebuke. There is quiet challenge and  sober reminder. There is humor and laughter, a call to not take myself too seriously. And the birds continue talking about the worms.

When our hearts are heard we can move forward, not in a defensive posture but in humility and service.

I get up early before the day break. I watch night turn to morning from my space on the couch. The leaves and trees are dying — evidence of life in winter. There are no birds, no chirping about worms – they’ve gone to a warmer place. I am alone. My cry is heard by God alone, human companionship is gone.

And He hears my heart. The sharp truth of His word gets into my brain. At first it’s just reading, but soon after a bridge connects that deep chasm between head and heart and I am changed.

There are times like the balcony – when God gives me that person who can keep step with me and help me make sense of my life, of my heart. There are other times like the couch when friends are absent, silent – but Truth keeps beckoning and my heart is heard.

The result is the same. I leave with my heart full — full of grace and hope, laughter and tears. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed – that’s what happens when our hearts are heard.

And those birds just keep on chirping about worms.

Today may your heart be heard!

A Late Night Response

I have just finished watching hours of commentary on the Middle East as I put final touches on a health presentation I am doing tomorrow. And I feel compelled to write.

An ambassador and other public service officers have been killed. It is a tragedy, and a condemned act of violence.

The last time an American ambassador was killed was in Kabul in 1978 — and I was in Kabul. As a senior in high school I had gone to Afghanistan on a school trip to participate in a Fine Arts festival at the American International School of Kabul. While there, the famous military coup transpired, paving the way for the Russian invasion in 1979. As an adult I now understand the diplomatic nightmare at play; not only did the foreign service personnel have to worry about their staff in Afghanistan, they had hundreds of added students and staff from international schools throughout Pakistan as well as from Delhi, India. It was an emergency, much like the current situation in Libya

And with this recent event there are a lot of voices, and so much opinion. Even as those in public service are mourned, politicians are using the grief for gain.

The stereotypes on both sides of the globe are reinforced. Over and over we see images of fires, riots, and demonstrations in Egypt,Yemen, and Libya. With Friday prayers, the worry is that violence will spread farther in the region.

And on this side of the globe the cries arise: “Jihadists” “Islamists” “Fanatics”. “They hate us” many say, fueling an already blazing fire of misunderstanding.

Yet, even as I am burdened and frustrated by an amateur film maker who, in making what sounds like a sub par film, has incited rage throughout the Muslim world, I support his right to do so.

Was it wise? No.

Was it correct? Probably not.

Was it his choice to do so? Absolutely.

That’s what we preach, that’s what we boast – that we live in a democracy that allows freedom of speech.

Over a year ago I wrote a post called “Protected Privilege, Awesome Responsibility”. And right now at 11pm, while watching CNN in a hotel bedroom in Lincoln, Nebraska thinking of my daughter, living just blocks from the American Embassy in Cairo, I looked back at what I wrote. I have posted an excerpt below. To understand the full context I have linked the post but even without that context the words below express my viewpoint.

Freedom of Speech. It is a privileged protection and an awesome responsibility. Only days before our neighborhood became the target for these messages, my husband and I had been at a lecture on the apostasy law in Pakistan. As I passed the signs I couldn’t help but think that the messengers have no clue what a privilege it is to live in a country that allows freedom of speech.  It was fully their right to be there and broadcast what I consider to be messages that are at best unwise and at worst vitriolic and hateful. No one would think to arrest them or charge them for breaking a law and this gift is not enjoyed world-wide.

And though I desperately want to rip the signs down shouting “You have no right to present God in this way” and let those around me know that this message is one of extremism and that the God I love walks among us, knows our hearts, and loves with a love that is deeper than deep, I respect freedom of speech. I know that the privileged protection of speech used on vans with venom also protects me. It protects outwardly through the law of the land, and it protects inwardly by challenging me to carefully weigh words and meaning so that I may not abuse this protection.  Freedom of speech is a gift to be used carefully and protected continually.

The incidents of the last few days are a compelling challenge to all of us who value our freedom of speech, and recognize its power and gifts, to use these gifts for building bridges; to commit to communicating across boundaries and being agents to heal the great divide.

Five Cities, Five Time Zones, Five Kids

They are in five cities – Cairo, Egypt; Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; New York City, New York; Oxford, England.

They span three continents – North America, Africa, Europe.

They live in five time zones – EST, GMT, CST, PST, and Egypt time (which can’t really be described through an acronym)

“They” are my five children.

And it’s not nearly as glamorous as it may sound because I would like to have them all over for Sunday dinner. I can’t help but think it is sweet justice for my mom…. I now know how she felt with kids and grand kids in Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt and the United States.

Annie sits in the heart of Tahrir Square where history was made and continues to be the epicenter of events in Egypt.

Joel makes his home in Chicago, arguably the best city to eat in world-wide. Lake Michigan, the Sears Tower, and Navy Pier are all world-class tourist attractions.

 Micah and Lauren navigate the cut throat world of Los Angeles, home to Oscars and egos.

Stefanie, in an apartment overlooking Herald Square, lives life in New York City and can attest to the fact that it’s the city that never, ever, ever, sleeps!

Jonathan is in the hallowed halls and ivy-laden buildings of Oxford, England, where minds meet and mingle over high tea and classic literature.

At one time I worried that they wouldn’t have the confidence to travel alone. At one time I wondered aloud if they would have a desire to explore their world. At one time I thought that it would be impossible to raise global kids in a small town.

But now as I sit in Boston with their dad, I wonder when we’ll all be together again!

But for now we’ll text, and Skype, email and phone, praying all the while that bonds will tighten despite the miles and eagerly await opportunities to celebrate future gatherings.

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Re-Post: Memories of an Expatriate 4th of July

At 52 years old, I have spent more fourth of July holidays overseas, celebrating with other expatriates and a grudging realization that I like the holiday, than in the US. Today’s post is a re-post from last year when many of you were not CAB readers. Enjoy!

In capitals like Islamabad and Cairo, the celebrations were a highlight of our year. Free food and entertainment combined with celebratory fireworks and raffle prizes enjoyed by all passport holders. Our children loved the chance to meet with friends and eat the uniquely American fare of hamburgers and hotdogs coupled with canned soda and topped off by ice cream cups.

In Islamabad the parties were held at the large compound that housed the American club and pool. As life has become increasingly more precarious for Americans living in Pakistan, I have no doubt the celebrations are far more low-key if at all. Cairo’s venue was Cairo American College, the large international school compound and hundreds came to these events.

One of my best memories came in the summer of 1992. We had received news of the death of my maternal grandmother only days before the 4th of July. She was my only living grandparent and a compassionate soul who deeply loved all of her grandchildren. My mom and dad had left Pakistan after making it their home for 35 years in December of 1988 to be closer to her, knowing that her earthly body was declining and longing to be near her during the remaining time she had left.

On news of her death I experienced a deep longing for family. The longing hung over me like the dust hangs over Cairo-heavy and impossible to remove. Coupled with that I had given birth to my fourth child, a baby girl, just six month before. The only relatives who had met this personality-filled baby were my sister-in-law Terry and my niece, Christi-Lynn. With a tiny, still breast-feeding baby in my arms and three other small children, I wanted the comfort of blood relatives but knew that the trip was financially impossible.

It was during this time that we packed up our young family and set off by foot to the large 4th of July party. There my sadness was in temporary reprieve as our kids got their faces painted, ate hotdogs until they were sick and played with friends.

There was also a raffle. Companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Swiss Air had donated large prizes like nights in hotels, and free airline tickets to the lucky ticket holders.

At the time my husband was taking a summer Arabic course at the American University in Cairo. He had befriended other classmates, some American, who had come to our home to escape the inevitable culture shock that had overtaken them. He told them about the “Free party on the 4th!” and as a result a couple of them had come. They were on their way back to “real Cairo” when they saw Cliff and asked him if he wanted their raffle tickets. Realizing that he would lose nothing, he took them and so we had in our possession 8 tickets.

You know the rest of the story before I put it down – Yes, we won. Not one prize but two. The first was a breakfast at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, renowned for its amazing morning spread. The second? A round-trip airline ticket, generously donated by Swiss Air from Cairo to my choice of anywhere in the continental United States.

To say I was over the moon does not adequately describe my excitement, or gratefulness. I felt in that time when I needed to know my heart was heard, God with great grace gave me a free pass. Like I was losing at a game of Life, only to land on a “Win a TV Game Show, Collect $100,000!” only this was real.

While other 4th of July celebrations have come my way, each holding their share of beautiful fireworks, fun foods, and a grudging recognition that it is one holiday where I proudly carry my U.S. passport, none will ever come close to that day when God met me at an expatriate celebration.

Blogger’s Note: Our 4th of July holidays have changed through the years. They now include a barbecue with friends, watching fireworks while sitting on the beach and a small town parade. For those of you who are from the U.S – Happy 4th! To the many other readers who are not – thanks for bearing with me and hearing about this holiday! I plan to give equal recognition through a blog post to Pakistan Independence Day on August 14!

Through Stefanie’s Eyes – Cairo, 2011

Today I am excited and proud to share the work of my youngest daughter, Stefanie, with my Communicating Across  Boundaries world. Stefanie is an amazing photographer. She captures the world with her lens and I view her works of art, amazed. Enjoy Cairo through Stefanie’s eyes and thanks for taking a look. Have a blessed weekend!