On Monasteries, Children, and Loving Our Enemies

Gunmen Kill at Least 28 Coptic Christians in Egypt

The headline spares nothing, except that there were children. I numbly read the article describing the pilgrimage. The group was headed to St. Samuel Monastery for a pilgrimage when pick up trucks reportedly drove up to the busses and began firing automatic weapons. I read as little as I have to to get the story. Then I stop and I feel myself getting sick. 


During our years living in Egypt, my husband used to love taking our oldest son, Joel, to monasteries. The first time he went, Joel was only three years old. He went off happily into the desert with his dad, secure and excited.  The pictures taken later that day show a tow-headed pre-schooler with a bearded monk. They are absolutely comfortable with each other and the camera captures this well. 

Our introduction to Orthodoxy came through the Coptic Orthodox Church. My husband went on countless trips into the Sinai desert, enjoying the hospitality and growing through the spirituality of monks who had devoted their lives to prayer in the desert. Christianity in Egypt is alive because of these havens and those that set themselves apart to pray for Egypt and the world. It was a monk who said to my husband “Cliff, you are Orthodox. You just don’t know it yet!”  This was years before we entered the Orthodox Church. My husband just thought this is what the monks say to Protestants who they liked. It turns out it was more prophetic than we could have imagined. 

These trips to monasteries are a respite from the chaos of the massive cities in Egypt. But they are so much more! Pilgrimages to monasteries are part of the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, so when I read about the group who were attacked it felt personal. It should feel personal. These are fellow Christians, members of what we call the “body of Christ”.  


The commands to “love our enemies” and “do good to them that hurt you” are not ambiguous. They are clear and forceful. Along with this, we have the words said by Jesus as he died on the cross:

Father – Forgive Them. 

In the most outrageous act of love the world has ever witnessed or will ever witness, we have these words. They are recorded and echo through history. They are heard in great cathedrals and small,village congregations. They are said aloud, and they are whispered in the soul. 

These words – they feel too hard. How can a grieving mother say them? How can an angry father believe them? 

And yet – still they echo. 

After the attack on Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday, a television station interviewed the wife of a security guard who was killed during the attack. It was this man who stopped the suicide bomber and made him go through the metal detector, an act that cost him his life. His widow’s words echo the words of Christ on the cross:

‘I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you. I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds,’ 

Violence lasts but a moment, forgiveness echoes forever. 

The Story of a Christian/Muslim Friendship – a Guest Post

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Every September, when cool breezes off the Nile River replaced the sweltering heat of summer, the expatriate community in Cairo, Egypt would reunite. Most employers planned a variety of activities to introduce any newcomers to Egypt in general, and the gigantic city of Cairo in particular.

Our employer, the American University of Cairo, put together an orientation week full of events and talks all designed to ease these overwhelmed rookies into life in both the city and the university. It was during orientation week that I met Lubna for the first time.

On the first day, I noticed Lubna standing alone at the break. I ignored my conscience and left her alone. On the second day, the internal nudge was too strong to ignore. I felt compelled to go and speak with her. I was nervous. Lubna was fully veiled. She wore both the abbaya (long black coat) and a niqab, the veil that covered all but her eyes. While I was used to communicating with women in the hijab (head covering), I had no friends who wore the full veil and I felt my discomfort acutely. I stumbled a bit as I asked her how long she had been in Cairo.

After seconds, we were engrossed in a dynamic conversation and within minutes found significant commonalities. Raised in Canada by an Egyptian family, she had married a Tunisian man who had immigrated to Canada just a few years before. She had one child, a baby girl.

A couple of weeks later, Lubna invited me to her home. Until this time, I had only seen her at outside events and I looked forward to being able to sit with her over tea and get to know her better. I arrived at her apartment around 10 minutes late – a little early for a Middle Eastern visit. I knocked on the door and …..

You can read the rest of the piece here!

Passages Through Pakistan is available here for purchase.

A Bigger Picture

I arrived back from Egypt yesterday, bleary-eyed after hours of travel. Having coffee in Cairo, sahlep in Istanbul, and mint tea in our Cambridge living room reminded me yet again of how connected our world is. We fell asleep and woke up on the other side of the world. 

The trip was a gift that will take a while to process, and I plan to do some of that online, but for now I feel like I’ve been invited into a bigger picture. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. I have been deeply angered, troubled, and discouraged by the infantile politics that have become an acceptable part of our society. I am increasingly frustrated by how deeply I am connected to social media in all its forms. The trip was a break from all of that and revived me in the best way possible.

Just two days ago I stood in the shadow of a 4th Century church while listening to the Muslim call to prayer. All around me, women in hijab were entering the church to read the history, view ancient icons, and hear stories about this church that has survived centuries of life. The church is known as either the “hanging church” or the “The Church of the Virgin Mary.” Built into the walls of a Roman fortress, this church is considered the oldest in Egypt.

Just down a stone path from the ancient church is the Ben Ezra Jewish synagogue, built in the 9th century over a 4th century church frame. The voices of thousands who had been there before echoed from the silent walls. While leaving the synagogue, we passed a fully veiled woman, only her eyes showing. I had seen her earlier in one of the churches, now she was making her way down the same path we had come to visit the synagogue.

We were in Coptic Cairo, an area known as one of the oldest in Cairo. I have been to Coptic Cairo many times before but I have never experienced the sense of life and God’s orchestration of life like I did.

Throughout the Bible, Egypt is seen as a place of preservation, protection, and testing of God’s people. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all played a part in Egypt’s history, each with truth claims that sometimes seem similar and other times are completely opposite and non-negotiable.

As the call to prayer rang out from mosques across the city, one beginning as another was ending, I was struck by God’s big view of people and history. I see this pinpoint in time; he sees from beginning to end. I focus on the small things while he calls me to see the big things. I am stuck in time; he is the creator of time. I often see a narrow way to grace; he who is grace personified opens his arms wide as he calls us to himself.

In those moments, I realized yet again the call to a see a bigger picture – a picture beyond politics, beyond the current crisis of the day, and beyond my own inadequacy. I’m called to see the world through eyes of love and grace only possible through knowing the Creator. 

It’s a mystery that will take a lifetime to understand.

 

Three young women asked for photos with me, both individually and as a group. I was completely honored and glad the moment outside this church was captured! 

 

No Child Should Have to be the Firstborn….

 

Firstborn children have the joy and burden of being first. The joy of newness and expectation, the burden of insecure parenting and wanting to get it right. No child should have to be the firstborn. But someone has to, and they deserve special applause as they teach their parents more of what it is to parent, to grow, and to love with an indescribable love.

In our family that someone is Annie.  Today, that infamous day when buildings fell and people wept so many years ago, is her birthday. So today I pause and write to our firstborn.

Dear Annie,

You turn 30 today! I can’t believe it until I look in the mirror and see the laughter lines and tear marks disguised as wrinkles on my face. And then I know – yes indeed! I have a 30-year-old.

No child should have to be the firstborn — and yet, you were. After a long labor, you ushered us into parenthood with hardly a cry. “Is she okay?” we asked anxiously. But you were fine – all six pounds four ounces of your tiny self with your bright blue eyes. You were perfect.

We took you home in baby pajamas that were three sizes too big for you. They were yellow with “Le Petite Bebe” embroidered on the front. During those first few hours at home you slept and slept – and we looked over your Moses basket with worry: “Should we wake her up? I don’t know. Do you think she’s okay? I don’t know.” We decided to wake you up.

That was a mistake. From then on we adhered to the mantra “Never wake a sleeping baby.”

Two weeks later, we moved and this began the trajectory of your life. From a Chicago apartment to a house in New Hampshire to rose gardens in Pakistan; from bustling Cairo to small-town Essex – you have lived in apartments and houses and more apartments and learned to call each one of them home, even when they hurt you.

We look back at pictures and you are so little and we are so young.

You grew up knowing airplanes and airports, thinking that Saturday morning cartoons came in two-hour videos, eating kebabs and curry before you had teeth, having more stamps in your passport at five than many do in a lifetime, and believing that Arabic is the language of the world.

You were so gentle as you taught us about parenting. You were our naiveté and our idealism; you were our youth and our mistakes; you were our uncertainty about curfews and our ignorance about boundaries; you were our energy and our travel; you were our reentry angst and our struggle to fit in the new world we found ourselves.

You have given us so much grace on this journey – and we thank you.

You are a reader and dreamer, you are a shout for justice and a ready made party. You are a writer, an artist, a doula, a friend.

You are daughter of our youth and our heart, and we love you. And so we raise our glasses to you the firstborn – resilient, beautiful, talented, funny, irritating, brave, engaging, and lover of all things champagne on a beer-budget.

Happy Birthday Dear Girl!

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!

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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!

A Poem of Hope – Two Rows by the Sea

Two rows by the sea

A little over a week ago, the world stopped for a moment on hearing the news of 21 Coptic Christians, murdered by ISIS on the shores of a beach in Tripoli. Coptic Christians don’t get much attention on the world stage, but this was different. The pictures of those orange clad men on the beach surfaced everywhere, the stories of their lives gaining more attention every day.

We are a people of short attention spans, so what has not gotten attention is how Egypt itself has responded to the killings. Coptic Christians are familiar with persecution, and often it is at the hands of their fellow Egyptians. Yesterday I received a poem forwarded to me from my husband. Egyptians at the Bible Society of Egypt wrote it to be distributed in a pamphlet, along with other verses of comfort and hope. By Thursday they had printed over one million copies ready to distribute across Egypt.

This is hope indeed. Several times I have said that the people most afraid of ISIS are those who are sitting on comfortable couches in well-designed living rooms. As I pass on this poem, my hope is that we, in the often spiritually bankrupt West, are challenged by our brothers and sisters in the East.

Two rows of men walked the shore of the sea,
On a day when the world’s tears would run free,
One a row of assassins, who thought they did right,
The other of innocents, true sons of the light,
One holding knives in hands held high,
The other with hands empty, defenseless and tied,
One row of slits to conceal glaring-dead eyes,
The other with living eyes raised to the skies,
One row stood steady, pall-bearers of death,
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath,
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats,
The other spread God-given peace and rest.
A Question…
Who fears the other?
The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

Two Rows by the Sea©Bible Society of Egypt

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I would be remiss if I did not speak to the many others who have been brutally murdered or displaced by ISIS. In early November I sat with women and men in a refugee camp, all Yezidis, all affected by ISIS. They lost their homes and the lives they knew; many watched beloved family members killed. My husband came back from Erbil two weeks ago. He too sat with people who had to flee their homes because of ISIS. In all these places — Egypt, Turkey, Iraq — the Church is coming alongside the grieving, offering comfort and hope.

Picture Credit: Bible Society of Egypt

*You can read more about the Bible Society here and here.

A Mother’s Grief; A Father’s Pain

Three hours south of Cairo, in a small town rarely heard of until this past Sunday, families grieve. Thirteen of the men murdered by ISIS are from this town.

Yousef Shoukry, aged 24 is one of those men. Like most of these men, Yousef needed a job and could not find one in Egypt, so he left for Libya to find work. His mother now sits, dressed in black, receiving visitors who all express their grief. A picture shows a large cross around her neck, a reminder that God is present in her grief. And though she grieves her loss, she has these words to say “He’s a martyr. I know he’s in a better place.”

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In another part of Egypt a father sits in deep, emotional pain. He raised his family in the Heliopolis section of Egypt, in a middle-class neighborhood with restaurants and coffee shops. This father made sacrifices to make sure his children were educated. He sent his son to a private school where the son learned French and, in his free time, worked out at a gym. Now the father watches television and sees his son smiling as he stands over a corpse in Syria. Another video shows him teaching militants how to work out.

“He winced at the mere mention of his son’s name, visibly overcome by an unceasing thought that he struggled to articulate. He looked down to hide the tears in his eyes.‘You have to understand, I am in pain,” said Yaken Aly, choking on the words: “My son is gone.'” From a Private School in Cairo to ISIS Killing Fields in Syria in NY Times.

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Two Egyptian sons, both are gone. One mother grieves a death, a father grieves a life and the choices of that life. These two young men are not alone – there are others like them. There are those who leave for economic reasons, so their families won’t starve; others that leave in disillusionment, looking for something bigger than themselves after a failed revolution betrayed them.

There are some things that seem far harder to bear than death. Watching a child leave all that you love, all that you hold as sacred and good, and find their identity in a cause you hate has to hold more pain than we can imagine.

I think about these two parents and I pray for both. For the one, comfort in her grief; for the other comfort and healing in his pain. And I think about Jesus, who steps into grief and participates in our suffering. Jesus who sits with us in our pain and offers his whispers of comfort and redemption, sometimes so softly that they are drowned out by the noise of our grieving hearts. Jesus who said so long ago “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”*

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Blogger’s note: Several of you have asked about donations to the families who lost their loved ones in the recent tragedy. I have spoken to a friend in Egypt who says people can make online donations to Biblica. Just be sure to add: for Biblica MENA: project New Hope Egypt

*John 16:33b New International Version of the Bible

Remember Their Names

They have a name

I look at the picture and read through the names. 21 in all. They feel familiar, though rusty, on my tongue. Reading these names, praying as I read them feels like the best thing I can do to honor these men.

There is something important about remembering their names. There is something defiant in the act of saying the names, of saying them aloud, of making sure people know they are not nobodies.

The men were laborers in Libya for economic reasons. ISIS captured them because they were “people of the cross.” They are brothers and sons, employees and friends, husbands and confidantes. Each of the 21 men who died is known by name. And when we remember their names, we honor them.

The president of Egypt announced seven days of mourning for the nation and Christians and Muslims are coming together to grieve with the families of the victims.

Friends from Egypt sent out a message yesterday. They will be slowly visiting the families of the men who were murdered. They will sit and grieve with them; mourn the loss of these young men. And they will remember their names. 

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Last week in the city of Chapel Hill, three people were murdered. They were murdered in their home, their safe haven. Pictures show Chapel Hill to be a charming city, indeed those I know who have lived there love it. It is a university city, home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But three Muslims, one man and two women, were murdered by an atheist motivated by hate.

I read through their names slowly. Deah Barakat, his wife – Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, her sister – Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. They are 23, 21, and 19 respectively. Deah was a University of North Carolina dental student. Reports say they were newly married, scheduled to receive their wedding photographs on the week they were killed.

They loved the diversity of America and were active members of their community. Yusor was quoted as saying this last summer: “Growing up in America has been such a blessing. It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions — but here, we’re all one.” 

The enemy would have us forget, the enemy would have us remember the name ISIS, the name of the one who murdered Deah, Yusor, and Razan. Instead, we remember the names of those who died.

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 Will you remember these names with me today? 

The ISIS Definition of Who Lives and Who Dies

ISIS

The People of the Cross

I woke to the news that 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt were beheaded by ISIS on a beach in Tripoli. That ISIS would pick a beautiful place by the ocean to carry out this heinous act feels particularly galling.

God’s creation in all its beauty juxtaposed with man, made in the image of God, in all his free-willed horror.

The news did not even make it to the front page of the New York Times.

We are in a world where a terrorist organization decides who lives and who dies and it’s no longer front page news. 

The video that was released called the men “People of the Cross.” I have had the privilege of living in Egypt, of going to the homes, churches, and monasteries of Coptic Christians. These are my brothers and sisters in faith. It hurts my soul and I have few words for this horror.

But if I am honest, in my heart every day I make the kind of decisions that lead up to what ISIS did to these men. I daily decide who to despise and who to accept; who is worthy of my kindness and who deserves my rejection. And that’s what hurts — that as evil as ISIS is, the same spirit is in me.

We live in a world where the definition of who should be allowed to live narrows with each passing day. How can my prayers, my life, my actions reflect something completely different?

And can I pray for those who inflict such evil?

The man who cries out against evil men but does not pray for them will never know the grace of God.” — St. Silouan the Athonite

The Call to Prayer echoes across the Muslim world five times a day. It calls the faithful to stop what they are doing and pray. As a Christian growing up in the Muslim world, five times a day I have been reminded to lift my heart in prayer. The faith and truth claims are different, but the Call to Prayer still serves as a reminder. And the five times stretches to many times in between until I realize I am slowly learning that I can’t make it through this life without prayer; that the exhortation to ‘pray without ceasing’ is life-giving. That in the midst of senseless acts of violence, in the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he “willingly endured the cross”.From In the Midst of Tragedy, a Call to Pray

Those are my thoughts this day.

Picture Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2954746/Islamic-State-releases-video-purporting-beheading-21-Egyptians-Libya.html

Ramadan 2014- What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us About Christianity

This post is a re-post from two years ago but is just as accurate. Thank you for joining us.

Today begins the Holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, is marked by fasting daily from sun up to sun down. As Christians raised in Pakistan our memories of Ramadan days are as strong as our memories of the Call to Prayer waking us at dawn.

As we think about Ramadan our minds and hearts remember what we have learned about our own faith from our Muslim friends.

1. At an early age we learned that God is not North American. He spans nation and ocean, culture and ethnicity. To bind him to one nation is idolatry. To attach Him to one country elevates our own perceptions of that country. Secretly believing that God is North American justifies our private beliefs that we are superior. It’s not true.

2. We learned that Christians are not the only ones with deep faith. Indeed the Muslims that we were surrounded by were zealous of keeping to the tenants of their faith. They were sincere. They were devoted.

3.We learned that worship has little to do with pews or worship bands; versions of scripture or language. Worship has everything to do with the heart.

4. We learned that as women with white skin we had arrogant tendencies, as though we had birthrights. When our behavior reflected that it was ugly.

5. We learned that caring for women and children, the poor and the broken was never to be separated from the love of God and his call to holiness. We learned that the invitation of the Father that extends to the those in the “highways and byways” included the beggar woman, the street children, the dismembered, the leper.

6. We learned that the mud huts and dusty streets of Pakistan were far closer to the streets walked by Jesus than the clean suburbs and white steeples that we encountered every four years in the United States. Our Jesus was brown and slightly sweaty with dusty calloused feet; he wasn’t pink and pressed and clean. Blue eyes he did not have.

7. We learned that Christian community comes in all denominations and many interpretations, that sprinkling and dunking could be argued with equal passion but would ultimately not change our need for a Saviour. We learned that the strong cultural value of individualism in the west could make it harder to selflessly love. When Jesus reiterated that the greatest commandment was loving God and the second greatest was loving each other he meant it. Love is the language of the community. Any other dialect is suspect.

8. We learned that the word “Allah” is the Arabic word for God and, while one can argue character qualities of God, to be afraid of that word was not wise. Fear rarely motivates faith and holy conversation.

9. We learned that people are not the enemy. And costumes, like book covers, are not to be judged.

10. We learned that bridge-building often means drinking 25 cups of tea and serving 100. Hospitality fleshes out acceptance and leads to friendship and deep loyalty. Those are strong bridges built of steel and concrete.

11. We learned that Muslims make the best of friends; that to share our hearts with them grew our understanding and faith. We were shown kindness, generosity and acceptance. We grew to understand their love for a good joke;their loyalty, their devotion. We learned that once you have a Muslim friend, you always have a friend. They will grieve your losses as if they were their own. They will enter your celebrations with abandon!

12. We learned that being invited to break the fast was a gift, not something to refuse because of difference in belief, but something to enter with joy and prayer – prayer for our friends and prayer for their land. A land we called home.

And as we close this post we offer you a taste through words of breaking the fast. It is going from the simplicity of daily life and the discipline of fasting to the joyous contrast of colour, noise and taste of celebrations! It is deep-fried sweet sticky gulab jamin. It is colour infused sweet rice with chunks of fresh coconut and plump raisins; plain rice suddenly dressed up with fatty morsels of meat and sticks of cinnamon. Bread normally made on a flat dry pan-fried in oil and served with sweet oily cream of wheat cereal. Muslims knew how to celebrate. Christians in Pakistan learned that from their neighbors.

And we learned by heart through the richness of our lives, watching all unfold at weddings, at Eid celebrations, and at the breaking of the fast.

Related articles
Ramadan 2012: History, Dates, Greeting And Rules Of The Muslim Fast (huffingtonpost.com)
A Look at Ramadan from an Outsider

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You Take Yourself With You (And Other Things About Living Overseas)

Airport Check-in

Readers, I’m posting at A Life Overseas today about what does and doesn’t happen when you get on that plane to go overseas.

Here is a preview of a longer version where you can then head over to A Life Overseas to read the rest. 

I’ll never forget the day the call came from the American University in Cairo. It was a Sunday morning and my husband had left for church with our three children. With three kids under four years old, we had our hands full. I had worked the night shift as a nurse and arrived back to the house in time to eat breakfast, hug them, and send them on their way.

I then began the difficult task of getting to sleep. We were in a period of great uncertainty. My husband’s job as an English Teacher had ended at Jacksonville University and the job that we thought we would be going to in Saudi Arabia had fallen through.  My faith was at a low, my body exhausted.

As I lay on my bed, half-asleep, half-awake in the warmth of that August morning, the phone rang. It was an administrator from the American University in Cairo. I don’t remember much about that phone call but the final words she said to me were these: “Tell your husband that his future at the American University in Cairo looks very promising”

Sleep would not come that day. I could hardly wait for my husband to get home. We had dreamed of going to Cairo while dating and the dream had only become stronger. The year in Jacksonville had been difficult – a time of healing, waiting, repentance. And now we were watching miracles unfold to get us to the Middle East.

Two weeks after that phone call we were in Cairo with our youth, our passion, and our three little ones.

And that’s when it got hard. Because there are some important things that we didn’t realize when we were on one side of the pond – the side where churches applauded us and raised prayers on our behalf; the side where Christian fellowship was easy to find and when I was tired I could open up a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Here are some of the things I learned as I moved forward in my new life, creating a home and longing to serve. Read the rest http://www.alifeoverseas.com/you-take-yourself-with-you-and-other-important-things-about-living-overseas/

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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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.

Posting at A Life Overseas – Holiday Grace

A Fourth of July fireworks display at the Wash...

Readers – today I’m over at A Life Overseas writing about Holiday Grace. Would love to have you join me there! Here is an excerpt from that piece:

Tomorrow is the 4th of July – Independence Day in the United States and a national holiday. It’s a day that causes laughter and cross national joking in expatriate communities where those from Britain and the United States work and play side by side; where nation building dissolves and friendships build strong.

I grew up knowing Holiday Grace. Grace that seemed shaken together, running over, doled out in extra measure during holidays celebrated far away from family and passport country.

Because holidays were times when my parents, native to Massachusetts where picture book houses and white picket fences abound, would feel the tug of  home and family. Home and family would grab the heart and squeeze with a vice-like grip of unbelonging and a loud ‘What am I doing here, six thousand miles from all that is familiar?”

Holidays were the times when it was too easy to use the words “God forsaken” knowing that God does not forsake. Holidays were the times when it was easy to feel ‘foreign’. 

There was the time when my mom felt desperately lonely in a small city with no other English speakers, no other expatriates. The large house we lived in was surrounded on four sides by mosques, the Call to Prayer loud in the morning hours and lonely in the evening. It was Christmas time and her heart throbbed with a longing for Christmas at home in New England. Her mind was far away with real Christmas trees, snowy evenings, and family – but her body was in a small town in Pakistan. Holiday Grace came when missionaries from a town two hours away made the long trek on a dusty, partially unpaved road to surprise our family on Christmas eve.  She had gone up to the flat roof and was looking over the city, tears of longing and pity welling in her eyes, when she heard the ever familiar sounds of “Joy to the World.” She thought it was angels heard from the rooftops. And in many ways she was correct. These friends brought Holiday Grace to a young woman’s aching heart as they sat and drank hot cocoa and laughed together until late in the evening.

There was the time when we had no sugar, no flour, and little butter at Christmas. But somehow Holiday Grace abounded and our kitchen was full of spicy goodness. There were Thanksgiving meals at an international boarding school, where those who were not from the United States celebrated hard and graciously. And there were the Eid celebrations when we were invited to join the feasts of our Muslim friends, experiencing the Holiday Grace of acceptance from our adopted country.

Each holiday seemed to be met with this extra grace, Holiday Grace.

I went on to raise a family overseas and began experiencing Holiday Grace as an adult. But it was in our fourth year living in Cairo, Egypt that Holiday Grace came in a way I could never have imagined, much less orchestrated.

It was text-book unmerited favor surrounding me. Read the rest of the piece here.

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. 

What Would You Take?

When we first arrived in Egypt years ago, we had a shipment of goods that we were allotted by the university. At the time we didn’t have that many possessions so it was not too difficult to decide what to bring. In fact, we would have packed more, we just didn’t have enough to fill the space, nor did we have money to buy more stuff to fill the space.

As would be expected after we packed the necessities like clothes and baby stuff, we packed things that we love, that represent who we are and what we care about. So there were a lot of books, and a fair number of decorative pieces (think candle holders, table cloths, vases….pretty stuff) and photo albums – always the photo albums. Our downstairs neighbors brought none of that. Instead they filled their shipment with ski equipment.

Ski equipment in the desert.

Yup.

We were surprised as well. They loved skiing and decided that during their breaks from school and work they would head to Switzerland and Austria and take up the slopes. It was their choice to fill their luggage allotment with boots and poles and skis.

We would never in a million years have brought ski equipment. And that’s the point – they brought what they wanted, and we brought what we wanted. We were all uprooting our lives and had limited options for what we would take, we all had to decide.

We brought what was important to us. 

Those of us who have uprooted our lives, whether it be domestically or internationally know the process of weeding out, of sifting through and setting aside that which is the most important. You have to be brutal, you have to guard yourself and go into a “I’m not going to think, I’m not going to feel” mode.

How much more does a refugee experience this as they pack only fragments of a life lost and head out into a world unknown? 

“If you had to quickly flee both your home and country, what one possession would you make sure you take with you?

This is the subject of a photo essay I recently looked through. The pictures are poignant and telling. Unlike our neighbors and us, these are people who don’t have shipments, they have the clothes on their backs and most probably one small bag, a bag that has to be manageable for a long journey.

So what would you take? As the photo essay shows, for many in the world this is not a hypothetical question. It’s real.

The title of the essay is “The Most Important Thing”. So what is your most important thing? What would you take? 

Take a look at Portraits of Refugees Posing With Their Most Valuable Possessions and think about the question for a minute. It’s a sobering exercise. And then think about sharing in the comments – I would love to hear from you. 

Pakistan - Displaced people returning to villages after losing much when their homes flooded.
Pakistan – Displaced people returning to villages with all their earthly possessions.

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.”