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