How We Return – Anafora

How I wish words could accurately describe this unique retreat center in the desert that has provided peace, safety, rest, council, and retreat for so many years!

We arrive at night traveling the Cairo-Alexandria Road at dusk. A starry sky with no light pollution is the only light as we drive into the compound. Night comes quickly in the desert, the bright sun replaced by a cloudless night sky, billions of stars light years away are a reminder of how small I am in this big universe.

My room is simple and charming, domed ceilings, stone floors covered by bright colored rugs, and a bed covered by mosquito netting welcome me. I haven’t slept in a bed with mosquito netting since Pakistan, and I have always loved the feeling of being protected so completely with the gossamer mesh. Dinner is by candlelight in the large communal dining room, sitting on rattan chairs covered by bright blue and white patterned cushions,

A candle lights my room, creating shadows on the whitewashed walls and I read by its light. Within minutes, my shrunken heart weighed down with fear, worry, anxiety, and anger is made larger. “How fortunate I am to be here!” was the only thought on my mind.

Before I fall asleep I whisper a prayer “Thank you O Lord, Thank you. Let me not waste this precious, precious time. Instead, let me observe it with gratitude.”

I wake up early the next morning, the circled sky lights in the ceiling providing multicolored light that fills the room. I look out at the arched door that leads to a patio. My room looks out on date palms and olive groves that stretch as far as my eye can see. For the millionth time in my life, I wish I was an artist and could capture my surroundings. Palm trees wave at me past the peach-colored stucco archway and wall. There are multiple shades of desert green, none of them the bright of my New England home, all of them perfect for this setting. A round table less than a foot off the ground sits to my right with a chair of cushions to the side of it for comfort from the hard stone floor. It is quite simply, perfect.

I quickly realize that my distractions follow me. As much as I want to quiet my mind and take every advantage of this desert gem, a phone, my thoughts, and my circumstances all follow me, begging me to pick them up and fret. I know it will take effort to release them. But I have time, that beautiful and sometimes fleeting commodity. The concrete walls and stone floors are a comfort to my distracted thoughts, the date palms outside my door spreading their dates all over the ground are a reminder of a past life in Pakistan, a reminder of a God who has never let me go, who has always been there since my earliest days.

Anafora is a Greek word that means “to lift up.” The community was formed under the leadership of Bishop Thomas, a man that I was able to meet on my second to last day. His desire is to see people come to this place and be refreshed, be lifted up, and meet God. Through the years the community has grown to be a vibrant multicultural space with a constant flow of worldwide visitors intersecting with those who live and work at Anafora. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are communal meals served in the large dining hall. Dinners are served by candlelight, adding to the rest that the entire space cultivates. Food is served in beautiful pottery pots, and the silverware is arranged in beautiful patterns every meal. Large bottles of olive oil, and jars of olives are ever present, as are different kinds of loose leaf tea – mint, karkade (hibiscus) and chamomile to name a few – that can be accessed any hour of the day. I am quickly aware of the many hands and hours of work that go into making sure everyone who stays at Anafora feels welcome.  Coptic services are held daily as well as evening vespers. Evening vespers are particularly beautiful, the large church lit with candles in alcoves around the room. While the service is primarily in Arabic, the Gospel reading of the day is read in every language present – English, Greek, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian.

My purpose is primarily a solitary retreat, but it is a perfect mixture of solitude and people. From my patio I hear laughter and voices chatting away in Arabic, but I can’t see anybody and it feels completely private.

The grounds are simple and lovely. Low buildings with domed ceilings are connected and I am told by my friend Marty that the block of rooms where I am staying are in the shape of a question mark with the dot at the end of the question mark being a prayer chapel “Because at the end of every question is prayer” – she quotes Bishop Thomas as she tells me. Pools and fountains of turquoise and blue run alongside paths, small bridges linking parallel paths. It is easy to find one’s way around in the daylight. What felt like a maze the night before quickly becomes familiar. The date palms are ever present, squishy sticky dates left over from the harvest fall over the ground. It is clearly date season! Pottery with desert plants of bright-colored bougainvillea and other species that I don’t recognize are the only décor and it is perfect. I am so grateful for the simplicity and beauty, a welcome respite from my overcrowded world.

As I sit on the patio, journal in hand, thoughts finally resting, a pesky fly begins to bother me. I laugh, amused at how perfectly imperfect life always ends up being. My husband and I have this theory we call “Ants in Paradise.” We thought it up on a family vacation. Everything was perfect. The most perfect beach, warm water, amazing food, great room – and suddenly we were bothered by a line of ants. We had no idea where they came from – we certainly had not invited them to come. But there they were. In that moment, we had the laughing realization that no matter how perfect our circumstances on earth, there will be ants, flies, or worse that remind us we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead of letting this depress us, we instead laughed it off, vowing to remind each other of this on a regular basis. There I was in the perfect setting of beauty and simplicity, but a fly kept on buzzing around me, annoying in its persistence. I decided to go brush my teeth and wash my hands with hopes that the smell of clean would annoy them and they’d find another victim.

It worked.

Fly gone, I begin writing and reflecting. I have five days here and because I fail so often at stopping and being present at the moment, I am already planning my next trip and know that it will be longer. I stop and breathe, reminding myself that all I have is this moment.

This moment for rest, for retreat, for Anafora.

How We Return

Cairo – October 15, 2022

There is something about returning to a place that shaped you so profoundly, something about the mixture of thoughts, feelings, and reactions – all lobes of the brain engaged in a dialogue labeled “Return.” Whether by car, train, boat, or plane, the exhausted euphoria has as much to do with your mind as it does with your body.

Cairo airport was busy at 8pm on Saturday, October 15th. I left Boston the day before at almost midnight Eastern Standard Time. The overnight flight arrived in Istanbul at four in the afternoon leaving time for a coffee and croissant in the Istanbul airport before boarding the Cairo flight. It’s a short flight and before I could doze off, I saw the lights of the massive city of Cairo below me, a shining beacon rising from the desert.

Memories of arrivals past flooded over me. The first time I visited Cairo was as a 23-year-old. I was with my boyfriend, the man who would become my husband just 7 months later. All our luggage was lost enroute so there I was in a strange city with a man who had suddenly become a stranger to me. A friend he had made a few months earlier picked us up and he, too, was a stranger. In other words, it was all strange and unfamiliar.

Six years later I would arrive with three children, four years and under, to make a home in the city. What was initially strange became dear and familiar, the city pushing its way under my skin, up through my blood stream and into my heart. It made its home there, squeezing in between space I had reserved for other things and planting itself, a pacemaker of sorts that quickened or slowed my heartbeat. You don’t take out a pacemaker just because you move. It stays there, not always working as well as you want it to because it’s so out of sync with its surroundings.

Through the years I have arrived and left Egypt around 26 times, but who or what is really counting? The pacemaker, that’s who.

On arrival, the familiar mixes with the strange, almost like a recipe changing. You don’t remember the recipe quite the way it now tastes. And so it is with return. The picture that you have planted in your head conflicts with the images you are seeing, initially feeling like a betrayal. What happened to that restaurant? That coffee shop? That family? I thought they would always be there. Once the betrayal is confronted, I feel a new freedom to relax and enjoy.

Marty, a dear friend of many years picked me up from the Cairo airport and we happily chatted as the driver dodged the ever-present traffic, finally arriving in Ma’adi, the place where Marty has made her home for 34 years. If outside had changed, inside was the comfort of familiarity in a dear place with dear friends.

Everyone has a different routine when going back to places they have lived in the past. For me, it means carving out of a new niche. This is not metaphorical but concrete. I have to find a new coffee shop, the space where I will go daily while I am visiting. I found it quickly, a small outdoor space with perfect lattes and delicious mint, lemon smoothies. The first few days found me content to just be, casting off the stress of my U.S. life and taking on this extraordinary chance to rest.

I chose the perfect month to return. Cairo in October is generally spectacular, the heat of summer making way for cool mornings and warm days, gentle breezes and even occasional rain. There is a new energy and gladness in folks who had previously succumbed to summer’s lethargy, knowing that fighting it is useless.

A desert retreat, chance to speak, and time with friends would come later. For now, all I knew was that I had returned to the pacemaker, the place where two of my children were born, the place where I learned to be a mom, where some of my most enduring friendships were born. I returned to a desert with splashes of fuchsia, orange, and white bougainvillea creating a striking and beautiful contrast to the dust. I returned to old memories and friendships and to creating new memories and new friendships.

I had returned. I was back and the world was alright.

Author’s Note: Dear readers, I’ll be taking you through a tour of my recent trip to Egypt and Turkey these next few days! Thank you for following along. Here are a few pictures to go with today’s post!

Talking Together Makes Wise

In a book titled Tomorrow, God Willinga 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 invite the author into her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love and then communicate those stories on paper.  She 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 is from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no formal 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 in order 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.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the wisdom of Umm Ali in recent weeks. It’s been quiet on the blog because I’ve realized that too often in the past I’ve been quick to react, and much slower to really read and understand different perspectives. I’ve far too often made the narrative around the world about me instead of about others and the stories and perspectives that create their world view, the history that creates their living reality.

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

Max warren

What I hear loudest in the discussions that are taking place both on and offline is the plea to listen, to study, and to take a step back. This sits well with the words of Max Warren, a man described as a “perceptive historian” who lived from 1904 through 1977. He said this about approaching people:

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

For the place we are approaching is holy

Else we find ourselves

Treading on another’s dreams

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.‘”

Max Warren – 1963

I love these words, and I desperately want to be someone who reflects this reality – for the places I am approaching are holy.


[Picture credit – Image by Ahmed Sabry from Pixabay]

A View from Above

Bab Zuweila

Bab ZuweilaTwin minarets

In the city of Cairo twin minarets stand tall, their silhouettes marked against a clear blue sky. They stand distinguishable from a 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 tiny people, walking about as they go from bazaar to mosque to bus. You see the tent makers bazaar and even from this distance, you can see the beautiful colors.

It’s the view from above. And it is glorious, breath-taking and conversation stopping. But you can go even farther. And once you get to the top, you don’t want to leave – because it took a while for you to get there and you’re so tired. And the stairs going down are still rickety and treacherous, they are still centuries old. But mostly you don’t want to go down because you want to continue to look out over the view, the view above the city, above the chaos. The view from above.

Lent is a time to step back and step up; a time to see the view from above. 

That glorious, breath-taking, conversation stopping view. That view that sees the broken world that Jesus died for, the world that Jesus loves, knowing that each day that we fight this fight is worth it.

That view that remembers the words a Son called out to a Father “Why have you forsaken me?” A view that sees the grand Salvation narrative, taller and grander than a million minarets, a love that calls to us louder than a billion calls to prayer. The view where all ‘this’ will make sense, wrong will be made right, tears will turn to laughter, and sorrow to joy. We are invited into this view from above, a view where our story falls into the shadows for a time, and God’s great, redemptive narrative is remembered around the world. A story of mercy and grace, where good triumphs over evil and wrong is made right.

Whether we live in the shadows of a Hindu temple or near the courtyard of a grand cathedral; in a small village or are one of millions in a large, modern city, we know what it is to see poverty and suffering, crime and inequality, evil and difficult circumstances. We learn to love when it’s hard and others learn to love us when we’re hard. We know failure, we know pain, we know how human and flawed we are. Yet daily we experience the persistence of God’s redemptive process.
And today no matter where we are in the world, we are invited to remember this view from above.
“Finally, as if everything had not been felt enough, Jesus cries out in an agonizing moment in the most powerful words that we will read in the world: ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’ And I am utterly convinced that the reason he said those words was so that you and I would never have to say them again.” – Ravi Zacharias

Note: This piece has been adapted from a piece written for A Life Overseas.

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

human-1230505_1280

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.

In the Fourth Watch of the Night


Recent Headlines:

Saturday, December 3 – 10-alarm fire in Cambridge, MA displaces 166 people.

Saturday, December 10 – Explosions outside football (soccer) stadium in Istanbul kills many. Turkey declares Sunday a national day of mourning for the country.

Sunday, December 11 – Terrorist attack in Coptic Church kills over 25 people with many more wounded. Most of the victims are women and children.

Sunday, December 11 – At least 160 dead when church in Nigeria collapses.

*****

The book of Matthew, first gospel in a set of four, says that Jesus came to the disciples on the fourth watch. His disciples, fishermen by trade, had gone fishing and a storm came suddenly in the middle of what had been a calm sea. 

After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary.And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

The Romans divided the night into four three-hour segments and the Jews had adopted these divisions. The fourth watch was the last part of the night between three and six in the morning. This was the last watch, the end of the night.

The fourth watch is that point where you wake up and it is so dark, you look at the clock beside your bed, and you sigh deeply – you can still sleep for another 2 hours. Or it’s the time when you have to be at the airport for the early morning flight, that flight that leaves at 6 am, passengers sporting only sleep-blurred eyes and coffee breath.

Or it’s the “darkest before dawn” part of the night.

It meant this storm on the sea of Galilee had raged all night long. It meant that the disciples were exhausted and defeated, that they had battled a critical weather event with every ounce of their human strength – but it was not enough. The storm was going to defeat them.

Until Jesus came and spoke words that calmed the sea.

The fourth watch. My mind fills with questions: Why did Jesus wait so long? Why did this miracle worker not intervene sooner? Why, when it was at their last bit of strength, did he suddenly appear – a ghost-like figure walking on the stormy seas?

My questions will never be answered and even as I write them I know these questions reflect my heart – a heart that finds faith hard, that sometimes thinks God waits too long to intervene. Too long to move hearts and souls, too long to change circumstances. I want him to come on the first watch, not the fourth.

Explosions, bombs, faulty construction, fires, a never-ending war in Syria, refugees by the million, continued persecution of Christians in the Middle East; people fleeing homes only to drown at sea — all of it feels like the fourth watch. It’s gone on too long. When will peace come? When will the Prince of Peace reign? When will evil be conquered? When will God intervene?

I texted an Egyptian friend yesterday when I heard about the bomb at the cathedral. She had invited me to the cathedral during our recent trip to Egypt and because of timing, we couldn’t go. “What can we do?” I typed out. Her immediate response “Pray. Pray for the wounded. Pray for the grieving. Pray for us.”

My heart is grieving for Egypt and Turkey. It is also heavy for my own stuff – my own grief and sadness. Perhaps yours is as well.

The world is waiting for the fourth watch. I am waiting for the fourth watch.

Many years ago there was a group of people who were waiting. There had been four hundred years of silence; four hundred years where there were no prophets, no mouth pieces of God. Four hundred years of history and oppression and finally, occupation by Rome. It was surely the fourth watch when Jesus came as a little baby, insignificant, another male child at the time of a census. The significant marks of his birth were seen later — a virgin birth, a star in the East, and an angel’s song to shepherds. Perhaps people like you and me were saying the same things that we say during these days of grief and loss.

It’s gone on too long.

When will peace come?

When will evil be conquered?

When will God intervene?

I’m reminded of this on this Monday morning.  We are weary. We are waiting for the fourth watch. We are waiting for the words: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 

May it be so. 

*The story relayed is from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 14: 23-47.

[Note: this post was adapted from a previously written piece.]