Egypt – a Call to Pray

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Egypt, Cairo, Minarets

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

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

Here is an excerpt:

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

You can read the entire article here.

He ends the piece with a Call to Pray.

Prayers for Egypt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Rethinking the Veil

Pakistani Family

Today I’m honored to be a part of “Let’s Talk About Hijab” – a series that Rachel Pieh Jones began over a month ago. You can find Rachel’s work all over the web, but her home space is Djibouti Jones – Life at the Crossroads of Faith & Culture. She is one of my favorite writers so to say I am honored is an understatement. Enjoy and make sure to take a look at the excellent essays that have come before mine. 

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In May of last year Dr. Leila Ahmed, a well-known professor at the Harvard Divinity School published a book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America. The idea for the book was born one evening in the late 1990’s when Dr. Ahmed was walking with a friend in her Cambridge neighborhood. As they passed by a park, they noticed a group of women, all in hijab.

Dr. Ahmed was raised in Egypt during the fifties and sixties. At this time in Egypt, the veil was rarely seen – not only in Egypt, but also in other Muslim-majority countries. That particular evening, she was shocked and disturbed to see the hijab, symbolic to her of patriarchy and oppression, fully alive; revived and walking in her neighborhood. More shocking was to see the hijab worn in a country that allowed freedom of expression in both speech and dress…… Read more here! 

Let’s Talk about  Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Asking the Right Questions by Afia R. Fitriati

Through the Eyes of Children by J.R. Goodeau

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.”

My Colorful Neighborhood

This post was first published in February of 2011 – it’s one of my favorites, if only because it gives the reader a colorful picture of where we live!

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It’s a 8 am and I’m a kind of drunk and I want you!” were the words sung to me at Central Square, Cambridge.  The truth is – It was 7:30, he was drunk, and he didn’t want me!

But it brought laughter to my heart and I realize how much I love my colorful neighborhood.

While Harvard Square is full of intellectuals of all ages, brain cells abounding with funky stores,coffee shops, and Out of Town News – Central Square is hardcore life. It is dirtier and grittier with a cross-section of people that defies any stereotype. Recent and older immigrants speaking everything from Amharic and Arabic to Portuguese and Punjabi; every age from infants in strollers to the elderly heading to a community center or the library around the corner; and the sassiest and saltiest homeless people you will ever meet, all converge in Central Square.

If you don’t give money, the homeless population have no problem escorting you to the nearest ATM or looking you up and down with derision and the comment “That’s ok! What goes around comes around!” and you are left feeling cursed.

Central Square T Stop
Central Square T Stop

Maybe the reason I feel so at home in this neighborhood, as opposed to Harvard Square with its sophisticated milieu, or Kendall Square filled with Geeky MIT students and biotech engineers, is that I feel like I am a cross-section of worlds and people. The suburbs stifled me as I felt the need to fit in with beautiful homes and more beautiful people, never quite measuring up to what I perceived as the unspoken expectation.

My past of both Pakistan and Egypt didn’t seem important in the suburbs, but in Central Square it feels like my background belongs. Central Square welcomes me with its imperfection and honesty. There is the ability to feel fully alive and authentic, even as I am serenaded by intoxication at 7:30 am.

With burnt orange, brick-redelectric lime, and hot magenta all mixed together in one place, Central square is like a box of crayons that are primary colors – no pastel pinks, light blues, or pale yellows in sight.

Guest Post – A Response to “Burqas for Babies”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs most readers of Communicating Across Boundaries know, since childhood I have known about  the veil, whether it be the burqa or hijab. Many of my Pakistani Muslim friends wore the burqa, and I watched the hijab grow in popularity during our years in Egypt. I often defend this practice, feeling like the eyes and judgement of the west would best be turned inward rather than being a voice of disapproval toward a practice they know little about.

It was with shock however that I read an article sent to me by a friend  on a recent fatwa (legal ruling) issued by a cleric in Saudi Arabia saying that babies should wear the face veil. ‘Burkas for Babies’ Saudi Cleric New Fatwa Causes Controversy

I immediately contacted one of my Muslim friends and asked her to guest post on her reaction to the article. This article is longer than usual but I urge you to read it – first off because many of you don’t know Muslims – you only know what you read in the newspapers or see on television. Second – I guarantee you will learn something and have a greater appreciation for a faith that may differ from your own.

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24:30 Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.
24:31 And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their………..
33:59 O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

These are verses from the Quran. To understand these verses, we have to understand pre- Islamic, Arab society in Mecca. Mecca was the place of pilgrimage for the pre-Islamic polytheists, and Arabs from all over came here to worship, making it a very rich city. The Meccans were an arrogant people. Women and the poor were treated with little respect. Though men had wives and families, prostitution was rife. The rich noblemen visited prostitutes and when a son was born, they drew straws to claim the paternity of the child. Most newborn daughters were buried alive and women did not have any status whatsoever.

Into this scenario, Islam brought modesty and respect for women. Pre marital sex and adultery became crimes. It also established the girl child’s right to live. People were not allowed to kill their female babies. Earlier the Polytheist Arabs used to bury their daughters alive in the burning desert sands, post Islam their daughters had status. They could accept or reject proposals. They could also inherit half the property their brothers inherited, (this is because the money a girl inherits, is hers to spend. No one including her husband and children have any right to it. Moreover, she also receives her meher from her husband and he has to support her financially in every way. The brother on the other hand has to give the meher to his wife, support her from his income despite any wealth she has, support his children, any unmarried sisters and his widowed mother.) Therefore what the daughter receives compared to the son is fair and just. Men twist it to mean that a woman is less than a man in Islam, which is not true.

Islam also gave great emphasis to certain character traits, which had to be compulsorily developed in any Muslim, man and woman. Chief among these were modesty, humility, generosity, kindness, justice, fortitude and patience.

Many verses were revealed about these qualities. The verses which obligate modesty are the ones above among others from the Quran Chapter 24:30,31

Verse 30 exhorts men to lower their gaze and Verse 31 says the same to women. The verse for women goes further though, as it tells women to cover their bosoms and not to show their beauty and ornaments except what appears ordinarily, except to the men who are their mahram (close relatives one is not permitted to marry).

Ayat 59 in chapter 33, regarding the covering, was revealed when some women complained to the prophet of eve-teasing. Muslims lived in a mixed society much as they do now and as such it was a dress code that said “I am a modest believing woman”. Also any Muslim man would recognise a Muslim woman and protect her. A Muslim is certainly not supposed to molest her or make unseemly comments or passes. Nor, as per the previous verse, is he supposed to look with desire or lust upon a non-Muslim woman much less molest her.

There are those who say that women get molested because of the way they dress, but in Islam you are only responsible for your behaviour. When the Quran has told Muslim men they have to lower their gaze, then they have to lower their gaze, irrespective of how any woman is dressed. They are only responsible for their own gaze, not for any woman’s dress or lack of.

Men cannot take one verse and force it upon women and disregard another verse which relates to themselves. Islam simply doesn’t work that way. For all Muslims these are Divine decrees and not following any is a sin.

There are disagreements between those who interpret the verses of the Quran regarding the prescribed covering of women; according to the majority, hands and faces are not to be covered, while some insist that the woman has to be covered from head to toe. Covering though, does begin only after puberty. Women of Abrahamic faiths used to wear a robe and cover their hair in a scarf for millenniums, much as Muslim women do today.

No society or religion though, has ever asked babies to be covered. It is disgusting that a society that professes itself as religious, should in anyway, be so degenerate that innocent little babies are not safe from their lustful and depraved thoughts and actions. Looking at babies with sexual desire is so reprehensible, nobody can ever condone it. What happened to modesty and lowering of one’s gaze? Personally, I believe very strongly in the hijab of the mind.

There are some questions I am asking myself? Does a baby go out on its own? No, of course not! A baby can only go out when it is accompanied by an adult, usually the mother. In this case, how does a baby, which is accompanied by someone close to it, get molested outside the house? So where has this baby been molested and by whom and if it is someone close to it, even someone who by every law is its protector, then how would covering it up, help?

The question of health too occurs to me. Lack of Vitamin D is very common in many countries among women who are either housebound or then cover themselves completely. How would the bones of a child develop if they were covered from head to toe when they were outside?  How would a growing child play and enjoy all the things that is a child’s right by the innocence of their nature, to enjoy? I follow my religion because it makes a lot of sense to me and when something goes against nature’s design, which I only think of as God’s Design and Plan, then it doesn’t make sense to me. Covering any human being up in a way that will deprive them of their nutritional and health needs doesn’t make sense to me.

Instead of bundling women and children and even babies, should not some way be found instead to control the lusts of men, which are not just uncontrolled, but crossing every limit of decency? Shouldn’t the protectors of faith see to it that the right teachings are received by Muslim men, so that as believing men such a thought doesn’t even enter their heads.

Instead of punishing women by pushing them behind burqas, even the Quran has not prescribed for them and punishing babies, why don’t these learned protectors of faith, find a way to teach the men who practice these pervert acts that go against the laws of God, Nature, and man the right religion?

The writer of this post is a poet, photographer, and contemplator of life. She blogs at Weaving Tapestries.