Culture Religion

How to Grow in the Grief of Childhood Transition

Childhood Grief Transition

There is loss in leaving, and adults come to know it quickly. Experienced overseas workers learn how to make immediate friendships, grieve good-byes, and move on to the next wave of arrivals. There is a cycle, and most of us are transient. You get used to it.

But children get their hearts broken.

As they get older they learn the system also. Third-culture kids grow resilient overseas. But that first wave is painful, especially when life abroad is all they ever knew.

We stayed in the Arab world longer than many. Our oldest daughter arrived at age three and was twelve when it came time to leave. Her last year was difficult. Friends returned to their home country. Her grandmother in America passed away. And when we departed, she said goodbye to two local friends she met in kindergarten.

Anticipating a year in the United States before relocating elsewhere in the Middle East, we feared the pangs of middle school. But all was well. Teachers were welcoming; students were kind. There was only one problem: Our daughter didn’t make any friends.

Classmates invited her to sit at their lunch table. She preferred to read. Grades were fine, and she joined activities. Her smile never faded, and her spirit never wavered. At home all was normal, and at school all was fine. But nothing of friendship, and little effort to find it.

She knew she was leaving again, come end of school year.

At first we encouraged her to engage. “If you sit by yourself and read, people will think you’re a snob. Just join in, and learn how Americans talk, laugh, and play.” But she did, and she didn’t like it. “They were inappropriate,” she said, “and crazy.” This was without malice or judgment, but the conservative Arab culture left its mark. She was uncomfortable.

But it would be wrong to blame things wholly on society. It was her.

And it was ok. Natural. We comforted her and spoke of adjustments. Having lost friends once while abroad, why lose them again back home? And which place was home to begin with? But she was faithful in her responsibilities, accepting of her circumstances. As a family we grieved, mourning the past and anticipating the future. But this could not be the end of the conversation.

“Your choices are understandable,” we told her. “They are ok. We won’t push you.”

“But they are not best.”

Life involves pain, and there’s no way around it. If we seal ourselves off for a time to recover, we can then reengage. But if we steel ourselves to the world as a posture, we stop living. And worse, we stop giving.

“Others need us,” we counseled. “And we need them. If you make new friends, yes, you will leave them, and it will hurt afresh. But they will fail to experience God’s goodness through you if you keep yourself from their friendship.”

“Take your time; there is no guilt,” we comforted. “Just do not let yourself forget there is a better ideal God calls us to. He is patient, but also maturing you. Use this time to grow deeper into his image, love, and mission.”

We are still in process, and she has friends now. Probably just in time to leave—and grieve—once more. But next time it will be easier, and soon she too will know the cycles of overseas friendship.

Our daughter’s life lesson is also one for adults. These life cycles can mask God’s ideal just as easily as our daughter’s reticence. Happiness comes in communion; life flourishes when we give of ourselves.

Empty yourself, as God did for you. Then enter into the joy of his fellowship—overseas, anywhere, and forever.


(This reflection was written with the approval of our daughter and after her review. It was first published at IDEAS.)


Abortion and its Complications, in Egypt


Abortion Egypt
via Mada Masr

Ireland is in fierce debate over its future with abortion. Such high-stakes battles are often called a culture war.

Abortion, like war, is a terrible thing. Even if one believes it is necessary, it is still death. Defining it otherwise, depending on one’s convictions, makes it almost worse than war. It is the prevention of life.

From war, at least, can come great virtue. All too often, abortion comes because of convenience.

Except in Egypt. Even when a willful choice, it is anything but convenient.

The good journalists at Mada Masr wish Egypt could be otherwise. On Safe Abortion Day, September 28, they posted a heart-wrenching two-part article, telling three stories of women aborting.

So as background, here are the essential facts:

Egypt has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. The law, which has remained largely unchanged since the 1930s, punishes women who intentionally abort a pregnancy with imprisonment. Abortion is not permitted on any grounds, including rape or incest.

The only exception is that a woman does not face punishment if she attempts to abort unsuccessfully. The Doctors Syndicate Code of Ethics also allows physicians to perform an abortion if the woman’s life or health is threatened, but this is a moral, not a legal, duty.

While there is a widespread assumption that this restrictive stance to abortion is rooted in religion, the origins of the law are colonial in nature. Articles that are still in force today were based on items in the French Penal Code.

The article does not tackle the controversy of whether abortion is legal in Islam. For those interested, here is how BBC and Wikipedia cover it. For many of our Muslim friends it is a non-issue.

But as will be seen, judicial rulings made little difference to the following three women.

Story one concerns a woman who had to hide away for her abortion, as she afterwards struggles with the morality of her choice.

Story two is of a woman in a forbidden relationship despite a knowing mother, which the abortion threatens if the wrong people find out.

Story three is of a married woman whose pregnancy puts her life in danger, only to be left unattended by doctors reluctant to get involved.

Please click here and here to read the article, but I’ve excerpted the most poignant sections below.

Story one

Had I been married, I would have had the abortion at home. There would have been no need to make up excuses to escape my family during that time. I would have been able to receive my friends at home, or at least I would have been able to use the bathroom freely without having to kneel whenever I passed in front of the window so the neighbors wouldn’t notice me.

Had I been married, I would have been able to go to any hospital as soon as the bleeding started. I would have been able to pretend that this was an accidental miscarriage and I would have received medical attention.

Had I been married, I would have received the news of my pregnancy differently, even if I decided to abort in the end.

Much of my resentment arose from the feeling that I was doing something illegal, even though it’s my own body. If I were in a different country, I might have been able to go to a hospital and request counseling. It’s disturbing not to be able to ask for help, to feel oppressed under a guardianship imposed by law and society.

Even though I had read over and over that a fertilized egg has no soul, I felt that I was killing my son or daughter. I felt the pain of loss and I was troubled by my questions:

Why did I have to do it this way? Perhaps I was worried more about the standard of living and the kind of life we had — if I didn’t have to struggle so much to eat and drink and do everything else, would I have opted to keep the baby?


Story two

I had always heard that male partners disappeared in these situations and that the whole relationship would end soon after. …

Every time I used the bathroom, he waited for me and took the sanitary pad to throw it away. This comforted me. I felt accepted. He wasn’t disgusted by my blood. I didn’t have to worry about the practicalities. I stayed focused on the pain I felt in my lower abdomen.

It’s such a false notion that only a husband will act responsibly and care for you — the notion that you should get married in order to have a man by you. No, the truth is that the man who took care of me during that period was one with whom I had what society sees as an illegitimate relationship.

Despite my persistent need to have a woman by my side at this time, I never imagined that my mother could be that woman. Our relationship wouldn’t allow it.

Everything I do goes against everything she believes in. I am in a relationship, which she knows about from Facebook. The idea of being in a relationship was itself too liberal for my conservative family.

The more important point was the future of my very small family, whose escape from my father was brought about by circumstances in which I played a key role.

Our separation from my father made my presence at home a source of strength to my mother. I was the eldest daughter and always supported her. I was the one who encouraged her to leave home when she was still with my father.

We were a family paying the price for choosing our own peace of mind. That price was living in a home beneath our social standing and having much less money to spend than we were previously accustomed.

So I faced a dilemma: If I left them, this might drive them back to my father. Also, if my father learned of this, he might force them to return, arguing that my pregnancy was proof that my mother was unable to handle us on her own.


Story three

I closed my eyes to the sight. My son was wrapped in a transparent plastic bag. His heart was beating slower and slower, until it came to a complete stop. I stopped screaming. My mother stopped crying. And I drifted out of consciousness.

I saw blood and wished I were asleep. I wished I hadn’t been awake for that experience, and that I didn’t relive it dozens of times in my nightmares.

I felt my soul escape my body to watch me from above. I was knocking my head against the wall. My sister’s skin was under my nails mixed with her blood. I grabbed at her with a strength I didn’t know I had.

She was crying, my mother screaming. My father was looking for the doctor who had already told us he wouldn’t help until he saw a head coming out of the womb.

“Haram [it’s wrong],” he said, very simply, judging me in my worst moment, as I both pitied and hated myself. From one in the afternoon until 11 at night, he left me to kill my son on my own.

The two doctors were in agreement, saying that the fetus would die. They provided the reports that they told me would allow me to have an abortion in any hospital.

I was allowed an abortion because I am a married woman and because the pregnancy was a risk to my health. They insisted, however, that neither would perform the abortion himself.

The first told me nicely that he doesn’t do abortions, and the second said that he wouldn’t do anything. I went to see a third doctor, but he was religious and said it was haram. His voice joined the first two: Even if I went through labor, I would still have a dead child. I surrendered.

I went home and listened to all the things I didn’t want to hear on that day. “You will be compensated. You will be rewarded. God’s will is never bad,” my family said.

Throughout, I felt my son resisting my body’s attempts to eject him. I was his home, but I was kicking him out. I was his safety, but I was expelling him. I felt him fight to stay alive, as I fought for him to die.

“Just open my stomach and get him out!” I screamed. I felt guiltiest at this point: He was still alive. His heart was still beating. My body wants to get rid of a living baby, a baby I claimed to love beyond belief, a baby whose ultrasound pictures I cherished, a baby whose every heartbeat was precious.

Every two weeks, I’d gone to the doctor just because I wanted to see this baby. But in that moment, I would have done anything just to get rid of him. I just wanted it to be over.

My father ran again through the corridors looking for someone to cut the cord, yelling like a man who was about to lose two lives, one of whom was struggling for his last breath.

Finally, the hospital manager intervened and severed the umbilical cord himself. He refused to give us any documentation of his involvement, or of any other doctor’s in my case, perhaps fearing legal ramifications. Before we left, and based on his request, a friend of my father’s, a gynecologist, came and cleaned my uterus in an operating room.

I walked to the room with blood dripping down my legs. My son was dead, and I was in a room lacking the most basic hygiene. I felt I was a woman having an abortion in a shady backroom clinic in Cairo.

I parted with my placenta and my faith. He departed to a new world, and I remained here for them to blame me for the loss. They forbade newlyweds from visiting me. “It’s a bad omen,” they said. I was faced with judgment from beginning to end. I was made to be guilty for a mistake I never made.

And then, a few months later I found out I was pregnant again and my first reaction was that I couldn’t deal with this.

I carried my pregnancy to term. I have a baby girl who is coping with a chronic disease for which there is no cure. I love her, and I accept her. My pregnancy and labor with her was very different. I continued to hear the same provocative consolations, however, things like, “You see, God rewarded you well.”

Story one struggled with guilt. Story two worried about shame. Story three was hit with religion.

Legal abortion in a culture of tolerance promises to do away with these pains. Pains they are, and they are not the only ones. The issues are real, and compassionate care is necessary.

There is forgiveness from guilt. There is freedom from shame. There is redemption in religion.

But I think that like war, abortion – legal or otherwise, necessary or convenient – would do well to keep its stigma. The barriers should be high, lest death, and life, lessen in sanctity. Like war, abortion should never become an easy option.

Like the reception of soldiers returning from war, however, all depends on a culture and community ready to embrace them.

Most pro-life people I am familiar with in the United States are like this. Media often depicts those angrily protesting in front of abortion clinics. I’m not sure who is more numerous, and there is no necessary distinction.

One can rail against cultural license one moment, and comfort a licentious teenager the next.

Listen to her stories. They may not be as frightful as the ones above. But they are all felt fully, in the moment, as a great war.

War is Hell? Yes. Abortion?

Whatever your answer, heaven is waiting. Consider both carefully in the ranking of priorities.

Culture Julie

What’s in Your Lunchbox?

Egypt Sandwich

One morning before school, Alexander, our newest kindergartener, was fiddling with Egyptian coins and thinking through options at the school canteen. His eyes lit up when he realized he could buy a milk box … maybe chocolate, maybe strawberry, or maybe banana!

He looked up and asked, as if he had a revelation. “Mom, how do I say, ‘Can I try a sip of that?’ in Arabic?”

My mind immediately thought of a gross juicebox straw that some kid was slobbering all over. Conditioned by American cafeteria germ paranoia, my first answer was, “You can’t ask for a sip of something. Please don’t ever ask for a sip of something, especially at school!”

So instead he asked, “Mom, how do I ask for a bite of something?”

Alexander was just beginning his time on the school playground; clearly this was something he wanted to learn.

But I still wasn’t thrilled. “Iskander [as his name translates in Arabic], do kids ever ask you for a bite? Do they ever ask for some of your food?”

He frowned. “Yes, they always want a pretzel.” At the breakfast table his three sisters immediately chimed in. “Yes, they always want the pretzels!”

It was a cultural revelation. My kids, the Americans, bring weird snacks to school.

Egyptian culture breeds generosity, usually. When a child opens a bag of chips it is common practice to offer to friends. Same with a packet of cookies. What you have is meant to be shared.

Earlier this summer as we visited a school friend, she told her mother, “Layla [our daughter] never brings a sandwich.” She couldn’t comprehend it. She thought we were starving her.

But the system here does not include a lunch break, and to me, a sandwich is lunch. Egyptian kids eat when they get home around between 2-4pm, depending on the traffic.

For them a sandwich is breakfast, eaten at the beginning of the day, often at school.

I grew up on peanut butter and jelly, or perhaps ham and cheese. My kids, meanwhile, have encountered a whole variety of sandwiches, and often get a taste. Usually they are made in a long, thin Kaiser-type roll or pita-type bread.

Inside: French fries. Or scrambled eggs. Perhaps some strange sort of salty white cheese. Maybe liver. Beans, mashed or falafeled.

Our oldest daughter recently attended a church retreat for expat kids. Hosted by Egyptians, she was surprised at the shock other campers had at the French fry sandwiches.

“What could be better to eat for breakfast?” she wondered, telling us over her morning corn flakes.

I am sure our littlest kindergartener will try many “bites” of things in the years to come. Unlike me growing up, hopefully it will expand his palate and encourage him to try new things.

And maybe he’ll also stop frowning when friends ask him for something, and instead, like them, will learn to offer freely.

He has freely received, as the Biblical saying goes.

What’s in your lunch? Can I have a bite?



Dealing with Death at a Distance – 5 Tips for Saying Goodbye

Death at a Distance

The expat life has many benefits, but one of the hardest challenges is being far from family.  This can be felt the most when you hear of someone who is sick, receives a bad medical prognosis, or is in an accident.  Living in a foreign country is hard when a loved one is dying.

What can you do if you can’t travel home as they near the end of their life? Sometimes job, school commitments, or extenuating circumstances prevents travel.  This was our situation last Spring when my mother-in-law succumbed to cancer.  Fortunately, my husband made it home the day before she died, but her health declined too quickly for all of us to travel in time.  My four children and I had to say our good-byes from afar.

1)      Be creative in saying “I love you” and other significant emotional statements.  When I heard my mother-in-law entered hospice care, I knew her time was short. I videoed each of my children telling their grandmother the things they appreciated about her and doing with her. Then I did the same, and was in tears the whole time. Over Skype, we played them for her.  Whatever she heard in her deteriorating shape, it was healthy and healing for us.

2)      Communicate honestly and openly with your children about what is happening.  Sometimes we have the idea that we must “be strong” for our children, our spouse, or others around us.  Actually, this is unhelpful in grief as emotions are better verbalized.  I sat down with my children and we talked candidly that their grandmother would die very soon and we would not see her alive again.  I cried as I said this, and all four kids followed suit.  We talked about what was happening.  We said what made us sad.  We said what we wished could be different.  And we hugged and we cried.  Together.

3)      Make special time to grieve.  That night I received the message that my mother-in-law passed away.  In the morning, I held the kids home from school so we could remember her, cry when we wanted to, and laugh when we could.  We did some favorite activities from times together, like play-doh and blowing bubbles.  We knew that we would be grieving for a while, but though the day was hard, it was memorable and set us on the path toward healing.

4)      Travel to attend the funeral or memorial service.  Though we made a good beginning in Egypt, I still felt like her death would not sink in until we traveled to New Jersey.  We figured out missing school work and made preparations, but time and money are resources well spent on grieving together with family.  The memorial service or funeral brings even more friends together, allowing memories to be shared and sorrow expressed.

5)      Give your kids a picture or special memento of the one who died as a physical reminder.  Even though it hurts to see it at times, triggering emotions for all the things we will miss about her, it is still better to remember.  That which is tangible connects best with our senses and emotions.

To be honest, I don’t want to go through this again.  I don’t want to have to say good-bye from afar.  But I have many more loved ones that may die or go through serious illnesses when I am living overseas.  Following these steps has helped our whole family grieve well, even at great distance. I hope they will also be helpful for you.

Click here to read the original post, as Julie tells the full story of how she processed grief from afar. This summary reflection was requested by our organization, IDEAS, to help expats around the world dealing with similar situations.

Culture Julie

Why Egyptians Get Confused by Our American Children’s Names

Arabic English Names

Names don’t work the same in every culture.

We realized this six years ago, when our oldest daughter came home from her first days of school with “Emma Jaison” printed on her books. Her name is Emma Hope Casper, which I clearly wrote on all her official forms.

But I also filled out the ever-important question of her father’s name, my husband, Jayson. As per Egyptian pattern, her name became Emma Jayson, though in practice Ema or Amy, Jaison or Jasen, depending on how they guessed these strange names to be spelled.

A quick lesson in the Egyptian naming system is required. When a baby is born, parents choose the first name, just as they would in America. But that is the choice available, and the rest of the name is determined by family.

Every baby’s second name is its father’s name, even if she is a girl. The third name is the baby’s grandfather’s name—that of the father’s father. The fourth and final name for official paperwork is that of the great-grandfather, and unofficially stretches back through the generations.

To be honest, we are still confused about any actual “family name”. Some people seem to have something to correspond with Smith or MacDonald, although it would be something along the lines of Masri (from Egypt) or Tantawi (from Tanta). But we can’t quite figure out how that works with the pattern above.

Each of our three daughters have similarly returned from kindergarten with their name changed. Our second became Hannah Jayson, though alternately spelled: Hanah, Hana, or Hanna.

Trying to get it right in discussion with school administration, our third daughter’s first name, Layla, got combined with her second, Peace. But her papers came back:  Lailapes Jaison. I almost couldn’t figure out what it said.

Granted, transliteration between English and Arabic isn’t easy. But he mix-ups in name have sometimes bothered our girls. A simple name like Emma Hope has become Amahoub. Hannah Mercy was eventually spelled correctly, with her a different issue emerged.

In kindergarten, Hannah was known only as Hannah Jayson, but when she entered first grade, they added her actual middle name. This happened the same year that the former president Mohamed Morsy was deposed.

But when you write Mercy in Arabic script it looks just like Morsy, since Arabic writing leaves out the short vowels. And since the word “mercy” in English looks nothing like its translation in Arabic (rahma), everyone assumed she was similarly named to the Muslim Brotherhood leader.

Plenty of people here hated the Brotherhood, but Morsi is a fine and common name—among Muslims. While plenty of names have no religious marker, Abanoub or Shenouda signify a Christian, while Mohamed or Morsi indicate the child is a Muslim.

So the teachers wondered: Why is Hannah Morsy enrolled in the Christian religion class?

Click here to read more about our kids and religious education in Egypt.

Even more confusing for the teachers is how Emma “Hobe” and Hannah “Morsy” are sisters to begin with, with different names for their father. Add in Lailapes Jaison and you really confuse them!

We thought we would make things easier for our son Alexander, who is now entering kindergarten.

Click here to read the different naming options we considered, with pros and cons for each in Egypt.

My husband’s middle name is the same as his father’s, so to honor both the family and the Egyptian pattern, we did the same. He is Alexander Jayson (father’s name) Charles (grandfather’s name). His last name is still Casper, as we can’t imitate them in everything.

But it won’t be that easy. We commonly call him by the Arabic equivalent of Alexander, Iskander. He goes by both, and much as a four-and-a-half-year-old understands these things, he knows they are both his names.

But when he gets to school, what will he say his name is? Will he write Iskander in Arabic class, but Alexander in English? And how many people will just call him Alex, anyway?

Despite the confusion for each of our kids, we teach them their names were chosen with care. We display them in our living room, that they might be esteemed by child and guest alike.

English-speaking friends sometimes curiously notice the semi-strange middle names, and Arabic-speaking friends are often altogether confused. But wholesome discussion usually follows.

Hope, Mercy, and Peace—each a desirable virtue for life, paired with a corresponding Bible verse we trust they will internalize.

Our son’s pattern is different, and his sign requires more explanation. Alexander was the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross. Of his two middle names, may he follow and become a third generation of faith.

Children grow old and develop their character. But a name is the one thing we give them they keep their whole lives. Their identity will be shaped by many, and their path is their own.

But we have the responsibility to shape their foundation, beginning with that first official form.

Our Hope is that they grow up with the Mercy to let others misunderstand them, the internal Peace to know who they truly are, and a family history to teach them whose cross they are privileged to carry.

Name Signs


Culture Religion

The Uneasy Life of a Middle East Skeleton

Max the Skeleton and Family

Meet Max. In skeleton-years he is at least 55.

Max came to our home about three years ago, and I must confess we have not treated him very well. At the time of his arrival our young children had Egyptian friends playing over the house, and we are unsure if there was any unspoken trauma from a dead man being hauled through the front door.

The friends have continued to come, so no great damage done. But uncertain comments from parents convinced us to keep him in the storage room thereafter.

Accessible, but out of the way. Part of the house, but not part of life. I suppose that’s fitting—being dead and all—but it still seems cruel.

In the Middle East it is often observed that some parents hide away children with mental or physical disabilities. This pattern is changing, but a sense of shame has condemned many to at-home isolation.

Have we treated Max similarly?

The cultural pattern for death is somewhat similar. Muslim tradition demands a body be buried almost immediately. Unlike the West where a mortician will preserve for final goodbyes at a later-scheduled funeral, the shock of death is quickly muted. So also is grief, at least for half of society. Women may wail and cry out in pain. Men are expected to resign themselves to the will of God, and move on.

So for those who knew, it must have been very strange that we have dead bones in our closet.

Or, had. We recently moved Max to a suitable institution, finding for him a welcoming home. But we signed no paperwork, neither to receive him nor pass him on.

Here also we may resemble Middle East culture. Children in difficult situations may be taken in by relatives or others, but there is no formal adoption. Islam forbids the transfer of family heritage, lest ancient lineages become corrupted.

But we should pause here and say a word about Max. Consistent with all the above-mentioned taboos, we have so far ignored him and spoken only about ourselves and the expectations that press upon the region.

Unfortunately, we cannot say much.

Max likely belonged to a medical school in Cairo at least as far back as 1962. The sister of an Egyptian friend graduated from the university, did her internship, and somehow came in possession of what must have been a favored learning tool.

In time, much like in our story but considerably worse for him, Max wound up in a trunk in her parent’s basement. Several years later our friend found him, and passed him on to her friend taking a dental exam. Max doesn’t have too many teeth, but I suppose his jaw was sufficient.

This was around the same time we visited our friend. It is hard to recall the conversation, but one of our daughters must have expressed an interest in science. Perhaps we even asked about a skeleton, if the plastic versions were available in Egypt.

Little did we know our friend had the real thing. After succeeding in the dental exam, our friend’s friend drove Max to our home, where he has resided since.


Until now. We have changed apartments, and in the purge we had to make a decision about Max. I would love for him to rest next to one of our children’s beds, or even dwell with us in the family room. We value learning – we have maps on our walls, we have books on our shelves.

But we also have friends who visit. I recently brought back from America a favored wall hanging of a ‘Wise Old Owl who lived in an oak,’ that was in my room since childhood. We displayed it prominently, until Egyptian friends reminded us that an owl is an ill omen in Arab culture. So much for wisdom.

The owl poem continues: ‘The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we all be like that bird?’

Applying the poem with its cultural implications suggested we should at least move the owl to the privacy of our bedroom. And perhaps it suggested also the fate of Max.

Until fate intervened. In lamenting Max on Facebook during our moving process, friends in the administration of a local international school mentioned they had long desired a skeleton. Our oldest daughter was joining the student body after doing her elementary years in the Egyptian system, so it seemed a perfect match.

We restore Max to his original educational purpose, but family is still there to help with his transition.

The last question was how to move him. Around the time Max came to our home I purchased a medical IV stand, and the hook in his head hung him in place.

We amusedly considered rolling him down the street in procession with our family, but thought the neighbors already consider us odd enough foreigners.


Max in Car

In the end the school came with a car, and we laid Max down on the lowered back seat.

Perhaps it recalled one of no-longer-alive-Max’s first memories.

Despite the lightness of this post, there is a serious point. Christians believe two things about Max: He was made in God’s image, and he will be bodily resurrected.

Different cultures demand different customs concerning the dead. But immediate burial, final viewing, preserving relics, quiet cremation, and funeral pyres are all expressions of the same impulse: Honor.

A principle means of honoring life is right treatment in death. There is something sacred that lingers. It must be remembered.

It may also be employed. God intends us to enjoy our life, but to find this enjoyment in service of others. Death can be an extension: When my mother died, she donated her body to science.

Maybe Max did the same.

In any case, he has a new home. The school may or may not struggle with the same issues we did, but at least Max is now back to his proper place in education.

We don’t know the details, but perhaps Max also knew God’s proper place in life. May we all, before we all become Max.

Emma and Max the Skeleton

Culture Current Events

Hijabs, Burkinis, and Assumptions

A woman wears a Burkini in the south of France Credit: PA (via ITV)

A quick word to not judge by appearances, or to make assumptions about religious values.

Our family took a vacation to the Red Sea recently, at a hotel with a healthy mix of European speedos and Egyptian burkinis. It was quite the contrast.

From what we could tell, everyone behaved respectfully and enjoyed themselves.

While nowhere as revealing as a traditional bikini, the burkini is quite shapely. One night at dinner two Egyptians rose to dance to the folk band that came through. One was bareheaded, the other wore a hijab. Both knew well the techniques of belly dancing, and took no mind of the onlookers.

Was one a Christian, the other Muslim? If hijabed, why would she dance so? And while the burkini is an innovative development to help conservative Muslims enjoy the beach, is it conservative enough?

Within this discussion a recent article at CairoScene took my attention. A popular Egyptian comedienne decided to take off her hijab: 

Mostafa stated through her official Facebook page that she had been wearing the hijab since she was in primary school up until high school, and she believes that, in the beginning, it was internalised by her as ‘normal’ because it was just part of the way you’d look in the society and community she grew up in. However, when she really started asking herself if she was wearing it for herself, God, or people, she realised she was doing it out of pure conforming to society – “The concept of God wasn’t there,” she stated.

Mostafa started wearing it in different ways, like the fashionable turban-style hijab that has been more prevalent lately in Egypt and around the world for hijabis. But, that did not go well because she was once again attacked for wearing hijab “the wrong way,” though she asserts is something a lot of girls do in terms of their choice in clothing that is only coupled with a scarf over the head.

Her decision to take off the hijab came to her when she refused contradicting herself. She states that once she takes it off, which is what she is comfortable doing now, perhaps she will become convinced of the concept of the hijab on a personal level, and if that happens, it’ll be the right decision because it’ll come from within.

[Read on to discover the largely negative reactions to her post.]

As you encounter Muslim women in your everyday life, be careful not to make assumptions. Some wear the hijab because of their culture. Some wear it because of their husband or father. Some wear it because of piety. Some wear it as a political statement.

What they actually believe, and their personal character, may bear no relation whatsoever. Or maybe it does.

We were in church the other day and a hijabed lady came in with an uncovered friend. This is unusual in Egypt, but it doesn’t have to be a scandal.

My daughter asked, surprised, “Daddy, is she a Muslim?”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Some Christians cover their heads in church.”

My daughter protested. It was clearly a Muslim hijab.

“You’ll have to ask her,” I said, smiling wryly.

My daughter didn’t like that answer either. It is sort of an awkward question, both in Egypt and America.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to make assumptions. What we need is conversation. When you next encounter that hijabed woman going about your daily life – yes, it is awkward – do your best to say hi.

Who knows what assumptions will be undone next.



The Importance of ‘Nizam’

US Constitution

This quote is taken from an Iranian, but I think the sentiment — and language — would be the same for many Arabs:

On July 4, Mahmoud Esmaeili, a 33-year-old software engineer, became an American citizen. Here’s why: “I like the system here. I like the rule of law. You know what to expect and what to not expect, so you can plan. That was the major part of why I wanted to be part of America.” — from the Washington Post.

In Arabic the word for ‘system’ is ‘nizam’. On one level it refers to the governing apparatus, as heard during the Arab revolts, “al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam,” or “the people want the downfall of the regime.” Mubarak had his nizam, so did Morsi, and now Sisi bears the weight of the term.

But the term implies more. It is the way society operates. On this level Mubarak, Morsi, and Sisi are much the same. Regardless of their political orientation, most people I meet complain equally about the Egyptian nizam.

And they are equally jealous of the American nizam.

The Post article relates a fascinating survey that shows 93% of Americans believe that respecting American institutions and laws are very important to being American.

Read the article to discover other criteria that polled high or low, but take a minute to be thankful for the American nizam — regardless of who hold office.

And take a moment of reflection also about the foolishness of certain political trends that seek to undermine it.

We must jealously guard our constitution, laws, separation of powers, electoral system, and essential rights. The human tendency to power must be tamed by a social contract that agrees to play by the rules.

This contract, says the survey, suggests Americans are far more united than commonly thought. Both parties would do well to better esteem this consensus.

One Iranian, I trust, would heartily agree.

Can any Farsi speakers verify if ‘nizam’ would have been his word of choice?


Ramadan Diversity

Ramadan Diversity

Today is the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting.

In order to help our Western friends understand this month, here are a few stories that reveal a wide scope of Ramadan diversity.

It may be surprising to some that in Egypt, many churches host iftar, the fast-breaking meal at sunset. I attended two, which I reported on for Christianity Today. It can be a great way to honor Muslims for their commitment, and to build bridges between the two communities.

Inspired by the practice, we looked to imitate.

Our daughter invited her school friends and mothers, which included a Christian family. She even encouraged us not to eat or drink – from noon until 7pm – to share the experience.

But this experience did not include any men, so I was banished to the back room. One of the mothers is more traditional and the company of women put all at ease.

Fortunately, they sent back some food.

On another occasion we went to a friend’s home to break fast with them. Our younger daughter asked if one of the ladies of the house was a Christian, as she didn’t cover her hair.

Needless to say, this group was comfortably mixed in gender.

We were not fasting with them on this occasion, and decided first to stop by the new mall opened in their neighborhood – which even has an indoor ski park!

The mall was pretty empty, as most people were at work or looking to get home on time to eat again. But Baskin Robbins was open and even offered their free samples. We all indulged.

As parents we were careful not to eat or drink in public throughout the day, but made an exception for the ice cream. When we got back to the car, our thermoses emptied.

Similar was an interview I did with a Muslim friend downtown. The temperature was 109 degrees, and to make my way there I walked to the metro, rode in the crowded un-air-conditioned car, then after a short walk outside stuffed myself into a microbus.

All the while there was a water bottle in my bag, unable to surface.

Yet when I arrived, my friend kindly offered me a cup of water.

What to do? Muslims know Christians are not fasting, and are generally not offended if a friend eats quietly in front of them. His was a kind gesture on a hot day.

But in Egypt Christians generally choose not to eat or drink in front of them from respect.

I can’t say if this was the right decision or not. But I took the cup, thanked him for his consideration, and placed it down on the table.

I assured him I would be willing to drink it later, but never did.

It was a long trek back home as well, but hopeful a genuine sentiment was communicated.

Later in the month, however, we invited another Muslim friend to break fast at our home. He was without his family for a while, so he could share with us.

But he is a non-practicing Muslim, and preferred to eat at our normal dinnertime of 6pm, an hour before sunset.

There is a good bit of diversity in Ramadan, but it doesn’t end there.

Unrelated to the month we invited a Christian family to join us for a meal. But surprised we were when they left half their plate untouched.

We failed to realize the Christian ‘Fast of the Apostles’ overlapped with Ramadan this year. Coptic Christians abstain from meat during their fasts, which last several days – like Lent – not just from sunrise to sunset.

If they are faithful, Coptic Christians can be fasting over half the year.

Unlike us, the local sweet shop is quite accustomed to Coptic fasts and always has a ready stash of Christian-fast-appropriate treats available.

Perhaps from habit in filling our order when we visit Christian families, the shopkeeper naturally doled out from that supply.

We didn’t realize it until he was done, but said no matter. We were off to visit Muslim friends but judged they taste similar enough.

Given the spirit of the season, we don’t think our friends minded – if they even noticed.

You may have an image in your mind of Muslims. There may be an associated thought about Ramadan. Most likely it is true, at least partially.

But realize there is much diversity in the Muslim world, and each deserves our understanding and honor.

Among some this is difficult (think of terrorists). Among others it is easy (think of our friends).

I suppose like humanity in general, most are in-between.

But however difficult to imagine, it becomes easier when you actually know them.

And like humanity in general, it can become more difficult when you actually know them well.

We all have warts. But we are all also made in the image of God.

Do your best to discover both among Muslims, as you can.

And congratulations to all our Muslim friends; enjoy your feast.


Culture Religion

Should Christians Join Muslims in Breaking Ramadan’s Daily Fast?

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 22, 2017.

St. Andrews Iftar

For most American Christians, Ramadan is a novelty; something heard of, but rarely seen. For Middle Eastern Christians, it is everywhere.

For some, it is an annoyance. The month-long fast from sunrise to sunset can make for a cranky Muslim neighbor. Productivity tends to slow. Religiosity tends to rise.

But for other believers, it is an opportunity.

“The Evangelical Church of Maadi wishes all Egyptians a generous Ramadan,” proclaimed the flowery banner hung in the southern Cairo suburb. Such signage is not uncommon (and Muslims also display Merry Christmas wishes for Christians). But saluting “all Egyptians” is a statement.

“I want our brother Muslims to feel that we are one [as Egyptians], and it will make him happy in his heart,” said pastor Naseem Fadi. “We both celebrate Ramadan.”

Beside the need to have good relations with Muslims, Fadi also emphasized his biblical obligations. “Our faith tells us to love everyone,” he said. “And when we reach out to others, we teach them about ourselves.”

Across the Middle East, Christians join in the festive spirit—often by hosting an iftar, the traditional fast-breaking dinner…

Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.



Culture Current Events

Will the Ambush of a Church Retreat Ambush Also Coptic Faith?

This article was first published at Providence Magazine.

Ambush Coptic Bus Minya
(Photo Credit: Screenshot of Associated Press raw footage of bus that was carrying Coptic Christians going to church retreat when they were ambushed in Egypt on May 26.)

As word spread that 28 Coptic Christians were killed by terrorists, ambushed on their way to a church retreat in Upper Egypt, it was a little while before the realization hit: I was on a church retreat in the Delta.

Being in the opposite direction offered no sense of safety. Only one month earlier the Islamic State sent two suicide bombers to spoil Palm Sunday in churches in the Delta cities of Tanta and Alexandria. But this attack seemed different, another escalation. Coptic outings like the fated one to St. Samuel the Confessor Monastery near Minya in Upper Egypt represent one of the favorite activities of Orthodox Christians throughout Egypt, a mixture of spirituality and social fun. This killing could be a message for Christians to stay in their homes. Whether at worship or leisure, they are ISIS’ favorite target.

But the mentality is worse. Before the Palm Sunday bombings, the Islamic State drove Christians from their homes in northern Sinai, forcing them to take refuge in the Suez Canal cities or Cairo. There is an element—very small but determined and dangerous—that wants Egypt rid of Christianity.

It will be a very difficult task. The roots of the faith go back two thousand years. Copts claim first-century St. Mark the gospel writer as the founder of their church, and third-century St. Anthony the hermit as the founder of monasticism. Gruesome death is no stranger to the Coptic Orthodox Church; its liturgical calendar begins at the era of Diocletian, the Roman emperor who set thousands of martyrs to the sword. It is not likely the church is going anywhere.

But will they think twice before going again to a monastery? St. Samuel is off in the desert, an ancient expression of the Christian impulse to simplify and flee the allurement of the world. Copts in Upper Egypt go to the monastery 120 miles south of Cairo on the Western Desert road to seek the saint’s blessing, and perhaps the spiritual guidance of a monk. But with little else in the way of area entertainment, they also go for a picnic and to have a good time.

So also do they go to Anafora, a modern expression of the Christian impulse to simplify and uplift the marginalized of the world. This is where I was, 90 miles north of Cairo on the Alexandria Desert road, when I heard the news of the savage attack on the bus to St. Samuel. The rest of the day the atmosphere was sullen. Founded only two decades ago and not a monastery but a place of lay retreat and development, Anafora is usually vibrant and bustling with activity. But what joy can there be in the face of such evil?

Yet there must be. That evening the staff at Anafora quietly celebrated the birthday of one of their sisters. The founding bishop urges Copts to not give into fear, but to insist on both love and justice. Is this not the message of Christianity, to resurrect life after suffering death? The Coptic Orthodox Church has incarnated this model for two thousand years, will they not continue?

Friday begins the weekend in Egypt in accordance with the Muslim day of communal prayer. Most churches make this their primary worship service as well, and many Christians take advantage of the quiet roads and time off to commune with fellow believers in their monastery of preference. There are dozens scattered throughout the country, and surely next Friday they will be full again. Copts have not stopped going to church after the suicide bombings. I suspect they will not stop celebrating their heritage of monasticism and martyrdom either.

But the question of continuance must be asked. Since the Arab Spring, emigration has dramatically increased in anecdote, though official figures cannot be verified. And for decades within Egypt, economic realities even more than sectarian tension have driven internal migration from villages to cities. Are there enough of strong faith and eternal Christian values to stay and persevere? Or is it those of strong means and international Christian connections who leave, regardless of faith? In any case, the less-well-off are left behind.

But poor, rich, and in-between, the Copts of Egypt still number in the millions. Now by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East, they also claim a Biblical promise. “Blessed be Egypt, my people,” God says through the prophet Isaiah, and with Muslims the Copts see God’s hand of preservation upon the land of the Nile. But Isaiah also listed Assyria, modern-day Iraq now bereft of Christians, as God’s handiwork. With Israel named as God’s inheritance, is the best the Copts can hope for a tenuous middle ground?

There may not be much sympathetic American Christians can do to help, but do try to understand. And as you enjoy your church outing in the weeks to come this summer, do so with remembrance and prayer. Think too of the allurements of the world, the blessings of simplicity, and the necessary uplift of the marginalized. Think of St. Samuel, and of Anafora, and of an ancient bond of faith.

If from there you can only grow frustrated, remember the importance of love, justice, and joy. Trust God will work out his purposes and join him along the way, even as ambushes await.



Culture Current Events

Art after Terror: Meet the Egyptian Church that Welcomes Muslims

This article was first published at The Media Project.

Art after Terror Alexandria

Two weeks after the Palm Sunday suicide bombing in Alexandria, security at the St. Mark’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral was tight. Police cordon, metal detector, bags checked – even eyeglasses needed to be removed.

But inside, tucked away behind the expectant bustle, volunteer leaders circled with hands together and let out a shout, as if to the whole world.

“Believe me, the solution is love!” they cried, raising their hands to heaven.

Ninety percent were Muslim.

Widely known in Egypt as an Islamist stronghold, for decades many Muslim youth in Alexandria had proclaimed the Muslim Brotherhood slogan: Islam is the solution.

And similar to churches throughout the country, St. Mark’s is couched behind thick, high walls. Save for official visits on Christian holidays, few Muslims would need to enter.

But society needed it, decided Nader Wanis. In 2012 in cooperation with church leaders, he opened the Corners for Creativity cultural center in the 150-year-old cathedral, seizing on an opening in the Arab Spring.

Despite the positive signs of youth engagement and interfaith cooperation during the Egyptian revolution, at the time there were also marks of tension. A year earlier conservative Salafis burned a church in Cairo believing a Muslim woman was kidnapped inside. Before that the Two Saints Church in Alexandria was bombed by unknown assailants on New Year’s Eve.

“The church has been misunderstood by the Egyptian street,” said Wanis. “There are rumors we have weapons, fornication, and sorcery inside.

“As long as the church stays closed, Muslims can think whatever they want. But the cultural center is a means to let people in.”


Since then they have come in droves, and the community has welcomed it. Over one thousand each year have graduated from diverse training programs in singing, drawing, photography, acting, writing, fine arts, and graphic design. All are run by volunteer leaders.

On this occasion dozens of artists gathered for the monthly art exhibition and handicraft market. Paintings and sculptures lined the walls of the church in absolute reversal of their original purpose. Hijabed women offered their homemade crafts behind foldaway tables set up in front of the massive church door.

The volunteers’ pep talk met behind the welcoming ribbon soon to be cut by two deans from Alexandria University and a local businessman. And afterwards everyone gathered to honor participants in the sanctuary, where Muslims and Christians sang together about religious harmony and community service. “Believe me, love is the solution,” was one of their most enthusiastic.

But it almost didn’t happen.

The church attack ensured it did.

Nader was worshiping at St. Mark’s when the walls shook from the explosion at the Orthodox cathedral five minutes away, killing 17. Earlier the center had considered postponing the exhibition due to the university exam schedule. But after finishing communion he immediately called his team to determine the necessary response.

The 40 volunteer leaders gathered daily in discussion and decided to hold the exhibition and announce it as Masr al-Samida, Egypt the Resistant. Difficult to translate into English, it connotes the suffix ‘-proof’, as in ‘water-,’ or fittingly, ‘bomb-.’

“We insist on creating peace,” said Wanis. “As a church we will not be scared, we will not close in on ourselves again because of one or two incidents, we will not build more walls.

“Now, Muslims and Christians are together. If they explode us again we will die together.”


Mohamed Moussa is one of the longest serving volunteers at the center. A fourth-year journalism student at Alexandria University, he is responsible to organize the exhibition.

“The message is that we are one people, persevering,” he said. “Every time something happens it only brings us closer.”

Moussa knew nothing of the center four years ago, but stumbled into a media course. Touched by the ethos he remains, now in charge of a medium far from his chosen education.

“When you are here you feel there is no difference between a Muslim and a Christian,” he said. “If anything they treat us better than them.

“We are one family, and we are getting bigger.”

Part of the allure of the center goes beyond interfaith unity. Volunteers are given additional training by Wanis and others in administration, marketing, and leadership. But this last word is anathema.

Volunteers are called khadim, the traditional word in the church that means “servant.”

“We are in a church, so they use our language,” Wanis said. “We reject the common terminology and its logic, because we do not lead, we serve.”

And the contrast could not be clearer for the newest volunteer.

“There is no ‘I’ here, we are all together and work together,” said Bassant Fawzy, a 21-year-old art student at Alexandria University.

“People with knowledge and skills tend to keep them to themselves, but here we teach each other.”

Only one week a “servant”, she brought along her friend Ibrahim Mohamed, who was surprised and impressed to see Islamic-themed art in a church building. Without his knowing, Fawzy borrowed his traditional drum and decorated it with a phrase from the popular song The Nation’s Heart is Wounded, “It is not for us to be silent.”

“We need hope to overcome the crisis,” Mohamed said. “We want everyone to know we support our country in all it is going through. And with terrorism in the churches we must say it here, in the heart of a church.”


When Wanis started Corners for Creativity he did not know how Muslims would respond. Four topics were expressly forbidden: Religion, politics, sex, and soccer – four topics that divide society. But still today nervousness abounds.

“Some Christians are afraid for me,” said Bassem Mounir, a fine arts student and four months a servant. “After the bombings they are worried about Muslims coming into a church.

“But this church opens its doors to everyone, as if we are all brothers.”

At the ceremony each participant received a certificate, honored by the university deans. On the screen above flashed a prayer: God, remember the terrorists who love you and will even give their lives for you, but who neither know you nor your love for all people.

“There is a virus spreading through society to divide it, working through religion,” said Mohamed Helal, dean of the faculty of fine arts. “Religion builds walls, but art transcends them – and this is what Nader is doing.”

The effect has been transformative for Christian and Muslim alike.

“It makes people in our church feel like they are part of the community,” said Bishop Samy Fawzy Shehata, head of the Anglican churches in Alexandria. “It is not healthy to have walls around you, it is a kind of sign that you are an exclusive group.”

Instead, he believes, the church must present an essential message, in light of extremism that pulls people apart.

“We’re trying to show the community that it is possible to live together in peace,” he said.

“It’s not that difficult, you just open the door.”


Culture Uncategorized

Ballerinas of Cairo

One of the ballerinas participating in the Ballerinas of Cairo project poses, Cairo, Nov. 11, 2016. (photo by Facebook/ballerinaofcairo)

Al-Monitor highlights a new effort to get art to the street. Ballerinas of Cairo has some great pictures, combining cultural physique with iconic cityscape.

By taking to the streets of Cairo, the young artists have succeeded in breaking the stereotype that ballet is an art form for the upper class only. Despite the dangers of performing on the streets and fears of negative reactions from the public, the ballerinas surprise passers-by with their performances.

When asked about the most difficult shows they performed, Taher said, “The performance in downtown [Cairo] was quite difficult given the heavy traffic, which made it harder for us to shoot. Our objective is an image that shows the beauty of ballet as an art as well as Cairo’s sites.”

According to Fathy, the idea of the project is to combine three art forms: architecture, ballet and photography. So far, Ballerinas of Cairo has performed 11 shows on several streets in Cairo, all of which were photographed.

I can’t say I’m very knowledgeable about ‘the arts’, but I admire the efforts of Egypt’s cultural scene to take their passion to the people. Here are some efforts I’ve highlighted in the past.

Perhaps one day an greater cultural appreciation of art will take hold. But without such efforts to sow seeds even along the roadside, it probably never will.


Creative Solutions to Sexual Crime

Women's march in Cairo
Arabic: There is no need for men only. (Photograph: Virginie Nguyen, via Mada Masr.)

Official Egyptian statistics departments have recently published sobering numbers concerning domestic violence:

At least 18 percent of adult Egyptian women have reportedly experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of family members or close acquaintances in 2015, according to official estimates by Egypt’s Economic Cost of Gender Based Violence Survey (ECGBVS), published in June 2016.

Around 46 percent of married women aged 18 to 64 years in Egypt have experienced some form of spousal violence, whether physical, emotional or sexual, according to the same survey, which was conducted by Egypt’s official statistic body the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the National Council of Women (NCW) and the United Nations Fund for Population Agency (UNFPA).

One out of four married women has been subjected to physical violence at one point in their lives by their current or former husband, according to 2014 statistics from the Demographic and Health Survey.

(via Ahram Online)

And according to the UN, it is even worse for women outside the home. Back in 2014 I wrote about a Sunday School teacher training children to defend themselves against sexual harassment, and conveyed these figures:

According to a survey published by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, more than 99 percent of Egyptian women have been subjected to sexual harassment.

This goes far beyond playful catcalls, with 96 percent reporting their bodies have been touched and 55 percent of these having had their breasts groped.

Egyptian society and government recognizes the problem and has recently increased fines and jail terms for offenders. But this article by Mada Masr concerns a victim who thought beyond punishment into transformation. And she went the extra mile to secure a greater justice.

When one woman was sexually harassed this month in Cairo, she made an unusual move: she came to an informal agreement with her attacker’s family and juvenile prosecution to drop charges on condition that the boy get therapy and do community service.

Having caught the boy who groped her hard from behind, after quite a chase, Mariam felt more confused than victorious. Quite a crowd gathered when she caught him. It was the evening of a match and having run through a few streets, the boy tripped by a full café.

“People assumed that I was chasing him because he’d stolen something from me. They asked me and I said yes, he stole something very important, my dignity.” Some of those who had gathered suggested she leave it now, she had caught, hit and insulted him, that he was young and she should forgive him. But those who stayed on the scene, all men Mariam says, encouraged her.

Then, when the police came and the 14-year-old was being put in the van, they hit him on the back of his neck. “I freaked out,” Mariam recounts. “We all know what happens in Egyptian prisons and police stations and detention centers. I felt I was caught between two fires. Either I get my rights and this boy is subjected to violence, or I let him go, he will carry on doing it, I’ll be passive and other things I can’t accept for myself.”

Fortunately, she found allies in the 14-year-old’s parents, and in the public prosecutor. They worked out an arrangement, one the court may even return to:

She told the prosecutor about HarassMap, an NGO that encourages bystanders and institutions to speak up against harassers and have a zero-tolerance attitude toward harassment. He was not dismissive, as she had expected, and took a contact so that he could deal with HarassMap in similar cases, also informally.

There are many problems in Egypt, but also good people. And often unreported are the small changes that ripple through society, as these good people labor on:

“There has been a huge shift, primarily around the question of who should be ashamed,” Abdel Hameed says.

Perhaps one day, none will need be.


Ramadan Balderdash

Ramadan Balderdash

In Egypt, Ramadan is not only highly anticipated as month of spiritual fasting, but also as a month of television entertainment. It is estimated that 80% of original content is released during the month, broadcast after sunset when family gathers to eat, socialize, and watch the hottest stars in action.

One of my favorite party games is called Balderdash, a development of the very simple ‘dictionary game’. In the original version one player searches for an obscure word and writes the definition on a piece of paper. Every other player then makes up a definition, also writing it down and giving it to the selector. All papers are then read out loud, and points are scored not only for guessing the correct definition, but also for votes given to the most convincing–or outrageous–made up efforts.

The commercial version of Balderdash expands this concept to include obscure acronyms, laws, individuals, and… movie titles.

Which of the following do you think is an invented title and plot?

Free Fall: Malak is a psychopath who is accused of murdering her husband and her sister after the crime weapon, a gun, is found with her. When she is arrested the court decides to put her in a psychiatric clinic. She faces many problems inside the clinic until the truth about the murders is revealed at the end.

Above Reproach: Rahma is a sociopath who seems to be kind and normal, but in reality is consciously harming the people around her.

Marionette: A businessman’s wife is thinking about appearing on a popular television show. The husband intervenes, fearing that his past will be reopened, revealing his involvement in a murder.

Wedding Song: A theatrical group in the 1970s discover in a reading that the play they will perform is about their own lives and secrets. They refuse to take part in the play but the group leader insists, as his way to salvation. The actors find themselves on stage playing their own real life characters.

Father of the Girls: A businessman and a former drug dealer who owns a car shop has a dispute with one of his competitors, so he moves with his family to Cairo. But this does not end his problems.

A Psychiatric Clinic: The series is based on a true story about a female teacher in an international school who suffered sexual harassment from one of her students. Can she overcome the incident? Or will she discover that everyone around her is accusing the victim?

Seven Souls: A police officer arrests a powerful man accused of murdering a woman. The arrested man is sentenced to death. But what would happen to the police officer if the allegedly murdered woman is still alive?

Wanoos: A father of four meets a devil called Wanoos. He becomes attached to him and leaves his family, work and life. But after 20 years of trouble making and misdeeds, he reviews his past. Can he change?

Lineage Crisis: A nurse in a fertility clinic falls in love with one of the clients, a wealthy and married businessman. He secretly marries her, hoping to have a baby. But he dies before she becomes pregnant. The greedy wife invents a trick to inherit her late husband’s wealth. Is she able to deceive everyone?

Superman Daughters: Superman is visiting Egypt and meets with his dream girl in El-Haram Street. When he leaves, she discovers she is pregnant. Will she give birth to superboy or supergirl?

I wish I was creative enough to have invented these; all of the above are real synopses. Many thanks to Ahram Online for giving a preview of what Egyptians will be watching this month. Click here to watch short previews of the seven most highly anticipated dramas.

How do you think they compare to the list of American favorites? What do you think television reveals about the state of any society and its values?


Culture Current Events

The Mural in the Garbage: An Artist’s ‘Perception’ of Cairo’s Coptic Slum

eL Seed Perception
eL Seed’s ‘Perception’ as seen from the St. Simon Monastery in Cairo’s Muqattam Mountains

This article was first published at The Media Project:

In 2013 the French-Tunisian eL Seed became the first Arab artist to collaborate with fashion mogul Louis Vuitton. His unique “caligraffiti” style emblazoned their classic Foulards d’Artiste monogram scarf, and embellished their iconic Alzer luggage case.

Blending traditional Arabic calligraphy with street-style urban graffiti, his reputation grew as his murals transformed walls around the world with messages of peace. Condé Nast Traveler feted eL Seed (pictured above) as one of the year’s leading visionaries, even as he mingled with artists, diplomats, celebrities, and billionaires.

Three years later he was picking through trash in a city dump.

I wrote recently about the community that inhabited this dump, the Zabbaleen of Manshiat Nasser, and the cave church that rose out of its squalor in the Muqattam mountains. eL Seed designed a massive mural that encompasses the walls of 50 apartment buildings, visible only from the monastery above.

The elaborate Biblical rock carvings hewn by a resident Polish artist have made the monastery one of Cairo’s lesser-known gems, but to get there one must still brave the pungent smells below. That is exactly what eL Seed did to obtain the approval of now 75-year-old Fr. Simon.

The article also tells the story of Abanoub, a 23-year-old Manshiat Nasser resident who Fr. Simon relied upon to help eL Seed adapt to the area and win support for his project. But when he was done, neither Abanoub nor the residents could read what was written. Here is how el Seed explains this, and the following concludes the article:

“You don’t need to know the meaning to feel the peace,” he said, “but when you get the meaning, you feel connected to it.”

Though he chooses sayings that have a universal dimension, eL Seed strives also for local relevancy. In Bishop Athanasius he identified a champion of the Egyptian church, who preserved the orthodox teaching of Christ’s divine nature from the heresy of Arianism. This history may be little studied by the Zabbaleen, but the gesture was not lost on Abanoub, a church hymnist.

Though almost exclusively Coptic, Manshiat Nasser has seen its share of Muslim-Christian tensions. In March 2011, not long after Mubarak’s resignation supposedly marked the end of the revolution, clashes with Muslim outsiders resulted in deaths on both sides. But Abanoub remarked that he didn’t sense eL Seed was a Muslim even for one minute, an expression often used by members of either faith to emphasize the humanity of the other.

“Even though he is a Muslim, he wrote the quote of a Christian saint,” Abanoub said. “I don’t know why he chose it or what it means to him. But for me, if we want to see Christ, we must see the world around us.”

And this is the gift of eL Seed to the Zabbaleen of Egypt. Though the focus will always be on the trash, he has added a mark of beauty and dignity.

“The mural makes us feel important,” said Abanoub. “We’re not just a bunch of garbage collectors sorting trash. No, because of him the world’s media is shining light upon our community.”

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project.

Perception Manshiat Nasser
One of the 50 buildings of ‘Perception’, seen from the streets of Manshiat Nasser

Muslims are not Islam is not Muslims

Muslims Not Islam

From an article at the Zwemer Center, written by a philosopher fed up with popular coverage of Muslim issues:

One philosophical distinction that may help navigate this discussion is between essentialism and nominalism.

Don’t stop reading, he makes it simpler, distinguishing between Islamic religiosity and Muslim religiosity. Ok, that still sounds complicated, but here is the test to see if a pundit weighs forth well on Islam:

  1. Give an account of what the authoritative texts seem to say about a given issue. Quote them as they are without resorting to interpretation.

  2. Describe the various interpretations offered by individual Muslims and groups of Muslims through time.

Failing to take step #1 results in ignoring the authoritative primary sources of authority for Muslims. Failing to take step #2 results in ignoring the history of interpretation of those primary sources of authority and the rich diversity among Muslims on issues.

Still hard for the non-specialist? Yes, I presume so. So here are the crib notes on how each side of the US media spectrum fails (with a special shout-out to you-can-guess-who):

Failing to take step #1 results in understanding Muslim thought as a mere form of individual or cultural relativism, which it isn’t. Now when MSNBC ignores step #1, you can fault them.

Failing to take step #2 results in forming gross generalizations that perpetuate ignorance and prejudice. Now when FOX News or Donald Trump ignore step #2, you can fault them.

Actually, both MSNBC and FOX News fail on both counts, as do many, if not most, of our politicians.

Allow me to take the issue from media analysis to personal kindness and broadminded generosity. Grant Muslims the dignity of belonging to an ancient tradition they strive to navigate in diverse ways. And grant Islam the dignity of diverse followers who cannot be reduced to a single interpretation.

Criticize both freely, as necessary. But do not reduce one to the other. Our identities are true, but they do not define us. Our religions posit truth, but we do not define them. This is as true of Muslims as anyone else.

Should this last thought grow too philosophical, the author reminds us even the professional ones know how to make fun of themselves:

If the distinction doesn’t help you, then chalk it up to another example of confusion about what a philosopher does and still one more example of wondering why anyone in the world would want to do what we do.

Have a wonderful day, once you have set forth the necessary and sufficient conditions for what it means to ‘have a day’ and what could possibly be the conditions for it to be ‘wonderful’.

Smile, but take his words seriously. America, hopefully in correctable ignorance, is taking a dangerous path.



Inshallah for the Foreigner


The Arabic literally translates as ‘if God wills’, but it conveys a whole lot more – usually to the foreigner’s frustration. In this article for the New York Times, Wajahat Ali explains:

It’s similar to how the British use the word “brilliant” to both praise and passive-aggressively deride everything and everyone. It transports both the speaker and the listener to a fantastical place where promises, dreams and realistic goals are replaced by delusional hope and earnest yearning.

If you are a parent, you can employ inshallah to either defer or subtly crush the desires of young children.

Boy: “Father, will we go to Toys ‘R’ Us later today?”

Father: “Yes. Inshallah.”

Translation: “There is no way we’re going to Toys ‘R’ Us. I’m exhausted. Play with the neighbor’s toys. Here, play with this staple remover. That’s fun, isn’t it?”

If you are a commitment-phobe or habitually late to events, inshallah immediately provides you with an ambiguous grace period.

Wedding Planner: “We only have the hall from 7 to 10 p.m. We’ll incur extra charges if we go past 10. Please tell me you’ll be on time.”

Wedding Attendee: “But of course! Inshallah, we’ll be there.”

Translation: “Oh, you sad, sad, silly little man. I hope you have saved a lot of money or have access to an inheritance. I’ll leave my house at 9:45 p.m.”

Inshallah is also an extremely useful tool in the modern quest for love.

Man: “So, you think we can go on a date later this week?”

Woman: “Yeah, let me think about it, inshallah.”

Translation: “No. Never. There is no way we are ever going on a date. Even if there was a zombie apocalypse and you were the last man on earth, I would not consider this an option and would rather the human species perish as a result of my decision.”

I drop about 80 inshallahs a day, give or take. I’ll get to the gym, inshallah. Yes, I’ll clean up around the house, inshallah.

Most commonly, inshallah is used in Muslim-majority communities to escape introspection, hard work and strategic planning and instead outsource such responsibilities to an omnipotent being, who somehow, at some time, will intervene and fix our collective problems.

In all the above he pokes fun at his own culture, but Ali started the article lamenting the Southwest Airline crew who removed a Muslim from the plane for uttering the word.

But he ends the above with a paragraph of introspection we must demand of ourselves. Laugh freely, but for the foreigner in the Arab world, couple your inshallah frustrations with the following friendly advice from an article in Daily News Egypt:

Living here for years, foreigners often develop a natural desire to see Egypt become a better place. Thus, they begin to express their opinions on issues that could be improved—which often leads foreigners into an unpleasant area.

Egyptians generally, and their government in particular, always want to be complimented.

Foreigners may make their remarks sincerely and with the best of intentions, but voicing any sort of criticism of the “Mother of the World” affects Egyptians’ ego and is not appreciated.

The author spends most of the article lamenting Egypt’s promotion of xenophobia whereas it should more rightly, like the majority of ordinary Egyptians, respect and welcome foreigners.

In the West we want to get to the point, and being direct–with tact–is a virtue. In Egypt the emphasis must be on tact, with directness following far behind. It is a difficult skill and I don’t claim to be anywhere near mastery.

But at the minimum, knowledge of the cultural reality will make a world of difference for the foreigner, um, God willing.

Allow them to make the inshallah lament on their own. You: Just show up on time and never mind them being late. Let your generosity of spirit mirror their own, and all will learn together.

Culture Religion

From Garbage to Glory

Cave Church

From my new article for Christianity Today’s Behemoth publication:

The Pyramids of Giza used to be in the middle of the desert. Eventually Cairo’s urban sprawl pushed right up to the Sphinx. The Citadel of Saladin towers over the city. The southern approach requires an overpass straddling the City of the Dead. In Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum and its famed mummies were overrun with the bedlam of a revolution.

Tourism has dropped dramatically since then, but intrepid travelers can hardly help notice the encroachment of squalor on the glories of antiquity.

What most miss is the reversal: A glory rising out of the garbage. To create it, 40 years ago one man had to literally trudge through a pigsty. Today it is simpler to reach the massive cave church complex in the Muqattam Mountains on the eastern edge of Cairo. But the journey still requires a pungent assault on the senses.

Women and children pick through 15,000 tons of the city’s collected refuse, sorting out recyclable waste from the biodegradables useful for wandering livestock. Men haul burlap trash bags twice their size into garbage trucks poised to tip from overfill…

The article tells the story of how a Coptic Orthodox priest inhabited this world and gave birth to one of Egypt’s most beautiful sites.

Please click here to read the full article and see the photos at The Behemoth.


Q+A with an Oscar Nominee: What’s So Funny about the West Bank?

Ave Maria Basil Khalil

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on Feb. 26.

The plot to Ave Maria is as improbable as it is provocative. A Jewish settler family crashes their car into a statue of the Virgin Mary at a Palestinian Carmelite monastery in the West Bank.

Bound by the onset of Sabbath, the Jews can do little to get home. Bound by a vow of silence, the nuns can do little to help. Bound by mutual distrust and annoyance, the odd couple pairing can do little but bicker. Fortunately, spellbound by the comedic touch of 34-year-old producer Basil Khalil, critics around the world can do little but laugh.

This 14-minute short already won top prizes at film festivals in Grenoble, Montpelier, and Dubai before securing a nomination for best live-action short film at this year’s 88th Academy Awards.

Ave Maria is Khalil’s second comedic venture into the deeply divisive and often somber portrayal of the Arab-Israeli conflict…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today. Here’s a sample question, followed by the trailer:

You were raised by a Palestinian Christian father and a British mother, were you comfortable in both settings?

You don’t really choose where or how you’re born, so you just live with it and make the most of it. I do believe being of both worlds did give me a more critical perspective. I know how the West sees us, and I’m able to give them something fresh, yet at the same time I know our stories and culture from Palestine so I’m able to portray accurate stories from there.