A Long Good-Bye, From Far Away

Tayta and Taxi

Today, September 12, would have been my mother-in-law’s 67th birthday.

Tayta, as our children call her, passed away six months ago. She fought courageously through two bouts of cancer, and the first time she triumphed. The second time, she succumbed. We remember her well, but the relationship will never be the same.

Complicating things completely is that we live in Egypt, an ocean away, where she visited us consistently. Jayson, my husband, got word she wasn’t doing well, and should come home immediately, just in case.

One day later, Tayta breathed her last. She was surrounded by her children and husband, and died peacefully.

But the children and I were not there. Immediate preparations are difficult for a large family, and we had the idea that we would follow Jayson a bit later. There was no guarantee she would die.

With only a few hours before Jayson had to travel, we tried to gently explain to the kids that Tayta was not doing well and it was important for Daddy to go be with her. And as she might die soon, all of us will go to see her as soon as we can.

The kids were saddened by this news, yet not totally surprised. Through Skype a few days earlier they saw that Tayta was not feeling well, even though she still had her same spirit and sense of humor.

But with Jayson in the air, the message came that Tayta entered hospice care. My prayer was that the boys would make it in time to see their mom, but it also hit me that we likely would not. And almost as bad, I had to tell the kids.

Funny the things you don’t think about, and living abroad perhaps it should have been obvious. But I never expected I’d lose a loved one and not be there, nor that my husband and I would not be together.

Years ago, Jayson and I were privileged to receive training in how to handle grief. One of the principles is to communicate clearly with your kids about what is happening, without trying to be strong for them. To let them see how this loss affects you, and learn appropriately.

Another principle is the importance of saying good-bye and communicating important statements, if possible, while the person is still alive.

I wasn’t sure how much time we had, so before school I recorded each of them saying, “I love you, Tayta,” recalling different memories and things they appreciated. It was somewhat easy for them, as they didn’t know the full reality, and now was not the time to tell them.

But privately, I blubbered through my whole recording, knowing that I wasn’t going to see her alive again.

After school, it was time to talk honestly. It was a hard conversation. They loved her very much, and it was a shock to hear she would die before they saw her. We cried together a long time.

Meanwhile, Jayson was grieving in New Jersey. He had spent most of his day with his father and brothers by his mom’s bedside, holding her hand, sometimes talking to her, and not seeing much response.

It was hard to grieve with him and for him from so far away.

Skyping later, we gave the kids the option of seeing a very sickly Tayta on screen as we played their videos in front of her near-comatose body. They chose not to, at first. I did, and it was hard to look. She was no longer who I remembered, and she didn’t respond as I talked.

But perhaps she heard; hospice workers say that it is often the last sense to go.

Afterwards the kids came back into the room one by one, and bravely looked at Tayta and said their good-byes. They cried with Sidu, as we call my father-in-law.

Our oldest daughter recited Psalm 23, and we also laughed and smiled at some good memories. It was a hard time, but a good time.

Tayta died later that evening, and the kids stayed home from school. We had a full day to cry when we wanted to, laugh when we could, and do some things that Tayta would do with them … like Play-doh and bubbles. It was a hard day, but a good day.

We Skyped with Jayson a few hours later, and I saw the empty living room where we had so many memories, but also where her hospice bed had held her. Just like that it was gone, as was Tayta.

It hit me: The loss of a special mother-in-law. The loss of a grandmother to my kids. The loss of a mother to my husband. The loss of a wife to my father-in-law, who now has his whole life turned upside down. And the loss of a friend, as her many close relationships reached out through Facebook and email.

If I was there, I could have more easily shared in this grief, at least some of it. But as we made plans to travel back for the memorial service, I grieved also that we must continue to grieve apart, and from afar.

The tears still come sometimes. They did as I wrote this and remembered the pain of saying good-bye. They will flow again when we return to the states for a visit, and she isn’t there to read books to the kids or laugh at her sons’ playful arguments at the game table.

But sadness isn’t the only emotion that fills me when I think of Tayta. There are good memories every time we discuss her with the kids. They have her dolls; we have her pictures. Today we made apple pie, her favorite dessert.

We miss her a lot, but we said good-bye well. It was hard, but it was good.

Tayta and Apple Pie


Pleasant Recognition


Many thanks to you who have read my thoughts over the years, either here at A Sense of Belonging or at the various sites that have published my articles.

I’m pleased to relate that others have found the work valuable, too.

This year my article for Christianity Today on the Coptic martyrs of Libya won third place in the category of ‘Higher Goals: International Religious Persecution’, from the Evangelical Press Association.

Altogether Christianity Today took home 45 awards from the EPA.

My reporting for CT was also honored as a finalist in the ‘Newspaper, Magazine, and Multimedia’ category of the Religion News Association.

I didn’t win, but it was still nice to be recognized.

Many thanks to editors for their patience and development. And thanks to God, certainly, for the privilege of this life.

It’s starting to feel a bit like the Oscars, so best to stop now. But thanks again to you, and I pray the information has helped you know a little more about the world, and help you do a little more good in service to it.


Culture Family

Emma, Alone in a Class of Muslims

Two of Emma's religion textbooks. The main text of both reads: Christian religious education
Two of Emma’s religion textbooks. The main text of both reads: Christian religious education

Egyptian schools are known for large class sizes and a not-so-great student-teacher ratio. But our third-grade daughter, in one class at least, has a private lesson.

Despite being in a class of 31 students, Emma studies religion one-on-one with the teacher. The Egyptian system separates Muslims and Christians for religious education, and Emma is the only one of the latter.

Christians make up about 10 percent of the population, so it is not unusual to be outnumbered. Still, Emma’s case is a bit odd.

When she started in the Egyptian school system in kindergarten, Emma was one of the seven Christian students in her class of 30. If this percentage seems large, consider that the school placed all Christians in the same class. The entire kindergarten consisted of around 150 students.

Placing all Christians together makes scheduling classes much easier. Traditionally, the less numerous Christian students leave the classroom for the religion subject, and a specialized Muslim teacher comes to instruct in Islam. The specialized Christian teacher often has to jostle for a classroom, but at least all students come to her at once.

As Emma moved on to first grade a few kids transferred to other schools, leaving only five Christians in her class. By second grade, there were three Christians, and now in third grade, she is alone.

Her singleness resulted from an administrative error, of sorts. This year the school introduced ‘smart boards’ in all class subjects for those parents willing to pay slightly higher tuition. The technology was not so important to us, but since kindergarten Emma’s class had been kept together, and most parents were opting for the smart boards.

But for some reason, in the two smart board classes that emerged, Emma was separated from the two other Christian students. We did not discover this until a bit into the new school year, and rearranging would have been difficult. But as a result she has religion by herself.

Fortunately, Emma’s best Muslim friends are in her class, and she was happy to stay.

Fortunately also, she has had the same Christian teacher since kindergarten. The standard curriculum consists of Bible stories familiar to Sunday school students the world over, in addition to Coptic prayers and the lives of the saints.

Egyptian education has been criticized for focusing too much on memorization, but in this case Emma puts us to shame. Last year she memorized the I Corinthians 13 passage about love. This semester she is working on Psalm 23. In Arabic, of course.

The government curriculum for Christianity is based on the Orthodox tradition, since that represents the vast majority of Christians in Egypt. Emma’s teacher, however, is Catholic. And thus, the lone Christian in class is our Protestant American daughter, being taught Coptic Orthodoxy, by an Egyptian Catholic.

Egypt is a place of many oddities, but we hope through it all that Emma will love God, love others, and hide God’s Word in her heart. So far we are encouraged.

Emma Alone Class of Muslims

Family Religion

The Burden of an Azhar Sheikh

Sheikh Saeed and ParentsSheikh Saeed Ibrahim was very keen to see my parents. He canceled an appointment to meet them, making sure the opportunity was not missed before they returned to America.

He wanted this picture taken, and he wants you to see it. He would be very pleased if you share.

“I want the world to see that normal Americans can meet a Muslim leader, and be friends,” he said. “Too many are equating Islam with what they see in ISIS and other extremist groups.

“We have to change this picture.”

I met Ibrahim during training sessions for the Egyptian Family House. He was one of 70 religious leaders – half Muslim, half Christian – learning to be friends with one another and then partner together in their local area to preserve and promote national religious unity.

Ibrahim mentioned it is slow going, and that due to various reasons his overtures to area priests have not yet succeeded.

So he was especially interested to go international.

Not that he has not been active at home. The Azhar is Egypt’s central Muslim institution, perhaps the most influential in the wider Sunni world. Its graduates lead the great majority of the nation’s mosques, and generally control the national religious discourse.

Ibrahim is a supervisor of Azhar preachers in Giza. In addition to this task he delivers a sermon each Friday, offers daily religious lessons, and gives a weekly lecture to police, youth, and women.

In recent months he has been especially active. Following the election of President Sisi the Azhar launched a campaign called Love of Country. Following an international Azhar conference last December to condemn ISIS, it launched Eliminating Violence and Terrorism.

Since then he has spoken in at least an additional 100 area schools, with a three-fold message:

First, Islam does not know terrorism nor call for it because it is a religion of peace and security.

Second, Islam in its doctrine accepts the religious other no matter the religion.

Third, Islam treats all people well and with proper morality.

So while Ibrahim and his colleagues work to spread this message to Egyptians young and old, he holds a special burden to communicate with foreigners.

He wants tourism to return to the country, and he wants the image of Islam to improve. He hopes that as they take pictures together, the world will become more aware.

If any in Egypt read this and take note, I would be happy to introduce you. It would be good to draw in also a Coptic priest, and encourage the Family House in working together.

“We are doing this because of the circumstances our country is going through,” Ibrahim said, “but the reward we receive is from God.”


Rain, One Day Later

Yesterday Egypt experienced one of its very few yearly rainstorms, for which its roadways are terribly unprepared. I realize great swaths of the United States are covered with snow these days, so there is little room to complain.

But nonetheless, the puddles and mud left behind a day later complicate the daily walk to school. Here are a few pictures to share the adventure.

Setting out from our house we avoided the puddle on the street, choosing instead the slightly less muddy path on the sidewalk.
Setting out from our house we avoided the puddle on the street, choosing instead the slightly less muddy path on the sidewalk.
Usually Alexander is pushed in a stroller, but today we left it behind. The stroller also carries the girls' backpacks, and it wasn't long on the way they got tired of carrying them themselves.
Usually Alexander is pushed in a stroller, but today it was wise to leave it behind. The stroller also carries the girls’ backpacks, and it wasn’t long until they got tired of carrying them themselves, and saddled their mother instead.
This is the puddle right in front of the entrance to Emma's and Hannah's school. The black vehicle is a tuk-tuk, stuck in the mud-mud.
This is the puddle right in front of the entrance to Emma’s and Hannah’s school. The black vehicle is a tuk-tuk, stuck in the mud-mud.
Layla often skips along merrily on her way to preschool.
Layla often skips along merrily on her way to preschool.
But she got a little weary of squeezing through gaps around the puddles.
But she got a little weary of squeezing through gaps around the puddles.
The rain does little but move around Cairo's trash problem.
The rain does little but move around Cairo’s trash problem.
As we navigate the street approaching Layla's preschool, Alexander looks on attentively.
As we navigate the street approaching Layla’s preschool, Alexander looks on attentively.
Ok, we staged this one a bit. It wasn't absolutely necessary to traverse the speed bump to move along further, but it was a fun picture.
Ok, we staged this one a bit. It wasn’t absolutely necessary to traverse the speed bump to move along further, but it was a fun picture.

For comparison, four years ago we made a video of this walk to preschool, back when Hannah was going. Please click here for dry roads and our family at an earlier moment.

Culture Family

Dorosy in the Wizard of Oooz

Wizard of Oz
Homemade Ruby Red Slippers for the Show

At the end of the school year – and yes, somehow in Egypt, we are already at the end – our girls’ school puts on an assembly for parents that includes an English language play.

This year Hannah, our kindergartener, has been selected for the leading role in the Wizard of Oz.

But when we say it is in English, we mean Egyptian English. We suspect Hannah was chosen because she is the only native English speaker in her class. Nonetheless, she memorized – and pronounces – the lines as they were taught to her by her teachers.

In fact, she memorized everyone’s lines. Here is an exclusive preview of her performance, running through the script in about five minutes.

And just in case, we provide subtitles if her accent cannot be fully understood. Don’t worry, she speaks good American English also.

Finally, here are some pictures from the big event:

Hannah as Dorothy

Oz Stage

And, though it is hard to understand, a snippet from the actual performance:

Flowers, everyone, for the leading lady.

Hannah After


Not Quite Home for Christmas

Lonely Christmas

I have lived overseas now for about eight years.  We have lived in three different countries, but even so, I feel quite at home here in Egypt, where we have been for four years.  We have lots of friends and my life is busy with four young kids.  For me, living overseas is the norm.  While I love so many things about America, and I would love to live in the same state, or even town, as my family, I am perfectly content living as an expat.

But there are times when homesickness strikes.  Times when you just wish you could be two places at once, or that you could travel over the ocean as easily, and cheaply, as driving from New Jersey to Pennsylvania.  And one of those times is the holidays.  Particularly Christmas.

The family I grew up in still gets together on Christmas despite growing from the original 7 to now 29 people.  And if I sit and think about that too long, especially at the time they are actually gathering, which is usually when I am sleeping here, that can make me sad.  I would love to be with my family on Christmas.  But of course, I am with my family on Christmas as I celebrate with my husband and kids.  What is the difference?

The last few years I have felt that Christmas has snuck up on me.  We celebrate American Thanksgiving, and before I can think about it, I have to have the Christmas Advent calendar up in order to count down to the 25th.  Meanwhile, here in Egypt, the official holiday of Christmas isn’t until January 7, according to the Coptic calendar.  And while you can see lots of Christmas trees and wrapping paper on display at local shops, there isn’t exactly the festive atmosphere that you would find in the States.  One of the biggest reasons the 25th almost comes without notice is that my girls have a regular school day and are either studying for or taking their mid-term exams.  The church where we worship has begun Christmas choir practice for the girls, but their program will be on New Year’s Eve.

And so I am learning what I need to do personally to make Christmas special for me and my family in our home here in Egypt.  I need people and special celebrations.  If we aren’t invited to others’ celebrations, then I need to host celebrations for us (or maybe for me!)  I need to bake and enjoy the time spent in the kitchen with my kids, as that is one of my favorite memories from Christmases in Pennsylvania… all the kitchen preparation beforehand.  I need to listen to Christmas music and make an effort to teach my kids the carols they should know.  We need to attend Christmas productions and concerts at local churches.  And we need to set new traditions that make our Christmases ones that our children will one day miss.

This year I am hoping to host three Christmas teas.  What is easier, and tastier, than making a bunch of Christmas sweets, and inviting others to join and indulge?  One group will be teachers from my daughter’s Egyptian school, where I have begun teaching on a very part-time basis.  This is an experiment and something totally new for them.  Another group will be of Egyptian Christian friends.  Again, a bit of an experiment, but we can celebrate the holiday together, perhaps for some of them in a new way.  And the last group will be of other foreign moms like me.  This will be the most naturally comfortable and possibly the tastiest as they provide some of their favorite traditional sweets.

No matter where we are, if with my husband and our children gathered together, we are home. And this home is now Egypt.  It requires some adjustments and creativity, and perhaps some courage to step out and try new things.  One of our Egyptian traditions is sailing on a felucca on the Nile River on Christmas morning. It is very different from the craziness that ensues when 17 grandchildren descend on my parents’ house on Christmas day.  But these are special times and new memories that we make ourselves. Perhaps one day our own children will have a longing for Egypt. But we pray they will be able to celebrate wherever they are, even if not quite home.

Current Events Family

Our Little Ones Watch a Protest

Rabaa Child
From a protest elsewhere in Maadi

The other day Emma’s best friend, Karoleen, and her younger brother, Boula, came over to play at our home following church. As the kids were gathered around the table working on crafts, I heard the familiar sounds of a protest approaching. A fair number have passed near the house in recent months, although they usually go down the main street perpendicular to ours. Since we live on the ground floor, we usually don’t get a good look despite the noise, but this time they turned and came in full view.

We had been looking for an opportunity to film a protest for a recent video we made about the changes in our neighborhood since we returned from a summer in America. So I dropped the construction paper I was cutting up for one of my daughters, grabbed the camera and ran to our play room, which is a glass-enclosed porch. This gave me the best view I could get of the marchers.

I opened the window and screen, just enough to stick the camera out, but I still felt conspicuous. I didn’t really want to attract any attention from the protesters, but I was willing to risk a bit for a decent line of sight. As they marched, I noticed that some of them looked at our house, but not, as best I could tell, in my direction.

But it was then I heard the shouts and screams from my own kids and their friends in the other room, as they watched the protest go by from our living room windows. That’s why they were looking our way.

Two weeks earlier a protest had gone past Karoleen’s house, about ten streets away from our home, while Emma and Hannah were playing there. Her mom told me afterward that it made Emma concerned, even for us in case the protest came towards our home. But Karoleen’s family lives on the 7th floor of her apartment building, far above the action.

So as I was filming, I was simultaneously hoping the kids weren’t too afraid now that they were outside our window. As it turns out I had nothing to worry about. The kids loved it.

They noticed the bright yellow hand signs, though they didn’t know what they meant. They especially took interest in the kids who were marching along in the protest. There were balloons and chanting, which sounded more like cheering to them. In this particular march, there was nothing to be afraid of. It was a friendly, jovial atmosphere.

When I returned to the table the kids talked excitedly about what they had seen. The planned craft was abandoned as they used the construction paper to make protest banners. Theirs, however, bore the name ‘Sisi’ as opposed to ‘Morsi’, in favor of the current military leader who many see as a hero. They teased each other about being ‘for Morsi’ as they bantered around the table. I didn’t realize what fun it would be for them to have political discussions, though this was not the first time our children had taken sides.

In the end, I got the video we had been looking for, and the kids received some unexpected entertainment. We appreciated the peacefulness of the protest, and wound up happy they turned down our street.

It wasn’t until later we were less pleased, noticing the graffiti they had sprayed on our walls. ‘Sisi is a killer,’ they wrote, and, ‘Against Oppression.’ The latter is a message we won’t mind our children seeing every day, but the first one is not so nice. Of course, neither was the explanation we had to give about the yellow signs, commemorating the hundreds of pro-Morsi protestors who were killed when their campsite was cleared.

Our kids, of course, pay little attention to the graffiti. It will be the image of the protest that will stay in their mind, which we invite you to share in also.

'Sisi is a Killer'
‘Sisi is a Killer’
'Against Oppression'
‘Against Oppression’
Culture Family

Egypt for Expats… Ugh?

Expat Map

We like it here, but many people don’t, it seems. From the Washington Post, reporting on a survey by HSBC bank:

The worst of these 34 countries to be an expat is Egypt, which has seen xenophobia rise considerably since this summer’s military coup and wave of populist nationalism.

East Asian nations rank highest, and among the lowest are Western European. The Middle East doesn’t fare well in general:

Middle Eastern countries tend be worse places for expats, owing to legislation that makes it tougher for foreigners to own property and to formal and informal social restrictions that can cut back on quality of life. The exceptions are Bahrain and Qatar, two very wealthy and very small Gulf states whose governments work to attract the wealthy expats they see as crucial to building businesses there. It should go without saying that HSBC’s study does not consider “guest workers” in its measurements. Gulf states, particularly Qatar, have notorious reputations for mistreating migrant laborers from South and Southeast Asia, who work in difficult conditions and with few protections.

Egyptians often ask us: We all want to leave, why did you come here? Let’s just say we’re suckers for xenophobia and populist nationalism, and leave it at that.

Why does anyone live anywhere? God ‘determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.’ What is more important is how to live wherever you are. For our thoughts on that matter, please read the opening post to our blog, also titled ‘A Sense of Belonging‘, and this post also considering our expat status, ‘The Sole of Belonging‘.

What does HSBC know anyway? Egypt is great.

Current Events Family Video

Changes in the Neighborhood

Maadi Street

We spent a good part of this past summer in the United States, far away from the explosive political situation. As we prepared to return, nearly everyone asked a similar question: Is it safe?

It was a fair question. Hundreds of supporters of the deposed president were killed while security dispersed their sit-in. Dozens of churches across the country were attacked, with many burned. It was a volatile situation.

But it was also a geographically limited situation. As we inquired about our own neighborhood of Maadi, we were constantly assured that things were safe and that violence was taking place in known locations.

After several weeks back, we made this video showing local slices of life. There have been changes, and we note them. But we also hope you get the idea that life moves as normal. We’re glad also you get a small window into this our normal life, and can rest assured we are doing well.

Culture Family Julie

Saying Good-Bye: Part and Parcel of an Expat’s Life

Saying Good-Bye

Growing up I lived the first 18 years of my life in the same house, only moving to go to college.  My mom has lived in the same town her entire life, and all four of my siblings still live within 20 minutes of that town.  I didn’t grow up saying too many good-byes for the first 18 years of my life.  The second 18 years, however, were quite opposite.  College, grad school, first job, marriage, and then life overseas; lots of changes and lots of moves.  Since my husband and I first moved overseas, we have lived in three different countries, four different cities, and five different apartments.

While not every expat moves often, saying good-bye to people and places is a common part of the expat lifestyle.  Even if you are one who stays put in the same foreign country for many years, you must still say good-bye to the others who filter through year after year.  And then add factors like childbirth, children’s schooling, medical needs and a revolution, and there are good-byes all over the place.

Good-byes are a reality for us, but they don’t have to be a negative aspect of expat living.  Before traveling overseas, my husband and I took a course in grief counseling.  We didn’t exactly realize it at the time, but it was great training for this lifestyle.  Every good-bye is a loss.  And every loss causes grief.  Sure there are some losses more painful than others, but all losses are felt at 100%.  Given this reality, how can we keep from shutting ourselves off to new friendships or new opportunities that we know may eventually require another farewell?

Stay ‘complete’ in your relationships

You never know when a relationship could end or be interrupted.  There were people I could not physically say good-bye to when the revolution occurred two years ago.  I didn’t anticipate needing to say good-bye, and so I wasn’t complete in all my relationships.  I wasn’t able to tell people I was thankful for them, or that I loved them, or that I was glad they were in my life because….

On the other side of that spectrum, we have to deal with the difficulties that come between us and another person.  If we work through the problems, we won’t let the pain of a strained relationship be a burden to carry into our next assignment.

We’ve all heard people lament, “I just wish I had said this to her before she died.” Or, “If only I told him I loved him before he left.”  Living with those ‘unsaid statements’ makes you less free to join in a new relationship.  Communicating them does not remove the pain of saying good-bye, but it does help to heal the pain.

Say ‘good-bye’ to people, places and things

This is one of the most practical points I took from the training those many years ago.  Don’t be afraid to say good-bye.  Embrace it.  Hug. Cry. Say the words you hold within you.  Saying something simple instead, like “See you later,” may seem like it will hurt less, but if you know the good-bye is for a significant period of time, you must say it.

This is especially true for our children.  We hate to see them hurting as they say good-bye to yet another friend.  Sometimes we try to comfort them by telling them we can visit their friend next year, or maybe the friend will visit us again.  But instead of offering such hope, which often proves false, grieve with your children.  Agree with them that saying good-bye is really hard, that the friend they just said good-bye to can’t be replaced.  That’s it.  You don’t need to make promises or try to make it hurt less.  Let them grieve and help them to say good-bye well.

Saying good-bye to places was a new concept for me, but we have done it in every flat we’ve lived in since living overseas.  I am sure our 9-month old daughter doesn’t remember our apartment in Tunisia, but we still walked with her through each room of the flat and said good-bye to the rooms. We talked about what we enjoyed doing in those rooms or how we would miss them.  It may seem trivial, but if you think about it, you can probably vividly picture some special places in the home where you grew up.

While the flat you have lived in for the last year may not seem as significant as your childhood home, it is still good to treat it as a place to say good-bye to.  Again, for your children, you may not know what their special memories are in that place.

For some, Cairo is a tough place to live.  As you move onto your next assignment, or return home, you may do so with a sense of relief.  And yet, living here has changed you.  The people you’ve met have affected you, for good or for bad.  Even if you joyfully skip through you apartment on moving day, and say good riddance to your bawwab as you walk out of the building, it would still be good to close off those relationships and places completely.

Life overseas is exciting: It is a chance to visit ancient sites, interact with people so different from yourselves, perhaps also to help the poorest of the poor.  But it also has its challenges, and the ‘good-byes’ are among the greatest.  Learn to be complete in every relationship and say good-bye well, and this challenge will be just a little bit easier.

This article was originally published on Maadi Messenger.

Current Events Family Julie

A Family Errand through Tahrir

Application for Consular Report of Birth Abroad
Application for Consular Report of Birth Abroad

My life in Cairo is spent mostly in our house and the surrounding area of Maadi, which is about half an hour from the famous Tahrir Square.  Friends and family in the states get nervous when they see the violence and flare-ups in Egypt, but the reality for me is generally far removed.  Last week, however, we needed to take a family trip through the heart of the uprising.

Our destination was the American Embassy in Garden City, normally only a five-minute walk from the Square.  Our son, Alexander, was born in Cairo three months ago, and it has taken us this long to secure an appointment with the embassy for his “Certificate of Birth Abroad” (the equivalent of a US birth certificate) and his first passport.  We originally had an appointment at the embassy on the 29th of January, but that was a particularly unstable week around the embassy due to ongoing clashes, and so it closed for several days. All appointments were postponed.  We were hoping for calm now, so we could get this process started.  I didn’t like not having a passport for our baby, as I wasn’t sure what would happen if we were forced to travel.

Since our two oldest girls were still on school break, we ended up taking the whole family downtown for our adventure.  We left our house around 8am with the hopes of arriving in time for our 9am appointment.  Of course, when you are two adults accompanied by three smaller walkers, plus a baby slung snuggly on your chest, it takes a bit longer than normal to get places.  We had an uneventful walk from our house to the closest metro station.

Unfortunately we were traveling during rush hour which meant the metro was packed.  Emma, our oldest, gets a little nervous getting on and off the metro.  She seems to have a fear of our family being split up as some of us get on the train, and others get shut out behind the door.  This has never happened to us, but I understand her fear considering getting on and off the metro can be a real battle due to the sheer number of people.

As we saw the train approach, we noticed that the cars were all quite full.  When the train stopped and the doors opened, we quickly pushed our way in, crowding together with those already in the car.  The trip from our station to downtown is about 20 minutes, and it looked at first, like we would all be standing for that whole time.  But as is common in Egypt, others in the car noticed our small children, and offered me and my baby-in-carrier a seat.  I put Layla on one knee and Hannah on the other until a few minutes later, another seat was offered to Emma and Hannah.

As we rode along, I looked around me and realized there were no other women that I could see in this particular car.  In fact, I was totally surrounded by men.  I was really glad my husband was among them.  Not only was I surrounded, though, but the men had made a barrier of space between me with my kids and everyone on the train.  That was much appreciated considering that where we were standing earlier, there was no space around anyone.  My thoughts went to the many articles I have been reading of violent attacks on women in Tahrir Square.  They sound awful, and the men involved sound like barbarians.  This, on the other hand, was an example of what my family usually experiences: considerate people who look out for the sick, elderly, and moms with young children.

When we arrived at Sadat station, the metro stop under Tahrir Square, I was glad to notice the absence of tear gas.  I have never actually experienced tear gas, but Jayson has on several occasions, and so have some other family members when he has taken them to visit the Square.  I had heard that over the last week, the tear gas was quite palatable in the station, and I was most concerned for our three-month old son if there were any lingering fumes.  I was glad not to notice any.

We exited the metro, Jayson carrying Hannah and Layla, Alexander strapped to me, and Emma holding tightly to my hand.  We quickly escaped the traffic that was exiting with us, regrouped in an open space, and walked toward the turnstiles.  We then followed the crowd through the narrow door, up the steps, and into the open air.

I looked around and saw the white tents covering the center of the traffic circle.  We considered taking a family picture, but, being that we were an American couple with three blonde daughters and a new baby, we didn’t want to linger and attract any more attention than we naturally do wherever we go in Cairo.  We headed toward the embassy.

Embassy Plea
Photo from a few months ago; no cars dare park in the area now.

Normally this walk would take us only 5 minutes, even with the little ones in tow.  However, due to the recent fighting, several walls have been constructed over the last few weeks.  These walls are made of large concrete blocks, each one is probably 3 feet by 3 feet.  The blocks are then stacked 3 or 4 high, and they cover the entrance to streets, blocking the thoroughfares to cars and people.  This meant we had to walk out to the road which runs along the Nile, past the Semiramsis Hotel, which was sadly boarded up at every door and window due to the attacks from last week.

We walked two more blocks until we finally came to a road without a wall.  Turning left, we walked another block to the road the embassy is on.  People were milling about normally, and we noticed several police trucks and tens of riot police walking around, perhaps preparing for coming protests.  The line at the embassy, on the non-American services side, was perhaps slightly shorter than normal, but long, as always.  On the American services side, however, we got right inside once we showed the guard our appointment paper.

The embassy is a comfortable place to sit as you first wait for your number to be called, and then for the staff to get your paperwork started once you’ve submitted it.  The girls enjoyed playing various games in the spacious waiting area.  It is one of the few places in Cairo that I have seen a water fountain … the kind you drink from.  The embassy also had done a good job preparing us for exactly what forms we would need to get the birth certificate and passport.  We were able to submit the papers without any trouble, and look forward to seeing Alexander’s passport in a couple weeks.

Once the work was done, we headed back outside after grabbing our cell phones from security, and decided to walk back to a different metro stop since the Tahrir stop wasn’t as close as it used to be.  Jayson is much more familiar with downtown than I am, so he led the way and eventually we found the stop were looking for.

The ride back home on the metro was a lot less-crowded.  The whole family got a seat and we were glad to have accomplished what we set out to do.  It even included a glimpse of the downtown scene.

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Current Events Family Jayson

Family in Tahrir

Sidu and Hannah
Sidu and Hannah

With Egypt on the eve of another potentially massive demonstration, it is time to pull these pictures out from the archive. They are from the day I took my four year old daughter and her grandfather to Tahrir. I didn’t post them immediately, as I didn’t want to scare the rest of the extended family. And to set hearts at ease, I don’t plan to take anyone tomorrow.

It is hard to recall all the events of Tahrir, but on that occasion there were once again clashes – the night before. My parents were visiting to help assist with the birth of our new son; of course my father had to see the famous square. The best time to avoid violence is morning, when all are exhausted from fighting through the night.

‘I smell nail polish remover,’ said Hannah, my daughter. She was sort of right; I had never noticed how it resembled the scent of lingering tear gas.

‘What pretty decorations,’ she said. I looked all around, wondering if she was referring to the graffiti, some of which is rather creative.

‘No, the shiny ones,’ and she pointed toward the middle of the road. Ah, barbed wire.

With a local protestor
With a local protestor

Some lessons I explained, others were left unsaid. My children are getting quite an education in Egypt.

As for my father, he was particularly impressed by an incoming march as we exited the square along Kasr al-Nile Bridge. ‘Such passion,’ he remarked. We even got a quick glance of Hamdeen Sabbahi’s silver locks as he accompanied the procession to Tahrir.

(Sabbahi not visible)
(Sabbahi not visible)

As for tomorrow, the two year anniversary of the start of the revolution, expectations are meaningless. Tahrir could be packed, or victim of protest fatigue and sullen resignation. It could spark a second revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood, or descend violently into anarchy and chaos.

Here’s hoping for a protest without nail polish and decorations.


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Family Jayson

2012 Blog Statistics Review

Family Photo

At the end of each year, our blogging platform – WordPress – provides a summary of the year’s activity. It gives us the chance to say ‘thank you’ to all of you who read our blog, looking backwards while looking forwards. Please click here if you would like to see our review post from 2011. Strangely, as you’ll notice, there is some overlap.

The busiest day on the blog this year was September 12. This was around the time Salafi Muslims breached the US Embassy in Cairo, burned the American flag, and replaced it with a black flag of Islam. Many of you turned in to check our safety; others just came to see the news. All was well, as I hope our post conveyed. To review, please click here for Salafis, Muslim Youth Protest anti-Muhammad Film at US Embassy.

This post, however, was only the third most popular over the course of the year. Top honors went to:

  • Applying the Cross (On Your Wrist) – Written in April, this post featured a tattoo parlor in a local Coptic Orthodox church. Most Coptic Christians mark their religious identity with a permanent imprint, something our four year old daughter imitated with pen ink in 2010. Click here for that post, which was a favorite from 2011, falling to 6th in 2012.
  • Christians in the Sinai – Written in January, this post featured information gained from the Coptic Orthodox bishop resident near the Gaza border. At the time of its writing there was low level tension in the area, but as the year went on and troubles increased, Google searches brought many readers here. It may be one of the few articles that describes the Christian community there.
  • Statement of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Leaders of the Evangelical Church in Egypt – Written in April, this is simply a copy of an otherwise little-known agreement between the two. Many different publications picked up on it and linked to it from here, as it is not available elsewhere on the internet. But if tension continues to increase between the Brotherhood and Egypt’s Christians, it will be good to come back here and see if they are honoring their promise.
  • Rafik Habib: On Sharia, State, and Christianity – Written in April 2011, this is a repeat winner from last year’s most popular blogs. Habib has been in the news first as a Christian VP of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and then again when he resigned during the controversy over President Morsi’s power grab to avoid judicial oversight. Perhaps he will not repeat again in 2013 if he drops out of the limelight, but please click here to read my essay lauding his presence among the Islamists.

2012 was a very noteworthy year for Egypt, and perhaps it brought more attention to this blog that would otherwise be warranted. But we can celebrate with you that daily viewership doubled over the same period from 2011, which had previously doubled over 2010. Thank you very much!

WordPress also began tracking the location of visitors starting in February of this year. The United States, perhaps fittingly given our nationality, was by far in the lead. Egypt, we are thankful to report, was second, followed by the UK, Australia, and Candad.

Among other Arab nations Jordan ranked 7th, the UAE 14th, Saudi Arabia 18th, and Lebanon 26th. Though not Arab, we even had one reader from Tajikistan.

Of course, the blogging highlight of the year was welcoming our son Alexander to Egypt. In this post we introduced his possible names, here we revealed the choice and first pictures, and here we shared his Subuu3 party with friends from around the world.

In the coming year we are trying to make up our mind about keeping or shelving the News Links and Arabic Links updates listed at the top of the blog. These are very useful for me to review, and don’t take that much time to copy and paste. But not too many people click on them, so if you find them helpful, please let me know.

We may also see about providing smaller updates featuring interesting news developments, without pictures. These would appear beneath the slideshow banner, which was fun to add this year. That section would continue to feature longer articles and excerpts from those published professionally.

Do you have any other suggestions for us this coming year? We’re happy to share what we learn about Egypt, reflecting the very precious sense of belonging we have for this nation. May God bless Egypt and all our readers in 2013.


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Culture Family Julie

Alexander’s Subuu3

Alexander Eyes Open

About six weeks ago, we welcomed baby Alexander into our lives. According to Egyptian tradition, one week later we should have given him a Subuu3.

Subuu3 is related to the Arabic word for ‘week’, and the number three at the end represents an Arabic letter absent in English. We delayed his party, however, until his eighteenth day of life, until both sets of grandparents could arrive. But this is acceptable according to the local traditions, as Egyptians tend to be very, um, flexible, on matters of time.

Yu'annis and Alexander

Our good friend, a Coptic Orthodox priest, Fr. Yuennis, traveled three hours one way from Upper Egypt to perform the religious rites of what is essentially a cultural baby party – received from the Pharaohs. We weren’t really sure what these rites included, though, until he was about fifteen minutes from our home.

My friend, who had already arrived, told me I needed to have a basin prepared for the priest to bathe Alexander in. I racked my brain, but couldn’t think of anything appropriate. Fortunately our neighbors upstairs had a foot bath which worked perfectly for the event.

I learned after the fact that we should have had a similar party the previous night where Alexander was also bathed. This time, all the guests would have thrown an Egyptian coin or two into the water, and the lucky woman who was chosen to bathe the baby would then collect that money. It is up to the family to choose, but the main criterion is that she is an older woman. My friend told me that for the Subuu3s done for her two children, the women took 100 and 150 Egyptian pounds (US $17 and $25) respectively. Not a bad fee for giving a baby a bath!

Yu'annis Leading Ceremony

Instead, our party began with the arrival of the priest, who chanted prayers before taking Alexander from me to bathe him. The point is to bless the baby; it is not a baptism. In the Orthodox tradition boys are baptized forty days after birth, and girls eighty.

Yu'annis Bathing Alexander

I have to admit that I was quite distracted during the priest’s words since we had about fifteen children, ages 3-9, holding lit candles and standing very close to each other and many other flammable items! Even when I took Alexander to get him ready for his bath, I was very conscious of the candles behind my back and prepared to catch on fire at any minute!

Later, when I asked my friend about the craziness of putting lit candles in young children’s hands, she just laughed and said this was a key part of the ceremony, and that, unlike our party, the children should have marched around the whole apartment holding the candles.

(Please click here to watch a video clip from the religious part of the ceremony. Translated subtitles are provided, though we are not yet able to translate the parts in Coptic. You may need to select ‘captions’ from the YouTube screen.)

Group with Candles

Kids and Candles

Hannah and Candle

After getting cleaned up and dressed in white, as is customary, Alexander got to experience the most stimulating part of the evening. First, he was put into a special bed made for the occasion. Then we put him and his bed on the floor and I stepped over him seven times, showing my authority over him as his Mother. Next he was taken by my friend and shaken a bit in his bed.

Alexander in Basket

If that didn’t wake him enough, another friend took a mortar and pestle and made lots of noise right next to him. As it rang out, she chanted something like, “Listen to your mother, listen to your father, listen to your aunt, but don’t listen to your grandfather.” They will say several variations on this, always joking around by adding the “don’t listen to” part. When I asked the ‘why’ behind all this, I was told that it helps him not be afraid in the future when he hears a loud noise. Having been put through this ordeal, the rest of life should be much easier.

Making Noise

This is all followed by walking around the room in a circle with the noisemaker in his ear while the guests chant something like, “Lord, be with him and grow him; may he have the prettiest gold in his ear.” This is said regardless of gender, for some reason.

(Please click here to watch a video clip from the cultural part of the ceremony. While there is lots of chatter, no subtitles are necessary – just take in the hubbub.)

Circling the Room

Once all this was done, it was time for the food. In general, Egyptians are very generous and great at hospitality, so we wanted to be sure we had more than enough food as well as a nice-looking spread. It probably wasn’t enough, but with a lot of help from the four grandparents, we mixed ready-made Egyptian favorites with American items.

Baby Party Spread

The final aspect of the traditional baby party is the party favor, also called a Subuu3, where we comically veered too much into American baby shower traditions. The Egyptian bag should be filled with peanuts, popcorn, and some hard candy, along with perhaps a baby-looking figurine or something similar and labeled with the baby’s name.  But our friends were enamored by the favors we gave out as they weren’t the least bit traditional.

In preparation for this party, my mom came with American items. Our bags were filled with a lollipop and a couple pieces of candy – all wrapped in blue, of course – then tied together with a miniature pacifier and a card bearing Alexander’s vital statistics: name, date of birth, weight, and length — information all our stateside friends expect to hear at the birth of a new baby. This was far too much detail for our Egyptian friends, though. They only include the baby’s name and a written blessing. This is what happens when you combine two cultures!

Baby Party Kids

All in all it was a great night. Our Egyptian friends had a chance to meet Alexander and we were able to share in Egypt’s unique cultural traditions. Perhaps most importantly our child received a blessing, as did we, of an ever deeper sense of belonging.

Alexander and Daddy

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Culture Family Jayson

Naming Alexander

Our daughter Emma Hope Casper is six years old and in first grade in the Egyptian private school system. As a foreigner, she is different in many ways from all of her fellow students, yet shares one important commonality.

She is known as Emma Jayson.

A few days ago we invited readers to come along side us as we considered six name choices for our newborn son. Your comments were very helpful, and gave us much food for thought. We are pleased to announce today the birth of Alexander Jayson Charles Casper, born November 6, at 12:30pm, weighing 8.15 pounds.

In that post we mentioned our son’s middle name was already decided. My name is Jayson Charles Casper, and like most Americans, I have only three names. My own father, however, made the somewhat unusual choice to give his own name as my middle.

The Egyptian pattern, and that of many Arabs, is to honor family lineage in the naming of their children. For either a boy or a girl, there is often an element of choice in the first name. But then for both a boy and a girl, the second name is taken from the father, the third from the grandfather, and the fourth and final name from the great-grandfather.

Practically speaking the name is often shortened to just the first two, and this is why my daughter is now known as Emma Jayson in school.

The idea of honoring my own family lineage was attractive to us, as was the idea of honoring this Egyptian sense of family belonging. As my father included his own name in mine, I will do the same with my son. Yet we will lengthen his name to four, extending the generational heritage. The last name, of course, will remain Casper, as we have our own national, cultural – and above all familial – traditions to honor.

Alexander will be free to do as he wishes, but imagining this pattern into the future is winsome.

As for Emma, she too is free. We will have to gauge the value of the challenge in correcting administrative records to describe her as Emma Hope Casper, but as she matures, her identity will increasingly be her own. And, should future circumstances dictate, the Egyptian/Arab pattern of marriage is for the wife to retain her own name.

Of course, we are only partially free. We are shaped by the values and principles bestowed upon us – or neglected – by our families. There was no measure of compunction in the naming of Alexander, yet I am pleased to believe the roots of this choice were sown thirty-eight years ago.

Our son and daughters will surely make future choices we find suspect, and we must gauge the level of responsibility we bear at that time. Our hope, however, is that the values and principles we give them now will inform these choices, even when we disagree.

If so, we trust these disagreements will be few; not from their correspondence with our will, but from the needlessness of concern.

Their choices, God willing, will be honorable.

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Family Jayson

To Name Our Son in Egypt

Come November 6, I will no longer be Abu Talaat Banat – the father of three girls. Though it is not so prevalent in Egypt, in good Arab fashion I will soon be Abu ….. – the father of the name of our first-born son.

So what name will we choose? The rule is that it must work in both Arabic and English, and we prefer as well there be a connection to Egypt. Of course, it has to sound nice and have a pleasant meaning as well. Here are the choices that have made the cut, in alphabetical order:

Alexander, Jeremiah, Matthew, Nathan/Nathaniel, Osama, and Thomas.

Allow us to share some of our rationale below. Please feel free to share your opinion or prediction at the end. Who knows, maybe it will sway us.


Arabic: Iskander – we really like the sound of this, and can imagine calling him ‘Iskander’ even around the house.

Egypt: Egypt’s second largest city – Alexandria – was named after Alexander the Great.

Bible: There are a couple Alexanders of ill repute in the Bible, but Alexander was also the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross. Cyrene, near modern Benghazi in Libya, was associated with Egypt in history. Church history connects this Alexander with St. Mark – the founder of the Coptic Church – as heralding from the same region.

Family/Friends: Alexander is my second brother’s middle name. As with all family connections to follow, we’re not sure if this would be a positive honoring or a negative stealing – in case he wanted to use his name for any future sons of his own. Alexandria is also my mother’s middle name.

Drawbacks: Though the name nobly means ‘defender of men’, the best known Alexander was hardly such. He was a man of war and creator of empire. Of course, much of Western civilization derives from his Hellenization of Europe and the Mediterranean, but bloodshed is not the best legacy to grant a son.

More trivially, though he was my favorite sitcom character growing up, Alex from ‘Family Ties’ is not the best role model either.


Arabic: Armia – It is a bit awkward in Arabic but is known in Egypt through the Coptic population. I think we would most likely call him ‘Jeremiah’ even among Egyptian friends.

Egypt: There is a Coptic bishop named Armia who is a member of the Holy Synod and was a secretary to Pope Shenouda.

But a greater connection comes through the Biblical prophet, who at the end of his life was carried captive to Egypt, where he presumably died, perhaps at the hands of his own people.

Bible: The book of Jeremiah is my favorite Old Testament book. Jeremiah puts forward an example of faithfulness to a task even when failure is promised. His personal pathos is matched only by God’s faithfulness to him in return – through his presence, not through success.

Family/Friends: We have a few friends named Jeremy, but know of no one named Jeremiah. Perhaps this in itself is a plus.

Drawbacks: The Biblical Jeremiah is known as ‘the weeping prophet’. While the above description shows our appreciation for this aspect of his character, it also could be a difficult legacy to bequeath.


Arabic: Matta – Unlike many Arabic equivalents this is simple and easy for non-native speakers to pronounce.

Egypt: Matta al-Miskeen – Matthew the Poor – is a well-known and controversial Coptic monk. Now deceased, he was a prolific writer, fully Orthodox, but appreciated by Protestants. He also dared to criticize Pope Shenouda in his early years over the politicization of the papacy. I’ve always had a soft spot for sincere troublemakers.

Bible: The Gospel of Matthew is perhaps my favorite New Testament book, containing the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ choice of Matthew as a disciple, when he was from the hated Roman-collaborating tax collectors, is an inspiring act.

Family/Friends – Matthew is my father’s middle name.

Drawbacks: Our daughter Hannah complained a boy in her kindergarten class named Matthew was naughty.

Nathan / Nathaniel

Arabic: Nasaan / Nasana’eel – These are not particularly well known as names in Arabic, even among Christians, despite their Biblical origin.

Egypt: His martyrdom anniversary is celebrated on the first day of the Coptic New Year.

Bible: Nathan was an Old Testament prophet in the court of David who had the courage to rebuke his king and the wisdom to do so in a manner yielding his repentance.

Nathaniel is the alternate name for Bartholomew (in John’s Gospel), one of the twelve disciples, of whom Jesus said there was no guile.

Family/Friends: A few Nathans were friends from university days.

Drawbacks: Both Biblical characters provide good examples, but the pronouncement of being guileless was preceded by Nathaniel’s prejudice against Jesus’ hometown. Transparency is a virtue, but can lead to lack of tact. Picking straws, here, of course.


Arabic: Osama is Arabic, with no English equivalent. It is related to being exalted, as in the heavens, and is one of the words for ‘lion’. It is used by both Muslims and Christians. Does not Osama bin Jayson have a nice ring to it?

Egypt: Many of Osama bin Laden’s closest advisors were Egyptian, as is his successor in al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Bible: No direct connection, but the choice of this name comes from the example of Isaiah, who named his son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means ‘quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil,’ and was connected to his prophetic ministry. Poor kid.

Yet the idea is that those who love us will also love our son. Those who love our son will love him in his entirety, including his name. Perhaps those who love him – and his name – will also come to love his notorious namesake and his imitators. At the very least we hope our son in this legacy can redeem a name, and perhaps even dent the association with a war on terror which has done so much harm to this world.

Family/Friends: A wise counselor and Muslim friend in Egypt is named Osama.

Drawbacks: These are obvious, really. Poor kid.


Arabic: Toma or Tomas – We get mixed up between the Arabic and the Coptic equivalent, but both are well known in Egypt and easy to pronounce.

Egypt: Bishop Thomas is a well-known bishop in the Coptic Church, beloved by both Orthodox and Protestants.

The Apostle Thomas is also beloved by Egyptians because he is the sole disciple believed to have witnessed the assumption of Mary into heaven.

Bible: Best known as ‘Doubting Thomas’ for failing to believe the report of Jesus’ resurrection, he is less known for his great courage. As opposition to Jesus was mounting, Thomas told the disciples, ‘Let us also go [to Jerusalem] that we might die with him.’

Family/Friends: Thomas is the middle name of my third brother. It is also the favorite choice of our daughters, who picked it themselves.

Drawbacks: The doubting heritage is not best, even though courage in the midst of doubt is admirable. Thomas also means ‘twin’, which is unfortunately (?) not the case with our son to be.

So, these are our choices. The middle name can make a difference, of course, which we have chosen but will not share at this time.

For review: Alexander, Jeremiah, Matthew, Nathan/Nathaniel, Osama, and Thomas.

The name may or may not follow the pattern of our daughters, but for reference they are:

  • Emma Hope
  • Hannah Mercy
  • Layla Peace

With Layla’s name we played a similar game on our blog. For a long while it was the most viewed post we have written, and remains the most commented.

Currently, the most viewed post is about the assault on the US Embassy in Cairo. What do you say we knock that one off its perch, and celebrate something more seemly? In any case, we hope you and your friends will have as much fun with this as we will.

We look forward to sharing the good news to come.

Culture Family Julie

Mother’s Day: Culture, Parenting, and Last-Minute Chocolate

Our American readers may wonder why I am writing about this topic two months before the US celebrates their matriarchs, but here in Egypt, our big day is on March 21st.

Mother’s Day has been celebrated in the last three countries we have lived in: Jordan, Tunisia, and now, Egypt.  I don’t remember the dates in each country, but I do remember asking a friend in Jordan if they celebrate Father’s Day.  She laughed and said, “Here, everyday is Father’s day!”

It could be interesting to research what countries have official mother’s and/or father’s day, but I don’t think I will get around to that anytime soon.  If any readers have any insight, please share in our comment section!

I have noticed this year that Mother’s Day is quite a big deal around here.  I guess as our girls are getting older, and involved in more things, I will collect more and more handmade crafts of love from various venues.  As such, I thought it worth writing about what I’ve noticed so far before first, I forget, or second, get too busy to write (being a mother and all).

This is the first year Emma is in school, and she has been singing a few songs about mothers in both Arabic and English over the last couple weeks. Still, the day passed without any word of an assembly, so maybe it is still in the works? Sometimes it is hard to figure out the culture, especially when mixed with an Arabic administration!

Emma also made a mother’s day surprise for me last Wednesday, but had to hide it in her backpack until yesterday when she presented it to me along with the flowers that she purchased with her sisters and Daddy – from her own allowance.

The weekend before I scored four different mother’s day crafts!  Fridays are both weekend and “church day” for us.  In the morning, the girls attended the Coptic Sunday School and each made a flower in their individual classes:  Emma made a flower balloon, and Hannah made a paper flower to put on the refrigerator.  At this same church, we will celebrate mother’s day in my adult Sunday school class tomorrow, and a friend mentioned that next Saturday night is a special service for moms, complete with gifts!  That’s a lot of celebrating!

Meanwhile, the second church where the girls attend Sunday School actually changed the time of their normal meeting today and invited the moms to attend a special party.  And so the three girls and I headed over to the local Arabic Evangelical church where we first listened to the kids sing some of their normal songs.

Then one of the teachers took some comments from the audience.  First she asked the kids what are some things their parents do that really bother them.  The answers included: Limiting internet, making me do homework and go to school, and yelling at me.

And then it was the moms’ turn to share about the kids, which included: Not taking care of their stuff and not listening to their parents.  During this time, Emma got out of her seat and came back to me to translate the question (in case I didn’t understand) and ask me to share an answer!  Kind of funny that she wanted me to answer such a question.

After it was all over, I asked what she would have shared if she said something.  She liked the “Mom makes me do homework and go to school” comment.  I was glad she identified with that first over some of the others!

After the mutual sharing, the kids all went to their respective classrooms while the moms were invited to move forward in the sanctuary for a talk geared for them.  The speaker shared that when she deals with kids, she emphasizes four things about them: They are important, loved, different and good.  She then expanded each of these points, but since I had our two-year old with me, I wasn’t able to sit and concentrate on her talk.  I caught some things here and there but missed the bulk of the message.

When I came back inside after letting Layla run around a bit, there was a question/answer time.  I would have enjoyed really listening to the exchange here, but it was a bit challenging.  I was able to listen to one or two questions regarding teaching children not to interrupt, or at what age can you start punishing a child.  As I listened, I soon realized that I was very pridefully and smugly listening to these questions and answers with an air of: “These poor people don’t know anything about child-raising.”

Like I do!  I was ashamed when I realized my superiority complex!  It’s not that I think I parent perfectly, and I am willing to admit my faults, which are more on some days than others.  However, I do think that I have studied how to parent well, even if I can’t always apply it properly.  And this isn’t all pride.  I have the privilege of great role models and friends who share struggles and ideas, as well as numerous books on the topic from so many perspectives.  I almost don’t have an excuse for not having all the answers!

On the other hand, I have lived in this part of the world long enough to at least know some of the stereotypical child-rearing strategies.  And I am guilty of thinking all parents use these strategies.  But we all tend to apply what we have learned growing up.  Unless you really don’t like some things your parents did, and you have resources to find better ways, then you will probably repeat those things.  I come from a place where resources are abundant and we are taught to search for ideas.  That isn’t as true in this culture.

Some of the things I observe here as adults relate to children have their roots in what people have been taught, and this stemming from good things.  As I have mentioned in other posts (see below), Arabs, as a whole, love children.  My kids have gotten so much attention from perfect strangers over the last 5 ½ years living in two different Arab countries, that I cannot doubt this culture’s love and care for children.

One natural response here is that adults don’t like to see or hear children cry.  If a child falls and scrapes his knee, the nearby adult will scoop him up, tell him, “It’s okay, don’t cry,” as he wipes the tears away, and then offer a lollipop or bag of chips to help him forget his pain.

Remember as well that Arabs are generous.  This continues along as a child gets into a fight with a friend or sibling and their feelings get hurt.  A candybar helps to mend things.  And then it gets carried further when a child gets upset because they can’t have what they want.  If a two-year old is told not to touch the computer, and cries about it, they may be soothed by a bag of cookies.  And so a young child may not be taught to deal with disappointment or learn to accept no for an answer.  Instead, they may be placated with sweets.

Sometimes my friends ask me how I discipline my children and they have often been surprised at how much I talk to my toddlers.  I believe little ones can understand a lot at a young age, and we have explained our expectations to them from the start.

I have noticed that younger children here are not expected to be able to listen and obey.  At times my friends make fun of their own child-rearing practices as they explain that after telling a child no yet again and having that child disobey, then the parent will lose their temper and yell and maybe even hit their child.  The parent’s anger has built up as the child disobeys time and time again, yet without real consequence, and then once the parent gets fed up, the child gets a punishment perhaps too harsh for the offense.  Again, this is a stereotype, and certainly it is not only Egyptian parents who fit this scenario, but it is one that plays out time and again.  There aren’t always resources to try something different.

Well, I have strayed a bit from the title of the piece.  After the question/answer time, we enjoyed a few snacks outside and the girls each brought me the pictures they colored of a mom and child.  The church gave out small cutting boards to each mom and we walked back home to head to bed.

It is nice, all this attention for Mother’s Day.  Another friend invited some moms to her place for tea on Mother’s Day morning, and that was nice too.  Perhaps there will still be an unknown school assembly to come!

I know I have a most privileged job here as a mom to our three girls.  Today I was reminded that I don’t have all the answers, and as parents we do the best with what we know.  I am always praying that God would make up the slack and give me more wisdom than I possess on my own!


Update: Now that it is Mother’s Day night, I can finish this post with a learning experience.  When I dropped Emma off at school this morning, I kind of noticed half-heartedly that other moms and kids were coming to school with gifts.  I barely thought about it until later that morning when another foreigner was asking if Emma had taken a gift to school for her teacher.  Then it occurred to me that the other parents were doing just that!

I wondered why, since many of the teachers weren’t actually moms, but I tried to find a quick suitable gift for Emma’s teachers before picking her up for the day.  I stopped at the local sweet shop and bought some chocolate after asking the workers there if this was an appropriate gift.

I then asked why teachers get gifts on this day and they mentioned that the teachers are like moms to the kids.  That made a lot of sense.  I quickly paid and walked down the street to the school and as Emma came out of her classroom excitedly ready to tell me something important, she saw the two bags in my hands and exclaimed, “Yes!  Are these for my teachers?!”

I was so glad I decided to stop and get something even though it was a last-minute thought.  Emma was so happy to give a gift to her teachers and glad to be doing what the other kids did.  A nice tradition, to give teachers gifts on mother’s day.  Let’s hope I remember by this time next year.


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Culture Family Julie

Touring Egypt with Egyptians

Our family recently had the privilege to go on a Nile tour from Luxor to Aswan.  With my parents visiting from the US, one of the sites my Dad wanted to see was the Valley of the Kings.  At first we said it was too far to try, but then Jayson heard our local Orthodox church advertise a trip to Luxor/Aswan, and so we enquired.  Turns out, no one else in the church signed up, but the travel agent, who worships at this location, was able to get us the same good price as he was offering to the Egyptian congregation, and so we made the arrangements for Mom, Dad, Jayson, me and our three little girls to embark on this great tour.

First step was getting to Luxor which is located about 8-9 hours south of Cairo by train.  We debated going by train or plane – big difference in time and price – and in the end, went with the more adventurous route.  We weren’t sure what to expect as we boarded the sleeper train in Ramses station, but we had three sleeper cabins which were quite comfortable and roomy.

Sleeper Car in the Train to Luxor

Since we left town around 8pm, we got our girls to bed as quickly as possible, anticipating a 5am arrival in Luxor.  Then we enjoyed a good dinner before retiring to our different beds.  I don’t think I slept too much and among the adults, we got varying hours of sleep.  The beds were comfortable enough, but the train was really rough.  We stopped and started all through the night, and felt like we were going to blow right off the track at different points.  About an hour before Luxor, we got some breakfast, then woke and dressed the girls before arrival.

We were met in Luxor by a representative from the travel company and taken to a big tourist bus along with about 25 Egyptians.  Our agent in Maadi had told us he had a group of doctors going on the same trip so we would be with them.  After traveling together a bit, we realized that many of us were together in the same train car from Cairo to here.  We went straight to the Valley of the Kings while our tour guide, Mohamed, began telling us about Luxor and what we would be seeing soon.  He usually works with English groups, but of course could guide in Arabic as well.  And so, our little family had our own English translation from him each time he finished his Arabic spiel.

The sites that day were interesting, and the three girls did well despite it being hot and including lots of walking.  We were all enjoying the places we visited, but also curious to get to the boat where we would be living for the next five days.  It wasn’t long before we learned of a complication in this trip.  Due to a workers’ strike at the locks near Luxor, our boat was parked about one hour south of Luxor in the town of Esna.  This meant that we had to drive over an hour after touring before boarding the boat.  And so, the schedule I had worked out for day one was not going to work.  Fortunately, our littlest one was able to nap during the long bus ride, and we all made it till the 3pm lunch when we finally got to the boat.

Exhausted on the Unexpected Bus Ride

By that first evening together, Emma and Hannah had made friends with a young single Egyptian named Mahmoud, who was traveling with his two sisters, parents and grandmother.  He quickly became like an uncle to them and throughout the week I often heard Emma call out, “Mahmouuuud, Mahmouuuud” as we walked around the temple ruins.

Mahmoud, with Hannah our Future Archaeologist
Mahmoud, with Emma our Future Captain

Day two was another complicated day due to the lock strike.  Since we had more to see in Luxor, we now had to drive an hour each way making for a long morning.  Or so I thought.  We were supposed to leave by 8 or 9 am, but by 10am our whole group was waiting in the lobby of the boat as the tour bus we were supposed to ride was having trouble finding gasoline due to a gas shortage.  I don’t know exactly what time the bus arrived to pick us up, because the boat left the port for about half an hour to allow another boat to set sail, and when we docked once again closer to noon, our tour guide was more than ready to get on with the tour.

(Click here for a tour of our Nile cruise boat, and here for a lazy gaze at a pastoral Nile River island.)

During our waiting time, the girls were once again playing with Mahmoud and this gave me a chance to meet him and his family and we had a nice time getting know each other.  I wasn’t sure if I was the only one stressed out about such a late start to our day since the boat was supposed to sail for its next destination at 3:30.  I knew we had two places to tour in Luxor and at least two hours of driving.  How could we possibly do it?  I was relieved to hear the concern of others in the group too, but they said that the sites we were to see, the Luxor and Karnak temples, were among the most important of the tour.  We couldn’t just skip out on these sites.  I quickly tried to refigure Layla’s eating and nap plan as it was obvious she would not be doing either of those things on the boat this day.

Out of the six or seven families in our tour group, there were four young children: our three girls, and a 1 ½ year old boy, Yusuf.  He was traveling with his parents, aunt, and grandparents, and Emma and Hannah really took to him.  By day four, Hannah practically looked like she was in their family as she walked along with them at the sites and played with Yusuf on the boat.

With Yusuf, on the Sun Deck

We also met up with them a time or two in the disco room and the kids all danced together.  On the final day, Yusuf’s dad delivered three black plastic bags to our girls, each one filled with the same assortment of snacks: a pack of crackers, a lollipop, a tube of chocolate, a small cake, some gummy worms and a juice box.  By that point, Hannah was too sick to enjoy any of it, but the gesture was so typical of the generous Egyptians we know.  It never even crossed my mind to buy something small for anyone, and yet, they bought all three of our girls bags of snacks.

Several other people in our tour group enjoyed playing with our girls as well.  One of the daughters in a family of three older girls often played with Layla when she was strapped to my back.

Layla, with One of Many Children Lovers

It wasn’t unusual to find Layla in someone else’s lap on a motorboat ride or as we were waiting in the lobby of the boat.  Even though we were the only non-Egyptians in our group, they welcomed us in and made the trip extra-special for our kids.

Not only were we the only foreigners in our particular tour, we were the only foreigners on the whole boat of three tour groups.  According to one of the workers on the boat, they’ve only had Egyptians riding the boat for quite awhile now.  One evening while I was in line for dinner, one of the servers asked me how I liked the food.  I answered that I thought it was very good, and he tapped the lady next to me in line and said, “See, she is American and she thinks the food is very good!”  I felt very strange when he said that like my opinion is more important than anyone else on the boat?!  But perhaps he was excited about the presence of foreigners in his restaurant for the first time in a long time. Tourism has taken a severe dive since the revolution.

Among New Friends

There were three or four elementary-aged girls on the boat, and after the first or second day, they became friends with Emma and Hannah.  Their time was limited together since we didn’t tour at the same time, but they could see each other on the sun deck or in the disco room.  One night there was a gallabeya party.  A gallabeya is a traditional robe-like dress which is a typical dress for men living in upper Egypt.  Technically the woman’s equivalent for that is called an abaya.  We weren’t planning on mentioning this party to our girls since it wasn’t going to start until 9pm which is two hours past their normal bed time.

However, the young girls on the boat, as well as the older girls in our group, were very excited about this party and asked Emma and Hannah if they planned to attend.  Not only did this mean staying up quite late, but also buying a gallabeya!  Following the lead of those in our group, we purchased a gallabeya for Emma and Hannah at one of the shops during our stop in Kom Ombo.  We later purchased some more on the boat and then some fancy head-ware at the market in Aswan.  Although it wasn’t in time for the party, by the end of the trip, our whole family was properly outfitted.

At dinner, just an hour before the party, Hannah was too tired to eat and decided to go to bed rather than attend the party.  This meant only Emma had a chance to participate, and she had a great time with her friends.

Dressed up for the Party
Dressed Up at Home - Adults have more Inhibitions

We had a wonderful trip and saw amazing sites in the south of Egypt, but probably the highlight of the trip for our entire family was the living people of Egypt, rather than its ancient monuments. You can see pictures of the temples anywhere, but how else could you get memories like these?

Our Touring Party

(Too bad the normally punctual Americans were late for this group shot. Oh well.)

Current Events Family Julie

Living in Fear

Looting during the revolution

“I haven’t gone out in over a year.”

This was one of the statements my friend said to me the other day in talking about the changes in Egypt recently, particularly the lack of safety.

“I used to go out with my sister-in-law.  I would leave the kids at my mother-in-law’s house, and my sister and I would go downtown and walk around, do some shopping, all of this after 11pm.  We would come back around 1 or 2 in the morning.  Now I won’t even walk around Maadi at night, we are in our own house by 11:00.”

So many of my recent conversations with my Egyptian friends have either revolved around, or at the least, mentioned the lack of safety and the growing fear in everyday life.

Prior to the January 25, 2011 Revolution, the lack of crime in this huge city of Cairo was amazing.  I don’t know the statistics, but people didn’t generally worry about purse-snatching, carjackings, kidnappings, robberies or violent crime.  One of the reasons was the iron-fist of the previous regime, complete with a strong secret police system and the extreme power, and sometime corruption, of the regular police.

In truth, people were afraid of the police, and yet the average law-abiding citizen had nothing to worry about.  In this way, their everyday life was safe.  They could leave their cars running while they grabbed something from a kiosk, or send their children down the street for bread.  They could go out late at night, as Egyptians are known for doing in this city that never sleeps, and walk along the Nile River, without a thought for personal safety.  All this has changed for those I’ve talked with.

“Be very careful of anyone you see on motorcycles.  Two guys on a motorcycle stole my friend’s bag from inside her car while she was sitting behind the wheel!  Another friend’s car was stolen right in front of her apartment.”

Another friend of mine cautioned me as she related these stories of people she knew.  Friends from her old neighborhood or colleagues at work, who live in our Maadi neighborhood, let their guard down for a moment, or perhaps, never had their guard “up” quite enough, and lost a bag and a car.

“Keep your eye on your children.  Don’t let them play outside without you.  People are being kidnapped now for ransom.  It is happening to Egyptians, but they may see you and think you have a lot of money.  Hold onto those kids.”

The same friend who hasn’t gone out for a year told me how when she goes out, she no longer carries a purse.  Rather, she will put some money in her pocket, and only enough for what she needs to buy.

I then shared with her how my wallet was stolen just the other day.  We went to the local Coptic Orthodox church for the worship service, and I was across the street at the church’s coffee area.  I had just been sitting with some Egyptian friends and I went to pick up my daughter from her Sunday School class.  I had my bag on my shoulder with Layla in that same arm.

As is common, my bag was too full to zip, since it contained cups for all three girls, plus a water bottle for myself, diapers and wipes, maybe some library books and random other things, and so my wallet was in the bag, laying on top, exposed to the world.  I had to push through people to get to Hannah’s classroom, and then again, push through people to get out the door as her classroom is located in the same place as the cash register and food service counter.

Less crowded than other times, this is church coffee area, with the door to the classroom bottle-necking in the background. Daughter Layla is at the table.

As I was going through the doorway to get to the outside seating area, I felt someone run into me, perhaps a lightening of my bag and I turned to look.  A woman with a child in her arms apologized briefly, and I nodded, understanding how babes in arms often touch people who are close to them, much to a mother’s chagrin.  But something in me made me pause, and after taking a few more steps, I released Hannah’s hand and swung my bag to the front of me so I could check it.

No wallet.

I dug a little deeper to see if it was still in there, but it wasn’t.  I quickly went back to the table I had been at to make sure I hadn’t left it there.  Nope.  I looked around at the tables where people were talking, drinking their coffee, eating their falafel sandwiches.  No one was paying attention to me.  What did that woman look like?  Where did she go?  Could she really have taken my wallet right there, surrounded by church folk, inside the church property?

I cautiously approached a table where I thought she may have gone, but I was trying to figure out how I could ask the people sitting there if they had stolen my wallet?  How do you ask someone if they have seen the wallet that was just in your own bag?  How accusatory is that?  I looked around in vain.

Later, friends informed the staff at the shop who told them this was the third wallet that was stolen in the last month or so. I was kicking myself for putting it right on top with the bag open.  I couldn’t do much about being distracted by my children, one on a hip, the other in hand, but I could have been more careful.  If someone had to unzip my bag to get to my wallet, I probably would have noticed that quicker.  Oh well, add me to the statistics.

My friend, who attends the same church, was sorry to hear the story, and especially that it happened at church.  But she said the priests are often telling people to watch their bags.  Wallets and purses have even been taken from inside the church during mass.  The church is open to all, you can’t implicitly trust all who come in.  I told her that I used to leave my whole bag (minus the money) on a table at the coffee shop to save a spot while I dropped my kids off.  We both agreed that wasn’t a good idea!

“Praise the Lord it was just your stuff, and not your children.  Hold onto them!”  And that is the truth.

Another friend has often told me how scared she is these days, especially as a Christian.  The first time I saw her after the Maspero incident in October, where about 27 Christians died during a peaceful protest, she was visibly nervous.  State TV had turned people against Christians during that night and it left some of the Christians feeling vulnerable.

“I watch the news constantly because I want to know what is going on.  But I am more scared each time I watch it.  I don’t know what is going to happen in Egypt.  But what can I do?  I can’t go anywhere.  I don’t have the means for it.  We can only hope and pray.”

Egyptians are scared, at least the ones I talk to.  Whether they are Christian or Muslim, they have fears now that they didn’t have before.  Some are tired of the protests and just wish things would be stable again, but mostly, they want to be able to live without fear, as they lived before.  They can see the problems with the old regime, and most I’ve talked to are glad that Mubarak is out of power.  However, their personal lives are worse than before because they feel no safety on the streets.

Personally we don’t feel afraid.  We feel our house is secure, and we are careful as we move about, aside from the wallet incident!  We hold onto our kids and take precautions with our money.  We call each other when we are heading home and as a woman, I don’t go out alone in the dark.

I feel for our friends, though, who feel safety has been taken from them.  I don’t know how long it will take before that is restored.  It’s not a quick process, and in the meantime, it makes life uncomfortable.