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Coptic Christmas: Day Three

Today we visited two “Holy Family Sites” near Maghagha.    For those who know the Bible story, you may remember that due to the threat of Herod’s soldiers coming to kill the babies under age 2 in Bethlehem, Joseph took his small family down to Egypt before returning to Nazareth.  From what I know and remember, the Bible doesn’t say much more than, “They went down to Egypt,” but here in Egypt, there is a whole route mapped out where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, i.e. The Holy Family, went.  I am not sure where all the information comes from, but just about a month ago, I learned that Maadi, the town where we live in Egypt, was one of the Holy Family stops.  There is now a church built on the spot, right along the banks of the Nile.  In some ways, this reminds me of our visit to Jerusalem a few years ago where we walked along the Via Delarosa … the path Jesus took to the cross.  There is a lot of history and archeology that could map a basic route he walked, but there are also places along the way that seem impossible to believe, like the place where Jesus stumbled and fell and his hand print is embedded in the wall.  But, the Holy Family tour is one of the important Coptic things in Egypt, and since Maghagha is near two of these sites, we took the opportunity to visit.

Our gracious host, a priest in a village near Maghagha, was unable to go with us this morning, but he did provide a driver, and another priest, to accompany us.  Not only that, but we rode in the Bishop’s private van … complete with air conditioning and curtains on the windows.  We felt a little like secret service or something since no one could see in.  It was very clean and comfortable … at least before we started the trip.

Traveling to the first site, Dair al-Garnous, took about 40 minutes.  I had been prepared for Emma to get car sick because she sometimes does, and I warned her that if she started to feel sick, she should close her eyes and lay her head back.  After about 30 minutes, she said she wasn’t feeling good, so she actually laid down in the empty back seat.  Hannah laid on my lap most of the time, not sleeping exactly, but resting.   I should have taken that as a clue that she wasn’t feeling well, but I didn’t think of it.  With about ten minutes left in the trip, although we didn’t really know how much longer it would be, Hannah wanted to join Emma in the back.  I didn’t mention yet that the road we traveled on was sometimes just dirt, very bumpy, and required lots of stopping to let the donkey carts, people, or other animals pass by, so it wasn’t a very smooth ride.  I took Hannah back myself because I didn’t want her to fall over.  A couple minutes after getting to the back, Hannah lost her breakfast all over herself and me.  I quickly called for Jayson’s assistance and he got me the bag I had prepared for Emma.  It didn’t do too much good since Hannah didn’t give us the warning that Emma usually does, and my clothes and hers were pretty much a mess.  I sent Emma toward the front because I didn’t want her to get sick from the smell, and I would have liked to get out of there at that point too since my stomach wasn’t doing too well either from all the bumping around.  Jayson offered me his undershirt to wear under my sweater; fortunately I had taken off my sweater since it was warm in the van, so I could wear his undershirt under my still-clean sweater.  I had a change of clothes for Hannah since she is still being potty trained, so I took off her dirty clothes and let Jayson hold her in her dressed-down state while I changed and cleaned up.  All in all, we didn’t get too much in the van itself.

When we were about one minute away, Hannah and I were changed and Jayson was holding Emma when she said “bag.”  We quickly grabbed the bag Hannah had used and caught Emma’s breakfast.  Poor kids!  She managed to stay quite clean thanks to her forewarning, and Jayson did too.  Good thing as we didn’t have any more clothes to spare!  And with that, we arrived at the site, all four of us feeling a bit queasy, and glad to get out, walk around a bit in the fresh air.

This first site was actually the second of the two in order of Jesus’ visits.  Since it was Friday morning, the day of worship for most Egyptians, the church at the site was filled with children having Sunday school.

This place was interesting because it was in an entirely Christian village of about 12,000 people.  No Muslims live in this town.  The well where Jesus’ family drank from was locked up, but we saw it, and by the end of our time there, they found a key so Jayson could drink from it. 

We all drank some Sprite to settle our stomachs, and I visited the bathroom while Jayson and Emma climbed the steps to the top of the under-construction new church

so they could see the whole village.  Since this post has been graphic enough, I won’t share too many details of the bathroom.  It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, and they didn’t have anything but a hole in the ground, and I did think to myself while I was in there, “Oh boy, what a trip this has been,” but we made the best of it, and Hannah and I soon joined the other two at the top of the building.  I remember being glad that both girls lost their breakfast in the van, as I thought they might have trouble using the facilities if they needed them. 

The view was very interesting with lots of unique things on people’s roofs like pigeons, chickens and ducks, which people raise to sell.   The roofs here are flat so that allows for people to store things, or raise things on them until they may decide to add another floor to their existing building. 

The steeple of the evangelical church in town was not too far from this site. 

The one unique thing about what we saw from our view was that there were no mosques … a rare thing in Egypt.

But, as I said, this was an entirely Christian village, and we later found out that when a Muslim family wanted to move in, they were refused.

After looking around for a bit and taking some pictures, we climbed back into the van … somewhat hesitantly.  We knew the ride to the next place would also be bumpy, but we hoped for the best.  We all sat as close to the front as we could, and each held a daughter on our lap.  The girls took a short nap and Jayson and I kept our eyes closed as we rode to the next place.  Fortunately it didn’t take too long to get to Shineen al-Nasara, which means ‘garden of the Christians’ in the Coptic language, where the Holy Family had come directly from Maadi (our current town) and spent seven days before traveling on.  This was an interesting place for us to visit because this is where our host had been priest for about 20 years. They had a life-size manger scene set up and the girls enjoyed getting close to baby Jesus and the animals, cardboard, though they were. 

Then we entered the church where Jayson took pictures and the girls played “church,” and I just sat and rested.  The church was decorated with streamers and balloons for the holiday celebrations of New Years and Christmas.

It was an interesting look considering Coptic churches are filled with icons of Jesus, Mary, the apostles and other saints; the streamers and balloons didn’t quite fit in.  The church also houses a 500-year old baptismal, a small one, since it is for infants.

We couldn’t stay in the church too long since a funeral was about to take place.  Just 30 seconds after we exited, the wailing women came into the church followed by a group of men carrying a coffin high above their heads.  We went to a different building in the complex where they had two smaller churches, a guesthouse and a large reception room. 

We climbed to the roof to get a better view of the surrounding area and we could see the thirteen domes on top of the church—representing the twelve apostles, with a larger one representing Jesus. 

We climbed back down the steps and saw another well which the Holy Family drank from, and also the plaque on the wall with the names of the people who helped to build the building, our priest being one of them.

Then it was time to climb back in the van for our return trip to the priest’s house for lunch.  We had planned to visit a third site after lunch, but seeing what the long car rides did to the girls, and knowing they really needed afternoon naps, especially as we planned to go to someone else’s house for a 9:30pm dinner, we decided to split responsibilities and let Jayson visit the site while I stayed home and napped with the girls.  So Jayson may write about his visit in a later post.

The rest of the day was somewhat restful—after too big of a lunch, the girls and I, along with the priest’s wife, all took naps, while Jayson and the priest went to visit the site of a modern day saint, whose lowly dwelling place has now been transformed into a massive church as a place for local pilgrimage. It was a late nap for Emma and Hannah, but we figured a late night was coming up, and we were right.

Around 8:15pm, the priest and Jayson finally returned home to pick us up to take us a few blocks to one of his daughter’s houses.  She had visited us the night before and really wanted to meet the girls, but they were already in bed.  It worked out for our schedules to visit and have dinner with her and her husband on this night so we climbed 8 floors to their new apartment as they are still waiting for their elevator to be installed.  Everyone was quite concerned for me, being pregnant, but the steps didn’t bother me at all.  Even Emma and Hannah walked the whole way up.  The apartment was very nice, and we enjoyed some nice conversation as Emma proceeded into a separate living room where she eventually put all of the pillows from the couches, maybe 6 or 7 large pillows and 3 or 4 smaller ones in all, on the floor and created a pillow train to jump on. 

She was having a blast, and Hannah joined her. 

Even though I am sure the furniture was brand new, our hosts didn’t mind and in fact, enjoyed the entertainment the girls provided.  At around 9:15, they asked if we wanted to eat dinner yet, or just feed the girls, and I said that we were ready to eat dinner, but I guess it was still early for them.  They kind of agreed as 10pm is more normal for them, so we compromised and said between 9:30-9:45 we could aim to eat.  Good thing the girls got late naps! 

Dinner was delicious, but once again, way too big!  We had a plate full of rice, large pieces of chicken, kefta, another meat dish, cut up raw vegetables and okra.  At just about every meal, we had to eat some of everything, and I felt like I ate quite a bit, yet at each meal they asked me, “Why haven’t you eaten anything yet?  Why does your plate look the same as when you started?”  We really had to insist that we had enough, everything was delicious, and thank you, thank you, thank you!  We sat and talked and drank Pepsi and ate fruit for another hour or so after dinner was over, as the priest fell asleep on the couch after his very busy few days. 

Finally, after 11pm, we were able to take a group picture

and then leave their house, descending the 8 flights of stairs and returning to our hosts’ house.  Fortunately, our next day wasn’t starting too early, and we could sleep in.  But for now, the Christmas celebrations were over and therefore Day 3 ends this series of posts!

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

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Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity

Two thousand years of Coptic Christianity is the title of a book by Otto Meinardus, a renowned scholar on the history, practice, and theology of the Coptic Orthodox Church. His work is widely accepted as the standard reference book for all inquiries into the development of this particular expression of faith. Upon reading it, I could only agree.

My strongest agreement, however, is expressed in its description as a reference book. When I asked a well read friend to recommend me a book with which to understand the Coptic Church, he immediately thought of Meinardus. While gladly loaning me his copy, though, he added, but this is a book you must eventually buy for yourself. I didn’t understand this at the time; like with most books I wished to read it, profit from it, and then give it back to its owner. Rarely if ever does a book get read twice – why should anyone ever purchase?

Upon my reading I discovered why, though the jury is still out if I will eventually buy it for myself. The first half of the book is a comprehensive survey of Coptic history, beginning not even with Mark—believed to be the founder of Christianity in Egypt—but with Jesus. The Gospels tell the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt to escape the sword of King Herod. While the Gospel details are few, Coptic legend-slash-history thoroughly establishes their itinerary, proceeding even to sites hundreds of kilometers from Palestine in Upper Egypt. At each significant place of their travel there is a church dedicated to the event. These churches have an ancient history, lending credibility to antiquity of the tradition.

Meinardus does not judge. Though he comments often on this progression, he generally presents the details and leaves the historical queries to other works. His treatment of subsequent Christian development is similar. He tells the tales that surround the preaching and martyrdom of Mark, and of the first communities of Christians that began the transformation of the Pharaohnic character of Egypt. Elements of this story involve the miraculous, which does not stop with the end of the apostolic age. Meinardus continues to list the traditions surrounding the acts of prominent bishops and monks, and especially the martyrs from the eras of persecution. Monasteries and martyrdom are among the pillars of Coptic Christianity, and Meinardus provides a window into the worldview of the church.

He also delves into the development of theology, which is easier to document. Treatment is given to the great Christological debates which divided the early church, but proceeds into the production of Coptic canon law. The great figures who wrote these documents and the ancient liturgies, so obscure to Western readers, are given their names and accomplishments in print. Meinardus has respect to the cloud of witnesses which has gone before, and honors their legacy.

Yet not all the names are obscure. Athanasius, the great champion of orthodoxy against the Arian heresy and compiler of the Biblical canon of Scripture, was the pope of the Coptic Church. Cyril and Gregorius are not as well known, but are still familiar names to students of church history. St. Anthony, the founder of monasticism, was Egyptian, as was the Thebian Legion whose memory is enshrined in many European cities for their refusal to deny their Lord and subsequent martyrdom. Coptic Christianity, in fact, lies behind much of the history of Christianity in Europe, as their monks and missionaries carried the Gospel throughout the continent, and to Ireland especially. Many people are aware of the vital role played by the Irish in the Christianization of Europe; less known is that the origin is Coptic. Meinardus supplies the names and stories of the Egyptian contributors.

Meinardus continues the story into the middle and modern ages, describing the interactions of the church with Islam, during both its tolerant and repressive epochs. Less detail than I desired was given to the question of why the church declined over time, but this is a difficult issue to address; histories are written of triumph and progression—who records the record of loss? Nevertheless, Meinardus provides a window into this near-unknown era, and understanding of the history will take many readings simply to establish familiarity. This becomes easier as modernity approaches, and Meinardus describes Coptic dealings with successive Turkish, French, and British empires. Special attention is given to the deep revival of the church during the 20th Century, which continues to this day. A blog post all its own is necessary, however, to do justice to this phenomenon.

All that is listed above was both interesting and worthy of owning as a personal record, though the story in its broad strokes may be told elsewhere. The second half of Meinardus’ book, though, both establishes and possibly condemns it to serve as a reference book. From here on Meinardus becomes a list-maker, as nearly every monastery, church, and saint’s shrine is given a place in his text, complete with details of the relics therein. I read the majority of the book while I was staying at Makarius Monastery in Wadi Natrun, which is home also to additional historic monasteries established as early as the 4th Century. It was fascinating to read the history of where I was. The other chapters were a chore to read, however, simply because I have no context to appreciate them. If I anticipate a future visit to such-and-such village in Upper Egypt I will open Meinardus and read of the churches there, but otherwise, what good does this information do me?

I hope, however, to visit such-and-such village. I imagine that our work will take me throughout Egypt to discover the many different facets of Egyptian life, Christian and otherwise. To view the foundational facts will require reference to Meinardus, and for this his book seems essential to own. I would recommend the first half of the book to anyone interested in Coptic Christianity, but I will likely in time find better, or at least equal, books to recommend. As a reference book, however, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity will likely stand alone. It is recommended to anyone desiring to study Coptic Christianity, and for long term life in Egypt, if there is a desire to honor its Christian heritage, it is a must.

Click here to purchase from Amazon: Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity

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‘Massacre’ in ‘Assiut’

Did the title of this post get your attention? If so, that is part of the problem of journalism in general, and of the press in Egypt in particular.

Among our work at Arab West Report is the translation of articles from the Egyptian press from Arabic into English. These are then put online, but while the summaries are generally only available to subscribers, occasionally I will be able to share some full text reports.

I have selected this link today about an incident which took place in Dayrut, in Upper Egypt several hours south of Cairo. While the articles we select often, though not always, have to do with religion, they represent the whole spectrum of life in Egypt in both Muslim and Christian thought and identity. Sometimes, however, the articles have to do with conflict between the two groups, and I have chosen this story both because it affected me personally and because it illustrates some of the realities about our life and work.

Please click on this link first.

Here you see illustrated the often sensationalist journalism that easily damages interreligious relationships. The author called this incident ‘a massacre’. Granted, it is a sordid story, but only two people died, though the gunfire was intense. The word ‘massacre’ however takes your attention. Indeed, I selected it first from among the thirty or forty articles we translated last week simply due to this title. The place-name in the title is also of consequence: Assiut. This is a large city in the south of Egypt with large concentrations of Christians, moderate members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and extremist Muslim splinter groups. Recent history has witnessed violent conflict in this area. Daryut is a village in proximity to Assiut, but is not even on its outskirts.

Once read, however, the author has done his job, even if the story does not measure up to the lead-in. Unfortunately, however, the title plays up the idea of sectarian conflict – Muslims ‘massacred’ Christians in ‘Assiut’. While the incident was nothing of the kind, this is the impression that is left in people’s mind, especially if they, like many of us, do not continue to get the whole story. It is a much more interesting headline than a revenge killing in some obscure village. In fact, such a story would likely not even warrant a headline.

But now read this link.

I paid attention to this story not just because of the word ‘massacre’ but also because our work involves the difficult goal of peacemaking between communities in tension. After reading the first story my mind moved on, but then the next day this report was issued, and my heart sunk.

There is so much I do not understand. After having lived in the Arab World for some time I do understand the concept of an honor killing. The first story made sense to me, though it is a world removed from our experiences in the West. Still, certainly someone who would violate the honor of my daughter would stir within me the desire for revenge acted upon in Dayrut. This second story, however, is incomprehensible.

Why would this incident escalate to the point that it did? It was a horrible crime, an honor killing came in response, and the matter should have been settled. What did the failure to release the killer incite in the community at large? Why would they respond this way against their innocent Christian neighbors?

I realize that sectarian conflict exists, but it should not have been ignited here. In our work we strive to understand the root issues involved, doing our best to always make the worst incidents understandable in context, even if justification is impossible. We also strive to remain neutral; we do not represent the church, we do not side with the Christians, we do not proclaim persecution. In reading this story, however, I was dumbstruck. The Christian identity in me, which is true and undeniable—its cancelling is not requested in our work, either from us or from our Muslim colleagues—proposed the word ‘barbarism’. Burning houses, destroying shops – what could cause this act of rage? Or was it an act of intentionality or opportunism? Either way, it calls out for the label of ‘barbarism’; the only question is the matter of degree.

Still, there must be some qualifying factors. It was clear from the first article that the author was sensationalist in choosing the word ‘massacre’. Here, the word better applies, though thankfully no one was killed. Surely they could have been; does this suppose that this was a targeted message and not a simple act of rage? Or can we picture it in appreciation of the culture that will allow violence but stops short of the taking of life? Our own culture can learn a lesson here, even in the midst of such ‘barbarism’. 

I wondered further, what does it mean that they burned houses? The picture in my head is of my parents’ home being reduced to ashes. Is that the reality? Or were the fires from smaller scale Molotov cocktails? Or of the shops which were destroyed; does this refer to rocks thrown through the windows? The reporting is full of detail, but especially as a foreigner the context is lacking. Though surely this is a regrettable occurrence, might it be the random activity of disenfranchised youth? From the article this could be the case. Or, it could be simple barbarism. Or, it is more likely something in between.

I have no picture yet of what that in between might be. This, however, is much of our work. This article succeeded in stimulating within me the type of Christian reaction which only worsens the situation. My immediate assumption was one of barbarism, and though this will not poison within me my estimation of Muslims, it may color my perception of the Muslims of Upper Egypt. But why should I allow a journalist to dictate my reactions?

Our work must move beyond our emotions to get at the true story, inasmuch as this is possible. We must look for the benefit of the doubt, but in the end, we must also call a spade a spade. Yet our work intends to go beyond good reporting, as necessary as this is. We wish to aim for peacemaking, but if we cannot without prejudice approach both sides in a spirit of understanding and in a commitment to truth, we will fail. We may fail anyway, but with spirit and truth, we may at the very least, hope.  

Postcript: Since these incidents took place there has been more reporting about Dayrut. Click here for a more detailed account of the atrocities, published by a Coptic newspaper in Egypt, Watani International. (‘Watani’ means ‘my country’ or ‘my homeland’ in Arabic). Finally, click here to read a press review of several newspapers, which provides a more even-handed treatment of the issue, including the most recent information.

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The State of the Egyptian Press

A few days ago I was able to provide a look into our work through the full text of our weekly published reports. I was able to attend a lecture at the American University of Cairo featuring Jihan Sadat in which she talked about her husband’s legacy in striving for peace and women’s rights. It was a pleasant tale, though made somber by the fact of his assassination, though it has now been over twenty years since it took place.

 Today’s link to my report discusses a more controversial subject. In the West we can have a nose-in-the-air attitude toward human rights in the rest of world. We are rightly proud of our freedoms and principles, yet while we wish these to be generalized in the whole world, we usually assume that ours is the measuring stick by which other societies are to be judged.

 I do not mean to call this assumption into question, only to point it out. The reality in the rest of the world is complicated. Though independent analysis would likely confirm the greater freedoms found in the West, it would also state the longer heritage we have had in crafting and guaranteeing these freedoms. It would also mark our many missteps along the way.

 Hisham Kassem has spent his life involved in Egyptian journalism. He is uniquely placed to comment on the state of the Egyptian press, and granted access to his viewpoint in a lecture delivered to the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo. If anything, I was surprised by how few people were there, especially given the importance of his remarks. In addition, most of the audience consisted of foreigners.

 Though his lecture was delivered before that of Jihan Sadat, we debated a little longer about publishing it. His comments are not inflammatory, but journalism is a sensitive subject here, even though, as he states, Egypt is one of the most open nations of the Middle East. In the end we thought to allow it, for they are his comments, not ours. Since he feared not to publish his views, neither should we. The text of the report follows below:


Prior to the revolution of 1952 Egypt had a strong tradition of journalism with independent newspapers driven by a market economy. President Nassar, however, institutionalized the press, giving newspaper licenses only to his close confidents. He also established an official position of state censor… (click here for link)

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My First Report

One of the primary activities of my organization here in Egypt is the translation of articles from the Arabic press into English. We select between twenty to forty articles every week, with an emphasis on religious issues, but not to the exclusion of other factors which also affect Arab-West relations. We also publish our own reports within the weekly selection, which can be analysis of the news, critique of media reporting, or simply a selection of interesting voices which lend toward a broader understanding of the Arab World in general, and of Egypt in particular.

 I am not involved in this process on a regular basis. We have a team of native speaking Arabs who provide the translation, and English speaking foreigners who work on the editing. We also have a variety of interns from around the world, including Egypt, who can write reports such as those described above. Although my work lies elsewhere, on occasion I also will have opportunity to contribute.

 I have provided here a link to my first report. The work I do will not always be put on display, but when it is appropriate I will also provide reference here in the blog. I am glad that some of my work will also help readers here get a better glimpse of Egyptian society, as well as our small participation in it.

 My report summarizes a lecture given by Jihan Sadat, the wife of the former president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Muslim extremists, in no small part due to his signature on the Camp David Accords establishing peace with Israel. Here is the text below:

On October 11, 2009 Her Excellency Dr. Mrs. Jehan Sadat presented a lecture to the Women’s Association of Cairo at the Oriental Hall of the American University of Cairo. Mrs. Sadat served as First Lady of Egypt from 1970 until her husband’s assassination at the hands of Muslim extremists on October 6, 1981. Mrs. Sadat began her lecture by noting the incongruity of this day as paying honor to two disparate concepts:  a celebration of her husband as a man of peace, and a celebration of war as the means to liberate Sinai from Israeli occupation. Though a principled man of peace his whole life, Mrs. Sadat spoke of the October War, launched on October 6, 1973 by her husband, as a necessary step in achieving peace by demonstrating the strength of Egypt. Having won popular acclaim in Egypt and throughout the Arab World, however, Sadat returned to his peaceful constitution, pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Israel in effort to secure peace in the region. In 1978 Sadat visited Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset, fully aware of the implications of his decision. Furthermore, Mrs. Sadat states, he knew upon signing the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1979 that he could pay for this initiative with his life. Nevertheless, he pressed forward, and though his ideas were rejected entirely by his Arab brothers at the time, leading to Egyptian isolation from the Arab League, today his views are accepted by many, and imitated by some. Mrs. Sadat declares that her husband’s methods are not the only way to achieve peace, but they are the only ways which have worked. 

Mrs. Sadat spoke also of her own struggle, stating that she could have fallen into despair and brokenness following her husband’s assassination. She described him as a good husband and father; they traveled everywhere together and considered one another as partners. Yet despite her state, she knew that her husband would be disappointed if she surrendered to her grief, so she has decided to embrace life, looking forward to the day they will be together again, but yet laboring to keep his legacy alive. This she achieves through involvement as a Senior Fellow at the University of Maryland through an endowment for the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development. She also has written a new book, My Hope for Peace, published in March of this year, to promote her and her husband’s efforts for a better world, focusing on principles for peace, and also on the subject of women’s rights. 

From the Belfour Declaration in 1917 to the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, continuing through the 1973 October War and its aftermath, Mrs. Sadat declared that her husband recognized the bloodshed, displacement, and hatred which characterized Arab-Israeli relations, resulting in no clear winning side. Though he had achieved success in the war, his faith pushed him to desire more, believing peace was more important than military victory. In pursuit of this goal he developed five principles which guided his conduct during negotiations and the pursuit of peace.

  • All people desire to live in peace
  • Realistic and pragmatic admission of the animosity between conflicting sides
  • Direct and continual involvement of leadership to drive the engine of peacemaking
  • The necessity of forgiveness
  • The brotherhood of Arabs and Jews

 In commenting on the current possibility for peace, Mrs. Sadat expressed hope. Jordan has followed Egypt in signing a peace accord with Israel, and though recent Israeli policy toward the Palestinians has been belligerent, she believes that Palestinians should be able to coexist with Israel. They should have their own state as well, with Israeli assurances of being able to live in peace. Finally, she praised President Mubarak for his continuation of her husband’s policies, working tirelessly to keep the two sides in negotiation. 

Mrs. Sadat also spoke passionately on the subject of women’s rights, highlighting the visit of President Obama to Cairo and his statement that our daughters can contribute to society as much as our sons. She believed that President Obama and her husband would have been good friends. Though her husband shared her convictions on women’s rights, Mrs. Sadat laughed that she continually nagged him about it. “Yes, yes,” he replied, “but I have also to build schools and hospitals; I will get to it eventually.” He did, and the ‘Jehan Laws’, as they are known, helped women achieve greater rights in terms of alimony and child custody following a divorce. Mrs. Sadat declared that women’s rights are not an issue for Islam, rather, it is an issue concerning how certain people practice Islam, and that this is true for any religion. A recent survey conducted by John Esposito of Georgetown University interviewed over forty thousand Muslims in over forty countries, and highlighted that Muslim women around the world want the right to work, to vote, and to serve in government, but are concerned far more about extremism and corruption than they are about issues of dress code. Mrs. Sadat said that religion and rights are not mutually exclusive, and praised the history of feminism in Egypt, urging the current generation to keep their story alive, but noting that their message has been woven into the tapestry of Egyptian culture. She also issued special praise for Mrs. Mubarak for her devotion to the cause of women’s rights, noting that more than ever before Egyptian women are going to school and becoming doctors, ministers, and professionals of all varieties. 

Mrs. Sadat closed her remarks by expressing her personal hope that she has made a difference with her life. She hopes that women get their rights, not because they struggle for them, but because they deserve them. She prays for peace everywhere, not just in Egypt, but also in Sudan, in the Middle East, and wherever there is violent conflict. She hopes to leave behind a better world for her three daughters, eight granddaughters, and four great granddaughters. She has lived a full and worthy life, and though she looks forward to standing again side by side with her husband, she will not retire while so many issues, including her husband’s legacy, stand in need of promotion.

Concerning a direct question about the pursuit of peace and reconciliation in the local context, Mrs. Sadat acknowledged that it is not beneficial to go to a village woman and tell her to change her behavior, giving the example of family planning. It is in the interest of the woman and her family to have many children, since they will be put to work to gain income, though underage labor is against Egyptian law. If instead she can be given a job, this will reduce the necessity for her children to work, creating strides in children’s rights, and will encourage her to have less children, thus achieving the desired change. She also commented that mothers, in addition to the educational system, play a vital role in educating children about peace, helping others, and proper human interaction. For the local context especially, economic projects and education are vital in the dissemination of the message of peace. 

Extrapolating, then, from the principles of President Sadat, Mrs. Sadat’s lecture provided guidance on the pursuit of local peace. In areas of sectarian conflict, first, it is important to remember that at base, all parties wish ultimately to live in peace. The conflict may have been started by misunderstanding or common affront, but as the complications escalate, it is easy to forget this principle. Second, it requires the realistic understanding that each side has hardened against the other, and the pragmatic planning to overcome mutual antagonism. This is where Mrs. Sadat’s comments about a project are especially poignant; a well designed project will bring people together, starting from the recognition they have not begun that way. 

Third, peace and reconciliation is best achieved through the active participation of recognized leadership. Chances of success are few unless local leaders can be convinced to partake, for they have the clout to maintain momentum when individual incidents threaten to derail the process. Outside leadership may be even more powerful. Fourth, forgiveness is absolutely necessary, though this is a message that can only be preached, not enforced. Proponents of peace outside the process must keep forgiveness at the center of their discourse, lest anyone slip into the ease of its neglect in the details of negotiation. Finally, in a similar way, all must hold on to the centrality of the concept of Muslims and Christians as brothers, that this be maintained as an article of faith. Keeping these principles in mind will help guide local peace efforts in the manner they guided President Sadat’s efforts in the international arena. If realized in her own country, it will fulfill Mrs. Sadat’s hopes to have made a difference, to keep her husband’s legacy alive, and to see resolution of her own prayers for peace.

 (click here to read on AWR)

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