Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Biden Said ‘Inshallah.’ Many Arab Christians Do Too.

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Win McNamee / Scott Olson / Getty Images

Unnoticed by many during the contentious first presidential debate, Joe Biden introduced a new Arabic word into the American lexicon.


Technically, it is three words, in both Arabic and English: “in sha’ Allah,” or “if God wills.”

“If you take it literally, you won’t get the intent,” said Ramez Atallah, general director of the Bible Society of Egypt.

“It can also mean, ‘It will never happen,’ and this is probably what Biden meant.”

Asked by the moderator about his tax returns, President Donald Trump answered, “You’ll get to see it.”

To which the former vice president interjected, “When? Inshallah?”

Trump continued, and the moment was lost to almost all but Arabic-speaking viewers. Muslim Twitter users lit up in astonishment, wondering if they heard correctly.

Enchilada” was about as close as other ears heard.

But while one Muslim writer has humorously called inshallah the Arabic equivalent of “fuggedaboudit,” what should Christians make of the phrase?

“Everything is uncertain,” Atallah said. “We live in an unpredictable world, and no one is ever sure that what they plan will be accomplished.” He highlighted the biblical equivalent in…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 7, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Calvin of Arabia: Protestant Theology Translated into Arabic

John Calvin Arabic
Translation: Foundations of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, John Calvin. (via LSESD)

This article first appeared in the December edition of Christianity Today.

Most of the theological writings that shaped Western society over the last 500 years cannot be found on Middle Eastern bookshelves. Few Arabs have ever read anything from John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, or Karl Barth.

The reason is simple: Almost none of the Protestant canon has been translated into Arabic.

The dearth of Christian religious texts in the world’s fourth-largest language is especially pronounced within Protestantism, which developed in European languages such as Latin, French, German, and English. The Reformation has barely broken into the Arabic-speaking world, dominated by Islam and where most local Christians—whose numbers are dwindling fast—are inheritors of Orthodox or Catholic theologies.

Nearly a decade ago, George Sabra, president of the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, had the notion to translate perhaps the most influential writing of the Reformation, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, into Arabic for the first time.

Written by my colleague Griffin Paul Jackson, I contributed a section on Catholic efforts:

After years of checking thousands of footnotes, Sabra—who settled on a Baptist publisher based in Egypt for his 1,500-page tome—has realized the weight of clear, quality translation. But he’s not the only one counting the cost.

For Middle East Catholics, less than one percent of key texts are available in Arabic, said John Khalil, a priest who works at the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo. “Our bishops can access works in Italian or French,” he said. “But having nothing in Arabic results in fewer theologians. It is a problem.”

Khalil recently secured permission to publish translated and original Christian works, naming his imprint after Aquinas. He has begun revision of the Summa Theologica, translating volume two and hoping to complete the rest in the near future.

But the problem is not just with the classics. Few modern theological works have been translated into Arabic either. Only one book is available from the leading theologians behind the Second Vatican Council.

Khalil’s primary interest is social justice, and in May he published the first Arabic translation of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s benchmark A Theology of Liberation. A handful of books about liberation theology exist in Arabic, but until now, no original texts.

But even these pushed Christians toward participation in Tahrir Square demonstrations that led to the overthrow of Egypt’s government in 2011. One celebrated martyr of the revolution, Mina Daniel, was a leader in Khalil’s study group.

Since then, however, many Christians have soured on such theology. Khalil hopes translation can make a difference.

“I don’t imagine we will become like Latin America,” he said, “but I hope we will at least stop blaming our young people who are struggling for justice. Religion should criticize every political system, and the church must have a prophetic voice.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.



Why Egyptians Get Confused by Our American Children’s Names

Arabic English Names

Names don’t work the same in every culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Name Signs



Inshallah for the Foreigner


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

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

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

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

Father: “Yes. Inshallah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Darwin in Arabia (and America)

Darwin in Arabia

From the Times Literary Supplement, a book review on the reception of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideas in the Arab world. First, and especially for Arabic students, the trouble of language:

For a long time, the reception of Darwinism was bedevilled by the need to find either neologisms or new twists to old words. As Marwa Elshakry points out, there was at first no specific word in Arabic for “species”, distinct from “variety” or “kind”. “Natural selection” might appear in Arabic with the sense “nature’s elect”. When Hasan Husayn published a translation of Haeckel, he found no word for evolution and so he invented one. Tawra means to advance or develop further. Extrapolating from this verbal root, he created altatawwur, to mean “evolution”. Darwiniya entered the Arabic language. Even ‘ilm, the word for “knowledge” acquired the new meaning, “science”. With the rise of scientific materialism came agnosticism, al-la’adriya, a compound word, literally “the-not-knowing”.

There is generally a great cultural component to knowledge and science, upon which peoples develop a sense of superiority. There are struggles first to appropriate the new ideas into a new setting, and then, to deny (or ignore) the uniqueness of the culture that produced it.

This process is often seen in the Western (American, at least) historical pedagogy that basically skips from Greece and Rome to the colonial era, with a nod in the direction of the Dark Ages that preceded the Reformation and Renaissance.

But our Dark Ages were a period of great Arab advancement, and the rediscovery of Greek thought was translated through the scholars of the then-dominant Muslim civilization. I’m not sure how much education has changed since I was in school, but this is a theme generally left to the specialists at university level or beyond.

Similarly, the modern Arab world has struggled with resurgent Western superiority. This article demonstrates the point through the theory of evolution, and all the controversy surrounding it:

There were those, like the journalist, philosopher and social reformer Shibli Shumayyil (1853–1917), who welcomed Darwinism and, more specifically, the theory of spontaneous generation as reinforcing the materialist case against Islam. Yet there were also apologists who, like Abduh, claimed that Islam was more compatible with science than Christianity, since Islam was less burdened with excess theological baggage and superstition.

Beyond that there were those, like al-Afghani (eventually), who held that not only had Darwin and his allies and rivals come to the right conclusions, but that Muslim Arabs beat them to it. The Kitab al-Hayawan (“Book of Animals”) by the ninth-century Basran essayist al-Jahiz was often compared to The Origin of Species, and al-Mazhar cited al-Jahiz’s account of how two varieties of dung beetles copulated to produce a third kind as prefiguring Darwin. The tenth-century Syrian poet Abu al-‘Ala al-Ma‘arri was another imaginary ancestor of evolutionary theory and Afghani cited a verse of Ma‘arri’s referring to the transformation of minerals into plants and plants into animals as evidence of this. As far as Afghani was concerned, Darwin had merely recycled ancient ideas about evolution.

… The quest for Arab precursors of Darwinism was not solely or even mainly a matter of cultural pride, for there was also a need to make Darwinism more acceptable by inserting it into a familiar cultural tradition.

This is the example of adaptation, but rejection also mirrored Western patterns, though the review, and the book, does not tease this out as much:

Muslim polemicists against Darwinism gratefully borrowed the Protestant theologian William Paley’s analogy of a watch found abandoned on a beach, since the intricate design of such an instrument surely argued irrefutably for a designer.

… As Elshakry notes, enthusiasm for Darwin and his followers fell away after the Second World War and that enthusiasm turned to outright hostility from around 1970 onwards. The reasons for this lie beyond the scope of Reading Darwin in Arabic. Perhaps the intellectual prestige of the British declined as their empire was dismembered. Perhaps Muslim scholars took their lead from American creationists. The rise of a militant political Islam may also have been a factor.

In my years in the Arab world, I have never engaged anyone over evolution at the scientific level, basically because I have not known many scientists. But at a cultural level I have never found it to be an animating issue. Most have just shrugged it off, either dismissing the idea as antithetical to Qur’anic creationism, or with an general sense that all the West has produced in science has precursors in the Qur’an.

A good number have argued passionately about the ‘scientific miracle’ of the Qur’an (whether for, against, or moderating evolutionary ideas), while a few have identified positively with the prevailing views of the scientific community in favor. Maybe these imprecise percentages would be similar to the views of religious conservatives in America?

The difference would be that a literal reading of the Qur’an is used in both directions, for and against evolution. The pro-evolution category of Muslim literalism believes that the scripture is a book of science; that the mind of God produced it and revealed secrets which make sense only centuries later. Muslims generally believe the Qur’an is unmediated by man, and therefore Muhammad and his cultural setting do not need to be decoded to understand the message. Mankind just needs to advance sufficiently to comprehend what is already there, and sometimes non-Muslims do so first.

A literal reading of the Bible, however, is generally only employed against evolution and in defense of creationism. These maintain a similar idea of the Bible as a science book, or at least trustworthy in its historical and scientific offerings, properly understood. But even the idea of ‘properly understood’ reveals the Christian distinctive vis-a-vis Islam that human and cultural factors influence the Biblical text and our understanding, without giving up the doctrine of God’s inspiration.

Christians, then, who accept evolutionary ideas in part or in full do so with Biblical fidelity to ideas like intelligent design, granting theological truth and divine inspiration to the creation account, without literal acceptance of a seven-day historical sequence. The spectrum, and perhaps slippery slope, in which this and similar accommodations is acceptable is greatly debated. Abduh, above, hints at the larger doctrinal issues at stake.

There is much we can learn from each other, from science, from God. In all, humility is necessary, for no learning can take place without it.


They Really Do Hate Us … at Least on Twitter

From AhramOnline, on research analyzing Twitter:

In the case of Egypt, the researchers analyzed more than 2.2 million Arabic tweets that mentioned the United States and found just three percent could be termed pro-American, with 23 percent neutral and the majority critical of the United States.

Ok, so they hate our foreign policy – no big news there. But the following is more disturbing:

By contrast, about 30 percent of those tweeting in Arabic about Hurricane Sandy expressed concern about Americans or defended Americans.

Only 30 percent? Ugh. I hope there is some confusion in reporting or answering, between ‘concern’ and ‘defended’. But this doesn’t reflect well, I’m afraid.

So how to interpret the general conclusion:

“Reactions to cases where the US is influencing Middle Eastern affairs are 95 percent to 99 percent negative,” Keohane said.

Is our foreign policy just really bad? Or are we inept at PR, at least in comparison to local outfits? The research showed these numbers hold no matter what side of the domestic divide these tweets support.

I generally think that ‘winning hearts and minds’ is an overblown concept. But in as much as it is a policy goal, the US is failing miserably … at least on Twitter.


New Feature: Arabic and Analysis

In our last post I described our hope to provide readers with an easy way to access the Egyptian news, and gave a preview of trying to do the same with Arabic language links.

Well, perhaps encouraged by the relative ease of getting the English links online, I got all excited and gave analysis links as well.

The Arabic links are provided near-daily by a friend who sends them by email, but would prefer to stay behind the scenes and not mention his name. He especially follows news that concerns the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, concerned there is an effort to turn Egypt into an Islamic state. I cannot vouch for the reporting standards of every article to which he links, but it is a very useful picture of an angle of Egyptian developments.

The analysis links will come less frequently, provided by Issandr el-Amrani, who maintains the outstanding regional blog – The Arabist. He has given his permission to copy the links he provides on a more or less weekly basis. These include noteworthy events, but also the best of what people are writing about Egypt and the region. Please explore his own commentary regularly as well on his site.

The Arabic page proved a bit more difficult to work with, so if there is a reevaluation down the road that feature might be the first to go. But I love the idea of being semi-bilingual, so I hope it is not too time consuming. As always, please note your preferences, and perhaps we can try this for a month or so and see where it goes.


Related Posts:


New Feature: News Links

An Egyptian friend of mine, Paul Attallah, provides a near-daily service of linking to the major news headlines pertaining to Egypt. He also provides his own commentary, which tends towards suspicion of the post-revolution transition and the ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The thoughts and links are his own, but they provide both a good glimpse into how many Coptic Christians view Egypt these days. He has granted his permission for me to paste his work here, which I hope will be a service for those who would like to take a quick glance at the daily news, and click where a story takes your attention. He often provides English summary translation for the Arabic links as well.

As I am able, I will delete, copy, and paste his work as he sends out his email updates. I will place them in the menu bar with an updated date for new postings.

Right now I am looking at this as a bit of an experiment. I value my friend’s work but I’m not sure how valuable it will be to regular readers of this blog, or, if it might help attract new readers. Please let me know what you think, and if you might like to access his links regularly.

I have another friend who provides a similar service wholly in Arabic. He has also given his permission for me to share, but I think I’ll evaluate this effort first. Please let me know if you’d be interested. I trust that visitors to this blog span the spectrum of limited Egypt knowledge to specialists, but I desire to treat you both the same: I write what I learn and hope it is helpful. But I have to mind my own time as well.

It’s a start, and your feedback is valuable, so thanks. Please click here to access the page if you did not see it above.

Related Posts:


My School is Locked

Off to school and preschool

Emma and Hannah have been attending a local preschool here in Maadi, for the last two years.  Emma started just a few months after we arrived in Cairo, and Hannah joined her sister when she turned 2 ½.  One of the main reasons we chose to send the girls to preschool is to help them learn Arabic in a natural way.  We searched several preschools and found that many quality ones focused on teaching the kids English.  We wanted the quality and the good care associated with these preschools, but didn’t want the English teaching that was included.  We eventually found a preschool maintained by one of the local Coptic churches, which had a basic program, but caring teachers.  One of the most important factors for us was that the teachers and children were all Egyptian Arabic speakers.  We knew our girls would be immersed in the language.

At the beginning, Emma, then age 3+, didn’t really know any Arabic.  But since she was so young, we figured she would be able to function without language until she just assimilated into it.  I got encouraging reports from the teachers frequently as they told me that she was understanding them, then understanding the children and finally, communicating with the children in Arabic.  She didn’t speak with us in Arabic often, but we would try to gauge her understanding by asking her what she learned different days and different vocab words.

By the time Hannah joined Emma, I knew that the big sister would be able to communicate anything necessary for the little one.  Hannah was excited to join Emma as she went with me everytime I picked Emma up or dropped her off.  She already knew the teachers and some of the kids.  And so they both attended three days a week for half a day.

Volunteering in the classroom

Over the months, I got to know the teachers more and eventually did a little volunteer teaching in English/music once a week.  It was a fun challenge for me teaching preschoolers who don’t speak English.  It stretched my Arabic and gave me a chance to teach some fun things to my own girls too!  It was a good situation and we were happy to stick with it for Hannah once Emma enters school in the fall.

This was until a few weeks ago when I took Hannah into school in the morning and only the two aides were present.  They asked me if I had been to the parents’ meeting the night before and I told them I hadn’t heard there was one.  They then proceeded to tell me what was going on.

Apparently, one of the little girls in the class had gotten out of the classroom one day the previous week without the teachers noticing.  Now this classroom is located inside a building which is set back a ways from the main gate of the facility.  This building is by no means set up to be a preschool as it belongs to the villa-coffeeshop of the Coptic Church across the street, but it works.  I couldn’t quite understand from the conversation, all of it in Arabic, if the girl had just gotten out of the classroom, only to be apprehended by someone sitting in the coffeeshop portion of the facility, or if she made it all the way out the gate before being noticed by a passerby and then returned to the room.  There is a difference here, of course, as the second scenario is more serious especially given that a busy traffic circle is close to the gate, and also that a stranger returned her.  I am thinking this is what happened.  Praise the Lord there was no harm to the little girl, but you can imagine her parents’ fear and anger when they learned what happened.  This news quickly reached the school’s supervisor and then ultimately, the bishop in charge of preschools in the area.  By the time I talked with the teacher aides that morning, they were planning on all being fired even though some had served there for more than 20 years.

I was really sorry to hear this story and the plight of the teachers.  Yes, it is definitely an oversight which could have been catastrophic, but I don’t know where all the blame lies.  Ultimately, the teachers are responsible for each one of the children during the day, and so, the fault lies with them.  At the same time, they felt they were being taken to task without any chance for answering for themselves, or any consideration for their previous years of service.  I felt bad for them and told them I would give a good word for them if asked.

I immediately had the opportunity for this as I left the room that morning, leaving Hannah in the classroom with just a few other children whose parents either hadn’t heard the news or trusted the teachers anyway.  I ran into one of the men responsible for the preschool program and he told me the story once again after apologizing for not informing me of the parents’ meeting, but he didn’t have my phone number.  He was definitely upset with the teachers and said two things needed to be done: 1) reconfigure the classroom to keep the children contained, moving the bathroom within the facility; and 2) replace the teachers.  I did my best to support the teachers saying that if they fixed the first problem, then this shouldn’t happen again.  He didn’t seem convinced, but let me know the preschool would remain open the rest of the week before closing for a period of time.

Hannah finished out the week with the two teachers aides as the two teachers themselves refused to return to the place where they were being treated unfairly.  I was told that I could check back within about a month to see when they would re-open.  Or at least, that is what I understood them to say in Arabic.  By this time, Emma had begun a summer course, so she was at that five days a week, and now Hannah was home with me and Layla five days a week!  The first few days were rough for her as she couldn’t wait to go pick Emma up from school so she had a playmate!  It had been a long time since she wasn’t with Emma during the day, and she wasn’t sure what to do with herself.  We did get some quality time in, going shopping and cooking lunch, but I did have to restructure my day from what I was used to.

After a few weeks, I returned to the villa to check on the progress.  I ran into one of the teacher aides who was now working the cash register at the coffee shop.  The other aide had found work in the baby section of the preschool and the two teachers were hoping to open their own preschool within a couple months.  I was glad that there was some reshuffling rather than everyone being totally let go, but this aide told me that the preschool would not re-open at all.  That was a surprise to me, but that was the decision that was reached.  She then told me about the other preschool opening and gave me the teacher’s number.  I was glad to hear of that option as I really had developed a relationship with the other two teachers and the girls and I were all comfortable with them.

So that is where we are today.  After talking to the teacher on the phone, she said I can come see her new place in a couple weeks and decide if Hannah will attend or not.  In the meantime, I’ve told Emma and Hannah what happened at their old preschool, and they seem to understand to a point.  The other day, Hannah related the story to her grandmother this way: “My school is locked.  A kid got out and the policeman brought her back.”  Hopefully she can have a new school soon.


Incredulity and a Car Ride Home

I had two experiences at Emma’s preschool today which gave both a reminder that I don’t really belong, and a sense of belonging.

Thursdays at preschool is swim day.  The teachers set up a large inflatable pool and the kids can swim for about two hours.

They are always generous with Hannah participating in special things, and they have invited me to bring Hannah for the swim time each week.  Today Hannah and Emma were the only two kids to really spend much time in the pool because the water was a bit on the cold side.  I convinced Emma to get back in the pool, after she had changed into her play clothes, and that if she spent a couple minutes in the water, she would get used to it.  It worked, and the two girls played for about half an hour while I looked on.

At one point, a young woman came out from the classroom and was watching the girls as well.  I started talking to her as I had seen her at the preschool in the morning, but I didn’t recognize her.  That morning I heard her ask one of the teachers about Emma and Hannah, whether they were foreigners or not.  I answered yes in Arabic.  When she came outside I asked her if she was new working here or what exactly she was doing here, and she told me she was with her sister and nephew as it was his first day at preschool.  The whole time we talked she kind of looked at me with a look of incredulity and amazement.  She asked a typical question, “Do you like Egypt?  Is it nice?”  I answered in the affirmative.  “But isn’t it crowded?” she asked, implying it really wasn’t so nice.  “Yes, it’s crowded, but the people are good.  We like your culture and the Arab people and your language.”  She was taking this all in, but I could just see the wheels of her head spinning as I was not fitting her stereotype of an American living in Egypt.  It was a short conversation over all and one I have had many times, but the interesting part was watching her trying to figure me out.  Really I hope I am not too hard to figure out.  I am an American, living in Egypt with my family and looking to live life to the fullest here and participate in the culture as much as I can.  I must speak the language in order to do this, and my children need to as well.  But even as we try to participate fully, we are still “outsiders” who don’t really fit in, try as we might.

Just a couple minutes later I had a short conversation with another woman who was sitting in the coffee area, just a few feet from the pool.  She had been watching the girls too, and apparently had seen us before because she asked about Layla, who wasn’t even with me this time.  Unfortunately, I didn’t remember seeing her before, but I guess being foreigners we stick out and are easy to remember.  Anyway, she was asking about the girls, and each of her questions was in English, but each of my answers was in Arabic.  Sometimes that is a game we play.  We are eager to speak Arabic with Egyptians, and so if they speak to us in English, we try to insist on speaking Arabic.  We have learned that in whatever language you begin a relationship this is the language in which it will continue.  So, she persisted in English and I persisted in Arabic.  Again, it was a short conversation.

I went inside and gathered Emma’s things, as both girls had exited the pool and changed by this time, and then we left for home.  But as we left, this woman stopped me and asked how I was getting home.  I told her we would take a taxi.  She immediately offered to drive us home and accompanied us out the gate.  I didn’t think twice about accepting her offer, as I felt perfectly safe with her and didn’t think it strange for her to offer.  This is part of the Egyptian culture to be so generous with their time and resources.  Not only did she drive us to our home, but when Emma pointed out a ball in her trunk, she gave it to Emma as a gift.  Generous people, and something I hope I am learning as I live among them.  Thanks to a stranger for giving me a small sense of belonging today.


Assigning Names

To be born on Thursday, God willing, will be our third daughter. Number one was born in the United States, though conceived in Jordan. Number two was born in Tunisia, and in a few days a third birthplace enters our family. The Arabs call such terminology ‘masqat ras’, or literally, ‘the place your head falls. If all goes well, it will simply be into the hands of the doctor.

In Julie’s family every child – five altogether – was born in the same town; in mine, three of four of us were born in different states. We are taking it a notch up by changing up the countries. While we don’t know the laws in detail, let us anticipate an oft-asked question: No, our children do not have dual citizenship. From what we have learned, our kids are Americans, though we hope of course that they will consider themselves more than that.

We are aware such nonchalance is open to critique: We get the privileges of our nationality, should we not take more pride in this association? We are glad to be Americans, and we look to represent her well overseas. There is a certain perspective, though, that moderates one’s patriotism while living overseas.

While this seems unavoidable to us, we have seen others who do their best to resist. This comes in two forms. Either one becomes a super-patriot, or else winds up near-denouncing every flaw exposed in cultural comparison.

We hope we can avoid either extreme, and the ‘sense of belonging’, we think, is an aspect of appreciation. Belonging need not be singular; since we have the freedom to belong to the place we reside, we can also belong to the place of passport. These are not mutually exclusive, though there is mutual negotiation between these and our other identities.

So when we say above that we hope our daughters ‘will consider themselves more than’ Americans, it is in hope that a particular identity will predominate. This is that they belong to God, even while they can belong to the cultures in which they live and move and have their being. We hope the names we give them contribute to this.

With daughter number one, we chose the name long before birth, and told everyone in advance to the point she became a relationship with all even at four or five months in utero. With daughter number two, we played a game letting family and friends guess between five names we liked, and the whole while we even wavered ourselves, privately, as to which we would choose. Daughter number three is a child of the blog, and thus we will put this out there for all to see and participate in. Poor girl.

In any case, please play along. The names we choose need to be at least somewhat manageable in both English and Arabic. That may not be a great clue for too many of you, but it is something to work with. The other hint is that it will follow the pattern set by our first two, though we leave it to you to figure out how. I’d say it’s a loose pattern, to save you mathematical minds from computing the numerology.

Emma Hope Casper

Hannah Mercy Casper

We really couldn’t think of a prize, especially given that this ‘contest’ is open to our general readership, so if you would like to suggest your reward along with your guess, all reasonable offers will be considered. Please leave your name choice in the comments, and everyone can join in the fun. Especially us.


The Problem of Dialect – Part Two

The strange thing about different language dialects is that the most basic words you use everyday differ from country to country.  I remember Jayson telling me this after his experience in Mauritania.  He would say, “The words for bread, water, and house are different in the Mauritanian dialect than in other dialects, but the deeper you go in the language, the more similarities you find.”

Here is a case in point.  In Jordan, we studied Arabic in a language school.  This was great in so many ways, one of them being that the teachers taught us all the basic greetings we needed to know.  So we probably learned within the first week how to say, “How are you,” which in that dialect was “Keef hallak?”

Fast forward to Tunisia, where we didn’t study in a language school, but tried to pick up their dialect on the street and in our everyday interactions.  It took quite awhile, and one of the most basic things troubled me for some time.  After someone greeted me, they would often ask me, “Faynik?” which literally means, “Where are you?”  At first I would answer them, probably with a confused look on my face, “I am here.”

Or if we were talking on the phone, I would say in my confused tone, “I’m at home,” or, “I’m out shopping,” or whatever.  It wasn’t always an inappropriate question.  I mean, if I was supposed to meet them, and they were calling me, they could ask me where I was so they knew when to expect me.  But when I went to visit my friend in her store and her first question was, “Where are you?” it was really weird.  It took a little while to realize that this was their way of saying, “How are you?”

Don’t ask me why they chose those words, people usually don’t choose the words of their greeting, they are simply taught from generation to generation, but somewhere it must make sense.  I wonder how many of my friends were confused, however, when I supplied them with my location.  Even after I realized what this really meant, it still took some forethought to not answer their question, but rather say, “Good, thank you.”

The experience changed again in Egypt.  Again, they don’t use the typical, “How are you?” that we learned in Jordan, and most of the time, they don’t even use the word we expected to hear here which is “Zayyik?”  Instead, they say, “Aamila aye?” which means “What are you doing?”  It took me right back to Tunisia.

Before I realized that this was their way of saying, “How are you?” I would answer them with what I was doing, which again, was usually an odd, confused answer, “Well, I am coming to visit you.”  Or, “I am coming here, to church.”  Of course, my thought was, “What do you mean, what am I doing?  Isn’t it obvious?”  Probably thanks to my experience in Tunisia, I caught on more quickly, and realized this was their way of greeting, and that it could probably be equated to our equally incongruous “What’s up?” in English.  Oh, the joys of learning the language on the street!

Another word that has been tripping me up some is the word for “Today.”  A most basic word, to be sure, and one that I should know well if I say I can speak the language.  Probably half the time, however, I use the word I learned in Jordan, “il-yawm.”  I was thinking through this word the other day and realized that in the three countries we’ve been in, Jordan is the only one that makes sense.  Here’s what I mean.

In Jordan, the word “il-yawm” is used for “Today.”  Following this the days of the week each have a name along with the word “yawm” in it.  One of the neat things about the days of the week in Arabic is that they are kind of forms of the numbers 1-7, so it is fairly easy to pick up, or at least logical.  So, for instance Sunday would be “yawm il-ahad,” which is kind of like “the first day”.

Well, moving onto Tunisia, they use the same word for today, which is probably one of the reasons I am having a hard time switching it now.  However, when they speak of the days of the week, they use a different word in place of “yawm,” and that is “nahhar,” which also means daytime or morning.  So, Sunday would be “nahhar il-ahad” or “the first morning”.  It was tricky to learn that at first, but we got used to it after awhile.

Now in Egypt, I realized that they do the opposite of Tunisia.  For the days of the week, we are back to the Jordanian word, “yawm il-ahad,” but the word “Today” is now “innahhar da” which literally means “this, the morning.”  Now my logical brain looks at Tunisia and Egypt and says that they should kind of switch things up a bit so at least their word for “Today” matches with the word they use in the days of the week, but who am I to criticize the language.  I’ll just keep using the wrong word for awhile until it finally sinks in and becomes habit.  Until then, I think people usually know what I’m saying, but I do think I’ve confused some of the kids at Emma’s preschool.

Since we’re on the topic of time, the last word that I will point out is the word for “Now.”  Again, it is a word I use all the time.  In Jordan it was “halla.”  In Tunisia it was “towwa.”  Now in Egypt it is “dillwaqti.”  Do you see any relationship between those three words?  Me neither, but at least I can see a familiar word in the Egyptian choice which makes it mean literally, “this, the time.”  Oh, the sweet sounds of Arabic … if only it wasn’t so confusing!


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An Arabic Pregnancy

Being pregnant in an Arabic-speaking country has allowed me to learn a whole set of vocabulary related to pregnancy and child-bearing.  We probably learned the words for “pregnant” and “to give birth” while in language school, but it wasn’t until I was pregnant that the words really started to sink in and stay with me.  Being pregnant in three different Arabic-speaking countries has also allowed me to learn many different words surrounding pregnancy, and giving birth in two of those countries has and will teach me even more vocabulary.

The word for “pregnant” in Tunisia is different than in Jordan and Egypt.  I’m not sure of its origin or root meaning, but the word is “hibla.”  Now, that word, for whatever reason, also means “fool.”  I never asked a lot about it, and it may not be the exact same word, but to my ears, it sounds the same, and from the tongue of a non-native speaker, it sure can sound the same.  You see, in Arabic, they have two different “h” sounds; one is a heavier sound and the other is more like our English “h.”  I still cannot differentiate the two when I hear them from a native speaker, and I know I don’t do a good job of speaking them differently, so, it is possible that this word, “hibla” is slightly different in pronunciation so that “I’m pregnant” sounds different than “I’m a fool.”  However, I am sure I say the two words exactly alike.  Thankfully, my friends could tell the difference according to context!

In Jordan and Egypt, they use the word “haamil.”  Now, this word makes sense on one hand because it is from the verb, “to carry.”  It literally means one who carries.  Makes sense, right?  The only thing I can’t understand is that it is in the masculine form.  You see, most feminine words in Arabic end with an “a” sound, so that a man who carries something is “haamil” and a woman is “haamla.”  However, the word for a pregnant one is “haamil.”  I did ask about this somewhat in Jordan, I’ll have to do the same here in Egypt and see what explanation I get.

Another interesting word I found in Jordan was the way they would talk about giving birth.  When you asked someone when they were due, you would ask, “When are you going to BRING the baby?”  I always thought that was such an interesting word choice–to bring the baby.  I kind of chuckled every time I would say, “By God’s will, I will BRING the baby in September.”  It’s kind of like, bring it where?  However, when I think about it in English, we usually say we are going to HAVE a baby.  What does that mean exactly?  Sure, after I give birth, I will definitely HAVE a baby, but we usually refer to HAVING a baby as the act of childbirth.  Probably not the most logical word choice either.  I believe that in Egypt they use the more encompassing word of “to give birth.”  This makes sense.  “By God’s will, I will give birth to this baby the end of May.”

This brings up one more confusing point for me.  When I have been telling people I’m pregnant here in Egypt, they usually ask what month I am IN.  I think it is more common in the US to ask what month you are DUE.  So, even after I say which month I am in, I am kind of inclined to include which month I am also due.  However, this has been kind of odd for me, especially this month.  You see, in Egypt, they have two different ways to say what month it is.  They have names for the months, but since they have been different in all three countries, I haven’t quite learned them all yet.  I am kind of learning the names as we go.  It’s easy to remember what “August” is, because that is the month we arrived, and people are always asking us when we arrived.  It’s easy for me to remember “January” because that was the month of Coptic Christmas and I heard people say the date, “January 7th” a lot.  I have not yet learned the word for “May” although I think it resembles our English word a bit, just not exactly sure of its pronunciation.  So, the other way they say the months is by the number of the month.  So, January is “month one,” February is “month two,” and so on.  This means, that right now, I am in my “fifth month” of pregnancy and also due to deliver in “month five.”  In some ways it should be easy to say that, as it’s almost the same thing, but sometimes I think people think I am confused.  Oh well, I am almost to my sixth month, and then it may be easier!

I look forward to the words I will continue to learn here surrounding this happy event and I’m pretty sure I will be writing more about the whole experience of having a baby in Egypt along with all that follows.


The Problem of Dialect

We have lived in a few different Arabic-speaking countries now, and we aren’t sure if this has been good or bad for our Arabic skills.

We started off in Jordan for two years where we studied the Jordanian dialect as well as the Modern Standard Arabic which is what people read and write, but rarely speak.  Next we spent two years in Tunisia where the spoken dialect seemed to be about 100% different from what we learned. At first, we didn’t understand anything people were saying to us.  It seems some people understood some of what we were saying, as they compared it to Egyptian Arabic which is widely known throughout the Arab world due to Egypt’s high movie output.

Well, just about the time we were getting comfortable in the Tunisian dialect, we moved to Egypt.  Egyptian Arabic is much closer to Jordanian Arabic, so we were excited to be “coming back” to what we learned in a sense, but the problem is, Tunisian Arabic is what is on our tongues.  We have been adjusting over these last couple months, and some things came easier than others, but I wanted to try to give some examples of these dialect differences to either let you sympathize with us, or at least get a good laugh.

One of the major ways Egyptian Arabic differs from both Jordanian and Tunisian is in the pronunciation of one letter, the “jeem.”  We see/hear this letter and pronounce it as a “j” sound, but Egyptians change it to “geem” or the “g” sound.  This has provided some difficulties in adjusting.  For instance, we weren’t sure if our names would be Gulie and Gayson here, but it does seem they make allowances for western names as we’ve actually met many people with the letter “J” at the beginning of their name.

One word I use a lot is “zawgi” which means “my husband.”  This word has been tricky for me. You see, in Jordan, we learned this word for husband, but with the “j” sound – “zawji.”  Then, in Tunisia, they use a totally different word, “rajul,” which we translated “man” in Jordan.  So every time I said “rajuli” in Tunisia, I translated it in my head, “my man.”  It fits, but it’s not quite the same as my husband.

So, now we came to Egypt, and I have to remember that they don’t use “rajuli,” for husband, and if they did, it would be “raguli,” which to them would mean, “my man,” but they use “zawji” like I learned in Jordan but pronounce it “zawgi.”  This is still my thought process almost every time I use this word, and people wonder why it takes me so long to say “my husband.”  You would think I was a newlywed and am just learning to talk about having a husband, but we’ve been married for 7 years and I’ve been referring to him as my husband, in Arabic, for about 5; it just hasn’t been the same word all five years!

The original word we learned for house was “bait”.  Not too hard.  Well, in Tunisia, they use a different word for house, “daar”.  It wasn’t a new word to us; in Jordan we learned the word “daar” also means house, it’s just that’s not what the Jordanians used.  So, the Tunisians used “daar” for house and used the word “bait” for room.  It took us awhile to get that.

It’s an important word to learn quickly as you are house hunting because you are looking for a certain number of bedrooms and we kept saying “gurfitayn”, meaning two rooms in Jordanian, but they were looking for “baitayn” which to us meant “two houses.”  We certainly didn’t need two houses.  Well, that was Tunisia.

Now we are in Egypt, and they again use the word “bait” for house. Good.  The problem is they have a new word for room which I don’t know too well yet, “awda”, and since I don’t know it well, I automatically fall back on Tunisian, “bait.”  So the other day when a friend was visiting and looking at our apartment, I was telling her a little about our apartment search and that we saw many apartments with either “two houses” or “three houses” in them.  Whoops.  I kind of realized it as I was talking, but then couldn’t think of the Egyptian word for room.  I think she got the idea, though, but it made me feel kind of silly.  Gotta learn that word for room!

Here’s another word I messed up the other day.  We use the verb “to go” a lot.  In Jordan, we learned to say “aruuh” for “I go.”  It conjugates differently depending on who is speaking, but the root is the same.  So we got used to that using it there.  Then we went to Tunisia and they use the word “amshi” for “I go.”  Now, we learned this verb in Jordan, but it meant, “I walk.”  Subtle difference.

The words could be used interchangeably at times … especially since we do walk so much here, but it doesn’t always fit.  However, it seems they just used this one word for both meanings in Tunisia and you sometimes had to specify “walking” over “going” by saying, “with my legs.” Now we’re in Egypt and we’re back to “aruuh” for “to go” and “amshi” for “to walk.”  But since my Tunisian is on the tip of my tongue, I was talking to my landlord the other day about getting us a refrigerator … click here for this story … and told her that if she wanted me to, I would “walk” with her to the large store (which is located about a 30 minute drive away.)  She kind of looked surprised and said, “Carrefour is very far!”  It didn’t quite occur to me yet that I used the wrong word, I just said, oh I know it’s far, I don’t mean “walk, but walk.”  It wasn’t until after I left that I realized I was using the word for two meanings and she was only hearing one.

All of this is further complicated when I Skype with one of my Tunisian friends.  She kind of laughs at me as I’m trying to speak Tunisian, but keep throwing in Egyptian words here and there.  Fortunately she understands me well, but it’s a big mind game trying to learn the Egyptian and at the same time, not totally forget the Tunisian.  Welcome to the Arabic language … it’s beautiful, and at times, painful!


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