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Praying for a President

President-elect Morsy

In the last few days, President-elect Mohamed Morsy has made very encouraging signs about his inclination to govern from the center. He has met with Christian leaders, revolutionary icons, and even issued directions to not hang his picture in government buildings throughout Egypt, as was done under Mubarak.

Of course, critics may say it is only posturing. A coming battle looms to pit him against the military, over the restrictions to his power made only days before the election. To assert his will, he will need the full scope of moral support from both domestic, and probably foreign, forces. The critic may point to a video like this one about what Morsy truly represents, if he wins.

Regardless of the truth of Morsy’s intentions, I am not fretting much. Instead, I have been trying to rest in the prayer I have repeated for months: God, give Egypt a good president, give Egypt a good government.

This matter of the presidency, in addition to trying to write my best analysis of events, has had me walk the tightrope of all the contradictions imposed by a foreigner’s sense of belonging.

We want the best for Egypt, and wish to enter into the struggle for it. Though, we do not know the best for Egypt, and even if we did, it is not fitting to enter into the particulars of the struggle.

Yet I read, speak with people, form my inclinations, and try to test and communicate what I learn – both with readers and with Egyptians. Faithful visitors to this blog likely have a sense of where my biases, convictions, and opinions lie.

Beneath all of this, however, is a hopeful faith. ‘Hopeful’ in that it imagines the best for the future; ‘hopeful’ further in that I wonder over this faith’s strength and reality.

This faith, I trust, undergirds the prayer. It is not specific – ‘Give Egypt a good president now, with my favored characteristics.’ Nor is it idealistic – ‘Give Egypt a good president someday, who will do all things well and in accordance with your full and complete will.’

The cynic may well say the lack of specifics or ideals means only that my prayer cannot be disappointed. I would rather say it is reflective of the balancing act required of a sense of belonging.

I want a good president for Egypt; I don’t know exactly what this looks like.

Will God answer this prayer, honoring my sincere heart? Has he answered it already? Is Morsy the man? Or is he only a stage necessary for the eventual fulfillment of this request?

I trust that faith and humility gives this sort of answer: Yes, and I don’t know. I will trust this president is the working of God’s best for Egypt, while confessing my inability to know with absoluteness the will of God.

Therefore, within the contradictions, may God bless and guide President Morsy. And as the question of God’s will shall remain forever unanswerable with him or any man, may God bless and guide Egypt.

 

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Overwhelmed by Belonging

Today was our first Friday back at the regular worship services at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox church.  We came back to Egypt almost three weeks ago now, but due to special services because of Easter, plus our own trip to Portugal, we didn’t have a regular Friday until today.

We’ve seen some of our friends and others who know us during this time, but when we went to church today, it seemed that almost everyone we know from there showed up. The first friends we saw were across the balcony from us and Emma enjoyed waving to them.  We met up with them a little later down at the villa where they were eating breakfast before Sunday school. We parted ways to take the kids to their respective classes and I sat with the girls a few minutes to get their snacks ready.  Emma was asking me to stay with her for a few minutes, and I realized she might have trouble this morning after a couple months away from this environment.  While I prepared their juice boxes, the teacher was welcoming us back, asking us if we traveled to America due to the Revolution, asking  if we left because we were afraid, and probably multiple other questions that I didn’t quite understand due to the language.  I answered as best as I could, assuring him that we weren’t afraid, but had a complicated visa situation, and then I ran into almost the same conversation as one of the female teachers passed me on my way out.

When I left the classroom and returned to the table where I had left the carseat, I found another friend I hadn’t yet seen since we’d been back.  She greeted me warmly, commented on how Layla had grown, welcomed us back from our travels and asked how we were all doing.  I only spoke with her a couple minutes before Emma came out from her class asking me to come back in and sit with them.  I sat her on my lap a minute to talk to her, but this quickly turned dangerous as Layla, who was on my other knee, pulled a few strands of Emma’s hair out.  Since she was already upset about the class, she immediately started crying.  About that time, one of the nuns whom I’ve talked to a number of times, saw me and came to say hi.  And of course, she asked what was wrong with Emma.  At the same time, the teacher who brought her out to me asked what was wrong, and several kids were staring at her as she cried.  I really couldn’t answer them all at once, nor was it super easy to explain to everyone standing around, so I just turned my attention to her.  She told me she was scared and we talked about why.  She didn’t really have a reason, but at 4 1/2, it’s hard to understand moving between cultures and what might make you feel uncomfortable for no obvious reason.  We walked back into the classroom together, and I had to ask another little girl to switch seats so Emma could sit next to Hannah before I left again.

This time, Layla and I made it a little farther.  I went around the corner of the building where the adult Sunday School class meets, and from what I understood, was planning a party today.  Several people greeted me warmly when they saw me, welcomed me back from travels and asked how everyone was doing.  They weren’t long conversations, but it was nice to be missed.  A few minutes later, Emma showed up with her teacher. I agreed to sit in her class for five minutes before I returned to my own.

I sat there for a few minutes before yet another friend greeted me, welcomed me back to Egypt, asked how all of us were doing, and apologized for not calling to get together sometime, etc.  I was beginning to feel like we maybe knew TOO many people here as we kept having the same conversation over and over again.

Once again I left the kids’ classroom and headed back to the adults’ classroom, but on my way out of the first room, I notice the box of chocolate-filled croissants that would be given to the kids at the completion of the class.  I made a mental note to use that as my ultimatum for Emma if she chose to leave again.  My tea was a drinkable temperature at this point, and as I started to drink, two things happened.  First of all, a friend from class came to me to fill me in on the game we were currently playing.  When she did, Layla reached for her, so she took Layla with her back to the front of the class.  I had hoped I could get Layla to nap during this class, but could see that was not going to happen.  Secondly, another friend, who is also a neighbor and had visited me a few times since we’d been back, walked into the class and greeted me warmly.  I was feeling very popular!  And only a couple minutes later, Emma was back, and this time, Hannah was with her. This time it didn’t take too long to convince them that they should return to class.  I told them if they don’t stay until the end, they will not get cake.  It worked; they went back and stayed until I picked them up.

Around 11am, the party ended and it was time to buy lunch, find a place to sit and pick up the girls.  Jayson usually joins us at the villa around this time as church is also letting out, but it is a bit stressful at times especially because the tables and chairs are often filled by the time I come out of the class.  And now that the weather is warmer, sitting in a shaded spot is a necessity.  As I came out of class, I ran into Jayson coming into the villa, and he ran into some friends who started the conversation: “Welcome back, happy holidays, how are you, how are the girls, were you traveling, were you afraid, etc.”  I left the car seat with him and took Layla to buy food and pick up the girls since they are in the same basic area.  Fortunately the line was quite short since church got out a little early so I didn’t have to wait long to order and pay, but unfortunately, the usually ordinary food I ordered was apparently a specialty today and had to be made fresh.  This meant a long wait.  In the meantime, the girls finished class and I sent them out to find Jayson while I waited for the food.  Hannah came back a few minutes later and said she hadn’t found him.  I hoped that Emma had.

While waiting for the food, a friend who I had seen in the kids’ class came to say we could sit with them, and then she waited for the food with me.  We finally got it and walked outside to find their table very close to the door.  Right next to them was a couple we knew through mutual friends, and then it turned out the mutual friends were sitting there too.  As we went to sit down, we realized we needed more chairs so my friend continued to bring chairs as our tables kind of grew into one big one.  Jayson enjoyed a conversation with the husbands in the group while I handed out our falafel sandwiches to the girls and hung onto Layla.  My friend was trying to get her 3 year old son to eat his sandwich, but he just kept running away.  Fortunately, the villa is enclosed and pretty safe.  That is, unless her son decides to run out the gate toward the street, which he did once.

It was as we were sitting here, girls eating, guys talking, kids running around, that I realized we had had a full morning of activity.  It was stressful at times as Layla wouldn’t sleep and the girls wouldn’t stay in their class, but we were really starting to belong here.  Maybe.  We had been gone for over two months, and people noticed.  Some people told me they tried to call my cell phone several times but it was shut off.  People welcomed us back, and gave us a spot at their table.  There have been weeks in the past when I couldn’t find a place to sit on a Friday.  People were friendly, yes, some of them, at least, but not offering for us to share their table.  Today, we were surrounded by friends on all sides, and sharing the table with three families.  At times today it was overwhelming when people were approaching from all sides, and conversations repeated themselves, but in the end, it felt good.

We finished eating and the clock told us it was time to get to the next Sunday School class for the kids at the Evangelical Arabic church, so we tried to excuse ourselves.  Our friends immediately offered us a ride despite the fact that we were five people, a double stroller, umbrella stroller, car seat and a couple bags!  I doubted everything would fit in their car, and we were more than ready to walk the 15 minutes to the next church, but they insisted, and in the end, we all fit in their car.  Belonging.  If it means a place at the table and a ride home, we’re making big strides!

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The Sole of Belonging

There is nothing, or more properly rendered, no one in this photo that suggests Egyptian-ness. Perhaps we are not blue-eyed and blond, and thus may not stand out immediately as foreigners in a crowd. But any casual glance from a local resident would eye us as ‘khawaga’ – a dialectical word stating that one is not from around here, yet lives here all the same.

The only suggestion of Egyptian-ness comes from our assertion: We are foreigners, but we wish to live with a sense of belonging to the people here. We do not belong, nor can we, ultimately. Yet we hope that our lives will intertwine with theirs that we might contribute to the greater good of all.

This idea is one we have written about before, but this post generated from the need to update the ‘About the Caspers’ section of this blog, especially the photo. Our third daughter, Layla, was born in Egypt eleven months ago, yet we still pictured ourselves as a family of four. Laziness and procrastination, really – but who clicks on the sidebar links anyway?

The above picture was selected as the best representation of our family, even though Layla has grown considerably since then. Yet the careful reader will notice something which illustrates our efforts to belong will forever run into unintended faux pas. Layla’s foot is extended, sole-showing.

The reader may remember the confusion in the Western world when then-President Bush visited Iraq only to be greeted by a shoe-throwing assailant. Or, he or she may remember the images from Tahrir Square where the protesters removed their shoes and held them high in defiance of President Mubarak. Even in Mauritania, where adults routinely sit on cushions six inches or less from the ground, one of the first lessons I learned was never to extend your legs in the direction of someone sitting opposite you in the room. Showing the sole of your foot or shoe is among the biggest insults in the Arab world.

Layla does not know this, but we do. Should we then discard this photo lest we offend any Arab readership? Perhaps. But it seemed better to use it specifically, in humble demonstration of our sense of, and not true or essential, belonging. We stand in a long line of khawaga; some have been honorable, some have not. We hope our heart and conduct might make this designation as limited as possible, increasing our ‘sense of’ all the more. To the degree we achieve, Layla can enjoy. Even if her parents keep stepping on her feet.

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Layla’s Party

We’ve had three children in three different countries, which has given us a chance to see some interesting birth rites in each country.  Emma was our first child, and we wanted to have her in America to be close to family and just for the first experience.  And common to our North-eastern American culture, we had a couple baby showers before her birth to get the nursery ready for her arrival.  Our second, Hannah, probably had the least fanfare, although not intentionally.  She was born in Tunisia, and as timing had it, we traveled to the states about 5 weeks after her birth.  For this reason, we asked parents not to come, but to save their money for another trip later.  After all, everyone would be able to see the new baby just a few weeks after her birth.  So, little Hannah had only a couple visitors in the hospital, and then a few more at our home there.  She did get some gifts just for her both from friends in Tunisia and America, but we didn’t have any parties for her.  Hope she doesn’t hold that against us in the future!

Now onto Layla in Egypt.  We had all we needed supplies-wise, since she was girl number three.  But we asked the two grandmothers to come to Egypt, bringing all the baby clothes with them, and to help us out for a month, both preceding and following her birth.  In the meantime, some of my friends started to tell me about some cultural things here in Egypt surrounding new births.  I first heard about the subuu’, which kind of translates as “week”, from my Muslim friend, Nuur. She is a great friend who lives right above us, and she has told me many things about Egypt and given great advice for living here.  But as she explained this cultural tradition of welcoming a new baby a week after its birth, I wasn’t too sure about it. (Apparently this tradition stems from the ancient Egyptians who only celebrated the new baby a week after the birth when it was clear the baby would live.)  It all sounded quite strange to me.  There were seven different seeds that you spread around your house, and you lay the baby in a sieve and shake her, and you step over her several times, and light candles, and put things in water, and even put a knife in the sieve with the baby!  Can you see why I wasn’t so sure about it?  She told me that if I wanted to have one of these parties for our new baby, she could arrange it for me.  I didn’t want to offend her by saying no, but I wasn’t excited about it either.  A few weeks after I heard about this, we traveled south to Maghagha for the Christmas holiday.  And here, Jayson attended part of a subuu’ with the priest we were staying with.  The priest showed up for a short period of time, to hold the baby and pray.  But some of the rituals I heard about, Jayson saw at least in part.  This gave us the information that the subuu’ was a shared tradition here in Egypt among both Christians and Muslims.  I still had reservations about it though.

A week or so before Layla’s birth, several classmates in the Coptic class Jayson attends told him he needs to have a party following Layla’s arrival.  We thought this would be a good idea, and a chance to invite all the friends we have at one time, to come see the baby.  Little did we know, the classmates had a subuu’ in mind.

When one of Jayson’s teachers arrived, she carried with her the “sieve.”  This is what they call it, but they dress it up to look like a comfortable circular bed for the baby.  Apparently the flowers that adorn it represent domesticity and purification (which is associated with the sifting of the flour.)  Although I hadn’t arranged it myself, I was curious about this tradition surrounding a new baby, and now somewhat eager to see it take place.  Once most of the people arrived at the party, the subuu’ began.  Jayson was able to video most of it, so you can watch it yourself, but I’ll explain what happened first to give you some context.

First everyone was given a lit candle, including our 3 ½ year old, Emma, and our 2 year old, Hannah.  This made me quite nervous and I quickly went to stand by them.  Within a minute or two, Jayson’s mom put out their candles and let them hold onto them without being lit.  Good idea.  I could just imagine them burning themselves, or lighting our couches on fire!  The video picks up as everyone walks around our living room, carrying their candles and chanting.  I can’t really pick up what they are saying, but I believe it is some sort of nonsense rhyme.  Meanwhile, I carry the guest of honor, Layla, in her sieve.

At about 1 ½  minutes into the walking, Jayson’s teacher takes Layla from me and begins to gently shake her, or rock her, depending how you want to put it.  They arrange some space to place her on the floor, where I step over her seven times to show my authority over her.  The rest of the crowd is counting in Arabic as I step over her.  Hannah looks on, not sure what to make of this.  As long as she doesn’t get any ideas for future games with the baby!

At the 3 minute mark, they pick her up and shake/rock her some more as another classmate pounds a noisemaker in her ear.  This shaking and pounding are meant to immunize the child against the hustle and bustle of life and instill in it valor and courage against hardship.  If you look at poor little Layla, however, she just looks nervous as she flails her little arms and legs all over.  She is thinking, “what are you doing to me?!”  Along with the pounding, the classmate is saying things like, “listen to your mother, listen to your father, listen to your aunt, listen to Emma, listen to Hannah, etc.”

Jayson then pans over to our dining room table where you can see Emma sitting underneath.  She started out participating in the circle walk, but didn’t like the attention it was bringing her, and decided to hide out under that table.  Little did she know that it brought her more attention going there as several people pointed out to me that she was under the table and perhaps jealous of Layla’s attention.  I told them that actually, she was hiding from attention she felt directed her way.

The circle-walking kind of resumed with my mom carrying Layla for another minute, and the last scene you see is little Layla herself who either looks worn out, or revved up.  I thought she might not sleep that night after all that attention and noise, but fortunately, it didn’t seem to affect her too much.

It was definitely an experience for all of us, and a story to add to Layla’s photo album!  Hope you can enjoy it along with us. Please click here to watch.

*Background information on the “subuu’” was taken from Egyptian Customs And Festivals, by Samia Abdelnour.

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Today We are All Oranje

Perhaps this is not so much of an Egypt story, but it does give a glimpse into expatriate life. Ever since the US loss in the World Cup I have been flirting with other national teams, finding myself gravitating to those playing the best soccer, namely, Spain and Germany. The presence of many Dutch in the office presented them as a viable candidate, but, eh, their style in the games I watched, even the victory over Brazil, left something to be desired. Perhaps to extend the flirting analogy, compared to vivacious Spain and buxom Germany, Holland had a nice personality.

Still, I would root for them over portly Uruguay, and the best venue for watching the match was to accept the invitation of my Nederlander colleagues at the Dutch Embassy. Non-Dutch from the office had joined them previously, and raved about the free fries and drinks, and a festive atmosphere capped by a folksy anthem played after every Dutch goal, oddly named Viva Hollandia. More important to me was the afternoon recollection that Julie’s ancestors were Dutch in origin (Van Dame), so why not cheer on family? It doesn’t matter how ugly your sister is, you love her anyway. Couple this with the newfound (and surely temporary, in all confession) belonging to the land of tulips, and I was suddenly eager to be adopted. Despite the relative distance between the embassy and Maadi, I boarded the metro, took a taxi, and arrived only a few minutes late, but to an unpleasant surprise.

As the World Cup was progressing with consecutive Holland victories, the embassy was becoming an increasingly popular place to watch the matches. There was a line out the door, and I found other non-Dutch colleagues outside, frustrated, telling me that while all Dutch were allowed inside, each one could bring only one foreigner apiece along with them. Already late to the match, having traveled a fair jaunt downtown, I faced the prospect of not watching the semifinal at all.

A quick phone call to an earlier entered non-Dutchman sprung a plan into action. The Dutch colleague who secured his presence, thirty minutes before kickoff, went to the door to persuade the bouncer to let me in. I was wearing my orange three-button shirt, but I found out later that she informed him I was her father. I’m 35, she’s 24, and to the bouncer I was unseen as he simply called out my name to come. I imagine he didn’t look too closely, or perhaps life overseas is ageing me more quickly than I realize. In any case without a word of Dutch spoken I was in the inside, though sheepishly leaving my other colleagues behind. What could be done? They weren’t relatives.

The Dutch Embassy is a quaint but stately building resembling a diminutive mansion. My first impression was its smallness, having recently visited the massive US Embassy with its layers and layers of barricades and security clearance. On the contrary, here I was whisked inside under false pretenses with not even a metal detector at the door, and the ambassador traipsing about among the crowd of supporters. I wondered for a moment what it might be like to be a citizen of a midsize nation.

It was only a moment, though, for my second impression was taken completely by the passion exhibited by a soccer superpower. The game was projected on the outside wall of the embassy, with rows of chairs followed by assembled bleachers. Orange was everywhere. Ten minutes after I arrived Holland scored the opening goal, and indeed, the anthem was both festive and folksy. I danced and clapped along with the masses.

Minutes before halftime Uruguay equalized, and the crowd quieted and a trait I have heard of the Dutch began to rear its head. Similar to the English, but without the self-loathing, in soccer the Dutch are good enough to make their fans excited, but then let them down in the end. Having grown accustomed to this outcome, the fans were somewhat expecting the worst, somewhat satisfied they did as well as they had, and still somewhat confident they could win, for it was, after all, only Uruguay. Germany was looming, and national dejection against a hated rival was a gathering cloud.

Americans may not be quite there yet in soccer, but we have a can-do attitude that will not countenance such thoughts. I did what I could. At halftime I donned Dutch facepaint and gave assurance all would be well. “The Dutch will score two this half,” I predicted. “Don’t worry, it will come.”

Sure enough, while my Dutch colleague was nervously passing the minutes with the score at 1-1 feeling like a loss already, the mercurial Dutch center midfielder restored Holland’s lead. As Viva Hollandia again brought everyone to their feet, my words urged them on, “I say they get a third and settle this.”

Minutes later a clinical header made me a prophet, but one still underestimating the Dutch sense of foreboding. The second half melted away with little challenge from Uruguay, while Holland wasted chances to earn their fourth. In injury time their lead suddenly narrowed back to one, and as the anthem was mistakenly played before the final whistle, Uruguay were playing ping pong in the Dutch penalty area, inches each time from drawing even. The stage was set for an epic collapse.

I had no words now, I was fully Dutch. As the referee extended play for what seemed like an eternity, I watched in dismay, saved only by the eventual merciful final whistle. At last, the anthem was appropriate.

But I cannot stay Dutch forever. Amidst the celebration and congratulations I rejoined against every echo of ‘we’ve done well this World Cup’ sentiment. Belief is paramount; Germany is looming. Holland has lost in two previous World Cup finals, they are due and deserving to mount the pantheon of true soccer powers. To stake the claim, however, they must add to their tactical mastery a decent dose of American determination. I feel I have been taken in; now is the time to give back. I will do my best to help will Holland to victory.

Perhaps the Dutch now may rightly decry an American tendency to try to take credit for everything, or, perhaps more accurately, to believe they are at the center of every positive world development. Well, so be it. If all goes well, I can believe what I want, and they will have no reason to complain. On the contrary, we will rejoice together. Today, we are all Oranje.

Postscript: Germany is no longer looming. This post was written yesterday, descriptive of the Dutch expectation to once again face the blitzkrieg. While they may breathe a sigh of relief, I was hopeful of a decisive triumph over the ancient foe. Spain will pose its own unique challenge, and I fear Holland fans may come to say: Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. We will see. Hep, Holland, Hep!

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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.

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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.

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Emma’s Saliib

Today Emma showed that she is being affected by peer pressure … but not in a way I expected.  I was sitting with Hannah in the bathroom for awhile, and Emma asked if she could write.  I probably don’t let her play with a pen and paper often enough, but since Hannah was occupied, and therefore wouldn’t see what Emma was doing and want to copy her, I told her she could write for awhile on her own.  She has done this enough to know the basic rules: Only write on the paper, not on books, or toys or walls or yourself, etc., so I didn’t think she needed a reminder.  After about five minutes of no sound coming from Emma, Hannah and I finished in the bathroom, and Emma came to show us her “artwork.”  She had scribbled nicely on the envelope, but I noticed two things about her: 1) she had a pen mark on her face and 2) her left hand was covered by her sleeve.  So, I asked her to show me her hand.  She took it out of her sleeve, and showed me her hand which had a cross-like shape on the topside,

and she explained, “this is my saliib (Arabic word for “cross”) and I want to show the kids at hadaana (Arabic for “preschool”) my saliib on my hand.”  The unspoken words which I added were, “because all of the kids and teachers at hadaana have saliibs on their hands.”  Makes sense.  Poor little Emma is the only one there without a tattoo of a cross on her wrist. 

 I never thought of it before.  I had thought many times, I wonder when the day will come when she comes home begging to get her ears pierced because she’s the ONLY girl without pierced ears in the whole country!  I didn’t anticipate that sending her to the Coptic Church preschool would mean she was the ONLY person there without a cross on her wrist!  You see, many Christians in Egypt tattoo a small cross on the inside of their right wrist to identify themselves as Christians.

It’s a nice symbol which a friend commented on the other day, “I like the idea that no one can take this cross away … they may be able to take the cross off my neck, but can’t remove it from my wrist.”  I’m not sure if there is a general age at which this is done, but the kids in Emma’s class are 3 and 4 years old, so it’s done quite early. 

So, I told Emma that her cross would probably come off her wrist before she returns to hadaana in a few days, especially when she gets a bath.  I told her that the kids at her school had to get a needle to get their crosses so they don’t come off.  She really wanted to show the kids her saliib, though, so I told her that we could give her a new one the morning she goes to hadaana.  Jayson did the honors and she was very excited about showing the kids and teachers her cross on her hand.

I wonder how the kids reacted.  Had they noticed she didn’t have one?  Did they even think about it?  Did they think it strange that she showed them her saliib?  It’s just a natural part of who they are, and they wouldn’t think of showing it off to others; yet perhaps it is a symbol of pride right after they get it done?  There are many things that I don’t know.  I am guessing the teachers understood the peer pressure factor of Emma being the only child without a cross.  I’m not sure we’ll do it for her again, or if she will kind of forget about it, but it was an interesting experience.  I’m not ready for her to get a tattoo at age 3, but I was much happier that she wanted a saliib on her hand than holes in her ears, although I’m sure that will be coming in the near future.

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Finding Church (part three)

In early October we began this blog, and after the opening post our next two entries were about the challenge of finding a local church in which to worship. In part one we described our general attitude toward this process, and in part two we described some of the local options from which to choose. I had imagined at the time that part three would follow shortly thereafter, but as you can tell it is now mid-February, and we have gained almost four months experience from where we were. It is high time for an update.

At the end of part two I previewed that we would describe our thoughts toward the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is the primary church of Egypt. Back then it was to be a philosophical description of the value of discovering a new tradition, one which reached back to the earliest days of Christianity. It was to promote the idea of belonging to the church in its local form, feeding and being fed with a people now our own. It may have mentioned the ideal of each Christian possessing something which would strengthen the neighborhood body, wondering what it could be that they might gain from us. It would have admitted the anticipated difficulties of finding spirituality in liturgy, but been hopeful that this was the pattern among millions, and for centuries, so why should we not also find our way?

This is what I would have written; I might yet still. In the previous four months we have had confirmed the troubles described in part two in worshipping late night with the Evangelicals, as we prefer to put our girls to bed early. We have gone several times to stay only for the worship, which has been enjoyable, but has been short of church. At night, however, at the end of a long working day (Sunday), it has been very easy to let this experiment slip.

In the previous four months I have also joined a Coptic Orthodox Bible Institute which—this class at least—is focused on how to extend Christian belonging to those on the fringes of the church. I wrote about a recent conference with this group here. This has been a very good experience for rubbing shoulders with real, believing Orthodox Christians of Egypt. While I do not learn as much about Orthodoxy as I had hoped, it is invaluable for learning of the things which are important to them. I have been received well, despite a Protestant background—many are often concerned about Protestant inroads into the Orthodox Church—and will speak well of them to you.

Finally, as for introduction, in the previous four months we have been a part of their traditional Friday mass community. While mass itself begins at 7:00am, many people do not show up until much later, and the sermon begins between 8:30 and 9:00. Communion is served around 10:15 and not finished until a few minutes before 11:00 when everyone has been served. Thereafter there are closing prayers and the sprinkling with holy water—a practice I must describe one of these days in its own right. At 11:00 the mass ends, and people exit.

Outside of the mass there is a children’s mass in a separate hall which begins at 8:30, followed by Sunday school at 9:30. This ends also at 11:00, at which point the families come back together, and many cross the street to the church owned villa where drinks and food are available for purchase. As best we can tell this area is open throughout the week, and people hang out all day on Friday.

Our pattern has been to go to church and sit together in the main mass from about 8:30 to the beginning of Sunday school. Emma and Julie tried the children’s mass early on but it was crowded and Emma did not have a very good experience. So I take Hannah on my lap and sit on the men’s side, while Julie takes Emma and sits on the ladies’ side. Actually, we both sit in the balcony which seems to be less divided, but we do stay apart in hope this would be easier for our girls to be still. So far, they have both behaved admirably.

Julie then takes Emma across the street to the villa which houses Emma’s age Sunday school. At times she sits outside with the other mothers, but recently has discovered a ladies’ class in the neighboring room. Meanwhile Hannah and I remain in the mass, after which Hannah enjoys getting down from my lap and sitting in all the chairs, climbing through all the wooden pews. After a little while, during which most of the church empties, we cross the street to rejoin Julie and Emma, who have since bought for all an early lunch. We split falafel sandwiches and French fry sandwiches, and sometimes find other families with which to talk, sometimes not. The same goes for our girls and playing with the other kids. We usually leave around 11:45 or so, and cross back to the church, where we take a few kids books—Arabic and English—from the library, unchain our double stroller, and walk to second Sunday school.

Second Sunday school is at the Evangelical church closer to our home, where Emma enjoys her class and Julie stays around and watches from the side. Quite a few of the Orthodox children also attend the Evangelical Sunday school classes, or, perhaps it is the other way around. In any case, Emma likes both and Julie has been getting to know some of the bi-denominational mothers.

 It has been very educational for me to be part of the mass. I have even enjoyed it. Since I am experiencing everything in Arabic (and Coptic) there is that which makes me concentrate more than if all was in English. It has taken time, but I have become familiar with the patterns of liturgy and the communal prayers, even if I don’t always capture every word. At the same time, with Hannah on my lap there is ample room for distraction, which does not seem to be a problem to those around us. The same program, more or less, is repeated week after week, and has been for two millennia. It does not seem to matter if here or there a baby cries or people rise to leave mid-service. The traditions go on as they always have.

This aspect of the service has been enjoyable, as it also allows me time to daydream. By this I mean spiritually daydream, as I contemplate ancient rituals and contemporary importance. If this is what church was in its earliest days, does this carry forward in establishing legitimacy? Or is this church doomed to increasing irrelevance in favor of a growing worldwide contemporary evangelicalism? Do evangelicals do well or poorly in shaping church so closely to culture? Would Orthodox benefit from adding variety to their worship? Since Orthodox believe the bread and wine are truly Jesus’ body and blood, how does this affect their partaking? Do they truly believe, or are they going through the motions? If that is a poor way to ask, are they repeating ritual with sincerity? When they prostrate themselves before the elements, do they ‘feel’ God? He is, after all, present in all his holiness. What would it be like to feel this? Should I even try? Will it happen one day by itself? Do I believe at all? Is what I am doing worship? Am I just an observer, a sociologist? Does any of this, in them or in me, please God at all?

These are fun questions to consider, even if they are troubling at times. Add these to the icons, the incense, the architecture, and the cymbals, and the time goes very quickly. In moments here and there I have been moved; never have I been bored.

This week, however, was a setback.

One week ago we contacted one of the priests who had previously invited me and my wife to sit down and discuss Orthodoxy. He mentioned that though everyone seeks to speak with him after Friday mass, the Saturday services are less regularly attended, especially the English mass celebrated the first of every month. So we called him to reserve a time, made arrangements for a babysitter to watch the girls, and gave our Saturday morning to this endeavor.

He didn’t show up.

I learned later that he forgot, and asked if we wished to meet with him next week. He didn’t seem particularly disturbed that he forgot, nor was he particularly inviting, though not insincere, in his offer. Of course he did not know the troubles we undertook to meet the first time, but his attitude revealed something that was lingering in the back of our heads during the previous four months. There is little welcome extended in the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church.

I can imagine that our presence there in the first place is very odd for people. Maadi, Cairo is full of foreigners, but we are the only ones I can notice in the church. Orthodoxy is not a Western tradition, so this is not unusual, and therefore our attendance is. Nevertheless, in four months almost no one has asked why we are there, or offered to help in understanding the liturgy, or even greeted us as the service ends. There are plenty of admiring stares at our girls, and at the villa people are friendly if we approach them, but it seems most people seem to believe we wish to be left alone. Perhaps they are accustomed to this being the normal Western attitude.

If the reader here senses some frustration, it may not be far off, but that is not the point. One other comment on the setback, however, before I get to it.

Getting up for church has been a fabled difficulty in America for a long time, so there is nothing unique in this anecdote. Nevertheless, it is a little different from the norm, for Sunday church in America follows the chance to sleep in on Saturday following the workweek. Here, Friday church is the next day after the Sunday through Thursday workweek, so after rising early for the boss, a Westerner like myself feels entitled to take a day of rest, but finds instead we have to rise again early, this time for God.

A mistake with the snooze button today led to an extended morning rest, and then a few snoozes more. Before we knew it it was clear that we would be late for the sermon at church. Whereas we don’t strive to get there for the start of mass, it is beneficial to hear a sermon, and all the readings from the Bible take place before the sermon. Afterwards, it is all liturgical preparation for communion.

Having had four months of getting used to the liturgy, and having attended the English liturgy the week before, suddenly all desire to go to church was gone. I have not mentioned yet this post that non-Orthodox are barred from taking communion. I will explain more about this sometime in the future when I learn more, but only baptism at the hands of a priest qualifies one to take part in sharing the body and blood of Jesus. We have known this since the beginning, and have not allowed it to bother us or prevent our efforts to belong. I would rather partake with them, and will explore any opportunities for this, but during the extended communion time Hannah and I simply watch the others move forward to receive.

Therefore, no sermon, known liturgy, and no communion equal little desire. We went anyway, of course, going to church has been an established habit since I can remember. It was again as it has always been, which is both good and bad.

Therein lies the point. It is as it has always been. This is a difficult aspect of Orthodoxy to get used to. As for the lack of a felt welcome, we are measuring this against the hyper-seeker-sensitive American evangelical church. If I say ‘hyper’ here many American readers will immediately nod their heads in agreement, thinking of that flashing lights megachurch that gets all the attention. No, I mean your church. Most churches give instruction to certain people to make certain they approach any noticeable newcomer. They must not be overly friendly, lest they be scared away, but they must feel welcomed, lest they complain afterwards no one talked to them. It is a tightrope walking game the American church has almost mastered.

Furthermore the very idea which informs this blog—a sense of belonging—is nearly established dogma in Western society, and as such in the church as well. We want to feel, to experience, to be loved, to be wanted, and we expect our churches to provide this for us. Of course, we need a top notch children’s program as well, so they can share in all of these ‘needs’. This is written with a touch of critique, but it also is both positive and Biblical. The church is a body, full of relationships.

Before moving on it would also be wise to mention the cynical flip side of this arrangement. People must be welcomed, of course, so that they may with us receive the benefit of salvation, if they do not know it, but then can also grow spiritually through sound teaching and service opportunities. This is true and real. It does not stop the critique, however, that we welcome them in pursuit of church growth, either for the crass but real idea of gaining donations to perpetuate existence, or for the slightly improved but still suspect notion that bigger is better. I know this world well; no one thinks this way, but these concerns are never far from the surface. The practice of religion is rarely far from the practice of capitalism. We fail to consider this mammon at our peril.

I am highlighting these features of American church to provide a stark contrast to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Surely there are negative pictures here as well, which I will share with you as I learn them. For now, however, consider the simple fact of continuity. The church here has existed for two thousand years. It has birthed Christianity in many other countries, started worldwide monastic movements, won an entire nation to the faith, become famed for spectacular miracles, experienced waves of bloody persecution, witnessed numerous theological controversies, given way to a dominant rival faith, lost its ancestral language, descended into dry and lifeless repetition of rituals, and experienced unprecedented spiritual revival. Throughout all this the mass has stayed—so as best I can say at this time—exactly the same.

The church is as it was, and presumably will be. Each and every church is the same. Though one priest may differ in style from another, there is no competition between bodies. Deacons, like priests, are appointed by a regional bishop, and may preside over mass in any church to which they come. Worshippers may go to one church one week and another the next. Mass is the same if it is full of people, or attended by only one or two. Outside the sermon and communion, the priest’s back is turned to the congregation almost the entire time. The presence of any one individual makes no difference at all.

In this description I am focusing on the mass; church in Egypt does appear to have a web of relationships and activity that we have not yet been privy to. Perhaps it would be better to say that Christians of Egypt have this network, which is centered on the church. I plan to write a post about this soon.

The mass, however, is timeless worship. As in the Bible, where the same words have informed Christians for generations, so does the liturgy inform Christian spirituality and definition. I have been looking for a sense of belonging, and somewhat been hoping for a give and take from the church. With all patience I have realized our acceptance may take a long while, as would our own ability to know how to belong. The setback of the last week has made me wonder about this expectation, indicating I have aimed incorrectly. The mass is not set up as a give and take with the church, it is set up only for God. The congregation gives itself in worship; it takes an immaterial blessing. God, presumably, will welcome all who prostrate before him; those who come on their own terms are left to themselves.

We do not know what these thoughts will do for our hope to find church soon. These four months have not been sufficient to decide where our family should worship. It remains a request in our personal prayers; to the extent you wish to join in these we are thankful. Church has been part of our family for a long time, and we desire it to be a foundation of our lives here as well. Where we choose to belong we will strive to give ourselves fully. However informed by American Christian culture we are in this respect, we hope it is still our prostration to God, of whose welcome we desire. May it be with Egyptians of all convictions that we gain a sense of belonging, which is the immaterial blessing we seek from God. We pray this is on his terms, and not our own.

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Finding Church (part two)

Within the Arab World, no nation contains as many Christians as Egypt. As a nation there are approximately 80 million Egyptians, and it is commonly constituted that 10% of these are Christian. Yet while some Copts (the name of local Christians, and the word from with ‘Egypt’ is derived) occasionally claim that there are even up to 10 or 12 million Christian Egyptians, the true figure may be as low as 6%. The percentage of Christians has steadily declined in the last several decades, due to various factors. Muslims maintain a higher birthrate than Christians, Christians emigrate abroad in greater number than Muslims, and due to complicated social factors, deserving its own blog sometime in the future, it is not uncommon for Copts to convert to Islam for domestic reasons, be it marriage, divorce, or an oppressive family setting. Add these factors together, and similar to Christianity in much of the Middle East, the church is contracting.

                Yet in Egypt at least, unlike in Palestine for example, there is no crisis, if only because any percentage of 80 million people is sizeable. To break down the numbers further, of the Christian population, perhaps 90-95% is Orthodox. Catholics and Protestants have an influence greater than their percentage would suggest, for they can often find support from their international denominations, both in terms of money and theological education, and as such their leaders are accorded national prominence greater than their numerical due.

                 Behind these logistics is the local setting in Maadi, Cairo, where we reside. Maadi is one of the popular areas for internationals to live, and as such, there are a plethora of worship choices. Among the most popular is Maadi Community Church – http://www.maadichurch.com/. As a Protestant non-denominational church, it attracts over 1000 worshipers during three Friday afternoon services, including one especially tailored for African internationals, both professional and refugee. There is another English language service held at St. John’s Anglican Episcopal, which also operates as an interdenominational fellowship, though high church in tradition. They are smaller in size, meet Friday mornings for traditional service and Thursday evenings for contemplative communion, and have a Rector who has written an interesting book on Muslims and Christians, which you can find through the who’s who link at their webpage – http://www.maadichurch.org/. The local Coptic Church, St. Mark’s – http://www.stmarkmaadi.com/ (Arabic site, but interesting pictures if you dare to experiment; place your cursor on the first rollover link on the column to the right, then click on the third option given. Finally, let us know if you succeed so we can applaud you) even has an English mass once a month on Saturday morning. Of course, we have already written about our general attitude toward belonging to the international community, which you can review in our first post.

                 Similar to our situation in Jordan, discussed last post, we have a local evangelical church only five minutes walking distance away from our home. Unfortunately, the only meeting time begins at 7pm on Sunday evening. With care given to Egyptian timekeeping, it often does not really begin until later, and then does not end until 9pm or so. Since church is more than just a service, but rather a web of relationships in a community of people, in order to get to know anyone we would need to stay even later to have any fellowship. In general we put Emma and Hannah to bed at 8pm. We wrote in our first post that we will try to become like them as much as possible, though we know we will never succeed, and it would be foolish to imagine we could. The issue of children’s bedtime exposes us in terms of the latter half of that sentence. It seems to us that Egyptian children have little bedtime expectations. Since the vast majority grow up to be responsible adults anyway, we see just how difficult it is to jettison our own cultural superiority. We should mention that the church does have a good Sunday School program, meeting at 12:30pm on Fridays, which Emma has been enjoying, and even memorized her first verse in Arabic last week, Exodus 15:26.

                 There is also a somewhat famous evangelical church in downtown Cairo, which we could get to by about a 20-30 minute metro ride. They have several services throughout the weekend, some of which have 1000 people at one time. You can check this church out at http://www.kdec.net/, but it is only an Arabic site, it seems. We would prefer a neighborhood church, and one that would be a bit smaller, but still, it is an option.

                 This leaves one last option, which would involve a resurrection of the quest to discover Christian diversity. St. Mark’s Orthodox Church is located about a twenty minute walk away from our home, and has Friday morning services which include a Sunday School time following a children’s mass. Unfortunately, there is much that would need to be written to introduce this option, so we ask your patience in awaiting part three of this theme…

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Finding Church

The Christian who believes he belongs to God, and who wishes to belong to a particular people, must also believe he belongs to its church.

                 Here in Egypt, however, that is a bit of a complicated matter.

                 The church in general is multifaceted, diverse in styles, practices, doctrines, and denominations. While this has been rife with and deserving of criticism for its putting the lie to the claim of the universal unity of the church – “My prayer is that they may be one, as we are one” – it can also, with not too much difficulty, be interpreted as a strength. The Bible is a flexible document open to various interpretations, most especially in the area of church structure and practice. While the arguments for and against the claims of competing ecclesiology are valid and useful, in general each and every one can be both supported and exposed Biblically. This gives the church worldwide, as well as the local Christian, the freedom and ability to shape and to choose a community of worship as is fitting both with culture and with personality, if bound primarily in principle to the guidance of Scripture.

                 Belonging to a church, however, is at least somewhat an expression of exclusivity. While one may be open to the ideal of Christian unity, in practice, one must belong to a particular local extension of the universal church. It is there that Christian principles are lived and experienced in community, as a place both to serve and to be served, to gain and to give spiritual nourishment. In the messy realities of life together our ideals are put to the test, and while we are often found wanting, we also spiritually develop. This process is impossible apart from organic membership in a flawed, deficient, yet strangely God-inhabited body of believers.

                 It was in Jordan that we first experienced church in an Arabic context. Right down the street from where we lived, after a walk of only five minutes, was a vibrant congregation of Arab believers, in an Evangelical Free denomination that was largely modeled on Brethren polity and, at least for the weekly Sunday evening service of Breaking Bread, practice. I qualify about their practice because the main service on Thursday evening was patterned almost exactly on the typical order of worship in many evangelical churches in America. It was composed of popular worship songs, brief prayer, a sermon, and announcements. Except for the language, it was as if we were back home. Before going to Jordan we were excited to see how Christianity might be expressed in a different culture, but as the similarities were comforting, especially in helping us overcome the language difficulties, we quickly abandoned the quest for discovering Christian diversity.

                 That is not exactly true, though. On one hand, it could be said we never really adopted the quest. We attended once or twice the historic Catholic or Orthodox churches of Jordan, but found them, with apologies to our respected Catholic or Orthodox readers and friends, very dry and boring. Of course, language difficulties made the appreciation of them near impossible. But on the other hand, we did fully delve into the Brethren aspects of the church’s worship, and experienced therein a warm fellowship and weekly experience of Communion for which we have been grateful, and by which we have been affected. We thank God for our time of belonging to that body.

                 Here in Egypt we face again a similar situation. There are international churches in which the language of worship is English. There are evangelical churches which are fully Arab. There are Catholic and Brethren churches which have a long history. Yet it is clear that the dominant expression of Christianity in Egypt is Coptic Orthodoxy. Hopefully in our next post we can continue the story, not yet completed, of where we can find a church in which to belong…

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A Sense of Belonging

There is a certain alienation that comes from life away from home. Home, of course, can be variously defined. On one extreme it can be wherever I lay my head, on the other it can be the insulated community that either forbids an exit or so transforms its inhabitants that they ever fear it. A better estimation of home is the place of family, but how wide should this circle be drawn, and what of those who through no fault of their own, lack such a centering force? Where is home best located?

I think the feature which can unite all plausible definitions of home is a sense of belonging. Life away from home, however defined, rips one away from all which is dear and precious, and no matter the reward or the adventure involved, places one in the context of those untroubled by the earlier absence, and unconcerned for the continuing presence. While this is rarely true in the absolute sense, one away from home must seek out bonds of belonging for his very psychological welfare. Without them, he is a man adrift.

We, the authors of this blog, are an American family who live in Egypt, a country populated by a race widely celebrated for their welcome to and hospitality toward strangers. We also are beginning a job with an international workforce, and are living in the part of Cairo densely populated by foreigners, including many of our compatriots. All of these factors suggest that we may suffer less than others in developing a new sense of belonging. Yet the quickest solutions are laden with obstacles which may keep a true sense of belonging from ever taking hold.

Absent from the definition above is any mention of place. Home, though not a residence, is an intangible connection to those who reside in a given location. It is a very fluid connection, for over time the individuals in such a location will change, and the locus of one’s residence in the location may shift. Yet for a sense of belonging to emerge and persevere there must be a dual permanence of people and place. For this, the international community is clearly lacking. Most foreigners do not stay long, so the pattern of attachment and detachment corrodes a sense of belonging. In addition, all come from another home, another place. Whether their stay is long or short, how can they ever belong to the land itself? If our need for belonging is met primarily here, it will ever be a temporary exchange of convenience, no matter how true or how deep the friendships become.

We have no guarantees on how long we will be here. We know we will never belong to the land. We know we are guests who have no claim to belong. We can be celebrated or despised, honored or tolerated, exploited or ignored, but these are responses given to those who do not belong. What hope can we have in here finding our home?

Nevertheless we will try. If from desperation we will be unfulfilled. If from agenda we will be rejected. It is our only hope that if from love we may find appreciation. We will seek to speak like them, live like them, become like them. At the same time, we will know that we will never achieve this, and we will not live as if it were not so. It is neither goal nor means; it is a token, offered humbly, of our respect and admiration. It is an exclamation of our desire to belong.

The desire to belong assumes a desire to contribute. Yet this contribution must be for the good of those who naturally belong, from whom we will derive our own benefit. To belong is to care for the common welfare, to participate in search of common solutions. Yet the tension of not-belonging must inherently limit; a guest should be silent and appreciative of what is given. The desire to serve can be experienced as and may indeed be drawn from an inflated self-worth, no matter how kind. Surely the greater blesses the less. The usurpation of a sense of superiority will trump any sense of belonging.

Armed with this knowledge we proceed cautiously. Yet herein lies the secret. We aim for belonging here in our locality because we have experienced belonging in a greater sense. It is our hope and faith that we belong to God. One confident in such a truth can seek to belong wherever he wishes. Confident we are eternally accepted, we can risk rejection in every other arena. This, we hope, is love, which produces service, which without belonging is experienced as paternalism. So, we will serve, we will seek to belong, and if denied, we will hurt. Yet the reward is great. If we belong to them, then they also will belong to us, and the emerging “we” can experience together the grace that belongs alone to God.

“A Sense of Belonging” will chronicle our lives in this reality. It is our hope that as we live and learn, you also may watch and learn with us. Any sense of belonging we may create together is a bonus.