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Personal

A Seven Minute Walk to Work

We have been blessed in our location here in Maadi, Cairo, in that my office is located walking distance from our home. Seven minutes walking distance, to be precise. Since working hours can be somewhat flexible, this means that most days I am able to come home for lunch, then return to work for the afternoon. This makes four jaunts every day, equaling nearly half an hour. Not a bad exercise routine.

We don’t know if this arrangement will last forever. Our oldest daughter is three years old, meaning that we are already considering schooling options, many of which are outside of Maadi. While it is not a given that we would live in the same neighborhood as the school, it is our current preference. This would likely mean a twenty to thirty minute metro ride, twice a day, not nearly as good for exercise or for lunch options.

The other consideration is that we do stay in Maadi, but in another apartment. The one we are renting currently is furnished, which was our choice for year one in Egypt but more expensive long term. There are many nice parts of Maadi, but while some might be even closer to work, others might mean my exercise program increases to twenty or thirty minute stretches. Possible lunch complications are here as well.

Do you get the idea I enjoy lunch? Being able to be home in the middle of the day also gives us the advantage of having our big meal earlier, allowing for bread, cheese, fruit, vegetables, yoghurt, and hummus to serve as dinner on most nights. It is a nice privilege to arrange the day in this way, but may be threatened by a future move.

Anyway, the point of this post is to allow you a look into my daily commute. I have provided narration for the various landmarks I pass, which for me is by now normal, but gives a good picture of a typical Maadi neighborhood. Maadi is not at all a typical Egyptian neighborhood, however; please notice the greenery you will encounter is rare for the concrete jungle of Cairo.

One final note: Apologies for the final scene – I forgot in filming that I had just utilized the zoom lens.

Please click here to enjoy the YouTube video.

Categories
Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

A Coptic Demonstration

Two days ago the Coptic community of Egypt witnessed a unique event. On Sunday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, a rally was organized downtown by over two hundred Coptic participants in protest over the Nag Hamadi killings on Christmas Eve and the subsequent handling of the case by the government. Here below is an email which described the event with illuminating pictures (the text is from the email except for translations):

(translation: Shame on Egypt for what is happening to Egyptian Copts)

 

Pictures .. 200 Christians demonstrated in Tahrir Square

Sunday, February 14th, 2010 – 17:43 

 More than 200 Christians today in Tahrir Square, led by the Liberal Party of Egypt and the Copts of Egypt and the Center for a million of human rights, and demanded an end to attacks on the Copts.
The demonstrators chanted slogans against Abd al-Rahim al-Ghoul, MP and accused of being behind the crime of Nag Hammadi.For his part, he said Hani Jazeeri Chairman of the Movement “Copts of Egypt to” go to the Peoples note was provided by Dr. Fathi Sorour, Speaker of the People, calling for the adoption of discussion of the bill Uniform Building places of worship in the current session and cancel meetings of peace and the rule of martial law and bring the perpetrators to the actual trials fair and accountability form of political and public leaders and security events in the Nag Hammadi and other sectarian incidents.

   

(translation: The traditional reconciliation sessions govern us with a rule of iron)

(translation: The Million Center for Human Rights – No to violence among the children of one homeland… No to forcing the Copts to vacate their homes… No to traditional reconciliation sessions…)

(translation: Shame on all of Egypt for what is happening to Egyptian Copts)

(translation of the black sign with white letters in the previous pictures: No to pressures from security)


  

There are many factors here which need brief explanation. Notice first the tattoos on this man’s arm, and in other pictures. Nearly all Copts tattoo a simple cross on their right wrist or hand, but this man’s tattoo is very elaborate, with also a picture of a Christian saint. It is expressive of a deep identity allegiance to Coptic Christianity.

MP Abd al-Rahim al-Ghul is a local politician in Nag Hamadi which was not supported in the previous election cycle by the bishop, resulting in the Christian vote going to his opponent who then won the election. Furthermore, after he denied any relationship with the alleged killer who gunned down the Christians exiting the church, a photo surfaced in which he was pictured standing side-by-side with him. It is important to note that the investigations continue but the trial of the alleged killer has not yet begun.

Reconciliation sessions are a traditional way of adjudicating disputes outside the rule of the law. While innocent in and of themselves, many Copts feel that previous incidents like Nag Hamadi have been ‘solved’ through these ‘reconciliation’ sessions which have been forced upon them by the security forces. In many cases though compensation has been paid by the government to victims the criminals who attacked Christian homes or churches have gone free. In defense of the government it is often difficult to establish guilt in a mass action, and therefore criminal proceedings are difficult.

The uniform bill for building houses of worship is a legislative proposal to stipulate the same regulations and freedoms for both mosque and church construction. Currently, while there is great freedom and simple regulations for building a mosque, it requires the permission of the governor to build, expand, or repair a church. Human rights activists of both religions have called for this bill, and a recent survey by Watani International, a Christian owned daily newspaper, declares that 60% of MPs support the bill as currently drafted, while a further 29% support it with some reservations. Nevertheless, the issue has stalled, and in light of the Nag Hamadi incidents the government has promised to revisit the bill in next year’s legislative session.

Focusing on the demonstration itself, however, there are interesting points to note. Official permits for demonstrations are rare given in Egypt, though demonstrations can begin and have an effect without quick putdown by the government. As is seen in the pictures the police are standing guard, but obviously not breaking up the proceedings. It is unknown, though unlikely, that permission for this demonstration was received beforehand, but prior warning may have been given to secure a police presence, or else security became aware through monitoring the public online organizational activity. Later information revealed that the demonstration proceeded from Tahrir (Liberation) Square, which is the center of downtown Cairo, to the nearby Parliament building, but upon the movement of the demonstration the crowd was dispersed by the authorities.

Arabs outside of Egypt have remarked about the substantially greater freedom enjoyed here than in other nations of the region. As such, as a political event, does this rally speak well of Egypt? Obviously, it is protesting the conduct of the government in the handling of the Nag Hamadi case, but in allowing the at least temporary gathering does this indicate a growing allowance for freedom of expression?

At the same time, it is noteworthy that only three newspapers covered this event. While this could be understandable by the government newspapers this is odd for the party press and independent dailies. These often carry a moderated anti-government message in the selection and presentation of the news. Why would this event not receive their attention?

This question is more significant given the unprecedented nature of the demonstration. While the Western reader is likely accustomed to every interest group holding protests here and there, not only is such demonstration rare in Egypt in general, it is almost unheard of among the Christians. The demonstrations which do occur are almost exclusively held on church property. Expatriate Copts in America, Europe, and Australia often hold demonstrations abroad, seeking to pressure the governments of their adopted countries to pressure the Egyptian government in turn. In general these efforts are not appreciated by Coptic Orthodox Church leadership, which seeks to cultivate a positive relationship with the government, which is very critical of outside interference in its affairs. Nevertheless, individual Copts often look with longing at the freedom enjoyed by their oversees compatriots, and revel in the criticism leveled at a government which is increasing viewed as being ‘Islamic’ or at least discriminatory against Christian interests. For the first time, it seems, Christians in Egypt have adopted these methods locally.

It is an open question to consider if this is a positive or negative development for local Christians. On the one hand, they are taking an active role in the political process, carefully navigating the uncertain allowance of the government to publicly air their complaints. By all indications the demonstration was peaceful. Furthermore, it is an internal and not international response. The protest was joined by local human rights organizations and organized by an opposition political party. The demonstration reveals a growing sphere of civil society participation to be enjoyed by many, if not all, and Christians are among those benefiting. This appears to be a positive development for both Egypt and its Christian community.

On the other hand, is this the best method for airing Christian grievances? In all indications the activity was political; should this be the domain of church-related issues? Furthermore, though the demonstration was peaceful, it was not full of peace. Notice the faces and postures of the demonstrators. These are angry and confrontational, and the slogans are provocative, anti-government in implication if not in direct formulation. Is this proper Christian behavior?

The Christian is here faced with his dual identity as members both of a state, in which he or she enjoys the common rights of citizens, and members of a religion, in which he or she is called to high standards of conduct in preference to the interests of others over his own, and is chiefly called to represent God and Jesus over earthly concerns. While it is good and beneficial, most Christians agree, for Christians to participate actively in the affairs of this world, most Christians also agree the manner of this participation must be regulated by the teachings of Jesus and other Scriptures.

It is difficult to imagine a public demonstration of protest which does not protest, or an angry litany of complaint which is not angry. This demonstration straddles the line between the rights of a citizen and the responsibilities of a Christian. It is difficult to know the balance. It is a negotiation Egyptian Christians have been involved in for some time, but now face a new field of application; may God give them grace. Concerns of the government and the Muslim majority also play a substantial role in their choices; no activity is conducted in a vacuum. These choices will provoke reactions and consequences which could go in any number of directions. Wisdom is called for, with prayerful consideration. Or, perhaps there has been too much prayer already – now is the time to act!

Biblical examples are multifaceted. Christians can find examples of prayerful resignation to circumstances, pious submission to government, astute political maneuvering, decisive claiming of rights, and zealous upheaval of the status quo. Which, if any, of these options is best for the Christians of Egypt? Which is best for the nation as a whole? Who should make this decision? Can various groups answer the question differently? What are the consequences of each? What are the potential benefits? Which best cements the rights of citizens? Which best testifies to the love of God?

May God grant Egypt his blessing, and its citizens his wisdom.

Categories
Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

‘Massacre’ in ‘Assiut’

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

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

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

Please click on this link first.

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

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

But now read this link.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Personal

Omar, the Devil

The other night we went downstairs to visit our doorman’s family (see other story).  One of the girls of the family, Hibba, was having a birthday, and wanted us to come down. Due to her mom’s health, still having trouble recovering from her brain surgery, Hibba wasn’t able to have a party, but it seemed important for us to at least stop by.  It was kind of an awkward time as I think Hibba was busy doing things for her mom and she wasn’t around much.  We ended up sitting at her mom’s bedside and talking a little bit with her as she drifted in and out of sleep. 

There was one other member of the family present most of the time, and that was the four year old, youngest child and only son, Omar.  Now, if you ask Emma, she’ll probably tell you Omar is one of her friends.  He is the first child we met here at our apartment, and they have played together a few times.  He was the only child to attend her three-year old birthday party as we held that a couple weeks after moving into our apartment.  I have invited him to our apartment numerous times to play, but his whole family–sisters, mom and dad–have all said that, no, he can’t come, because he is a naughty boy… in their words, a “satan.”  (Now, this may just be a language/cultural thing that I don’t understand, but if a child is misbehaved and somewhat or very out of control, they are called “shaytaan,” which translates “devil or Satan.”  I don’t think it’s quite literal, but as one not a part of the culture, I kind of hear it as literal.) I feel bad that he has this stigma, but truthfully, I have seen it exhibited.  However, I still wish he could come to our house to play sometimes.  On the selfish side, it would be so much easier for me to be in my own place with the kids, but on the positive side, I, perhaps proudly, feel that I could handle him in our house.  I wouldn’t let him get away with things, and he would have no choice but to stay within our boundaries … or leave.  I may be naive in thinking that my “child-raising techniques” could work with him, but I guess that the challenge would be fun too.  Anyway, regardless of my lofty ambitions, his family doesn’t want him to come to our place.  This means Emma’s chance to play with him is down at his house. 

One of the things that makes it difficult for me to take the girls there is that so much of their property is outside, with lots of dust, dirt and animal droppings, not to mention miscellaneous trash that attracts Hannah’s attention.  I have a hard time sitting, drinking tea, and listening to the mom talk, while keeping one eye on Hannah and the other eye on Emma.  Now that the weather is getting cooler, it may be easier as we move inside, but that has its challenges too.  And this particular visit, the challenge was Omar. 

When we arrived at the house, the birthday girl was busy, but Omar quickly ran to some special spot outside, and retrieved a large bag of mostly broken toys and toy parts.  He seemed excited to show Emma his toys and play together.  Take note that he did play in our house during Emma’s party and enjoyed the two boxes of unbroken toys that she has.  So, at first, he took the toys out one by one and seemed to let Emma and Hannah play with them as they wished.  At one point, he pulled out a pair of binoculars and this grabbed Emma’s attention.  She asked for them, but he put them around his neck instead.  No big deal, they are his toys, he certainly doesn’t have to share.  Emma really wanted to play with the binoculars and made her request known the best she could without really speaking the same language as him.  It seemed that the more interested she was in what he had, the more he wanted to withhold things.  I think at one point, either I or his sister conviced him to let Emma hold the binoculars, but after about 10 seconds, he started to cry.  Now, I’ve seen this before with him … he is finally convinced to share something, then he starts to cry, and his sister says, “sorry Emma, I’m so sorry.”  Meaning: Omar wants something; you can’t play with it any more … give it back.  So, she gave the binoculars back at which time he put all the toys back in the big bag, and stuffed the bag under the bed as far as could reach.  Emma looked at me sadly, “why is he doing that?”  Hmmm, what to say.  “Because he’s a spoiled brat.”  “Because he is mean.”  “Because he is a bully.”  These were the responses that came to my mind immediately, but I don’t want Emma to see him as the “Satan” that people say he is.  (By the way, they call him this to his face as well, so he has a reputation to live up to.)  So, I thought about it awhile, and said, “I’m really sorry, Emma, that Omar isn’t being very kind right now.  It’s not nice to not share your toys.  But they are his toys, and he can do with them what he wants.  You know what else, his mom is very sick, and he is probably sad, but he can’t understand what’s happening.  I’m sorry it makes you sad, I would be sad too.” 

I hope that was a good answer for Emma.  I know I can’t protect her forever from getting hurt by others, but of course, I want to as long as I can.  I want her to learn from kids who aren’t nice, that it’s exactly that, “not nice.”  At least this way, it’s useful for something to interact with kids like this.  Maybe it will prevent Emma from being mean in the future.  But really, what’s most important?  I want her to see Omar as a person who isn’t perfect, but deserves our love and kindness, regardless of what he does.  Sure, that’s the ideal, but in such a simple offense, we can do that.  As Emma grows and the offenses do too, that will get harder and harder.  I pray God gives us wisdom to help Emma learn these things, as we do too.  We all have a long way to go.

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Personal

Crazy for Soccer

I should have known that the soccer match coming up was a big one, when I saw the large announcement posted outside the main entrance to the Coptic Church in town.  Between the pictures and a few Arabic words that I could make out quickly, I noticed that the church was hosting a showing of the upcoming soccer game between Egypt and Algeria.  It wasn’t until a few days later, that our neighbor/landlord told us that it was a qualifier for the world cup.  Egypt, who has won the Africa cup a few times lately, was in danger of not making it to the world cup.  I learned that they had to win this game by 3 goals to advance.  Only 2 goals meant a rematch in a neutral country.

Unfortunately Jayson was out of town and beyond the reach of television during this game, otherwise, he may have been able to participate in the hype and excitement as he gathered with Egyptians to watch.  For me, the game started at 7:30 on a Saturday night…just about the time I was giving the girls a bath and putting them to bed.  We don’t have a television in our house, so I wasn’t going to watch, but I was cheering for Egypt as it would make for a more interesting World Cup this summer if the country we reside in was playing.

Two days before the game we got an alert email from the US embassy in Cairo.  It informed us of the game coming up, and urged all US citizens to stay away from the area of the stadium due to crazy traffic and the possibility of riots–even non-violent ones–before or after the game.  It seemed a little over the top to me.  Sure, I would avoid the area like crazy.  Don’t want to deal with the crowds and traffic, but I wondered about the threat of riots.

As I walked around town today, the day of the game, I could see the number of Egyptian flags had increased on cars and in shops and from people’s homes.  People were gearing up for the big game.  As I was doing my errands that day, a girl from a local shop stopped me to ask if I was cheering for Egypt.  “Of course,” I replied.  She seemed tickled by that.  I really don’t know how I couldn’t cheer for them, and still live here.  We talked a bit about the game and I showed my knowledge of the situation.  She said that if they didn’t advance tonight, but still won, the next game would be played in Sudan.

So, 7:30 rolled around and I gave the girls a bath and put them in bed.  I had some things to do after that and was busy in the kitchen around 9:30 when I heard a loud cheer go up from our building.  It was a collective cheer from below, above, outside and inside.  I thought, they must have won!  I quickly ran to my neighbors and rang her bell.  She came to the door quickly and returned to the TV even more quickly. 

“Did they win?”  I asked.

“No, just scored a second goal.  There’s only a few minutes left.” 

She kept watching the screen, cheering, holding her breath, getting down on her knees, shivering with excitement as Egypt had another good chance on goal.  (Take note that my landlord is a 50 year old mother of 3 grown sons.)  Another minute passed and the game ended.  Another loud cheer went up and all of Egypt celebrated their team’s victory.  I still think it meant they had to play another game, but at least they were still alive.  That was only the beginning of the celebration.

Now it is about 11:30pm and I was planning to be asleep by now.  But it’s near impossible as people are cheering and horns are beeping and sirens are wailing all around.  Our building is not located in a loud place…we rarely hear traffic besides the minivans that begin their route in front of our building.  But we are right next to a bridge that runs out of town, and for the last two hours, people have been constantly beeping their horns as they drive over the bridge.  I just keep praying that all this noise doesn’t wake the girls up! 

I’m glad for them–the team, the people of Egypt.  It’s probably something that unifies this country…Muslims and Christians alike.  I hope Egypt advances and does well, but right now, I would really like to sleep!  Oh well, that can be difficult in a country that doesn’t really sleep on a normal day until 2am.  It’s just that on this night, there is national permission to celebrate loudly and freely…probably until people fizzle out around 2am.  I hope I sleep before that!

 

Postscript: The rematch in Sudan is this evening, so the country is enraptured once again. Even Emma the other day chanted. “Go Masr, Go Masr!” (‘Masr’ is Arabic for ‘Egypt’.) We hope they win, even if it costs us another night’s sleep.

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Personal Reconciliation

Scuffling

Back when I was in high school my dad would take us boys on occasion to watch Rutgers University soccer games. They were always fun—for soccer aficionados we even saw Alexi Lalas play—though I was often troubled by the degree to which fans in the stands would berate the referees. Perhaps back then I had a sensitive conscience, but there was always an air of tension surrounding the game. Rutgers was good back then—I have no idea if they are good now—but they often won and everyone went home happy.

One afternoon, however, they lost. Grumbling was expected and the referees were lambasted, but on our way back to the car in an open space of grass behind the playing field two people were yapping back and forth very vehemently. I can only imagine they were opposing fans, perhaps one a student at the rival college, but my memory is that they were both adults, however young. Their raised voices attracted a lot of attention, and the attendees paused in their descent to the parking lot and duly circled around them. There was no “fight, fight!” chanting like you might have with boys on a playground, but the yapping had escalated in the meanwhile and the two had come to blows. Like rubbernecking at an accident it is impossible to look away, but Dad quickly pushed us along and we went our way home.

Before leaving though my conscience had another message. I was struck not only by the wrongness of what was going on, but also by the feeling that something should be done about it. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” is fine to recite, but hard to act upon. Yet I had the urge that I should do something about it. Sometimes in such cases you can imagine yourself the hero; I had no such picture in my head. The only images that came were wandering, alone, into the scuffle, and getting caught in the crossfire, thrown to the ground, and doing no good whatsoever. Perhaps there was a scenario in which this broke the tunnel vision of their rage, but even so the price to pay was the chief element in my mind. I put up no resistance to Dad’s motioning.

That day within me something was either born or died. I’m not sure which. Since then I have been filled with the idealism that calls us to put our lives nonviolently in the line of fire for the sake of ending conflict, even if it is fruitless and painful. I watched with admiration as the people of Christian Peacemaker Teams went to Iraq and, as their motto states, looked to “get in the way.” There story is told here on Wikipedia.Yet the world soon cast their scorn as they were captured by the very Iraqis they went to protect, and then heroically, yet ironically, rescued by the American soldiers they were seeking to obstruct. It says much about our military, but what does it say about them?

Such a group is prepared to pay the same cost in nonviolence that a soldier is prepared to pay in violence. They believe peacemaking calls for sacrifice, commitment, and strategy. In their ordeal the American member of their team died. Another of their group was 74 years old. Yet what is remembered of them? That they put the lives of American soldiers in danger. That they put their noses where they did not belong. They played the part of the fool in the drama which justified the war. What good came from their idealism? Was there any impact in Iraq? Was there any impact anywhere?

Perhaps it could be said that these thoughts here represent growth from the birth of the original experience. Yet if instead the focus is on life, and not thought, it may better be described as death. I have never intervened to bring peace to a situation. I have often nodded in that direction, but never once have I risked suffering in order to reconcile others. I have stood with others around the incident, felt the ping of conscience, and moved on.

 

Coming home late one evening the other day I was riding the metro and the sensation returned. The car was not overly crowded though there was a small but sizeable group of youth—high school to college—joking around, jostling, drawing attention to themselves but not quite crossing the line in the manner of which their age is so adept. Someone, though, took offense. He was about the same age, but was standing in the corner with a young lady covered in a head scarf. I have no idea what came between them, but before too long one of the group in particular and he were locked in the level of raised voices that precedes a conflict. As per custom, and perhaps per wisdom, I slinked backwards a few steps.

The outcome itself is perhaps not surprising, though it is different. The two became more and more animated, displaying their bravado in closer and closer proximity. Immediately others stepped in. Older men sitting around them reached out to grab the near-combatants by the arm, speaking words of calm. The group of young men rallied around their member, but to pull him back. The yapping continued for a little while, but eventually dissipated as each side separated, and they young men exited at the next stop. Crisis averted.

Having lived in the Arab World for some time now, I knew exactly how this scenario would play out. In this respect my withdrawal was not from cowardice but simply from allowing those who knew how to diffuse tension to play their role. Yet I will not excuse myself from cowardice; I, after all, knew the playbook, and chose not to participate. Still the criticism is not quite fair; though I have seen and could plausibly imitate the role I had seen so many times before, no one else was playing a role.

No one thought, “I should get involved.” The older men did not think, “This word of caution would be appropriate.” They all simply acted, and they acted as one group with one mind. Whereas the mentality back at Rutgers was to circle around and let them fight, the mentality here was to intervene. Whereas the one with a sensitive conscience in America wonders what he might do to change a bad situation, the one here does not exist—the group conscience decidedly takes over.

What does it mean to be a peacemaker?

 

It is written about Arab culture that conflict is a normal and accepted fact of life, but that group mechanisms exist to keep conflict from spiraling out of control. The sense of being his brother’s keeper is ingrained in Arab thought, and there is no need to romanticize this. It is not driven by a profound sense of morality but rather a consciousness that protects the group in ever-larger concentric circles. There is an Arab proverb which states, “Me against my brother. My brother and I against my cousins.  My cousins and I against the world.” Conflict is allowed and expected, but at a certain level it must cease.

The system, however, is moral. In the West our sense of personal responsibility will not permit the Arab individual any credit for automatic participation in group think, and we are blind to the structural morality that binds them together. Yet we then in opposite fashion suffer the intense burden of the individual peacemaker and are blind to our own structural immorality. Furthermore, since we know the individual can do no good on his own, we are left in despair, immobilized against undertaking any good.

When some, like the brave yet naïve (?) souls of Christian Peacemaker Teams can finally commit themselves to mobilization, everything is marshaled toward their failure. It is no conspiracy theory; it is a reflection of the fact that the world is organized around the principles of power. If power is threatened by power the rules are clear and the victor presides. Morality determines to what degree the labels of “good” or “evil” are applied, and a preference exists, of course, for good. If power, however, is threatened by nonviolence, it puts everyone ill at ease, for both good and evil in this system depend upon it.

This is the way the world works, and the Arabs are no better. They often receive the “evil” label in our classification scheme, but for us this is a label of convenience. We are the possessors of power in the world today, and like all in this position we are loathe to give it up. They from their group mentality at times will reach the end of their concentric circles, and lash out – we are quick to retaliate in kind. Yet it is the same game and the same struggle. Yet the Arab World is worthy of more praise than it receives, for their circles can expand to include humanity at large. For the past two hundred years they have been under the world order of the West, and they have largely played nicely. Even so, our thumb is strong.

What then can be the place of the individual with a sensitive conscience anywhere, but especially in the West? To what degree are we condemned to act alone? Culture cannot be easily changed, but can the principles of peacemaking become generalized? Can a group mentality emerge which curbs conflict before it escalates beyond repair? Can this be applied to our foreign policy? Can it be applied at a soccer game?

It is here where I run out of vision, though perhaps it is more correct that I am scared of the vision. Until now I have been reluctant to speak of Christianity, for these principles have been practiced, albeit rarely by anyone, by non-Christians around the world. We should learn their lessons and hear their rebuke. Yet our primary example, which we are called to imitate, is profoundly individual. Suffering a sensitive conscience aware of the deep division between man and God, Jesus gave up all power and preached a message of love. He gathered others around him, but in the end the powers that be chose him alone for execution. His mission, noble as it was, ended in failure. Looking to intercede between man and God, he was caught in the crossfire, and put to death by both. Yet he was no victim, for he chose his fate, drinking deeply from the cup he was given. Paradox of all paradoxes, it was from his failure that victory emerged. Salvation can be preached to the world, peace can be extended to all, because one man was trampled upon trying to make a difference.

Can we do any differently?

Categories
Arab West Report Books Middle East Published Articles

My First Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 (click here to read on AWR)

click here to purchase from Amazon: My Hope for Peace

Categories
Personal

First Days in Cairo: Househunting from Jail

Apartment-hunting in Cairo was tough considering Jayson was beginning a new job and we were housesitting in a place which was a 45-minute drive from Maadi, the neighborhood where we hoped to live.  This meant timing our visits there in between or in spite of naps and bedtime for our two girls.  Jayson didn’t have a lot of time to walk around Maadi and look for places, and once he left for the day, I was kind of stuck at the villa.  So, I did what I could from afar and looked in magazines and made some phone calls and even checked the internet.  Surprisingly, one of the best resources for finding an apartment was the ever popular Craigslist site online.

I saw a place on Craigslist on a Monday and tried calling about it, but the person never picked up.  We had been using a lot of real estate agents to find places and this was another one advertising a 3-bedroom place within our budget.  The details of the place sounded good, but we couldn’t do much about it if there was no answer.  I sent an email to the Craigslist address and finally on Friday night, got a reply that he had been out of town but would now answer his phone.  Well, Saturday was the first day of Ramadan…so the first day of the fast…and I tried calling him several times that morning as we were looking to decide on places, but still no answer. We had narrowed our choices down to a simple ground floor place (drawbacks were no bathtub and a very uneven floor…making the table and chairs a bit tipsy) and a 2-bedroom place across from the office (a good spot…but a little small and seemed a bit expensive compared to other places; plus, there were a lot of mice droppings from its short time vacant).  So, we weren’t super happy with either of these two options.  Finally in the afternoon, someone answered the phone.  He had slept in due to the fasting and it’s hard adjusting to the first day…especially since he’s a smoker.  Anyway, we agreed to see the place at 5:30 that evening…an hour before the time of breaking the fast.

We got the girls up from their nap and got ready to go into town.  Since it takes at least 45 minutes to get there from the villa we had to go early…and on the way, the real estate agent texted me to say the key wasn’t available at this time so we had to cancel the appointment.  It was really the only reason we were going all the way into town, so that was no good.  I called him and he thought that we could meet at 8pm and the key would be there.  Plus maybe he could show us some other spots.  So, we arrived in town around 5pm…what to do with three hours?!  Jayson stopped by the office and found there was an interview with some journalists taking place, and his boss invited him to stay for the interview.  Good and interesting for him.  A little hard for us.

It’s hard to keep the girls entertained and somewhat less than filthy, playing outside Jayson’s office building.  You see, the ground and everything outside is always covered by a layer of dust/dirt.  Fortunately Hannah is mostly walking now, but both her and Emma get quite dirty playing outside…and then I get dirty because they sit on my lap or I hold them.  I really can’t get from our house to our next stop in the car with a clean shirt and pants.  Oh well, something to adjust to.  Anyway, back to the time at the office.  So, to avoid the dirt, we played inside Jayson’s office building for a little while, but I didn’t want to make too much noise and disturb the interview. Then we left the office, closing the locked door behind us, only to find that the gate to get out of the building was also locked.  So, we were stuck in the stairwell.  And of course, Hannah crawls up steps, cleaning them as she goes!  We were stuck there for about half an hour, and at one point, Emma said we were in jail…something I hadn’t thought of but seemed fitting to our situation.  We tried to stay occupied by telling stories and singing songs, and we attempted to stay a little less than filthy.  The “little less than filthy” was unsuccessful, but we survived until someone who lived in the building came in and let us out!  We went to the car then for a snack until Jayson was done, then to his boss’ house for a drink.  By the time this was all over, it was about 7pm…still an hour until we meet the real estate agent, and I was quite ready to just go back home!  Enough for one day…but the night was yet young!  We got the girls some yogurt to eat and waited for the agent by our rendezvous spot. He showed up a couple minutes past our appointment time and we continued the adventure.

We didn’t start out at the Craigslist place.  He took us to another apartment building where we were going to see two places.  But instead, we waited and waited and waited and waited for the doorman to come back with the key.  He had gone to the mosque for Ramadan prayers and was coming “any minute.”  This went on for about half an hour.  The good news is, Emma liked this “Amu” (Arabic word for uncle) for some reason and played with him real well despite the fact that it was going on 9pm by the time we finally said, that’s enough waiting, let’s go to the other place.

So, then we were going to see yet another place before the Craigslist place, but this one was on the opposite side of the metro track.  We don’t know why he suggested this, but we parked at one spot, walked up and over the metro (lots and lots of stairs) and then preceded to walk what felt like a mile…remember, 9pm, me carrying Hannah, Jayson carrying Emma, through the dark streets…until we finally got to an apartment where we went to the third floor (no elevator).  Now, what’s frustrating about this is we specifally told the agent we didn’t want a high floor without an elevator…it’s just too hard with the kids.  But, we saw the place anyway.  It was a decent place but didn’t have a bathtub, so that was a problem. (Besides being on the third floor).  Then, while Jayson was looking at the back bedroom with the landlord and agent, the landlord closed the shutters on the window, knocking a beehive open…and bees started to swarm into the bedroom!  Fortunately I didn’t witness this myself, but the owner got stung and Jayson made it out of there without harm.  The landlord felt really bad and assured us he would spray and take care of that problem!

So then onto the place we had been waiting to see for five days or five hours…depending on when you started counting!  Fortunately, we didn’t have to walk too far to the next place, it was just up and over the metro again.

We got to the building and there was a large family gathering taking place in the downstairs aptartment.  Again, it was the first day of Ramadan and the family was celebrating the fast-breaking meal.  And of course, the key was not there, but would be back in about 20 minutes! Ugh!  It was already 10pm!  Well, we came this far, so we had to wait.

The family invited us in…or maybe Hannah just kind of walked in and we had to follow her, and we enjoyed a visit with them…having some dessert and juice and chatting some with the people. It was a large group…uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.  The girls did okay despite the hour, and Emma was a little overwhelmed as people would pick her up when she didn’t want them to…but all in all, it was a nice introduction to the owner of the buildings large family.

So, finally the key came and we went up to look at the place.  I liked it immediately although it was supposed to be a furnished place and there was only some furniture…so that was tricky, but they promised to furnish it if we took it.  We took a look at it and talked some with the brother of the owner, as the owner himself was out of town…and told them we would think about it.  After about 1/2 an hour of looking around and talking, we headed back out…took a taxi back to our car, dropped the agent off, and headed back to the villa…fortunately there wasn’t much traffic and we made good time…both of the girls sleeping from the time we got in the car.

As a postscript: This is the apartment we did finally settle on, just a few days after our crazy night.  It was a good reminder that things take longer to do here…something we need to get used to.  We’re thankful that our kids are flexible, and glad to be done the househunting for the time being.