For over 50 years, Jesus’ baptismal site was a casualty of war.
Now, it is a casualty of the new coronavirus.
Last week in time for Easter, the UK-based demining specialist HALO Trust group exploded in chain reaction the final 500 landmines at Israel’s Qasr al-Yahud monastery complex.
“We got the churches together, all eight different denominations, and then we got the Israelis and the Palestinians,” HALO Trust CEO James Cowan told the BBC.
“So all three major faiths, and we looked at how we could do this.”
Located six miles east of Jericho on the Jordan River, “Bethany beyond the Jordan” in 1968 was placed by Israel under military jurisdiction following the Six Day War. Fearing terrorist infiltration across the shallow riverbed, the army laid over 6,000 landmines and booby-trapped the churches.
Israel declared peace with Jordan in 1995, but the area remained closed.
In 2011, it was partially reopened, allowing access along one narrow path between the Jordan River and the Greek Orthodox St. John the Baptist Monastery.
And in 2016, HALO Trust, which works in 27 nations around the world, announced…
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Evangelicals in Jordan have a new leader. They just don’t have anything official for him to lead yet.
Five denominations, including Baptists, Assemblies of God, Evangelical Free, Nazarene, and Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) churches, met a month ago to elect Habes Nimat as president of the Jordanian Evangelical Council. They comprise 57 churches total.
“I would like to believe that they chose me because I am a team player,” said Nimat, who has led a CMA congregation in the capital city of Amman since 2017. “I have good relations with the evangelical society, the local society, and they know my work with Christians of all denominations.”
Established in 2006, the council is the fruit of nearly 100 years of evangelical outreach in Jordan. Numbering roughly 10,000 individuals, evangelicals remain a small minority among the 2.2 percent of Christians in Jordan’s overall population of 10 million, almost exclusively Sunni Muslims.
Nimat will need to rely on these good relations to achieve the most pressing evangelical concern—legal recognition of the council as an official Christian denomination.
Jordan currently recognizes 11 Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic.
They are organized into the official Council of Church Leaders (CCL), which functions as a government advisory body. The prime minister will confer with the CCL on whether or not to admit new representation.
“We have been working on registration for many years as one body,” said Nimat, “but so far, we have not heard an answer from them, neither positive nor negative.”
Representation on the CCL entitles the denomination to…
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…The tension over praising limited gains is also a factor in Uzbekistan, a Muslim-majority secular nation whose citizens have the right to convert but which the United States has designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) since 2006 over religious freedom violations.
At the US State Department’s inaugural Ministerial for Advancing Religious Freedom in July 2018, Uzbek leaders outlined how they were streamlining registration for religious groups and reviewing a law that restricted religion. Last December, the Central Asian nation was removed from the CPC list—only the second nation to ever come off—and put on a watch list instead. But it ranks No. 17 on Open Doors’ list of countries where it’s hardest to be Christian.
Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, has worked behind the scenes for 20 years to promote religious freedom in the nation he did his dissertation on. He says activists should publish a list of nations showing the most progress, not just the greatest offenders.
Relational diplomacy involves public praise for small, tangible steps to build trust while communicating practical ways to improve in private, he said. There is a secret to engaging authoritarian contexts: create a rumor so that reality follows…
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The pastor of the Amman International Church in Jordan had a problem.
Suspected intelligence agents were coming to church, asking questions, and attending Bible studies. His youth pastor was detained at the Israeli-Jordan border and denied reentry. Members of his church, some who had lived for years in Jordan, were suddenly denied visas.
“Politically speaking, we were the best protected church—half of our congregation were military or foreign service,” said Greg Griesemer, pastor since 2012.
“But after testing the waters with us, the government went more aggressively against the Jordanian evangelical churches.”
Griesemer eventually had to leave the country also, informed that the government had an alleged file accusing him of proselytizing Muslims. But he believed the government was checking to see if anyone would stand up for evangelicals in general, as the Vatican would do for Catholics. Unlike the historic churches of Jordan, evangelicals are not represented in the official national council of churches.
Despite a congregation filled with American citizens, appeals to the US embassy went nowhere, he said. And then quite unexpectedly, in came the cavalry.
Completely unrelated to local developments in Jordan, popular Christian author Joel Rosenberg had been developing a warm relationship with Jordan’s King Abdullah. An evangelical of Jewish background, Rosenberg writes political thrillers about the end times, weaving current events into a Biblical narrative of apocalyptic prophecy.
In one bestseller, the king and the Hashemite Kingdom were targets of a series of ISIS terrorist attacks. After reading the novel, Abdullah invited Rosenberg and his wife to Jordan for a five-day visit, and a friendship emerged. Later and at the king’s invitation, in November 2017 Rosenberg led a delegation of American evangelical leaders to see Jordan firsthand.
But not just any leaders. They included several who were politically connected, including close advisors to President Donald Trump. The group featured Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, Jim Garlow, former senior pastor of Skyline Church in San Diego, who moved to Washington to minister to politicians, and Michele Bachmann, a former congresswoman from Minnesota, in addition to others.
Jordan was not their only priority. In the past 18 months Rosenberg also led the group to visit Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Coming again with official invitations, he wished to forge better ties between evangelical Christians and Middle East governments and peoples. A key priority has been to support Christian minorities, who often feel under pressure in society, if not persecuted by Muslims of extremist ideology.
Also invited to participate was Mike Evans, leader of the Jerusalem Prayer Team and founder of the Friends of Zion Heritage Center, in Israel. A self-proclaimed Christian Zionist, he and several members of the delegation were well-known for their strong support of Israel.
Their reputation preceded them in Jordan, and some local evangelical leaders turned down invitations to meet. Though Jordan maintains a peace treaty with Israel, popular sentiment is strongly in favor of the Palestinians. They did not want to be associated with an ideology that would strain relations not only with Muslims, but also traditional Christian church leaders.
But Rosenberg’s delegation did come at the invitation of King Abdullah, and they had already met with several senior government officials, including the foreign minister and the chairman of Jordan’s joint chiefs of staff. Nearly 40 evangelical leaders and pastors did agree to sit down, representing many of the major denominations and ministries in Jordan. They included Emad Maayah, president of the Jordan Evangelical Council, and Imad Shehadeh, president of the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, and they shared their perspectives and prayer requests in an off-the-record dialogue.
The pastors conveyed a deep sense of respect toward the king and appreciation for the freedom Jordan gives them and all Christians in the country. Some spoke reluctantly of issues they were facing, and Griesemer was also present to share his story. Notes were taken, discussed, and agreed to be shared tactfully with King Abdullah.
Mike Evans, a journalist by profession, took particular interest. During the delegation’s working lunch at the palace with the king later that day to conclude their visit, he spoke up first to relay the issues discussed. Others followed.
Photos were agreed upon, and a simple press release was issued by both palace and delegation.
In later, follow-up discussions with the palace Evans would mention a Jordanian pastor who was having his ministries shut down by the government, and how evangelical churches were losing the ability to offer volunteer visas to foreign staff.
Abdullah expressed surprise, that he had never heard of these troubles, and in front of the group assigned one of his closest advisors to look into it.
“Everyone was very encouraged,” Evans said. “I went back to the Jordanian believers, and told them I have good news.”
Such a response was fitting with the reputation of the king. Last year in November he was awarded the prestigious, $1.4 million Templeton Prize, celebrating exceptional contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” First given to Mother Teresa, previous winners range from Billy Graham to the Dalai Lama. Abdullah was cited for his efforts to foster better inter-Islamic unity in rejection of terrorism, as well as leadership in fostering Muslim-Christian dialogue and peace.
Six weeks later came the salvo.
“For King Abdullah to receive the Templeton Prize for religious tolerance in view of this situation in Jordan is an absolute travesty,” wrote Evans in the Jerusalem Post. “It is the Templeton Prize for bigotry.”
What changed? Evans wrote that he worked with the king’s advisor for over a year, but things only got worse. The Jordanian pastor’s ministry was dismantled. Churches were being asked to submit membership lists to the government. It seemed fitting with a media campaign launched against evangelicals, as interpreted by some. A year earlier the Jordan Times published an article in which an Arab Christian leader called them “outlaws,” using an Arabic word frequently describing ISIS.
Frustrated, Evans went public, and Griesemer was pleased. He had pushed Evans to engage the press earlier.
“I value trying to work quietly through individuals and groups, but with the issue of Christian persecution the Jordanian government doesn’t care enough to deal with it until there is public pressure,” Griesemer said.
“It is clear the government was committed to its hypocrisy of waving the flag of religious freedom, but in the background persecute Christians.”
He cited a similar situation a decade earlier. Christian expats were being expelled from Jordan, some under accusations of proselytizing. In many cases no reason was given, though the government stated they were violating the terms of their residency visas. But once the press got involved, Griesemer said, international attention caused Jordan to backtrack and the wave of expulsions ceased, with some reversed.
Evans hopes a media strategy will be successful again, describing his obligation as the one who addressed these issues with King Abdullah, personally.
“I believe it can help the situation, because nothing else has,” he said. “I will speak up for them, no matter the cost.”
But who will pay it?
Imad Shehadeh, the seminary president, had to answer nonstop phone calls and messages about his role in the article. Evans did not check with us, he told them, and circulated published quotes in which he praised the king for winning the Templeton Prize.
“We are praying for protection and no further escalation,” said Shehadeh.
Evans believed he was doing Jordanian evangelicals a favor. In his article the only cases attached to names were ones where he had specific personal permission. But for everyone else, he anticipated their reaction.
“I don’t think they’ll be happy, and they are the ones who live there,” he said. “But they can always say, ‘We didn’t talk to him.’”
But Evans’ article also caught other members of the delegation by surprise. Joel Rosenberg said all conversations with the Jordanian Christians and palace were explicitly off the record. (Evans disputed this.)
“I was disappointed to see a friend of mine break our ground rules of confidentiality with both His Majesty and our Jordanian Christian brothers and sisters, and then publicly accuse King Abdullah of being a bigot,” Rosenberg said. “Nothing could be further from the truth, and it does not reflect the reality.”
After reading Evans’ article against the king, Rosenberg immediately reached out to the Royal Court as well as to Jordanian Evangelical leaders in an effort to limit the damage, even sending a personal note of apology to the king for the unfair attack by one of his delegation members.
In an interview with TMP, Rosenberg praised Abdullah as “far and away the leader of the pack” among other Middle East leaders working to protect Christians, allowing churches to operate openly, and promoting peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians.
“There is no question Jordanian Christians, like all Middle Eastern Christians, have challenges and problems, that is the reality of the region,” he said. “But my direct understanding from evangelical leaders throughout the Hashemite Kingdom is how much they appreciate the king and the freedom they have.
“Any argument by a few frustrated individuals has to be seen in the context of the respect Jordanian society has for Christians.”
Shehadeh spoke similarly, defending King Abdullah.
“Jordan is not a perfect country. No country is,” he said, describing Abdullah’s past interventions to solve Christian issues.
“But the king is in a very difficult position trying to work with people of opposing positions and has consistently done a remarkable job to bring sides together. Political leaders in other countries can learn a lot from him.”
The furor has now died down, Shehadeh described, thanks to Rosenberg’s response.
Award-winning journalist Daoud Kuttab, a committed Christian who lives in Jordan, also downplayed the long-term implications. Evans published in an Israeli newspaper, in English, so most of society was likely ignorant. But he published a response in the Jerusalem Post nonetheless, and called out Evans for shoddy journalism.
“It was a hit job,” he said. “Evans used partial information from renegade and non-mainstream people, without talking to all sides.”
Kuttab quoted the president of the Jordan Baptist Convention stating that only one evangelical church was closed down, but due to the attitude of the pastor Evans cited. (The pastor disputed this.)
“Sure there are problems,” Kuttab said, “but for Evans to call the king a bigot? He made evangelicals look like the reason.”
Evans, however, warned about becoming blind to the abuses of power, just to retain access. Why are Muslim leaders reaching out to them to begin with? Because of their connections to Trump.
“They want things from America, but I don’t think this can be one-sided,” he said. “We’re not official, and we don’t speak for the president.
“But we have influence, and we have to live with our own consciences. It is a matter of integrity and the word of God.”
Perhaps. But it is his call to make? Griesemer, the international church pastor, believes it is worth it, and that he himself paid a high price in having to leave his job, home, and community.
“Either be moderately persecuted in the dark, or speak out and maybe it gets better—or worse. Let God work out the details,” he said.
“I lived there for a decade. I had similar risks, though not the same.”
At the November 13 award ceremony of the 2018 Templeton Prize for contribution to the spiritual dimension of life, Rev. Randolph Hollerith, dean of the illustrious National Cathedral in Washington, DC, invoked one political leader to pay homage to another.
“The struggle for peace and mutual understanding is truly God’s work,” he said, calling attention to a saying and on-grounds statue of Abraham Lincoln. “King Abdullah [of Jordan] has shown us how to truly make it our own.”
The $1.4 million prize, traditionally granted to religious figures, philosophers, and scientists, marks the Templeton Foundation’s goal to be an international catalyst for discoveries relating to the deepest and most profound questions facing humankind.
“It begins with the struggle—the jihad—within ourselves to be the best we can be,” Said Abdullah. “All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.” [Jihad means “struggle” in Arabic.]
But just as Lincoln was a spiritually sensitive soul in a country divided by war, so King Abdullah II of Jordan was cited for his faith-based efforts to heal the Muslim nation—and the world.
“His Majesty King Abdullah the Second is a person shaped by temporal and political responsibilities,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, “yet one who holds the conviction that religious belief and the free exercise of religion are among humankind’s most important callings.”
In the wake of the Iraq war, Abdullah was pained at the sectarianism and violence Muslim groups perpetrated against one another. On November 9, 2005, they took aim at Jordan, as coordinated suicide bombings at three Amman hotels killed over 50 people.
The timing suggests deep offense against Abdullah’s leadership.
A year to the day earlier, the king launched the Amman Message from Jordan’s capital. Its three points declared the validity of the eight traditional Muslim schools of jurisprudence, forbade the practice of calling a Muslim an infidel, and set forth criteria for legitimate issuance of legal fatwas.
Eventually over 500 leading Muslim scholars endorsed the document.
But Abdullah did not content himself with peace between Muslims. In 2007 he led the effort to launch A Common Word Between Us and You, addressing the heads of Christian communities around the world.
Assuaging popular fears that Muslims were against Christians, it instead urged dialogue and cooperation around the twin commands to love God and love neighbor, which it declared common to both faiths.
Originally signed by 138 Muslim leaders, it has now been endorsed by nearly 20,000 individuals.
“Abraham pitched a grand tent in which all were welcome,” said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in California, in remarks at the ceremony.
“King Abdullah’s work, above and beyond his duties as head of state, is helping to restore that resplendent Abrahamic tent where all are welcome as guests of God.”
Yusuf was joined by Miroslav Volf, founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and the lead author of the Christian response to A Common Word.
“Muslims and Christians had concocted together a poisonous brew,” he said. “The only instrument powerful enough to confront the differences … are seemingly impotent words.”
But to the words of these declarations, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added the importance of symbolism and practical help. He praised Abdullah, his “dear friend,” for the proposal to establish the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, unanimously adopted and held the first week of February.
But in reference to his former role as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he lauded Jordan’s reception of tens of thousands of refugees, both Christian and Muslim.
“I had to visit governments to ask them to do the impossible,” he said, turning toward the king. “But I would visit your majesty, and the impossible would become a reality.”
Performers at the ceremony included the Dozan wa Awtar choir and Jordan’s National Music Conservatory Orchestra, under the direction of producer and pianist Talal Abu Al Ragheb.
Vocalists included Zain Awad and Emanne Beasha, the nine-year-old winner of Arabs Got Talent.
King Abdullah II joins a group of 47 prize recipients including Mother Teresa, who received the inaugural award in 1973, the Dalai Lama (2012), and Desmond Tutu (2013). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks won the 2016 Prize. The 2017 Laureate was American philosopher Alvin Plantinga.
Abdullah is the 41st direct descendant of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Monarch since 1999, he reigns over a population of roughly 10 million, estimated at two percent Christian. His Hashemite family has had custodianship over Holy Land religious sites since 1924.
Templeton Award prize money would be partially given to repair these ancient buildings, the king said, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The rest would be distributed to interfaith institutions in Jordan and around the world.
In his acceptance speech, Abdullah assured his lifetime of effort was to please God, not the world. And like with Lincoln above, he urged the audience on to a greater jihad.
“It is time to do all we can to maximize the good in our world, and bring people together in understanding,” said Abdullah.
“We can create the future of coexistence that humanity so desperately needs. Let us keep up the struggle.”
Please click here for a full video of the award ceremony.
But last week on the western bank of the Jordan River, landmines were cleared to allow visitors a first look at a faded fresco of the baptism in a crumbling Ethiopian monastery.
Trudging through mud while avoiding well-marked areas warning of live charges remaining from the Six-Day War, intrepid pilgrims once again received iconic witness of the beloved Son.
“Israel placed the mines between 1967 and 1971 because there was a war,” Marcel Aviv, head of the Israel National Mine Action of Authority, a branch of the Defense Ministry, told the Times of Israel, standing a few hundred yards from Jordan.
“But now it’s empty because it’s a border of peace.”
Israel partially reopened the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site in 2011. But visitors…
Please click here to read the full story at Christianity Today.
For his lifelong commitment to religious peace, King Abdullah II of Jordan recently became the second Muslim ever to win the prestigious, $1.4 million Templeton Prize. And Jordan’s Christian minority is celebrating with him.
“I believe in our king,” said Imad Shehadeh, president of the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, following Wednesday’s announcement. “He is a kind, wise, loving, humble, and effective leader.”
Established in 1973, the Templeton Prize is awarded for exceptional contribution to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” First given to Mother Teresa, previous winners range from Billy Graham to the Dalai Lama. More recently, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and Jean Vanier of L’Arche have won the prize.
But this year, Abdullah was honored as a ruler who has done more promote inter-Islamic and interfaith harmony than any other living political leader, Templeton said.
Islam is the official religion of Jordan, and the constitution guarantees freedom of religion for minorities such as the roughly 2 percent of the population that’s Christian (mostly Greek Orthodox). The Protestant community joins them in commending their king’s efforts for religious unity, though some wish his commitment went even further…
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President Donald Trump is expected tomorrow to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Doing so would fulfill a campaign promise. It would upend decades of American foreign policy.
And it would simultaneously encourage and unnerve the Christians of the Middle East.
“I am obviously pleased, as an Israeli,” said David Friedman, a professor at the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute and former dean of King of Kings College in Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, de facto, concretely. Our government sits there. So why should President Trump continue ignoring reality?”
But 65 miles north in Arab-majority Nazareth, another Christian educator has a dramatically different response.
“It is a bad idea,” said Botrus Mansour, a Baptist elder and co-chair of the Lausanne Initiative for Reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. “It will increase resentment and possibly spark unnecessary violence, making peace harder to obtain.
“America will lose any remaining legitimacy it had as a fair broker.”
Israel occupied Arab East Jerusalem in 1967, and passed a law in 1980 declaring the city its eternal, united, and undivided capital. The United Nations declared the act null and void, by a unanimous resolution in which the United States abstained.
Palestine also desires Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. So American policy has been…
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Call Ann Fink crazy, but the intrepid grandmother has a tradition to uphold. She’s toured Israel, Jordan, and Egypt with 8 of her 13 granddaughters. Victoria, a preteen, is number 9.
“Her parents are not afraid,” said Fink, a Pennsylvania native, while visiting Egypt with Victoria. “We believe we can die at any time. Only God knows when and where.”
Neither tourist knew just how much visits like theirs support the region’s beleaguered Christians.
From a high-water mark of $7.2 billion in 2010, tourism revenue in Egypt has fallen by 76 percent following the unrest of the Arab Spring. The decline has devastated the economy and, with it, Egypt’s Christians.
Copts, an estimated 10 percent of the population, make up more than half of tour operators and more than a quarter of the tourism workforce, according to Adel el-Gendy, a general manager in the Tourism Development Authority. Christians have better connections to the West, he said, and are often more skilled with languages.
Gendy, a Muslim, has been assigned development of the Holy Family route—25 locations that, according to tradition, were visited by Jesus, Joseph, and Mary as they fled Herod’s wrath. Relaunched with government and church fanfare in 2014, the route is close to being designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, he said. But the project has struggled as tourists stay away.
The route runs through Old Cairo, which boasts churches dating back to the fourth century but feels like a ghost town. Souvenir shops are open, but their lights dim. “Our income has dropped by 90 percent,” said Angelos Gergis, the Coptic Orthodox priest at St. Sergius Church, built above a cave where tradition says the Holy Family stayed three months. “We are assigned to assist 100 poor families in the area, but we used to help so many more.”
There are no tourist fees at Christian religious sites, but many visitors leave donations. “You can see things in Egypt you won’t see anywhere else,” he said. “And if you have any sympathy for us, please come. Your visit does help…
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This article first appeared at The Table. For more articles featuring thoughtful Christian perspectives on the the nature and embodiment of love, growing through suffering, and acquiring humility, click here.
I have long taken pride in the distinctive teaching of Christianity to love your enemy. It was not until I began learning Arabic I better appreciated what this called for.
Perhaps like many American Christians my pride was an identity marker more than a mark of Christ. I had never suffered for my faith, nor had any enemies to speak of. But in a pluralistic world of competing religious claims, widespread political polarization, and far-flung military adventures, ‘love your enemy’ became a mantra to lift me out of the morass and place my feet firmly on the moral high ground.
Only Jesus commands this, I thought; my Christian religion is different. I had always believed it was true. This was confirmation it was better.
The Sermon on the Mount allows us to cherish our ideals, with full admittance of the still mostly philosophical difficulties. Who has ever forced us to walk a mile? And beggars? They’re all in the big city. Turning the other cheek would be hard, but the envisioned moral strength? Powerful.
One morning years later I awoke surrounded by posters of smiling Arab pop stars. During vacation break from language school in Jordan I arranged for an immersion experience in the ancient city of al-Karak, home to a 12th century Crusader castle. One-quarter of the population remains Christian; one local family took me in and displaced their preteen daughter from her room.
But there at the door by the light switch a prominently placed sticker served as a reminder each morning as she left the room. Ahibbu ‘adakum. Love your enemies.
I went to the Arab world imagining a place where this command might be more practical. Muslims were not essential enemies, of course, and Jordan was well known as a place of coexistence. But perhaps they were theological enemies? In any case the region was characterized with tales of persecuted Christians. How would ordinary believers live the Sermon?
Ihsanu illa mubghideekum, the sticker continued. I was less familiar with this injunction. Baariku la’aneekum. Perhaps like many American Christians, Jesus taught me from the mountain. What I would come to learn is that Arab Christians quoted his Sermon on the Plain. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those that curse you.
The family I stayed with in al-Karak was well respected with no known enemies. But every morning their daughter entered a Muslim culture armed with instructions that have buoyed Arab Christians for 1400 years. Whether jizyah and jihad, or colleagues and citizens, they have been the minority ‘other’. American Christians, white-skinned at least, have little idea what this entails.
Going to Egypt, later still, I saw the results first hand.
I wished eagerly to explore the context. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s account end with the command to pray for those who treat you wrong, and more than other places in the Arab world, Egypt was understood to be a place of Coptic suffering. ‘It takes a presidential decree to fix a church doorknob,’ I was told. ‘Christians get attacked in their villages, and they are the ones put in prison.’ Over time I would learn that the reality is quite nuanced, but the sentiment is telling both for visceral incidents of suffering as well as the ethos they produce. Many have suspected that Christians of the region had bought a modicum of peace in exchange for evangelistic mission, beaten down by the task of communal preservation. I experienced Copts as simultaneously integrated in society and withdrawn into their churches. They would speak of Muslims as friends, but whisper of Islam as an enemy ideology.
But what of the celebrated Sermon on the Plain? How would they not just love, but also bless? Specifically and practically, how would they do good?
In one city south of Cairo I interviewed a man who provided a commendable, if telling example. Due to government difficulties in extending services to underdeveloped areas, Muslims and Christians have learned to take care of their own. Until recently Islamist groups had long provided a safety net for the majority, while the Orthodox Church ensured care for Christian widows and the Coptic poor. Neither group would profess denying help to the religious other, but both mirrored the reality of increasing emphasis on religious identity.
This man worked with a Christian agency that aimed to break the dichotomy and serve all. Unaffiliated with the church, Muslims were the employed majority as well as present on the board of trustees. By no means were they an enemy, but Christ’s love to the other was clearly among his motivations.
A jovial and cheerful man, he turned deadly serious on my next question: ‘To better reach your community, would you consider partnering with a Muslim organization?’ It seemed innocuous enough but touched a deeply sensitive nerve. ‘I swear by the Messiah,’ he answered angrily, ‘there is not one Islamic organization that also takes care of the Christians!’
He may be right; he was certainly the expert. But from the heart, the mouth speaks. Here was one of the best examples of a Christian doing good to people who many in his community would internally generalize as a sort of enemy. But despite his charity, he ultimately demonstrated an uncharitable spirit. Let there be little condemnation, but the question is fair though terribly hard: As I Corinthians 13 warns, did he risk becoming a resounding gong?
Nuance is necessary, for the other is not the enemy unless they press against you. For most Arab Christians the ordinary Muslim is an ordinary person, though the Islamist can be a threat in the desire to set his creed as the organizing principle of society. In a region with much religious conservatism, the line between Muslim and Islamist can be difficult to draw. This man railed against the latter, and perhaps with good reason. But it was clear his love for the other did not extend to love for the enemy. Instead of doing them good, whatever that could have meant practically, he was in existential competition.
In the years that followed Islamists rode a revolutionary wave into the presidential palace. Despite their conciliatory discourse with Western audiences, in Arabic some of their members and supporters uttered vile and vitriolic threats against their opponents, Christians included. One year later as Copts joined the masses that turned against the new political elite, they paid the price as their churches were burned throughout the country. Christians were praised for their patience, and rallied behind the military and millions of Muslims to oppose the Islamist enemy. In this case the term is at least rhetorically appropriate; once chosen as legislators and government ministers, they were now rejected as terrorists and an internationalist cabal.
Western opinion is divided over the veracity of this accusation, but as concerns local Christians it is largely irrelevant. Certainly they suffered; certainly they ascribed to widespread public messaging. But in the vanquishing of their enemy almost no voices of love were offered. These need not be in dissent; they might only be in pleas for due process or care for the relatives of the justly imprisoned. During Islamist rule many Christians worried and some chose to emigrate. Some, probably many, prayed for their new president. But if a few have since sought to bless the fallen Islamists who curse them still, their example has not moved the needle of Coptic opinion, where nary a tear has been shed.
How then is this spirit present in a ten-year-old girl who lost everything?
If Islamists in Egypt were a challenge, even a disaster, in Syria and Iraq they were a catastrophe. When the so-called Islamic State overran Mosul in July 2014, thousands of Christians left their homes and fled to Kurdistan. Among them was Myriam, who with her family lived in a half-built shopping mall. Interviewed a year later by the Christian satellite network SAT-7, her testimony went viral.
‘I will only ask God to forgive them,’ she said when asked how she felt about those who caused this tragedy. ‘Why should they be killed?’ Contrast her with the opinion of some Americans, who wonder why we have not yet bombed ISIS into oblivion.
Perhaps it is the depth of the loss that summons the breadth of compassion. Perhaps children are not chiseled as rigidly as adults. Beautiful testimonies of forgiveness have been offered by Egyptian Christians as well, whose family members were martyred by ISIS in Libya. Unjust suffering recalls a crucified Jesus, whose dying prayer to God was that sin not be accounted to his tormentors. From afar we recoil, and demand justice. Likewise, Egyptian Christians felt vindication when their government bombarded ISIS in Libya the next day.
Let them not be blamed on account of ‘love your enemy’. The children of Israel broke into song when Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea. David prayed for deliverance from his enemies and a psalm of exile wished their children smashed against the rocks. Romans established the role of government in the preservation of order and punishment of the wrongdoer. And one day, Christ himself will wield the rod of iron as his enemies are fashioned into a footstool. Outcry against suffering is natural and must be voiced for emotional health. Justice is real, necessary, and must never become the antonym of love.
But mercy triumphs over judgment, and love covers over a multitude of sins. The Christian ideal keeps no record of wrongs, and hopes all things. This seems impossible when facing an enemy of any caliber, let alone the Islamic State. It almost seems perverse. The higher calling of love must uphold the lower calling of justice, and demands great discernment in weighing Jesus’ instruction to be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.
Arab Christians are in an unenviable position. The Egyptian church must navigate this wisdom-innocence paradigm with the utmost care. The Syrian-Iraqi church has been scattered. If they have not yet lived up to the fullness of ‘love your enemy’ it only serves to remind us how far we are from what they endure. That God has kept them from abject loathing is sign enough of the Spirit’s power. That they fill up in their flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is reason enough to humbly bow and support them in prayer.
Unfortunately, my proximity has not enabled the vision of practical suggestion. Lord willing, the eyes of a foreigner have helped some see afresh the demands of the gospel. Ultimately, application is up to them.
But over the years I have come to see the Sermon on the Plain as a better template than the Sermon on the Mount, especially if read in reverse.
Pray for those who mistreat you. If persecution is rare, mistreatment is not. If love if ethereal, prayer is grounding. With an act of the will I can choose to place my enemy before God. Perhaps I even begin with the imprecatory psalms. But rather than grumble or plot revenge, I turn the matter over to him.
Bless those who curse you. Once in God’s hands the prayer can change, even with rising of the nature of offense. No matter how difficult in our power, the Spirit’s power enables our will to progress further. The step is tangible, but nothing is yet asked of the heart. With gritted teeth I seek God’s grace not only for my hurt, but for the ultimate well-being of my enemy.
Do good to those who hate you. But again, God pushes the envelope as the severity of opposition increases. Anyone might curse me in a moment of frustration. Hatred takes time. But in answer to a decision that hardens a heart, my decision is to loosen my own. In asking God to bless my enemy, he transforms me to do it myself.
Love your enemies. Whatever practical action results, something mystical occurs. At least, I can only trust God that it will. Somehow, and whatever it means and feels like, love happens.
It is this love that is the hallmark of Christianity, not my initial congratulatory pat on the back that I was born into and believed in a superior faith. This is the love that can transform conflict. But it is also the love that can get trampled underfoot.
Why has the latter been the trend for Arab Christians over the past 1400 years, as their numbers have dwindled to near extinction? Have they not loved enough? Have they not stood for justice? Have they compromised too readily? Have they allowed their hearts to harden?
We cannot know, and we dare not judge. Bear well that the sermon passage ends with a plea: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Look upon them with sympathy, and upon the region. They are brothers in sisters in faith, within brothers and sisters in humanity. Surely among them are the ungrateful and wicked, but as sons and daughters of the Most High, in imitation we are commanded to be kind.
And remember, the Sermon on the Plain places the Golden Rule smack within the section on loving your enemies. It is among the most beautiful verses in Arabic: Kama tureedun an yafal al-nas bikum, afalu antum aydan bihum hakatha. Do not let the foreignness of the language exaggerate further the foreignness of the concept. Enemies need love even more than the rest of us. Invite Arab Christians to help us learn.
I believe events like this conference in Jordan, excerpted below, are absolutely necessary, even if they don’t really go anywhere. But agreement can never be achieved unless they go at all. Here, from al-Monitor, is an example illustrating absolutely different worldviews:
So an obvious question was posed to the Islamists: Do you accept, alongside your Islamic laws and alongside the personal status laws for other communities, that in your countries there is also one civil personal status law that is optional? In other words, do you accept that a person is given the choice to either follow the laws of his sect or leave his sect and resort to the civil law under the confines and protection of the state?
Faced with this question, the Islamists did not hesitate to assert their absolute refusal of the proposal: a civil law, even if optional, is forbidden — a person may not leave his religion. By “person” they mean a “Muslim,” because current laws allow non-Muslims to convert to Islam. Sometimes they even encourage it as a means to either escape harassment or obtain a government job reserved for Muslims, in addition to dozens of other reasons.
In lieu of agreement, the article states attendees suffered ‘a vicious cycle of pleasantries’. Such a description characterizes much inter-religious dialogue, and is useful in its own right. Pleasantries can lead to friendship.
But what is necessary, especially in Egypt, is for Christians and Islamists to wrestle over the future of their nation. Christians may not be able to force their way, but if Islamists were to seek their blessing, and do all that is necessary to get it, they just might succeed.
The Islamists did not hesitate to confirm they have the right to reach power as they see it and practice it. They kept repeating the following mantra: “We will only resort to democracy that emanates from the ballot box.” Many tried to explain to them that democracy is not just the ballot box, but the Islamists did not pay them much attention. The Islamists’ main concern was to assert their rejection of what happened in Egypt and confront the rule of the “coupists,” as they call Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule, against the legitimate authorities. Regarding the concerns of their fellow Christian citizens, it seemed to a large extent to not be part of their concerns today or tomorrow.
Unfortunately, this has largely been Egypt’s experience.
It is hard for anyone to be humble. Many Islamists might find it even more difficult to seek this Christian blessing, as they see themselves as the possessors of the completed and perfected faith, and furthermore, they are numerically superior. How arrogant, they might think, of Christians not to yield. Don’t we give them protection under sharia law?
Ah, but this means little to them:
One last example that illustrates the dialogue’s difficulties was the discussion about personal status laws in countries dominated by Islamists. The Islamists usually try to show that they are open to other groups by supporting, as a rule, that other sects are given their own personal status laws — whereby every sect is given its own laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption, transfer of ownership and other family matters. But at the same time, the Islamists insist that Islamic law is a “major” or a “principal” source of legislation of the state. Discussion by Christian participants at the conference showed that this rule is not sufficient, fair or balanced. In fact, it often conceals a gradual process to subdue non-Muslim citizens in those countries by degrading the minorities’ demographic and geographic presence, Islamicizing society and eliminating pluralism.
Islamists either smile slyly at this complaint, choose to ignore it, or else they cannot even comprehend it – confident in their understanding of God’s will in sharia law as best both for them and for Christians. True humility is harder for the one who believes that he already humbly and generously gives to his ‘lesser’. They have a point, but humility does not prove points. It loves and embraces.
So what should humility look like for the Christians? No one must ever abandon principles and convictions. Humility is not a game of power and pressure. Rather, it must come in an acknowledgment that Islamism is a strong societal impulse, and those who possess it are their fellow citizens.
Here is where it is easy, and necessary, for me to duck out of the discussion. If both sides came humbly, what would they decide? Here, I have no say. Even in asking both sides to come to the table I have nearly gone to far. Why should they yield even that initial bargaining position, when sides are viewed in mutual distrust?
I don’t know, and I can’t convince them. All I can do is trust that it is ‘right’. All I can hope for is that God would honor it, and dishonor all who seek first their particular benefit.
After all, the status quo is not working. Christians are often ignored or used as pawns, and Islamists have failed to successfully establish their project anywhere there is religious diversity.
It is not dialogue that is necessary, though it is helpful. It is wrestling. It is the sort that, like Jacob with the angel, would not let go until he secures a blessing. It is the sort that engages in respect and will not cease until it is mutual.
I don’t know, maybe that is not humility at all. But humility might be able to avoid Jacob’s fate. Though he obtained his blessing, he lived the rest of his life with a dislocated hip.
Christians and Islamists have dislocated far more. Perhaps it cannot be otherwise. Perhaps their ideas are completely incompatible.
Fair enough. Ideas cannot be humble, they can only seek their own. But people are more flexible. People can wrestle.
People can bless. It is time Christians and Islamists begin this strategy with one another, even if unilaterally.
Does the phrase used in the title of this post suggest images of dictatorships restricting the rights of its people? Perhaps instead the decline of representative democracy in the face of big business and multinational corporations?
On the contrary, it is the positive suggestion issued by a US congressman, though fortunately, concerning no one in his own constituency.
Joe Walsh is a Republican congressman from the 8th district of Illinois. On May 3 he penned an op-ed for the Washington Times, reprinted in the Jerusalem Post, advocating a one-state solution in Israel.
The one-state solution is not a bad idea; I have cautiously advocated for it here. The basic premise is that Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza would be incorporated into one state. This would drop the contentious negotiating and intractable issues of the two-state solution, and the difficulties of creating an independent Palestine.
The issue with Walsh is that he argues for an Israel for Israelis. It would go too far to say ‘only’, but his preference is obvious. He writes,
Those Palestinians who wish to may leave their Fatah- and Hamas-created slums and move to the original Palestinian state: Jordan.
Unfortunately, the will of sovereign Jordan does not enter into his analysis.
But the rub of his Israeli preference bears ill fruit just a few words later, when he discusses those Palestinians who do not leave.
Those Palestinians who remain behind in Israel will maintain limited voting power but will be awarded all the economic and civil rights of Israeli citizens.
Let us admit that these economic and civil rights are substantial. Yet how is it possible that a proud inheritor of ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘out of many, one’ might limit the fundamental political rights of a whole class of people?
As long as Israel maintains the Palestinians in their occupied territories, they have no claim to political rights in the Israeli system. Yet Walsh advocates the annexation of these territories, making Palestinians, at the very least, residents of Israel.
For Walsh, this does not make them citizens.
Rev. Stephen Sizer has described the dilemma of the Israeli situation. There are three choices:
1) Allow an independent Palestinian state and maintain a Jewish and democratic Israel.
2) Create one democratic state of all the territories, giving up a mandated Jewish nature.
3) Maintain the occupied territories and forfeit the democratic nature of a still Jewish state.
Walsh has amended the third choice: Create one nation but limit democratic rights.
Within the op-ed Walsh does not elaborate on his proposal. What sort of ‘limited voting power’ does he intend? Readers are invited to share if they have heard Walsh out and can demonstrate consistency with cherished American values.
I like many things about Egyptian culture, and am happy to be raising our children here, but one aspect of the way many Egyptians interact with children has been grating on me recently. This is something I have noticed in Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt, so it may be safe to say it is a tendency across the Arab world to do this. Before I mention it, let me remind the readers that we have found a tremendous welcome and interest in small children in every country we have been in. I can’t count the number of strangers I’ve passed on the street who have verbally blessed our children, wanted to kiss them or give them lollipops. In general, Arabs love children and aren’t afraid to show it.
And now for the flipside: we have often experienced that if children do not respond in a favorable way, no matter their age, they are told they are bad. And this isn’t the big problem. What I have usually witnessed goes something like this:
A stranger or friend greets baby Layla enthusiastically, and Layla reaches for her or smiles at her. (This makes the stranger/friend very happy).
After this, the stranger/friend greets 3-year old Hannah just as enthusiastically, wanting a kiss or handshake from her, and Hannah promptly frowns at her, turns her head away and definitely does not reach to shake hands. (This does not make the stranger/friend happy at all).
Inevitably, the response of the stranger/friend is, “inti wahash wa Layla kwayyisa.” (Translation: you are bad and Layla is good.)
Keep in mind that three-year old Hannah probably knows enough Arabic now to understand she has just been told by a stranger that she is bad but her baby sister is good. And why? Because she didn’t want to kiss someone she never saw before? So how does that make her want to respond the next time? Well, if it’s the same person, she probably still won’t care to kiss her. If it is a different stranger, same story. She is three years old and has sense of who she knows and who she doesn’t, and how she cares to interact with them by this point. Being compared like this to her baby sister will not motivate her to change!
All that said, we are working with both Emma and Hannah to be polite to the adults that we interact with. It is important in this culture to greet people and shake their hands. Sometimes the problem is that when I convince the girls to be kind and return the handshake, they are then pulled in for a kiss on the cheek. That’s not helpful for their learning process! They don’t always feel like responding to people’s greetings, but again, as they are getting older, they need to politely respond and we are working on this. But they don’t often want to smile and answer people who last time they saw them said they were bad!
The crazy thing is, I have been through this with each of the girls over the last couple years. Emma was a friendly baby and smiled at strangers and they loved it. Then she grew a little older and didn’t want to just go to anyone who held their arms out. I think this is natural. Problem is, by the time she reached that stage, her baby sister was the friendliest baby on the block and won everyone’s affections. Then all of the sudden, Emma was “bad” and Hannah was “good.” Now Hannah has grown some and has a friendly baby sister, Layla who gets all the compliments.
I’ve heard from others that this habit of comparing children to each other is quite common and can be quite damaging. So far for the most part, these have been quick and minor occurrences, but I try to let the stranger/friend know that the older one was just as friendly when they were a baby. And I try to talk to the older kid after the fact to be sure they aren’t getting negative messages from people. Sometimes it is a fine line between being polite to adults, and having them take advantage of the kids. As I said, I finally convince my girls to shake an adult’s hand, and then they pull them in for a kiss too …. again, a common form of greeting here, and one they can get used to. But one I wish the adults would ask for and not just take. Of course, I do have friends who are gentler with the kids, and these are the adults my kids like and feel comfortable with. But it is something I have to watch and work on to correct the negative messages and reinforce the good.
We moved this past weekend. Not too far, just down the street, but the work involved in changing houses is incredible. I guess that’s true if you have a lot of things. Or maybe just if you do it yourself. I am trying to remember how many times I’ve moved in the past. After spending my first 17 years in the same house, I wasn’t really used to moving. Now, in the second 17 years of my life, I’ve moved quite a bit.
The move to college is a normal, expected one for an American teen, so maybe that shouldn’t count. My first real move was following college, when I moved an hour from my college town to attend grad school. This was my first apartment, cooking for myself, paying rent, buying furniture, dealing with a landlord. My stuff was minimal, and following two years of grad school, I brought it all back east in a small U-haul trailer attached to my Chevy Lumina, which henceforth overheated in the mountains of PA. But I made it back with all my stuff.
Next it was my first job, and with it, relocating to New Jersey. I actually started my job before finding a place to live, living instead with my former principal’s family. Great people. Good job. Hard to find affordable housing in New Jersey, but eventually, found some roommates and a good apartment right on Main Street in Somerville, right above a Chinese restaurant. Too bad I’m not a big fan of Chinese food. That was my residence for only a year, as my roommate wanted to be closer to New York for her commute, so we moved to Metuchen. A nice town, with a walkable main street. We lived here for three years, before I got married and moved not too far away to Piscataway.
Jayson and I were quite spoiled here. This was the top story of a split level house. We bought some furniture from newspaper ads and set up our first home, temporary as we knew it would be, nicely. It even had a pool in the backyard. Our elderly, widowed landlady lived downstairs. She was an interesting person, hailing from Nazi Germany where she was part of the Nazi Youth movement. She gave some interesting insight into Germany at that time, but was currently a diehard US Republican.
That place housed us for two years before our first overseas move together. In one sense, it is easier to move overseas, because this time, we were limited to four 50-pound suitcases, unless we wanted to pay extra. A couple with no kids and a simple lifestyle didn’t need more than 200 pounds of stuff, so we managed with our allotted luggage. Once in Jordan, we found an apartment and bought furniture and household goods, and moved in. Again, a good place. Looking back, we didn’t realize how nice it was at the time. Ground floor with a play area out back, but of course, we never needed that in Jordan. Now it’s something we think about. Another two years there and we were selling our furniture and household goods, or divvying them up among some of our Jordanian friends, and repacking our four suitcases to head to the states for six months. Another move. This time into a furnished home where we would welcome our first baby before heading back overseas.
A baby can bring with it a lot more stuff! This time we moved overseas with six 50-pound suitcases, although some of them were overweight. This time in Tunisia, we started out in a furnished place in Sfax, the large city in the south of the country. It had its peculiarities including no oven but a large Jacuzzi-like bathtub. Emma slept in our room to begin with, until we convinced our landlord to let us put her crib in their storage room in our house. It was a great place for language-learning as we shared the property with two Tunisian families. Very generous people. Again, we didn’t realize the value of the outside courtyard. A nice, tiled area for kids to run around. But, that place lasted about nine months before we headed north to the capital and searched high and low for the perfect spot in the suburb of Manouba. After a few days of searching, we realized we needed a ground floor apartment to accommodate our double stroller, and found the perfect spot after a bit. This time it was unfurnished, so, we bought furniture and household goods and set up house again. We anticipated this place being our home for awhile and began to bring things from our storage in America, because of course, we owned more than 300 pounds of stuff. I guess you could call Jayson’s parents’ garage in New Jersey a second home for us since that has housed our things since our first overseas move! As fate would have it, we set up a nice home for only about one year before moving out of Tunisia. Again, selling our stuff, packing more suitcases than we came with; of course, we also added a child in Tunisia … add a child, add more stuff! Back to the states for another six months. This time, we didn’t really move; we just lived with Jayson’s parents.
And then on to Egypt. Our luggage allowance keeps getting bigger as we add more children, but this time, we opted to pay for some extra luggage too. Partly because of the children, partly because of what we’ve learned in the other two countries. Some things are just better and cheaper to bring with you. So, we probably brought about nine 50-pound suitcases this time. We lived in a temporary place for a month, so didn’t really unpack too much, and then onto our current place which was furnished. Only needed to buy minimal house goods. But somehow, now that we’re moving just down the street, that “nine 50-pound suitcases” has multiplied exponentially. All told, we’ve taken 6 carloads and 2 pick-up truck loads of goods to our new place. Again, we added a child. We bought some furniture both for guests, and for ourselves. People have been very generous and given us things … toys, house goods, knick knacks. It all adds up. So why move again with all it entails?
We knew from the time we took our first apartment here in Maadi, that our landlord’s son would take it from us at the end of a year as he anticipated getting married. And so I had a year to look around for apartments. I looked online just about every day to see what was available through Craigslist, since that is how we found our original apartment here. As the summer approached and we narrowed down exactly what we were looking to move into, I started to call realtors and give them our specs. Most of them told me that to find an apartment on the ground floor with a small garden in the neighborhood near Jayson’s work and within our budget was near impossible. However, we stuck with our budget and eventually, a realtor found our new place. The landlord wanted us to take it right away rather than let it sit empty, and our current landlord graciously agreed to let us out of our contract a couple months early. We really felt we needed to grab an apartment when it came available as there is a great influx of foreigners at the end of the summer making the apartment search a bit harder.
And so, we move now. Not the most opportune time in many ways. Less than two months after having a baby, and rearranging our old apartment for our two houseguests, Mom and Mother-in-law, for a month. Right toward the end of World Cup action. In the midst of job transitions for Jayson at work. And in the middle of an Egyptian summer which translates into lots of sweat. But, now is the time, so move we will.
Well, I haven’t counted, but there were lots more moves in my second 17 years compared to my first! And who knows where the next one will be, but I really hope it’s not for a long while now. Funny thing is, my parents are in the process of moving now too. They have been in the same home, my childhood home, for 38 years! Talk about accumulating stuff! Well, we are too far away to help them with their car and truck loads of things, but now that we are in our own new place, I have plenty myself to unpack and arrange!
The strange thing about different language dialects is that the most basic words you use everyday differ from country to country. I remember Jayson telling me this after his experience in Mauritania. He would say, “The words for bread, water, and house are different in the Mauritanian dialect than in other dialects, but the deeper you go in the language, the more similarities you find.”
Here is a case in point. In Jordan, we studied Arabic in a language school. This was great in so many ways, one of them being that the teachers taught us all the basic greetings we needed to know. So we probably learned within the first week how to say, “How are you,” which in that dialect was “Keef hallak?”
Fast forward to Tunisia, where we didn’t study in a language school, but tried to pick up their dialect on the street and in our everyday interactions. It took quite awhile, and one of the most basic things troubled me for some time. After someone greeted me, they would often ask me, “Faynik?” which literally means, “Where are you?” At first I would answer them, probably with a confused look on my face, “I am here.”
Or if we were talking on the phone, I would say in my confused tone, “I’m at home,” or, “I’m out shopping,” or whatever. It wasn’t always an inappropriate question. I mean, if I was supposed to meet them, and they were calling me, they could ask me where I was so they knew when to expect me. But when I went to visit my friend in her store and her first question was, “Where are you?” it was really weird. It took a little while to realize that this was their way of saying, “How are you?”
Don’t ask me why they chose those words, people usually don’t choose the words of their greeting, they are simply taught from generation to generation, but somewhere it must make sense. I wonder how many of my friends were confused, however, when I supplied them with my location. Even after I realized what this really meant, it still took some forethought to not answer their question, but rather say, “Good, thank you.”
The experience changed again in Egypt. Again, they don’t use the typical, “How are you?” that we learned in Jordan, and most of the time, they don’t even use the word we expected to hear here which is “Zayyik?” Instead, they say, “Aamila aye?” which means “What are you doing?” It took me right back to Tunisia.
Before I realized that this was their way of saying, “How are you?” I would answer them with what I was doing, which again, was usually an odd, confused answer, “Well, I am coming to visit you.” Or, “I am coming here, to church.” Of course, my thought was, “What do you mean, what am I doing? Isn’t it obvious?” Probably thanks to my experience in Tunisia, I caught on more quickly, and realized this was their way of greeting, and that it could probably be equated to our equally incongruous “What’s up?” in English. Oh, the joys of learning the language on the street!
Another word that has been tripping me up some is the word for “Today.” A most basic word, to be sure, and one that I should know well if I say I can speak the language. Probably half the time, however, I use the word I learned in Jordan, “il-yawm.” I was thinking through this word the other day and realized that in the three countries we’ve been in, Jordan is the only one that makes sense. Here’s what I mean.
In Jordan, the word “il-yawm” is used for “Today.” Following this the days of the week each have a name along with the word “yawm” in it. One of the neat things about the days of the week in Arabic is that they are kind of forms of the numbers 1-7, so it is fairly easy to pick up, or at least logical. So, for instance Sunday would be “yawm il-ahad,” which is kind of like “the first day”.
Well, moving onto Tunisia, they use the same word for today, which is probably one of the reasons I am having a hard time switching it now. However, when they speak of the days of the week, they use a different word in place of “yawm,” and that is “nahhar,” which also means daytime or morning. So, Sunday would be “nahhar il-ahad” or “the first morning”. It was tricky to learn that at first, but we got used to it after awhile.
Now in Egypt, I realized that they do the opposite of Tunisia. For the days of the week, we are back to the Jordanian word, “yawm il-ahad,” but the word “Today” is now “innahhar da” which literally means “this, the morning.” Now my logical brain looks at Tunisia and Egypt and says that they should kind of switch things up a bit so at least their word for “Today” matches with the word they use in the days of the week, but who am I to criticize the language. I’ll just keep using the wrong word for awhile until it finally sinks in and becomes habit. Until then, I think people usually know what I’m saying, but I do think I’ve confused some of the kids at Emma’s preschool.
Since we’re on the topic of time, the last word that I will point out is the word for “Now.” Again, it is a word I use all the time. In Jordan it was “halla.” In Tunisia it was “towwa.” Now in Egypt it is “dillwaqti.” Do you see any relationship between those three words? Me neither, but at least I can see a familiar word in the Egyptian choice which makes it mean literally, “this, the time.” Oh, the sweet sounds of Arabic … if only it wasn’t so confusing!
We have lived in a few different Arabic-speaking countries now, and we aren’t sure if this has been good or bad for our Arabic skills.
We started off in Jordan for two years where we studied the Jordanian dialect as well as the Modern Standard Arabic which is what people read and write, but rarely speak. Next we spent two years in Tunisia where the spoken dialect seemed to be about 100% different from what we learned. At first, we didn’t understand anything people were saying to us. It seems some people understood some of what we were saying, as they compared it to Egyptian Arabic which is widely known throughout the Arab world due to Egypt’s high movie output.
Well, just about the time we were getting comfortable in the Tunisian dialect, we moved to Egypt. Egyptian Arabic is much closer to Jordanian Arabic, so we were excited to be “coming back” to what we learned in a sense, but the problem is, Tunisian Arabic is what is on our tongues. We have been adjusting over these last couple months, and some things came easier than others, but I wanted to try to give some examples of these dialect differences to either let you sympathize with us, or at least get a good laugh.
One of the major ways Egyptian Arabic differs from both Jordanian and Tunisian is in the pronunciation of one letter, the “jeem.” We see/hear this letter and pronounce it as a “j” sound, but Egyptians change it to “geem” or the “g” sound. This has provided some difficulties in adjusting. For instance, we weren’t sure if our names would be Gulie and Gayson here, but it does seem they make allowances for western names as we’ve actually met many people with the letter “J” at the beginning of their name.
One word I use a lot is “zawgi” which means “my husband.” This word has been tricky for me. You see, in Jordan, we learned this word for husband, but with the “j” sound – “zawji.” Then, in Tunisia, they use a totally different word, “rajul,” which we translated “man” in Jordan. So every time I said “rajuli” in Tunisia, I translated it in my head, “my man.” It fits, but it’s not quite the same as my husband.
So, now we came to Egypt, and I have to remember that they don’t use “rajuli,” for husband, and if they did, it would be “raguli,” which to them would mean, “my man,” but they use “zawji” like I learned in Jordan but pronounce it “zawgi.” This is still my thought process almost every time I use this word, and people wonder why it takes me so long to say “my husband.” You would think I was a newlywed and am just learning to talk about having a husband, but we’ve been married for 7 years and I’ve been referring to him as my husband, in Arabic, for about 5; it just hasn’t been the same word all five years!
The original word we learned for house was “bait”. Not too hard. Well, in Tunisia, they use a different word for house, “daar”. It wasn’t a new word to us; in Jordan we learned the word “daar” also means house, it’s just that’s not what the Jordanians used. So, the Tunisians used “daar” for house and used the word “bait” for room. It took us awhile to get that.
It’s an important word to learn quickly as you are house hunting because you are looking for a certain number of bedrooms and we kept saying “gurfitayn”, meaning two rooms in Jordanian, but they were looking for “baitayn” which to us meant “two houses.” We certainly didn’t need two houses. Well, that was Tunisia.
Now we are in Egypt, and they again use the word “bait” for house. Good. The problem is they have a new word for room which I don’t know too well yet, “awda”, and since I don’t know it well, I automatically fall back on Tunisian, “bait.” So the other day when a friend was visiting and looking at our apartment, I was telling her a little about our apartment search and that we saw many apartments with either “two houses” or “three houses” in them. Whoops. I kind of realized it as I was talking, but then couldn’t think of the Egyptian word for room. I think she got the idea, though, but it made me feel kind of silly. Gotta learn that word for room!
Here’s another word I messed up the other day. We use the verb “to go” a lot. In Jordan, we learned to say “aruuh” for “I go.” It conjugates differently depending on who is speaking, but the root is the same. So we got used to that using it there. Then we went to Tunisia and they use the word “amshi” for “I go.” Now, we learned this verb in Jordan, but it meant, “I walk.” Subtle difference.
The words could be used interchangeably at times … especially since we do walk so much here, but it doesn’t always fit. However, it seems they just used this one word for both meanings in Tunisia and you sometimes had to specify “walking” over “going” by saying, “with my legs.” Now we’re in Egypt and we’re back to “aruuh” for “to go” and “amshi” for “to walk.” But since my Tunisian is on the tip of my tongue, I was talking to my landlord the other day about getting us a refrigerator … click here for this story … and told her that if she wanted me to, I would “walk” with her to the large store (which is located about a 30 minute drive away.) She kind of looked surprised and said, “Carrefour is very far!” It didn’t quite occur to me yet that I used the wrong word, I just said, oh I know it’s far, I don’t mean “walk, but walk.” It wasn’t until after I left that I realized I was using the word for two meanings and she was only hearing one.
All of this is further complicated when I Skype with one of my Tunisian friends. She kind of laughs at me as I’m trying to speak Tunisian, but keep throwing in Egyptian words here and there. Fortunately she understands me well, but it’s a big mind game trying to learn the Egyptian and at the same time, not totally forget the Tunisian. Welcome to the Arabic language … it’s beautiful, and at times, painful!