I have lived overseas now for about eight years. We have lived in three different countries, but even so, I feel quite at home here in Egypt, where we have been for four years. We have lots of friends and my life is busy with four young kids. For me, living overseas is the norm. While I love so many things about America, and I would love to live in the same state, or even town, as my family, I am perfectly content living as an expat.
But there are times when homesickness strikes. Times when you just wish you could be two places at once, or that you could travel over the ocean as easily, and cheaply, as driving from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. And one of those times is the holidays. Particularly Christmas.
The family I grew up in still gets together on Christmas despite growing from the original 7 to now 29 people. And if I sit and think about that too long, especially at the time they are actually gathering, which is usually when I am sleeping here, that can make me sad. I would love to be with my family on Christmas. But of course, I am with my family on Christmas as I celebrate with my husband and kids. What is the difference?
The last few years I have felt that Christmas has snuck up on me. We celebrate American Thanksgiving, and before I can think about it, I have to have the Christmas Advent calendar up in order to count down to the 25th. Meanwhile, here in Egypt, the official holiday of Christmas isn’t until January 7, according to the Coptic calendar. And while you can see lots of Christmas trees and wrapping paper on display at local shops, there isn’t exactly the festive atmosphere that you would find in the States. One of the biggest reasons the 25th almost comes without notice is that my girls have a regular school day and are either studying for or taking their mid-term exams. The church where we worship has begun Christmas choir practice for the girls, but their program will be on New Year’s Eve.
And so I am learning what I need to do personally to make Christmas special for me and my family in our home here in Egypt. I need people and special celebrations. If we aren’t invited to others’ celebrations, then I need to host celebrations for us (or maybe for me!) I need to bake and enjoy the time spent in the kitchen with my kids, as that is one of my favorite memories from Christmases in Pennsylvania… all the kitchen preparation beforehand. I need to listen to Christmas music and make an effort to teach my kids the carols they should know. We need to attend Christmas productions and concerts at local churches. And we need to set new traditions that make our Christmases ones that our children will one day miss.
This year I am hoping to host three Christmas teas. What is easier, and tastier, than making a bunch of Christmas sweets, and inviting others to join and indulge? One group will be teachers from my daughter’s Egyptian school, where I have begun teaching on a very part-time basis. This is an experiment and something totally new for them. Another group will be of Egyptian Christian friends. Again, a bit of an experiment, but we can celebrate the holiday together, perhaps for some of them in a new way. And the last group will be of other foreign moms like me. This will be the most naturally comfortable and possibly the tastiest as they provide some of their favorite traditional sweets.
No matter where we are, if with my husband and our children gathered together, we are home. And this home is now Egypt. It requires some adjustments and creativity, and perhaps some courage to step out and try new things. One of our Egyptian traditions is sailing on a felucca on the Nile River on Christmas morning. It is very different from the craziness that ensues when 17 grandchildren descend on my parents’ house on Christmas day. But these are special times and new memories that we make ourselves. Perhaps one day our own children will have a longing for Egypt. But we pray they will be able to celebrate wherever they are, even if not quite home.
Trouble in Egypt this week is long term, but there are always some to make it short. In an effort to develop domestic water and energy resources, Ethiopia began redirecting the Blue Nile in preparation for dam construction. Downstream, Egypt fears a reduction in water – a severe problem for a desert nation with a rapidly growing population.
Meanwhile, in domestic politics the High Constitutional Court ruled against the draft elections law, in part because it continues the previous disenfranchisement of military and police personnel. Yes, it seems all should have the right to vote. But in a nation undergoing a democratic transition, some fear the voting of servicemen might reverse recent revolutionary gains.
In fact, many Islamists see a conspiracy, and have called for a referendum to disband the High Court altogether. An even broader swath of political Egypt sees conspiracy in Ethiopia, declaring the dam to be an act of war.
God, perhaps principles mean little in politics and international relations. Interests often trump all, even if they must be disguised within principles. But where in these issues is the right and the just? Where is the balance, and who makes the determination?
God, develop and provide for Ethiopia, using the resources you have placed in her land. But Egypt is the gift of the Nile; forgiver her for being often a wasteful and ungrateful recipient. Teach her to conserve, but the issue is beyond proper management. According to studies a 50% increase in Nile water quota will be needed by 2050.
Help the government of both nations, along with all others in Nile Basin, to succeed in mutually fruitful negotiations. Water is life; if desperate men will fight and kill for it. But keep greed and rivalry from being a part of the equation, God. Give wisdom to the president to neglect this issue no longer. Egypt’s future is at stake, but may cooler heads prevail. Hard choices will be necessary and are more easily passed into the future. But curb any who wish to exploit this issue for short term gain.
And so, similarly, for the servicemen. It seems right that all should vote. But, where democratic culture does not yet exist, institutions often function as blocs; is it wise to invite the recently disempowered military and police into a democratic exercise, possibly manipulating it to their own ends? Abstract principles rarely exist in practical policy, God. What is best for Egypt?
But if there is an institution to distill issues into principles, it is the judiciary. Servicemen are citizens, and should not be discriminated against. But if the judiciary is corrupt, the corruption is deep; if motivated by interests, they are skilled in disguising through the language of law.
But in this are Islamists above board, God? Are they seizing on legitimate debate to remove a politicized opponent, or an obstacle to their domination? Are they motivated by principle, or interest? This question repeats itself over and over again since the revolution, God. Provide an answer to the people upon whom sovereignty depends.
Make this sovereignty real, God. In water and politics, have an informed people sort properly both interests and principles. Give them the faith necessary to do so according to your will.
Perhaps it can be no other way. But it does not seem right.
Parliament has chosen the 100 members necessary to draft Egypt’s constitution, but before any progress is made, near 20% have resigned. These are liberals and leftists together, complaining the assembly is dominated by Islamists.
Others have put in their protest as well, including the Azhar, the Coptic Church, and Nubians. Certain professional associations have done so also.
Is this right of them, God? Should they quit before discussions even begin? Must they play such politics – seeking de-legitimization of the body – to curb an Islamist hijacking of the chief fruit of the revolution? Or are they seeking simply to enshrine their goals over and against the majority will of the people? Are they fighting for principles, or for interests? The same question is due of the Islamists.
Consensus, God. Bring honest men together to find the necessary balance. May they create a constitution that causes the nation to rejoice.
Of course, many argue the foundation is all wrong to begin with. But if so, must the process start over? What are the alternatives?
Lost in details, accusations, and propaganda, God, grant the basics. Give Egypt a good government, and a good president. Give her good laws to rule by, and good men to enforce them. Give her freedom, security, and prosperity.
Perhaps, God, very little of this is politics. After a revolution in a depoliticized nation, all is a struggle for the right of control. The old scrambles, the new grasps, and among the new there is infighting.
God, settle accounts. Is military guardianship, even if in the background, best for Egypt? If so then give them their due. Is Islamist rule fitting for a religious people? If so then may their long struggle end in success. Will the honored principles of Western experience bless Egypt? If so, then move liberals to the forefront.
But God, end soon the bickering, the backbiting, the threats, bluffs, and demonization. Men are devils, God, yet they maintain your goodness. Give discernment to the Egyptian people to choose between them, honoring those closest to your nature.
May they remember also to thank you, God, that this struggle has largely avoided violence. Yes, many have died – redeem them. But it could be so much worse. With low security and many weapons abounding, God, keep it from becoming so. Stay the plague of the Nile turning into blood.
Give hope. Give peace. Give love for country and love for political enemy. Perhaps what is happening now is natural. God, bring forth the impossible. Make Egypt whole, make its disputants embrace.
Our family recently had the privilege to go on a Nile tour from Luxor to Aswan. With my parents visiting from the US, one of the sites my Dad wanted to see was the Valley of the Kings. At first we said it was too far to try, but then Jayson heard our local Orthodox church advertise a trip to Luxor/Aswan, and so we enquired. Turns out, no one else in the church signed up, but the travel agent, who worships at this location, was able to get us the same good price as he was offering to the Egyptian congregation, and so we made the arrangements for Mom, Dad, Jayson, me and our three little girls to embark on this great tour.
First step was getting to Luxor which is located about 8-9 hours south of Cairo by train. We debated going by train or plane – big difference in time and price – and in the end, went with the more adventurous route. We weren’t sure what to expect as we boarded the sleeper train in Ramses station, but we had three sleeper cabins which were quite comfortable and roomy.
Since we left town around 8pm, we got our girls to bed as quickly as possible, anticipating a 5am arrival in Luxor. Then we enjoyed a good dinner before retiring to our different beds. I don’t think I slept too much and among the adults, we got varying hours of sleep. The beds were comfortable enough, but the train was really rough. We stopped and started all through the night, and felt like we were going to blow right off the track at different points. About an hour before Luxor, we got some breakfast, then woke and dressed the girls before arrival.
We were met in Luxor by a representative from the travel company and taken to a big tourist bus along with about 25 Egyptians. Our agent in Maadi had told us he had a group of doctors going on the same trip so we would be with them. After traveling together a bit, we realized that many of us were together in the same train car from Cairo to here. We went straight to the Valley of the Kings while our tour guide, Mohamed, began telling us about Luxor and what we would be seeing soon. He usually works with English groups, but of course could guide in Arabic as well. And so, our little family had our own English translation from him each time he finished his Arabic spiel.
The sites that day were interesting, and the three girls did well despite it being hot and including lots of walking. We were all enjoying the places we visited, but also curious to get to the boat where we would be living for the next five days. It wasn’t long before we learned of a complication in this trip. Due to a workers’ strike at the locks near Luxor, our boat was parked about one hour south of Luxor in the town of Esna. This meant that we had to drive over an hour after touring before boarding the boat. And so, the schedule I had worked out for day one was not going to work. Fortunately, our littlest one was able to nap during the long bus ride, and we all made it till the 3pm lunch when we finally got to the boat.
By that first evening together, Emma and Hannah had made friends with a young single Egyptian named Mahmoud, who was traveling with his two sisters, parents and grandmother. He quickly became like an uncle to them and throughout the week I often heard Emma call out, “Mahmouuuud, Mahmouuuud” as we walked around the temple ruins.
Day two was another complicated day due to the lock strike. Since we had more to see in Luxor, we now had to drive an hour each way making for a long morning. Or so I thought. We were supposed to leave by 8 or 9 am, but by 10am our whole group was waiting in the lobby of the boat as the tour bus we were supposed to ride was having trouble finding gasoline due to a gas shortage. I don’t know exactly what time the bus arrived to pick us up, because the boat left the port for about half an hour to allow another boat to set sail, and when we docked once again closer to noon, our tour guide was more than ready to get on with the tour.
(Click here for a tour of our Nile cruise boat, and here for a lazy gaze at a pastoral Nile River island.)
During our waiting time, the girls were once again playing with Mahmoud and this gave me a chance to meet him and his family and we had a nice time getting know each other. I wasn’t sure if I was the only one stressed out about such a late start to our day since the boat was supposed to sail for its next destination at 3:30. I knew we had two places to tour in Luxor and at least two hours of driving. How could we possibly do it? I was relieved to hear the concern of others in the group too, but they said that the sites we were to see, the Luxor and Karnak temples, were among the most important of the tour. We couldn’t just skip out on these sites. I quickly tried to refigure Layla’s eating and nap plan as it was obvious she would not be doing either of those things on the boat this day.
Out of the six or seven families in our tour group, there were four young children: our three girls, and a 1 ½ year old boy, Yusuf. He was traveling with his parents, aunt, and grandparents, and Emma and Hannah really took to him. By day four, Hannah practically looked like she was in their family as she walked along with them at the sites and played with Yusuf on the boat.
We also met up with them a time or two in the disco room and the kids all danced together. On the final day, Yusuf’s dad delivered three black plastic bags to our girls, each one filled with the same assortment of snacks: a pack of crackers, a lollipop, a tube of chocolate, a small cake, some gummy worms and a juice box. By that point, Hannah was too sick to enjoy any of it, but the gesture was so typical of the generous Egyptians we know. It never even crossed my mind to buy something small for anyone, and yet, they bought all three of our girls bags of snacks.
Several other people in our tour group enjoyed playing with our girls as well. One of the daughters in a family of three older girls often played with Layla when she was strapped to my back.
It wasn’t unusual to find Layla in someone else’s lap on a motorboat ride or as we were waiting in the lobby of the boat. Even though we were the only non-Egyptians in our group, they welcomed us in and made the trip extra-special for our kids.
Not only were we the only foreigners in our particular tour, we were the only foreigners on the whole boat of three tour groups. According to one of the workers on the boat, they’ve only had Egyptians riding the boat for quite awhile now. One evening while I was in line for dinner, one of the servers asked me how I liked the food. I answered that I thought it was very good, and he tapped the lady next to me in line and said, “See, she is American and she thinks the food is very good!” I felt very strange when he said that like my opinion is more important than anyone else on the boat?! But perhaps he was excited about the presence of foreigners in his restaurant for the first time in a long time. Tourism has taken a severe dive since the revolution.
There were three or four elementary-aged girls on the boat, and after the first or second day, they became friends with Emma and Hannah. Their time was limited together since we didn’t tour at the same time, but they could see each other on the sun deck or in the disco room. One night there was a gallabeya party. A gallabeya is a traditional robe-like dress which is a typical dress for men living in upper Egypt. Technically the woman’s equivalent for that is called an abaya. We weren’t planning on mentioning this party to our girls since it wasn’t going to start until 9pm which is two hours past their normal bed time.
However, the young girls on the boat, as well as the older girls in our group, were very excited about this party and asked Emma and Hannah if they planned to attend. Not only did this mean staying up quite late, but also buying a gallabeya! Following the lead of those in our group, we purchased a gallabeya for Emma and Hannah at one of the shops during our stop in Kom Ombo. We later purchased some more on the boat and then some fancy head-ware at the market in Aswan. Although it wasn’t in time for the party, by the end of the trip, our whole family was properly outfitted.
At dinner, just an hour before the party, Hannah was too tired to eat and decided to go to bed rather than attend the party. This meant only Emma had a chance to participate, and she had a great time with her friends.
We had a wonderful trip and saw amazing sites in the south of Egypt, but probably the highlight of the trip for our entire family was the living people of Egypt, rather than its ancient monuments. You can see pictures of the temples anywhere, but how else could you get memories like these?
(Too bad the normally punctual Americans were late for this group shot. Oh well.)