Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

How I Explained Beirut’s Explosion to My Kids

Credit: Julie Casper

Our family was sitting down to dinner when the walls rumbled.

Assuming it was just an unusual surge of electricity preceding one of Lebanon’s frequent power outages, we readied to say our prayers.

And then came the boom, and the whole house shook.

“An earthquake?” I wondered, as we rushed our four children, ages 7 to 13, outside to presumed safety. But there we found neighbors, anxiously skimming through Twitter on their balconies, shouting out the news.

Beirut had just suffered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history.

My nerves for my family’s security settled when I learned it was not an earthquake. But then the political nerves took over.

Was it an assassination? An Israeli strike?

Reporting for Christianity Today from Cairo during the Arab Spring, our family had become somewhat accustomed to instability. But that was my realm: attending demonstrations, visiting attacked churches. Yet there was always a sense that life carried on, like the ever-calm waters flowing in the nearby Nile River, where we would often board a felucca boat and float in peace.

Our year in Lebanon has been much different. Within two weeks of our arrival…

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


Mother’s Day: Culture, Parenting, and Last-Minute Chocolate

Our American readers may wonder why I am writing about this topic two months before the US celebrates their matriarchs, but here in Egypt, our big day is on March 21st.

Mother’s Day has been celebrated in the last three countries we have lived in: Jordan, Tunisia, and now, Egypt.  I don’t remember the dates in each country, but I do remember asking a friend in Jordan if they celebrate Father’s Day.  She laughed and said, “Here, everyday is Father’s day!”

It could be interesting to research what countries have official mother’s and/or father’s day, but I don’t think I will get around to that anytime soon.  If any readers have any insight, please share in our comment section!

I have noticed this year that Mother’s Day is quite a big deal around here.  I guess as our girls are getting older, and involved in more things, I will collect more and more handmade crafts of love from various venues.  As such, I thought it worth writing about what I’ve noticed so far before first, I forget, or second, get too busy to write (being a mother and all).

This is the first year Emma is in school, and she has been singing a few songs about mothers in both Arabic and English over the last couple weeks. Still, the day passed without any word of an assembly, so maybe it is still in the works? Sometimes it is hard to figure out the culture, especially when mixed with an Arabic administration!

Emma also made a mother’s day surprise for me last Wednesday, but had to hide it in her backpack until yesterday when she presented it to me along with the flowers that she purchased with her sisters and Daddy – from her own allowance.

The weekend before I scored four different mother’s day crafts!  Fridays are both weekend and “church day” for us.  In the morning, the girls attended the Coptic Sunday School and each made a flower in their individual classes:  Emma made a flower balloon, and Hannah made a paper flower to put on the refrigerator.  At this same church, we will celebrate mother’s day in my adult Sunday school class tomorrow, and a friend mentioned that next Saturday night is a special service for moms, complete with gifts!  That’s a lot of celebrating!

Meanwhile, the second church where the girls attend Sunday School actually changed the time of their normal meeting today and invited the moms to attend a special party.  And so the three girls and I headed over to the local Arabic Evangelical church where we first listened to the kids sing some of their normal songs.

Then one of the teachers took some comments from the audience.  First she asked the kids what are some things their parents do that really bother them.  The answers included: Limiting internet, making me do homework and go to school, and yelling at me.

And then it was the moms’ turn to share about the kids, which included: Not taking care of their stuff and not listening to their parents.  During this time, Emma got out of her seat and came back to me to translate the question (in case I didn’t understand) and ask me to share an answer!  Kind of funny that she wanted me to answer such a question.

After it was all over, I asked what she would have shared if she said something.  She liked the “Mom makes me do homework and go to school” comment.  I was glad she identified with that first over some of the others!

After the mutual sharing, the kids all went to their respective classrooms while the moms were invited to move forward in the sanctuary for a talk geared for them.  The speaker shared that when she deals with kids, she emphasizes four things about them: They are important, loved, different and good.  She then expanded each of these points, but since I had our two-year old with me, I wasn’t able to sit and concentrate on her talk.  I caught some things here and there but missed the bulk of the message.

When I came back inside after letting Layla run around a bit, there was a question/answer time.  I would have enjoyed really listening to the exchange here, but it was a bit challenging.  I was able to listen to one or two questions regarding teaching children not to interrupt, or at what age can you start punishing a child.  As I listened, I soon realized that I was very pridefully and smugly listening to these questions and answers with an air of: “These poor people don’t know anything about child-raising.”

Like I do!  I was ashamed when I realized my superiority complex!  It’s not that I think I parent perfectly, and I am willing to admit my faults, which are more on some days than others.  However, I do think that I have studied how to parent well, even if I can’t always apply it properly.  And this isn’t all pride.  I have the privilege of great role models and friends who share struggles and ideas, as well as numerous books on the topic from so many perspectives.  I almost don’t have an excuse for not having all the answers!

On the other hand, I have lived in this part of the world long enough to at least know some of the stereotypical child-rearing strategies.  And I am guilty of thinking all parents use these strategies.  But we all tend to apply what we have learned growing up.  Unless you really don’t like some things your parents did, and you have resources to find better ways, then you will probably repeat those things.  I come from a place where resources are abundant and we are taught to search for ideas.  That isn’t as true in this culture.

Some of the things I observe here as adults relate to children have their roots in what people have been taught, and this stemming from good things.  As I have mentioned in other posts (see below), Arabs, as a whole, love children.  My kids have gotten so much attention from perfect strangers over the last 5 ½ years living in two different Arab countries, that I cannot doubt this culture’s love and care for children.

One natural response here is that adults don’t like to see or hear children cry.  If a child falls and scrapes his knee, the nearby adult will scoop him up, tell him, “It’s okay, don’t cry,” as he wipes the tears away, and then offer a lollipop or bag of chips to help him forget his pain.

Remember as well that Arabs are generous.  This continues along as a child gets into a fight with a friend or sibling and their feelings get hurt.  A candybar helps to mend things.  And then it gets carried further when a child gets upset because they can’t have what they want.  If a two-year old is told not to touch the computer, and cries about it, they may be soothed by a bag of cookies.  And so a young child may not be taught to deal with disappointment or learn to accept no for an answer.  Instead, they may be placated with sweets.

Sometimes my friends ask me how I discipline my children and they have often been surprised at how much I talk to my toddlers.  I believe little ones can understand a lot at a young age, and we have explained our expectations to them from the start.

I have noticed that younger children here are not expected to be able to listen and obey.  At times my friends make fun of their own child-rearing practices as they explain that after telling a child no yet again and having that child disobey, then the parent will lose their temper and yell and maybe even hit their child.  The parent’s anger has built up as the child disobeys time and time again, yet without real consequence, and then once the parent gets fed up, the child gets a punishment perhaps too harsh for the offense.  Again, this is a stereotype, and certainly it is not only Egyptian parents who fit this scenario, but it is one that plays out time and again.  There aren’t always resources to try something different.

Well, I have strayed a bit from the title of the piece.  After the question/answer time, we enjoyed a few snacks outside and the girls each brought me the pictures they colored of a mom and child.  The church gave out small cutting boards to each mom and we walked back home to head to bed.

It is nice, all this attention for Mother’s Day.  Another friend invited some moms to her place for tea on Mother’s Day morning, and that was nice too.  Perhaps there will still be an unknown school assembly to come!

I know I have a most privileged job here as a mom to our three girls.  Today I was reminded that I don’t have all the answers, and as parents we do the best with what we know.  I am always praying that God would make up the slack and give me more wisdom than I possess on my own!


Update: Now that it is Mother’s Day night, I can finish this post with a learning experience.  When I dropped Emma off at school this morning, I kind of noticed half-heartedly that other moms and kids were coming to school with gifts.  I barely thought about it until later that morning when another foreigner was asking if Emma had taken a gift to school for her teacher.  Then it occurred to me that the other parents were doing just that!

I wondered why, since many of the teachers weren’t actually moms, but I tried to find a quick suitable gift for Emma’s teachers before picking her up for the day.  I stopped at the local sweet shop and bought some chocolate after asking the workers there if this was an appropriate gift.

I then asked why teachers get gifts on this day and they mentioned that the teachers are like moms to the kids.  That made a lot of sense.  I quickly paid and walked down the street to the school and as Emma came out of her classroom excitedly ready to tell me something important, she saw the two bags in my hands and exclaimed, “Yes!  Are these for my teachers?!”

I was so glad I decided to stop and get something even though it was a last-minute thought.  Emma was so happy to give a gift to her teachers and glad to be doing what the other kids did.  A nice tradition, to give teachers gifts on mother’s day.  Let’s hope I remember by this time next year.


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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.