Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Photo Reflections

I'm still unpacking all the baggage from our trip...no not clothes. It will be a while before I can verbally express my feelings and impressions about this wonderful journey. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words so here are a few of the 1300 that I took that I think will express some of the things I cannot say just now. Most of them are not of places so much as of people. Without the friends, old and new, that I was blessed to travel with, the experiences would not have been nearly so rich. Relationships, for me, were the greatest treasure that I brought back from Egypt.


We had good times at Goal just around the corner from the hotel in Cairo.

People throughout the eons have known that there is bread in Egypt. As it turns out, the pizza isn't bad either.

Sufi dancing was amazing.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mistaken Missiology?

This should be my last blog post, seeing as we're leaving for the airport in about 30 minutes to head home. I have previously written that I could not decide whether the hospitality of the Egyptian people that we have encountered in our day-to-day travels is genuine or not. I had an experience today which furthered my thoughts on this. I caught a cab with 3 other students to head back to the Coptic part of Cairo, and the cab driver first told us that it would be 15 LE for the trip. When we arrived, he tried to say that he had said 50 LE for the price. As we sat there arguing, two Egyptian men who were standing by the road (and who spoke more English than the taxi driver) came over to ask what the problem was. We told him, he spoke to the cab driver in Arabic, and sent him on his way. I was very thankful for this man helping to sort out the problem, and attempted to give him a small tip (not uncommon). He refused, but then he tried to get us to commit to taking his taxi on our way back to the hotel. His friend also tried to get us to take a look in his store and buy something. I was so frustrated! I thought that someone had honestly tried to help us, but they were attempting to make a sale instead.

As I thought about this more and more, our trip earlier today to the Evangelical Theological Seminary, Cairo came to mind. I'm sure that I was not the only one that was a little surprised and even uncomfortable in hearing a more conservative and evangelical perspective of Christian life and education in a Muslim country. I wanted to know how they evangelized in a nation where it is illegal to do so openly and actively, and frowned upon even in response to interested seekers. They said that, in general, they teach the same missiology, but with sensitivity to their context. One person spoke of different "techniques" for evangelism, such as getting in a taxi with another Christian and discussing Christology so that the driver could overhear. Another spoke of building trust in a Muslim community so that it could lead to an openness to hear the Good News.

I cringed when I heard these "techniques." It seemed to me to be a bait-and-switch missiology, no different from my experience later that same day. To be kind to someone in hopes to sell them something, whether it is a taxi ride, a papyrus, or the gospel is no kindness at all. These kind of experiences with vendors and drivers have annoyed and frustrated many of us on the trip, so I can only imagine what the "conversion targets" might think of us Christians doing the evangelism.

But then I began to examine these feelings a little more. What is it about that evangelical rhetoric, that stance towards non-Christians that sees them as souls to be saved rather than people to be loved, that makes me cringe? So many of us on this trip are open to dialogue with Muslims and people from all sorts of faith traditions, so why not with Christians more conservative than ourselves? Is it so bad that they are educating others and sharing their faith, just because I don't agree with how they are doing it? This is the height of my self-righteousness. To deny open conversation with my own Christian brothers and sisters, simply because I don't see eye-to-eye on every issue, while claiming to be a person who is "open-minded" or "all-accepting" and is willing to dialogue with people from other faiths is pretty ridiculous. Until we can honestly confront our self-righteousness, we cannot claim the kind of love for others modeled by Jesus. If we do, we're just selling an image of ourselves that is not genuine and I, for one, am not buying it.

Still on the journey,


Christianity in another world.

One of the most important things I have gleaned from this trip is just how much we as Americans take for granted. Clean drinking water, not haggling for prices, clean streets, modern technology at our fingertips all contribute to the privileges we expect in our great country. One of these freedoms is also the free practice of our religion. We take for granted that we can choose whether or not we wish to continue to be Christians, or that Christianity is such a commonplace metaphysical and hermeneutical framework in our culture that we assume everyone can analyze it through a post-modern critical eye. From my experiences with Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, sometimes just learning "the basics" is enough. The conflicts concerning post-modernity, soteriology, and other theological debates can become irrelevant in places where the church is struggling. ETS's mission is to teach in ways that will strengthen the church in the Arab world. This does not mean that the people who learn in this seminary will not experience critical thinking and advanced theological study, but it does mean that they do not have the luxuries that American seminarians share of having Christianity already comfortably entrenched in their social contexts. In America we take for granted that there is a church virtually on every corner, many of them rich in resources and means for helping those in need. Many churches all over the Middle East merely struggle for survival. ETS is serving to create leaders that will serve churches all over the Middle East and provide the resources it will take to continue to "Grow and Minister to the Body of Christ." Sometimes I think there is a great deal to be learned about the simplicity of the faith, works, and struggles that the people face in the Middle East. Our privilege as Americans can sometimes make us forget that religious freedom is not something that we should take lightly. My experience with Christians in Egypt made me realize just how lucky I am to be at a University that is rich in resources that will equip me not just for ministry, but allow me to think critically and analytically about my faith in many contexts. Not everyone is quite as lucky as myself, and this experience has made me count my blessings every single day. This experience will enrich the way I will serve the "Body of Christ" in America, with the realization that being able to analyze and grow in my faith is an incredible gift.

Grace and Peace,

Jim Penuel.

A Tribute to the Pharaoh

While the Divinity students have spent their morning at the Cairo Evangelical Seminary, the undergrads have enjoyed a nice morning off, reflecting and enjoying the city. For sheer entertainment purposes we have written a poem about a common experience here in Egypt and it is as follows ...

(Dedicated to all of those who have suffered, are suffering, and will suffer from the wrath of the Pharaoh)

The Pharaoh's Revenge

Amr warned us about Pharaoh's revenge
Often following an Egyptian food binge.
Only hygienic kitchens he would say
As for the rest - just stay away.
He always gave us great advice,
But sometimes it was just the wrong spice
That wake the Pharaoh from the dead
And send you immediately to bed.
Avoid most veggies and fruits
Or else you might have more than poots.
Those peeled and cooked are acceptable
But be wary about that one bad vegetable
Which can knock you off your feet
And send you to that most uncomfortable seat.
While some made it out straight and clean,
Others caused some minor scenes.
The Pharaoh will wake you at night,
But a few extra flushes make it alright.
Still Wake students refuse to be beaten.
Its Tums, Pepto, and Immodium we've eaten.
Although some have met him on the bus,
We will not be bringing him back with us

... we hope ...

~ sincerely,
 the Wake Undergrads Egypt '08

Friday, January 11, 2008

Back in Cairo

In case there was great concern, we have arrived back in Cairo and will be leaving in 25 hours for the states (but actually wont be back for much longer then that).
We have adopted the motto "when in Cairo, do as the Cairenes do". Since Cairo, the city victorious, is also the city which never sleeps. That means that many of the 'mangos', or fellow travelers, have grown accostom to later nights and earlier mornings. This trip, or pilgrimage as some may say, has definitely stretched our abilities to operate on a little bit of sleep and a lot a bit of caffine. For some the typical late, leisurely, Egyptian dinners lasting into the wee hours of the morning have contibuted to the lack of sleep, others have yet to get used to the calls to prayer ( I need to emphasize that there are several calls going off at different times and at different volumes and intensities) in the morning, while others have yet to embrace the late night honking wars of the city's cab drivers. This leaves a group of 27 weary travellers ready to embark on a journey back to the states only to hit the ground running in yet another (for many the last) hectic semester.  A pilgrimage is supposed to leave you refreshed, relaxed and (as Tony the Tiger might say) rooaarringggg to go. Right? I mean, at the end of this beautifuly overwhelming experience we are supposed to leave this place and return to the lives we have established elsewhere. Returning with a new perspective on society, culture, and life, we should be able to apply what we have learned and immediately see the fruits of our adventures. Now, don't get me wrong, no one is putting these pressures upon us. Instead, these are often pressures we put upon ourselves. For many of us who are already physically exhausted, the sheer thought of processing our experiences here is stressful, let alone attempting to apply them to a different culture and context. I'm kind of hoping that these answers will be handed to me on a silver platter when I go through customs, or maybe the fortune cookie on the plane will have life's answers perfectly spelled out on a phrase inside a nice little cookie. Instead, many of us are leaving this place with more questions than answers. Most of these questions do not even have answers. I think part of the challenge is finding comfort not knowing. Comfort in the uncomfortable. Maybe we should stop putting pressure on ourselves to have everything figured out upon arrival at Dulles and embrace the fact that we have only just begun to understand. This is just as much of a challenge (and rambling) to myself as it is to anyone else. Maybe, just maybe, this comfort in not having everything figured out, will leave us refreshed at the end of our pilgrimage, and rooooarrring to go ....
just a side note ... sailing down the Nile on a crisp day with the sun shining and excellent company isn't too shabby ...

Final thoughts...

Every Muslim we have been in conversation with has denounced violence, fanaticism, radicalism, fundamentalism, etc. These people range from our tour guide to some Kuwaiti women we randomly talked to in a coffeehouse, to a businessman. They feel that Muslims have been misperceived. But it also seems that the misperception is bi-directional: many Muslims also seem to think that many Americans believe that all Muslims are like the violent fanatics. It is an interesting and difficult obstacle that lies between reconciliation between these two faith groups.

Hospitality has been quite an issue here, but never wholly good or bad. There have been times when I have felt very welcomed by the people here, both individually and as a larger society. Yet with all of the hassling to get you to buy goods, all of the tourist traps, it seems like this is not authentic hospitality. It seems as if they are being nice enough to you to get you to buy something, or pay more, or eat in their restaurant. I do not want to say that this is the culture, but it seems to be prevalent in areas where tourists abound...is this a byproduct of tourism? I'm not sure.

Some of my favorite moments have come unexpectedly: conversations that just happen between myself and others, or that I am able to witness between two other people; meals shared with large groups, or privately with a few close friends; the random beauty that I have been privileged to see here in this place. Although these moments were not on an itinerary, but they should be...or maybe they shouldn't. Part of the beauty of these moments comes from the very fact that they are unexpected, surprising, serendipitous. To me, this says that we should not get so caught up in the plans and the schedule, but remain open to the possibilities that can surprise you.

Finally, this trip has been amazing. Thanks to everyone that has made this possible, whether it is by donations, fundraising, planning, or simply driving us to the airport. It has truly been the trip of a lifetime, but I hope that it does not stop at that. I would love to come back to Egypt, to revisit and continue to explore the country further. And I hope that many others will be able to appreciate its beauty and learn from this culture and from the encounters we have had here.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Some interesting and unexpected conversations

In all my travels I have found that the most memorable and cutting experiences have come in wholly unexpected contexts. The same has been true for Egypt. The random locals that I have met (at least the ones who were not trying to hassle money from me) have provided some insightful and evoking thoughts. I dont want to take up too much space so I will just give a brief synopsis with some questions that I have pondered on concerning what they said:

Im not going to use their real names and I will do my best to quote them as accurately as possible:

Rachel, a Coptic Christian living in Cairo. She is a student and is 19 years old, she lives at home with her parents:
- "I dont suffer any direct 'persecution' for being a Christian, but there are certain privileges that Muslims have that Christians dont."
- "Most of the rich people are very liberal. It is the poorest who are conservative. Many rich Muslims break the laws (referring both to state law and Islamic law, the latter is a kind of understood legal system), but if they get caught for doing something wrong they can usually get away with it. Not so for Christians, if they even do the slightest thing wrong they will get in a lot of trouble."
Comments and Questions:
- I found it hard at first to sympathize with her because she was obviously a rich Christian, and she had made the statement that most Christians are rich, and just because rich Muslims can get away with breaking the law doesnt mean that they should be able to. But then she started to explain that the laws she was talking about were mainly religiously based ones. For example, her and her friend, a Catholic Christian, both were in university but they were still living at home. In fact, they wouldnt even have the choice to leave home until marriage. This is law for all females. They cannot live on their own until they are married. Consider this as I describe the situation of the next local female that I had the chance to meet.

Mary, a 22 year old, married to a 40+ man, most likely also a prostitute, and most likely only one of his multiple (up to 4) wives.
- No real quotes here just observations. The fact is that because women are not allowed to leave home until they are married there is a great deal of work to do when it comes to asking for the girl's hand in marriage--permission must come from the father, of course. The man must tell her father that he would like to marry her. The father will first ask "How much money do you have?" It is all about the money. I will get into the specifics of this in the next story. The problem is that most younger men dont have money unless they were born with it. As result there are a great deal of younger girls who are "forced" to marry much older men (sometimes being their second, third or fourth wives) simply because the man has money. Here is the next story.

Alex, a 20 yr old man, a week away from having to serve two years in the army (as all men are forced to do)"
- "I hate my country"
- "She broke my heart"
- "Its all about the money"
- "Sometimes I think about taking a gun and shooting both of them, but then I think...what good would it do?"

I know these quotes can be quite shocking. His story is long and sad, but I will try to give the shortened dry version. In Egypt, according to some interpretation of Muslim law, young men and women are not allowed to date. They cannot ever be alone with each other. This makes it very difficult to find a life-partner. But Alex met a girl at school. They would meet each other "on the way" home or to school if only for brief moments. They would SMS (aka text message). But they would have to be careful to delete each message immediately. For three years during what we call high school they did this. "I loved her, man" Alex told me. He wanted to marry her. He told his parents and they arranged a meeting with the girl's parents. The first question the girl's father asked was: "how much money to do you have?" He began to demand that in exchange for his daughter's hand in marriage he would have to pay 20,000 Egyptian pounds (about 3,700 US dollars, but keep in mind that such money is worth a great deal more here). He also told Alex that he would have to buy his daughter an expensive wedding ring and a large house (by the way, i have yet to see any houses, the vast majority of Egyptians live in apartments or tenet housing). Alex, of course, couldnt do any of those things. He left the area for two years with his family, when he came back his love was married and already had a child with him. "She broke my heart." Alex doesnt trust any more girls. He told me that he hates his country and cant wait to get a VISA to the States or to England. Meanwhile he is about to go off for his mandatory 2 years of military service (all Egyptians are required anywhere from 1-3 years depending on how much schooling).

His story along with the others made me rethink a lot of things about the trip. I havent quite processed it all yet.