All posts by Peter & Jane

About Peter & Jane

We are both recently retired and look forward to new adventures in Egypt!

August Update

Monastery at Wadi el Natrun
Monastery at Wadi el Natrun
The chapel where Pope Shenouda is buried.
The chapel where Pope Shenouda is buried.

 

August 22, 2014

We are well on our way through August and, Insh’allah through the worst of the summer months.  Temps of 40C are common these days, and without a bit of A/C helping us along, I wonder how we would survive. 

So, here’s a bit of an update on things as they are….as of today.   Jane and I have now completed 10 months of a 14 month assignment as interim Country Representatives for MCC in Egypt and while thoughts of our return home begin to occupy more of our time, the work between now and the time we leave includes:

  • Welcoming 10 incoming people, including 4 SALTers, 4 Service Workers, and our replacements. This welcome includes setting up language training and doing an orientation and then getting them placed into their assignments.  After that, we cross our fingers and hope that everything  goes reasonably well.  It seldom happens….
  • A financial review of the full Egypt program that will happen shortly after that;
  • A visit from the MCC head office of staff from two departments. This usually means itinerating them through projects in which they are directly involved;
  • Regional meetings in Sarajevo, Bosnia, at which we brag about all the great things happening in Egypt;
  • A possible learning tour of church-related people coming through the Middle East…another week gone;
  • A full-on program review of the MCC Egypt program;
  • Orientation for the new Country Representatives who, as of very recently, were identified (hemdililah!)
  • Inserted in there somewhere are various deadlines for reports, proposals and other administrative work.

If we are still alive by early December, we then start our journey home via Indonesia, to re-acquaint ourselves with our dear ones there, before we arrive home, Insh’allah, on December 22nd, in time to share family celebrations and light a Christmas Eve candle in our home church.

We are not unhappy that our final months in Egypt will be busy.  Time will certainly not drag.  It will be a departure from recent months, where our workload was much lighter.  We will also get some satisfaction in seeing the results of a lot of planning work to re-build a stronger service worker (SW) presence in the country once again.  For those of you who are interested, MCC’s program in Egypt consists of two significant program “streams”:  (i) a service worker presence where we place SALTers (one year placements)  and SWers (three year placements) into seconded placements, and (ii) a funding component, where we provide funds for work being done by our local agency partners.  Our partners in Egypt are all church-based:  Orthodox, Evangelical and Anglican.  Before the revolutions of the past three years, the two streams occupied a good balance of both.  Since July, 2013, that balance was disrupted and many service workers and SALTers ended their terms early (mostly no fault of their own), and so our time here has been spent on (i) monitoring funded projects, and (ii) working to restore the personnel part of the program.  All of this takes time, but as of the end of August, the absence of service workers in Egypt comes to a dramatic end.

Egypt has provided us with many profound and unique blessings.  I will name only a couple. 

We have learned much about a Christian church that, sadly, our insular, even colonialist, Western Christian world knows little about.  The Christian churches here, particularly the Coptic Orthodox Church, is a church that has learned to endure….for millennia.  Whether it was the persecutions of Romans, or one regime or another, this church has been a religious “fixture” of the Middle East since the time of Mark, the gospel writer.  For those who know their church history, Egypt, along with the rest of North Africa, also formed a very integral part of theological development of the early church….Origen and Augustine being but two of the early Christian theologians.   Alexandria was known to be one of the great centres of Christian thought until about 650 CE, and Egypt was also the founder of monasticism that gained much currency in Europe later on.  We have also learned how much of Old Testament/Torah writings and theology were influenced by Pharaonic religious thought.   We have been humbled, and even saddened, by our lack of knowledge and appreciation of the Coptic Orthodox story.  The story of the Christian church, since the time of Christ, has many sad stories—this is one of them.  Nevertheless, we have opportunities in this age to make amends, and, thanks be to God, that is happening.

The other great blessing that bears mentioning is the relationship that we, as foreign MCCers, have with our Egyptian staff.  The last time we were with MCC, it did not hire local staff at all (it was seen as a service arm of the North American churches and its job was to put North American volunteers into service).  Praise God that has changed.  While the original mandate (of placing service workers) remains, we now also hire local people to work within MCC programs, particularly MCC offices.  All “national staff”, as we call them, are located in our office doing administrative and support work.  They are all dedicated, honest and committed workers, fully engaged in the mission of MCC here.  They are true colleagues; they are the institutional memory of MCC in Egypt; they are a “window” into Egyptian culture for us.  They do strategically important work for our programs.  Without them, we would be “toast”.  Jane and I often reflect on how lucky we have been to be able to work along-side them.

We have been a bit remiss in our communications the past few months…we admire others who are faithful in posting stories and pictures on Facebook…and we probably won’t be writing much more in the coming, much busier, months but we appreciate knowing that our church family and friends are keeping us in their prayers.  Sometimes we are very homesick and other times we are just plain worn out by the heat but overall we are very grateful for this experience and have no regrets.    We read the weekly and mid-weekly bulletins and blogs and Facebook posts and manage to keep in touch that way.  Blessings to you all as you head back to school and other fall routines, and as you move towards Advent and Christmas when we hope to be with you again.

Peter and Jane

Eating very well in Cairo!
Eating very well in Cairo!
Beautiful flowering shagara (tree) in Cairo.
Beautiful flowering shagara (tree) in Cairo.

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SO REMIND ME WHY WE ARE DOING THIS…

IMG_4976Some reflections at 6 months.

We are “retired”.  In the North American context, that usually means something.  Tending the garden.  Volunteering at some worthwhile charity, non-profit or church.  Some safe and comfortable travel.  Visiting the kids and spoiling the grandkids.  Enjoying the fruits of our labour and thrift.  Nothing terribly stressful.

So what on earth are we doing in Cairo, where the heat will, in the next few months, become oppressive, where the traffic is so bad that getting around is always a challenge, where crossing the street as a pedestrian means taking your life in your hands, where the air quality is so bad that one can get one’s hand dirty on a table top you dusted just the previous day—and that’s inside; where urban planning means that probably less than half of the buildings in this city of 20+million have no building permits.  What made us decide to leave a very comfortable and predictable living situation where we enjoyed seeing some of our grandkids growing up in front of our eyes, for noise, chaos and congestion?

Let me try and sort that out—both for ourselves and for any reader who may be wondering why we do something so demanding and so impulsive—so out-of-character with the stable, disciplined couple we think ourselves to be (and maybe you think us to be).

  • So maybe we are not as stable as we appear.  Maybe underneath that façade lurks a shared urgency and spirit of adventure that is not satisfied only with Maui, Bali, Cabo or Palm Springs.  Don’t get us wrong—we love those places, but we know from previous experiences that the world is not defined by them.  It is defined by realities much less pleasant than pina coladas, sunsets and sandy beaches.  Maybe this is our way of staying “in touch” with those realities.
  • Maybe this is our way of not getting stale, too comfortable, or insular.  I don’t say that to make others feel like they might be— there are lots of ways to avoid going stale–it is just OUR way of learning, of staying “fresh”, of expanding our horizons.
  • Maybe we just can’t help ourselves.  We grew up with families and churches that called us to serve and this is our way of doing it.  People find ways to serve in many ways at home and abroad.   As Christians, we don’t really see that as an option.  That is not how we were brought up.  Thanks, parents.
  • Maybe we just had the opportunity.  MCC had an urgent need and we happened along.  Things worked out on the home front to make it possible for us to go without significant difficulty….so far.  Jane and I truly placed this one in God’s hands and we interpreted how things worked out to be indicators that it was “meant to be”.  I don’t know what kind of hermeneutic that is, but that is how we interpreted it as God’s wish, and still do.

Now before I give the impression that this experience has been a real labour of hardship and sacrifice, I want to assure you that it has not been that way to date.  Quite apart from the times of wishing we were home with family and having things predictable, there are a multitude of reasons why we can point to this as a great way to do retirement.  Let me try a few.

  • We have been easily as healthy here as we have been at home.  Neither of us has been sick a day.  Indeed, my need for nasal help for allergies has disappeared.   Given Cairo’s air quality, that remains a complete mystery, but then, allergies still tend to be mysteries anyway.
  • We eat as good (maybe better) here than we do at home.  There is no shortage of good quality food available.
  • Learning?  Did I say something about learning?  Formal education could never replicate what we have learned in Egypt.  This is one amazing place in so many dimensions—political, religious, historical, context….it goes on and on.  We have had our assumptions and beliefs challenged on so many levels, it will take some time to sort it all out.  And that in only half a year.
  • Egyptians are fantastic people.  They have welcomed us.  They have exemplified a faith in and commitment to God from which we have much to learn.  We think as Mennonites our Anabaptist forebears have experienced suffering for their beliefs—and they have.  But they are not alone.  Coptic history is something that we should all know about.  Politically, the struggles now experienced by this country are riveting, real and honest.    What should one expect from Egyptians after decades where there has been no democracy?
  • The Middle East and North Africa are defined by turmoil, strife and suffering.  Egypt is no exception.  Muslims and Christians have trouble getting along.  Muslims and Muslims have an even harder time getting along.  We have come to view fundamentalism (of any religious persuasion) with deep suspicion.  Cairo is itself a city of displaced people…from Upper Egypt, from the Sudans, from Syria, from Eritrea and Ethiopia.
  • Did I mention Egyptian history?  Remember that when we talk about the Pharaonic period, we are talking about thousands of years, when we talk about the Christian period, it goes back to St. Mark, you know, the guy who wrote the first Gospel, and then it is followed by a millennium and a half of Islamic history.  We don’t understand this.  A hundred years for us is a long time.  In Egypt, a thousand years counts for something.  Anything less, is still a historic “baby”.
  • We work together with partners that truly understand what it means to serve people on the margins….villagers in Upper Egypt (a euphemism that is almost everywhere besides Cairo and Alexandria) where poverty is still the norm…..projects that work to improve the lot of women in a society caught in age-old traditions that continue to marginalize them.  Imagine a grown woman feeling proud that she can write her name on the page or on a blackboard!

It will be hard to imagine that we will return home unchanged.  That seems not possible (mafeesh moshkela!).  My hope is that we treat those changes as gifts that have enriched our lives.

Gifts

Jane and I have just returned from our first trip to Upper Egypt.  May it not be the last.  Insha’allah.

If we could attach one theme to this visit it would be “gifts”.  Let’s start with the obvious.  As many who have visited Egypt before us have said, Egypt itself receives one gift that many countries to the east and the west of it do not receive.  It is the Nile.  Without it, Egypt is Libya, or Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, or…..  Without it, Egypt does not have the history it has had, and has since gifted many countries, both in the Middle East and the West.  Without it, it could not possibly sustain a population that will in the next few years approach 90 million people.  The river defies all reasonable logic—it is like it tried to find the longest and most improbable of all watercourses to the sea, including thousands of kilometers through the world’s largest desert.  It provides a fertile plain (at one time a flood plain) with incredibly rich alluvium, capable of growing food that would make any farmer in the Fraser (or San Joaquin) Valley envious.  Historically, for millennia, it provided a physical base for a single political entity that has called itself Egyptian (unlike a Libya or a Saudi Arabia that remain a disparate and scattered—not to mention fractious– collection of tribes and interests).  It allowed for the development of a society that, while feudal, was capable of developing  sophisticated, complex and unifying religious beliefs that, we have learned, informed many since, including indirectly, our own.  This ribbon of water that winds its way through hostile territory has defined Egypt in all of its domains—political, religious, agricultural, historical and social.  As with so many things Egyptian, we are in awe.

We were also given the gift of children.  Egypt’s population demographic indicates that there is no lack of people under 18 and our trip validated that fact.  Egypt abounds in children and, for these grandparents who have learned that grandchildren are so precious….so innocent, so accepting of all things, so beautiful, their singing the songs of Egypt and recitations of a beloved abuna (priest) and their art that they so proudly presented to us quickly melted our hearts.  The taking of pictures of us oldies with children seemed never to end.

We were shown the gift of service.  We took this trip not only to see the ancient wonders of Egypt, but to see the work done by the Coptic Orthodox Church serving poor people in Upper Egypt’s villages.  The work is profoundly basic:  fixing indoor latrines, putting mortar on walls and roofs over people’s homes, providing small loans for starting up a home-based business, all of this done by ‘field workers’ who were unashamedly proud and enthusiastic of their work.  I think that they also were motivated by the belief that they were doing this for their church and for the Lord.  The Orthodox Church has moved with vigor to see that their theology has “hands and feet” as well as “heart and soul”.  These young community workers, mostly women, but some men, compelled us to see all the work that they were doing to help make people’s lives better.  We saw older women proudly going up to a whiteboard and writing their names on the board for the first time.  The conditions that many villagers lived in were so humble, we were, once again, left with questions of economic justice, but we were also buoyed by the sense of joy that is brought to a person who is involved in helping those less fortunate.

We were also given gifts; material gifts.  Gifts that represented a “thank you” that we had merely shown interest in the work that people were doing to help villagers.  We received papyrus drawings, beads strung by children into necklaces and bracelets and maps and booklets of their region.  The western mind is embarrassed by this type of excess.  We should be offering gifts to these dedicated workers for generously hosting us, but it seems not to be that way in Egypt.  We returned home to our flat in Cairo having to check our carry-on baggage because we could not get everything that we received into our luggage.  We are left with fond memories of singing children, of eager church-based community service workers, and of families whose lives had been made just a bit better materially and economically.

Finally, we were given the gift of Egypt’s incredible history.  We have memories of Grade 7 social studies:   Amun Ra, Ramses II, Thutmose III, Hatshepsut, Amenhotep, Tutankhamen,  Hieroglyphics,  temples,  tombs,  religion,  Empire, intrigue and feluccas.  There are no words to adequately describe the historical sites of Luxor and Edfu.  One is just left to wonder.  The stunning visuals aside, we also heard the stories of gods and humans and how they interacted in Egyptian religious stories.  It may seem mildly heretical to say so, but one is left to wonder how much the Greeks and Hebrews borrowed from their Egyptian ancestors in the making of their own understandings of how God and humankind interacted.  Quite frankly, it seemed a little spooky at times.  The stories recounted to us about the Pharaohs’ relationship with the gods and miraculous “immaculate” conceptions, seemed to have more than one connection with the stories of the Old (and even the New) Testament.  It makes our own Scriptural hermeneutic just a bit more untidy.

If you, dear reader, haven’t figured out by now that our hearts and minds are full, then I am not a very good writer.  Maybe some pictures might help.

IMG_4743 IMG_4785 IMG_4796 IMG_4797 IMG_4812 IMG_4827 IMG_4831 IMG_4861 IMG_4840 IMG_4853 IMG_4875 IMG_4878 IMG_4907 IMG_4915 IMG_4920 IMG_4936 IMG_4916

January 2014

POST #7:              A REFERENDUM AND AN EPIPHANY

Two unique and distinct events here, with no convergence between them intended.  I expect that only the most artistically creative will be able to find any.  My intention is not to try and find some proof-text to bring these two events, one religious and one political, together.  If you, gentle reader, are able to, then I admire your creative understanding of Scripture.

So, first of all to the referendum.  As some of you will know, Egypt’s political life in recent times has, to put it mildly, been interesting.  A popular uprising to oust dictator Hosni Mubarak from a deeply entrenched dictatorship in January, 2011, was followed by the election of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government led by Muhammed Morsi.  Following this government’s attempt to lead the country down an Islamist path and, some would say economic catastrophe, a second popular uprising in July, 2013, led to his ouster and the setting up of a military-led interim government led by Field Marshal Al-Sisi.  Promises have been made to the Egyptian people that this government was, and is, interim and that new elections will be held in 2014.  In the meantime, a constituent assembly, consisting of 60ish prominent public figures, including representatives from all religious segments of Egyptian society, presented the country with a new, revised constitution, which has been hailed as an improvement on the previous one.  Christian churches have not only endorsed it, but done so enthusiastically.  The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, on the other hand, left the assembly and have refused to participate in the referendum process.  Instead, due to violence in the streets of Egyptian cities blamed on the Brotherhood, it has now been placed on the “terrorist” list of the government and, with the arresting of its leaders, has suffered serious organizational setbacks.

On January 14th and 15th, the nation went to the polls to vote on accepting the revised constitution.  It was accepted with a 98% majority of the 38% of the registered voters who cast ballots.  The Brotherhood and its allies, boycotted.  Walking the streets of Cairo on those days, one sensed an air of excitement in casting their votes.  Flags were in more prominent display, there were stories of singing, there were crowds at the polling stations (men on one side; women on the other), people proudly showed off their painted pinkies (evidence that they had voted), our Arabic teacher, visibly moved, talked with emotion about her right to vote—the first time in 30 years where she actually felt it might make a difference.  Politics was in the wind and it was on the mouth of every Egyptian those days.  Now Egyptians hold their collective breaths to see if, indeed, the government will deliver on the next promise—elections for President and a Parliament.  Truly interesting stuff.  A message to all Canadians who take their democracy for granted—-don’t.  Vote.  It counts.  It may not seem important, but it is.

Epiphany—to Canadians, it is the religious day commemorating the coming of the Magi, who guided by the star, came to the house where they found the infant king and presented him with their kingly gifts.  In Egypt, as with so many Christian “holydays” in the Orthodox tradition, it is different.  It is the day that commemorates the baptism of Jesus and the descending dove announcing Jesus’ sonship to His heavenly Father.  Before the arrival of Islam in Egypt, this was commemorated by Christians in Egypt (remember, Egypt was, between 200 CE and 650 CE, the centre of the Christian world) by the placing of a candle-lit cross into the Nile River.  That tradition remains, in some form or other, in place 1400 years later!  Remember, that in Egypt, traditions only mean anything once they are defined in terms of millennia, not centuries!  So on January 18th, we met with other Orthodox Christians at the Anafora Retreat Centre, on the desert road between Cairo and Alexandria, to celebrate Epiphany.  As always, the afternoon had sung vespers by a small group of “sisters” for a couple of hours.  This was followed by an evening Mass, starting at 6 p.m., which ended at about 9 p.m., followed with a short procession from the chapel to the local swimming pool to set the lit cross into the water—a remembrance of a tradition almost 2000 years old.  It has been held alive through many, many years of suffering, turbulence, persecution and endless uncertainties.  At poolside, joyous (for Orthodox, anyway) hymns were sung, not only for the Lord they serve, but also for Egypt.  In the cold darkness of the desert evening, candles were lit all along the poolside, creating a magical effect.  Worshippers all carried lit candles.  Young people were enthusiastically involved in the preparations and the worship team.  The evening, by this time easily 10 p.m., was closed off with a feast—worshippers had “fasted” since noon that day.  Bedtime for many would not have happened until well after midnight.  Jane and I have been part of a number of Orthodox services and we have marveled at many things:  such different musical and liturgical traditions, such endurance under continuous persecution, such a deep commitment to being followers of Jesus in word and deed, such an embrace of the mystical and the miraculous, such attention to the meaning of symbols in all things spoken, sung, written and visual.  We can’t understand much of the liturgy yet, but it remains fascinating at so many levels.  Such a privilege to be part of this religious experience!

January 21, 201420140118_211959 20140118_212012 20140118_212419 20140118_213216

Christmas 2013

Christmas (December) 2013

To suggest that Christmas 2013 was a bit unusual for us would be an understatement.  We have celebrated Christmas in warmer regions of the world before and even came to enjoy the longer, warmer days as an alternative to the cold, short, grey days of coastal British Columbia, so a semi-tropical Christmas is something to which we were actually looking forward.  We looked forward to having our Indonesia family with us.  We were even prepared to have Christmas on January 6th , it being the date of Christmas in the Orthodox calendar.  But when you add those special events to:

  • A three-hour horse-drawn ride through downtown Alexandria
  • A beautifully sung Syrian Orthodox Christmas Eve (Dec.24th) mass
  • A seven-hour marathon ride from Alexandria back to Cairo
  • Camel rides around the Sahara at the Gizeh pyramids
  • Christmas bombings in Egypt
  • Soldiers guarding all church services during these days

Well, I think you get the picture.  It is unlikely that we will quickly forget the images of our Christmas in Egypt.   Egyptian Christians are also very quick to remind us that they were not left out of the nativity story.  As they recount the flight into Egypt, it is possible that the Christ-child and his parents (that would be Mary and Joseph) hunkered down somewhere very close to Cairo until they were told to return to Palestine….a backwater called Galilee, not Bethlehem.

Today, we heard of a massive bombing in Beirut.  What a tortured part of the world we live in….  It is filled with irony, seemingly endless violence and chaos, and yet the people we know and meet are friendly and helpful beyond description.

Enough of idle thinking; let’s deal with the facts.  First of all, we started Christmas off with the arrival of our Indonesian family:  Stephen, Dina and their daughter Bethany.  Ever since coming, they have given their parents days of delight and happiness.  They have embraced Egypt with enthusiasm, curiosity and energy.  Their daughter has been the best two-year-old traveler I have ever seen, while charming everyone she meets.  She lost no time in endearing herself to Grandma and Grandpa and has endured one strange, new setting after another with alacrity.  How truly fortunate!

Given their short visit (only 12 days), we booked an ambitious schedule that included a visit to Alexandria.  The trips to and from Alex were entirely forgettable—only memorable in their duration—long.  Our full day in Alex, however, was delightful.  We rode around downtown Alex in a horse-drawn carriage right there amongst all the traffic on the Corniche.  We stayed in a modest downtown hotel that provided us with access to the Citadel, the library, a national museum and churches that provided us with a good sampling of the strength and vitality  of Christian life in that historic city.  (It was, after all, a Christian centre for the Gospel since the time of Mark, the writer of the Gospel.)  We could have chosen to attend an Orthodox mass at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve or a Syrian Orthodox service at 8 p.m.  We chose the latter.  While we left before the close of the service, we loved the liturgy that was entirely sung.  We left the church and noted a heavy military presence outside of the church.  Aside from the irony that the image presented, we learned the following morning that there had been a massive bombing in a city not too from Alexandria.

On December 26th, we went to see the pyramids.  The day was beautiful.  Not hot, but clear blue skies.  We learned much about the skill required to build them and the history attached to the main pyramid and Sphinx sites.  We also visited a rug-making and weaving place in Saqqara, south of the pyramid sites.  It was a day to acknowledge the past (like/yaani, thousands of years ago) and to appreciate the present.

I suppose that we are not the first to have the conflicting and confused thoughts and emotions that we have when we think of our experience to date in Egypt.  On one hand, we love interacting and working with good, intelligent, hard-working people who love their country and want only good for it.  On the other, we vex at the impossible road conditions that we all experience just to get around the city.  On one hand, we feel at home with Egyptians who, even as strangers, are kind and open.  On the other, we are deeply saddened by the turmoil and divisions that are so apparent in Egyptian society, much of it in the guise of religious teachings that are intended to nurture peace and harmony.  As MCC, we are grateful that we can play a part, together with our church partners, to do something about peace-making.

On a much more personal note, we are grateful that our children have happy and healthy families.  We give thanks…..IMG_4214 IMG_4219 IMG_4226 IMG_4227 IMG_4229 IMG_4274 IMG_4232 IMG_4233 IMG_4239 IMG_4260 IMG_4302 IMG_4308 IMG_4311 IMG_4336 IMG_4341

Get Thee to a Monastery

Post #4:  Get Thee to a Monastery

The past two days have furthered our ever-expanding knowledge of Egypt.  Antiquity and Egypt are words that often flow together easily, especially in the context of Pharaohs, pyramids, massive temples,  the ebbs and flows of ancient dynasties and empires.  Less well known is Egypt’s history as a “holy land”, starting, as we all know from Genesis, long before Christ, and even before the exodus story of Israel (Egyptians still refer to Egypt as “Masr” derived from one of the descendants of Ham called Mishraim – check out Genesis 6, I think) , but then both during and after the life of Christ as part of the early Christian church that came out of Jerusalem and found its own local roots, initially together with other early churches in North Africa and the Middle East, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome.  After Chalcedon, the church in Egypt went its own way, partly at least due to a disagreement over the nature of Christ.  For six hundred years after Christ, the Christian church in Egypt thrived (despite persecutions especially from the Romans until 325) and remained the dominant religion of the area until it was overrun by Arab-based Islam after 650.  Cut off from the main body of the Christian church in Europe and Constantinople, Coptic (as Egyptian Christianity became known) Christianity has followed a unique, and often difficult, path of survival until the present day in a land that only reluctantly accepts that there should be any religious alternative to Islam.  Today, Christians of all kinds form about 10-15% of the Egyptian population, the overwhelming majority of who belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Whatever my pre-conceived ideas of Orthodoxy were, they have come under serious scrutiny in the past weeks, and especially in the last couple of days.  As Jane and I visited the monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Eastern desert of Egypt, we learned many new things, some of which, dear reader, I hope to convey to you in a way that opens your own mind to new appreciations of Orthodoxy.

Our whole MCC Egypt team packed itself into a 12 passenger van and headed east out of Cairo towards the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Sinai.  We proceeded south along the Gulf road for about 100 kms and then back west away from the Gulf into the desert.  Aside of being rocky and mountainous, the land was completely devoid of vegetation.  I mean completely.  Nada.  Unrelentingly barren.  It is a compelling image.  (For you BCers who think that Osoyoos is desert, I have news for you.)  We came to the monastery of St. Anthony located against a mountainside that miraculously stored and provided water for the monastery during very infrequent rains.  The monastery is built out of a mixture of stone, cement block and sand-based type of plaster or daub (depending on when the addition was built).  It was initially constructed more than 1700 years ago as part of a very significant monastic movement which had its origins in Egypt.  We were accompanied through the churches, caves and other buildings by an elderly, knowledgeable, articulate (and somewhat curmudgeonly) monk (abuna or father).  Far from being uneducated or ignorant about both Eastern and Western ways, this monk seemed (and many others, it seems) to have  had a professional life and then made a conscious, voluntary decision to forsake the ways of the world to follow Christ…away from the hustle and bustle of society.  I also noted that we were far from being the first to develop sophisticated disaster preparedness plans.   We were surprised to find that these monasteries had devised very interesting contingency survival plans to ward off intruders like Bedouins, Romans, and others who might try and take advantage of their peaceful way of life.

By far the most important part of the visits to both monasteries was the reverence that was shown to the founders, the relics and icons that were the repositories of a profound spiritual heritage going back many hundreds of years.  We as Canadian Mennonites know nothing about history by comparison.  I was given the impression that this heritage was both a foundation on which spiritual development was built, and a cross to be borne.  These monks were instructed by their forebears, but also felt the weight and responsibility of carrying the stories, beliefs and practices of their many predecessors.  This was no small responsibility.  While the monastery of St. Anthony was the more traditional in outward appearance, the monastery of St. Paul, located much closer to the Gulf of Sinai seemed to be somewhat more ready to accept modernization.  While it maintained and revered its ancient beginnings, it also included a brand new cathedral (by ANY measure, a cathedral), a cafeteria capable of serving all visitors and an ambitious garden growing all kinds of vegetables.

Despite these differences in appearance, the lasting images of the visit to both monasteries included:

  • Monks that were deeply committed to their faith and to their heritage, were articulate in expressing their beliefs in English, had an experiential knowledge of the world “out there”, not only in Egypt, but beyond, and appeared to be far more willing to engage in conversations of faith and practice beyond their own religious confines than I imagined.  Their appearance and dress was initially misleading…
  • They paid rightful homage and respect to the modest, but moving, beginnings.  The first church structures, going back more than 1500 years still remained.  We were allowed to see and take pictures of wall paintings and other sacred places and things…an openness that, for me, was unexpected.
  • Mystery and miracles form part of the everyday belief of Coptic Christians.  Water flowing out of the mountain was a miracle, St. Mary showing herself recently to people in Cairo is a miracle…Egyptian Christians will enthusiastically talk to you about many miracles.  No need to explain, analyze or debate.  Egyptians readily embrace mystery.
  • There seems to be relatively little division between body/soul/spirit.  They are all there, but as a whole.  This informs the theology—all are ministered to simultaneously.  There is no division (read MCC and mission boards); it forms one package.
  • We, as those who have come down from the radical reformation, know of our own past of persecutions in Europe.  If one were to add an additional millennium of the same, we would  understand better the importance of Orthodoxy and we would also marvel at the commitment of Coptic Christians today and through the ages.
  • It was possible for me to move beyond the simple notion that icons and relics were meaningless objects (or worse), and that they represented a respect for those who had gone before and shown the way.
  • The monasteries we saw were working monasteries and, in the past, aimed at being as self-sufficient as possible, including their own grinding mills for flour and oil.  Today, monks bring with them skills that serve the monastery in a more modern way, including IT.

These are just a few of our very early impressions of the church in Egypt.  Maybe most important for us was the visual and experiential.  We saw and walked on ground that spoke of the life of Christ and his followers for well over 1000 years.  We saw the reverence that Egyptians paid to their Christian forebears.  We even sensed that Christians in Egypt wanted to visit monasteries to remind themselves what others endured for the sake of their beliefs (we saw quite a number of tour buses).   Hmmmm…

Entrance to St. Anthony's
Entrance to St. Anthony’s
Inside St. Anthony's
Inside St. Anthony’s
The "keep" is in the middle back.
The “keep” is in the middle back.
Gardens at St. Anthony's.
Gardens at St. Anthony’s.
Our guide.
Our guide.
The oldest Christian church in the world.
The oldest Christian church in the world.
Close-up of "keep".  Pull up the drawbridge; no windows or doors in first floor.
Close-up of “keep”. Pull up the drawbridge; no windows or doors in first floor.
Part of a curtain hand embroidered by the monks.
Part of a curtain hand embroidered by the monks.
Ceiling frescoes at St. Paul's.
Ceiling frescoes at St. Paul’s.
The newer part of St. Paul's.
The newer part of St. Paul’s.

Rakam Taleta: First Impressions

Rakam Taleta (Post #3):  Impressions of Cairo

Having lived in Cairo now for two full weeks, we are, by definition, experts on all things Egyptian!  For example, we note that the weather is hardly the topic of conversation that it is in Canada.  It was sunny yesterday, it is sunny today and it will be sunny tomorrow.  I can guarantee that.  We also know that Arabic allows one to spell words just about any way you like, provided the consonants are in the right place.  Vowels are randomly, often annoyingly, interchangeable.  The streets of Cairo are described as zahma (in German it would sound like “zachma”) and dousha, crowded and noisy.  No North American would disagree with that.  A large percentage of Cairene cars show the effects of bumps and scrapes which draw neither the attention of the police nor the insurance companies.  Crossing the street as a pedestrian in Cairo is not for the faint of heart.

Our living conditions are comfortable, but like all things in Cairo, crowded.  If we knew Egyptian Arabic better, we would be quite aware of the intimate goings-on of many families all around us.  Privacy is definitely exercised differently here than it is at home.  Conversely, I am quite certain that our immediate neighbors probably know much more about us than we care to acknowledge.  Every cough, sneeze, and flush of the toilet is heard by somebody, somewhere.

Material wants are few.  We can get almost everything we need to have a sensible diet.  Clothing stores of all kinds abound.  Small shops, higglers (street vendors) and street merchants (those that come right by our place shouting one thing or another) are common.  Calls to prayer from the local mosques are frequent and echo throughout the city.  The city is a dynamic mosaic of people going about making a living, holding political demonstrations, cars going to and fro, people trying to stay clean in a city that is just simply not clean.  The city goes to sleep late at night and wakes up early.

Cairo is one of those cities where worlds meet.  The African south, particularly the Sudan, the Arab Middle East and North Africa mix with Egyptians.   The Ottoman Turks, the Greeks, Romans all have had influence in how Egyptians see themselves.  Above all, Islam, and to a lesser extent, Orthodox Christianity interact in an uneasy co-existence, made ever more uneasy in recent years.  While things have died down somewhat in recent months, Cairo remains a city on edge.  As with other places we have been, it is sometimes hard to sort out what is religious, or political and what is economic/poverty-related.  (In Southern Africa during the 1970s, for instance, it was hard to sort out what was economic/poverty and what was political/racial.)  More than ever, one is convinced that there is a very dynamic relationship between a perceived sense of justice and fairness and the distribution of wealth and power.  On a very real level, people may be poor, powerless, illiterate and dispossessed, but they are not stupid.  In our work, we cannot separate out peace and justice from the important issues of quality of life.

Christmas is coming and it is striking to note the difference between Christmas here and Christmas at home.  In contrast to the self-absorbed orgy of accumulation all mixed up with the cute little baby in the manger, (sort of like the crazy blend of the risen tomb and the Easter bunny at Easter time),  Egyptian Christian churches approach Christmas with fasting.  Advent is for five or six weeks and Egyptian Christians treat Advent in much the same way that we pretend to observe Lent….or at least some of us pretend.  Here, Christmas is mostly observed according to the Orthodox calendar, very close to what we might know as Epiphany.  Egyptian Christians pride themselves in the role that it played in providing a hiding place for Mary, Joseph and the Christ-child shortly after Jesus’ birth.  Many, many Egyptian Christian women name themselves after some derivative of Mary (Mary, Mariam, Mariham, etc.).  Mark, the writer of the first gospel, is remembered reverently for his connection to Alexandria and part of his body rests in the Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo

As for ourselves, we are completing a fairly intensive Arabic language study and will begin our transition into MCC’s work in Egypt in earnest in the next two weeks. We have many pages of vocabulary; now the trick will be to try and find a way to use it!  We have had to very pleasant experience of learning from Madame Fadia, an elderly and delightful Egyptian woman who makes language study as pleasant an experience as it can possibly be.

Since the current unrest, MCC’s commitment to having service workers is diminished due to security risks.  Our work with local Egyptian partners, however, remains active and strong.  Our main partners include the Coptic (read Egyptian) Orthodox, the Anglican and Coptic Evangelical churches.  In a recent 50th celebration for BLESS, MCC was publicly recognized as a valued partner in BLESS’s work among the Coptic Orthodox constituency.  In broad strokes, MCC’s work in Egypt is framed in terms of addressing issues of peace, literacy, health and economic development.  Jane and I will be meeting the principle “movers and shakers” in our partnerships in the coming weeks, in advance of a December 1st hand-off of responsibilities from the current country representatives, Tom and Judy.

We have developed a profound respect for their work as country representatives.  While they are saddened by the lack of growth and movement within the MCC program in Egypt during their stay,  their achievement, under the circumstances, is that MCC remains alive and well in a country where MCC might easily have decided to leave.  Sometimes, just enduring is the achievement; this is something that the Egyptian Christian community would well understand.

This has gone on far too long.  I end here for now.

First Impressions

  (We’ve included a few pictures with this post but haven’t figured out how to arrange them properly.  They are all from Sarayevo.)

 We are in Cairo and have spent our first few days becoming acquainted with the city and the work that we will be doing while we are here.  This was preceded by a 4 day orientation in Akron, Pennsylvania (to MCC) and a 4 day orientation in Sarajevo, Bosnia (to MCC’s Europe and Middle East Programs).

Based on these days, we make the following “first impressions” comments.  They are just that–first impressions, and they will suffer from the shortcomings that first impressions usually have.  Firstly, MCC is not the same organization that we left 25 years ago.  It is more “professional” in its program approaches.  For Communitas staff, you will be happy to know (or not!) that the logic model and evidence-based practice is the prevailing program paradigm and MCC has its own version of Sharevision.  There is no escaping it, it seems!

In addition, the after-effects of the “New Wineskins” re-org are finally settling out between Winnipeg and Akron staff and we were repeatedly told that things were working well between the two offices.  The orientation time was tightly packed and very informative.  We felt truly welcomed and staff operated very much “on the clock” and with relevant agenda.

Following a rather exhausting trip via Chicago and Istanbul, we arrived in Sarajevo and spent the first full day exploring the significant parts of the city….on foot.  As with many European cities, it brings with it a number of historical traditions:  Ottoman/Turk, Austro-Hungarian, Yugoslav/communist and most recently, Bosnian.  Remains of the most recent war are still evident, many buildings still sporting bullet holes from snipers perched on the hills immediately above the city.  Nevertheless, the city is alive, bustling and doing what it can to get on with the business of living.  The old part of the city is very charming.  Outdoor cafes abound, walking streets, small shops of all kinds, churches and mosques, large and small form part of the fascinating old part of the city.  It didn’t hurt that temperatures in Sarajevo were unusually mild.  Amela, our MCC Area Director introduced us to MCC’s Europe and Middle East programs, as well as some of the staff for Eastern Europe.  We were very interested to find out that the Florence Centre and Lucy Romanenkova’s name was well known in Sarajevo.  The hotel we stayed at was modest, but clean and met our needs.  It served us the best coffee we will likely have for the next year.

Bridge where WW1 started
Bridge where WW1 started
Eastern Orthodox Church
Eastern Orthodox Church
Shopping
Shopping in the Old City in Sarajevo

We proceeded on to Cairo and arrived on October 29th.  We have very few things that we can compare Cairo to.  It is a massively big city and very crowded.  Our only comparisons are with Surabaya, Java, Indonesia.  The driving is about as chaotic, and the crowded living conditions are almost as severe.  Having said that, Surabaya is only a third the size of Cairo.  Surabaya is hot and muggy; Cairo is hot, dry and dusty.  Surabaya is still a relatively
“provincial” city; Cairo is an African/middle Eastern/European crossroads.  It is, right now, a city that is also at a cultural, religious, and political crossroads.  Only time will tell which way it goes, and even then, for how long.  We have spent the last few days becoming more familiar with the program in Egypt and how we relate to our partners…a very crucial part of our work.  We are also slowly learning how to get around, where to shop, what our specific roles will be (yes, Jane will be involved with the books, and I will be involved with program reporting, design and development).  Audits are coming for both finances and program.  We will be strongly supported by local Egyptian staff….another big change within MCC.  We will be doing Arabic language study for the next two weeks and then the final two weeks of November will be the transfer of responsibilities from the existing country representatives to us.  As of December 1st, we will be flying solo.

One of many mosques.

Why are we doing this????

FOR STARTERS

Before either Jane or I (Peter) retired, we had talked about the possibility of doing some post-retirement service overseas, preferably with our previous organization, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).  While we did not want to commit to a lengthy (3-5 year) term, we also did not see ourselves being “put out to retirement pasture” only doing yard work, checking in with kids and grand kids, and generally having a life that was understood to be our reward for hard and diligent work.  We still intend to do these things, but we thought that we might have something else to offer based on our professional experience.  As we have done in the past, this equated to a combination of travel, culture experience and service work.  Letting MCC know of our interest in a service assignment was the logical first place to test that interest.

Initially, our thinking was something like a 3-6 month assignment, possibly covering for a country administrator who, for one reason or another, might be on leave.  Jane retired at the end of November, 2012, while I retired at the end of August, 2013.  The call to be considered as MCC’s interim country representatives for Egypt for a year came shortly before I retired.  It took very little persuasion on either of our parts to become excited about the possibility.  It didn’t seem to matter to either of us that Egypt, at the time, was in the middle of a political crisis…and remains so to this day.

So why not (be concerned, that is)?  Well, it’s not that we are not concerned; we would be naive not to be.  Maybe we just need an adventure.   Maybe Egypt is a place that, whatever the circumstances, holds fascination beyond the ordinary.  Maybe it’s MCC’s efforts to try and promote peaceful dialogue between groups in conflict.  Maybe we are tired of living in the faux safety envelope we believe we can create for ourselves in North America.  Maybe….  Maybe….  anyway, after 25 years of living by one set of assumptions, we both felt some need to live by another.

We do not place our decision to be with MCC overseas once again on any pedestal.  While we sense being “called” to do this, it is no more a calling to go to Egypt than it is to serve breakfast to young, needy schoolkids at Howe Middle school.  In our opinion, in God’s eyes, they are the same.  Jane and I are fortunate and grateful to be part of a church community that nurtures the need to serve, be it within the church, in the community or beyond.

Since the decision was made to accept this assignment, our lives have consisted of a blizzard of application forms, medical, dental and optical appointments, arrangements to update wills and other legalities, deal with house matters, figure out how to handle pensions and other benefits, learn Arabic, become familiar with MCC (both MCC in Egypt and MCC as an organization….again), and explain our apparent loss of sanity to family, friends and church.  We have also received encouragement from many individuals who have either been to Egypt or who are in the same circumstances as us (have previously served in cross-cultural situations and would like to do it again.  Cross-cultural experience is, after all, a chronic condition that, having occurred once, tends to remain in the body and can flare up unexpectedly!)

The plan is to leave Canada on October 19th, spend some days in Akron, Pennsylvania, then some more days in Sarajevo, Bosnia, both of which are to orient us to MCC and MCC in Europe and the Middle East, and then to finally reach Cairo by late October, where we will have a one-month overlap with the current country representatives.  We sense that MCC is not the same organization it was 25 years ago (why should it be?), but that is only an intuition.  We’ll see.  Right now, we are busy getting ready to go, saying some farewells and practicing our limited, but expanding Arabic vocabulary.

For now, Ma Esalaami (sp?).

Preparing to go…

What is involved in planning to leave for a year?

Find someone to stay in our house.  Plans are that someone will move in the day after we leave!

Study Arabic.  We are trying to study 30 minutes a day but we’re not always successful!

Donate piles of stuff to the thrift store.  That way there’s a bit more room to store stuff.

Do yardwork and clean up the gardens.  

Decide what to take.  Summers are hot (up to 40C) and winters are cold, especially indoors, we’re told.

Paperwork.  Passports, International Drivers Licences, TB Tests, taxes and on and on…almost done!