Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

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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!