Last week I ventured out of Egypt to visit one of our Arab neighbors – Jordan. Although I didn’t see any cartoon monkeys, magic lamps, or flying carpets in Aqaba and my search for the holy grail in Petra was fruitless, I did have the opportunity to explore a new culture. In addition to spending 32 hours on eight buses and 17 taxis in the course of five days, I had a lot of new experiences. In Jordan, for the first time in my life, I:
· carried and used four currencies in one day;
· crossed two international borders in less than one hour;
· rode with a taxi driver who pulled the car over to pray;
· coated myself entirely in mud and washed it off in water 11 times saltier than the ocean;
· was told I speak Arabic with a Cairo accent;
· ate raw chickpeas;
· rode with 27 other people in a minibus with seats for 19;
· hitchhiked; and
· was offered a place to sleep in a tent with 6 Egyptian men I had just met…and almost accepted the offer.
Between my parents’ visit last month and my own travels outside of Egypt this month, I have had quite a few occasions recently to reflect on the cultural differences that set the Middle East (or in some cases just Cairo) apart from North America.
After eight months in Egypt, many of the most amazing sights have become commonplace to me and I no longer frantically dig for my camera when I see a woman carrying a sack of live ducks on her head or a donkey cart causing a major traffic jam in a downtown intersection. I rarely cringe when buses are barreling toward me as I cross the street or when I have to duck to avoid running into a huge slab of raw meat hanging in the street above my head. Still, there are some cultural differences that have a significant effect on my life in Egypt regardless of the amount of time I spend here. The most obvious of these is the prominence of Islam.
I say this is obvious because, in addition to the covered heads of women in the streets, there is a mosque on virtually every corner. The mosques are often the most visually prominent building in their vicinity and are certainly the loudest as the call to prayer resonates from the minarets five times a day. Islam has also had a huge influence on the Arabic language, as nearly all conversations (sometimes even when I speak English) are peppered with the phrases El hamdullah (thanks to God) and Insha’allah (God willing).
The prominence of Islam has a profound impact on the lives of Christians in the Middle East. Being a distinct minority (around 10% in Egypt), most Christians have developed an incredibly strong identity and are always prepared to defend their faith traditions and inquire about those of their colleagues. Many times I have been surprised when one of my young students approaches me and says, “Miss Lisa, are you Christian or Muslim?” That question is often followed by questions about whether or not I love Jesus, if I like the Muslim girls as much as the Christian girls, where I go to church, etc. My American instincts cause me to get a little nervous having these conversations with my students and I keep having to remind myself that I teach at a private school in a country where discussing one’s religion in school is perfectly acceptable as long as there is no teaching of Christianity to Muslim students.
Living in an Islamic culture has been an eye-opening experience for me in terms of learning about Islam and the way Muslims live their lives and I have come to realize that, despite the differences in our beliefs, there are some things that we, as Christians, can learn from Islam. The most significant thing that I have learned from Islam during my time in Egypt has been the integration of faith into everyday life. As Christians living in a secular society such as the US, I think it is sometimes a struggle to keep our faith from becoming something we do on Sunday mornings and before meals, rather than a way of living that extends into everything we do all the time. Of course such a struggle is not unique to Christians, but living in Egypt, surrounded by Islam, my faith is never far from my thoughts.
I have already mentioned the call to prayer. Although I cannot understand most of the words and I certainly do not appreciate the 4:30 AM daily call to prayer, the calls to prayer can be an ever present reminder of Paul’s charge to “always be prayerful” (Romans 12:12). Sometimes in the midst of a busy or frustrating day, a reminder to seek God in prayer is exactly what I need.
In addition to those who stop to pray in response to the calls to prayer, the piety of Muslims in Egypt is often visible in other ways. I have mentioned that Muslim women cover their heads and dress conservatively, but adherence to the faith is also visible when I see men and women reading the Qu’ran or reciting prayers from it on the metro and in the streets. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims demonstrated their piety by strict fasting during daylight hours. Although I am not advocating visible shows of piety for the sake of recognition by others, I do think it is important that we, as Christians, live out the faith in such a way that those around us can see God’s love through our actions. In Egypt, where my uncovered head shouts to the world that I am a Christian, it has been especially important to me that my actions and behaviors reflect my faith. For me, this has not meant fasting or reading the Bible in public, but striving to treat all people with love, respect, and kindness.
As always, thank you for your support and please continue to keep all the volunteers around the world in your prayers.
April newsletter of Lisa Burke, serving as a YAGM with the ELCA in Cairo, Egypt