Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mussa's Story

We Westerners take so much for granted.

We are free to be of any religion or no religion. We are free to change our religion at will. Most of us don't even have to tell the government that we've done it, because our religious affiliation and beliefs have no bearing on anything the government does. We have no official religion to list on our driver's license or identity card. The government doesn't consider the religion of the man and woman involved when recognizing marriages--the couple's religions are none of the government's business. This separation between government and religion, while taken too far at times, was instituted to protect individuals from unwarranted government intrusion into their personal lives. And we take it all for granted.

I read a news article last week. It reports on a situation that can happen only in a country where the government is able to intrude at will into the personal lives of its citizens. It can happen only in a country where the government explicitly favors one religion over another. It can happen only in a country where religious freedom may exist for some, but not for all.

Should this situation be possible in a country that is a signatory to the U. N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which allows for freedom of religion, including conversion?

Read about the situation; then you decide:

Raheal Henen Mussa was born into a Muslim family 22 years ago. Three years ago, she decided to become a Christian. She did not attempt to change her official religion, knowing that government authorities would not allow it. It would cause major problems if she tried. She could even face the death penalty for apostasy.

Mussa had another problem. She wanted to get married. To a Christian. But she wasn't allowed to do that. Sharia, or Islamic, law forbids Muslim women from marrying Christians. Even if the woman is really a Christian whose government says she's a Muslim. And her government says in its constitution that Sharia is the basis for legislation. Mussa knew that she would not be allowed to marry a Christian in the traditional manner. So Mussa and her beloved, Sarwat George Ryiad, found another solution.

Traditional marriages that are recognized by the government are performed by clerics in front of witnesses. But these official marriages cannot take place until the couple is able to secure and furnish a home, which can take years in a difficult economy. So many young people instead opt for zawag al 'urfi marriages. These marriages are not officiated by clerics, and there are no witnesses. Instead, there is a lawyer and a marriage contract. These marriages are not recognized as "official marriages" by the government, but the couple involved are bound by the contract and consider themselves married.

It isn't an ideal situation, but it is a solution, so Mussa and Ryiad took it and were married. They realize that in the eyes of their government, they are not married. They never requested any official recognition of their marriage. Because they did not request official marriage status, they have violated no civil law of their country.

But they have violated Sharia law. And their country responded by arresting Mussa. She was held by the secret police for seven days before being turned over to her Muslim family. Her family burned from her arm the tattoo that identified her as a Christian. Two days after she was placed in her family's custody, Mussa escaped. She and her husband fled the city and went into hiding, afraid of being arrested, beaten, and forcibly separated. This government apparently has the ability to interfere in any marriage, whether or not it recognizes the existence of the marriage.

There are multiple issues here. One of them is the government deciding who a person can and cannot marry based on religion. Another is the government being able to influence a person's official religion, whether it is by saying that a child's religion must be the same as the parents' religion or by deciding when a person can or cannot change religions.* The fundamental issue, however, is government interest in what we Westerners view as an intensely personal matter--an individual's spiritual and religious life--an interest that, even in the Western world, would open the door to government intrusion.

No one but God knows how this situation will turn out. Mussa lives in a country where there is nominal freedom of religion, but she isn't allowed to change her official religion or to marry a man who shares her personal religion. Her options were severely limited. She could have remained unmarried--a huge social stigma, and a denial of basic human needs and desires. She could have married a Muslim man and quite possibly have been abused for her "apostasy." She could have married a Christian whose identification card also read "Muslim," thereby putting off the problem to the next generation. She chose to marry the man she loved, an official Christian, without receiving government recognition of the marriage but also without breaking any civil law. Why, then, is she being treated like a criminal?

*There is one man who is trying to change his official religion from Islam to Christianity. He has another hearing in early May. The outcome of his case could have profound implications for people like Mussa.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Big Like a Horse

A friend told me yesterday of an interesting experience that one of her friends had.

She was in the lobby of her building, when a stout Egyptian woman walked by--one whose size and shape wouldn't have been considered particularly pleasing to most westerners. The bowab and the other men who were in the lobby started talking to each other, and their tones of voice alerted the expat to the fact that something interesting was being said. So she asked the bowab what they were saying.

"We're admiring that woman. She's big like a horse!"

Well, that explains why, when I'm out walking with Jeff, young Egytian men sometimes look at me, then grin and give Jeff a thumbs-up. Apparently overweight is good here!

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Trip to the Pyramids at Giza

Last weekend, Jeff and I finally took our first trip to see the Great Pyramid, a couple of other pyramids, the Sphinx, and the Solar Boat Museum over in Giza. I know, I know, what took us so long? We've been here almost a year! But we finally did it.

The morning started at 8:30 a.m., when we met our CLO-organized group at the Maadi House. There were two vans' worth of people, including our CLO representative, Gloria, and our SEEgypt tour guide, Samir. We were remarkably on time--we left Maadi House at 8:37! (I know, it's weird that I know that, but it's become a game with me to check and see just how on-time versus late we are whenever I'm in a large group.)

For our first stop, we literally pulled over to the side of the road. Samir wanted us to see the pyramids as close as possible to how the ancient Egyptians would have seen them, and the best view for that was on the side of the Ring Road. Luckily, traffic isn't very heavy on a Friday morning, so we were safe.

From this vantage, we could clearly see the pyramids in the background, with fertile farmland in the foreground. Samir explained that most ancient Egyptians would have had the pyramids looming over them every day as they worked in their fields. The pyramids needed to be close to the fields, because people had to be able to get to them for burials and other ceremonies, but they couldn't be in the actual floodplain. The people revered their Pharoahs, but they didn't want their bodies floating around during the Nile's annual flood! So the pyramids--burial structures for the dead Pharoahs who were believed to have gone on to join the sun god--were built in the desert just outside the fertile floodplain. They towered over the farmers, a constant reminder of the Pharoah's divinity and power.

After we loaded back into our vans, we went to the actual site of the pyramids. Admission to the site is free for diplomats, but those without diplomatic identification cards ("dip cards") had to pay LE50, I believe. Several people also purchased tickets to enter the Great Pyramid itself. Non-diplomatic ID holders had to pay LE100; with the dip card, it was LE50. Jeff and I decided to skip going in this time. We both remembered the physical price we paid to see the inside of the Red Pyramid, and since this pyramid also is empty, we decided to save it for another day.

We spent some time walking around the Great Pyramid while some of the others went in. We took tons of pictures and video, as Jeff enjoyed playing with our new video camera. We said "La, shokran" ("No, thank you") more times than I can count, and even then, we found ourselves being led to the side of the pyramid where the camel owners we offering pictures and rides for a fee. Jeff was feeling generous, so we each took a picture with a camel.

After everyone had come out of the pyramid, we walked around it to the Solar Boat Museum. On the way, we passed a trench in the ground. Samir told us that there were five such trenches around the pyramid, and the two smallest had been found with boats in them. The assumption, therefore, is that there originally were five solar boats, the three largest of which were removed by thieves.

Once in the Solar Boat Museum (which has separate entry fees for people without dip cards), Samir told us a little about the believed reason for the boats. Ancient Egyptians believed that their Pharoahs were divine and that they would join the sun god after death. They also believed that there was a sea above the sky--makes sense if you look at the color and think about the water that sometimes "leaks" through--and that the sun god made his daily journey across the sky in a boat. Therefore, the dead Pharoah would need boats in order for himself and his stuff to join the sun god. The ancient Egyptians were accomplished boat-builders, so they simply made boats and buried them near the burial pyramid for Pharoah's use.

Inside the museum, we saw the recovered and assembled solar boat (named in honor of its function of carrying Pharoah to the sun god). I say that it was assembled because it was found in pieces. Apparently, the ancient Egyptians not only knew how to make boats, but to make them in such a way that they could be stored and transported over land in pieces, then assembled when they were needed. The boat was buried in pieces so that it could be assembled when it was needed by Pharoah in the afterlife. An interesting piece of trivia: when the boat was found, the archaeologists were hesitant to manipulate the pieces to figure out how they fit together, for fear of damaging the ancient wood, so they made miniature models of each piece and used those to figure out the puzzle.

There were a couple of other fascinating things about this boat, in addition to its being found in pieces and being assembled without an instruction manual. There is not a single nail in this boat! Modern metals weren't in use yet, so this entire boat is constructed without it. It's made of wood--cedar believed to be from Lebanon--and rope. The boat literally is tied together! When it was assembled, it was realized that it was not water-tight. How could this be, considering that the ancient Egyptians were very good at building this type of boat? It turns out that the first time the boat hits the water, the wood expands and the rope contracts. So if it's exposed to water in a controlled way, it becomes water-tight without sinking. Fascinating, isn't it?

The other interesting thing about this boat is the oars. They're skinnier than most oars, and they're pointed instead of rounded at the ends. That design is extremely inefficient for paddling through water. However, the ancient Egyptians believed that the heavenly sea was different from earthly seas. I'm not sure what differences in the water they expected that would make these oars efficient for paddling, but Samir told us that they expected vicious sea creatures to attack the boats before they reached the sun god. That's why the oars have pointed tips, so that they can be used to spear the sea creatures.

After we left the museum, we drove by the other two pyramids on the way to an observation point. From there, you could see all three pyramids easily: the Great Pyramid (built for Cheops) and the two smaller ones (built for the son and grandson of Cheops). There was a large overlook, where we took tons of pictures.

Then we followed Gloria to a side area where the camels and their owners were. There's a camel owner that she knows who doesn't charge a set fee for pictures. He knows that he ends up with more money because people like Gloria, who bring groups there often, always go to him. He gets business from several people, who each pay him LE5 or LE10 for a picture of themselves on his camel, and he ends up making more in less time than the other camel owners who spend all their time trying to cajole other tourists to give them LE50 or more for a picture.

Jeff and I had our picture taken on the camel, and it was a strange experience! We got on the camel while he was sitting--no problem so far. Jeff sat behind me while I sat in the front of the saddle. Then it was time for the camel to get up. That's where the problems began. No one had ever told me that seated camels get up onto their back legs first. We were sitting there, just fine, when the camel owner suddenly told me to hold on and lean back. Then the camel stood on his back legs while remaining on his front knees. I almost flipped over the front of the camel! Then, when he did stand all the way up, I felt like I was sliding off the right side of the camel. Jeff insists that we weren't crooked and we weren't sliding, but I'm not so sure I trust his assessment on that one. After a friend took pictures for us, the camel sat back down so we could get off. I again almost flipped off the front of the camel. Meanwhile, the owner is telling me to relax and hold on--all while trying to contain his laughter. I was never so glad to get off an animal in my life! I have decided that I am not interested in a camel-back tour of the pyramids; I'd be willing to ride a horse, but not a camel.

After we were all pictured-out at the observation area, we got back in the vans to go see the Sphinx. Samir told us that the Sphinx was carved out of a single piece of rock. The rock originally was much larger than it is now--huge blocks of it were carved out and used in the pyramids. When the pyramids were completed, there still was a huge slab of rock right in front of the pyramids. This was not acceptable! The ancient Egyptians decided to carve the Sphinx rather than carve out and haul away the remainder of the rock.

The Sphinx depicts Pharoah's head on the body of a lion. Samir asked us what we thought the symbolism meant. Of course, most of us said that the lion represented strength, so the Sphinx is a symbol of Pharoah's strength. We were wrong. As Samir told us several times, you can't understand ancient Egyptian symbology without having at least a basic knowledge of their religion. If they had wanted to symbolize Pharoah's strength, they would have done it by depicting him with a bull's tail, as bulls symbolized strength to them moreso than a lion did. The lion represents divinity, because lions guarded the sun god. By putting Pharoah's head on a lion's body, they were representing Pharoah's connection with the sun god.

One of the most common questions asked about the Sphinx is: What happened to the nose? It obviously isn't there anymore. Most guidebooks say that the nose was shot off by Napoleon's soldiers, who used it as target practice in 1798. Samir disagrees with this belief. He cites Napoleon's respect for antiquities, saying that it wouldn't have been allowed. Also, guns in that time were not particularly accurate, so there would be damage on the rest of the face had anyone back then been shooting at the nose. Finally, he cites a picture that was drawn decades before Napoleon's arrival. This picture shows the Sphinx with no nose. So, then, what did happen to the nose? Samir believes that the Sphinx was damaged intentionally by either Muslim or Christian zealots who wanted to deface the symbol of the older religion to show that it was false. (Online information tends to blame a Muslim sect, but few Egyptian Muslims would concede the point without incontrovertible proof.) As evidence for this theory, he points to apparent chisel marks just above and to the right of the nose. What do you think?

The Sphinx was our last stop for the day. After that, we headed back to Maadi. We were back at the Maadi House by 1pm. Not a bad way to spend a pleasant, breezy morning.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Update on Ungat

Last month, I told you about Ungat, an Egyptian boy who was told by his doctor that he was going blind. You can read the original post here. Well, now it's time for an update.

Many people have been praying for Ungat, and several people have offered or given tangible assistance. Ungat and his family are grateful. They are even more grateful right now to God, who has answered those prayers and magnified the effect of the assistance they've received. You see, there was a possibility that Ungat could be sent to the United States for medical treatment, but the decision was made to seek a second opinion here before that step was taken. Part of the concern was that, in addition to financial issues, there may have been difficulty with visas and other requirements for international travel, so it was likely that any treatment would have to occur here. So Ungat visited a second Egyptian doctor earlier this week, and this doctor gave Ungat a drastically different prognosis. Ungat may not go blind after all.

I'm not a medical expert, and my information is coming second- or third-hand, so bear with me. But this is what I've been told about the latest doctor's visit: Ungat has multiple congenital eye defects. His vision is very poor. His current glasses are adequate, but ideally he would have glasses with transition lenses--that get darker in the sun--in order to protect his eyes as much as possible. (I have not been told that someone is providing these glasses for Ungat, but I'll check on that. I'll be surprised if there aren't already plans to order them.) He needs special treatment at school, including the opportunity to sit at the front of his class. He could use a magnifying glass to help him read his schoolbooks. (One of those is on the way already.) For now, that's enough. There's no need to pull him out of his current school and send him somewhere to learn Braille, as the first doctor recommended.

The pressure in Ungat's eyes needs to be checked regularly. If it gets worse, he'll need special eyedrops to relieve the pressure. For now, treatment isn't necessary. One of the local expats who has been most involved with this family will be in Egypt for the next three years. She's going to continue to be involved with the family at least until that time, and I know that she'll do what she can to make sure Ungat receives all the care he needs.

Ungat is in the best of hands. Not only is he under the care of his loving parents, caring expats, and a medical professional, but he is in God's hands. God already has transformed this situation, and we trust and pray that He will continue to work in Ungat's life.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sham el Nessim

Today is Sham el Nessim (pronounced Sham en-Nessim, due to the colloquial habit of dropping the "l" in "el" when it's followed by certain letters). It's a national holiday in Egypt, neither Coptic nor Muslim. It dates from Ancient Egypt. Interestingly, although it isn't a Coptic holiday, the date of its observance each year is dependent on the Coptic calendar. It's always the Monday after Coptic Easter. Maybe that has something to do with the Copts being the most direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians--at least that's what a tour guide told me once.

Sham el Nessim is the modern descendant of an ancient holiday that celebrated the beginning of the harvest season known as Shemu. "Shemu" refers both to the season and to the idea of "renewal of life." The feast of Shemu was celebrated as early as 2700 B.C. on the vernal equinox, which represented the beginning of creation. During the feast of Shemu, ancient Egyptians offered gifts of salted fish, lettuce, and onions to their gods. The fish symbolized fertility and general welfare. Lettuce represented hopefulness. I'm not sure what onions represented, but apparently they also were stuffed into mummies' eyes and were drawn on the walls of tombs. Some say that they keep away the evil eye. One legend is that the popular son of a Pharoah was cured, after being bed-ridden for years due to evil spirits, because a ripe onion was placed under his head and a sliced onion was placed near him so that he would inhale the fumes.

One interesting tidbit about the ancient celebration of this feast is that it included colored boiled eggs. They symbolized new life and luck. The ancient tradition of dying eggs and hanging them in temples may be one of the antecedents of modern Easter eggs, although there are other ancient celebrations that may have been the more direct inspiration.

Later in Egypt's history, during the time known as the Coptic age, the word "shemu" was corrupted into its current "sham," which means "to breathe or to smell." "El nessim," meaning "the breeze," was added. So "Sham el Nessim" literally means "to breathe or smell the breeze." And since Sham el Nessim marks the traditional beginning of the khamsiin season, it's appropriate. The khamsiin is a dry, hot, dusty wind which usually begins in April, although sometimes in March or May. Traditionally, it begins on Sham el Nessim and ends 49 days later, on the day of Pentecost.

In modern Egypt, Sham el Nessim is a celebration of spring. Traditionally, the celebration starts at daybreak, when families decorate eggs and prepare their food. According to the websites I read, Egyptians still eat the same traditional foods as their ancient ancestors did. They eat fiseekh, a dried and salted fish, usually sardines, mackerel, or anchovies. They also eat boiled eggs, lettuce, scallions or green onions, and lupini beans.

After dying the eggs and preparing their food, many Egyptians head outside. They find a patch of grass in a city park, or they head out into the countryside, or up the Nile, or to the zoo. They spread their blankets and have a picnic. The primary point seems to be spending time outside, "smelling the breeze." Many Cairenes and local expats take off work the day before Sham el Nessim and get out of the city for a long weekend--definitely recommended if you want to spend a lot of time outdoors and actually be able to smell the breeze rather than just the pollution! They go to Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada, Ain Sukhna ... any of the resort/tourist destinations.

Jeff and I don't have any real plans for the day. Because the embassy observes local holidays as well as American ones, Jeff is off work, but we didn't do any traveling this weekend. Jeff worked yesterday. I may see if he wants to go out to the Wadi sometime today. We haven't been out there yet. From what I understand, there's no greenery--it's desert--but it's a little outside of the worst of the pollution. It's a popular place for people to run, walk, bike, or hunt for fossils. So we may go "smell the breeze" there ... or we may just laze around home. We'll see.

In any case, it's a holiday, it's spring, and I hope everyone can enjoy both. I don't know the traditional greeting for this holiday, or even if there is one--I'm taking this semester off from language classes, so there's no teacher to ask--so I can't say whatever I'm supposed to say. Instead, I'll just say this: Happy Sham el Nessim!

Update: We decided against the Wadi idea. Jeff's coworkers have warned him that traffic is horrendous on Sham el Nessim, so we aren't going anywhere that isn't within walking distance.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Maundy Thursday

I arrived at church last night to find a very different scene than usual. Usually, we have our plastic chairs lined up in rows, and the musicians' instruments are set up on the stage. But last night, there were only three musicians instead of the normal seven or so, and their equipment was on the floor in front of the stage. The plastic chairs were gone. In their place were many small, low round tables with wooden bases and metal tops. On each table was a candle, a small bowl of herbs, two large pieces of unleavened bread, and several cups of grape juice--not the little communion cups, but real ones. Not long after we sat down, a plate of mouth-watering lamb was placed on the table as well. There were a few cushions on the ground on which the early arrivers could sit, but most people sat on the ground.

Jeff and I were joined at a table by Karan, the pastor's wife. We were surrounded by other small groups at other small tables. I looked at the bread and the "wine" and knew it was Communion night. But it turned out to be so much more.

During tonight's service, we walked through the original Lord's Supper. The service incorporated Scripture reading, songs, and explanations by our pastor.

We started with the washing of the disciples' feet by Jesus. We listened to one of the Scripture passages about the event. We sang a song, written by Graham Kendrick, about it. The chorus says "This is what I'm asking you to do, this is why I'm kneeling here beside you. This is what I want I want my church to be, this is what I want the world to see: who it is you follow. So love each other, one another, in the way that I have loved you. Walk together, and whatever comes, love each other in in the way that I have loved you." (I probably have a few words off, but that was the idea, anyway.)

Then we talked about what the disciples were celebrating at that Passover meal. So we went back to Exodus. The pastor talked about the sufferings of the Israelites right here in Egypt, probably in the same area where we are now. We sang about Moses going to Pharoah and telling him to "let my people go." We heard about the plagues that occurred when Pharoah refused. We heard the Scriptural account of the final plague, the deaths of the firstborn, and what the Israelites were told to do to avoid falling under this plague themselves. We heard a little about how Jews continue to celebrate Passover, or Seder, with a meal of unleavened bread, the Passover lamb, and bitter herbs to remind them of the Israelites' suffering. We broke off pieces of our unleavened bread, dipped it in the herbs at our tables, and ate it. We ate the lamb provided for us.

Then it was back to the New Testament. We learned how the bread of the Lord's Supper represents more than we commonly consider. We always hear how it represents the body of Christ, broken for us--that's right out of the Bible itself. But according to the Didache, one of the early Christian writings, there is a communal prayer that was said during Communion in the early church. This prayer shows another layer of symbolism. It became clear as we recited that part of the Didache together: "We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever." We also recited together the portions of the Didache that were said prior to the drinking of the cup and after the meal was over.

I have to say that I have never before been to a Maundy Thursday service. I've never been part of a tradition that places much emphasis on it. But I'm so glad that I was able to experience this. There was something indescribably special about sitting in Egypt, celebrating Passover, linking it to the oh-so-familiar practice of the Lord's Supper, especially as we sat at the low tables in a style that is much more similar to what Jesus actually experienced than what we usually experience in pews or rows of chairs. We were under the tent, but we were outdoors, feeling the cool breeze, hearing the sounds of Egypt all around us. I can't express how moving it was.

I don't think this post does justice to what I experienced at this service. Easter sort of snuck up on me this year, without the cultural and social cues that I'm so accustomed to back in the States. I was surprised last week to realize that we were celebrating Palm Sunday--or in our case, Palm Thursday--already. I regret not having celebrated and anticipated the season more. Good Friday and Easter are the most holy days in Christianity, when we remember the awesome sacrifice of the Crucifixion and the awe-inspiring miracle of the Resurrection that jointly prove God's love and provision for us. This service, though not explicitly dealing with either of those events, brought my mind and my heart into focus, with Jesus at the center. And isn't that what any church service is supposed to do?