Wednesday, December 12, 2007

To be a man...

As a part of my current internship, I was given a tall stack of research and policy reports that have been written about the status and progress of women in this country and the Arab world. I haven't read them all that carefully, as they are really quite repetitive and, really, they don't say a whole lot that I didn't already know. Plus, my Arabic is still not what it should be, and about half of the reports were written in Arabic, so that's a bit of a chore.

But yesterday I was working my way through a report on the status of violence against women and women's human rights here in 2004 when I stumbled upon an interesting statistic:

28% of women surveyed wish they had been born male.

The authors added the stipulation that they think it would be more, but likely many of the respondents mistook the question to be asking whether they were happy with what God made them, so they may have assumed that to have said they wished they were male would have been a rejection of God.

So at least 28% of women in this country wish they had been born male?

I found that to be such a shocking statement (I'd never really thought about which gender I'd prefer - being a woman has always seemed to simply be a part of who I am, not better not worse than being a man), that I shared it with with the three women in the room with me (who are from this country). Well, immediately, the senior-most of them said, "Well, I wish I were a man."

So I naturally replied, chin hanging on my chest, "Really?"

And she said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, that she has often wished she were a man.

There is one way in which I will always be a five-year-old: I can't help but ask why. Ever. (Well, unless it seems so incredibly inappropriate that I try to stay quiet and stare at the person in a questioning way that makes it obvious I want to know why; it usually works.) So I asked her why.

She explained to me how everything falls on her. She is the one who needs to make sure her children are fed and that they go to school. She is the one who worries if her son is sick or if her daughter is pestered at school. There are some men who really look out for their wives and families even if hers doesn't; but even so, a woman doesn't have a choice. It all falls on her.

It seemed to me that she was saying that she wishes that she had a choice to not care. So I responded by suggesting that this was because she had the heart of a mother, because it was her heart - not her gender - that kept her plugging away even when a man might give up and just live his life for himself.

But as the conversation went on, as we talked about other rather shameful topics regarding women in this society that are generally kept secret and avoided at all costs... she kept coming back to specific issues facing women. For example, if a marriage is bad - and I mean real bad - a woman doesn't really have a recourse. If her family will help her out, then that's good. Otherwise, what choice does a woman have than to suffer? In cases like these, she says, who could blame a woman for choosing something that is so against her religion... like having an abortion?

Yes, it is right to believe in God, she said, but who's to blame if we fear life?

So... I shouldn't be surprised to hear that sex-change surgeries are actually not uncommon in this region. And I should be encouraged that there are currently a number of projects and discussions underway to provide services, including vocational training, for battered women. It's a new concept that a woman might be able to provide for herself and her children by herself, but an exciting concept it is.

The next day, I asked her directly what she thinks are the biggest needs of the woman in this country, to improve her lot in life. She talked about material and emotional assistance, including training and networking. But what it came down to was: respect.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


When I first came here more than six years ago, it didn't take more than a few hours for the loneliness to set in. When I think of the first six months I lived here, "lonely" is the adjective that sums it up. When I think of the next several months after that, I think of the most fun I ever had in my life. But it was at the same time a very lonely season. Though I made wonderful friends, somehow they didn't seem to fill the void... it was like there was no one who saw and understood my heart.

I remember when I left, I was sad to leave dear friends and a place that had become home, but also hopeful that maybe the loneliness might start to fade as I entered a context where I might be a bit more normal... or something like that. I didn't know what to look for, I just knew that I wanted to get rid of that nagging loneliness in my heart.

The loneliness did eventually fade, though it took several transitions, travels, and groups of friends before it went. But the feeling of being alone has stayed. I'm not sure if the distinction is clear. As far as I know, in Arabic there are no two different words to differentiate between feeling lonely and alone. I can handle being alone, though I don't like it and don't want to be alone, but loneliness is much harder for me to bear - it's something to flee.

So now I'm back here, and something I really did not anticipate has happened. I find myself everyday wishing there were a way that I could stay here, move here more permanently. Sometimes praying for such a way to open up, and other times just sad that I'll be leaving soon. But whenever I think about this (which is a lot), I remember the loneliness. This is a society where everybody has his/her place, and that place is almost always, I mean virtually really always, in family. A person without family is an anomaly... especially a woman without family. Though it's of course quite complicated, at the root of it all, this is main reason why I can't stay. And when my friends here ask me why don't I stay, this is the answer I give them and they immediately agree. I'm not making it up. Aloneness is the worst fate someone here can imagine, I guess you could say. (For some of my friends that's the end of the conversation, others embark on a matchmaking crusade, and others offer to be my family - although they quickly acknowledge that it's not the same.)

Anyway, so part of my loneliness here has been related to not having my place. During the last month and a half since I arrived this time, I haven't been all that lonely, though I've felt more alone than ever. I am realising what wonderful, amazing friends I have here. But they don't know each other, they're not a cohesive network of their own: I find myself just wishing I had my "group". On a deeper level, they know me well and we understand each other well, but I have this sense that I don't know anyone at all here who shares my heart: my spiritual values, and my priorities in life. I have no "brothers" and "sisters" in that sense. None at all. Like I said, alone isn't great but it's ok - I can even handle being without the family providing my place in the social structure. But loneliness... to be without any spiritual family... that's a bigger problem.

But believe it or not, this blog is not about me! Because pondering all of this has led me to a realisation that I've been completely blind to over all these years coming and going from this dear place. I guess you could say I am only now actually getting how deep the chasm is between alone and lonely. Because I have now seen that this is a very lonely place. My friends, at least most of them, are more lonely than I've ever been here! None of them are alone, true, but wow, are they lonely. I don't think they realise it, because in a sense they've never known what it could be like to not be lonely, but I hear how they live and how they think. Sometimes they tell me things that they won't tell each other, because I am alone - I'm not connected to anything, so in a sense I'm safe... and the things they confide in me express such a deep and agonising loneliness that I can't even begin to fathom.

For example, a few weeks ago I had a bit of a nervous breakdown and had a several-hours long crying session. Those who saw me crying were horrified, and told me that they never let people see their emotions; it's important to seem strong. Since then, I've taken closer note of how people act strong, and sure enough, emotion is not very often genuine.

There is a lot of emotion, don't take me wrong! As I'm now trying to pay closer attention to social interactions, though, it seems more and more like an act. The fact that everyone has a place in society means that everyone has a role to play. If I'm connected with this family, and I'm related to this person in that way, then I have to act like people expect that person to act. In a sense, to avoid aloneness, people have to embrace loneliness. They can't give up their reputation for anything. Too many people act happy when they're supposed to act happy, not when they're happy. They are friendly when they are supposed to be chatty, not because they have any interest at all in the people they're meeting. People go to nice restaurants because it looks good, not because they like the food or atmosphere. And so on and so forth. This is so built in to the culture, it seems to me, that few people are even necessarily aware that this is what they're doing.

There are so many lies that are being told that one would be an idiot to believe anything anyone told them! (I admit that I still do, though, but not as readily as I used to... which is sad.) How can you ever hope to have an honest conversation with someone when lying has become such a fabric of your way of conversing? I'd say about half the lies are out of politeness (It's totally on my way to pick you up.), but the other half are just plain old lies (We couldn't cook so-and-so for supper because we didn't have any such-and-such.). People spend hours and hours hanging out with family members, enjoying each other's company. It's a beautiful thing. But they can't share their hearts with each other, they just lie.

It doesn't seem that people here have a sense that they're lonely. But I'm feeling like this is a place where people have tasted that boxed and preserved orange juice which is good enough, I guess. But they have no idea that fresh-squeezed orange juice exists, much less how good orange juice could taste. But to taste the fresh-squeezed stuff, they'd have to give up a few boxes of the preserved stuff. Why give up something they like for the unknown? Would they be willing to brave a bit of alone-ness to experience relief for their loneliness?

Friday, November 16, 2007


This city's entire landscape seems to have changed due to a recent influx of refugees here. Since the time I lived here, a lot has changed, and the biggest changes seem to be connected to the refugees. There's a general sense of bitterness against these millions of newcomers to the country whose arrival has not been overall helpful to the nation's economy.

However, I was quite pleased to learn that one of my dear friends has dedicated her life to finding ways to help them. I'm so impressed with what she's doing that I've been helping her out during my free time, which has so far mostly meant being a substitute English teacher at the school she has started for them (very few of the children are given spots in the local schools), and accompanying her on some family visits. I've been so impressed by this disanfranchised segment of the population, and here are some reasons...

- The children really are children - they're not too proud or jaded to show it. Last week we took the students on a field trip to the local zoo. The bus was overcrowded (more than two people per seat) and we got there 15 minutes before the zoo closed, but the kids were not daunted. As we rushed around taking in the animals, they ran from one cage to another, eagerly and obediently taking one look and then running to the next. Then after we'd seen the animals, there was a playground. I doubt you have ever seen such a large group of children so excited to slide down a slide. There was a queue of about 15 kids at a time, just for a quick roll down the slide - ranging in age from 5 to 15.
I don't know how many of these children really had a childhood - I do know that many of them have been busy fleeing their country and moving around for the last few years. It was so refreshing to see these kids who thought the simplest of diversions really was exciting. Not everyone was happy with the bus conditions or the choice of a zoo for our field trip, but everyone was determined to have a good time.

- The smallest things do not get these kids down. At the school, classroom conditions are awful. It's one room the size of a double bedroom in which two classes meet at a time. Twice now, I've been given responsibility for two combined classes of 30 boys total, 9-13 years old. It's crowded, they don't all have seats or pens, and I'd think something was wrong if I could actually keep them all under control! Sure enough, I've had to dig deep to my past as a teacher to keep enough discipline in the class to do anything productive at all!
Today I think class was quite boring and unproductive as most of the time was spent in discipline and kicking boys out of the room. Now, I'm just sub-teaching and there's not a curriculum set up yet, so keep in mind I had no idea what I was supposed to be teaching, beyond "English" - oh, and they're all at different levels! Ok, I'm trying to convey how unlikely it seemed to me that anyone would actually learn anything.
But the thing is that they still tried to learn. They weren't mad at me for long when I kicked them out. They came back obediently and tried again. Their biggest discipline problem was that they couldn't stay in their seats because they wanted me to call on them. And then afterwards, when I passed some of them in the street, they all greeted me in the sweet enthusiasm of boys. I'm just in a bit of shock, I think, at these pre-teen boys who seem to WANT to go to school (on the weekend, no less)!

- Refugees, it seems to me, are people who speak of the worst things in the most everyday of terms. They're the people who save pictures of a family member who was tortured to death, and tell the story with great pain, but convey it as something that happened and now it's time to move on... Last week one woman told me of her three brothers and her nephew who were killed, how everyone in the family had abandoned her and her nieces/nephews, leaving her with the responsibility for raising 9 children. Another girl told me that her brother was killed as they were traveling. Another girl told me that her father and uncles were all shot, but the bullet went in one side of her father's face and out the other, so he survived. They told me these things in the same matter-of-fact tone I'm writing it here. They all have suffered so much, but there seems to be a sense that there's no point dwelling on it, it's better to move forward. There are, of course, many who also don't seem to be pulling out of their past. In fact, my friend is concluding that the biggest need in this community is for psychological counseling (a type of training sorely lacking in this part of the world).

- Many of these refugees are highly committed to dignity. In general, I've been very impressed by their cultural background, how they place such high value on education and development. Even when they're struggling to put food on the table, they still make the effort to dress nicely, to make their beds comfortable, to treat guests honourably.
I've also heard some absolutely horrifying stories of others who are not acting with dignity at all. I've learned of families who are selling their daughters for money, for example, but there is so much shame in that it doesn't surprise me that I haven't met them myself yet! I think I'm trying to get my head around the fact that fleeing one's countries can bring out the best in some people and the worst in others - and I mean a really amazing best and a truly horrifying worst.

- Most of the girls I've met have two favourite places: the place they are from and the place they dream of moving to. They simultaneously live in the past and in the future, but much less in the present.

- Many of the boys and men are unable to work legally to support their families, but in the neighbourhood, where the school is located and where many refugees live, there are two layers of stores: the official ones in real buildings, and the informal economy, stands lining the streets. There are boys selling cigarettes, men selling pickled products and sweets (I assume their wives cooked these treats at home for the men to come out and sell), people polishing shoes... demonstrating economic resourcefulness. I doubt they are making much, but they are trying, and how can one not respect that?

Well, these are some of my observations from the past few weeks. Sometimes it's been hard to keep from crying when I hear the stories, and I want to learn as much as possible while I'm here, but I also feel there must be some way to help. How can I see such suffering and not do anything? Sometimes, I think it paralyzes me - since I can't solve everyone's problems I won't even try to do anything. My friend has had the opposite reaction, and I worry she is doing herself harm by spending so much time working to help them. I still have not come to grips with this question, and don't know if I ever will.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

a wedding

I just came back from a most unusual wedding experience. I'm currently in a Middle Eastern country that apparently is best left unnamed, at least as long as I'm here, but many of you will know where I am when I tell you that I feel like I've returned home.

Anyway, I'm staying in a town that is a suburb of the capital, but it can't have been too long ago that it was just another village. It still has the feel of a village, but with a lot of traffic. And quite a few city people are now mixed in with the village people. There is a Christian section to the town, so I don't stick out too much - otherwise I would, because it's a conservative area where all the Muslim women are quite conservatively dressed. The Christian women, on the other hand, dress modestly but in very Western dress.

So being a wedding of a member of "the family of this village" (the way we say here someone who is originally from this village, not just living here), it was a rather conservative wedding. I was the only woman who walked into the room uncovered - hence putting me in the same category as the dozens and dozens of little kids in attendance. Several of the younger women removed their headscarfs as soon as they walked in, revealing quite impressive hairdos beneath. But I'd never been to a wedding where so many of the women remained in traditional dress and apparently were not dressed up, even though we were in an all-women's wedding hall! Even the woman who was videotaping the wedding wore a headscarf throughout the evening, even though she was smoking a cigarette.

There were some other things that really struck me about the women at this party. There were many women wearing what looked like very simple clothing, not suitable for a party unless they were very poor. Some of them may have been poor, but apparently that dress was the traditional dress of this particular village. It was interesting to think that a village that has now become a suburb of a capital city has managed to maintain its identity and customs despite its absorption into the big city.

I was also struck by how many fair-skinned women there were, and even several blondes - natural blondes. I'd heard that this was the case, but hadn't really seen it before then: people who are from this area, like really from this area dating back generations, are often fair-skinned. It kind of puts a new twist on the common mantra that a blond depiction of Jesus is inaccurate! Who knows, maybe he was blond... As I sat there watching all the conservatively-dressed women, as well as the few who were in full party dress, I tried to imagine life in this village 100 years ago (or 1000 years ago?! They say that a famous New Testament story happened in this town): all these blondes walking around in black robes and big white scarfs...

The bride arrived, but before she walked in, some boys pushed in a very big and heavy suitcase - it seemed to me that it was kind of a big ugly thing to have at a wedding. Camera equipment, I wondered? Or perhaps decorations? Or perhaps connected to some tradition about taking her possessions to her new home? Wrong on all counts. It was an unknown number of dresses that she had made herself, and she would present herself in each one during the evening. These were some fancy dresses - I wondered how long her engagement was (most people I know here have somewhat short engagements) for her to have time to sew all these dresses, plus prepare for her new married life! She entered the hall in white and changed into pink, then red, then peach-coloured. That's all I saw before I left, but it made for an interesting party: she'd enter in a dress, dance for half a song on the stage, do a few poses for the camerawoman, then go to a side room to change. And we could barely see the stage, so it wasn't the most exciting entertainment I'd had at a wedding.

Which brings me to the thing that left me scratching my head. I was with the mother and daughter of the family with whom I'm living right now. A bit after us a neighbour and her daughter came in and we sat together, amidst a very tight crowd of very hardy women (my phone rang and they were not about to budge to let me out of the hall to answer it, but the music was way too loud to do any good while I was in the hall!). Anyway so the five of us kind of stuck together and the four of them kept exchanging comments and laughing out loud. Everyone else was looking rather solemn but not my companions!

Then, right as the bride was parading her peach dress, we left. Stood up and left (people were still arriving - after all, the groom couldn't come until she was done changing dresses, so we knew the party hadn't yet peaked) and they walked out giggling. I had no idea what it was about, between language difficulties and the volume of the music. When we got to the car I found out it was because they felt somewhat disgraced and were mocking the whole thing. They were thirsty and no one brought water. We'd been there about two hours and hadn't been offered anything to eat. And they didn't seem so impressed with the appearance of the other women, either. So all that laughing was scorn for the wedding itself, apparently! I am wondering how much of a snub it was for us to walk out when and how we did. And what a normal-respectable wedding in this village is like. And how many more dresses the bride had...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dignity in the Philippines

There is no word in Tagalog for "dignity", I learned, but I saw it during my time in the Philippines. My time there was filled with snapshot images of human dignity.

I was visiting dear friends who have worked and lived in a "railway communities" for the past several years. Manila's main rail line has been the site of a long string of slums, squatter homes built in the intended buffer zone between where trains run and what the government considers a safe distance. These homes are built right up to where the trains run (at least once an hour on average, it seems) and children play on the rail lines while adults use the space for a variety of purposes, jumping off just in time for the train to come through, then smoothly returning to their walks or games or visits.

Since I couldn't speak the language, I think my senses for other types of input were heightened. I noticed smiles, conversations, children's games and so many other things that were just a part of regular human life. I saw people who live in material poverty but who have this sense that their lives, and the lives of their children, are valuable. They took good care of their children, kept them from the bad kids and made sure they were safe when the train rumbled through. They found creative ways to keep clean when there was no running water for four days and who swept the dust away even when it seemed like a futile endeavour. They welcomed me with a smile and took it upon themselves to ensure that I was well-fed, even though they didn't necessarily have enough food for their own families. They were courageous, took leadership and initiative, and were a testimony to moving forward in life even if physical limitations are daunting.

This is an expression of dignity I have seen elsewhere. Many Middle Eastern shopkeepers rinse the ground in front of their stores with water every morning, with the seemingly-pointless hope of keeping the dust down. I've seen parents who, though they have so little and humbly consider themselves to know little, look after their children with such care, keep themselves and their homes clean, and go so far out of their way to provide me with a simple token of kindness. I think of my friends who give me about 10 kisses on the cheek in greeting and make sure my plate of food is full.

Not everyone had this elusive yet beautiful quality about them. In Manila I also saw people who do not seem to have that sense that their lives have value. In the railway community, I was told of people who pick pockets and deal in underhanded markets for a living, but only do so when they need the money - the idea of a regular job is difficult for them to handle, because they get so much less money for so much more effort. There were men with wife and child who were not working to support them. There were women who spent all day smoking and gambling and who did not often bother to notice if their children were close to the tracks when the train came through.

I've certainly met people without this sense of dignity elsewhere as well. Often, it seems that it's the people whose lives are most physically comfortable who somehow neglect care and courage and responsibility in everyday life. When I was an Arabic student, there were many girls with a listless attitude about life, similar to that of the smoking and gambling women in Manila: they often just sat around and smoked all day, and didn't assume their responsibilities to study, clean or look out for each other. Those were usually the students with special status because of the location of their village or of their ethnic background: it's like they had earned without deserving and so didn't learn to deserve.

So during my four days in Manila I was reminded of some basic truths. That all of humanity shares a common nature, and that values are often much less rooted in culture or location than they are in what is taught and believed about priorities and human worth. That material poverty is a tragedy and should be worked against, but true poverty and wealth are to be found in the heart. That I have so very much to learn from people who are different from me, often less privileged than me, so I need to keep reminding myself to be humble and to seek to learn.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


I am well aware that it's been a full month since my last post. I guess it's been a rather busy month, as I submitted my doctoral thesis (woohoo!), moved out of Bristol (into storage), attended conferences in Finland and Singapore (where I am right now) and turned 30. Oh and I've begun looking for jobs. Hmm, not much time left over for formulating complete thoughts. But, as usual, loads of partial thought-processing. This month I have been pondering quite a bit the issue of ethics, so I am going to try to flesh out my thoughts here a little bit.

The ethical question that seems to keep coming up in conversations is that of standards. What standard should I be seeking to uphold ethically? In an academic sociology program, I have been taught a strict set of ethical guidelines for conducting social research. But when I attend events with Christians in ministry, those ethical guidelines are frequently dismissed as irrelevant. Their argument is that these are academic standards and non-academics are not required to follow them. And when talking about work outside of the U.S. or Europe, even less so, as there are almost no ethical rules to be enforced.

For example: if I take a picture of a stranger on the street and want to use it in a brochure or newsletter or website. According to academic ethical standards I would not publish that picture without the person's permission. According to U.S./European legal standards, I would not publish that picture without the person's permission unless I was sure that s/he simply blended into a crowd. According to most other countries' rules, it's probably alright for me to use the picture and even if it weren't allowed unlikely anyone would care. And it seems that Christians have numerous reasons why they think it's ok to use the picture and often do.

Until recently I would have used the picture, but I'm not so sure I would anymore. I think that's because, now that I've learned the rules that some people live by, I feel I should demonstrate a commitment to the highest of moral standards. I've always believed that high moral standards are an important testimony to all that is good in my relationship with Christ. So I try to stick to high ethical standards for the same reason as I try to dress decently and behave respectfully, because I know such things illustrate commitment to high moral standards.

Another example is "informed consent", something we are required to obtain when conducting research in academia. When interviewing someone or even observing him/her (not necessarily in a purely public context where one just blends into a crowd of people), that person has the right to know what I'm doing and why, and to choose not to participate. Legally (in U.S. and Europe), apparently the person has those same rights but might not be told "why" until after the participation is over. Elsewhere there are unlikely to be any such laws. But when I did my MA in Lebanon I was told that informed consent was important even in Middle Eastern academia.

In Christian circles this is not always considered the standard. Now, to be fair, journalists are famed for not using informed consent as a standard, either - hiding cameras and voice recorders or using "off-the-record" interviews in reports are the kind of thing that journalists seem to often do. But then don't we see those things as sleazy techniques?

OK, but on the other hand, I am often reminded that all rules are culturally-specific. The role of photos, who is portrayed in them, the obligation to be (or not to be) brutally honest with people - these are things that vary significantly from culture to culture. Especially honesty; in a lot of places a confrontational/brutal type of honesty is considered disrespectful, not admirable. Are academic ethical rules culturally-bound? In that case, they deserve to be disregarded when inappropriate.

I don't think they are culturally-bound. I think they are based on a foundation of basic respect for the dignity of each human being. Why informed consent? Because that person has autonomy over his/her person - not me. Why the limitations on the publication of photos? Same reason. In some cultures, autonomy is not an individual concept - it's the person's family that shares ownership of all of its members. But it's still not me, the outsider, who has the right to make his/her decisions. But maybe it's not that simple either.

What about the question of doing ultimate good? A lot of ethically-questionable decisions are justified because they are working toward an ultimate good. For example, I use that photo to pray for the person in the photo. I don't tell the person I'm observing or interviewing that I'm researching him/her, but it's ok because I will use what I learn to help him/her. So far, I'm not comfortable with this either; it seems to me that the person should still be included. But what if s/he doesn't accept prayer, or what if s/he thinks that the way I'll help him/her is actually unhelpful? Wow, that's a hard one.

Prayer is a thing that happens in the heart usually between me and God, so, picture or no picture, I may pray for that person anyway. In a sense, it's too arbitrary to ask someone's permission to pray for him/her - it's like asking for permission to think about someone. When we step into a public place we make ourselves vulnerable to the thoughts of anyone who encounters us there. But it is not so easy to know when it's ok (or not) to share that person's photo with others.

To address the question of "covert" research which will later used to help those being studied, let's use a benign example of a type of "help". Let's say that, based on the research I do, I open a community centre to provide food for children after school. Few people will find that unhelpful, but what if the people I researched don't want a community centre providing after-school nutrition? Did they not at least have the right to know that I was intentionally looking for a way to "help" them when I did the interview or observation?

As usual, I have come up with more questions than answers, but so far I have been able to bring all these questions under the umbrella of one single question: "If the person involved knew what I was doing, how would s/he feel about it?" If s/he wouldn't care if I told him/her, then it's probably ok. If s/he would feel abused then maybe I shouldn't do it. Or maybe I should explain to him/her my values such that s/he would appreciate my action. Any thoughts or advice as I continue to consider this??

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Egypt musings

I just spent 10 lovely days in Egypt, visiting with friends... doing some teaching, networking and consulting... and then joining in with an official tour group where we were given a more sanitised view of the country (pyramids and pharaohs and stuff). Our first full day there was the beginning Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Whenever I've been in the Middle East during Ramadan, it's been memorable. In Egypt, life is especially unique during this special season, so we had an interesting time. I thought I'd share here some vignettes of our Egyptian Ramadan experience.

- Muslim fasting is very different from the types of fasting I grew up with. Besides the fact that it goes on for a month non-stop (although there are a few exceptions, and many Muslims do extra fasts at other times in the year), it involves spurts of extremes. During daylight hours, no eating, no drinking, no smoking, no self-gratification of any sort. No brushing teeth or spitting, if you're really serious! Then when the sun sets, feasts and parties, big special meals shared by families and friends. And restaurants have special “break-fast” meals.

During our visit, the fast ended at roughly 6:00 p.m. each evening. Our first few days in Cairo, my parents and I managed to be out on the streets every evening at that time. They were completely vacant - except for some other foreigners and a few other people rushing to break the fast. We also passed several restaurants that had set up tables on the streets to serve food to the needy, and by 5:30 those tables were full of people patiently sitting there waiting until the mosques announced it was time to eat.

The neat thing about this was that Ramadan is meant to be a time of community and sharing. So every evening at the break-fast hour, we were offered dates by people we passed on the streets: even if we hadn't been fasting with them all day, we found ourselves breaking the fast with the rest of Cairo. One day, we wandered over to a restaurant that had a special break-fast meal and broke the fast there. It was an incredible amount of delicious food. You always start with dates, then usually soup, then lots of other good food! There are also special Ramadan sweets that are usually served only during this month. I was especially impressed by the speed of the meal. At 5:59, all the tables were covered with food, and people were patiently waiting to eat. At 6:30, we were the only customers left in the restaurant!

- Besides hunger motivating a rapid meal, people have places to be after eating. Daytime business hours are cut short and the time is often compensated at night. Some places don't open during the day at all, which is good because I did worry for the few that were doing manual labour in Egyptian desert heat but not even sipping water! But at night, I passed factories busy at midnight, stores and offices bustling with activity, construction workers hard at their projects, students running to and from lessons...

Ramadan is an important shopping season, since during the 3-day festival which marks the end of Ramadan, children are given new clothes and other gifts. We decided to join in the Ramadan shopping frenzy one night and my parents bought me a new blouse. The blouse is cute, but I think we really bought it more because of the 6 sales girls watching this foreigner checking out the Egyptian wardrobe. Egyptians often found it funny that I speak Arabic but not their type of Arabic – my Syrian-Portuguese-English accent is not one they usually hear! So the girls were talking with me, slowly, trying out some Syrian slang on me, and they were very eager to find me something I liked. They pointed me to the mirror, rummaged around to find the perfect colour, and flattered me to no end. I just didn't want to disappoint them by walking out empty handed. As I left with my new clothing, six Egyptian girls were smiling and wishing us a happy Ramadan.

- The daylight hours often end up being spent entirely in preparation for the nighttime hours. Shopping for food and cooking it, sleeping in anticipation of a busy night, getting to where one needs to be in order to break the fast with family or friends. Add to this hot weather, hunger and thirst, and the daylight hours in Cairo were filled with a sense of urgency. Many of my Arab friends have told me that Ramadan is their favourite time of year, a time of joy, goodwill, family unity, and heightened spirituality. I do believe this is true for many, but it is also has its share of irritability and grumpiness.

Members of our group witnessed quite a few car accidents and street fights (no actual blows thrown, but lots of grabbing, pushing, and loads of shouting!). We saw a man on the street, apparently a pedestrian knocked over by a car which then abandoned him. This was right around 6:00. The good thing was that apparently about a dozen men took it upon themselves to divert and direct traffic, call the authorities, and look after the man.

Crossing streets during Ramadan, especially during the hour or so before the break-fast, is a sport for thrill-seekers, that's for sure! Or really good practice for an athlete needing to work on sprinting. One afternoon, we caught a taxi across town at 4:30. Our driver was apparently very hungry and eager to get somewhere for a big home-cooked meal, because I have never, ever, ever experienced such a fast taxi ride. Cairo's a huge city, and this route would usually take about ½ an hour in light traffic. Well, he did it in 15 minutes, pre-break-fast traffic (i.e. the king of rush hours). He swung around cars moving not quite fast enough, created lanes where I didn't think he'd fit, sped up to pass pedestrians before their path crossed his, and drove probably 80 miles-an-hour through an urban tunnel... It was a miracle we arrived in one pace, but I figure it was cheaper than a roller coaster ride with the same thrill. Anyway, I was impressed by his Formula1 driving skill.

- And a few other little experiences that might not have been specific to Ramadan... Poverty is getting pretty bad in Cairo these days and there were hundreds of women selling little packs of tissues to try to scratch out a living. Some of them were too elderly to even stand, sitting on a streetside with a pile of tissues; others were trying to make a sale while comforting a baby in their arms. I decided that tissue-purchases in Egypt can be precious. The first woman we bought from shook my hand and kissed it and wished blessings upon me. Then a block later there was another woman selling tissues, and it was hard to walk by her and not buy anything.

In a tourist town the other day, two boys came up to me and said hello in English. I responded in Arabic and they walked alongside me for about 10 minutes chatting away. They told me their names and asked for some money. I didn't have any money but they kept asking. So I asked them where were their parents? Here in town. Were they brothers? Yes, please, madam, give us money. Do they go to school? Actually, our father has traveled. Traveled where? To America. Oh, if your father's in America, you don't need any money! No, madam, he doesn't send us anything. I'm sorry, I wish I could help but I don't have anything. Our mother is also gone... yes, we sleep on the street, please madam, give us money... And so on for 10 minutes. Was their story true? Well, as it kept growing, I kind of doubt it, but I was struck by the place in the Bible where it says if someone asks you for help and you just say “God bless you and be on your way,” you're not really helping them. I felt I was doing that, but had no idea what else to do.

Maybe that summarises my time in Egypt: it's a needy country but I feel unable to say more than “I'll pray for you, God bless you” and go off on my way.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Jesus and Islam, Part 2

In my last post, I talked about how Western Christians might think about Arab Muslims, focusing on the socio-political issues. Today I want to address another question that keeps coming up in discussions of Christian-Muslim relations: Are Christians and Muslims spiritual brothers-sisters, or enemies?

This is a very complicated question, which I can't really even start to answer in one blog posting. There here have been libraries-full of books written on the topic, by people who know theology and Islamic history and Christian history and other related topics much better than me. Two books that come to mind immediately are: Building Bridges, by Fouad Accad, written from a Christian perspective, and The Muslim Jesus, by Tarif Khalidi, from a more Muslim perspective. Both are Lebanese authors, but a bit more accessible than some of the really technical-academic books I've had to read!

It does generally seem that the more knowledgeable a person becomes on the subject from an academic perspective, usually s/he is increasingly inclined to see commonalities and promote reconciliation. Many well-versed and respected Christian theologians who have worked with Muslims have gone to great pains to explain our shared spiritual heritage and explore ways to build a relationship based on that. Many respected Muslim scholars have promoted interfaith dialogue and argued that the true Islam is in fact little more than “an improvement” on Christianity. Perhaps because knowledge promotes tolerance, or perhaps it's just because it's politically correct... but those religious leaders, of both religions, who speak about a "clash" or who focus on our differences are generally seen by “true” scholars as bigoted, close-minded, and ignorant.

The parallels are pretty amazing. For example, Muslims are often fascinated and thrilled by stories of Jesus, the son of a virgin, who performed amazing miracles. Christians are often interested to learn that Muslims believe in the virgin birth and a sinless Jesus, in most of the same Old Testament figures, and in fact celebrate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son (although to Muslims it was Ishmael and to Christians it was Isaac) as the biggest holiday of the year.

I must admit that, the more I have studied Christian-Muslim relations, the more I see the commonalities and less the differences. I am concluding that to stay faithful to my Christian faith I need to give Islam a lot of credit, because our differences are less in doctrine than they are in a sense of ultimate spiritual reality – something far less tangible than political-religious dialogue can express.

But I have spent a lot of time with people, and reading about people, who have rejected one faith for the other. It is the accounts of people who have rejected a religion that reminds me that those seemingly bigoted religious leaders are in touch with a reality that us scholars may have forgotten about in our ivory towers. Religious converts are usually well-read, analytical people. If they found the differences significant enough to switch faiths, then they shouldn't be shrugged off! They see those differences as partially theological/doctrinal/structural. But I think many converts change faith on the basis of something deeper and more encompassing than that. For example, in accounts of conversion from Islam to Christianity, I found that one of the most common reasons for people to choose to change allegiance was that they found a Jesus who loved them, and that they had a supernatural sense of a relationship with Jesus. The thing that was hardest for them to accept but most appealing once they did, was the understanding that the Jesus who was touching them personally is more than just a prophet; he's God. That's surely one of the most significant doctrinal differences, but it reflects on a deeper soul-touching reality.

So how do I approach Muslim-Christian faith-based dialogue? I find that the similarities are astounding and exciting, and something we should be able to build on to form relationships and dialogue with people of another religion. However, we shouldn't let “interfaith dialogue” water down our beliefs; instead, I think it should help separate what is essential about my faith with the things that are good, but normal enough to be just like another faith! I have found that acknowledging the similarities has helped me to love my Jesus more, not less, and has helped me to be more passionate about explaining my faith to Muslims.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Jesus and Islam, part 1

In this entry I am going to attempt an answer to a question which seems to have been a theme of my time in the U.S. The media has been saying a lot about Arabs and Muslims for several years now, and people seem to be getting two contradictory messages: Islam is a religion of peace, and Muslims support extremism and terrorism. I recently watched a documentary that was apparently arguing both things at the same time!

So the question underlying many conversations I've had is: Are they the enemy? Specifically, do Arab Muslims want to kill "us", or do they wish that they could become just like "us"? Yes and no, and neither.

I need to start answering this question from the unique perspective of a Christian who believes that my relationship with Jesus is the defining factor of my life. If you share that with me, this paragraph is for you. Islam is not the enemy. Yes, Islam and Christianity do stand in direct opposition to each other in many ways: both are religions which believe the world would be better off if all people followed them. But my understanding of my faith is that Christ is bigger than a religion and as such it is wrong to think that another religion can be the enemy. The enemy is evil, and forces of evil. Yes, evil has used Islam a lot, but that's not the same. In fact, Christianity has unfortunately been used for evil many times as well. I think we Christians often make the mistake of thinking if we can just defeat Islam, the world will be better for Christianity, but evil will always find something to use against Christianity.

But what about the geopolitical perspective? Is Islam the enemy of democracy and the freedom we enshrine in the West? Are Arabs, or extremist Muslims, the enemy of Americans? Even in phrasing these questions, I am reminded of an important distinction. On one hand we have American patriotism, which entails a certain type of reverence: for example, never dishonour the flag in any way... pledge loyalty to country on a daily basis... etc. On the other hand, as a Christian, I remember being taught as a child that the Bible keeps its meaning and power even if it's stomped on, burned, etc. I've always been taught that my faith is something a bit more intangible than patriotism. So here's the thing: Muslim faith generally looks a lot more like American patriotism than like American Christianity. It is extremely tangible, expressed in daily rituals and extreme reverence for the Qur'an. So those politicians and political commentators who see Islam, especially groups that are extremely fanatical about Islam, as enemies of the United States, are onto something.

With these things in mind, I want to ask to you to imagine yourself in the shoes of an Arab Muslim. Let's say you're a Jordanian who has several Palestinian neighbours. Those Palestinians have been living in your building since before you were born, and there's no sign they'll be leaving anytime soon. After all, an Israeli family now lives in their family's ancestral home. Your grandparents tell you stories of how your neighbourhood used to be spacious with lots of trees, but now it's crowded because of all the Palestinians. In the past 15 years it's become even more crowded, and the poverty is even more visible, because a few blocks away is a new Iraqi refugee camp - when America invaded they had to flee and your country was one of few who accepted them. You're unemployed because the economy isn't doing so well; you tried to apply for a visa to work in Germany where you have relatives but were refused; they thought you might be connected with terrorists and, plus, it's hard for people from developing countries to get visas to Europe. When you went to school, there were several Christians; they were mostly middle-upper class, and your classmates told you all kinds of awful tales about them, including how they get money from Europe. After class you used to hang out near an upscale shopping mall. Of course you couldn't afford anything there, but you saw rich kids coming in and out - those were the ones who got rich from selling oil to America. So it seems that everything that happens in your country is related to America or Europe. The wealth is there, but in the hands of the elite, hand-picked by America. The poverty is worse, and it's because of America to the East, and Israel (which everyone knows is supported by America and its friends) to the West. You know that Christianity is an inferior religion but Christians seem to be protected because they have European connections.

I'm not saying any of this is true, but nor am I saying it's all made-up. What I am saying is that this is how many Arabs feel. Live a whole life in that reality, and you are going to feel that the United States and Europe and Christians are attacking you! Your government does nothing, just bends over to appease the very countries who have made your life miserable - it seems your government has sold itself to the devil! So you meet someone who is a part of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hizbollah, or Hamas, or al-Quaeda. This person tells you about how if you join them you can not only live your religion to the fullest, but you can also defend yourself against those Western countries and show that your religion really is the better one. Can you see the appeal? Or perhaps you just hear about such groups by watching the news on TV and it seems you have three choices: you don't care, you support America and Europe (remember, all the bad stuff in your life is their fault), or you support the terrorists. Which one will seem like the right choice?

So are Arab Muslims the enemy? Well, in some ways, yes. But they're the enemy largely because they feel attacked. Because America has all the money and military power and is busy shaming them in every way imaginable. They look to groups that we call terrorists to provide them a bit of dignity and a way to fight back. Do they hate us? Well, in some ways, yes. Because it seems like we stand for all the things that have hurt them.

I feel like I should give here some recommendations for what we should do if we accept this perspective, but I'll save that for a later post. Feel free to make your suggestions here; I'd like to hear them!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Faith and Sociology

Last week I was honoured with an invitation to speak at the Johns Hopkins Graduate Christian Fellowship (it was very special for me to be invited back into the midst of JHU students, even if grad students are a slightly different breed from what I was as an undergrad there). Over the summer they have been doing a series on the intersection of faith and the various academic disciplines. As a sociologist of religion, this is something I have certainly thought about a lot, so it was great getting a chance to think through that in such a way that I could explain it to others. I was given 9 questions to address, and now I'm sharing my answers with you...

1. What is your academic discipline and sub-discipline? Sociology: specifically, of religion, focus on Middle Eastern community and religious identity

2. What are the related academic disciplines? This varies depending on the specific type of sociology; for me: Anthropology, Psychology, Policy Studies, Law, Theology.
I made a list of themes that sociology has most frequently addressed as a discipline, to give an idea of how everyday, wide-reaching, and controversial it is: gender, feminism, globalisation, modernisation, religion, social control, governance, social exclusion, mental health, education, urbanisation, geography, crime, social class, inequality, poverty, institutions, migration, race and ethnicity, aging, motherhood, other life transitions, policy and government, national identity, religious identity, ethnic identity, other types of identity, work and employment, and sexuality.

3. What tenets, theories and models of the subject matter enjoy widespread adoption by practitioners of this discipline? (oops - when I got to this question, I panicked! I couldn't think of anything - so am I a real sociologist? I went to university bookstore, found the intro to sociology textbooks, and re-read them.) I chose to focus on the themes that most affected my own research.
First, the "founding fathers" of sociology spent a disproportionate amount of time and energy analysing religion. Basically, I'd say that they were trying to answer the question, "Why would people be so stupid as to follow a religion?" Yes, that's how Sociology as an academic discipline got started.
The first big name that comes to mind is Karl Marx. One of sociology's finest, famous for saying religion is the opiate of the people. What he was actually arguing was that religion is a big and powerful institution which provides those in power with the means to control the rest of the population. (Think Catholic church before the Reformation, and you must admit he made a good point.)
The second big name is Emile Durkheim. He liked religion, but only because he saw it as an important part of society, what brings and keeps us together, provides "social cohesion." In fact, Durkheim, who spent much of his time studying what he hoped was the most "primitive" of religions, concluded that religion's role in providing social cohesion is so important that what people are worshiping is actually society, not God. He liked religion, but not because he was a believer!
Max Weber was also more sympathetic to religion because it could be a powerful force for change in society. The book he wrote that most influenced me was The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he explains how Christian Protestant beliefs, especially Calvinism, brought about the competitive spirit of capitalism. The doctrine that we can't earn God's favour is paired with the idea that we should work to please God for more intangible reasons, so we end up glorifying hard work, puritanism and competition. A stimulating argument, but still leaving little room for the idea that God actually does exist and care.
There are other widespread theories of sociology that were important to my research. Among these were theories of social control and stigma and deviance (the idea that society sets up sanctions against groups such as homosexuals, drug users, handicapped or religious converts); minority representation (giving the socially disadvantaged groups a voice, pointing out all the flaws in colonialism; this accusation also applies to anthropologists and missionaries); the structuralist debate (do we make society or does society make us?) resolved by symbolic interactionism (it's a bit of both).
Finally, Sociology is all about empiricism and deconstruction - breaking down a situation to find what's really at the core. And then explaining why what we've found still isn't really, really the core. Empiricism is all about needing to find something data-based and provable at that core - leaving little room for the supernatural. But now sociology is increasingly postmodern. A lot of Christians are scared of postmodernism, but the truth is that postmodern thinking has opened up the social sciences to acknowledging that there might be something supernatural out there, that we will never be able to explain everything fully, and that faith can be real.

4. What about the underlying tenets, models and theories of your discipline could find easy acceptance by those holding a distinctly Christian world view? My first reaction was nothing. But that's not really true. I think that one very important value held by both sociologists and Christians is that of community: community is seen as essential for developing identity and affiliations; relationships are foundational to a person's sense of being and essential to understanding a person.

5. What about the underlying tenets, models and theories of your discipline could find cautious or non-acceptance by those holding a distinctly Christian world view? (See number 3 - many of the same answers apply)
I highlight the following four theoretical perspectives: the assumption that religion plays primarily a social role (instead of an existential role); social control theories that criticise any institution, especially the "church"; relativisation of values and reality (the idea that one perspective is never really quite right and that reality is something that is more likely socially constructed than really true); and positivism, that idea that anything can be empirically proved and if it can't, it's obviously wrong (fortunately, this is not very popular in the more recent generation of sociologists).

6. What would a prophetic Christian voice want to say to uncritical practitioners of your discipline? The following are themes that I've developed in my own career as a Christian sociologist.
- It's very easy, and important, to question assumptions. In some ways, that's what Sociology is all about. But, I'd say to most sociologists I know, remember to be aware of your underlying assumptions. For example, in my research many participants told me of supernatural experiences, especially dreams and visions. I've been told that I can't take those accounts at face value; I need to find the sociological context in which they happened. I reply by saying that we also can't assume that those things did not happen! (For example, one woman I interviewed told me she had a dream of a person being healed; she'd never met or heard of the person, but a few days later she met him and learned of his healing. I was later told that she must have heard of him before and forgotten, because we can't assume that her dream was true. I replied that I would acknowledge that her dream may have been based in a past experience - if my counterpart would acknowledge that the dream also might have been supernatural!) It's easier to question other people's assumptions than our own, but to be true to our discipline and also true to seeking the truth, we need to do that.
- When we deconstruct situations in the world around us, we are left with nothing to stand on. If I explain how my faith is necessary for relationships, having influence in society, and for social cohesion, I may find myself rejecting that faith. It's hard to believe something that you have explained away. But if we do that, we're left with nothing. So we need faith. Many of my coworkers either are workaholics and never stop to live life (they can't live with themselves in their deconstructed worlds), or they spend way too much time as drunk as possible so they don't have to think about it. I'd suggest they try faith in something bigger than them that is so big they can't possibly try to explain it.

7. What insights into God's world are available from your discipline?
First, the second point in #6, is key to my understanding of God and his creation. By tearing down all my assumptions and picking apart society, I've been left with nothing but God, and the realisation that he really is incomprehensible and enormous and therefore worthy of my devotion. In some ways Sociology does for faith what fire does for a precious stone - it burns away the junk and leaves only the beautiful, valuable core.
Second, it turns a mirror on religion. When we realise that the institution of the church can be used for terrible things like subduing people, hopefully we will work harder to avoid that tendency. It definitely helps us understand how we, as Christians, are often misunderstood. It also can help us see how human nature gets in the way of what God is doing. My research has focused on discovering how religious converts interact with their families and culture, and how they form communities. My hope is that this understanding will help similar people to have an easier transition to life in their new faith than their predecessors have had.

8. On a related note, what heed should Christians take to the scholarly results/progress/perspectives of your discipline? Because sociologists spend a lot of energy, time, money and effort researching things that are of interest to Christians and to churches, I'd say don't invent the wheel. If you want to know about racial issues in your church's neighbourhood, chances are that a sociologist has already been studying them and can provide some good insights. If you are interested in cultural misunderstandings for explaining the message of Christ, or the concerns of manual laborers who go to your church, or anything in between, sociological research can be a very useful ministry tool. It's just a question of looking it up.

9. How can a Christian sociologist glorify God? This question was the most personal for me, because I felt like it was asking me how I, as a Christian sociologist, seek to glorify God in my discipline. So here are the things I try to do:
- Remain true to the essence of my faith. Willingly question those things that aren't essential to Christianity, but hold on even tighter to my relationship with Jesus and the implications that has.
- Avoid general academic pitfalls - like living to publish and have a name that is respected. My situation is a bit different in that I don't expect to stay in academic sociology long-term, but I have definitely struggled with the question of presenting and publishing for the sake of my reputation and not because my research was of benefit to those hearing or reading what I'd say.
- Learn to build up, not tear down with criticism. Sociologists are social critics, and when we do that all day in our work, it's hard not to keep doing it all the time. I'm definitely still working on this one, but trying to only criticise in constructive ways and focus on encouraging. Analyse but not if it's only to offend someone else.
- "Advocacy Research" - use my research to actually help people. I can't let that get in the way of the integrity of my research (a researcher can't say, "I'm out to prove that ___"; s/he has to say, "I'm out to find out if ____", or "I want to answer this question: ___?"), but the findings can still be used to help people, not just fill libraries. That's what I really want to do.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Book Review: Safely Home

Safely Home is the story of two men who were best friends and roommates during their years of undergraduate and graduate school at Harvard. Twenty years later, one man is a very successful businessman who has rejected everything else in his life (marriage, family, religion) in his pursuit of the successful image. The other man returned to his native China with high prospects for a career as a history professor in a university there, but twenty years later he has given up his dreams for a career in his pursuit of Christ, Christianity, and loyalty to his family.

The story takes place at a point when the first man (Ben) is heading up his business's China partnerships and is therefore commissioned by his company's president to spend six weeks living in a Chinese home getting to know Chinese culture from the inside. So he calls up his old roommate (Quan) and invites himself to spend six weeks in Quan's home. Ben arrives expecting to find a successful professor and is shocked by Quan's simple life. Quan expects to receive a Christian family man and is disappointed by the fact that Ben's marriage has failed and that he has rejected religion.

Throughout the book, Quan is presented as clearly the one with the answers and Ben as the one who has lost his way. Whenever Quan questions Ben's values, he receives a stubborn and embittered response. Whenever Ben questions Quan's choices, he is told that earthly values pale in the face of heavenly reward.

One of the purposes of this book was to present to the West a portrait of the suffering of Chinese Christian churches, especially the housechurch movement. Quan is a member and leader of this movement, and we learn he's been imprisoned several times, had his house raided repeatedly, lost his career dreams, etc. We meet Quan at a raid on his housechurch, and find out that Quan asks himself every morning when he wakes up, "Is this the day I die?" Ben the businessman is at first incredulous, and later convicted, when he learns of this suffering (he had been told by business-minded Chinese that persecution of Christians had ended and that China's human rights record was improving). The Chinese government went to great pains to expose him to the good, and his entire outlook is changed when he sees the bad.

As I read the description of the persecution of Chinese Christians, I felt the account was exaggerated. I have heard horrible tales of torture and death and mistreatment of Christians in China, but hadn't understood it to be as commonplace as presented in the book. The book gave the impression that all Christians in China suffer mercilessly at the hands of the government. My understanding is that there are too many Christians in China for the government to abuse them all, if in fact that is what the government wants. (Not to mention, that if a prominent American businessman were visiting, they'd probably tone down the abuse until he was gone!)

I know very little about China, but in other parts of the world where I know a bit about the persecuted church, I've learned it's mostly visible leaders and very outspoken believers who bear the brunt of government oppression. So my first reaction to the book was that it is a bit sensationalist, exaggerating real problems a bit out of proportion - fiction can make a great argument but can also subtly exaggerate things (I had a similar feeling of "wow... huh?" as I did when reading the Davinci Code.)

But as I neared the end of the book, I decided it was talking about something a bit different than that. It was talking about the contrast between this life and that life. The author seemed to be making the situation of the Chinese church look particularly horrific not because he wanted to raise awareness and garner human rights activism; instead he seemed to be arguing that all the poverty and physical abuse in the world is meaningless in eternal perspective.

So toward the end of the book, businessman Ben, newly sympathised to the plight of the Chinese church, starts madly advocating and using his networks to try to help relieve human suffering. Meanwhile Christian leader Quan keeps telling him that God is using these circumstances, God's perspective isn't man's and God is allowing all of this to happen, so maybe Ben should pray more and advocate less.

At one point they agree that both are right to some extent. And so here is my takeaway question:

The Bible is clear that God dwells in eternity and his timing and vision are miles above our own. I love the verse where God points out, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

But God also talks a lot of weeping when he sees injustice and suffering on the earth. And he tells us, his people, to feed the poor and to speak up for the destitute and to help others as if we were helping God himself.

So should I, or, say, a Christian who is suffering imprisonment and torture, or unemployment, or scorn from family... Should we do as Quan did and say, let's not worry, let's just pray and seek to do the best we can in the present situation? or to what extent should we seek to change the world around us?

There's a story Jesus told about a wealthy man who went on a long trip and left his possessions divided up in the hands of his employees. They apparently had no idea when he was coming back, what he expected out of the money, or even if he would deal with them honestly upon his return. The ones who invested well what they were given were honoured, and the boss said, "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!" In the same way, I firmly believe that we need to do invest in the world where we live, to make it look the most like Jesus's vision of perfection: joy, justice and mercy abounding. But at the same time, the story really is about what happens next, isn't it?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

culture shock!

When I was in the U.S. in the beginning of this year, people were surprised to hear that I seem to experience the worst culture shock when new to the U.S. More things surprise me, frustrate me, and confuse me in the U.S. than in most of the other countries where I travel. Maybe this is because I look and sound American and so somehow I'm supposed to belong, but it just doesn't work that way.

In the spring, people would ask me what shocked me so much, and I couldn't remember, so when I arrived on Monday, I tried to really notice so I could record the uniquely American things that culture-shock me...

- Choices. Definitely the biggest thing is choices. My luggage was lost on my arrival here, so I had to go to the store the next morning to buy some 'incidentals'. You know: toothbrush, soap, deodorant, clean under-clothing... This was a harrowing experience to someone who had just arrived Stateside. It took an hour to choose five items. There are so many combinations of so many varieties of so many things! Just as one example, I made a list of the different scents I could choose from for my deodorant. This is not a list of all deodorant scents; this is a list of the scents available in one type of one brand. (That brand had half a dozen types, and there were several brands to choose from.) Here's the list:
Tropical Tango
Arctic Apple
Eastern Lily
Vanilla Chai (do you really want your armpits to smell like a luxury beverage?)
French Lavender
Southern Peach (or a fruit?)
Jasmine Orient (or a bush? actually, I can't resist jasmine)
Asian Pear
Spanish Rose
Afrikan Violet
Kuku Cocoa Butter (kind of smells like coconut sunscreen/sun lotion!)

Then, in my state of choices-overwhelmed-ness, I heard a commercial on the radio for Applebees, bragging about how you can choose from more than 60 combinations of soups and sandwiches for their soup&sandwich option on their menu (the menu of course offers more choices as well). That was a big point against Applebees for me at that moment!

- Little conservation. I just feel like I'm being a responsible person when I compost my vegetable scraps/fruit rinds/other biodegradables. That doesn't really happen here that I've seen. And if I buy something in a store here, even one easy-to-carry item, it's automatically bagged. And that just makes me feel guilty for producing extra plastic. Now I'm not a scientist, but I'm told such things as composting, bringing-your-own-bag, etc. don't actually make that big a difference, but doing those things remind me that the world is our responsibility to care for, and keep me humble about my place in the world. It's a little scary to contemplate living without those reminders.

- Enthusiasm. This is one thing I really like about the U.S. and its people. You turn on the radio and everyone is hyper and excited. People are friendly, salespeople ask you how you are. It's like everyone's happy. I know it's somewhat fake joy, but I'm enjoying being surrounded by extroverted, enthusiastic people, as opposed to subdued Brits, demure Arabs, proud French, etc.

- Big and Wide. Yesterday I was following my aunt and uncle to my cousin's wedding rehearsal dinner. I was driving a big and wide station wagon (a loaner for which I am very appreciative). It's so big and wide that I'm scared to accelerate too fast or to brake too fast. So I was definitely keeping a safe distance behind my uncle's car. But over and over a car would jump in the hole! What was irksome to me about this was not that cars took advantage of a space (I'd do the same thing in a smaller car, for sure!) - it was that they were all enormous cars! SUV's, pick-up trucks, vans... This country is just full of big and wide cars!

But it's not just the cars. The 24 hours before I left England I rented a car there. The speed limit was 50 or 60 miles an hour on one-lane country roads with lots of bends. It was loads of fun. Here, on wide avenues with multiple lands, straight as an arrow, the speed limit is usually less. I figure if they want low speed limits they should make the roads narrow and spend less money for upkeep. Why have big and wide roads if you can't use them to full advantage? (Actually, my theory is that this dumbs down American drivers who then stop concentrating on driving and become more accident-prone, but I'm not sure how one could prove that...)

And the houses are bigger and wider. Mansions, all of them, it sometimes seems. And serving sizes are bigger and wider. Someone took me out to lunch on Monday and we ordered from the lunch menu, which is billed as having "smaller servings." I've never seen such a big salad, and it was intended for just one person! Everything is big and wide... use your imagination to think of something, and odds are that in the U.S. it's bigger and wider.

Well, those are my observations for now. Maybe I'll add more if I think of them. The reactions are there, but sometimes I forget why quickly, so I have to keep notes. Then maybe it won't surprise me as much the next time.

Do you have any fun culture shock stories? It's fun to hear them if you care to share...

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I recently watched The Last King of Scotland, which tells a partly-fictionalised story about Idi Amin, the president of Uganda throughout the 1970's. He was a totalitarian dictator who killed a horrific number of his own people during his rule and is still remembered as a symbol of cruelty and brutality. The film did a good job of exploring the character of such a figure – the actor who portrayed him got an Oscar for his efforts – and gave me some interesting impressions.

First, that he was absolutely paranoid that everyone was a threat to his position; he considered the things he had to contribute to Uganda to be very worthy indeed, and anyone who got in the way of him doing those things was an enemy. As the film went on, his fear of betrayal came to overpower his desire to good. That seemed to be the main reason he killed so many of his fellow countrymen. Second, the film showed a character who was extremely jovial, fun-loving, and just great to be around – half of the time; the other half, he shouted at people, hit them, accused them, and was just awful to be around.

Based on these impressions, I concluded he was a sick man, with some serious mental diseases that may be easily treated medically (the other main character was his personal doctor, so I wondered why he didn't give him that kind of treatment). Well, in discussing this with friends, I've realised that not everyone thinks that that was a good idea. Why? One possibly obvious reason would be that it might be unethical because it could involve sneaking such drugs into his regular medications. Another reason is that it might not have made much of a difference.

But when it really came down to it, I think it was a question of motivations. Would drugs have kept him from doing what he wanted to do – murder, pillage and abuse? Or would drugs have kept him from doing what he did not want to do – helping him to be the reasonable person he wanted to be?

So I've been pondering this the last few days, and I think that I'd rather expect good motivations of people and be disappointed, than expect the worst and be surprised. I'd rather assume that Idi Amin didn't want to be the awful person that he was: that he lost control of himself, rather than that he was just out to do evil. From the perspective of my beliefs about God, I have to admit that everyone does evil and has evil in his heart – but I've concluded that this doesn't mean that I need to expect that everyone wants to do evil. After all, I don't think my own motivations are evil!

The same way of thinking can apply to any political leader. Saddam Hussein did many awful things – why? Many people in the world see George Bush as doing some evil through his foreign policy – why? What about when a close friend of mine does something that's just plain bad?

I wonder whether it actually makes a difference to have a stance on this issue. I think it does because it informs our response. Just like with Idi Amin the question became whether to try to work with him or just kill him... If I think George Bush is doing something awful, what should I do? Should I try to convince him to change his mind (ok, I'd probably have to be buddies with him to do that, but ignoring that for a moment...)? Or should I just get him out of office as quickly as possible? Or, in the case of a leader who is not democratically elected, should I get him killed?

These questions work with people we know on a more personal level, too, of course. If I see my friend do something bad rather than trying to force him/her to be unable to do this bad thing, I will try to convince and persuade him/her that it is in fact wrong. That's actually in the Bible: first try to convince him/her, then get help trying to convince him/her, and only if none of that works try doing something punitive.

I just think there's a real danger in assuming people are just plain evil. There is great evil and many people do many evil things. But if we start thinking that's what they're out to do, we'll probably just plain give up on them, and they're probably the people who most need a good friend! I also worry because I really strongly believe that the people I know best and love the most have good motivations – the bad things they do are more mistakes. So if I think others are motivated by evil, then it becomes an us and them thing: we are motivated by good and they are motivated by evil. And that's what puts up illogical barriers that are impossible to cross: racism, wars, and fear of people just because they're a bit different.

Friday, July 6, 2007


So I've been asked what I think about recent events in Palestine, specifically the clashes between Hamas and Fatah. Well, I was fortunate enough to be in the Middle East when the worst clashes were happening, so it was just a little blur that I saw when I took a few minutes to check the Western media outlets.

Yes, that's right. Because I was in the Middle East, I was sheltered from following the gory details of what was happening elsewhere in the Middle East. I find that to be true often, actually. If I'm in a country involved, there's a huge furor and excitement, but rarely do I catch the details of the situation. If the event is in a different country, I may or may not hear about it. This is probably for a couple of different reasons:

1. I don't watch the news in Arabic. I should, but I don't. So when I'm in the Middle East I am just that much more likely to avoid the news.
2. My friends don't care. Maybe it's being a girl, maybe it's my choice of sweet-natured friends. But the fact is that my friends, even those who do follow the news, do not find it all that important. (I was in the UK when Tony Blair got appointed to be a Middle East envoy, but I was a bit busy and missed that announcement - but more than one person mentioned it to me within a few days so I caught up quickly. That doesn't happen to me in the Middle East.) If I miss that Hamas and Fatah are fighting, I continue to miss out blissfully.
3. Internet is not as readily accessible there than it is here.
4. I think there might be a personal emotional element involved. When it's close to home it's hard to talk about. Unless it's so close to home it's hard to avoid (or so globally noteworthy you can't avoid it - like the start of the Iraq war). My Arab friends feel very passionately about supporting the Palestinians, so either they go all out and demonstrate on the streets, or it's hard to talk about. (I'm not sure about this, it's just a hunch)
5. Shame - this is terribly generalised and therefore not entirely true, but in general: Arabs never talk about disagreements with other Arabs, especially in the presence of a non-Arab.

That last point probably is most significant. I'm not going to resolve the Palestinian question here - I'll leave that for a future post - but I'll try to quickly describe the lens through which I have come to see Palestine, maybe it will give you some new ways to consider events -

A. I know history is important but in this situation figuring out, or discussing, what really happened, in my opinion does more harm than good. The two biggest examples are the Holocaust and the actions of other Arab nations in 1948. I would never dispute the significance or evils of the Holocaust, but bringing it up when discussing contemporary Middle Eastern affairs seems to me to have confused the discussion and justified evil, not helped bring peace. In 1948, the year of the Palestinian "disaster" (when most Palestinians became refugees and when Israel was founded as a nation), the neighbouring Arab nations made some very bad decisions, but bringing those bad decisions up today again leads to confusion and justification of evil, not peace.

B. Collective memory, on the other hand, is significant. Everyone born within, say, 300 miles of Jerusalem has very pained memories of things that have happened in the past century, and that pain feeds their actions today. Whether historically justifiable or not, that pain is very real and plays more of a role in events than anyone in government circles ever seems to acknowledge.

C. The Palestinian people have suffered many things, but perhaps more than anything else, SHAME. And for them, that shame is unbearable. For many Palestinians, having to flee their house was not as awful as seeing others treating that house like it's their own, for example. I don't know enough about Israeli culture to speak for it, but my impression is that both sides are working very hard to shame the other side, in hopes of restoring a bit of their own dignity.

(The above three points look more at Palestinian-Israeli conflict as opposed to inter-Palestinian conflict. What's happening within Palestinian circles today is very much influenced by Israeli politics and treatment of Palestine, though, in many ways.)

D. Because of A-C, RELIGION, has become a driving factor. In cultures and periods of time throughout history, we see that when life gets tough God becomes much more important in people's lives. When all else is lost, the thread of hope that religion provides to many becomes a life support. Specifically, it should not be surprising that Palestinians are not only religious, but increasingly so, and supportive of a religious extremist group (Hamas). And the worse things get, and the more support non Islamists (like Fatah) get, the more Palestinians will grasp onto religion. And not just any religion, but a very extreme version of their religion.

E. I just read a very good book about Christians in Palestine and Israel (Light Force, by Brother Andrew). It ended with a story that led me to really ponder the following question: What would happen if instead of defending what is their own, people started to empathise with others and do things to help others?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Running log of the wait to enter Syria... 17/06/07

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Running log of the wait to enter Syria...

So today I am going to Syria from Turkey. Insha'allah, as we say in this part of the world. So far God has blessed me with good Arabic and friendly (but not too friendly) Syrian men. I've been at the border a little over an hour now, and they're saying that I should plan on about a five-hour wait.

Why do we put up with this kind of thing, you may ask? Well, there a few ways of looking at it:

1. The amount of time I spent trying to get my paperwork done in order to apply for the visa through the UK consulate, the money for postage, the phone calls to the consulate (not only me but my parents have spent time on this since I left for Turkey, too!) - well, five hours is probably a lot less.

2. It would be a very stupid Syrian who tried to show up unannounced at a U.S. border and expected to be treated half as well as I have been. The guy wrote out a page-long explanation of who I was and why I wanted to enter Syria and for how long, including details of how I used to live in Syria and have friend there, etc. Then faxed it to Damascus while I sat in a plush comfy chair. Now I'm sitting in a restaurant across the way (admittedly a place shameful for a woman to be alone, but these are extenuating circumstances) waiting to be served chips/fries and a cold cola. If it were a Syrian woman crossing into the U.S. from Mexico without a visa, prison time is not an impossible scenario.

3. How long does it take for the Syrian government to decide to give me a visa?! Through the UK consulate they've been "considering" my request for two weeks and a half already. Through the border it's going to take five hours. What are they doing for those five hours?! I doubt they'll call every Syrian I've ever known (it hasn't happened yet), so seems much more likely that they're passing it around from official to official to get a signature. I wonder if the pres himself will need to sign it! OK, more likely, they're reading it to each other and laughing about how they are stressing the American girl out, isn't that fun...

4. I understand their complaints against my government and can understand that this is one of the small ways in which they can get back. But if only they knew how little my own government cares about my getting in to Syria! At that point they'd take me in a limousine to meet their pres just to make my pres mad!

Well, these are my thoughts for now. Still got a positive attitude and glad I know people are praying for me. Will check in later...

... It's now two and a half hours into my wait. And three hours since I arrived at the border. Haven't moved an inch but ate between one and two fried potatoes, between two and three tomatoes (yummy!), a small cucumber, and two small peppers (the first one was sweet so I took a huge bite out of the second one but it turned out to be hot). I have enjoyed my i-pod and caught up on my trip journal. The guys working here seem to think it's weird to have me here, but they didn't seem surprised at my arrival. They said, yeah, visas are a problem here in Syria (a surprisingly critical comment!). Then I told him my passport is American, and he said I'll be here till 10 or 11 easily. Yay.

He kept bringing me snacks from the customs officers dinner happening in the adjoining room. They had quite a nice spread, so he snuck me out two little cheese pastries and a yummy kibe (finger food made out of meat and bulgur wheat). Oh, he just came by to offer me a cigarette! How thoughtful (it is my second offer since I arrived at the border). Anyway, I wondered if I shouldn't go in there and somehow provacatively befriend a customs officer - would that have helped me get a visa? Actually, the process seems rather straightforward, if ridiculously slow. I just hope they don't forget about me...

... Almost four hours down! About half an hour ago I asked the friendly server here at the border restaurant (a young guy who seems fine running the place in rubber sandals and an undershirt) if I should go over to the offices to get news and he offered to call for me. No word yet, but they'll call over here as soon as they hear. He offered me a room to rest in if I need it, but hey, I am happily typing away and fortunately so far the time is passing quickly. I might go back to the office soon anyway, just to make sure they don't forget me.

It's actually a tad surreal. I'm writing about Syrian women, and right now describing a young Syrian woman making Arabic coffee and pouring it out for a guest, when he walks up and offers me some Arabic coffee which I try to refuse but that doesn't work. He's switched over to English with me for some reason, though he doesn't really know enough to formulate a sentence. So now I have a nice small ceramic cup of very bitter Arabic coffee, just like the girl I'm writing about!

As we approached the border, we passed 1-2 kilometres worth of trucks loaded with goods to take in between Turkey and Syria. I think most of the delay is on the Turkey side, as they're checking every truck carefully. Either way, I felt this immense privilege to be zipping along past all those trucks to the front of the queue! I just looked out the window and realised that there aren't as many trucks waiting to pass through. I don't know whether they cut it off at some point in the day (It's 7:00 p.m.) or not, but either way, I realise that my wait is now fully rivalling theirs!...

...Going on 4 1/2 hours and I had my first bit of movement. Some guy - NO IDEA who he is - just came in and tried to ask me in English if my visa had come through yet. I didn't understand his English so he switched to Arabic and said that this really was taking too long. So I just wrote my name down for him on a sheet of paper and he went to check. Wonder who he is and if he'll make any difference at all...

...Now I'm finishing the story on the next day. At about five hours I was tired of my restaurant perch and decided to go for a walk, stopping by to see if there was any news first. I got in there and waited for an hour while they called Damascus to see what was taking so long, at which point it became known that someone had let the ball slip and my request was just sitting on someone's desk (surprise!), so they'd get back to us in half an hour. So I knew then that I'd have an answer by 9:30, and sure enough by the time I'd made a few phone calls and used the facilities, I'd gotten my permission! It took another hour and a half to process my visa and for me to find a ride into Aleppo, but here I am happy at my friend's house.

A few closing thoughts:

1. As I was sitting during that last hour of waiting, I thought of refugee women. Who sit at borders sometimes for days and months, or even years on end, waiting for someone to help them, to let them in. These women are treated extremely poorly by the border officials, who really seem to think of them as a nuisance to get rid of or ignore. After all, they are poor and unimportant. I felt like I was in danger because I was alone (I've heard stories of terrible things happening to single refugee women), but at least I didn't have children under my care with me. There are women all around the world sitting, with no food, no shelter, and with children who are hungry and scared. Even as I considered my options for spending the night at the border or what awful things could happen to me, I felt immensely grateful that I am so privileged and that the border officials and restaurant employees were really looking out for me in a protective way.

2. They really did look out for me. They thought it was awful that I had to wait so long and this random guy took pity on me and had his son arrange a van to take me into Aleppo. This kind of hospitality you find in few other places. Yes, it comes at a cost of conservative communities and strict rules, but Syrians really are incredibly generous and kind and helpful. I felt shamed at my failings in that area.

Well, it's been fun sharing my adventures in a virtual way!

Then a comment from Tony:

Hope everything is going well with your research! I can't imagine waiting through customs that long. Guess I'm too used to Taiwan and US Customs that are relative short for US Citizens. I hope you're doing well. Also if you've got any insight on what's happening in Israel between Hamas and Fatah I would love your insight on it. Hope all is well. God be with you.

a symbol of my faith 05/06/07

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

a symbol of my faith

A couple of weeks ago, toward the end of our time in Spain, my mother showed me a silver cross. She said it used to be my grandmother's; on my mom's last visit, her mother had given it to her but she had plenty of jewelry; did I want it? I accepted.

I've worn the beautiful silver cross almost every day since, although I don't know the story behind it. It reminds me to pray for Babci (my grandmother), who is struggling with her health. It's also reminding me of little bits of Babci's amazing life. A few days later, as we were leaving Spain, someone asked about the cross, and my mother said she really didn't know where Babci got it and Babci couldn't remember. Babci is a Lutheran from Poland, but she married a Polish Catholic in the U.S. so it's more likely she got it from her in-laws than that she brought it over from Poland.

Today I read in a (yet another) sociology of religion book that when Protestantism came to England, crosses were one of the first things to go. They were seen as a symbol of the established Catholic Church, and were too often used for magically-oriented rituals. So Reformation churches like the Presbyterian church took crosses out of their official directives. They don't seem to have banned crosses (the Presbyterian church I was born in has crosses!), just discouraged them as a reaction against Catholicism. Specifically, crosses were used as an amulet for more "magical" purposes. So I guess a Polish Lutheran is more likely to have received a silver cross from her Catholic in-laws than from her Lutheran family. (On an aside, one of my most precious keyrings is a crucifix given to me by a Lebanese Catholic friend; I imagine some Protestants would shudder to read that I now wear a cross and carry my keys on a crucifix - and that they do hold spiritual meaning to me!)

Well, Christianity seems to be coming full-circle on these symbol things. Today I learned that newer, more alternative-style, churches in Europe are often choosing to form partnerships and affiliate with traditional churches, as opposed to mainline Protestant churches. For many young Christians today, it seems it's better to embrace the symbols than to reject them. And many mainline churches also use the symbols now that the initial reaction against amulets and magic has worn off!

But what do crosses mean for people who don't believe in Jesus' ultimate sacrifice? Muslims believe that Christians are deceived to think that our religion's founder was killed on a cross - so it's a symbol of our flawed faith, as well as a reminder of the Crusades where the Catholic Church went to war against Islam.

I'm going to the Middle East next week. Do I wear the cross and advertise to the world that I'm a Christian, or do I hide it away? Wearing a cross will definitely transmit a message; some Muslims will likely really respect that I am a person faithful to my religion and see me as a kindred spirit because we share our worship of God, even if mine is a religion inferior to theirs. Other Muslims could be offended - after all, they perceive that Christians are causing lots of problems in the world these days! I've never worn a big cross around my neck in the Middle East before, maybe it would start some interesting interreligious dialogue! If I can manage to represent well what the cross stands for...