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!