The real world. When you are a child there is something awfully exciting about this phrase. Adults dangle it above you as a lure. Then they let it hang there is a warning. “When you’re old enough for the real world…” says one. “In the real world you won’t be able to…” says another. At ten years old, you probably were envisaging the real world as an ongoing place where adults no longer inhibit your desires. You eat ice cream before dinner, play video games till sun-up and kiss your crushes with impunity.
In your teen years the real world both loses and gains its appeal. It becomes a much more bitter-sweet reality: you want things like privacy and having your own apartment is more and more conceivable. But ah! Recently it dawns upon you that an apartment will cost money (not mom and dad’s money but your money); having a car would be fantastic only that will cost too. A pattern emerges and fills a little space in that great void of ignorance we call adolescence: having and keeping stuff requires responsibility. More stuff will always be more responsibility. In these years, the older folks in your life are still talking to you about the real world but it increasingly has the ominous tone of a doomsday prophecy. Teachers instinctively know this, which is why they keep the phrase handy to scare their students for frail supplements of respect and attentiveness. (Granted, for some teachers it is spoken sincerely but other times it is just another mechanism for keeping order.)
In college you may not hear this phrase as much because college is generally an obscure middle ground for young and old alike. It’s between the real world and the ever-alluded but never stated fake world. Some will say it is not real, what with the dorm communities and continued student life, while others take it as the real thing, considering all the debt one braves upon herself, living away from home, and the need for self-discipline.
Those are the three phases of coming into the real world for many 21st century American youths. Though within each phase I never understood exactly what those adults really meant in their utterance of real world. It was thrown into conversation for so many reasons at so many different times I came to doubt it was anything at all. Fortunately, I think I have pinpointed the locus of this phrase. Among the adults who frequently used this phrase, most seemed to speak invariably with a very subtle but specific demeanor. If you look for it, very often you will find that when someone begins dishing out advice there is a slight reflection in his speech. As they venture to suggest what is better or worse you may sense their considering some past memory, emotion or thought on which they are basing their advice. Nonetheless, the adults who used this phrase on me often had this reflective air. Whenever those words “real world” spilled forth from their lips I wasn’t entirely sure whether they meant to talk to me or recall something for themselves. I came to believe it was the latter. For these adults always seemed to be concealing their own bitterness when they uttered those words: real world.
Have you ever heard one of those phrases that becomes suspicious by its very presence? The moment you hear about a neutral zone you anticipate an even greater war zone. Someone says “no offense but…” and you prepare yourself for nothing other than offense. The real world is one of those phrases. Notice its redundant ring? Did we doubt a concept of world lacked a sense of reality? Any casual employment of this phrase is almost certainly referring to a narrow aspect of what is, in fact, the real world. That narrow aspect is nothing other than the bleak and bitter things of adulthood, like taxes and gallstones, or it is the long list of virtues that adult never came to value and enjoy, like responsibility or temperance.
All this phrase is good for is exposing which adults grew bitter. The happy ones never speak of the real world because they tell you about the awaiting delights of life. They just tell you about life, the future, growing up, but never the real world.
The truth of the matter is everyone is already in the real world, obviously because everyone is always already in the world. Many do a horrible job living in it. Many seem not to realize they are in it. Regardless, we are in it. That’s given. So be weary of employing such a phrase. Chances are its use will be like that of my high school guidance counselor: redundant, condescending and sloppy. (And the adults wonder where the kids get it from…)
Every day I walk up and down the same hill three times, once for breakfast, once for lunch and another for dinner. I live at the top. My food is at the bottom. I have mentioned this hill in an earlier blog entry; it’s the one I like to walk at night. The hill is nothing too extraordinary at plain sight. It’s just a dark brown-red dirt road etched with footprints and tire tracks. Rain-worn trenches a couple feet deep run parallel on each side. Past those trenches are some slender trees, flowers and plots of farmland. Past the crops and through the trees you can make out an opposing hillside garnished with glimmering metal roofs and fuming kitchens. (I do mean fuming kitchens. Either Rwandans never thought of making chimneys or they do not care for them. I’m not sure which but no one has them. They cook over fires and just let the smoke rise and fill the kitchen ceiling until it climbs out the windows and door.)
One morning, an enormous rain had swept in from across the lake while I was eating my breakfast. Rains do not last too long here so I decided to wait it out with an extra cup of tea. (By the way, tea and coffee are Rwanda’s two main exports. I asked to have coffee in the mornings, thinking it should not be any problem. My mistake. My server brought a bag of ground coffee on a tray but with no way to filter. When I tried asking for a filter she did not understand. I asked the manager. He did not understand. Turns out Rwandans heeded Tony Montana’s advice; they do not to use their own stuff.) Anyhow, I had the extra cup of tea and worked on a tray of fruits. I only brought my journal and pen with me and since I would not be going anywhere for a while I decided to review some of my notes then doodle a few people I met the day before.
So picture it: Evan in a concrete, hut with nothing but a card table and plastic chair, some banana peels, crumpled passion fruits and papaya rinds; the rain is pouring on all sides knocking dirt up against walls; he along with everyone else in Gahini is hiding out from the rain.
About an hour passed. The rain eased to a drizzle and the sun just barely peeked from behind one of those ominous storm clouds. That was good enough for me so I set out for the hill. It was not until this morning I realized how strange this hill actually was. (Maybe it was the extra time at breakfast to reflect. I dunno.)
This hill does not seem like too much at plain sight. Like I said, the walk is mostly dirt, plants and the somewhat discernable adjacent hillside. It is not the sight of the hill that gives it its peculiarity, though; it’s the history. People have been giving me bits of its history for me to string together over these past couple weeks. In 1935, Gahini’s hill was the host of a Christian revival. Missionaries had come here in the early 1900s and made a place for themselves when it was still just a hill of brush, insects and wild animals. The 1935 Gahini Revival was one of their master plans and from what I hear, the birth-ground for Christianity in all of East Africa. Thousands came then and thousands more will be coming in a few weeks for a round-two, memorial revival/conference. I leave the day after the conference ends.
This hill was not just a nursery, though, cradling new believers for the future of Africa. In 1994 it was the graveyard for many murdered in the genocide. During the genocide, some of the military personnel and unofficial militia patrolled this same hill. They hacked people to death with machetes in the same fields I stroll along. Almost anyone who is my age or older could tell you a story about it, list off names of friends and family who were murdered. I have not heard too much about the genocide since I have arrived, though. How could I? I only know a few words in Kinyarwanda. I cannot have conversations with most of the people here but that makes things all the more strange: I know they know.
At the foot of the hill is Lake Muhazi. I can see it from my front porch at the top of the hill. Across the lake is President Kagame’s ranch. When the sun’s out, it’s where I bathe. It’s where I swim and watch the pied kingfishers dive for fish, the weaver’s weaving nests, the African Paradise Monarch flit its long tail in the reeds and occasionally, all this in the company of otters. (Fifteen years ago, I’d be swimming with hippos and crocodiles. Fortunately for me they were driven about 4km to the other end of the lake.) Yesterday, I was swimming while all the locals kept to the bay filling their barrels and jerry cans with water to haul back uphill in their truck beds and bicycles. I had been staring up at the hill thinking about its past when I was struck with another thought. I turned and asked the only friend who swims with me, “Why don’t I ever see anyone else swimming in this lake? I only see a few float in it with their boats.” He lowered his voice, “They are usually taught to stay away from water in schools for different reasons. Many of them just never learned to swim but I also have been told many people don’t want to come in because this is where the militia threw the bodies during the genocide.”
You can imagine ever since I have arrived here there has been much to take in. Walking this hill fifteen minutes up, fifteen minutes down gives me some time to think about the things I have seen and heard. Sometimes I can do this with my head upright, eyes darting across the horizon, ears pricked to cows’ slovenly hooves shuffling through the grass, nose whiffing every guava tree in range. Just as often, I’ll take this walk staring off only a few feet ahead, inattentive to smell and sound, caught up in thinking on yesterday or tomorrow.
Many would call this time in Rwanda an exciting experience. They are right. Many would say it is a valuable and precious time in my life. It is. All the same, I have been away from home for over four months now and by the time I get home, I will have missed five months of the lives of each family and friend. They will have missed five months of mine and once when I do get home we will only be able to recount so much to one another. All there was to be known in the casual, day-to-day company will be far gone and I don’t like that. I don’t like that I do not have my brothers walking this hill with me, talking about all that is inevitably forming me. I don’t like that when I reach the bottom there are no familiar friends greeting me at the table; we cannot tell one another about the day. Any words I have from those friends come through letters and when I read those letters they beat a great joy into me. Still, the words seem to only retain half the meaning by the time they reach my eyes from their hands. The words do not come with facial expressions, with tone or pace; they do not come with any of those subtleties that change a word’s meaning. I don’t like that either. So while the time here is good in many ways, I must say, having been away for four months, it is getting a bit lonely. I am beginning to feel strained.
So the hill has a past. It’s a place I consider the present and at times the future. Sometimes I walk it alone and to go eat alone but other times I do walk it with a few new friends and eat in good company. It is what it is. Can you see why I might find it a strange one to walk every day? Would you call it exciting? Eerie? Charming? Grim? Beautiful? I mean what do you call a place that has been both a cradle and a grave? Imagine a mother was pregnant with twins and when she delivered, the first came shaking with life but the other slid into the midwife’s hands motionless and silent. What would you say to that mother? What would you call her?
For whoever’s interested, plug in these coordinates into Google maps. Click on the satellite option and you can see the area I am staying. The coordinates mark the road on the hill:
Six o’clock in the morning, the sun just began coming up. Sky was in between the blues of night and day. I walked over to the schoolroom behind the guesthouse and met a group of about twelve Rwandans training to be missionaries in Tanzania. They had been reading their bibles for the past hour (somewhat reluctant and distracted from what I am told). The day before I had asked if I could join them in part of their daily routine. They liked the idea, which was why I was there to jump in for this next part of their morning.
“Madamutze. [Good morning.] ” We greet each other. Some speak English others do not. I feel somewhat ridiculous not being able to speak their language as usual but the circle of smiles before me puts me more at ease. Stepping outside onto the main road (go ahead and assume it is dirt, making it good and soft for running). I had walked this same road the night before: no streetlights, only the stars and the occasional motorcycle headlight cruising by. On either side I could make out the contours of banana palms and a faint scent of evergreens was on the breeze. (Strange but yes, there are evergreens growing along the equator. There must be an explanation but I don’t know it). In night walks I can hear people coming up the road but cannot see them. I blend in better at day; Rwandans blend in better at night. Even some new local friends have begun teasing me as one of the most disadvantaged people at night since I am the only one to be seen on the road but I just tell them it is true only with robbers; with cars and motorcycles I have the greatest advantage: Mr. Whitey is one giant reflector. (If this humor seems offensive to anyone, I am sorry to offend but just know you stand alone in your offense. We are all laughing together over here.) I am impressed how well everyone navigates in the dark, though. People plummet down the main hill on their bicycles at night with no lights. It is sort of common knowledge I suppose: bikes and vehicles in the middle of the road, people on the side.
But coming back to the road this morning: we form ranks of three in four rows. They place me at the front. Shake the legs. Roll the head. We start running up towards the local hospital and church started by the Anglican diocese. One minute in I discover there is one more detail for running, we recite the books of the bible in Kinya-rwanda. One calls, the rest respond. “Itan-jiri-o! Ku-va!” Upward and onward into the countryside, shoes patting that steady runner’s rhythm. The words come out on exhale, making them louder and breathier. Every once in a while I need to look at the guy next to me and see his mouth shape the words. He notices, then exaggerate his pronunciation for me to see. I nod. He laughs. We all laugh but keep pace.
All the things there are to see on a run. Ask any runner and they will have some memory of a gorgeous place they once ran or a favorite route to run. Usually the reasons are simple: one likes to run past the baker and smell the bread; another likes to pass under that one grove of trees near the train tracks; this guy knows that girl runs the same route; it is always something. Rwanda has its own subtle splendors for runner’s to delight in. Again, no streetlights, telephone poles or paved roads. The homes along the street are mostly made of concrete, stained all shades of yellow, brown, gray and red, each with its own plot of land. Some yards are filled with banana trees, others with guava trees. Maybe some bean plants growing here and a few aisles of maize there along with a whole bunch of other plants I don’t recognize. (A majority of the country lives by subsistent agriculture.) The land is sectioned with a fence of reeds. The reeds are planted in the ground, growing with a subtle zig-zag, held in line with one or two planks and kept short with a machete. That nutritive, Rwandan red-dirt as front yards and roads; baby goats scurrying away into the grass; cattle grazing on the side of the road; chickens pecking through the fences; the ever-changing drama of clouds rolling in and out of sight over these stubby hills by the hour; it’s runner’s delight.
It happens to be children’s delight too. People are always walking along the road, kids included, so before too long we gain a mini-entourage. One little girl looks back over her shoulder as we come with our noise. Having noticed us (or maybe just me) she begins to run and recite with us for some hundred yards. She’s little. She gets tired. But by then two more kids are running alongside, then five. Two fade off but two more join. Some of the kids are bashful at first, daring to only look out the corner of their eyes with a straight face but most of the time if I shoot them a funny-face or simply smile this would be enough to put them at ease and break into their own natural smiles. Still, some kept a straight face (usually the older ones). The smallest ones, five maybe six years old, giggled and flailed their legs to the side as they ran. The slightly older seven or eight year olds ran straighter but did not look ahead down the road as we did; they kept looking at us. The older they are, the less interested they are. We passing strangers become less exciting as they get older. Later in the day I will see teenagers running in their own groups, looking down the road as we do. Such is life.
Part of the view from Seeds of Peace, the guesthouse/hotel I stay at.
We all walk this from the main road towards the houses, schools, hospital and church.
My timing for coming to Rwanda has been good for some and bad for others. Yesterday, my timing could not have been better for the Anglican Students Union. Some students of the Rukara College of Education organized a dual church service, one in Kinya-rwanda, and the other in English. I was invited along with some other mezungus to attend this first service. We accepted gladly and were gladly accepted.
Sunday morning, John (a US missionary) and I walked up the hill to the archdeacon’s home to wait for a ride. The archdeacon, a stocky dark-black man with a smooth shaved head and rasp voice was talking on his cell phone as we came through his gate. He was trying to buy gasoline from a friend down the road for the van. A morning rain came the moment we set foot on his porch, then stopped moments before stepping off.
Eighteen of us filled a van with makeshift seating and drove to the college. Before going on, I should say, this college would not fit the image of an American college. It is a series of red-orange brick and black mortar buildings, each one story, some with only one room, all-sitting around a red-dirt courtyard. A few other buildings laid further back but all-in-all that was it and the students were obviously proud of it, despite the fact that it is not even a credited college. This was the place for church.
Banana trees marked the doorway to one of the one-room buildings where the service was held. Someone told me banana trees are planted as signs of welcoming, marking the way to go. When students graduate they are strapped along roads, or on weddings they make way for the newlyweds. As a foreigner who stands out in every way and speaks no Kinya-rwanda I can say it is good to know I am welcomed.
Bit by bit the classroom filled. School desks for seating, benches for the four different choirs, and 6’ 3” ceiling, it is easy to imagine it felt somewhat crowded. It was great. Eventually the room filled so Rwandans began crowding the windows from outside. (The window behind me filled with children. They were a cute silly mob of gigglers. I could feel their eyes for the four hours I was there.) Now, even though I was a guest and had only heard of this place yesterday, I found myself being ushered to the front. We whiteys were recognized guests. We speak English, after all.
The beginning of the service: my favorite part. Some 5’ 6” man with a subtle goatee wearing a fly-fishing vest over a polo-shirt walked into the open space between the choirs and the congregation. He lifted up a microphone and sung out a one-liner of worship. The congregation sang back. Again he calls. Again they respond. Two keyboardists jump right into that bright African beat you would expect and this worship leader wasted no more time. He was bouncing up and down the instant he was given a beat. Men and women broke from their seats and filled the floor. He calls. We respond. We clap. He dances. More come to dance their own jovial dance. More start to jump. I saw no reservations. This is how it is done. The adults hopped from foot to foot and raised their arms. Kids did the same. Grownups dance like kids. Kids dance like Grownups. The man cried, “Hallelujah!” and we’d cry it back. This is how worship is done. The congregation was mixed with the leader and those who were still at their seats clapped and waved hands.
At some moment during this I the worship leader popped out near the edge of the mix. Arms jutting to and from his shoulders, I saw two stark spots of white on this man: round gladdened eyes and his teeth spread in a smile wider than his eyes. This struck me in an odd way but it was when I noticed drops of sweat covering his baldhead dripping over these eyes and this smile, my eyes were gladdened and filled with tears. Where did that come from? I was shocked. I was sabotaged. I was excited.
The archdeacon was no different. He used every inch of the floor to give his sermon. I did not understand any of it. (Apparently, this was the initiation and announcement of an English service; bits of it were in English today but not many. Next week was the real thing. No matter.) His deep raspy voice and dark black body covered in a bleached white robe strode across the floor. His finger poking the air. The congregation laughs at something all of a sudden. (Sure, I don’t know at what but I laugh anyway.) About an hour into the sermon I notice the archdeacon is mentioning us in his sermon. “Something something something [then pointing at us] meh-zoon-goos…” Now this was something to laugh at: even the archdeacon is calling us whiteys in his sermon. One of the few times he paused to let us know what he was talking about to the rest of the congregation, he let us know he mentioned our kinship to everyone else. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Mezungus nor Rwandans.
After some more songs, testimonies and announcements the service was over. Four hours. It was two o’clock and I still had not eaten since yesterday. Lo and behold, their hospitality had not failed. We were sat at the front of the classroom at a long table and served lunch. The pastors and deacon sat at another long table and some others from the congregation sat at the desks. I ate lunch while talking to the principal and the president of the Anglican Students Union. Friendliness and kindness ensued. A mini-photo shoot with them, the pastors and archdeacon, then back into the van.
Time to transition, my time in Cairo is done. A couple nights ago all my MESP classmates and I completed the program. Egypt became suddenly different when all my American friends were gone. I was in Egypt as a liability only to myself, no official program. No itinerary or classes. Bitter-sweet goodbyes were made and everyone departed, except for a few who stayed behind, myself being one of them. Home is not for another six weeks.
For the next five and a half weeks I will be working in Gahini, Rwanda alongside the Anglican bishop, Alexis Bilindabagabo. My job is to be, more or less, a scout for EU (that’s Eastern University, not the European Union): I do a lot of looking, listening and some talking, then start figuring plausible ways Eastern University can sidle alongside the Anglican diocese and Rwandans in their efforts to serve their people. My presence will hopefully be one of the first steps in an official EU-Rwanda relationship.
My flight for Kigali left at 3:20am. My friend Dena took me to one of the world’s oldest café’s to chat for a while. The intricate details of an Arabic architecture bedecked with shiny and useless merchandise in the Khan Al-Khilil market put me in a sort of trance. Some stray cat rubbed up against my leg while three men came at me selling something I didn’t want. Sipping mint tea, nudging away the cat, waving the merchants off all in one motion I realized- Rwanda ain’t gonna be one bit like this. Where exactly was I going? In that moment, the idea of going to Rwanda gained some weight and sunk as an ethereal idea into a reality into my gut; it started occurring to me even more as a reality.
For the past four months I have been living in an Arabic culture while struggling to learn an Arabic language in the city, but now I am moving into an African culture, where Arabic is useless and the city is moreover a giant village. New people, new culture and new land: I will once again slip down to the base of “the-language-barrier”. My surroundings will go from a flat desert to green hills and lakes; Arabic to Kinyarwanda; running water to barrels of lake water; concrete to dirt roads; yellow sand to red-dirt; bidets to toilet paper; no rain to daily rain (Actually, it even began raining while I am typing and the sky was clear half an hour ago.); standing out as a white foreigner among dark skinned people to standing out as foreigner among, well, even darker skinned people; switching from, nominally, a Muslim majority to Christian majority; instead of being called “Osama” people now call me “Meh-zoon-goo” (which more or less means “whitey” but with no real negative connotation, just a matter-of-factly title), and the list goes on.
The one particularly challenging shift is simply going from student to employee. This shift requires a deliberate mental shift on a couple fronts: everything I have been learning and all the questions about Islam, the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and all the like that has been forming incessantly in me for the last four months has to be marginalized within the next day and replaced with the thoughts and questions about Rwanda. Even more, these questions need to be coming from Evan the Employee, not Evan the Student. As a student studying abroad I only had to go along for the ride my program organized for me. In Rwanda, I need to make plans, handle logistics and “crack-the-whip” on myself. My persona and how I see myself needs to be slightly tweaked to fit this new task and quite frankly, this has been tougher than I expected. How easily can you stop the momentum your mind has been gaining for the last four months?
Later that night after the café, exhausted from seeing my friends off the night before having slept only three hours and expecting none tonight, this reality of transition became even greater when I put my bags in the taxi and headed towards the airport. With each mile towards the airport, the reality kept becoming greater and greater. I tried making small talk with the taxi but was too distracted with thoughts of tomorrow. A couple hours later, sitting on a plane from Cairo to Khartoum, I stared at the seat in front of me thinking of what to do once I arrive. Hour later, Khartoum to Addis Abeba: how much will I be able to accomplish? Addis Abeba to Entebee, while the sun was coming up: what will going home be like with all that lays behind me, after all that lays ahead? Finally, from Entebee to Kigali, crossing over Lake Victoria and minutes later descending upon thick, green hills glimmering with tin roofs I stopped thinking. I stared at a rain cloud emptying itself miles away upon the land. It was beautiful so I smiled to myself. I thought of this job, this opportunity given to me and smiled to myself.
Turkey is a country of its own kind: not exactly Western or Eastern but a strange mix of the two. After the Ottoman Empire came undone with WWI, a man named Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took the reigns and established today’s Republic of Turkey. His aim was set on modernity/westernization to the nth degree. His project was a success in many ways and his name is still pressed in the mind of every Turkish citizen. He’s like our George Washington. So much has happened since then in a short amount of time that I would like to explain but I suppose I should save that for another time. Whoever would like to know always has our beloved search engine: Google.
The dynamics of this country are like none other. Every other Islamic country has been so weary of modernity and westernization in some way, shape or form, but not Turkey. Here, citizens actually assume modernity and Islam are compatible with one another. It comes through in the politics as quickly as it does the fashion. The women wear far more vibrant headscarves than the women in Egypt, some while strutting in tight jeans and heels but these fashionable headscarves are statements of political concern. In a country full of so many vying for secularism (Muslim and non-Muslim alike), they believe this public religiosity can be trouble, perhaps even a form of moving “backward” like all those Islamic neighbors out East.
Istanbul is a megacity, once the capital city of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Latin Empire and Ottoman Empire so it should be no surprise to hear me say this place is stunning in culture, art and architecture. The first day here I rode a ferry along the Bosphorus and stared for I cannot remember how long at this city’s waterfront. I admit: I was struck like the stereotypical starry-eyed tourist. This place sends a vibe, like the whole place knows a secret I don’t.
Golden Horn, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Sultan’s Palace, that thick mud they call Turkish coffee, sweet dripping Baklava, fish sandwiches, meerschaum pipes, obscure antique shops along steep cobble roads with Ottoman iron keys and Soviet Union flasks against the windows: I am getting Turkish culture by the loads but all this time as a tourist is split with being a student. At night we read books and articles in our hotel rooms and in the day meet with journalists, political representatives and professors, hearing lectures, having discussions forming our questions. One week ago I barely knew anything about this country and now… I still know next to nothing. But hey, it’s a lot more than last week.
P.S. I shaved my beard before leaving Egypt. Kept the mustache for a day, though. Found it hilarious. Then shaved it off too.
Along Istanbul’s waterfront.
Questing for Turkish coffee.
Floating along the Bosphorus with some good people.
Inside the Hagia Sophia.
First day in Corporate America!
Apologies for not attempting any sort of prowess. These journal entries from the past are quick notes to help me remember things and just give you a glimpse of some of things going on here.
Journal Entry: 1/17/2010 (a few days after arriving in Cairo, Egypt)
Sitting up against the wall on a mattress one step up from a sandbag. We’ve been set up with a flat in front of the “6 of October Bridge” (a.k.a. “Cairo’s Spinal Cord”). The bridge is one mile long, running through multiple districts of the city. It was built and named to commemorate one of Egypt’s “victories” in the Yom Kippur War. I can hear the traffic, coming through the windows and bouncing off these hilariously drab, pink pastel walls.
Today we went to the Mogamma in Al-Tahrir Square. It’s a massive building that sits awkwardly into the traffic circle. You’d think it was the work of the Soviet Union. Strange story to it: as it turns out, there once was a large evangelical church, the largest in the Middle East, from what I hear, sitting gracefully with the other buildings in Tahrir-Square but modern Egypt, being a Muslim country, would not have this: they government plans together for this bland government facility and built it directly in front of the church to upstage and nudge out of this prestigious circle. This spiteful landmark was where I got my international visa. The church still is there, only now in the shadow of Soviet-Egyptian architecture.
This is nothing too unusual, though, upstaging a church. Every single church built in this city must be matched with a larger mosque. Wander anywhere in Cairo and you’ll find a taller, more ornate and gorgeous mosque sitting near a punier church. I haven’t found out for sure whether or not this is official law or not, but just realize its actually hard to tell. Christian and Muslim tension is real thing here. Almost every local I’ve spoken with, usually Muslim, tells me there’s no real issue. Some Coptic Christians I met, a minority in Egypt, blatantly disagree. (It is a bit strange to see this when I have seen the exact opposite situation back in the States: Christian majority calmly and strategically upstaging Muslim minorities.)
Today was my first day on the metro. Took a random stop at Mutzallah (I think) on the outskirts of downtown Cairo. Walking only three minutes out of the station and up the street to the Nile, I cam upon a massive mosque, a citadel really. It looked like a city of domes clumped together with a single-crescent moon (the symbol of Islam) at its peak. The Cairo smog deepened the atmosphere, making it look almost phony, like some sort of back-drop to the trash-filled streets. Fifty-thousand mosques in Cairo. Fifty thousand. Some are just a humble-shop front, some are statement’s of Islam’s grandeur, like this one.
I suppose I should mention briefly, Cairo is dirty. I doubt any Egyptian would be offended I pointed this out. This city is uncoordinated and over-crowded. No trashcans, just large piles of trash that sometimes get set on fire once they get too big. Stray cats and dogs are everywhere, half of which are pregnant. I have only seen two or three traffic lights in the whole city. I’ll write more about that some other time.
Tomorrow: Al-Moqattam, a.k.a. “Garbage City”. Home of mostly Coptic Christians. One of The Sister’s of Charity’s locations.
Before ending this blog entry, allow me to anticipate an assumption some might draw from that bit about Christians and Muslims: Egypt’s religious issues cannot be understood as Christianity v. Islam. So please, do not assume stuff like this is simply a matter of Christian being persecuted (though in many cases it can be part of it). Just like the United States, you cannot divvy up Egypt’s circumstances into terms of one religion v. another. This country comes with a history older than the US and most of Europe. Within only the past century or so it has broke free from British colonialism, and that break was made with a militant revolution. The country has been in a state of emergency ever since President Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Things are not simple at home and they are not simple here.
At the top of the temple in the heart of Siwa.
Ibn Tulun Mosque
Egypt is not America. You may think to yourself, “No duh.” But the substance of that statement is only as deep as your understanding of both America and Egypt. Blogs like this can really only be a brief insight into another place and anyone reading this would do well to keep in my mind who and what they are reading: the encounters of a 21st century American, Christian, college student whose brain has not even physically finished developing, and his encounters with something new. I barely understand my country let alone someone else’s. Plenty of Cairenes (people of Cairo) keep in better sync with American culture than I ever do or would. I am struggling to understand my own faith daily so the chances of me figuring out a Muslim’s are pretty slim. All this is to say: read me wisely. Reading this blog will be nothing more than looking at Egypt through the wrong end of a telescope but hopefully an interesting look nonetheless.
Just a brief explanation of what I am doing here: thirty-two students are accepted each semester to participate in a study abroad option offered at Eastern University through the CCCU called, the Middle Eastern Studies Program (MESP). It is a Christian program led by a very able director, Dr. David Holt, which focuses on those two, big controversies of old: religion and politics. It is a difficult but refreshing program based in Cairo, Egypt that quickly cuts through the superficial conversation into the more genuine, troubling one surrounding the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and questions of faith boundaries. We study in the weekdays and travel on the weekends for half a semester in Egypt taking one class on Islamic Thought and Practice and another in Egyptian Arabic. (I’m also doing a Tabla drumming class on the side.) Then we travel for a month through the Middle East (Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel) while taking two different classes on Middle Eastern Cultures and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, meeting with speakers from the traveled regions, touring, writing papers and sleeping on buses. As a philosophy major, this does not directly contribute towards my major but like my major I am doing this because I see it as an opportunity to help me be something worth being.
I have been here about six weeks now studying Islamic thought and practice along with Egyptian Arabic (both which are pah-re-tty difficult to process.) Like everything else in Cairo, Egypt, it zigs where I zag. We’ve been to Luxor (a bed of tourist traps and those stereotypical pharaonic temples covered in hieroglyphics), Siwa (an oasis in the Sahara desert near the Libyan border settled a long time ago by a bunch of Moroccans who didn’t feel like making the whole trip home after their Hajj to Mecca) and Dahab (a coastal town of the Red Sea on the Sinai Peninsula, loaded with sun-crisp Aussie scuba-divers and the cleanest stray dogs, cats and goats I have ever seen). I have stood in the shadows of the Giza Pyramids, walked by the paw of the Sphinx, sat on the tomb of a mummy, sand-boarded down the dunes of the Sahara, dipped my foot in the Nile, rode camels, climbed the Stairs of Penance to the peak of Mt. Sinai, swam in Cleopatra’s bath, stared into Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea, wandered through the Temple of the Oracle sought out by Alexander the Great, bartered in the markets, lived with a Muslim family in a neighborhood of absurdly poor conditions whose hospitality would put most Americans I know to shame, and that’s only half of it.
Egypt is bitter-sweet in every way. I love the food; it doesn’t love me back. Everything is cheap but only because power and wealth is absurdly lopsided in this oligarchic government. The air is cool in January but the dirtiest I have ever breathed. I could go on but more of this will come through in later blog entries.
For now, since I am wrapping up the first portion of my semester before the serious traveling begins I’ll submit some entries of past experiences from the first half of my time here over the next couple weeks. I have been keeping a journal with just a pen most of the time so I’ll pull some stories of moments and thoughts I find worth mentioning and post them up. Once I start the hefty traveling, I’ll start writing closer to the present.
Hopefully, whoever’s reading this finds it captivating enough to keep reading. This is for others more than it is me so please, questions and comments about anything are more than welcome. (That and they help me know someone is actually reading this.)