I've Moved!

My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Friday, June 26, 2009

So Long, Good-bye, and Hello

So long. Good-bye.

Those are not so much words that we as humans like to say, the more permanent "good-bye" in particular, yet we've all had to say them. In the last few months, it's been driven home to me just how much more frequently I will be saying them now than I have in the past.

I knew that as a diplomat's wife, I'd be moving a lot, every two to three years. When I thought about it, I realized that since the entire embassy staff doesn't rotate in or out on identical schedules, the embassy community wouldn't be stable even during those two or three years when we lived in any given country. When I thought about it, I realized this. Yet, in the hustle, bustle, and confusion of preparing for and then making our first international move, I didn't think about it often. Instead, I rejoiced that we were able to meet a few people in America who would be our neighbors, friends, and Jeff's coworkers while we were in Egypt. I rejoiced in the emails we received from Egypt, emails that contained encouragement, offers of assistance, and much-needed information.

We arrived in mid-June last year. I didn't realize it at the time, but the year's mass exodus was winding up and was pretty well finished by the time I emerged from my first week or so of self-imposed isolation, adjusting to the idea that I was really in Egypt. As I adjusted to the expat life throughout the summer and early fall, those people who were here at my arrival stayed. New people came in gradually during July and early August, then in a rush in late August. Embassy people, oil people, defense contractors, teachers ... those who were moving here for the first time tended to arrive in late summer, just before school started up again. At the same time, expat wives who had lived here for anywhere from one year to thirty years returned from their summer vacations in their home countries. My first few months here consisted of meeting new people and becoming friends with them, with new people constantly being added but few if any leaving.

Then January came around. One couple with whom we were friends from life group decided to return to their home in South Africa. We had known for a while that they were considering moving on, but the time between the final decision and the departure was short. Then my friends from Bible study started talking about their summer plans. Most of the expat women here leave during the summer, escaping the heat and taking the opportunity to visit family and friends and to re-acquaint their children with their homelands. I started to realize that last year's pleasant solitude could become this year's lonely boredom if I don't figure out ways to keep myself occupied--preferably indoors--this summer. Still, I had time to make my plans.

Then some friends from Jeff's office--a couple whom we had first met in the States and who served as both spiritual and professional mentors and encouragers during our first year in this strange new life--rotated out not long before we left for our R&R in early May. I actually never spent a lot of time with this couple, although Jeff saw them regularly at the embassy. When I did see them, their love for others, for this country and its citizens, and for God shone through in a way that was uplifting. Even when I wasn't around them, it was encouraging to know that they were nearby, just a phone call away. So even though I wasn't heart-broken, I was sad to say good-bye to them*.

We returned from R&R to find preparations for more departures in full swing. My friends are leaving for the summer, one by one. One actually left a couple of months ago; others left right after school let out. It seems like an endless chorus of "So long, I'll see you this fall! Have a great summer!"

I think the biggest loss for us, though, is the one that will occur in just a couple more days. Our neighbors, whom we had expected to be here for another year, have accepted a position that requires them to cut this tour short and head to a new post. This couple has done more for us than I can say. They were our unofficial sponsors--our official embassy sponsor who was supposed to help us through the transition of moving here was a joke, and this couple stepped in to fill the gap. They drove us around until our vehicle arrived. They showed us where the commissary is. They explained how the embassy shuttle service works. They introduced us to convenient, good, and safe restaurants, one of them on the very evening we arrived, so I wouldn't have to cook and we wouldn't have to figure out how to obtain food in this strange new place. They answered innumerable questions which must have seemed silly at the time--about internet service, mobile phone service, how to get our AFN television service set up, where to buy phone cords, ADSL routers, and countless other things. They took us to the Khan for the first time. They are the embassy people with whom I've socialized the most (most of my socializing is through non-embassy circles), and possibly the people here with whom Jeff is closest. The news that they're leaving came unexpectedly not that long ago. It rocked my feelings of being settled here much more than I would have expected it to, probably because it seemed so sudden. More than anyone else, these people have felt like my mentors, and I expected them to be here for another year ... even though I have other friends who have been here longer than they have and who function as mentors to me, it was a shock to my equilibrium to hear that they were leaving*.

But in the midst of these "so long's" and "farewells," there are spots of "glad you're here" and "hello." A few--a very few, but a few--of the expat wives stay over the summer. They may go on vacation now and then, but only for a week or two. I know that I can count on one or two of the women in my life group to be here most of the summer. One friend who moved here just before me will be in town this summer; she lives in another part of Cairo and is about to start a part-time job, so I don't see her often, but when the cabin fever kicks in, I know she'll be there. I've also had the pleasure of meeting, for the first time, a couple who has been in our life group longer than I have. I believe the husband was the leader of the group before they returned to Canada for last summer, and then events just kept occuring to keep them there. But they're finally back now, so there's a "hello" in the midst of my "goodbyes."

And I know that come August, there will be more "hello" and "nice to meet you" going on. This summer will be the empty time, after "goodbye" but before "hello." But then, it doesn't have to be empty. That part is up to me. This time can be full, too, just full of different things than the fall, winter, and spring. There won't be any ladies' Bible studies; there aren't any ladies to attend--but there can and should be personal Bible studies throughout the year. There won't be any meetings of the Maadi Women's Guild--but there will continue to be life group meetings. There won't be the baby wash volunteer work--but there can be orphanage volunteer work, if I ever get my act in gear and arrange for a driver. There can be language classes. There can be time to take care of my home--cleaning, cooking, setting up the guest room, finishing up the "settling in" process that usually takes me about 18 months longer than I wish it did. And there can be time to rest, to read, to relax with a kitten in my lap or curled up beside me, to prepare myself for the busiest time of year here--the fall, when all the usual activities start up again, accompanied by kick-off events, pleas for help with charities (think Christmas bazaar), helping out those newbies who are feeling as overwhelmed as I did last year, and then finally, our own holiday preparations.

"So longs" are not fun. "Good-byes" are hard. "Hellos" are good. The time in between ... maybe that's a gift from God, who knows what I need much better than, and long before, I know it myself.

*One consolation to knowing that both they and we are foreign service families: It's almost inevitable that we'll meet again, in another overseas post or a Stateside tour.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Permission Denied

In January of this year, I first brought you the news about Maher El-Gohary, a Christian man of Muslim background who had petitioned the government of Egypt to recognize his change of religion on his official identification card. At that point, he had followed the procedure outlined in Egyptian law for a person to request a change in his official religion, but his request had been denied because it is not allowable in Islam for a Muslim to convert to any other religion. In February, I told you of how opposing lawyers tried to convince the judge to order El-Gohary's death for apostasy and of how El-Gohary was beaten when he tried to obtain and file paperwork to allow his lawyer to represent him. Since February, quite a bit has happened in this case . . .

The judge required El-Gohary to obtain two documents to prove his conversion. He was required to present a certificate of baptism and a letter of acceptance into the Coptic Orthodox Church. Both of these documents were very difficult for El-Gohary to obtain. Most priests in the Middle East will not baptize--or at least will not acknowledge publicly that they have baptized--a former Muslim for fear of retaliation against themselves, their families, or their congregations. El-Gohary traveled to Cyprus to obtain his baptism and certificate of baptism. Then Father Matthias Manqarious, a Coptic priest, issued a certificate of conversion or letter of acceptance to El-Gohary, and the Coptic Church endorsed the certificate--the first time that the Coptic Church has issued such a letter and taken an open stand in support of converts' rights. This action took an immense amount of bravery on the part of Father Manqarious and the church leadership. Father Manqarious himself now has been the target of death threats, along with El-Gohary, who went into hiding.

In April or May--I'm not sure which--the State Council chimed in. The State Council is "a consultative body of Egypt's Administrative Court," as described by Compass Direct. The council sent a report to Judge Hamdy Yasin to express their opinion on El-Gohary's case. According to this report, El-Gohary's "audacity" in filing this case causes a threat to social order and violates sharia, upon which Egyptian law is based. According to this report, all Christians are infidels, those who seek to leave Islam are apostates, and apostates face the death penalty.

Then it was time to appear in court again. This past Saturday, 13 June, was the big day. Judge Hamdy Yasin was to issue his ruling. The hearing took only 10 minutes. Yasin's decision: permission for El-Gohary to change his official religion is denied.

One of El-Gohary's lawyers pointed out that the judge who had requested certificates of baptism and acceptance from the church refused to accept the very certificates that he had requested "because the remit of the church is to deal with Christians, not to deal with Muslims who convert to Christianity; this is outside their remit" (Compass Direct). I find it interesting that the judge does not define converts as Christians, even though most people would define a Christian as someone who accepts or converts to Christianity. The same lawyer believes that Egyptian judges may fear to allow conversion from Islam to Christianity because "they’re afraid that if they allow it, then all Muslims will become Christians . . . They know there are many converts, and they will all officially become Christians” (Compass Direct). The assumption is that the judge ordered El-Gohary to obtain these documents because the judge believed it would be impossible for him to do so, and the judge therefore would not have to make a decision. However, El-Gohary did obtain the documents, the judge was forced to make a decision, and he decided against El-Gohary's right to convert.

El-Gohary and his lawyers do plan to appeal. So does Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy, the first Egyptian Christian of Muslim background who tried to change his official religion. His request was denied early last year, I believe, and he, his wife, and his young daughter are in hiding. According to Compass Direct's article dated 12 September 2008, Hegazy and his family had been forced to move five times in eight months when their whereabouts became known to those who would kill them for apostasy. Hegazy's own family has threatened to kill the couple, and his father is trying to get custody of their daughter so that she will be raised as a Muslim. Hegazy still plans to fight (legally) for his rights and the rights of other converts, but the violent reaction to his conversion does not bode well for other public converts in Egypt, such as El-Gohary.

This information, about both El-Gohary and Hegazy, has raised some questions in my mind. How is it that followers of "the religion of peace" advocate violence against those who peacefully choose to leave that religion, and that there is no public outcry by peaceful Muslims against those who advocate violence? How is it that a country that guarantees the "freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rites" in Article 46 of its constitution actually prohibits the majority of its citizens from choosing beliefs and religious rites that differ from those of their parents? When will those in power realize that its refusal to officially recognize conversions doesn't mean that the conversions never happened? Or do the government's representatives actually believe that these self-proclaimed Christians are, in reality, Muslims--merely because the government says so?

Another interesting piece of information that I learned today: an Egyptian representative sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council:

Egypt is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body made up of 47 states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. On April 18, 2007, in its written statement applying for a seat to the Human Rights Council, the representative of Egypt to the U.N. stated that if elected it would emphasize promoting cultural and religious tolerance, among other human rights. (last paragraph, this article from Compass Direct).

Shouldn't religious tolerance include the granting of the freedom to change one's religion?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Familiar Yet Strange: Adapting to America(!?) and Egypt (Again)

Far be it from me not to give credit where credit is due: This post was inspired by Susie's post, "On Being Normal," over at Susie's Big Adventure.

Familiarity is a strange thing. I have commented to my husband, back when we were long-distance daters, how strange traveling often made me feel. When I was out West, attending school, my life there was familiar and normal. When I traveled to the East Coast to visit him, it was as if my normal life was a dream, and all that existed was my life with him. When I returned to school, everything felt familiar yet strange, as if I didn't belong there, for a day or two, until I settled back into my life. I hadn't thought of those feelings of blended familiarity and unfamiliarity, normality and strangeness, for years . . . at least not until my recent trip home to the United States.

I expected to feel a little strange when I left the airport on my way to my mother-in-law's home. After all, we'd been traveling for around 23 hours, with only an hour or two of sleep on the plane. But by the next day, I anticipated that I'd be back to normal, other than jet lag. Imagine my surprise when "normal" just didn't happen! At first, it seemed fine--when Jeff and I went to Target the day after our arrival, I commented gleefully that I hadn't even noticed the woman wearing shorts and a spaghetti-strap shirt, until I noticed that I didn't get angry at the sight of her. (When I see Westerners dressed that revealingly here, it makes me angry, because it contributes to the perception that all Westerners are immodest, easy, and disrespectful of the culture, thereby making life a little more difficult for all expats.) We cruised around Target, oohing and aahing over the variety of merchandise available, the attractive presentation of said merchandise, and the orderly way that people moved their shopping carts while following commonly accepted "rules of the road."

But as time went on, I noticed more and more how things just didn't feel normal to me. It was little things. Jeff and I gloated over how well-behaved drivers were--but every time I saw the cars all lined up in their lanes at the stop light, I had a momentary thought of how strange they looked. Didn't they understand that, in a four- or five-lane road, they could fit an additional two or three cars at the line? And why were they just sitting there anyway, when no one was coming on the other road? It seemed such a waste for them to sit there, waiting patiently, even when there was no oncoming traffic. It just didn't seem right. And the single-family homes were so big, with so much yard around them. I have no problem with large homes and big gardens yards (they're called gardens here; even my language isn't cooperating!), but it just seemed so strange, almost surreal, compared to the reality of close-set apartment buildings and walled villas.

I should have expected that normal, everyday life in America would feel different to me after almost a year in Egypt. My first clue came before I even left, when I was deciding what clothing to take with me. I never even considered taking my short-sleeved shirts, other than the ones I use while exercising (I had good intentions to exercise while on the trip, although it didn't happen). I just feel more comfortable now when I'm more covered than that. I prefer loose shirts with 3/4-length or long sleeves, and if the shirt itself is long, too, so much the better. A year ago, as soon as the weather heated up, I'd pull out my sleeveless shirts and wear them until it got cold again. Now, it just feels too revealing to wear anything that hits significantly above the elbow. So the only clothing I wanted to wear in the United States was clothing that I would wear publicly in Egypt. That should have been a clue!

Most of my behavior while at home didn't reflect these unreal feelings of disconnectedness from my own culture. Usually it was just internal reflections and feelings of strangeness. There were some questions about my clothing, especially when, on a hot day, I would wear one of the shirts I bought at the Khan el Khalili. These tunics are long, long-sleeved, loose, and very comfortable in all weather conditions, even in the heat. On one such day, my sister took one look at me and said, "What are you wearing?" She didn't believe me when I told her how comfortable it was. I think she even doubted my sister-in-law, who was wearing one that she had received for her birthday and who defended the comfort and coolness of the shirt. But other than my clothing choices, I don't think there was much evidence that any of my perceptions had changed . . . until, of course, I was introduced to two men.

I first was introduced to the husband of one of my high school roommates. It had been years since I had seen Tina; I had attended her wedding but not the reception, so I hadn't met her husband at all. We arranged to meet them at a restaurant to catch up. I hugged Tina enthusiastically, but when she introduced her husband, I'm pretty sure I didn't even shake his hand. I smiled, I greeted him, I made eye contact but not a whole lot of it, and I did not approach him or extend my hand. I think at the end of our meal, when everyone was saying good-bye, we may have exchanged hugs; I'm not certain. But when I first met him, my instinct was to treat him like I treat Egyptian men who I meet for the first time: Be polite, be pleasant and to some degree friendly, but above all, be distant. Don't touch them; don't allow them to touch you.

Something similar happened when I met one of my husband's male friends. We were introduced, and he stuck his hand out for a handshake. Common enough in America. But it felt so strange and unexpected to me! I think I responded quickly enough to mask it, but my first reaction was surprise. It felt like I just stood there and stared at his hand for a moment, not comprehending that I was supposed to reach out and take it, although no one behaved as if I had acted strangely.

So it was the little things. Overall, I was fine. I certainly felt comfortable shopping in the many malls we visited (although there was a distinct difference in how I treated the male and female sales attendants), dining at our favorite restaurants, hanging out in the home in which I grew up, visiting my husband's family, seeing old friends . . . but I wouldn't wear short sleeves, my instinct was to maintain distance between myself and any men with whom I wasn't already familiar, and the traffic and the houses, stores, and other buildings just seemed . . . strange, too spread out, not as crowded as would have been "normal" to me.

I didn't drive while I was home--mostly due to exhaustion from jet lag and a busy schedule--but now I'm wishing that I had. Would I have driven like I used to, like the other Americans? Or would my husband have had to remind me where I was? Would I have been more confident than I used to be? I consider myself a mediocre driver, and I always was nervous in traffic. Here, it doesn't bother me, because the habits that made me a not-so-great driver in the States fit right in here. So would I have been confident, even too confident, or would my old caution have returned? I guess I'll have to wait until next year to find out.

Now that I've returned to Egypt, things feel strange again. At first, on the way home from the airport, I looked out the window and felt the difference from the only other time I've made that trip. The buildings, the dust, the children playing, even the pickup trucks piled cab-high with stuff--they were all familiar and comforting. The traffic that had me squeezing Jeff's hand in fear last time didn't raise an eyebrow this time.

But then I got to the compound, and I greeted the guard in English. He responded in Arabic, because that's our usual language of interaction, at least for common greetings and phrases that I know. I responded appropriately in Arabic, but . . . I had first spoken to him in English. It's been months since I did that. The next day, as I drove to the commissary, I felt reckless. I drove the same way I always do, for the most part--there was that big bus that I bullied out of my way, which is still not all that common for me. But I felt reckless just driving down the wide, mostly empty street, because I ignored lanes while swerving to avoid potholes, slow drivers, and inattentive pedestrians. I got a little nervous when I approached a busy intersection--those intersections haven't bothered me for a long time. And everything just seemed so loud and so dirty!

My time in the States hasn't completely undone the progress I had made in adapting to life in Egypt, but there definitely is some ground that will have to be regained. I mostly expected that. But what I still can't get over is how strange it felt to be back home. And this is after having been gone for not even a full year! What will it be like next year, I wonder? What will it be like--what will I be like--if we make the Department of State and various overseas postings our life for the next 20 years? It's a daunting thought . . . but I am an adventurer at heart, so I must admit to looking forward to answering that very question.