Sunday, November 13, 2011

"Shukran" means "Thank you" - Conclusion

Traveling changes you, they say. I think that's one of the most wonderful things about traveling. I wonder how peaceful this world would be if more people became acquainted with other cultures.

About ten years ago our family took a trip to Israel. This trip was the fruition of a long-standing dream. I grew up in a family and church that was very pro-Israel. My father's roommate at Columbia was Jewish, and they still kept in touch during my childhood. Israel and Jews were, for us, the "good guys".

Germans weren't discussed in church, except that a family escaping from Communist East Germany joined our congregation, and my parents befriended them. But for the Jewish people I was later to work with in New York City, Germany was the "bad guy". My destiny led me to live with the "bad guys", even to the point of marrying one of them.

Egypt didn't really figure in my thinking, but I suppose that if I had bothered to think about this country, it would also have been one of the "bad guys", this country that enslaved the Israelites thousands of years ago, the one that attacked Israel in 1956. I never entertained a thought about visiting Egypt until after Peter and I went to the "King Tut" exhibition, and I only did that to please him. I had no expectations for this trip except the hope that the air would heal my lungs and sinuses. I was completely unprepared for the huge impact this country would make on me.

This trip showed me my prejudices more than any other I have been on. I, like many other Americans, unfortunately think in "good guys - bad guys" terms. Black and white. Americans, if they think about it at all, tend to pit Egypt against Israel. The two countries are not seen as cousins, as family. They should. I loved my Israel experience. It felt a bit like coming home, after seeing places I had read and heard about all my life. Egypt was a completely new experience, but the people I met - all men - were so chivalrous, so kind, yet dignified, they didn't need to do much to win me over. I wish I could have met some women. Watching them on the streets, however, walking erectly, regally, faces reflecting confidence, I realized that there is much I need to learn yet about Egyptian women and men.

This was the first organized tour I have ever been on with Germans. Again, I was confronted with my judgmental attitudes, my prejudices. I am quick to make snap judgments, I must admit. I take it for granted that I'm one of the "good guys". I think we Americans generally see ourselves this way. During this trip, watching Claudia and Burkhard's warm friendliness towards everyone, I saw that I am not as good as I tend to think. Luckily, I was able to revise some of my initial impressions. I hope that I can become, more and more, an open, welcoming person who isn't so quick to judge, who rather embraces. Now, thanks to Kurt, the guy I loved to hate, my sinuses are slowly continuing to open up as I inhale steaming water containing copious amounts of sea salt.

This trip helped me to recover parts of my femininity that got lost. I think this could only happen in a country like Egypt, where the only people you have contact with are male. I didn't meet a single male who was overbearing or disrespectful to me as a woman. Well, once. One of the times I found myself alone, unprotected by Peter, a man wanted to sell me something. When I told him I had no money on me, he said, "I'll give it to you for a kiss."

"Shame on you!" I said. "You're a Muslim!" He was so ashamed of his behavior, he rushed over to me, apologizing, saying he didn't mean it, he was only joking, and would I please accept a present from him. American men sometimes come on to women, but I have never heard one apologize when reprimanded.

Peter, my walking encyclopedia, tells me that the notion of chivalry came to the West when the Crusaders encountered Arab men. Arabs - Egyptians - taught Europeans to be gentlemen. Then these "Christian gentlemen" went and massacred their teachers, returning to their ladies with roses. Now we women have told our men we don't want them to be gentlemen anymore.

Having Egyptian men wait on me hand and foot, pulling chairs out, pushing them in, smiling with warmth and respect with no trace of over-familiarity, showing merely with their eyes that they think me attractive, but always maintaining a respectful distance, made me want to be the woman they see. I sensed, I intuited, that these men like women who wear jewelry and makeup, who dress attractively, but without flirting or ostentation. They like soft, kind, respectful women. I want to grow in that. This, I think, has gotten lost in our western feminist culture. We women have made progress in attaining influence in the worlds of commerce and government, thank God, but we need to see men as complementary, not as threats, and not forgetting our own innate beauty.

In their book "Captivating", John and Stasi Eldredge say, "Beauty is powerful. Beauty may be the most powerful thing on earth. Beauty speaks. Beauty invites. Beauty nourishes. Beauty comforts. Beauty inspires. Beauty is transcendent. Beauty is what the world longs to experience from a woman. Beauty is an essence that dwells in every woman." This is something I had forgotten. My Peter is a gentleman. He is chivalrous. But I live in a culture that doesn't value chivalry anymore, and so I also devalued it. As a result, the flame of beauty was barely flickering in me, but the Egyptian men I met ignited it again. This is the kind of power I want, the kind that inspires, not the kind that rules like a dictator. I've started wearing skirts and jewelry again.

Similarly, sensuality, healthy sensuality got lost somewhere. I grew up in a strict religious culture that didn't value sensuality anyway. Then along came feminism, telling us women that our real value lay in our intellect, also in our clout. We learned to be tough, to try and force others to see our strengths. We forgot about the pleasure of a warm, gentle touch. Touching only invites abuse, we heard, so we threw out the baby with the bath water. "Civilized" men don't dare touch women anymore. Women don't touch each other much either, at least not in northern Europe. I didn't even know I missed it until Mohammed started touching my shoulder, my forearm. He never touched any bare skin, and he never made any inappropriate moves towards me or any woman in the group. But he was not afraid to touch. I want to touch again, to be touched. I want to dance again, to enjoy my body.

And that's another thing. It was obvious to Claudia, to Peter, and to myself that Mohammed was somehow attracted to me. My Baptist upbringing would have had me run away, lest I be subject to temptation. What would Mom have done if she had had a Mohammed touching her arm? I can see her darting away, trying to find a corner where he couldn't possibly touch her. She would never have even gotten near the tour guide to ask a question. I have already overcome much of that neuroticism. But we have the Hollywood version now, and our sexy novels. In our popular media, it isn't possible to be attracted to someone without hopping into bed. How silly! How dangerous. The more a woman is aware of the power of her femininity, the more of this she allows others to see, the more attractive she will be. The same goes for a man who allows expression of his masculinity. It is a fact, a beautiful fact of life. I can enjoy being an attractive person without jumping into bed with every man who finds me attractive.

I spoke to Peter about Mohammed's attention to me. "I'm not jealous," he said. "I trust you completely." He told me about the troubadours, who sang to women they had no hope of having a physical relationship with. They sang to them because they appreciated their womanliness, their beauty. If it went any further, everything was spoiled. He said, "Mohammed is your troubadour." Is that not wonderful? To have someone who is so sure of your love that he can share a part of you with someone else? He knows that I will not abuse that trust. I have not been as trusting with him, although he has never done anything inappropriate. I hope to grow in that trust, as I grow in the courage to let my beauty out.

Which leads me to the subject of God. There's a purpose to every relationship we have, I believe. The clue is to understand what the nature of each relationship is meant to be. If we know that, we will know the boundaries that are ours, and hopefully not overstep them. Living within God's heart helps us to know where these boundaries fall. This trip helped me appreciate how important God is to me. A life nestled in God is a beautiful thing, I think. But it needs to be the true God, not some stiff system of rules.

I was taught that the only true lovers of God are Christian. What nonsense. They're all over the world, in every religion! I even think some of my friends who claim to be agnostics show, by their behavior, that they are lovers of God, but I may be imposing my views on them to say that. At any rate, Muslims are getting a hard rap these days. But it's the ones who make a big show of it, who scream "Sharia", who we hear of locking their women up, who want to cut off the hands of thieves. I have met too few Muslims to know how pervasive this view is. I can't imagine that such people have much knowledge of the true God, whom I have found to be loving and life-affirming. But I've met one Muslim who adores the God who gave him life and who continues to sustain him. He adores God all day long - while riding on a bus, wearing a button-down shirt and trousers, head uncovered, while explaining Egyptian mythology, while eating a meal.

Yesterday I played the piano in a worship "band" in church. We sang beautiful songs, worshipping our God. We also worshipped Jesus, our Savior. This trip helped me appreciate just how important my Christianity is to me. I am so grateful to have Jesus in my life. That's the title of a Christian praise chorus and may sound trite or kitchy to someone without this experience. For me, Jesus is not different from God. He is the very essence of God. He is the face of God. Thus, he is God. This Jesus reaches out to us, searching for us, even before we realize we are lost. This Jesus gives of himself, to the point of being broken. He sacrifices himself, dying so that we might live. I know this to be true. It is part of my experience. There is power in this life. If we are lucky enough to hear the call of Jesus and to answer, we find this power. As in the power of a woman, this is not a power that subjugates people or demeans them in any way. On the contrary, it empowers them. It gives them a heritage they had lost. This power is one that comes from forgiveness. From compassion. It is mercy. It is grace. It gives. As St. Francis said so beautifully, it seeks to understand more than to be understood.

I would know none of this if it weren't for Jesus in my life. I have experienced freedom, liberation, from following him. I don't sense this aspect of God-worship in the Islam I saw, but Mohammed, a Muslim, showed me the same searching, merciful heart of Isis, who looked all over Egypt for the missing parts of her husband until she found them - all but one tiny, crucial part. It was her love that even made up for that part, a love so strong that she could breathe life into him again. It was her mercy, her forgiveness, that spared the life of her cruel brother. We can find parts of our Christian story in other stories, I found.

That same Isis-spirit has helped me to find some of my missing parts. Egypt, shukran.

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