Now comes the hard part - leaving Egypt. This time though, when we leave the airplane and walk down the gate, entering Germany again, I don't cry. I remember what Mahmoud said to us that day on the sailboat, "If you've drunk from the waters of the Nile, you'll be back." This thought continues to comfort me. I trust that someday I will be back.
I created this blog to explore themes I encounter in my life journey. After all, it's a blog about personal growth as much as it's about travel. And I, a middle-aged adult on the way to becoming a senior citizen, am still in the process of growing up. I am a masterpiece in progress.
During the first trip, I was pleasantly disoriented by all the male attention I received. I think I became a bit more adjusted in dealing with this newfound attention this time, but it was still a challenge, as was the pleasant discovery that I am still attractive to some men besides my husband!
The main challenges this time had to do with giving myself permission to follow some of my inner urges, no matter what those little voices inside my head were telling me, even if I thought my urge was not exactly acceptable in society, even if this sometimes caused discomfort to my husband. But experiencing these things together and talking about them turned out to be a great thing for our marriage. If it was likely to help me to understand the culture, I asked my questions, and Peter found the information almost as interesting as I did. Then there was the challenge of venturing further into a foreign culture, this time sometimes without the benefit of a tour guide. Dealing with this together strengthened our bond as well.
I was challenged about how I live my Christian beliefs. My knowledge about America’s role in international affairs was challenged. I was left utterly confused several times about what I was hearing in the news. In other words, some of my assumptions were challenged.
During my first trip, I was thrown into a male public culture, discovering that Egyptian men treated me differently than German and American men. I enjoyed the special attention I received, but I also felt like an awkward teenager in a post-menopausal body. This time around, I spent the two weeks still getting used to admiring eyes (I had thought that was all decades behind me!), but I was also able to enjoy the newness of discovering my femininity. It's a very different feeling from being a twenty-five-year-old trying to stave off cat calls and improper propositions. At that age, I was so busy trying to deal with horny men and my own sexuality, I had no time to sit back and enjoy it. Now, I marvel that men could still find me attractive, but I am enjoying the marveling as well as the attention.
If I had been able to relax with the cat calls in my youth, if I had had a ready response to the propositions, I probably wouldn't be moved by attention today. I was recently talking with another woman my age (someone I consider beautiful) who also went to Egypt with her husband. She hated all the attention, all the touching. One man joked with her husband, "How many camels do you want for her?" and she felt insulted. I would probably laugh along with the man and my husband, seeing it as a compliment. Is this attention improper? In the West, certainly. In my case, sometimes it was on the edge. But I'm increasingly enjoying being on the edge. Life on the edge is stimulating, as long as you don't fall off.
Is it good to look young when you're not? Why is youth so revered? This is a dilemma for us women. We want to be valued for who we are, but we also want to be admired for how we look.
I'm starting to get used to the idea of enjoying having relationships with men other than my husband, trusting myself in the boundaries I define. When I think about other women I know who have always felt comfortable with male attention, I feel a sense of shame, like a country hick in the city. I'm such a late developer in this area! But - so what. Better late than never. Might as well enjoy the growing pains. It's good to have growing pains about men while being happily married. I know where my boundaries are, so I can learn to relax more within them.
Another theme during my first trip was my attitude towards Germans. During this trip, I had only one German to contend with - my husband. In some ways, he is a typical German, but in other ways, he's way off the charts. He's careful, cautious, and private - German traits. Sometimes I feel limited by these traits, especially in his need for privacy. But these traits can also be safety ropes, ready to pull me back, just in case I go too far as I allow myself to spend more time on the edges of what his - or any culture allows. We stayed away from a Nubian wedding Mahmoud invited us to because Peter said that in that setting we'd be captive, with no way to get back to our hotel. We couldn’t simply hail a taxi, far away from other tourists. He was right. It would probably have turned out fine, but you never know.
The amazing thing is, while possessing these very constraining traits, Peter wants me to be free to live outside of his limits. This is something I marvel at, since my childhood was anything but free. This is one way he loves me, and I'm learning to enjoy swimming in deeper waters than he. I used to stop myself from doing certain things I really wanted to do, thinking he wouldn't approve, or that he would try and stop me. But over the years, as I've ventured more and more into freedom, he's always backed me up. And he did the same this time.
One of my posts in this series is about the hour Peter and I spent in Mahmoud’s living room, after I had invited myself there to pray for his mother. Peter just about died, sitting there with me, surrounded by all of Mahmoud’s family and neighbors. Germans don't invite themselves into other people's homes, especially not when you meet them on vacation! Americans don't either, for that matter. Peter made the best of the situation, praying silently for Mahmoud's mother with me. During our drive from Alexandria to Cairo, when I asked Mohammed if he'd consider taking his friend as a second wife, Peter felt like crawling out of the car. Instead he laughed, freeing Mohammed to laugh as well, as he said, "Watch out! My wife's questions can get you into trouble."
Germans don't ask personal questions. They have a saying for this, in fact: "Man macht das nicht," which means, "You can't do that." There are all sorts of conventions about things Germans can't do. Peter's conventional side has to put up with a lot of rule-breaking on my part. I'm breaking more and more of the rules these days, which is stretching him, but I'm confident we'll stretch together.
My growing into freedom, something I find I really need for myself, turns out to be good for our marriage. It was my initiative that allowed us to meet the Casper family, to venture into the hinterlands of Cairo on the Metro, living for a few moments like the Egyptians. It felt great to cross the Nile on a bridge all by ourselves, like young lovers, surrounded by Egyptians. We shared a new experience as we discovered a delicious new dish - koshary - in a fast food restaurant, when we had no idea what we had just ordered.
What a reward for all this to find those beautiful postcards on the bed. "I am sure I would never have ventured to Egypt without you," Peter wrote. "You bring out the best in me." How wonderful, that Peter valued my daring to be adventurous.
Another challenge in daring to be who I am is in the area of faith, and in having the courage to talk openly about it. I have never made a secret of the fact that I am a Christian or that I pray, but up to this point, I had never offered to pray for someone in their presence, at least not when I was with Peter. I have also rarely mentioned the name, "Jesus," when talking about my faith. It sounds so, so - what? Narrow, perhaps. Out of step with the times. Religious. I don't think it's considered cool to be religious, and definitely not cool to be so open about it. Still, on this trip, I allowed myself to be seen as religious, even while belonging to a different religion than the majority of those I was with. I wanted to be authentic in showing who I am. And, when I thought about my actions, I could see that the main reason I was in Egypt this time was to pray for the land.
In some ways, it's easy to be a believer in Egypt, because in Egypt it's easy to be a person of faith. It's all around, from the calls to worship five times a day, to sights of people prostrating themselves in front of everybody else, to hearing repeated phrases like "If God wills," to clothing attire. It is a common sight to see people reading their Koran or working their prayer beads on the Metro. Religion is a public thing in Egypt. I agree with Muslims that our religion has a visible side, and I think it’s good to allow what you are to be visible to others. For that reason, I am opposed to separation of church and state. You can't keep religion out of state, because religion is also expressed in things of state. In a democracy like in the United States or Germany, freedom attracts people of other religions, resulting in a plurality of religions. Instead of no prayer in the classroom in school, I would like to see prayer as a natural part of the school day, a time when people of all religions, or those of none, can have a moment to reflect, if that's what the majority want. Instead of no Christmas, I would like to see Christmas, and Hannukah, and Ramadan, and whatever else is important to the people in that setting being a part of public life. Religion is part of daily life, so why hide it? In our Western culture, we have been conditioned to believe that religion is a private matter. I don’t know how it is in the States anymore, but in Europe, talking about or demonstrating one's religion is a taboo - and I chose to break it.
I believe in the power of prayer in the name of Jesus, and so I dared, in the end, to offer it to Mahmoud's mother. I'm glad I did. I had the opportunity to show this family who I really am, and they were open to this.
My insight about prayer necessitating action had consequences, even after our return to Germany. Mahmoud had my cell phone number to make arrangements with us while we were in Aswan. One day after our return, my cell phone rang. It was Mahmoud. "My mother was operated on today," he said. "I'm in Cairo. The doctor says she needs to be flown back to Aswan, that she is not strong enough to travel by train, but I don't have enough money for a ticket. Could you lend me money for the ticket?" I ended up sending him rather large sums of money - twice, because his situation seemed so desperate. I could have turned him down, but I chose, after making a phone call to someone in Aswan to check on what he was saying, to trust him. Peter and I decided this together, but again, he had an added challenge because of my openness. I don’t know if we’ll ever receive this money back, but that doesn’t really matter to me. It felt good to be able to help, and it was good to find out that Mahmoud was not greedy for more. I think I've found another person in Egypt I can trust, who is truthful, who is genuinely thankful. I think we have made a new friend in Mahmoud.
It felt good, even if a little scary, to be so open about some of the practices of my faith. I love openness, and don't like hiding important bits of myself. Because of my openness, I had some priceless encounters with people like Mahmoud, Gabriel, and Mohammed's friend. We were able get to know and value Mohammed in a much deeper way.
The Christians in Egypt were a challenge to my faith as well. Here in the West you can say, "I'm a Christian", and the statement is acknowledged with no further questions. In Egypt, the statement seems to come across as shallow. At least twice I heard people say when talking about their Christian faith, "I love Jesus." Now that goes a bit deeper. Once, when I told a woman I was a Christian, she wasn't satisfied with my answer. "Do you love Jesus?" was her response. A challenge. Do I love Jesus? One would think that a Christian would love Jesus. But faith seems to be more remote here in the West, even with respect to the founder of my own religion. Now that I'm back, I'm working on my relationship with Jesus. After all, people in Egypt have been killed for loving Jesus. This is a sobering thought.
Another area where I felt challenged was in responding to the constant pressure and manipulation to buy. I wanted to be myself, also in this area, to treat each person as someone of value, but not to let them take advantage of me. This has always been one of my problems. How can you be friendly and yet turn someone down? In our Aswan hotel, the owner of a shoe store was a real pest. If I avoided him, I would invariably run into him later and he would say, "Why you not come into my shop? You promised." I did buy a beautiful lavender leather handbag from him, but he wanted more - he wanted Peter to try on shoes he pushed on me. "Just let him try them. He doesn't have to buy." I wasn't strong enough to resist his pressure that time. When I returned to the store with the shoes, he made a crestfallen face. "Why he not like my shoes?" When I made it clear that he was not going to buy the shoes, he tried to push a belt on me. Finally, I found the courage to say what I really thought, pushing through politeness to get real.
"Look," I said. "You keep pushing so many things on me. We in the West don't like this. We buy what we need. We don't think we have to buy something just because it's nice. And we want to think about what to buy. We need the freedom not to buy." And then he did something that amazed me.
"I understand, sister," he said, and shook my hand. "We're friends now." We broke through! He appreciated my honesty, giving me the highest title I could imagine - sister.
I think Egyptians respond to honesty. But it seemed especially hard sometimes to know whether the stories I was hearing were true, whether they had to do with the political situation in Egypt, America’s role in it, or whether Mahmoud or shopkeepers were being truthful with me. I found most of them to be pushy and manipulative. They would not hesitate to use my weaknesses or torment my conscience if it would help them make a sale. I was told that the shoe salesman was wealthy and that he owned five shops. Yet, he pled poverty. Another told me that I was his first customer of the day - at three in the afternoon. This lack of clarity seemed to be everywhere. I am told that shopkeepers are like that all over the developing world, but I experienced this phenomenon in Egypt. And yet, there was a positive side to this as well - Egyptian shopkeepers helped me be more forthright, more honest in my own reactions to them. They have helped me to grow up.
Since returning to Germany and to the West, I have started reexamining what I hear in the news here. There has been a scandal surrounding the former German president, who has just been replaced. Christian Wulff, the previous president, is said to have been taking favors in illegal ways, but he declares he has done nothing illegal. Since my return to the West, an American soldier has killed sixteen Afghan civilians. He was flown back almost immediately to the United States for trial, although Afghans believe he should stand trial there. The same thing has happened with the American and German NGO workers who were being detained in Egypt. They’re back in the States and in Germany, and will almost certainly not stand trial in Egypt. Of course, the U.S. needs to abide by its own laws regarding extradition of crime suspects overseas, but I am starting to question things like partiality more than I used to. I wonder if America has a different standard for its own citizens than it has for others. Egyptians think so. I have always tended to take news stories like these at face value, not questioning how much truthfulness I am hearing from the people in power in my country or in Germany. Now, I see that wherever I look, there is a lack of clarity. It’s not just in Egypt. But I long, more than ever, to live in an atmosphere where truthfulness is valued. I think this tendency to not question what we hear in the news is typical in America, but also in Germany.
I am less naïve in this area than before, thanks to my time in Egypt. I am also more interested in what is going on, even if I often feel powerless. Who knows, maybe I can do some tiny thing for the cause of truthfulness, for the cause of freedom, of tolerance. Reading between the lines and trying to understand one newspaper article more, one more analysis, will be a start, adding to the trickle of truth, just as I believe my trickles of prayer contribute to the stream of blessing.
In this blog series I have changed the names of the people I wrote about, if they are not public figures, to protect their identity. I have also changed or blurred some locations for the same reason.