PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Into Egypt, Day 4

Today we took a break from sightseeing. In the morning, Cindy caught up on some work and I traveled to visit the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo.

My good friends Karla and David Grafton, who helped profoundly with planning this trip, worked at the seminary when they lived here and it was an incredible chance for me to learn about their work and meet their faculty and students, as well as get a better feel for the what it is like being a Christian in Egypt.

The Uber trip over was, well, a trip. The only time I have felt even moderately unsafe in Egypt has been in a car and when the very banged-up Uber pulled in to our hotel to pick me up, I was a tad nervous. When I got inside and there were no seat belts, I got a little bit more nervous. And then when the driver asked if I could pay him in cash because he had no gas. I was a bit concerned. However, not wanting to create any problems, and the fact that the Uber was going to be about $2, I decided not to fight it even though I knew I’d be charged twice.

I texted Cindy that if anything happened and we didn’t head to the seminary, there was enough traffic that I could just get out of the vehicle. It turned out my concern was in vain, except for the driving. It was clear why he had so many dents. But having survived my trip in Uganda, that puts everything in perspective.

Once I arrived at the seminary, a bit later than I had hoped, I had some time with Darren Kennedy, the academic dean, learning a bit more about their ministry and getting his perspective on life in Egypt, since he’s lived in Cairo for 23 years. Learning about the changes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the revolution was particularly interesting. After the Islamic Brotherhood, the fundamentalists who initially took control after Mubarak left, were removed from office, there has been a strong desire to keep things under control and in balance by shunning anything connected to extremism. Egypt is like a house of cards that needs this balance to keep from falling apart, as it is not defined by religious leadership in government.

One of the most interesting things I learned was that 40 percent of the economy here is controlled by the military and that they run business, do manufacturing and bid on road projects, etc. It gives new meaning to military industrial complex. I also learned that after Israel, Egypt gets the most foreign aid from the United States, typically. (The war in Ukraine may have changed that somewhat.)

I was also fascinated to learn the history of the seminary, which dates back to 1863. When it began neither the Coptic Christians nor the Muslims wanted the seminary to have any land, so it had to purchase a boat. As a result the seminary floated up and down the river, educating the students but also helping reach people in a unique way, literally spreading the word up and down the Nile River. What an amazing way to truly set a course for its work.

After visiting with Darren, I spent time with two students at the seminary. It is one church here for Christians, who are not Coptic. They do not ordain women, as cultural similarities to the Arab community are gender-based whether Christian or Muslim. The men I met with were very lovely and deeply faithful. They shared their faith stories and passion for discipleship. Truly men of God.

Christians make up 10 percent of the population and their religion is listed on their identification cards. Ninety percent are Muslims. According to Darren, that number has remained consistent since 1952. They are allowed to be a presence in the nation with absolutely no persecution. However, the expectation is that they will “stay in their lane” and not proselytize in any way. Conversion of any kind would upset this balance. Darren told me that they have many Muslim friends. The communities are intermingled, however, religiously they do not cross over. There would be a few problems if a Christian became a Muslim, but the reverse would not be true. However, it is highly unusual for a Christian to convert because they are such a minority, the strength of their faith is deep.

It was interesting to learn that the most conflict was with Coptic Christians, an orthodox sect centered in Egypt that traces its origin to St Mark, since there can be some crossover between the Christian traditions, but that was more common in smaller rural areas than in Cairo.

I also learned a little more about marriage practices that are unique to Egypt, whether Christian or Muslim. There are not arranged marriages, per se, however parents are involved in the discussion as a decision in many families is made mutually. Dating as we know it does not really happen until a couple is engaged. However in recent years, there is some coloring outside of these lines. Social media, in particular did not just impact the Arab Spring. It has impacted every level of society. Dowry’s are given to the bride in both religions.

One other thing that is common here is marrying cousins. Well, not common, but not uncommon. To do so, a couple needs to have genetic testing to ensure there are not recessive genes. But apparently, this is not a great problem because most of the people in Egypt are historically from Egypt. Except for ex-pats and refugees, as well as a few Syrians, for the most part, it is a very homogeneous society. Again, these are cultural and not religious demarcations.

There may be some changes in the future, as in a population of 125 million, 50 percent are under age 25!  Also, I found out that while the nation of Egypt is roughly the size of California, only a landmass of about the size of Maryland is used for habitation for 125 million people. (Most people live in areas around the Nile, or by waterways.) That explains a lot about the traffic.

I was given a tour of the seminary and saw various spaces and learned about the nine different programs it supports. There is one diploma program for those without a bachelor’s, but most are master’s. The biggest program is an MA, which is done online with students throughout the Arab-speaking world. There are about 650 students in all of the programs and the cost is minimal, as they are supported by donors.

After the tour, I had a lovely meal with Darren and the development director, Nancy, who is my host for the day. Once again, I was struck by the depths of Egyptian hospitality and the incredible decency of the people. I left having a greater understanding of the way that Christianity co-exists so peacefully in an Arab country. Again and again, I am struck by the very unique nature of Egypt and the balancing act that is part of the life here.

I safely returned to my hotel with an Uber driver who I felt more comfortable with, in  traffic that would have seemed awful had I not just been in Uganda. Cindy then treated me to a spa afternoon. One of the things that I have given up during this time of transition in my life was massage, so this was pure bliss —  especially after so much travel. I still stand in awe of the generosity of this trip.

After a nap, we headed out to an evening Nile Cruise with belly dancing, a whirling dervish and cultural show. What a fun time. I must admit that I was surprised that it began with a band doing covers of crooning songs from the ‘70’s. But, of course, I loved it — singing along and chair dancing. Cindy didn’t mind!

The meal was good, but I have to be honest, I never expected the best coleslaw I’ve ever eaten in my life would be on a cultural cruise ship of the Nile in Egypt. I would literally have been happy just eating plate after plate of that. I think they put honey in it.

When they switched to more Arabic music, the energy went up. Watching the whirling dervish was great fun, and I have no idea how he kept from tipping over. And the belly dancer was superb. Our tour guide had told us that no good Muslim woman would ever be a belly dancer because she exposes herself, and I can only imagine how much more judgment would be kept upon someone who did it during Ramadan. That said, this woman had the moves, and she could shake it.

The day started at a seminary and ended with a belly dancer. Two extremes but both wonderful representatives of the diverse beauty of this place.

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