The one overriding feeling I had this summer in Cairo was that of being in a constant state of tug-of-war between extremes: that of the familiar and that of the foreign, knowledge and ignorance. Staying at Dominican houses in other parts of the world has been comforting and affirming. Its such an amazing thing to experience the common sense of community, spirituality, and vocation that exists in the Order, no matter where on the globe you may be. We wear the same habit, sing the same Salve Regina and O Lumen Ecclesie, tell the same jokes, study the same texts, share the same Tradition. I feel at home in our priories. Yet at the same time, I felt lost and a bit out of my element linguistically and culturally. While in Germany, I got by with English and French, and muddled through praying in German (which was kind of cool and fun). And for those brothers who spoke neither English nor French, we simply made due with a sort of international sign language and cordial and fraternal smiles. In Cairo, though, the extremes are even more stark. I was reminded every day of just how completely foreign Arabic is to me. There is this frustratingly potent inability to understand what is going on around me and an inability to communicate. Moreover, in an attempt to better my French, the lack of the use of English only heightens the awareness of my foreign reality. It’s exhausting, to say the least, and I felt this sense of urgency to learn Arabic as fast as I can and to become as fluent in French as possible, as quickly as possible. Finally, in an attempt to begin exploring the academic realm of Islamic studies through my MA thesis, my relative ignorance of the subject was only magnified among the masterful knowledge held by all scholars who reside there, and I felt overwhelmed by the task before me, not knowing where to begin. Yet, there was a part of me that knew all this is only temporary. I would return to St. Louis where I would sleep in a familiar bed, eat familiar food, speak a familiar language, enjoy the company of my familiar brothers, friends, and family, and that eventually my thesis will be completed. The tension in this "tug-of-war" will be eased.
One day in Cairo, I visited el-Moqattam Mountain, where resides a group of people who never get a reprieve from this tension, who live in a constant state of extremes. El-Moqattam Mountain, I would say, is less of a mountain and more of a set of hills. It is the highest point in the city and houses both the poorest and richest neighborhoods. At its "peak", el-Moqattam has some of the most beautiful vistas of the city, while its feet is laden with all the filth and garbage the city has to throw at it. One can find settlements of Christians and settlements of Muslims. The poorest neighborhood, known locally as "Garbage City," was where I visited. A pair of brothers who live there (and whose other brother was a Dominican novice before he passed away 2 years ago) invited me and a group of French students who are here at the IDEO to visit their local Church: a grand complex carved right out of the hillside. It is evident just how important this Church is to the people. It is a social center as well as a place of worship. In a Muslim city where it is easy to feel your minority status, this complex is a sanctuary of Christian identity and culture that is refreshing and rejuvenating. Any Christian who spends any time in the city and then enters a Christian community can feel that reality. Despite minor confessional differences (Roman Catholic vs. Coptic Orthodox), there is a great sense of unity that exists simply by our Christian beliefs.
Upon seeing each other, the brothers recognized me immediately and warmly embraced me with smiles and praises to God. They began to bring me up to date with the reality of their lives. One brother had lost his job and has been unable to get another. In an environment where they are already living in poverty and extreme conditions, the anxiety he was feeling was palpable. The other brother began to tell me how his marriage had fallen apart and how he was worrying about the health of his son. Despite it, however, he repeatedly invoked Jesus as his hope and love. He spoke also about his Muslim neighbors, though with obvious disdain. One could hear the pride he held for his Christian identity and the value he placed in it and seemed to feel the need to express a distaste for Mohammed and Islam. It was interesting to hear him speak that way which stood in contrast to the experience and work of the Dominicans in Egypt.
At one point, I found myself standing on a pile of rocks with a vista of Cairo that strikingly framed before me a set of extremes that symbolized the lives of the Egyptian people. There were the pyramids peaking through the haze of the heat, a sign of Egyptian history, intellect, and wonder. There was the Citadel, a symbol of Muslim beauty, heritage, and presence. Right below there were the rooftops of the buildings of Garbage City, trash and all, and in the distance the top of a tower in the heart of a flourishing downtown. Behind me was the Church, filled with Christian symbolism and activity. One could see and feel the dust that comes with an arid, desert climate, while at the same time see the green foliage and trees that are nurtured by the Nile.
El-Moqattam itself represents an enduring tug-of-war that exists in Cairo: rich and poor, beauty and filth, Christian and Muslim, modern and ancient, hope and helplessness. It puts into perspective for me the kind of enduring tensions I face daily in my own life, beyond ones stated above: political and social polarity, creation and destruction, the known and unknown, doubt and faith, grace and sin. Its not so much that these tensions are problems to be solved or obstacles to be overcome, but rather, like the lives lived by the two brothers and the reality framed in the vista I saw framed before me, they are representative of the simple reality that is the general human experience. Christ lived this reality as well in his humanity and divinity, poverty and generosity, fear and obedience, love and selflessness, friendship and betrayal. He came to show us, demonstrate for us, teach us just how God is present through this reality, and how, through this reality, redemption is possible. The brothers' incredible display of faith served as a reminder to me of this. May we in our daily tug-of-war, both temporary and enduring, seek God to help guide us through them, cope with them, and grow in holiness because of them.
Pax and Joy.