Reflections from a Sojourn in Egypt

Living for 15 months in Egypt introduced us to a different world -- Arabic and Islamic; ancient yet modern; a third world, and an industrial nation unable to give up its old ways; a gracious hospitable people who want you to like their country.

We lived in Cairo, a city of approximately 18 million people, perhaps the most densely populated city in the world. Everywhere there were people of all ages and all positions in life, walking early in the morning and late into the night, riding bicycles, motor scooters, buses and the ubiquitous little black-and-white taxis, always, it seemed, blowing their horns. Cairo assaulted the senses by its noise and air pollution, and the mind through its ancient monuments and buildings and its people.

Of the many impressions of Egypt, three stand out.

First, there is Ramadan, the holiest month of Islam, during which the faithful fast between sunrise and sunset. They give up all food, all drink, cigarettes and sex. There are differences among the adherents to Islam. Some women wear scarves and some are fully veiled. The middle- and upper-class women generally wear neither. Some attend daily prayers and many do not. But during Ramadan, almost all are strict in their observance of the holy month and in observing the fast.

The faithful rise early before the sun to prepare a meal for their families, usually of soup, so that they will have something to support them during the day. When Ramadan occurs during winter it begins about 5:30 a.m., and continues until about 6 p.m. But in the summer, it begins well before 5 a.m. and continues until after 8 p.m., creating real problems for those who are ill, and for children. But exceptions are made for these. The faithful talk and even laugh about the difficulties of the fasting. But they take it very seriously.

One day I was walking along a very busy street near our home and noticed sawhorses with boards on them on the sidewalk, set for a meal. I wondered if these were for workers who could not leave their shops in order to eat the evening meal and break the fast. But I learned, upon asking, that these were tables set out for the poor, for those who would ordinarily have no meat and very little food. Islam is a compassionate religion. When one kills a lamb, one third is kept, one third is given to one’s family and one third is given to the poor.

The second thing that remains with us is the kinship, a particularly emotional one, which the Egyptians and especially Egyptian students, feel for the Palestinians. We in the West often live by stereotypes of the Palestinians, not knowing their history or their situation. But the Arab world knows their situation, and even if there were conflicts in times past, they feel a great kinship with them.

So great is that kinship that at the American University in Cairo, where I worked, we postponed all fund-raising activities when the intifada began so as not to appear uncaring or unmindful of that conflict. Somehow we in the West, and in the church, must understand that these are a people without a country and often without hope. We can appreciate the situation in which they find themselves, without having to justify or accept the violence by either side.

The third experience that will always remain with us is the experience of being a part of a religious minority. Even more, we recognized, while being a minority, the importance of the church. In Egypt, Christians make up between 10 and 15 percent of the population. The great majority of those are members of the Coptic Church, which has its roots in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and traces its history back to St. Mark. Though small, it is fiercely proud of its tradition, especially emphasizing the story of their hospitality to the holy family during the flight into Egypt.

Even more important than our experience of being a Christian minority in a Muslim country, was our continuing recognition of our need for the church. The church where we worshipped was organized by the English community in Cairo in the early part of the 20th century. It is currently related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) and to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Although located right below a very busy highway in the middle of the city, it is an oasis for American and English expatriates and for Sudanese refuges. We found ourselves renewed and restored by it again and again, and came to appreciate the church in new ways.

Egypt is a fascinating place in which to live and work, very different from any place we lived before. We often wondered how the church can relate to this society. How can it appreciate the traditions by which people live together, Muslim and Christians? Even more, how could the Christian church continue its witness to the presence of Christ in a changing and often difficult part of the world?


William H. Todd Jr. is interim pastor, Eastminster church, Columbia, S.C.