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Social Customs

My time in Egypt is coming to an end, but I do want to say a few words about socializing in Egypt. It seems rather different from in America.

In America, when people visit you, you are expected to entertain them. As a host, you plan activities for your guests (movies, group games, etc.) and provide snacks or a meal, but ideally the food will be prepared ahead of time so you can devote all of your attention to your guests. In addition, you must make sure everyone is always talking.

As a guest, your job is to enjoy the activities, and be sure you’re not too quiet. You should pay attention to the activities around you, and shouldn’t check your phone or make a phone call unless it’s urgent. If you don’t talk enough, you will be labeled as odd, shy, and possibly unfriendly. Basically, there can’t be silence when visiting.

I can’t say for certain, but there seem to be different rules in Egypt. Perhaps some of that is because I don’t speak much Arabic, so people don’t expect me to talk much. However, it does seem that, even amongst the locals, it’s alright to sit together in silence for several minutes. It’s fine for visitors or hosts to take a phone-call. If you’re visiting people you know well, and you’re there for several hours, you might even take a nap on their couch. Socializing feels much more relaxed in Egypt. (Ok, maybe socializing isn’t stressful for most Americans, but I have difficulty talking all the time, so I often find it stressful.)

One thing you almost can’t do, though, is refuse food or something to drink. In America, you offer food, but you sort of expect that most people will refuse it (I think because so many people have food allergies of one sort or another). In Egypt, though, you don’t refuse food. Or tea. Tea with ‘biscuits’ (the British kind) is very important in Egypt (possibly an influence from Britain). If you’re not visiting over mealtime, then you will be offered tea – and I think it would be considered a little bit rude to refuse. Mind, I’m not certain of the rules – these sorts of rules usually aren’t written down or put into words. This is just what I’ve picked up from observations.

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The month of March

Wow, it’s been a month since my last post! Time sort of got away from me. Also, we’ve been busy this month with conferences. Bible conferences in Egypt are not too much different from Bible conferences in America, but brethren conferences are much more intense than other Bible conferences I’ve attended. I always learn a lot from them.

As I had a birthday recently, I suppose you want to know about birthday customs in other lands. Honestly, there’s not that much difference. We have a cake, and candles, and presents, and people sing. One thing we do here, which I like very much, is to read the Psalm corresponding to the person’s age.

While I’m here, I should say a word or two about Arabic grammar. I don’t know very much about it yet, but I’ve learned a little bit. Nouns and verbs both have endings (or beginnings) attached that can tell you a lot about the word: gender, number, possession, etc. for nouns, and person and tense for verbs. Many words have three root consonants, and related words are forming by doubling the consonants and different vowels to form different words. It sounds very complex, but, from what I’ve seen, it also looks fairly logical.

This is going to be a fairly short post. I can’t think of much to say. I could wait until I have more to say, but that might be another month or two. So I’ll just post what I have now. 🙂

Arabic

Would you like to learn a little something about the native language where I’m living right now? If your answer is no, you might want to skip this post, and perhaps the next several as well. 🙂 (Arabic is the current language of Egypt. Egyptian usually refers to the language, written with hieroglyphics, of the Ancient Egyptians, 4 or 5 thousand years ago). There’s a lot that I can write about Arabic, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the language.

(Note: At one point, it looked like I might take a class in Arabic, both to learn the language and to get a student visa. The class ended up not working out, but we found another way to get my visa for the length of time I needed, and I’ve been doing “independent studies” in Arabic, with the help of some books and many new friends.)

If you’re interested in learning a new language, Arabic could be a good choice. According to Wikipedia, it’s one of the six most-spoken languages in the world. Arabic is spoken in many countries: yes, many in the Middle East, but also many in north Africa. There are also native Arabic speakers who have moved to Europe or North America. Arabic has influenced several other languages, so it could help you to learn other languages (or even understand your own better: after all, who wouldn’t want to study the language that gave us the word ‘algebra’?). Arabic is also in the same language family as Hebrew, and, from what I’ve seen, has a lot of similar words. I’d like to study Hebrew, sometime, and I hope that studying Arabic will make it easier to learn Hebrew. Of course, that requires learning two new alphabets.

Yes, Arabic uses a different alphabet. Actually, Arabic technically uses a script called an ‘abjad’, which basically means that they write consonants, but not vowels. The funny marks you may have seen do stand for sounds, but not all the sounds of the word are written. There are other writing systems in the world where the marks on the paper represent concepts rather than sounds (such as Chinese). Arabic does have a system for writing the vowels which is used when teaching the language (like in the book I use for studying). The vowel points are also included in the songbook we use on Sundays, and in my English-Arabic Bible (a much-appreciated gift from the family I’m staying with). After learning the characters in early September, I’ve grown to the point where I can follow along when someone reads aloud, or join in the singing with only occasional wrong consonants.

The Arabic script is written from right to left (left-handed friends, you should definitely learn to write it!). This fact makes for some interesting changes. For example, if you put an Arabic book down with the front cover facing up, the spine of the book is on the right, rather than the left. Basically, books open ‘from the back’, from an English perspective. I’m still getting used to that aspect. I regularly put books down face-down when I meant to put them face-up. Can you imagine learning to write in school? Egyptian children learn to write in both Arabic and English, and have to keep track of which language is written in which direction.

The Arabic script is lovely, once you start to study it. It’s very orderly and logical. Of the 28-or-so characters, the same basic shape is used for two or three characters. These characters are then distinguished from each other by adding dots above or below the character to represent the different sounds. There are some sounds that are difficult for English speakers. A couple characters are nothing like English sounds. Others make distinctions in sounds that we don’t usually make. Or we’re not aware of making them. Have you noticed that ‘chatter’ and ‘train’ use different ‘t’ sounds? Or that ‘this’ and ‘thing’ use different ‘th’s? In Arabic, there are two D’s, two T’s, and two S’s, to name a few. Also, how the sound is pronounced varies from one Arabic dialect to another. I can’t always tell, when I learn a new word aurally, how it should be written.

See what I mean about having a lot to write about? I’ll probably do another post on the language sometime later. Stay tuned. 🙂

update and questions

In my last post, I mentioned having been asked two questions a lot while I was home. I’d like to address the second one now: “did you ever feel discriminated against while in Egypt?”

Simple answer: no. Everyone is very friendly and welcoming. Most of the people I’ve met go to the same meeting (church). I have met a few others when I go somewhere with friends. Mostly I’ve found people are curious about me as an American. It seems that people in Egypt hear that America is some great and wonderful place, so when they meet a real American they ask if they can take a selfie with me (yeah, we have selfies in Egypt too). I do sometimes feel that I’m treated more as an object of curiosity than as myself, but I don’t object. It seems only natural that people will be curious.

A third question people often asked is “Are the children good?” (Or sometimes people would ask “are the children naughty?”, which is really the same question from a different angle.) I have a harder time answering that one, because I could say yes to both. Like any children, they are good sometimes and bad sometimes. They do have rules they have to follow, which I believe are necessary for any children. As much as I love children, I think if their parents had no rules for them, I would not be able to help take care of them. Thankfully, that’s not the case here.

This week we’ve had VBS (vacation Bible school) with the children. I think it’s not that different from VBS in America, but I never actually did VBS, so I wouldn’t know. 🙂 By the way, yes, the Egyptian schools are currently out for vacation. I think they start classes again in another week or two.

VBS activities include song-time, a Bible lesson, crafts, and a video of a Bible story. Does that sound about like the American VBS? One thing that’s a little bit different is the timeframe: 5pm to 8 or 9pm. The Egyptian day as a whole is shifted later than the American day. I think school hours are roughly the same, but working hours tend to be later, and people stay up late at night and get up late in the morning.

The Egyptian view of time is also different from what I grew up with. Back at home, if an event starts at 6 and you arrive at 6:01, you’re late. Here, if you arrive at 6:30 or maybe even 6:45, it’s fine. Probably the event won’t actually start until 7. If someone says something will happen in 5 minutes, they mean 45. I noticed something similar when I went from the northern US to a university in the southern US. From what I’ve heard about different cultures, I think that as you go farther south towards the equator, the people are less strict about time and schedules.

Hmm, in scanning my past few blog posts, I think I need to find some better titles. 🙂 Ah well. Perhaps next post will be about something other than an update.

update

Welcome back! I took a break for Christmas, since I was back in the States, but now that I’m in Egypt again, I’ll try to get out a few more updates.

While I was home, many people wanted to talk to me about Egypt. I heard two questions over and over again, so I’ll try to answer those questions here, for those of you who didn’t ask, or who want a more complete answer.

The most common question was “What’s it like over there?” This is a more complicated question to answer than you might think. Going to a different country isn’t like going to the moon. There’s ground, and sky, and buildings, and air, just like we have in America. I eat and sleep here, which is more than I did in college. 🙂 Are some things different? Sure, but I expect people to be different. Homeschooled families tend to have their own little ‘cultures’ that are all different from each other, so I grew up familiar with interacting with many different lifestyles. Hmm, perhaps homeschoolers have an easier time traveling. That might be worth researching.

I’ll try to tell you about some of the differences, since you’d probably rather hear about those than the things that are the same. 🙂

Laundry – We have washing machines, but no clothes dryers. So everyone hangs their wash outside to dry. It actually works out very well, because it doesn’t rain very often here.

Animals – There seem to be few pets in Egypt. However, there are cats and dogs living on the streets, and some people keep chickens. Horses, donkeys, and camels are all used for pulling carts. When I wake up in the morning, I can sometimes hear chickens crowing and donkeys braying.

Driving – If you’ve ever driven in NYC, driving in Egypt is a little more intense. Lots of merging, but lower speeds than we generally use in America. They drive on the same side of the road here as in America, and the roads in the city are paved (although not always very well). Roads outside the city are usually dirt. Cars are roughly the same size as in America, but you can fit more people into them. In America, a standard four-passenger car fits four or maybe five adults. In Egypt, six adults and three children will climb into the same car. Motorcycles seem to be a popular family vehicle: I often see them with a man, a woman, and two or three children.

Furnishings – Many of these are the same, but the floors are mostly tile, with small rugs here and there, as opposed to the wall-to-wall carpeting you see in many rooms in America.

AC/Heating – No central AC or heating here. Where it exists, it’s in the form of a unit on the wall of a room which can provide warm or cool air. We do use the heater sometimes – now, for instance, it’s often in the 50s, so it can be a little bit cold without a heater. And I personally don’t mind not having central air-conditioning, because my family doesn’t have it at home either. 🙂

I’ll address the other question in the next post. I just want to leave you with two pieces of advice if you plan to do any traveling outside the US.

First, greeting customs vary from place to place. A greeting might be a handshake, it might be a hug, it might be a kiss on the cheek. Travelers are advised to watch, see how others greet you, and be prepared to return the greeting.

Second, be aware that different countries have different hygiene practices. In many countries, you should be aware that a) you will not find public restrooms as frequently as you do in America (and you may have to pay to use them), and b) they will not be as clean, and probably will not contain toilet-paper. Travelers are advised to be aware, and always carry tissues. Or restrict your travels to the US, but really, traveling to other countries is lots of fun.

update

Here’s a quick post just to let you know I’m still alive. And, since some people have been asking, to let you know that I am planning to go home for Christmas. I’ll spend a month at home, and then return to Egypt from January until May.

I had a good day on Thanksgiving day. I can’t really say it was a good Thanksgiving, because we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Egypt. Certainly we give thanks to the Lord for His provisions in Egypt, but the whole turkey feast is a tradition inherited from the pilgrims who sailed to America. I expected it would be hard to be out of the country for Thanksgiving, but it wasn’t really that bad. It didn’t feel like I was missing a holiday, because no one around me expected a holiday. Also, we had a seafood meal the day before Thanksgiving, which is almost as rare in my house as turkey. I love seafood, though, so that was my Thanksgiving dinner. 🙂

I have similar feelings about Christmas. I’m not hearing Christmas music everywhere or being offered Christmas sales or Christmas-flavored coffee or any such thing, so it’s easy to forget how quickly it’s approaching.

 

Meetings

I want to tell you how the meetings are different and how they’re the same here in Egypt, but first I think I need to explain the term to some of you. 🙂

(Brethren friends, I’m relatively new to these meetings, so if you feel I explained something insufficiently or incorrectly, please comment so we can all learn.) (Other friends, if you don’t understand something I tried to explain, feel free to comment with questions.)

As some of you know, while I was in college I began attending what some people refer to as a Plymouth Brethren assembly. We meet rather differently from most people who identify as Christians and attend some type of church. Probably the most obvious difference is that we don’t employ a preacher to speak each week. As believers, we are all members of the same Body, part of the same priesthood, so we avoid positions where one believer rules over others.

The central meeting for the week is the Breaking of Bread meeting, or the Lord’s Supper (called Communion in some churches). This usually lasts for about an hour. Various brothers will speak as the Lord leads them. Perhaps one will start by calling out a hymn, which we all sing. Then someone might read some Scripture, and then pray. All of the hymns and Scriptures usually speak of Jesus’ work on the cross. Towards the end of the hour, a brother will give thanks for the bread and pass it around, and then the same for the cup. We don’t use an ‘order of service’ or choose the hymns beforehand or any such things. We wait for the Holy Spirit to lead us as He chooses. I find that, since man hasn’t worked to plan the meeting, I can clearly see God’s working throughout.

There are other types of meetings which some assemblies have regularly, and some have occasionally, depending on the circumstances of the believers in the assembly. One, which I think is called a teaching meeting, is a little bit like a sermon, in that one brother will speak from a passage in the Bible and talk about what it means, but often these meetings are also spontaneous, in that any brother could get up and speak, for whatever length.

Prayer meetings and Bible studies are also common. I find that Bible studies are much more in-depth amongst the assemblies than I’ve seen elsewhere. The people, too, often have a greater knowledge of Scripture than the average churchgoer. I think sometimes churchgoers fall into the trap of believing that the pastor of the church is the only one required to study the Word of God. That particular pitfall is a little easier to avoid when there is no pastor.

There are many different groups of assemblies, so I’m sure some of them differ, but in the assemblies I attend women always wear some form of headcovering for the meeting, and they do not speak during the meeting as the brothers do. While men and women are equal, they have different roles, and it is the man’s place to publicly minister the Word of God, and not the woman’s place.

There are not many differences here from the assembly I fellowship with at home. One is the time of the meeting. In America, the Breaking of Bread meeting is generally held each Sunday morning. Egypt, not being a particularly Christian country, does not believe most people should have Sunday off work. Because of this, we meet here to break bread on Sunday evening, followed by a teaching meeting. There are Bible studies in the evening throughout the week (various of us attend those at various times) and Sunday school for the children on Friday mornings (children are off school on Friday and Sunday, rather than the Saturday and Sunday in the US).

Another difference: men and women sit on separate sides of the room. I think this stems from the local culture, where men and women are much more separated than they are in America. Also, when we pass the plate and cup, we continue to pass them until they are empty (again, I think this is the local culture: in Egypt, after a meal everyone’s plates and the serving dishes should be empty). Women are more likely to wear pants to the meeting here than in the US, but I think pants have been acceptable for women longer in this part of the world than in Europe and America. Biggest difference: the meetings are all in Arabic. 🙂 I do get things translated, but it is different to hear it first in another language that I don’t speak.

I think there are also differences in the Christians, that stem from being in the minority. It’s something that is difficult to describe. In America, it’s not really difficult to be a Christian. Yes, there are some difficulties, and it’s possible those will increase in the coming years, but often our faith is not particularly challenged. Now I’m speaking of the world in general, and not just Egypt. Believers in other countries often face far more challenges and persecutions than we do in America. I would encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ who are from America to prayerfully seek opportunities to visit believers in other countries. I think such visits would give each of us a greater knowledge of and appreciation for God’s mighty working in the entire world, not just our own country.

Homeschooling

First, I will attempt to define the word. Homeschooling takes many different forms, so it’s a little bit tricky to define. Basically, it means the children do school at home instead of going to a public or private school (what my family terms a ‘regular’ or ‘conventional’ school).

How do you do school at home? In my family, that meant my parents bought textbooks and used them to teach us. Some parents buy video courses which the children learn at home. Some parents enroll their children in an online school. Some parents do not buy textbooks, but use situations that arise in real life as teaching moments for their children. There are almost as many ways to homeschool as there are families that homeschool, because homeschooling is all about flexibility. What I think they all have in common is that the parents are more directly involved in the child’s education than they are with a conventional school.

Now, it’s a little bit difficult for me to know what to write about homeschooling, because I don’t have much to compare it to. Apart from four years in a university (which is entirely different from grade school), I was homeschooled all my life. For me, it seems as natural as breathing. How do parents not teach their children? How do older siblings not teach their younger siblings? I remembering buttoning my little sister’s coat, and counting each button with her as I fastened it. Or singing in church, and pointing to each word in the hymn book for the younger sibling standing next to me. After that, algebra and classical literature seem like the next logical steps. 🙂

Speaking from my own experience, I believe the greatest benefit I have from homeschooling is the ability to teach myself. I didn’t have a teacher saying “write this down and memorize it for the next test.” At first, my mother would go through each lesson with me, but as I got older (and my mother had younger kids to teach) I would learn each lesson on my own and only ask my mother if I needed help with something. This skill was very useful in college, and it’s even better as an adult. I no longer have official classes and teachers, but I have the ability to go on learning for my entire life.

Oh yeah, I guess you want to hear a little bit about the homeschooling I’m doing now. Well, the children being young, they’re learning the good old three R’s: reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic (arithmetic is basic math). They learn reading and writing in both English and Arabic. (Did you know that people in other countries are often fluent in two or three languages, and might be conversant in several more? America is seriously behind the rest of the world when it comes to teaching foreign languages.) I am not, I might add, “the children’s teacher,” as if I were in charge of their education. Homeschooling, remember, is parents taking direct control over their children’s education. I work with their mother to teach them, and offer suggestions based on my own experience with homeschooling. I also sometimes help other children with their homework.

One final thought on homeschooling: if I had to write a list of what I’m grateful to my parents for, #1 would be ‘teaching me to know God’ and #2 would be ‘homeschooling.’ ‘Providing food and clothing’ would be farther down on the list somewhere. And yes, if (hopefully when) I have children of my own, I will homeschool them.

Gastronomical Ruminations

(That’s a fancy way to say ‘thoughts on food’)

I think it’s about time for another update. Wouldn’t you agree? In my last post I promised to write about food and homeschooling, so that’s where I’ll start.

First, the food. As I mentioned on facebook, it’s not as exotic as some of the meals I prepared when I studied French cooking. The first meal is, in fact, quite ordinary. We eat bread spread with peanut butter or nutella or some such thing, or we eat cornflakes. Or chocolate cornflakes, which I know at home by the name of Cocoa Puffs.

The second meal I eat in a day is the traditional Egyptian breakfast. People in Egypt tend to get up later and go to bed later than Americans, so this breakfast is usually around noon or later. What do we eat? Well, perhaps most important is the bread. Think of pita bread, if you’re familiar with it. It’s a flat circle-shaped bread which, due to the way it’s made, has a natural pocket inside. Often-times in America you find this bread without a pocket, but the kind with the pocket is much better. You can put things in the pocket to make sandwiches.

Usual food items besides the bread include eggs (fried, hard-boiled, or scrambled), beans, fresh sliced vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatos, peppers, and carrots, deep-fried potato slices, tamiya (similar to falafel), and cheese. Perhaps the most unusual thing about this meal, from an American view, is that we do not use individual plates. You tear off pieces of bread and use them to scoop up food from the serving dishes, or you place food in the pockets of the bread.

We eat again around 6. Meat and bread are very important in Egypt, so I feel right at home with the food. My family’s dinner nearly always consists of MEAT, something starchy like pasta or rice, and maybe some sort of vegetable if we happen to feel like it and have time. We don’t eat bread as much at home, but I’m appreciating the addition here (I don’t count Stroehmann or similar types of bread as real bread). We usually have a vegetable salad as well (using the same vegetables I mentioned earlier).

Sometimes for dinner we eat Dutch food, which involves a lot of potatos (and Speck and Wurst: two important words which everyone ought to know, so I will teach you. They mean bacon and sausage, although both are slightly different from what you buy in the US under those names.)

This particular food item is technically from Southeast Asia, not Egypt, but since I’ve been here I had the opportunity to try krupuk and enjoyed it so much I want to find some in America (I don’t think it will be too difficult). Krupuk is a combination of starch (often rice) and flavoring (often fish; I had shrimp) which is mixed together in a paste, sun-dried and then deep-fried.

Hmm, I seem to have written so much about food that I think I’ll leave my thoughts on homeschooling for the next post.

Note: I know many of you have requested lots of pictures and lots of details. I can tell you about things like weather and food, but I will not say much about the people, because they are people just like you and me, and have the same right to privacy that we all do. (As a very reserved person, I value my own privacy and that of others very highly). So you may not see as many details as you would like, but if you know me much at all, you’ll realize there’s a lot of details I don’t share about myself as well. 🙂

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