Dordt College News

What I learned in the Middle East

June 24, 2014

In 2009, while in Cairo, I was asked to write for Christian Courier. This opportunity has turned out to be a great gift, as I feel a strong sense of responsibility to share what I have learned and experienced in the Middle East with those who may not have the same opportunities I have. As I write, I hope that people will give me the grace to grow in my views as I grow in knowledge and awareness. I don’t want my opinion on Middle Eastern issues to be taken as an “expert” opinion simply because I’ve lived there, but I do feel tasked to use my voice to share what I’ve seen and heard and challenge some of our stereotypes and unconscious assumptions about the region.

As Christians we should exist as a community of learners, which means we all need each other’s knowledge, wisdom, and witness on this journey of growing more in the likeness of Christ and into the people God has called us to be.

A few days after my plane touched down in Egypt in 2005, the director of the Middle East Studies Program shared some unexpected advice with me and my fellow North American students: contrary to our expectations, we should expect to leave our semester in the Middle East having learned more about where we came from than about the culture we were entering. 

That day, sitting in an apartment near downtown Cairo as a Dordt junior on my first trip overseas, I did not fully understand the wisdom of his words. Today, I have gained some clarity. The convictions I now hold in relation to the region are both a result of my time there and are inextricably linked to my convictions about my own cultural and religious upbringing. 

Within my own North American context, “The Middle East” can be a difficult topic to navigate in conversation. Too often we abstract the region from the people who live there, reducing countries, cultures, and peoples to overgeneralizations and stereotypes, removing their agency and humanity as we do so. Every day, our society—and our media in particular—takes away the voices of Middle Easterners in different ways. Therefore, although it sounds simple, I remind myself daily: listen. When I traveled to Lebanon and Jordan last November to report on the situation of Syrian refugees there, I found writing about what I had seen and heard incredibly difficult. My instinct was to jump into shallow political or social analysis—to reduce voices and people to neat packages.

However in the end I found that what I needed to do was simply tell the stories in all of their messiness. I wanted to give Western readers faces and names to know and different points of view to consider, and I wanted to challenge us to grapple with the complexity of the conflict and the region as a whole.

This grappling puts us in a vulnerable place—one in which we are compelled to admit that very little of what we think we know is black and white. I believe that this vulnerability and willingness to learn from “the other” is the only way forward.

I remember a conversation with a taxi driver in Cairo who, apologizing profusely, asked me a very polite question about sexual promiscuity in Western society. He was clearly embarrassed as he knew it was a potentially inappropriate topic, but he couldn’t keep silent: “You’re the first Westerner I’ve ever met,” he told me, “and so I want to hear about this issue from you, because all I know is what I see on TV.” The issue of sexual promiscuity in Western society is one that carries immense and damaging stereotypes in the Middle East—hardly unexpected when one’s view is informed primarily by American television shows—and though I was hesitant at first, I concluded the conversation grateful for the opportunity to address some misinformation. As I have continued to reflect on this incident, I wonder how often we are vulnerable enough do what this taxi driver did: approach a complicated and controversial issue—such as the status and treatment of women in Muslim societies, for example—and sit down with someone from that society and ask, “This is what I’ve heard/read of this issue. Can you tell me about it from your point of view? I want to listen, and I want to understand.” This does not mean accepting all we hear at face-value, of course—my answers to the taxi driver were specific to my Christian worldview, and had he taken another Western passenger he might have received a very different perspective—but it does mean genuinely hearing what those different from us have to say.

As we learn to dialogue with and listen to others, I hope that we will recover a robust public discourse. This is something that is lacking both in the Middle East (authoritarian regimes and religious fundamentalists manipulate their people with fear and misinformation) but also in our own societies, where it seems we have lost the ability to converse about controversial topics (such as those surrounding the Middle East) without falling into political and/or religious polarization and fear mongering. As Christians, we have the potential to model an alternative kind of discussion, one grounded in conviction but recognizing all parties as made in the image of God. 

In this new form of discourse, what we Christians also have to offer the conversation is hope. Not a blind, naive hope, but a robust one that prods us to do the hard work of engaging with challenging issues and that refuses to allow us to settle for simple, uncritical narratives. Although I am often discouraged when I think of the current state of Egypt’s government (which increasingly resembles the military-backed authoritarian regime that existed prior to the 2011 uprisings), and devastated when I think of the civil war in Syria (which has created deep and violent rifts in Syrian society and left millions as refugees), I refuse to give in to despair. In this too, I look to Middle Easterners themselves.

In a lecture given this year at “The January Series” at Calvin College, Anne Zaki, a leader in the Egyptian Evangelical church and a Calvin Seminary graduate, honestly addressed the suffering that the church in Egypt and the broader Middle East faces today. Yet in the midst of acknowledging the trials, she displayed the courage to which we as Christians are called. “The Arab Spring might just be the Arab Christians’ Renaissance,” she stated emphatically, unwilling to give in to the fatalists who see only an “Arab Winter.” But she did not leave it there. She ended by voicing her hope that the church remains engaged and invested in the present and future of Egypt. And she drew her North American audience fully into this task: “To do this we will need to pray and work,” she said, “I am not asking you: I am commissioning each of you to pray for the church in Egypt and across the Middle East.”

Anne’s example, and the hope she holds, reminds me of what James Skillen said in The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square. He writes that the kingdom of God, secure in the risen Christ, “forbids us disillusioned resignation to the status quo, keeps us dissatisfied, hopeful, imaginative, and open to new possibilities.” The responsibility of remaining critically, actively, and hopefully open to these possibilities—especially in a place that seems as shattered as the Middle East—is no small task. But as Christians, I firmly believe that we’re called to nothing less.

Dena Nicolai is completing a master’s degree at Regent University. She works parttime at First CRC in Vancouver as Community Connections Coordinator.

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