Today the church in Mallawy celebrated “Thanksgiving Day”. For the past several years, women from surrounding churches in the El Minya region have gathered for a day-long conference and worship celebration. The worship was wonderful… but I could only understand a few words here and there… “Shukran” (Thank you)… and things like that.
I am experiencing an intense cultural immersion and learn new things every day about what is acceptable (and not) in rural Egyptian society. For example, when I am out in Malawy or the village (Deir Abu Hennis), it is best to not wear sunglasses. This is quite a challenge because of the bright Egyptian sun! Sunglasses are judged very harshly by the society as a sign that someone thinks they are too good for their faces to be actually seen. Considering that Malawy (and 90% of the population of Egypt) are Muslim (thus women wear head coverings and sometimes full facial coverings), I was surprised to learn about the negative perspective toward people who wear sunglasses. I had received the same instructions when I was in the Palestinian Refugee camps in Lebanon… and am thus learning that in these contexts, sunglasses are not a good thing.
I have learned that one can determine a man’s religion based on whether or not he has a beard. The Muslim Brotherhood (or other Muslim fundamentalist movements) tend to wear a full beard as a sign of their religion. In addition, it is common to see a slight indentation or discolored mark on many men’s foreheads – further indication of Muslim piety and commitment to sala (the practice of praying five times a day).
In the village churches, women, as a sign of their conservatism and deference to the Scriptures, still cover their heads when in the church building. I have noticed distinctly that the poorer the community, the more conservative the churches tend to be. Many of the women from the village communities also wear all black. The last time I visited in November, I was struck by how the elderly women would often kiss my hands. I am told that this is a sign of blessing and honor. Yesterday when I spoke to the women, many of them gathered around me at the end of the service and asked for a blessing. They would take my hands and place them on their forehead. I received many kisses… on my face and my hands.
Today we returned to Deir Abu Hennis… the village that I had the opportunity to visit in November. It was wonderful to see people who I had met previously and to recognize many faces. Although the community is terribly poor, they are also abundantly hospitable. One of the families welcomed us into their home and served us a meal. Tonight I preached at the First Evangelical Church in the village. The church still has many conservative customs with the men sitting on one side and the women sitting on the other. There is not a feminine word for “pastor” in Arabic. The word is “assis” (for men) and sometimes I don’t think people quite know what to call me. I have heard some introduce me as “assisa” but that word doesn’t really exist in the language. My favorite part of the day was getting to see the children again. My Arabic has improved since November (albeit only slightly!) but we were able to carry on a bit more of a conversation… When I left the church tonight they said “Bukhara” – which means “tomorrow”? And I was able to say “Bukhara, ana hon.” Tomorrow, I am here.