In the Land of Goshen: Report from Egypt on Last Week's Violence

When I told my friends I would be moving to Egypt this summer, there was invariably a pause. “But is it safe?” they would ask.

Is Egypt safe? That seems to be the question of the hour. For me it is personal as I’m planning to live here with my family for the next five or more years.

With an urban area population of 16 million, Cairo sits squarely between Moscow and Los Angeles in size. Ancient, crowded, and diverse, Cairo is truly a global city.

Nile Union Academy, my new home, lies just outside the reach of Cairo’s Metro system. NUA, an Adventist school with 130 students, was located here in about 1954. Back then there was only desert and farmland this far out. Now Cairo suburbs have joined us and engulfed us. But just a mile or two away you can disappear into the humid farms of the Nile delta.

This is Goshen. It has been a fertile haven for thousands of years. A friend of mine recently took us to visit his nearby guava farm. A fifteen-minute ride on the back of a four-wheel cart behind his small donkey found us sitting on a mat under guava trees eating fresh white guavas, peanuts, and green fava beans boiled and salted. It was warm and humid - the ground oozed with life - and I thought of Jacob and his family settling here several millennia ago.

We arrived at NUA in July, while the pro-Morsi protesters were still demonstrating in two squares downtown. It was the Holy Month of Ramadan. Cairo isn’t quite the same during Ramadan. The street cafés are empty. The shwarma and falafel stands are closed. And the people look at you with hungry eyes. Right away I was invited to several Ramadan break-fasts in the community.

Ramadan breakfast happens each day of the month. It is in the evening after a hard day’s fast. While the event itself is a ritual, I was surprised by how perfunctory it was. The men sat on the floor leaning on cushions along the wall waiting, the clocks ticking the seconds toward sunset. Usually one muezzin would sound the prayer. Immediately his comrades in other minarets would join in. You get the sense that they don’t want to be early, but they all want to be first. As soon as the eerie melodious prayers were heard through the open door, a tray of sweet mango and guava juices would be handed round the room and quickly chugged down. Then attention was quickly focused on the bountiful table of food. Sitting on the floor at the low table we reached into common bowls of stuffed peppers and eggplant, soups, grilled chicken, and torshy. Flat bread and spoons would be handed around and used interchangeably as plates and serving devices. There was little talking but a lot of sharing of delicacies. When we had eaten our fill, the still heavy table was quickly carried off to be cleaned and picked over by the women and children in some back room. My host lit a water pipe and the room soon filled with the smell of shisha. Then plates of melon, grapes, and pastry were brought, followed by sweet black tea. The tea was our cue that it was almost time to leave. I’m told that soon after our departure, the low table would be brought back freshly stocked and the meal would start all over. The eating would continue late into the night.

On August 7 Ramadan ended, and the US Embassy in Cairo warned that the two protest camps in the center of Cairo would probably be cleared in the next few days. One week later, as we sat in a staff meeting at NUA, we got the news that the security forces were clearing the camps. The protesters didn’t just walk away. They objected to being removed and the situation soon turned violent. But before the end of the day squares where the camps had been were cleared.

The Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi supporters responded violently. In protests in places like Assiut, Fayoum, and Alexandria, they took their anger out on the streets. Shops and churches were burned. Surprisingly there are few stories of uninvolved civilians been killed by the mobs. Those killed were either security forces or those attacking security forces.

In Assiut, 220 miles south of NUA, the Seventh-day Adventist church, along with other churches and shops, was attacked. Fires were started in the sanctuary, and the pastor and his wife in the attached upstairs apartment were swung from the second story to safety by the neighbors below. Once on the ground, the mob took hold of the pastor and his wife. Christians and Brotherhood supporters argued about what to do with the pastor. The Brotherhood wanted to take him, and would have likely beaten him or worse. Then a tall bearded Muslim man stepped forward – a Brotherhood supporter. He grabbed the pastor and his wife and took them to his house nearby. Like Lot and the angels, the tall man appeased, rebuked, and negotiated with the mob at his front door while the pastor and his wife were cared for inside by his parents and other members of the family. Eventually the mob dissipated. The pastor remained with the tall man overnight. The next day he was brought to the safety of Cairo.

The silver lining for the Adventist Church in Egypt is that the Government has promised to repair or rebuild all the Christian churches or Mosques that were damaged during the August 14 violence. In a magnanimous gesture, Saudi Arabia has backed up the Egyptian government and promised to contribute funds to rebuild all damaged houses of worship in Egypt.

Since the August 14 conflict, there have been many calls by the extreme factions of the Muslim Brotherhood to protest. Notably there was the call for a “Day of Anger” protest on Friday, August 16. This was to be a major protest in which the Brotherhood hoped the Egyptian people would rebuke the actions of the interim government. It was a watershed moment because it presented a choice to the Egyptian people: do we back the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted president Morsi? Or do we stand with the generals and the new interim government? The people chose the generals and the interim government. Only a few thousand Brotherhood supporters came out on the “Day of Anger.” The calls for protests have continued and the people have continued not to listen. They literally voted with their feet to stand for security and against religious extremism.

NUA is a peaceful place. As you enter the gate, you pass tangerine trees on your left and grain fields on your right.  On center campus a fountain pierces the hot air. The green grass around the fountain stands in contrast to the sand, trash, and dust that can be found outside the gates. For nearly 60 years this campus has taught and trained countless young people for Christian service. In the next few days we will once again enroll a new class of ESL students, eager to better their English and their lot in life. NUA has many needs. We need more classrooms, a bigger kitchen and dining room, a larger church. But God has been good to us. He has kept us safe in throughout the political turmoil. He has made NUA an oasis of calm in the midst of storm.

Please pray for us. Pray for Egypt. May we all find peace in the land of Goshen.


Richard Doss is a graduate of Pacific Union College and Andrews University. He has spent more than half his life growing up and working on the continent of Africa. Doss started his career as a pastor in the Illinois Conference. Later, after serving five years as Boys' Dean at Maxwell Adventist Academy in Kenya, Doss was asked to serve as Principal at Nile Union Academy. Richard Doss's wife Hadassah is the Vice Principal for Academics at NUA. Together they enjoy traveling, eating, and spending time with their two beautiful children.

 

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