What’s Your Name?!

Young Egyptian schoolgirls look at us, while we try to look at the pyramids (behind them).

Young Egyptian schoolgirls look at us, while we try to look at the pyramids (behind them).

On the streets of Zamalek, at the base of the pyramids, wandering Al Azhar park, we are celebrities. Our blonde hair, our blue eyes and our armed guard (mandatory by Egyptian tourist law) make us the subject of numerous stares and whispers. The bravest of these admirers are undoubtedly the fearless children who, with absolutely no sense of what we would consider decorum, run up to us and tug on our shirts and proudly ask us the single English question they know how to ask: “What’s your name?!”

Usually, we giggle and answer, and they start off right away, practicing the new sounds in their mouths. “Chess-ee-ka, Jeezyka,” rolls over the tongue, wobbles around the teeth between small chuckles indicative of how foreign my name must feel to them. Some of the girls will ask to take a picture with us, and then they’ll wander away, carefully analyzing the grainy pictures on their camera phones as I go back to my tour or grocery run.

In Alexandria this past weekend, however, while touring the Citadel of Qaitbay (the reputed site of the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria), when a small boy from a school tour asked me the expected question, I hesitated. You see, just the night before, while walking home with Katie from an internet cafe, I had been approached by a man who appeared slightly older than me. He started speaking to be in broken English, asking where I was from, and, of course, “What’s your name?!” My normal reaction to such heckling is to just ignore it and keep walking, but he kept pace with me and continued to pester. It was late, dark, and something about the situation felt a little off. But I knew that I would have to respond in order to get him off my back. So I did the only thing I could think of. I whipped out my best Russian accent.

In Pergamon, Turkey.

In Pergamon, Turkey.

In the worse grammar I could muster, I told him that I sorry, I no know Anglais.  And then I broke into a long string of Russian phrases, that in actuality make absolutely no sense whatsoever (“I have a book. I go to college in France. I ate a bologna sandwich in my car today, thank you very much.” Thanks, St. Olaf language requirement!) To him, however, I must have sounded stark-raving-mad, so he turned and just walked away and we were free to finish our walk home.

Taking a new identity while abroad is not a new concept for us TIMEers. Lizzie spent most of Turkey telling strangers (read: cute boys on the beach) that her name was Olivia and that she was from Australia. Matt and I spent a day pretending to be siblings while wandering the grand bazaar in order to get the absolute best bargain on Turkish tea cups. Christina got a new name, Helen, that she’d whip out once in awhile. Ben literally appears to be the ethnicity of every country we visit, which he constantly uses to his advantage to strike up conversations with locals. We’ve all at one point or another decided to just be from New York, because it’s easier than explaining where exactly that Minnesota place is. And sometimes, like during a period of extreme bombardment while walking in a park, we’ll hold up our hands and tell the little boys, “What a coincidence! My name is also Mustafa!”

In the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

In the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

A huge part of studying abroad is being able to learn more about who you are by placing yourself in a new, foreign environment and watching how exactly you’ll deal for a few months on your own. Forming an identity is a huge part of the process, and becoming confident in this identity is one of the largest benefits of time spent abroad. And yet, while abroad, it feels that much easier to lie about who I really am for the sake of simple convenience. This binary was especially pronounced as I looked down into the eyes of the little boy in the citadel, and all of a sudden I wasn’t just being asked what my name was, I was being asked who I was, what I had become on this trip and whether or not I felt ready to share this person with the rest of the world yet.

So what have I learned about myself during this time abroad? The list is long, vast and extremely personal, ranging from silly to serious. I’ve conquered my fear of jumping into water from high heights, and I have come to recognize just how vulnerable I am when presented with a plate of hot bread or a juicy lemon tart. I’ve learned that I have a knack for direction and figuring out public transportation, and I’ve learned that I get queasy in roller coaster taxi rides. I’m an absolutely awful over-packer, gummy vitamins are my weakness, and I can, indeed, survive six months without dying my hair.

At the Giza Pyramids, in Egypt.

At the Giza Pyramids, in Egypt.

I enjoy being humbled by the history of humanity, the monuments we leave behind. I am easily moved by the number of stories I see around me every day that may never be told, thousands of intricate lives that walk the streets, each as deep and meaningful as the one I myself lead. I am a searcher, never satisfied. I am easily swayed by my emotion, ecstatic one moment, devastated the next, never in an in-between. I value alone time but require care and company. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned to value my own thoughts and opinions, because, in the end, no one will ever care as much about them as I will, so why not be my own biggest fan?

These are the things I’ll think about as I come home. The places I’ve been and the things I’ve learned are undeniably important. But more meaningful is the emotional development within. This is not something to be shared with just anyone on the street. The people I’ve traveled with, of course, I feel the most indebted to in sharing my true self with simply because they have become instrumental in the development of it. They have guided me in ways I never could have imagined, holding my hand during the rough moments, clarifying for me in tense moments, and laughing with me in the glorious moments. This person that I’ve created is still precious, and sometimes it is hard to share that with a perfect stranger.

But this little boy is different. He is curious too, on his own journey of self-discovery. And maybe my identity, in this case, can help him, in some small way, develop his.

“My name is Jessica,” I say. “What’s yours?!”
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I just want to say a quick thank you to Mark, Meredith, St. Olaf, my support system at home, and the amazing people on TIME (Ben, Mike, John, Matt, Duncan, Christina, Lauren, Lizzie, Amy, Meg, Alex, Katrina and Katie). You have made these past four months unbelievably fabulous, and I am so thankful and blessed to have had this opportunity and to have been able to share it with you! 

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A Christian in Cairo

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A coptic monk leads us through the Coptic Monastery of Saint Phisoy

When I signed up for Term in the Middle East, many members of my Catholic family posed the following question to me: how will you manage your faith abroad? After all, I was about to step into a world filled with radical Islam, disdain for Western society and religious systems, and streets lined with mosques instead of cathedrals. Some family members still send me emails littered with daily bible quotes, a step we had decided on before I left to keep me grounded in a part of the world where I wouldn’t have access to my faith.

Boy, were we wrong.

The members of TIME make up a radical range of religious backgrounds.We are Protestant, Catholic, atheist, agnostic. And on this trip, each and every one of us has been asked to question our belief systems in some capacity. And while we didn’t get the cumulative trip to Israel we had longed for, our capacity for religious growth and education was certainly fulfilled.

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The Hanging Church in Cairo.
The 13th black pillar in the chapel is representative of Judas.

The many things about religion that I have learned on this trip are not limited to the history and religious rituals associated with Islam (as I had originally expected). Instead, I’ve encountered an extensive history of the growth of Christianity (and Judaism) in the non-West, made unmistakable connections between the religions of the book (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and ancient pre-history ritual tradition, and, most importantly, learned that faith is a fluid entity that can grow and thrive without the presence of a chapel. I’ve walked the streets of Ephesus, the recipient of Paul’s epistle and the place he spent extensive time. I’ve knelt in the pilgrimage site of the home of the Virgin Mary. I attended Catholic Mass twice in Istanbul, with a few hundred other followers, very obviously from extremely different walks of life.  I’ve looked upon the beautiful mosaics of Christ’s Church in Chora and the Hagia Sophia in the same city, monuments to a far-reaching Christian Byzantine empire. I’ve stood outside the oldest synagogue in Cairo, where Moses was reputedly pulled from the bull rushes of the Nile into the arms of Pharaoh’s daughter. I’ve studied the developments of religious freedoms in Morocco, watched first-hand protests in Egypt that are fighting to ensure this same religious freedom in the new constitution. I’ve seen ancient pilgrimage sites, but I’ve also been subjected to to the continuing moral and political complications that are being questioned in the region today.

Most recently, our group spent a lot of time learning about Coptic Christianity in Cairo and Alexandria. We visited two monasteries in Wadi Al Natrun during our excursion to Alexandria, and were given private tours by very kind and very pious monks at each location, who helped us delve into the rich history of the church.

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Chapels at the Syrian Monastery

The origins of the church date back to the apostle Mark (the namesake and reputed writer of the oldest gospel) who evangelized in Egypt right after the death of Christ. The church developed as part of the Eastern Orthodox family of churches until the Council of Chalcedon in 421 B.C. when they split into two distinct churches following a discussion of the true definition of the nature of Christ (Coptic Christians, like Roman Catholics and many protestants, recognize Jesus Christ as two entities – human and divine, whereas Eastern Orthodox faiths tend to recognize Jesus as a single mystical entity that is both human and divine and outside of human comprehension). There are many branches of the church in Egypt (including protestant copts and a second, much smaller orthodox church), but the majority of Egyptian Copts belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria which is led by the Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa and the Holy See of Saint Mark, Pope Theodorus II, who was only recently elected on November 4th of this year. Today, approximately ten percent of all Egyptians consider themselves members of the church.

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Worshipers pray at the tomb of the previous Coptic Pope, Shenouda III.

Wandering around the larger of the two monasteries we visited, the Monastery of Saint Phisoy, I was struck by how simple and familiar the Coptic monastic lifestyle was to many things I had encountered in my own Roman Catholic upbringing. When I was young, my grandmother, sister and I would travel to the convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato where my great aunt had been a nun. We would go on retreats, and I recall how surprised I was at how normal life felt there. I was struck with this same realization as I toured the monastery. The monk leading our tour cracked jokes and high fived his friends as we toured the facilities, but the moment we entered the sacred space where the body of Saint Phisoy was laid to rest, I recognized the extreme devotion he had to his faith, an overwhelming moment detailing the strength of personal faith.

We peeked into a monastic cell, visited the medieval dining quarters of the monks, learned how to (sort of) read and sing verses of the Coptic bible. At the end of our tour, we visited the tomb of the previous Coptic Pope Shenouda III, an elaborate pilgrimage site filled with hundreds of relics and many faithful worshipers of all ages. We did similar things at the Syrian Monastery, just a few miles Northwest of the Monastery of Saint Phisoy, and also we able to see the Tree of Saint Ephrem, which grew from the staff of the saint when he laid it on the ground during his first miraculous meeting with St. Phisoy (miraculous because, while neither spoke the same language, they were able to communicate through the divine powers of God). Manuscripts from this monastery have given way to significant advancements in understanding the ancient languages of Syria.

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Visiting the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo.

Many of us also spent a significant amount of time wandering through the Coptic Museum in Cairo upon our return to the city after excursion. The museum was filled with thousands of artifacts and artwork that trace the history of religion in Egypt from ancient times to modern Coptic Christianity, including the development of the current coptic cross from the Ancient Egyptian ankh symbol. Also included in the museum are many religious relics and beautifully painted icons. In this same area of Cairo (called Coptic Cairo), we were able to visit two coptic churches. The first, The Hanging Church (real name: St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, nicknamed due to it’s unusual architectural style built above the entrance to the old Babylon Fortress), is the most famous coptic church in Cairo, and has throughout history often been the seat of the Holy See (despite the official capital of the church being in Alexandria).

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A daily service at St. Barbara’s.

We also were fortunate enough to visit the Church of Saint Barbara, which is located inside the Babylon Fortress (where some say the holy family stayed during part of their flight to Egypt). We walked in during a mass (not a typical weekend mass, which can gather thousands of followers, but a simple small, weekday service), and were able to sit for a moment and take in the experience. I recognized so many connections between my own religious rituals and the ones being practiced in front of me that I almost, for a moment, felt greatly comforted and completely at ease, almost as if I was home.

The beauty in all of this, of course, is that these were not the only time I felt safe and religiously secure during my trip. It did not take a trip to a Christian monastery to make me feel comfortable. While visiting many Islamic mosques and Jewish synagogues, even walking down the street and watching a man pray on the sidewalk, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. I cannot, of course, speak for everyone in my group, but I can speak for myself and what I have learned. Religion, and faith, for that matter, is not stationary. While being in a foreign country and experiencing the religiosity of others, I can still learn about my own faith, challenge it, question it, and ultimately grow in it.

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