Category Archives: Christianity

A lot to learn..

Egypt’s parliament dissolved. “What is this, 19th century Europe?” I said to Jalal. “Dissolving is not a solution.” Then again, maybe it is. I never paid much attention in high school chemistry. Jokes aside, it’s not like the parliament was very active. In fact, the Brotherhood was fast losing street cred over its elected members’ laisser-gouverner attitude. “There’s something fishy about the whole thing,” Jalal opined. Lord knows who’s plotting what against whom. Is Mubarak’s heir apparent Shafiq planning to rule by decree should he win today’s presidentials? Will a Mursi Brotherhood victory overturn the high court’s decision, further complicating the constitutional quagmire?

Lord knows I haven’t a clue. Egyptians are slogging it the hard way it seems. As is their right. But what is right in the stark floodlight of might, be it noun or verb? If all this sounds confusing it’s because your humble host has been evaluating French development aid to Palestine, drinking too much coffee, and sleeping way too little. This aid business is a tough racket. I’m not even talking about the deserving, downtrodden beneficiaries. Of which, one hastens to add, there are many. Just ask the sandwich guy catering the workshops, board meetings, steering committees, wrap-up sessions, and focus groups. Cynicism aside, these things are unavoidable, if at times a bit annoying. A bit like Parisians when the rent is late, if you’ll excuse my French.

What has all this to do with Egypt, or the Sinai, you may ask? Well, the Hebrews crossed the latter before falling on the Canaanites, did they not? And, if I may quote the ever grandiose Lebowski: “Given the nature of all this new shit, that, uh, instead of running around blaming me, this whole thing might be a whole lot more uh, uh complex. It might not be, you know, just such a simple– You know?”

I blame the coffee. Especially the iced derivative so liberally domed with whipped cream by Jerusalem’s Austrian Hospice’s hirelings. And if not the coffee, I’ll denounce time itself, or the scruffy cat at the restaurant that may or may not have been a shapeshifting time traveler from the Andromeda Galaxy bent on inter-civilizational tomfoolery. Did I mention it’s 35 degrees in the shade? Perhaps the Temple Mount security people were temporarily suffering from melting eyeball syndrome (unknown in medical circles as M.E.S.) when they unwittingly let a certain falafel sandwich-munching foreigner onto the grounds this afternoon. Relaxing in the shade, watching kids kick around a pigskin,  parents relaxing hither and tither, I could feel ten days of endless, horribly essential palaver subside.

“Muslim, in sh’Allah?” the waqf guy inquired politely. “No,” I answered in truth. Just a person looking around, trying to learn a thing or two about this crazy place we call the world, understanding ever less.


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Filed under Arab Spring, Christianity, Egypt, Islam, Middle East, Palestine, Sinai

Oriental- and other isms

It was 1999. Hitchhiking home from ancient St. Anthony’s Monastery in the Egyptian Eastern Desert, I had made myself a couple of brand-new friends. From the merry band of Coptic pilgrims, a bunch of youngsters timidly inquired if they could be my friend. I said “Sure” and that was that. There was Girgis, or George, Myriam, and Hannah, if I remember correctly. Myriam wanted to marry me, no doubt about it. George just wanted to hang out, and inquire about job prospects in Belgium. Hannah didn’t leave a stone unturned pointing out how singularly unimpressed she was with me and everything I represented. Together we rode the metro, ate kushari, and frequented St. Marc’s Cathedral, and the Muallaqa or hanging church, labeled so for its uncanny ability  not to sink into the swamp underneath.

At some point George introduced me to an uncle who ran a market stall in Attaba square. “My fried from Belgium,” George beamed. The man scoffed. “Mustashriq!” he spat. I knew the word, and nodded. “Yes, I’m an orientalist.” George whisked me away, a scrap of a smile covering up the brouhaha. I didn’t, however, know the actual meaning of the word. I loved the orient, studied it. What’s not to like? Somehow I hadn’t yet heard of Edward Said, renowned Palestinian scholar, who’d redefined the term to connote a Western imperialistic attitude toward its quaint, child-like subjects. In a contemporary incarnation, scholars hauled into TV studios to explain the Arab spring, are heard bemoaning Arabs’ lack of democratic traditions, the unique entanglement of Islam and politics, or, most painfully, the uneducated masses’ need of a strong hand.

The charge, once leveled, is difficult to refute, threatening to void any critical conversation between ‘westerners’ and ‘easterners’. A radical overhaul is needed, not of the dialog, but of the entire frame within which it takes place -or should take place. First and foremost, there is no such thing as ‘the’ West, let alone ‘the’ East or Middle East -whatever the kids call it these days. The two cultural spheres are interwoven to the point that you cannot understand one without the other. One of the reasons I studied Arab or Islamic history, in addition to the rich heritage per se, was to gain a broader, more accurate understanding of my ‘own’ history, warts and all. Some things can only fully be appreciated from the outside. Ask any astronaut peering down on earth from orbit. That said, over the years I have come to appreciate the ‘East’ not as outside, but as part and parcel of the same cultural and historical stream.

And yet, Sinai juxtaposes a somewhat bewildered ‘European’ with a world that is at once the scene of cynical interests and semi-mystical confrontation. The latter is not presented as diametrical to a rational west. The picture, both in the fictional ‘Sinai’ and the real world, is rather muddled, from American evangelical rapture-seekers to Machiavellistic Egyptian generals. The story presents an esoterically-inclined foe that chooses nefarious action over intellectual fancy. She -indeed- exemplifies a German Weltschmerz of unaccomplished, in this case religious rather than nationalistic, aspirations. Three seemingly identical faiths worshipping an identical God quarrel. Like 19th century Germany’s unfulfilled  promise eventually a darker, rationalistic streak takes hold. A claim to human mastery over nature and historical events and yes, righteous destiny, seed ominous plans. There is no west, and there is no east. Only the crazy things people do.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, Christianity, democracy, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Revolution

Revolution and the imagination deficit

Another week, and another house-hold name added to our library of fears. Mohammad Merah, a.k.a. the shooter of Toulouse, Al-Qaeda member, lone wolf, disenchanted youth, anti-Semite, Fox News’ Buddhist madman of Toolooz. Read all about it. Chances are you have come across some foaming-at-the-mouth tabloid bullshit-mongering, as well as the odd intellectual we-feel-for-the-victims-and-nothing-excuses-violence-but investigation into the social marginalization of France’s Muslim minority. Not to mention the cluster-fuck that is NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan. And all that jazz… At times I find it hard not to grow cynical to the point where I want to shut myself in a room and watch Star Trek reruns until my eyes bleed. This is one of those times.

There must be something we can do. There must be something we can agree on. ‘We’ as in ‘everyone from Mohammad Merah to Anders Breivik to Baruch Goldstein’. Right? Like, killing leads to more killing. Every time. I’m not saying that. History does. There are no mathematical equations to back this up, which can lead some to revel in implausible denial. “Sometimes killing can be a good thing. Like, if they would have, like, killed Hitler when he was a little toddler.” Pubescent fantasies aside, we can back up with mathematical equations the fact that killing is big business. Something close to two thousand billion government dollars a year worldwide, and rising -economic crisis be damned. We’re still on the same page, right? Mohammad? Anders? Baruch?

Perhaps cynicism isn’t such a bad thing after all. So much injustice, so many killings every day. Perhaps the only sane reaction, if somewhat lacking in imagination, is to go after ‘the others’. The guys who did this -whatever ‘this’ is. And there you have it: your two options. Rise up in anger, or resign to your Playstations, Kardashians or Klingons. Either way, business will go on as usual. Trillions are turned over, and millions die. That’s not an exaggeration by the way. Google it. That’s what it’s there for.

Unless… there is a middle way. Something to do with the Arab spring, education, and peaceful activism. Standing up to the global Mubarak that is the international arms trade. But that’s not for today. I currently lack the imagination, and the sun is out. I could do with a breath of fresh air. To be continued…

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, Christianity, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, minorities, Revolution, seismic changes

Religions of the cross-road

The Sinai, bridge between Africa and Asia, has always held a strategic position. Countless wars were fought here. Countless armies past through it on their way to victory or defeat elsewhere. The north east boundary, a 200 kilometer stretch of Mediterranean coastline, also known as the ancient Via Maris, was a route used by conquerors, traders and travelers. And with those conquerors, traders, and travelers the beliefs that shape the world to this day, moved back and forth, shaped and re-shaped by the endless tides.

It all starts with the name of the place. ‘Sinai’ is derived from one of many ancient Sumerian gods called ‘Nanna’ or ‘Sin’, a.k.a. the moon god, father of Shamash, the sun, and Ishtar, Venus. A sort of holy trinity if you will. The Sumerian pantheon, containing numerous other deities, dates back to the third millennium BC. Perhaps early inhabitants likened the Sinai’s desolate rocky scapes to the distant lunar terrain. Between c.2600-2400 BC, when the city of Ur (literally: the abode of ‘Sin’) held sway over the Euphrates valley, Sin was regarded as head of the pantheon. It is to this period that we must trace such designations as ‘father of the gods’, ‘chief of the gods’, ‘creator of all things’, and the so on and so forth. In other words, an early form of the three monotheistic faiths had arisen. The Sinai itself is named after the prototype of the one true God that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship to this day.

Later, the crescent moon came to symbolize not only the stretch of fertile land formed by the Euphrates and Tigris river and the coastal areas of the Eastern Mediterranean and Nile valley, but Islam itself. The stringent monotheism of Islam -there is no God but [the one] God- as well as Judaism can be construed as a necessary effort to distance themselves from the original large cast of divine entities. When Israel fell into idolatry, it was usually to the cult of the moon god, subject of constant rebukes in the Old Testament. Muhammad too scarcely left a sura of the Qur’an untouched by vehement condemnation of those who continued to worship the hundreds of pre-Islamci gods of the Kaaba in Mecca, chief of which had always been the moon god, represented as an old man with a flowing beard, wise and unfathomable.

Christianity was always more accommodating to the god-like status of other than the one true god himself. Beside the holy trinity, followers of Jesus borrowed a host of pre-monotheistic concepts. The Egyptian god Horus for instance was born from a virgin, announced by angels and heralded by a star in the East, baptized at 30, had a foster-father called Joseph, fled out of Egypt (through the Sinai of all places) from a homicidal king called Herut, and performed miracles including raising a man from the dead. The list of parallels goes on by the way. And on. Later the Sinai would once again, ironically perhaps, figure as a place of refuge, this time for heretics from Byzantine orthodoxy.

In ‘Sinai’ a new heretic will try to forge a new syncretism, (re-)uniting all of the monotheistic faiths. Her premise is a shaky one indeed. Not to mention very dangerous. 

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Filed under Christianity, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, Middle East, Sinai


Mount Sinai provides a nice hike. Moses knew this too. Perhaps he was just eager to get away from the unruly bunch that had followed him into the desert for some reason. Thousands of men, women, and children, and not a lot of granola bars to go round. Prophets could do worse than read the fine print on the contract.

“What do we do now? Are we there yet? How about we make this enormous golden calf, wouldn’t that be cool?”

“I don’t know. No, not by a long shot, and frankly, I have no idea where we are. And no, we’re not making a golden calf. These things are a bitch to schlep around in the desert. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some, er, worshipping to do, er, up there. On ye olde mountain where dwelleth Jove, I mean Jehovah. Make sure the kids are in bed by ten, and oh, if someone could start thinking about breakfast, that would be great. The way things have been going, it’s likely I’m going to be pissed off again about something. I might spare the rod if I’ve had, I don’t know, eggs benedict, fresh orange juice?”

And up he went. Sans the snaking path hewn and chiseled over the centuries by Christian monks the trek probably took Moses a bit longer than today’s hi-tech-sandaled backpacker. There was no one to sell him a three dollar Snickers along the way. And it gets chilly up there without the fire of God to light your belly. “Yes,” the Supreme Being whispered through the dried shrubbery, “all the way up here. As Gods go I’m a bit of a shy fellow. Come, come. Glad you could make it. We’ll have a good old chat. Hope Pharaoh didn’t give you too much grief. Quite the show I put on, right? The other Gods were so jealous. Wait, did I say that out loud? Shit, now I can’t let you into the Holy Land. Anyway, you’re not far now. Up you go.”

Today’s nightly traveler can rent a dingy mattress. Blankets too if you didn’t bring a sleeping bag. Evening hikes and sleep-over are the best, if you can stand the keen, jagged winds. The sunrise is more than worth it. If you happen to be up there on Easter morning, expect a busload of white-robed American evangelicals providing a rude wake-up call. Annoying if you happen to unslumber with a full blather. They were ‘friggin’ everywhere, chanting, clapping, posing for the twentieth grinning snap shot -bedraggled nonbeliever lurking in the background. Photoshops right out, I guess.

In Sinai, the robed revelers are there for more than a little sing-along. Frankly, you don’t wanna know. Or do you?

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, Christianity, Egypt, Messianic Judaism, Sinai, Uncategorized


Liberals aren’t doing very well in the Middle East. Islamist parties have swept the ballot in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya is just a plain mess. Coptic Christians are fretful for their already tenuous position in Egyptian society. Women fear a patriarchic backlash implied in Islamists’ conservative programs. The latter use newly-won democratic freedom to gain power, but will they abide by the rules of the game once in power?

First of all, liberals -and with few caveats I consider myself one- are a bunch of wining cry-babies. Quite often we are prone to jitters in the face of dangerous trends like islamization, global warming, or the new, abhorrent indulgences of youngsters. How often do we really look in the mirror and admit that, ah yes, we too were once young and dangerous, and liberals also drive cars, use power-guzzling iPads, eBooks and er, wAshing Machines. By and large, liberals gave nary a peep when ‘secular’ and hence perceived as ‘liberal’ regimes beat, jailed, tortured, and killed their Islamist opponents, be they AK47-toting maquisards or moderate anti-totalitarian believers of the Eighties Polish priest variety.

During the Mubarak years liberal Egyptians either left the country or more or less went with the flow, enjoying the economic privileges of an economic pyramid heavily skewed in favor of an internationally mobile elite and business-savvy military brass. The few who did stick their necks out know why the rest didn’t. Western liberals, who are able to bathe in bikinis and -God forbid- Speedos on Sharm El-Sheikh’s beaches, didn’t see a problem. Mubarak was pro-women, as would be his son, they assumed. As long as the Egyptian economy grew, who needs democracy? And grow it did. The ones that profited though were those that knew someone that knew someone. You guessed it, liberals.

Geert Wilder

When liberals forget that liberalism and its enabler; material wellbeing, is for everyone, they cease to be liberals. They ought to stop yammering and acting all surprised at the electoral success of Islamic movements that have for years provided social services and healthcare to those who needed it most. The revolutions sweeping the Middle East are an opportunity to establish a level playing field where all the currents of a society can vie for attention, approval, and influence. Liberals haven’t had a veritable opponent in decades. Ideas are crusted over with neglect and complacency. It’s time for some soul-searching and re-inventing. Arab liberals can do better than a simple copy-paste job of their European or American peers. Challenged by xenophobic rabble-rousers the latter have done a lot of caving in and Chamberlain-ing, and not a lot of self-criticizing and looking to a different future.

In ‘Sinai’, a tongue-in-cheek thriller, a Muslim Brotherhood-led government isn’t doing so great. The challenges are great, and the people’s patience threadbare. The ‘liberals’, represented by a pair of wily old generals, are more than yearning for a simpler past. A doofus backpacker winds up in the middle of this tug-of-war. Suddenly a lot more is at stake than the soul of Egypt… 

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, Christianity, democracy, Egypt, Feminism, Islam, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai, Uncategorized

Camp David

I remember my first time in the Sinai. After zigzagging the jagged road for what seemed like an eternity the Red Sea beckoned. Newbies armed with nothing but flip-flops and an outdated Lonely Planet my friends and I perused the coastline for a place to crash. From the Southern tip at Sharm el-Sheikh all the way up to the Israeli border you’ll be hard-pressed to see a beach without a beach camp. From a few reed huts to actual brick and plaster rooms you’ll find them in all stages of (dis)repair. Some have electric power from a diesel generator a few hours a day. Most have none. Here the backpacker’s heart throbs. Basic accommodation can be had at such poetic places as Blue Dolphin Camp, Red Sea Paradise, and yes, more than one Camp David.

What surprised me most was the sight of Israeli youth and Egyptian kids singing songs together around the camp fire. “But this is all wrong,” I was almost tempted to interject. Ever since the Camp David accords returned the Sinai back to Egypt, the peace with Israel has been anything but warm. “We go there all the time. Why don’t they come here?” an Israeli friend would ask me later. Me! Me! Me! Like front-row pupils a bevy of answers jostle. On a very basic level: You simply wouldn’t believe the shit that they and anyone suspected of sympathy for them get at border crossings, above and beyond the call of prudence. But that’s another matter. Israelis cross easily into the Sinai -as stipulated by the treaty. And a merry microcosm it is. That’s not meant ironically by the way.

The Camp David peace was a failure in that it never lead to an actual economic and cultural exchange. It established a security framework, an Israeli-Egyptian tandem geared to maintain a status-quo at all cost. Egypt was castigated from the Arab League because the deal did not include any guarantees regarding the important stipulation that it entail the start of a process to end the occupation of the Palestinian West-Bank and Gaza and return the Golan Heights to Syria.

The peace treaty has worked wonderfully for the Sinai, and for the Sinai only. Up on the mountain there Mozes established a set of laws that would form the basis not just of Judaism, but also Christianity and to an even greater extent Islam. You don’t have to be a believer to believe that these things are important to a whole lot of peaceful folks. An avenue toward coexistence and peace doesn’t necessarily demean these cathedrals of the mind, regardless of whether the object of veneration exists or not. The accord grants Israelis access to a spiritual stomping ground. As such it essentially separates the cultural and religious sphere from that of another, lesser edifice of the human mind; national sovereignty, barbed wire and the thing where you show a piece of paper to get a stamp after lifting your arms a number of times for the metal detector. It could be a model toward Palestinian self-determination.

Sovereignty 2.0

Israelis often point out how the word ‘Jew’ itself is linked to ‘Judea’, an area inhabited by Palestinians, and  under no interpretation of International Law a part of the sovereign state of Israel. Sighing under a Draconian and more often than not absurd and cruel security apparatus Palestinians watch as soldiers provide Israelis with access not only to their spiritual stomping ground, but also the excellent real estate and water resources. Even before the installation of close to half a million Israeli citizens on Palestinian land, tearing asunder a viable and contiguous future state, a ‘rump’ Israel and Palestine were never going to become the clear-cut and separate entities as envisioned by 19th century people-nationalism. A new Camp David for these arch-foes needs to radically pursue the separation of ‘national’, economic, and cultural sovereignty. The logical conclusion of this idea will necessarily resemble a bi-national or even one-state solution. Sound crazy? You forget that ‘crazy’ was invented here…

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Filed under Christianity, Egypt, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai