Egyptian odyssey: First SST unit in the Middle East is transformed by living in a country on the brink of revolution

Photo by David Zwier '12

By Richard R. Aguirre

Editor’s note: In the Fall of 2010, 19 Goshen College students engaged in a fascinating Study-Service Term in Egypt under the leadership of Director of International Education Tom Meyers. After a semester, the students returned home on the eve of a turning point of history: the popular uprising that forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for three decades. Four of the students have shared their transformative experiences.


Goshen College students Ben Baumgartner, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Diaz, Rachel Friesen and Andrea Kraybill decided to participate in Goshen College’s Student-Service Term (SST) in Egypt for many reasons.

Baumgarter ’12, a Bible and religion major from Hesston, Kan., had spent part of his childhood in Egypt, while his parents were there for Mennonite Central Committee, but he now wanted to experience the country by himself.

Diaz ’13, a nursing major from Goshen, wanted to go live in a country with a rich and unique history and culture and was interested in learning more about the Arab world.

Friesen ’12, an art and peace, justice and conflict studies double major from Filley, Neb., wanted to learn Arabic, visit the Middle East and study in Egypt to satisfy her interest in art history and anthropology.

Kraybill ’11, an art major from Elkhart, had spent time in Spanish-speaking countries, but wanted to push beyond her comfort zone and experience a totally unfamiliar culture. She also was eager to learn about the current state of Egypt.

Despite those different motivations, all four say they had life-changing experiences and would highly recommend other Goshen students follow their footsteps when Egypt SST again is offered, tentatively in the fall of 2012.

“Egypt is unique to SST in that the majority of people are Muslim, which means being awakened to the call to prayer early in the morning, seeing women in the full niqab (veil), and listening to people chant the Qur’an on the Metro,” Baumgartner said. “It is fascinating to get a glimpse into this very different world.”

Diaz said going to Egypt could help students break stereotypes about Egypt and “bridge the gap between us and the Arab world. I would not change my experience for anything and I would love for other students to not just take my word for it, because there aren’t words to describe it right, but to experience it themselves.”

Ben, Lizzy, Rachel and Andrea shared further opinions about Egypt SST via a far-reaching question-answer exchange.

How was your experience compared to what you thought it would be like?

Ben: I thought that I might be more interested in all the historic places that we visited, which were certainly impressive, but for me the most important part was getting to make friends there, and see what life is like for guys my own age in Egypt. The thing that surprised me the most, though, was getting an insight into the world of Coptic Christians, and learning about the struggles they face living as a minority in a Muslim majority country.

Lizzy: Before I left, I was excited and anxious for the trip. However, I was also nervous and worried that my experience would not be a good one. I felt like I was going to be thrown into something I totally wasn’t ready for, and I was. However, I adapted very easily and the people there really were warm and hospitable, which helped a great deal. I would absolutely love to go back some day.

Rachel: In a lot of ways, Egypt was exactly what I expected. I knew it would be difficult to live there as a white, western female, though maybe I was not prepared for the extent of the difficulty, but I knew I would at the same time experience amazing hospitality and cultural education. I did not meet as many people as I would have liked until close to the end of my three months there, but those connections were the most meaningful part for me.

Andrea: Intense is the word I use to describe it – intense beauty, brokenness and busyness. I was prepared for a stretching experience, but was probably at a higher level of stress the entire time than I expected. I was faced with extreme hospitality, along with some prejudices against Westerners, but overall had a positive learning experience.

Can you describe an especially valuable learning experience?

Ben: One comment made to me on the playground at our school on service has stuck with me, and I think is unfortunately reflective of how many Egyptians feel about their own country: “If you lived here more than a year you’d know why we want to leave.” Even though from my perspective as a foreigner, Egypt has so much to offer, through talking with people and observing life in Egypt I also see why getting to America continues to be a dream, no matter how impossible, for so many people. A more positive experience I could share is going around Qosayih with Matthew (an MCCer who lived at the same place we did), and stopping in at shops of friends he knew to talk literally for hours. Keeping up with friendships is such an important part to life in Egypt.

Lizzy: I definitely think that my most valuable learning time came through my daily interactions with Egyptians. I learned a lot about the Egyptian culture such as the importance of family and religion. These two encompass Egyptian life for both Muslims and Christians. One thing that sticks out in my mind was a conversation with our Muslim tour guide about the differences between Islam and Christianity and realizing that we are really not that different.

Rachel: Riding the metro every day in Cairo was one of the most valuable learning experiences for me. It gave us real exposure to people of all different classes and diverse Egyptian ethnicities, and it could alternately make me feel the least like a tourist on some days, or the most like an outsider on other days. This was very humbling, but it also allowed me to safely observe the culture around me without feeling as exposed and conspicuous as I did in the street.

Andrea: Teaching English to adults my age and older for one month was a formative experience. I discovered I love to teach, and that having informal conversation “tables” helped us learn about the other’s culture. It was also an opportunity for me to build friendships with Muslims, in addition to the Christians I was living with.

What was a highlight of your service experience?

Ben: I was assigned to helping with English classes at Saint Mena Language School in a small city called Qosayih, six hours south of Cairo. For two of the five weeks though, the Bishop of the diocese in Qosayih had us travel to Anafora, a Coptic retreat center north of Cairo, to help build a stone model of Jerusalem. Between this and a week off of school for an Islamic festival, we never actually taught any English in the school, although we did make friends with a lot of the kids. One of my favorite experiences was going to an after wedding dance party held in an alleyway in Qosayih with two friends I met in Anafora. I got to dance with the bride and groom, and then afterwards we went to my friends’ family’s house and ate some stuffed cabbage rolls, met the family, and rode a donkey.

Lizzy: For service, I was blessed with the opportunity to work in a private Christian school named Modern Salam School in Assuit, Eygpt. I was put in the English classes to assist the teachers in class activities. What they most valued was the chance to just hear a native English speaker. The highlight of my service was the student interactions with one another. Although it was a Christian school, there were many Muslim students and I loved to watch the friendships between the Muslims and Christians because it gave me hope for the future. Girls with head coverings sat next to Christian girls and they laughed together, linked arms and shared supplies. It always made me smile.

Rachel: I was living in Beni Suef, working during the day at a nursery school and helping teach an adult English course a few evenings a week. A highlight of this time for me was getting to meet a lot of Muslim women, who were about my age, through the English course. They invited me to their homes, out to cafes, shopping, and even once to a wedding.

Andrea: I did my service in the city of Beni Suef, about 2½ hours south of Cairo. I taught English during the day to elementary and junior high age kids, and in the evening with adults. A highlight was living for two weeks of that time in a Coptic-run girl’s orphanage, with girls who adored me and helped me learn Arabic.

What are some of your main impressions of the Egyptians you spent time with?

Ben: Incredibly hospitable. If I would make even a hint of wanting something somebody would either bring it or help me find it. Also, very close with friends and family; it wasn’t uncommon to see guys walking down the street arm in arm. Lastly, most Egyptians I spent time with were also very religious.

Lizzy: They are very family-oriented and religion-centered. Also, they are very kind and hospitable people. Appearance and status are very important as well.

Rachel: Egyptians are very busy and active all the time. This is necessary because of the economic reality, but even outside of work they are constantly talking, moving, playing games, etc. I never had time to get bored there, and if I looked the slightest bit tired, I had five people ask me what was wrong and how they could help me love Egypt more.

Andrea: Hospitable, generous, humorous, patient and used to waiting, desire to learn English and travel to other countries. Many are looking for jobs or continuing education, as unemployment is high.

How did your experience affect your impressions of Egypt?

Ben: I see it as more of a diverse place than I did before. I know now about ethnic minorities such as the Nubians in the south and the Bedouins in the desert, neither of who care much for the central government, as well as the troubles that Christians experience. Generally, though, my experience taught me the relaxed attitude of Egyptians, and the emphasis they place on relationships. It was great just going to a local ahwa (coffee shop), hanging out for hours having drinks, playing games, and talking with people.

Lizzy: My impression of Egypt dramatically changed after my experience. Before I went, I had the stereotypical impression that I was going to be in the desert with camels everywhere and sand all over. I also had in mind that it was going to be a hostile country that wouldn’t be accepting of foreigners. On the contrary, since most of the cities are on or close to the Nile, they are not in the desert. There is a great deal of sand everywhere but the streets are paved.

Rachel:  I had an impression beforehand of Egypt as a fairly progressive country in the Middle East, and that has changed in some ways after being there. I was expecting some level of poverty and unequal development, but not quite the level of political instability and religious conflict that exists there now. I definitely view it as a country full of extremely deep-seated and complex issues.

Andrea: I was pretty ignorant about modern Egyptian history before going, and felt like I was just scratching the surface of a complex, and often contradicting society. It made me aware of the tensions that exist there today, particularly religiously, but also the rich embracing of life that Egyptians engage in.

In what ways did going to Egypt affect your faith?

Ben: Considering the religious tension in Egypt right now, and seeing the implications of Muslims and Christians being at such odds with each other, being in Egypt made me even more wary than before of dogmatic certitude in faith. I wondered sometimes if Egypt might not be better off without such strong religiosity. At the same time though, I was also inspired by the sincerity of both Muslims and Christians. It left me wondering if it is possible to have such devout religious feelings if one is also open to looking critically at one’s own religion, a question to which I am still trying to work out an answer.

Lizzy: Before going to Egypt, I was struggling with my faith and I expected that Egypt would be a “life changing” experience and that I would somehow have some kind of epiphany that would put everything in place for me. At the beginning, I began to feel disappointed because nothing came, or so I thought. However, slowly I feel like I grew immensely in my faith. For me, it was so helpful to be in an atmosphere where religion is life. Everything that you do revolves around it. Slowly, I think I began to appreciate my relationship with God and not so much my “religion.” Egypt is known for its religious tension. Although I am Catholic, I like to focus more on the fact that I am a huge fan of God and I am happy that I don’t have those tensions interfering with my faith journey.

Rachel: It really made me realize how little I think about my religion in my day-to-day life. My host family and others that I met, both Christian and Muslim, were examples to me of living in a way that constantly incorporates prayer and/or religious identification. This was at times both challenging and inspiring for me in terms of my own faith.

Andrea: I don’t think I’ve had enough time to process all the ways Egypt affected me, but I do know that being there made me think about the deep traditions I draw on as part of my faith. Being surrounded by foreign expressions of worship – both orthodox Christian and Muslim – propelled me to consider different ways of expressing faith. In learning about other religions and denominations, it made me re-examine my own beliefs.

Finally, how has Egypt SST affected your plans for study or your future vocation?

Ben: Well, it made me want to go back, whether be it with MCC or in some other manner. Also, I’d like to continue studying Arabic and maybe put that to use in a career somehow, especially since knowledge of Arabic and the Middle East continues to be of such great importance in our times.

Lizzy: Before I left, I was going into nursing because I was feeling the pressure of needing to choose a major. While in Egypt, I had time to reflect and I realized that this is something I want to do. Also, I have always felt like I am called to serve and my time in Egypt just strengthened that urge. If it is God’s will, I would like to return to Egypt to do some mission work there.

Rachel: I realized I am not quite ready to live overseas yet, but it is definitely something I hope to do in the future. I was surprised that I enjoyed teaching adult English so much, and that has already led me to start considering possibilities of working with immigrant populations or teaching English overseas someday.

Andrea: I continue to desire to live in a multicultural, urban setting, where I can learn from people of diverse backgrounds and help make peace through community-building efforts. I hope to teach someday, in some capacity – be it through a Christian ministry, the visual arts, or English as a second language. I am currently applying to serve overseas through the Mennonite Mission Network.