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July 18, 2009

The phonebook you never thought you'd have

This week has been, by far, my busiest week in Cairo. I have worked a six day week, with most days lasting from 9:30 in the morning until I get home around midnight. Normally, I'd probably have a few choice complaints about such a hefty schedule; however, the particular cause of this business has outweighed the inconvenience significantly.

I had already compiled my information about Pope Shenouda III's Jerusalem pilgrimage as gleaned from newspaper sources as best as possible when this week began, but the amount reported in the media (albeit a large amount as this is a popular story) failed to really convey what I felt was the amount of nuance available in this decision, as well as the multiple forces and beliefs informing the cultural debate. What was appearing in print seemed to only be the tip of an iceberg, the statements without the ideas that had informed them. Clearly, I needed to do some interviews, but lowly me with my Brown Student ID as my most qualified credential was unlikely to get incredibly far on my own.

Enter the Arab West Report and its illustrious (and well-connected founder) Dr. Cornelis Hulsman. People with whom I had desperately been calling for weeks getting only convoluted bureaucratic information regarding their being "busy" or "out of the office" are on Dr. Hulsman's mobile phone. As in, their personal numbers. What is extraordinary about this is not that he would have prominent social contacts in his phone, but rather the ease with which he can get in contact with so many people. After about a ten minute conversation with Dr. Hulsman, I not only had a very full week of interviews planned, but quite the cellphone contact roll of my own.

Indeed, now I have a multiplicity of bishops of the Coptic Orthodox Church on my speed-dial, as well as a newspaper editor (and former member of the Maglis Milli – Lay Council of the Coptic Orthodox Church), a police general, and a prominent Church critic and reformist. Each of these individuals also provided an incredible insight into the issues surrounding the debate on the Jerusalem pilgrimage, its ban, and the exact forces, factors, and powers that enable such a ban to have been placed by His Holiness. Without giving away too much of my own final research (which will have a link posted to this site when completed), the most intriguing part of this issue as I proceed is the way in which this debate has crystalized over deeper issues within the Coptic Community. Most interviewed identify both "political" and "religious" aspects of the ban (often being coded as "political:" bad, "religious:" good), but the exact meaning of either varies greatly and is intensely rooted in personal understanding of religion, Christianity, and focus upon the individual versus the community. The Jerusalem ban then sits on top of a larger ideological negotiation within the Church to define its actions, scope, and justifications. I will stop the assessment there until I finish transcribing my interviews and begin the actual report, but I hope that this "teaser," if you will, will have piqued interest into what otherwise might appear to be a thirty year old policy in a rather distant religious community. The Jerusalem pilgrimage ban of Pope Shenouda III is lens into a much larger and more relevant debate as to the appropriate roles and responsibilities of a Church that is increasingly becoming more globalized and internationalized.

Posted by Alexander Steven Wamboldt at 12:26 PM | Comments (0)

The phonebook you never thought you'd have

This week has been, by far, my busiest week in Cairo. I have worked a six day week, with most days lasting from 9:30 in the morning until I get home around midnight. Normally, I'd probably have a few choice complaints about such a hefty schedule; however, the particular cause of this business has outweighed the inconvenience significantly.

I had already compiled my information about Pope Shenouda III's Jerusalem pilgrimage as gleaned from newspaper sources as best as possible when this week began, but the amount reported in the media (albeit a large amount as this is a popular story) failed to really convey what I felt was the amount of nuance available in this decision, as well as the multiple forces and beliefs informing the cultural debate. What was appearing in print seemed to only be the tip of an iceberg, the statements without the ideas that had informed them. Clearly, I needed to do some interviews, but lowly me with my Brown Student ID as my most qualified credential was unlikely to get incredibly far on my own.

Enter the Arab West Report and its illustrious (and well-connected founder) Dr. Cornelis Hulsman. People with whom I had desperately been calling for weeks getting only convoluted bureaucratic information regarding their being "busy" or "out of the office" are on Dr. Hulsman's mobile phone. As in, their personal numbers. What is extraordinary about this is not that he would have prominent social contacts in his phone, but rather the ease with which he can get in contact with so many people. After about a ten minute conversation with Dr. Hulsman, I not only had a very full week of interviews planned, but quite the cellphone contact roll of my own.

Indeed, now I have a multiplicity of bishops of the Coptic Orthodox Church on my speed-dial, as well as a newspaper editor (and former member of the Maglis Milli – Lay Council of the Coptic Orthodox Church), a police general, and a prominent Church critic and reformist. Each of these individuals also provided an incredible insight into the issues surrounding the debate on the Jerusalem pilgrimage, its ban, and the exact forces, factors, and powers that enable such a ban to have been placed by His Holiness. Without giving away too much of my own final research (which will have a link posted to this site when completed), the most intriguing part of this issue as I proceed is the way in which this debate has crystalized over deeper issues within the Coptic Community. Most interviewed identify both "political" and "religious" aspects of the ban (often being coded as "political:" bad, "religious:" good), but the exact meaning of either varies greatly and is intensely rooted in personal understanding of religion, Christianity, and focus upon the individual versus the community. The Jerusalem ban then sits on top of a larger ideological negotiation within the Church to define its actions, scope, and justifications. I will stop the assessment there until I finish transcribing my interviews and begin the actual report, but I hope that this "teaser," if you will, will have piqued interest into what otherwise might appear to be a thirty year old policy in a rather distant religious community. The Jerusalem pilgrimage ban of Pope Shenouda III is lens into a much larger and more relevant debate as to the appropriate roles and responsibilities of a Church that is increasingly becoming more globalized and internationalized.

Posted by Alexander Steven Wamboldt at 12:26 PM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2009

updates and the benefits of working for a religious community

Since I last posted, I've certainly had a busy work life. But now that July has come, I can officially announce that I have read through all 3,000 or so articles that in any way mention Pope Shenouda III within in the Arab West Report database. While a monumental milestone, I realized the day I finished how much more I still had to do. True, I had collected, compiled, and categorized all of these articles in what might be the most horrifying Microsoft Excel document to behold imaginable, but honestly, that was the easy part. What my past week has become then is trying to discover out of all of this information what topic I want to pursue (made slightly more difficult as my boss is currently out of the country). However, I finally did settle on a topic for investigation while in Egypt (as well as a related thesis topic for when I get back stateside): Pope Shenouda III's ban on Coptic pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For those of you who don't know (which I would presume to be most reading this blog), Pope Shenouda III placed a ban on all Coptic tourism to Israel (including the very widely-practiced pilgrimage to Jerusalem) in 1979 following the "normalization" of relations between Egypt and Israel under President Sadat. This ban was certainly surprising to the then President (who, it should be mentioned, did not have the best relationship with Pope Shenouda to say the least), as well as many Copts who considered it part of their religious obligation to go to Jerusalem during their lifetime (indeed, traditionally, Copts even received a special tattoo within Jerusalem to "prove" that they went). However, the move won Pope Shenouda accolades from across the Arab world, and is often cited as a demonstration of his (and by proxy the Copts') patriotism. However, the exact reason and authority behind the ban are somewhat opaque. The punishment for violation of the ban has been strengthened over the years, and is now denial of communion, excommunication, or essentially the confirmation of one's denied entry to heaven (though I have been unable to find a documented case of this punishment being implemented). Despite these obviously religious consequences, the ban itself is of an unclear motivation. Is it a political gesture? National/patriotic? Religious? Even more complicated, what about the Copts who willfully decide to flaunt the pope's command and travel to Jerusalem? What about Copts who do not live in Egypt, or Copts that might not agree with the perceived political stance of this policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? While I have yet to have concrete answers to these questions, I have begun to find my own thoughts on them, as well as a deeper and deeper intertwining of these themes and issues to broader challenges facing the Coptic Church. As such, I feel it will be a fascinating topic upon which to do a final report for the Arab West Report, as well as a potential chapter in my thesis (which, for those curious by the above teaser, seems to be moving toward the globalization of the Coptic Orthodox Church and its effects upon the perceived authority, responsibilities, and roles of the Patriarch. Isn't that a mouthful?).

In other news, I get to have a new volunteer start next week, who will initially be working with me on my Pope Shenouda III project, conducting interviews with local Copts as well as (ideally) interviews with several more prominent members of the community as a means to practice her Arabic as well as provide me with more ethnographic material. Starting on Tuesday, I get to have a much needed helper on this project, which is incredibly welcome, and I am glad to have her.

Finally, in completely unrelated news, I have an unexpected perk of working for the Arab West Foundation. While in Cairo, I wanted to find a Coptic icon to bring home as part of my family's own connection to Orthodox Christianity through the Ukraine. As regional experts on Coptic Orthodoxy, I thought I would ask my boss about his recommendations of where to get such an icon, and was referred to his wife. She happens to know the nuns of the Convent of Saint Demiana and the Forty Virgins (an early Christian martyr and popular Coptic saint) in the Nile Delta, who currently finance their convent by being the sole producers of the beautiful icons that grace Coptic churches across Egypt. While the nuns normally only take commissions from churches and monasteries, due to her connection with the nuns (the nuns calls her "Tasoni," or "Sister," in Coptic), they agreed to make an icon for me. Flash forward to yesterday when it arrived in Cairo, and now there is an icon of Saint Antony (the original desert father) that was personally handmade for my family from the nuns of Saint Demiana and the Forty Virgins in my apartment. I'd call that a good job perk. For those curious, it looks something like this:
http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=34290571&id=1013451

Posted by Alexander Steven Wamboldt at 06:56 PM | Comments (2)

June 13, 2009

trip to rural egypt

Thursday was my first field assignment on the job, which meant going down 100km of industrial cement factories, then the farming villages of the Nile fluvial plain until making it to the two villages of Atfih and Deir al-Maymun in order to interview the local priests about their respective church construction projects. Technically speaking, all church construction and repair in Egypt (no matter how small and local) need to be approved through a central agency. Needless to say, this highly centralized system often leads to hurt feelings. My job for Thursday then was to follow my boss around, ask questions, and write a forthcoming report (including local history and sacred history), which I will post a link to here as well once it is completed.

1) Atfih: The Deir al-Rasul church in Atfih was heavily damaged in the 1992 earthquake, rendering the building structurally unsound. The renovation permit was quickly given by the government; however, as it is a building well over a thousand years old, the necessary renovations were well outside of the means of the small Christian community in Atfih. This is often the case in Egypt with historic churches; their costly renovations cannot be afforded by the local community. For Atfih, this meant that the community appealed to the Egyptian government, claiming the building as an antique site of national interest (primarily based in its association with Saint Paul, a 3rd century ascetic who inhabited the structure). While the government agreed to this claim (as is also often the case), the work order was not forthcoming. By 1997, the community was still without a place of worship, leading the local community to quickly erect a new church before the state could interfere with the construction as it was done without a permit. Adjacent to the original church, a new building was erected in two days which housed the congregation. As of the Arab West Report's last visit, the old church was still in a state of disrepair, and in constant threat of collapse.
This visit then was a pleasant surprise. The state has picked up the ball, just a little too slowly according to most people's opinions (again, as it often the case), and has begun to restore the building. It is scheduled to open next year, and is currently braced and no longer in danger of collapse. Indeed, it is structurally-sound enough that we were allowed access to the haikal (in Coptic churches, similar to Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, the altar is screened by an iconostasis. The area behind is known as the haikal, or sanctuary, which is sacred ground) in order to access the room where St. Paul lived.

2) Deir al-Maymun: An anomaly of Egyptian villages, Deir al-Maymun is overwhelmingly Christian (there are less than a handful of truly Christian villages in Egypt) village 100 km south of Cairo. The city's population works mostly in agriculture (mostly family plots, with a shortage of available useable land due to the narrowing of the fluvial plain of the Nile in this area, which is not only the sole irrigation source, but also without which the land is infertile sandy desert) and a local quarry (for those without access to land, this makes up most of their work, although the stones mined are primarily used in local village construction, so that it too is not a lucrative field). Some younger men from the village have begun taking factory jobs as far as Helwan, a Cairene suburb about two hours away. In this context, the local priest has begun a project to turn the two local churches of Saint Antony and Saint Stifin into pilgrimage and tourist sites. We will see where this plan leads, but it has seen local movement since the Report last visited. The priest has asked us to offer his name and contact information in case any foreigners are interested in assisting the village with this program. I will provide the contact information in a future post to honor that request.

For those interested, photos are available of these two villages here:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2128072&id=1013451&l=649710dd73

Posted by Alexander Steven Wamboldt at 07:02 PM | Comments (0)

June 07, 2009

Golden Cellphones Get Psychoanalyzed by 10 Shaykhs (because Sunday's a Workday)

My Pope Shenouda III project is well underway. As in, I have spent the last five days of work (meaning Friday and Saturday are excluded; Sunday is a workday here) going through the entirety of the Report's collection of articles from 2008 cataloguing anything that deal with Pope Shenouda III. Once you look through hundreds of articles that are categorized not by topic but by date (i.e. weeks 1-43 of 2008), you start to realize just how weird newspaper articles and media scandals can be (let alone those in a foreign culture). With that frame in mind, I present a slightly more light-hearted post: the best Egyptian headlines of 2008 (weeks 1-43):

- "10 Shaykhs Psychoanalyze the Pope" (in which 10 Muslim scholars of al-Azhar are solicited for their opinions on Pope Shenouda's character, or the beginning of some bizarre, as of yet, unwritten joke).

- "cĪd Labīb denies that the Abū Fānā reconciliation agreement collapsed because of a golden mobile phone" (in which cĪd Labīb, a prominent Copt, denies that his anger over Pope Shenouda re-gifting a golden cellphone that he had given him to a member of parliament caused him to stop working on a peace treaty between the Monastery of Abu Fana and the local Muslims. I suppose all political scandals are this weird when you think about them hard enough).

- "Brothers you thought were your shield while they were your enemies" (okay, technically not about Pope Shenouda. This is actually about Sunni-Shi'a relations, but the name just made me think of the title of a movie about a fraternity gone horribly awry).

- "Equality between Jews and Muslims" (innocuous looking, true, but the contents, "A recent survey has shown that people who hate Jews also hate Muslims," is a rather odd, if sadly true, way of demonstrating equality).

- "Dr. Yūsuf Zaydān: Christians are creative" (this is one of those weird instances of positive stereotyping that, despite advocating for a positive description, still rub me the wrong way. Anyhow, this article continues to be about how the Church shouldn't censor writers).

Anyhow, this is what happens to my brain when it looks at thousands of articles in one week; it starts finding this sort of thing amusing.

Posted by Alexander Steven Wamboldt at 10:21 PM | Comments (0)

June 03, 2009

There's that whooshing sound of free-time escaping...

My days of having nothing to do (but what a nice four days they were) are very much over. I have started my work for the Arab-West Report, and the last three days have kind of been a blur as a result. Though to be fair, some of that might be the fact that it was 110 today.

Life at the Arab-West Report has been interesting. A small operation, the entirety of the Report is within one second floor apartment (although we're taking over the third). That said, a lot happens there. There are two main functions being served at any given time: first, the translation and summarization of Arabic Egyptian press articles each week that deal with religion, freedom of speech, government, corruption/wrongdoing, sectarian violence/conflict, discrimination, and perceptions of foreign events. Secondly, these same stories and editorials are analyzed, fact-checked, investigated, and researched for trends in coverage, bias, and tropes within their style for certain issues, which is then reported on. So, to use a rather random, but simple example, of a story I came across today from the spring of 2008 on a fatwa issued by a Sheikh of al-Azhar (the premier center for Sunni Islamic scholarship and religious decisions) that Muslims should keep their prayers during work to ten minutes. This column would have been translated by team one, and put into the Arab-West Report online ( http://www.arabwestreport.info ). Later on, someone looking into how, say, fatwas are treated in Egyptian media would then have flagged this story along with others on fatwas, probably interviewed journalists, editors, and sheikhs (ideally, the ones involved in the stories and others) about the issue, and checked relevant information (e.g. Egyptian law, the Qur'an, et cetera), and then compiled a paper with a title like, "The Coverage of Fatwas in the Egyptian Print Media in 2008," which would be added to the online Arab-West Report as well (again, http://www.arabwestreport.info ). In this process, my job has become the latter portion of the organization.

My specific research task at hand? I have been asked to work with the media coverage of Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church within the recent years (I have a huge amount of articles available, and will probably be putting some chronological cap on which I am using to reduce the amount). This can literally be as many as thirty articles per week, and I have at least twelve years available to me easily should I choose to use them. It is a phenomenal data set to be working with, and I have already been drawn into the interesting field of Egyptian papal reporting. At this point, I've mostly been familiarizing myself with the articles themselves (a task I imagine will take most of June, if not more as there are well into the thousands of them), before getting ready to schedule interviews with journalists, editors, Coptic bishops and priests, and laypeople (Copt and non-Copt). It is a sizable task, and I am incredibly excited to be working on it.

Just one more shameless free advertising space to the Arab-West Report – http://www.arabwestreport.info – seriously, I advise looking at the website. It is really interesting and there is a lot to look at there.

Posted by Alexander Steven Wamboldt at 01:23 PM | Comments (2)

May 29, 2009

Orientation

I have now been in Cairo for about two days, waiting another two days to begin my internship. My early impressions are pretty much summed up with: "It's hot." To be perfectly fair and honest, that is about what I had expected.

However, to get a little more on track for the theme of this blog, the Cairene, let's begin with simply what I am doing here. The funny story about that is that now that I am here, it both makes perfect sense to me that this is where I should be, as well as seem perfectly ridiculous as I write this from a 10th story apartment with a view of the Nile and Pyramid of Zoser. As a brief recap to my being here then, one must start in January, when I saw an internship post for the Arab-West Foundation, looking for an intern with social science researching experience and preferably experience in the Arab world to look at the Coptic Christian Egyptians' media portrayal. Now, I'm always a bit surprised to see my own credentials in any sort of job ad, because really, "knowledge of Arabic language, Middle-Eastern religion, experience in anthropological research" rarely comes up these days in job postings, so I was a little shocked to see something that I was not only qualified for, but actually an ideal-seeming candidate. I applied thinking it was worth the shot.

When I got my letter of acceptance, I was even more surprised, but realized that a summer-long research project galavanting around Egypt looking into the media portrayal of a distinctive Christian sect was not exactly within my financial means and applied for a few fellowships while still trying to figure out what I was really going to do. Needless to say, my shock increased immensely when I learned that I had received funding for what was, up until that point, a rather distant dream. That's about when I bought my ticket to Cairo.

So now that I'm here (and hot), what exactly is it that I am spending my summer doing? Well, good question, and one that I myself cannot completely answer until I go into the Arab West Foundation on Monday and scope out a little more of what my role will be in the organization. What I can share at this point is a bit of my own interest in Coptic Christianity. Despite the common perception that the Middle East is 100% Arab and 100% Muslim (the two possibly being synonymous to many people), there is really a great deal of diversity both ethnically and religiously in the area. Case in point are the Copts, who straddle the line between a religious and ethnic group, accounting for somewhere around 4% of the Egyptian population. This group has its foundation in the early Christian church, particularly the See of Alexandria (one of the five original Sees of the Church, the others being Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, collectively known as the Pentarchy). Each of these Sees was governed by a bishop known as the Patriarch, and often associated with a founding Apostle (e.g. the See of Rome and Saint Peter, the See of Alexandria and Saint Mark). So what was going on in the See of Alexandria that made the Coptic Church? Well, a lot.

Continue reading "Orientation"

Posted by Alexander Steven Wamboldt at 11:37 AM | Comments (2)