Friday, March 31, 2006

The Land of the Crescent Moon Becomes The Land of the Crescent Sun

Several days ago I struck out on an adventure to a Mediterranean town called Sallum to see an amazing example of the miraculous rhythm of nature. Teri and I went to a local bus station at 11:30PM and took an overnight bus to the small town, which sits a mere 7 kilometers from the border with Libya. When we arrived at the checkpoint to enter the town at 9:30AM, a town official boarded the bus and delivered some unwelcome news. We would have to pay 100 Egyptian Pounds to cross the city limits and he knew we would pay up on this of all days. This particular day happened to be March 29th, 2006, the day the moon would completely blot out the sun.

While the officials just knew they would get money out of us, they were terribly uninformed. After telling the town officials that we didn’t even need to enter the town to see the eclipse (we were already well within the shadow zone) and after a few minutes of irate screaming by the locals, the officials caved and let us through for free.

Teri and I set up camp on a rocky, trash-covered beach, and were joined by an Irishman, and two German women… and a few hundred local Egyptian men. No Egyptian women, just men.

For the next few hours I monitored the slow progression of the moon across the face of the sun with I device I had assembled in Cairo. It’s dangerous to look at an eclipse while the sun is still visible, so I had devised a way to look at the sun indirectly. I also fended the Egyptian men off of Teri and our two German friends, though Teri did quite a bit of fending of her own. The local men said some very distasteful things and were quite surprised when I spouted some Arabic back at them.

Sallum, despite the rude behavior of the locals, was a fantastic place to view an eclipse. It was very flat, being on the Mediterranean coast, which offered an incredible view of the entire sky. Also, the air was devoid of any moisture, so there were absolutely no clouds.

After quite a bit of waiting, the moment was nearly upon us. With only an eighth of the sun still showing, some very interesting things began to happen. The horizon reddened as if it were dusk though it was only 12:30 in the afternoon, the light blue sky darkened, and Venus shone brightly by itself near the horizon. The light shining on our faces paled and the temperature noticeably dropped. The hair on the back of my neck was standing on end. Even my body could tell something is not right, that something was amiss.

Nearby an Egyptian had set up a telescope and was using it to project the focused light of the sun onto a white piece of paper. The projection perfectly depicted the remaining slender crescent of the sun. The image reminded me of so many decorative crescent moons I have seen on top of the mosques here in Egypt, except this was a crescent SUN.

Near the horizon I saw yet another strange phenomena that I expected because I had read about it on the internet, but was totally unprepared for how unnerving it looked. Imagine the negative of a sunbeam. Let’s call it a shadowbeam. The shadowbeam began as a vertical wisp on the southwestern horizon but quickly grew to encompass the entire sky, swallowing any remaining blue. It was the shaft of no-light rushing across north Africa in our direction. An imam at a nearby mosque was praying over a loudspeaker as I looked back at the nearby projection of the sun. I looked just in time to see the remaining fingernail of the sun dissolve and the pale sunlight shining on the ground all around us disappeared completely. We had entered totality. The moon had completely covered the sun.

Once the sun is completely covered, it is safe to look at an eclipse, even with your naked eyes. Immediately all of our eyes snapped to the place where the sun had just been to see a perfect circular hole surrounded by a misty white glow. I wasn’t prepared for how utterly black the moon would be. I have never seen anything so black. It was unnaturally black. All at the same time, the Muslims standing around us erupted in cheers, saying, “Allah akbar!” [God is great!]

For the next four minutes we snapped pictures and stood there absolutely stunned. Seeing an eclipse is truly amazing. It forced me to reflect upon the fact that I am a person, a speck on a planet that has its own rhythms and cycles, which includes the revolution of the moon. Once a month the moon makes its journey around the Earth in a slightly tilted orbit. From our perspective on Earth it usually passes undetected above or below the sun. But every now and then, it passes directly in front of the Sun, casting a shadow on the surface of the Earth. These motions are so regular, so cyclical that they can be measured and predicted very accurately. NASA even publishes maps showing the exact path of the shadow of the moon years before an eclipse actually occurs.

I have always had a great interest in science and I am regularly amazed at what the human mind has discovered and figured out through the centuries. I also believe in a higher being that causes all of this order, and even the chaos we can’t figure out. I always struggle between my “science mind” and my “religious mind.” I even wonder sometimes if they are really that different. When it comes down to it, both minds simply seek to understand, just in different ways. Neither way is completely right, or completely wrong. I guess I try to use both. Or maybe I’ve read to many Dan Brown books.

Allah akbar!


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Rain, rain, go away… no, really… it’s time to leave

Last night it rained pretty steadily for about an hour. I saw the results this morning on my way to work. One street near Dawson Hall was completely flooded, and only a handful of drivers were willing to risk driving through the lake that had appeared overnight. You see, it rains so seldom in Cairo that city planners (if they even exist) never bothered to install any drainage systems. So, when it does rain, there is nowhere for the water to go. Naadia has lived here for several years and told us that it will take several sunny days for the water to evaporate. Until then it stagnates and breeds all kinds of mosquitoes. I thought we had it bad enough around Dawson Hall, but apparently the mosquito battle is just about to begin.

Tonight Teri and I are headed out on a bit of an adventure. At 11:30pm, we are boarding a bus to Sallum, a small Mediterranean town just a few kilometers from the border with Lybia. If you have been paying close attention to the news you know there is about to be a total eclipse of the sun and it passes through Sallum. I have been into astronomy for years and I am thrilled at the opportunity to experience a total solar eclipse. I saw one in Atlanta in 1982, but I was all of four years old and barely remember it. On our way back we are going to stop at the Siwa Oasis where we hope to find a guide to take us out into the Sahara desert. Our friends Jen, Sara, and Jennifer spent the night out in the desert, which is something both Teri and I hope to do. I imagine the stars will be brilliant out there, so this is going to be a very astronomy-oriented few days for me.

Yesterday was the 93rd birthday of Martha Roy. She is the organist at St. Andrew’s in Cairo and was awarded the highest honor a foreigner can receive from the Egyptian government. She received personally it from President Sadat. She was born in Tanta, Egypt to missionary parents and grew up in various places throughout the country. She left for only a few years to attend University in America and then returned to Egypt. Dr. Martha Roy is a musicologist and she collaborated to publish the first written versions of Coptic Orthodox masses. Before she and her team wrote the masses down, including words and music, there were no written records of them. I suppose the words and music were just handed down orally generation after generation for hundreds of years. Martha even told me that copies of the Coptic Orthodox masses are available in America.

After we worked on the Habitat for Humanity project in Minya were told that the villagers went into a panic when they saw so many foreigners. It seems they thought we had come to cull their chicken population after the recent discovery of bird flu in Minya. I imagine we looked like a bunch of people from a foreign agency, like the CDC, coming in to take away their livelihoods. We were told they madly started hiding chickens everywhere they could. On the one hand it seems rather humorous, but in some ways it’s sad and even a little frightening. It’s horrible to think we caused so much of a commotion simply by being there. Plus, assuming there were a real threat and the chickens really needed to be culled, hiding an infected bird could have disastrous results.

I recently set up an account over at and discovered several old friends from high school. It’s really good to get in touch with folks I haven’t seen for years and to catch up with them. It’s really hard to imagine all of those gangly, pubescent people that I once knew have all grown up and gotten jobs and are now responsible members of society. Well, most of them anyway. ;-D I suppose I’m still hanging on to my carefree days to some extent.

I hope all is well with you. Take care.

Jason Clay

Monday, March 27, 2006

Habitat for Humanity in Minya

The sweaty Egyptian man stood there expectantly with a cigarette dangling from his lips, his hands extended towards me. In them was a pallet of spackle, more or less a mixture of cement and gypsum. I extended my gloved hand and accepted the pallet by grasping the handle on the underside and felt the weight of the mixture as the Egyptian man released his grip. My pallet knife rasped across the pallet as I mixed and moved the spackle around until I had shaped it just right, just enough to lift a large glob with the pallet knife.

Sweat trickled off my forehead and into my eyes and I felt the sting as I crouched down in front of a wall made of mud and straw bricks. I slapped the spackle against the wall and most of it fell to the floor. I chuckled at myself as the three or four Egyptians snickered too. I just hadn’t mastered the technique yet. My teacher was patient though and showed me through non-verbal instruction once more.

I was in a small village just outside an Egyptian town called Minya. I was working with Habitat for Humanity, helping rural Egyptians to improve their homes. My fellow Young Adult Volunteers and I joined the Habitat crew over the last two days and saw a side of Egypt few ever see, the village life of poor Egyptian farmers.

Earlier that day, when we arrived at the village, our small bus bounced down the dirt road and sped past farmers in their fields who paused long enough to wonder what a bus full of westerners was doing way out in the country. Most often their faces bore a perplexed look, but every now and then a small child or a teenager would wave heartily while grinning broadly.

When the bus stopped we stepped out onto a road that was covered with a layer of donkey dung mixed with straw and sand. Flies were everywhere and swarmed in front of my feet as I walked. As we walked down the street between mud-brick buildings we passed children happily playing soccer in the street and old, crinkly-faced, robed women sitting on doorsteps chatting to one another. As we passed everyone stopped what they were doing and stared. A child smiled at me and said, “Hello.” I turned as I passed him and said hello back to him and shook his hand. Before long we had attracted a group of wide-eyed children that followed us, occasionally shouting out, “Hello!”

We arrived at the house where we would work, and our Habitat organizers led us through the front door. The “house” was a loose collection of small rooms contained by a perimeter wall. The “hallway” between the rooms was an open-air passageway where we could look up and see the blue sky. Sunlight spilled over the edges of the rooms and reflected brightly off the walls around us. We were led to a back room that was dimly lit by reflected sunlight through a window. In the room we saw workmen already hard at work applying spackle to the brick surface. Immediately the workers welcomed us and began to give us instructions, mostly through hand gestures. As Jen and I began to work a collection of men and children formed outside the door and window to watch us.

I did just what my teacher showed me. I swished the spackle to the left, and then to the right to make a narrow vertical strip down the center of the pallet so I could easily scoop it up. The next part was tricky. My teacher had applied the spackle by flinging it onto the wall and the whole blob stuck. But no matter how many times I tried it, the spackle wouldn’t stick. It would just flop comically to the dirt floor. In the end I just applied it by easily mashing into the surface of the wall and then smoothing it out to match the rest of the wall. It seemed to do the job. I alternated doing this with Jen until the rest of the wall was covered in spackle.

After some time we took a break, drank some tea, and chatted as best we could given the language barrier. We smiled and laughed. The local men brought in their wives, children and babies. The children were all precious with gigantic brown eyes. The locals let us take some pictures. They had certainly seen digital cameras before because they immediately ran over and eagerly waited to see the image appear on our cameras’ tiny screens.

We worked for a few more hours, taking a few breaks along the way. Before long the walls were completed. We enjoyed the company of the Egyptians for a while longer before we loaded back on the bus and waved our goodbyes to the villagers smiling outside our windows.

This experience was by far the most exhilarating thing I have experienced in Egypt thus far. I feel like I finally made a difference. The results were tangible and real, and they still stand in a small village outside Minya. During the last two days, I truly felt like I was doing God’s work.


Friday, March 17, 2006

New Pictures Have Been Added

I have just posted photos from recent weeks in Egypt and my trip to Atlanta. Be sure to check them out on my photos page under the March 17th section. I have also learned how to put photos in the text. So, here you go. I'm standing in front of the Great Pyramid. Whoo-hoo!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Egyptian Mournings

Not long after I returned from my grandmother’s funeral I was back in the Synod of the Nile office, scanning pages from books when I heard this shrill wailing noise coming from the front door. It repeated over and over again and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

I walked out of my office to the front door to find out what was going on. I looked out the front window and saw a group of well-dressed people standing at the foot of the steps that lead up the front door. They were standing in the courtyard that is normally empty at that time of day. A few moments later they began walking towards the stairs and before long I realized what was going on.

Six men carried a lacquered wooden coffin with gold trim precariously up the stairs, passed the Synod office and up to a church that is in the building next door. A middle-aged woman wrapped from head to toe in a long black robe followed the men. The widow was more or less stumbling up the stairs as people on either side of her tried to hold her upright. She bore an anguished expression and wailed shrilly with each breath she expelled. The sound she made shook me to the core. Imagine an anxious dog that is separated from her puppies that are whining and whimpering. That’s what I felt like. I heard this woman tremendous grief and there was nothing to do about it. I think seeing her may have tapped into my own grief over losing my grandmother.

Venis, a coworker of mine, walked by with a smile on her face as I was standing there and said, “Don’t worry, she is greeting the dead.”

Only a few days later I was walking home from the seminary when I heard the same exact sound. As I made my way towards Dawson Hall I saw two Muslim women briskly walking towards me, arm in arm. The one on the right was dressed all in black from head to toe and was madly stumbling down the street. The other woman wasn’t so much supporting her as trying to keep up with her. The woman in mourning screeched as she steamrolled down the sidewalk. Perhaps she had just found out a relative had passed and was on her way to the scene.

I guess no matter who or how you worship in Egypt, you mourn the same way.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Happy Birthday to Me

The birthday-o-meter hits 28 today. I feel like I am seriously staring thirty in the face now. Man, the years just fly by don't they. Where do they go?


Meanwhile, in Egypt…

In the last couple of posts I have gotten caught up in describing our recent trip to Rome, Italy, and while I would still like to write about Florence, I feel the need to do a bit of catching up on what has been happening since then.

As many of you know my 92 year old grandmother passed away rather suddenly in February shortly after I returned to Egypt from Italy. Even though Grandmother was 92 years old, she was in relatively good health. So it was quite a surprise to learn that she had a stroke and the doctors had given her one to three weeks to live. In the following days her health rapidly declined and the doctors changed their estimate to one to three DAYS.

When my parents told me this I immediately booked a flight, hoping that I could get home in time to talk to her. Unfortunately she passed a mere eight hours before I arrived. But I did get to grieve with my family, attend the graveside service, and recall fond memories of her. I also got to catch up with a few friends and visit my home church for Sunday morning worship. I am deeply saddened that I was unable to speak with Grandmother before she passed, but perhaps it is good that I will always remember her the way she was when I left for Egypt.

When I returned to Egypt from the U.S., I began work at Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo where I am working on updating the content of their web site. My technical know-how is being put to good use there. While I will continue my work at the Synod of the Nile on Mondays and Tuesdays, I will work at the Seminary on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I am also continuing to teach English to seven and eight year olds at the Coptic Cathedral.

My work at the Synod of the Nile is steadily progressing. Last week I helped to put together a summary of the recent World Council of Churches convention that took place in Brazil. The Presbyterian Church in Egypt sent a delegation to the convention and is now putting together a report for the upcoming yearly Synod meeting. I am also continuing to develop a method for digitizing many old volumes of minutes from the early days of the Synod. There is currently a push to preserve these deteriorating volumes before they are lost forever to the ravages of time. I am currently testing a method that involves photographing each page and then compiling the pages in a PDF document.

My English lessons have been a delight recently. The coordinator of the program gave me some tips on how I could improve my lessons. Criticism is uncommon in Egypt. Normally it is assumed that foreigners know what is best and no criticism is offered. Given that I have never really taught a class of seven and eight year olds, and didn’t really have any experience, it was actually a relief to get some tips. I am glad the program coordinator, Halla, decided to break out of the standard Egyptian M.O.

I have been coming up with short skits for the kids to read. The students have really enjoyed reading out loud, and some have even come out of their shells and are speaking loudeer and with more confidence.

All in all the work seems to be going well and I am thankful that I have the chance to serve the people of Egypt in all these different ways.

If you have any questions about the work I am doing here, please feel free to email me at Others may be able to benefit from your questions. I am interested what you think about my volunteer work, so feel free to contact me with comments and suggestions. It’s also fun to know what is going on in your lives, so “catch up” emails are always fun to read.


Monday, March 06, 2006

Rome, Italy: Part II

When Teri and I went on our vacation to Rome and Florence, Italy we had an incredible time. We saw so many amazing things. In my last entry about Italy I described in detail what it was like to go through the Necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica, but in this entry I will briefly hit the rest of our time in Rome. After all, you can pretty much look up photos of all the rest of these sites on the internet. You just can’t find much on the Necropolis though.

It’s worth mentioning, before I go much further, that we met some extraordinary mission workers for the PC(USA) in Rome. One of the first questions I asked them was, “What can Protestant missionaries possible hope to accomplish in a predominately Roman Catholic country?” It turns out Terry and Michele had lived in Italy for several years working with their partner organization, The Waldensian Church. The Waldensian church is effectively the first protestant church. It was formed hundreds of years before Martin Luther nailed his theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Terry has been working in conjunction with the Waldensian Church to bring youth from both Palestine and Israel out of their contexts to meet each other, hopefully to put a face to the “enemy” and end the cycle of violence. They are doing this in an attempt to prevent another generation of kids from growing up hating each other. Michele worked part time with Terry and went to college. They were extremely hospitable, and Terry even gave us a guided tour of St. Peter’s Basilica.

As it turns out, Victor Makari was in Rome at the same time Teri and I were there. Victor Makari is the PC(USA) missions coordinator for Europe and the Middle East, so we see him in Dawson Hall from time to time. In this case, Victor was visiting Terry and Michele to facilitate their move to Jerusalem where they will begin a new missions post under the PC(USA). Interestingly, this leaves a vacancy in Italy… one Victor strongly hinted that Teri and I should look into. After visiting Rome, I can’t say I’m not interested.

Teri and I went to the amazing Vatican Museums and saw works of art I had only dreamed about seeing. Room after room was filled with ancient Roman sculptures, and Renaissance paintings and sculpture. Flip open any art history book and you will find hundreds of examples of art from the Vatican Museums.

I fell in love with the Sistine Chapel in college and marveled at seeing the actual building. I still can’t believe that my eyes have actually gazed upon Michelangelo’s famous ceiling and his Last Judgment, which was painted on the end wall. I stood there in silence for nearly forty minutes, just awestruck.

Another masterpiece I was happy to see was the School of Athens by Raphael, which you can see photos of on my photos page. It was a gigantic fresco. I think that’s when it really hit me. Much of the art in the Vatican Museums are frescoes. That means they are painted directly on the walls and can’t be moved. The Vatican Museums are works of art in and of themselves. They contain artwork that can’t ever be viewed anywhere else in the world.

We met up with Terry later and took a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica where he showed us an unflattering sculpture of Martin Luther being stepped on by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order. He showed us another sculpture by Bernini that showed Truth personified with her foot resting on the globe. It just so happened that her foot was resting on England. The sculpture was made ‘round about the time King Henry VIII split from the Roman Catholic Church and formed The Church of England so he could divorce his wife.

And of course we saw Michelangelo’s Pieta. It was a marvel to behold. Several years ago my church gave my mother an anniversary gift for working at the church. It was a copy of Mary’s portrait from Michelangelo’s Pieta. It hung on the wall of our dining room as I grew up and I became very familiar with its image. I never thought I would see the real thing.

Terry led us into the grottoes under the main floor of St. Peter’s where we saw the tombs of many, many popes including Pope John Paul II who died just last year. Many of the old popes had ornately carved tombs, some of which bore an effigy.

After we thanked Terry for his tour and parted ways, Teri and I climbed the dome of St. Peter’s to the cupola. The dome of St. Peter’s is actually a double dome and we had to climb up between the domes. As the domes curved more and more near the top, the walls on either side of us made us lean over further and further. It was a surreal sensation akin to being in a funhouse. Upon reaching the top we had an incredible view of the city and St. Peter’s Square in all its grandeur.

Later we visited the stunning Pantheon, the Trevi Fountains, Trajan’s Column (another favorite of mine from art history), The Roman Forum, the remnants of a colossal statue of Constantine, the famous sculpture of Romulus and Remus nursing from the she-wolf, Constantine’s Arch, the Coliseum… well, I guess you get the point. We saw tons of famous, incredible, unbelievable places, things, works of art, and churches. I have seen things I never believed I would see and I am still in awe over it all.

Next up… Florence.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Iraqi Student

This evening I went to the seminary where I work and attended a discussion group on what discipleship means in different contexts. As it turned out the Egyptian concept of discipleship is similar to the the Presbyterian Church (USA) concept. Discipleship is a means of equipping Christians with the knowledge and tools with which to go out into the world and participate in ministries. When it comes down to it though, I believe Egyptians are better at actually living out their lives as disciples.

I have heard Presbyterians in the U.S. refered to as the "frozen chosen" several times in my life. While we are steeped in knowledge about the bible and the life of Jesus Christ, because Presbyterians do place an important emphasis on education, we do fall a bit short in the "action" department. I think at least by comparison to the Egyptian Presbyterians this is true. Perhaps it's the fact that they are constantly oppressed by the Muslim majority. Their faith means so much more because they truly have to live it everyday.

At the end of the meeting I had a chance to speak with an Iraqi from Basra who is a student at the seminary. He is one of the friendliest people I have ever met. He walked with me as I walked back to Dawson Hall. He told me that he studied English at a college in Iraq before moving to Cairo at the suggestion of his pastor to attend seminary. He was dressed smartly in slacks and a white button up shirt with a tie and had a broad smile on his face the entire time we talked. He was genuinely glad to talk to me and held no animosity against me for being an American. In fact he recently visited the U.S. with a delegation of young adults from Iraq. He was the only Charistian that went. The rest of the members of the delegation were all Muslims. I invited him to come and speak to me and the rest of the volunteers because I am sure he has many interesting stories to tell. He said he would be happy to. We just need to work out a time to get together now.

Yours in Christ,