We have been traveling in the Middle East for a week now, on a tour arranged by Dave Pope, a good friend from England who has also arranged tours we’ve done with the Saltmine theatre troupe. I am speaking mostly to expatriates, as Christian meetings would not be allowed for nationals. So far we have done programs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, sister cities which form two of the seven member states in the United Arab Emirates. Dubai is like Las Vegas on steroids, as if the rulers hired the best architects in the world, gave them each several billion dollars to play with, and turned them loose to design gleaming skyscrapers. You’ve probably seen pictures of the amazing hotel with a helipad from which Tiger Woods hit golf balls into the ocean—rooms go for $5,000 per night there, and come complete with a private butler. Then there’s the world’s tallest building, nearly twice as tall as the Empire State Building. Dubai is a shopper’s paradise (it’s pronounced “Do buy”) and money flows like water, or rather like oil. It has malls the size of towns.
The Emirates first became a nation in 1972. Just two generations ago the locals were Bedouins traipsing across the desert in camel caravans, which has made for a breathtaking pace of change. You can still see wild camels among the wavy sand dunes—as you drive past on modern six-lane superhighways. Now only 5-10 percent of the population consists of Dubai citizens; the rest are workers imported from places like India and the Philippines, as well as well-heeled businessmen and tourists from Europe and the U.S., all of which creates a most confusing national identity.
You see strange sights in the modern Gulf: women in full black robes speaking through their veils on I-Phones or Blackberries while strolling along a beach among bikini-clad tourists. Or a man walking through a shopping mall trailed by his four wives, each following in step. This is a different culture, to be sure. Each day the newspaper prints the precise five times a day (they vary a bit with the moon) in which the Muslim call to prayer will echo from the omnipresent mosques, and the airline magazine advertises a GPS alarm for $149 that can alert you to that time from any point in the world. Earlier this week I was checking some fact on the British Museum website and got a message “Blocked under the Prohibited Content Categories of UAE’s Internet Access Management Policy.”
I am speaking in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Cairo, Egypt. A team of four persons from the U.K. met us here to handle things such as music and tech support. In each place apart from Cairo we’re addressing internationals connected with international churches. Again with the exception of Egypt, these countries have only a handful of local, Muslim-background believers: seven here, twelve there, all of whom live at risk since conversion is illegal and can be punished by death. Yet the governments do allow churches to serve the international community, as long as they don’t try to proselytize locals. One allotted church building may serve a couple of dozen different congregations, all of whom take turns using the facility. For an event like ours they come together, forming an exotic mix of nationalities and denominations. Also, we usually meet with a selected group of 40-80 Christian leaders and pastors and share a meal together.
The early missionaries, some 100 years ago, served well and left a good impression, which explains why tightly controlled Muslim countries allow some openly Christian agencies. The clinic founded by Samuel Zwemer, for example, still has the address “Post Office Box 1” in Bahrain. We led a worship service at Oasis Hospital in Abu Dhabi, founded by missionaries in the 1950s, where doctors and midwives safely delivered 17 members of the royal family. When the hospital staff applied for a $2 million expansion project, the ruler of Abu Dhabi said that was way too modest, and countered with a $100 million expansion plan funded by the government. Thus nurses, doctors, and therapists from 60 countries live there and quietly serve; meanwhile each patient gets a beautiful copy of the gospel of Luke, all with government approval. Another Christian cared for the mother of the ruling sheik, whose son in gratitude granted her the right to establish a network of schools across the country.
I have great respect for the Christian workers who choose this part of the world. In 1990 there were perhaps 30 Christians doing some kind of mission work in this region; now there may be 500. In Dubai we stayed in a guest house frequented by missionaries who use it for a retreat place, and heard some amazing stories. For example, we ate breakfast with a lovely young couple from Afghanistan, graduates of Baylor University. They live in an area marked by violence from the Taliban, which casts a cloud of fear over their village. In that culture, men and women simply do not appear in public together, so they can’t go out on a “date,” and would have nowhere to go regardless. They hear cries from a wife being beaten next door, and can do nothing but tend to her wounds. And they are trying to teach basic education to a country that has only 37 percent literacy, very few of whom are women. That kind of dedication, with very restricted spiritual activity, tests a missionary’s spirit.
In these places, Janet and I feel honored to be a new voice, offer some encouragement, and help bring together groups of Christians who may not even know each other exist.
We have finished the “work” part of our trip, 15 speaking engagements in all, and are spending a few days in Jordan for tourism and recuperation. We need it. Janet and I both came down with a case of “Cairo throat” from the badly polluted air there, and have spent this first day in Amman sequestered in the hotel room. The Anglican church in Cairo put us up in a hotel overlooking the Nile and with a view of the pyramids—but you’d need Superman’s X-ray vision to see anything through that air.
Cairo reminds me of India: monochrome brown buildings, potholes, everything run-down, and sprawling for miles and miles in every direction. Some 4,000 people move here from the country each day, a total of 22 million and counting. Unlike the Gulf countries we visited, Egypt has a historic population of Christians, some 10 percent of the population, who trace back to the Apostle Mark. They have legal rights, but face roadblocks in building churches and career opportunities, and here too proselytism is forbidden.
While we were visiting, one of the members of the Anglican church was arrested by secret police while demonstrating on behalf of the Palestinians in Gaza. He was taken away in an unmarked vehicle, and after two days no one had been able to locate him. German/Egyptian, he graduated from Wheaton College. Secret police showed up at his parents’ house at 2 a.m. one night and did a complete search. Egypt is a police state, and you see young recruits with rifles and machine guns on almost every corner. Eventually his case got the attention of Amnesty International and the New York Times, and he got freed.
The Palestinian issue is huge here. People want to like the U.S., but the constant play on TV of Israeli jets pounding the civilian population with American-made F-16s makes it very, very hard.
On Sunday we went to the “garbage church” in a place called Mokkattam on the outskirts of Cairo. A sprawling slum of 30,000 people has grown up around the practice of garbage picking. Cairo doesn’t have an organized garbage industry. Instead, individuals roam the streets and collect garbage in plastic bags which they transport to this slum, where they spread out the garbage and sort recyclable plastic and metal. About 30 years ago someone discovered the entrance to a large cave near the slum, and over time Coptic Christians (the historic church in Egypt), moved 140,000 tons of rock out of the cave to form a 3,000-seat auditorium. They did this mostly at night during Muslim fast periods, when the guards went home to eat. The church outgrew that facility, and now meets in a 13,000 seat amphitheater likewise hewn out of rock. A Polish sculptor has carved biblical scenes in the rock all around. World Vision contributed to the project (before getting kicked out of Egypt) and the grounds are beautifully planted and designed, an oasis of beauty in a desert of poverty.
Both Jordan, where we now are, and Egypt seem like ancient, authentic cultures compared to the Gulf states. There, with glass skyscrapers, shopping malls, and every conceivable American fast-food outlet (KFC, Cinnabon, Chili’s, Pizza Hut) you get the sense of an alien, modern culture imposed on a fake society. The class divisions are appalling. Depending on the country, there may be 50,000 Filipinos, 10,000 Nepalis, and 70,000 Indians doing all the labor, while the Bahrainis or Qataris or Kuwaitis collect a monthly government subsidy and travel the world. Churches tend to work among the internationals, who need all the help they can get. A construction worker from India, say, pays a huge fee to some agent who finds him a job in a labor camp. He leaves his family, moves to a place where he sleeps in an open dorm with 8-10 others, shares a single toilet, and works for the equivalent of $50-100 per month. If he complains, leaves the compound at night, or causes any trouble whatever, the host country simply revokes his work permit and sends him back to India. Due to the economic downturn, thousands of these workers are dismissed every week.
Christian churches do much good work among these labor camps, and organizations like Prison Fellowship work among those who land in jail. Sometimes the local government permits such work, and sometimes without warning they clamp down. We got a taste of that when one government suddenly canceled the meeting where I was supposed to speak, one day before the meeting. The local committee scrambled to find an alternate venue, the auditorium at an American school, which worked well, but even so hundreds of people had to be notified of the new location.
We’ve had numerous conversations with Muslims and those who work among them. Converts to Christianity are very rare, though we managed to meet a handful at a secret gathering of “Muslim Background Believers.” Virtually every one told of a dream or vision that prompted them to take the courageous step of leaving the Islamic culture.
Each country has its own distinctiveness. Kuwait drivers are crazy; Bahrain serves up alcohol and prostitutes to the repressed folks from Saudi Arabia who drive across a causeway; Qatar hosts the TV network Al Jazeera, which shows in almost every Arab home. In some countries the women dress in all black, including over the face; in others they allow eye slits, and even colored head scarves. Men wear white, women black, yet another sign of gender inequity here in a very hot climate. All of them are governed by kings or sheiks, with no real democracy. A strange part of the world indeed, and one which has unexpectedly become the center of attention thanks to its oil reserves.
We’ve learned a lot about an alien culture, heard many pleas for Americans not to judge all Middle Easterners by a few terrorists, and return grateful for living in a democracy with guarantees of human rights.
Copyright © 2009 by Philip Yancey