Category Archives: Middle East 2016

Bet Sahour and Bethlehem

Delayed post from 23 February 2016

As we walk through silent, little Bethlehem, I can still hear the three wise men roaming through these narrow streets with their donkeys’ rhythmical clack of hooves fading into the flagrant symphony of commerce and daily affairs that takes place in Palestinian suqs (markets). If anything elevates Bet Sahour over the archeological sites we have visited so far it is the liveliness and musicality that hardly occurs within the granite walls of temples erected for the sun-baked gods of antiquity. The schools, churches, mosques, food shops and other ‘normal’ businesses fill the town with an air of that everyday festivity that is characteristic of small, picturesque towns. And it is this ‘everydayness’ that especially brings to life the miraculous events of old that occurred in this area: there are still flocks of sheep placidly grazing in Shepherds Field where the angels first announced Jesus’ birth, there is still a manger in the hypothetical ‘stable’ where baby Jesus was born, there is still an olive tree where wee, faithful Zacheus climbed just to take a glance at the famed Jesus in his ministry. The divine merging of ancient and contemporary life vitalizes the area and adds an entirely new dimension to Sunday school stories. Proclaiming clearly and loudly the existence of a people, these ‘temples and ruins’ of old have managed to preserve their ‘colors’ nearly to perfection.

What has also been preserved nearly to perfection are the ‘vestiges’ of a 50-year-old martial occupation in Palestine. Hebron, the anointment place of merciful King David, withstands today the strength of Israeli military control. Embedded in Area C (West Bank territory under Israeli Civic and Martial Law), Hebron is a crystal clear example of a slow but steady socioeconomic strangulation. This town is surrounded by Israeli settlements, which are illegal Jewish colonies within Palestinian territory, and therefore experiences a deflating desolation that makes business next to impossible. Yet enterprising micro-businesspeople refuse to leave their homes and refuse to venture into more fertile markets abroad by raising their flag of resistance: to exist is to resist. In silent, little Bethlehem there is still that 2000-year-old hope for peace on earth and good will to women and men, but, since peace belongs to those that can keep it, to Bethlehemites peace takes the shape of a 13-metre-high concrete wall and numerous checkpoints where Palestinians sometimes wait for over three hours to cross in and out in order to get to their daily activities. Yet workers, university students, mothers, fathers patiently wait in these never ending lines in order to build their families, their nation, all while raising their resistance flag: to exist is to resist. The monumental temples and obelisks erected to appease the irate, ever-scowling gods evidently did not suffice in this part of the world because the lords of war are still collecting their entitled share of suffering and despair. And as we move through these people’s struggle, with no more help to offer than our condolence and companionship, we raise their flag of resistance: to exist is to resist.

We planted grape vines at Mr. Daoud Nasser’s 100-acre property. His grandfather owned the property since the Ottoman occupation, and unlike most Palestinians, he possessed documents to legitimize this ownership. The Nasser family has been farming the land since then, passing it on from generation to generation, but as settlements encroach around his property, this generational continuity has come under threat. After the overnight destruction of his 1,500 olive trees, numerous threats, and countless legal quarrels, Mr. Nasser still remains faithful to the struggle: to exist is to resist. Today he runs the Tent of Nations, an organization responsible for proactively building a better future for Palestine by strengthening the productive sector of the nation. The resistance, according to Mr. Nasser, must be built from the ground up emphasizing the role of individuals to achieve the liberation and sustenance of the Palestinian State. This idealistic and perhaps futile hope is what strengthens an entire generation that powers through a decade-long national endeavor. This reality-defying ideal is what inspires an entire country that refuses to leave the ancestral homelands clinging to that 70-year-old maxim: to exist is to resist.  And as we prepare to set out, let us say a prayer, of hands and not of mouth, to work for a day when the mass robbery of lands, the 13-metre-high apartheid walls, the excruciating checkpoints, and all the other vast and varied forms of oppression–here and everywhere–will seem as ancient and Ozymandian as the few ‘pebbles’ remaining for the rock-silent gods of power whose worship-filled reigns crumbled long ago with the resounding liberation shout: to Exist is to Resist!

-Diego Barahona

20 March 2016

Charlie Good compiled a video recording of stories from independent travel last week. It can be found on YouTube at


JUC and Biblical Geography

7 March 2016

Last week, we arrived at Jerusalem University College (JUC) after spending a few days at the Jewish Efrat settlement in the West Bank, marking the transition from contemporary politics to ancient biblical geography. For me, this change has been a welcome one, especially after the intensity of Efrat. For once, it’s nice to be a college student again. We live in dorms, these beautiful old buildings that once housed a Palestinian Boys school. Just outside is a garden where students sit in circles for lunch, soaking up an idyllic seventy-degree sun. The rhythm of going to class and rushing to the cafeteria for lunch reminds me of the days when I was an underclassman living in the dorms, a fond memory indeed. During breaks between class, we play Knockout at the hoop just outside the academic building.

The JUC program is obviously quite distinct from a normal college class, however. After a few half days in the classroom and puttering around Jerusalem, we spent two full days exploring the biblical archeology to the east – Jericho and the Jordan River – and west to the Beit Shemesh, where David killed Goliath. In all of our studies, our wonderful professor, Aubrey Taylor, stresses the geographical and cultural understandings that are needed to place the Bible in its proper Near East context. For example, we talked about the geography around Jerusalem, emphasizing both the local valleys that protect Jerusalem to the west, south, and north, and the broader isolated Judean Hills. All to say that Jerusalem was isolated, and thus protected from invaders, but it didn’t have the access to international trade route that ran along the coast to the west. Perhaps this isolation should color our reading of how wary the Israelites were about foreigners, and their relative poverty in the hill country.

Yet, outside of this academic rigor, I’ve had fun exploring too. On Tuesday, we spent time in the City of David and walked through Hezekiah’s tunnel, which extends a good 500 meters from its Gihon Spring source to the Pool of Siloam inside the City of David. Several renditions of “Wade in the Water” were sung as we trudged single-file in knee-deep water. Of course, there is importance to this tunnel, which was rapidly built when Hezekiah rebelled against the Assyrian Empire (which went badly, unsuprisingly). There’s a story about one of the early explorers of the tunnel, Charles Warren, who was crawling through the tunnel back when it was heavily silted, and the water level rose to the point where he was twisting his neck to keep his head above the water. Fortunately, we didn’t have such difficulties!

Another highlight was the Jordan River, where five of our group were baptized by Linford in its muddy waters. Just behind us were Israeli soldiers, and just on the other side of the bank with Jordanian soldiers looking on, others were baptizing in the same spirit. Here, too, we read about the Israelites fording the Jordan before taking the city of Jericho during Joshua’s conquest.

Today, we took our first exam, and then had the afternoon off, a rare chance to sit back and relax. Without weekend breaks and only a few hours in the evening after 10 hour days in the field, it was rejuvenating to throw Frisbee in the garden and do some laundry before heading out for another week in the field. Tomorrow we head to Ashkelon to swim in the Med, Monday we swim in the Dead Sea, and the rest of the week we head north to the Galilee where we sleep in bungalows overlooking the Sea of Galilee. What a week to look forward to!

-Charlie Good


Wadi Rum and family stays in Palestine

Wadi Rum, Jordan

On Thursday, January 24 we arrived at Wadi Rum, Jordan after staying in Aqaba, Jordan for one night. What we had planned in Wadi Rum was a two night Jordanian Bedouin camp stay which included a three hour camel ride into the Wadi Rum desert. Once we arrived at the Bedouin camp we were able to choose our Camelrideroommates, each tent was a double with the exception of one triple. My roommate was Michelle Mahia, who is a very good friend of mine. The Bedouin tents were not what I expected. When you are told you will stay in a Bedouin camp you expect to “rough it” (at least that was my initial thought) but these tents had indoor plumbing (toilet, shower, sink), indoor electricity which I believe is powered through solar power, beds, and even carpet inside. We were all so amazed at how incredible the tents were. After we settled down in our tents everyone went out to explore what surrounded us. Most people went to climb this huge rock that was behind the camp which gave you an amazing view of the area, while others walked into the desert to explore what else was out in the area.

The nights in the Bedouin camp were cold but not the coldest we’ve experienced. You definitely had 24547183194_991f328445_kto wear some extra layers going to bed. I wore a hat, gloves and two pairs of socks to bed apart from my usual sleeping attire. The next day, Friday, right after breakfast we had our camels waiting for us in front of the Bedouin camp. Most of the camels were sitting and ready for us.

– Brook Vazquez

Palestinian home stays:

Traveling constantly from place to place this past month has given me the opportunity to talk with lots of people but not truly get to know them on a deeper level past, “My name is Susanna and I come from the United States.” But the moment that Janaya and I stepped through our host family’s door, I knew that was not going to be the case with them. As soon as our host mom saw us she stated that she had three rules: we were to treat her house as our home; we were not allowed to be shy; and we were to speak in Arabic. She should have added a fourth rule that seems to be an unspoken one, which is to eat until you burst and then eat some more.

Food is their life, truly. Making and eating food is what they pour their energy into since there is little else to do for fun, and it is one of the few pleasures that is relatively unaffected by all of the constant changes negatively impacting their lives. They have good reason for the pride in their cooking and baking as each meal is a delicious cultural experience and history lesson. They talk about their food as old friends, calling it a particular name and then reminiscing when it would be made for different holidays. I had high expectations for food coming into this trip and I have not been disappointed whatsoever!

WestBankHome life is a constant reminder of how families are all together in spirit no matter how scattered they are around the world. Our host family receives calls hourly some nights from daughters, sons-in-law, aunts, and brothers from America and Cyprus. They share their daily life with their extended family, from showing each other what they are eating, to what they are wearing for an infant baptism to the celebrations of an engagement party. It is heart wrenching to hear my host mom talk about the good old days before her four siblings, daughter, and greater extended family moved away from Beit Sahour to live abroad. Some of them she hasn’t seen for more than six years and she doesn’t have a strong possibility of seeing them in the future.

And yet despite so much of the hopelessness that surrounds our host family, they continue to trust God and live life as normally as possible. They bolt from their seats the moment they hear their grand babies voices, they plan church retreats for the youth group to Greek Orthodox monasteries, and they moan over their school students failing theology tests which I think I would also struggle with knowing how my host mom is as a teacher. My host dad believes that I will forget about them when I go back home to the States, but that would be almost impossible as this place has become like a second home to me.

-Susanna Sewall


A scarf, a border crossing, and learning empathy first-hand

5 February 2016

I bought a purple and gold scarf in a market in Luxor on the banks of the Nile. He started at 220 Egyptian Pounds, but by lying about how much money I had and threatening to leave, I got him down to 70 pounds, which is ten dollars. The scarf is royal and majestic, and I was very pleased with my haggling and purchase. I intended the scarf to be a present for my mother, but figured I’d wear it around myself a bit. I’m starting to bond with it now, though, and I’m not sure that I’ll ultimately want to give it up.

Today we crossed into the Israeli-occupied West Bank. I put the scarf on that morning in Jordan, not really thinking about it, but when we got close to the border some mentioned to me that maybe it’d be better to take it off. Anti-Arab sentiment runs pretty high among Israeli border security officers, and Arab-looking scarves and kaffiyehs on people trying to cross the border isn’t a great idea. I thought about taking it off, but it was such a small thing, and I left it on.

After I stepped through the metal detector, the man I had just handed my passport to asked me to take off my scarf and jacket. He asked to see the label on the scarf, and then told me to go sit in an area off to the right. I asked for my passport back, but he kept it. After a minute or two I was moved from the waiting area into a little room all by myself, where a man soon appeared to question me about EMU and our trip. He grilled me for a while, and then asked about the scarf. I told him it was a souvenir from Egypt, and then added, “It’s a gift for my mother.” Appeased, but not happy about it, they told me to retrieve my backpack, gave me my passport, and directed me towards the next line.

All in all I was delayed perhaps twenty minutes. It really wasn’t a big deal at all. But psychologically… I don’t know, it sort of was. I was detained by border security. I felt small. Even with all my power and privilege, I had no control over that situation. I knew I was completely in the right, had nothing to hide, had all the proper documentation, but it was still scary. Even with literally everything going for me and only one possible outcome, I was still stressed out and even afraid.

Today I got the tiniest possible taste, on the smallest possible scale, of what it must be like to be a refugee or immigrant. I can’t imagine being detained overnight or being stuck in a line for days because of a missing piece of paperwork or some system not checking out. And yet there are untold millions who live this hell every day – stuck at or behind borders, unable to travel freely to see their families, unable to leave their refugee camp, stuck in endless lines and starving.

We learned at the MCC office that Jordan has absorbed 1.5 million refugees from Syria. This influx raised their population by almost 20%. In all this 1.5 million, there was not one recorded instance of an ISIS fighter sneaking in as a refugee to cause trouble. The United States is squabbling over the entrance of only 10,000 refugees, with vastly more resources and personnel at our disposal for both vetting and resettlement.

The horrible truth of the above paragraph is enough to make me so angry I can’t see straight. The United States’ grand destiny was supposed to be a home for the tired, huddled masses – a beacon for those who are lost. Imagine how wonderful it would have been if we had led the charge in resettling those fleeing Syria and enfranchised the Muslim world. Instead we have marginalized them and been ruled by fear and hate. I’m so disappointed at the sorry state of my country in response to this huge gulf of human suffering. The cries of conservative leaders to ban Muslims from entering the country and blaming all sorts of things on the refugees is an abject absurdity. If Jordan can play nice, so can we.

Of course, Syria isn’t the only place generating refugees. Tonight I will fall asleep in the West Bank, an area containing many Palestinians who have been forced off their ancestral land and into camps. We have arrived at the central chapter to our trip. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict touches many threads; economics, security, foreign policy, religion. I felt today a sharp turn in the kinds of things we will be seeing and talking about. The last two weeks have been steeped in the Old Testament – now we’re going to start talking about things that are happening now.

I have no idea what it must be to be disenfranchised. What hardship have I ever endured? I’m so grateful for the chance to come see the other side, where movement is restricted, where rights aren’t recognized, where an entire ethnicity and religion is demonized, where you can be detained just because of a scarf.

I think I’ll keep it on, though. My host sister said it looks pretty.

Welcome to [the West Bank]! I have already found reason to hope here.

-Eli Wenger




31 January 2016

My curiosity about the Sinai began when Linford announced we would be hiking and camping with a tribal group of people called the Bedouins. My interest, in the Sinai, turned to excitement when David Landis, a guest speaker during orientation, described the Sinai in two powerful words: rugged beauty. The Sinai is very different from any sort of wilderness in the United States. In the valleys the elevation is roughly 5,000 feet. It’s a place filled with rocks, mountains, rocks, a few trees or shrubs, and mountains. I have yet to encounter a place like the Sinai. It is dry like the Southwest of the United States. Its elevation is like the Rockies. It’s secluded as Minnesota. Put that all together and you are left with a place of beauty, unforgiving weather conditions, and peace.

Now that I have painted a picture of the Sinai I want to explain the highlights of the Sinai. We began our time by visiting St. Catherine’s monastery. This monastery is the oldest monastery ever. Its history began in the third century AD. One of its most famous visitors is Muhammad Ali. In the afternoon, after visiting St. Catherine’s Monastery, we climbed Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai isn’t an easy climb. 24726139836_120b4ccd92_kIts peak elevation is over 7,000 feet. The climb was made more difficult by cold winds, 750 stairs, and a 2,000 foot climb in elevation. This was my highlight of our time spent in the Sinai. The view was breathtaking. Mount Sinai allows a person to see the grandeur of the Sinai. Every direction you turn all you see are mountains.

The most interesting part of the view was the church and mosque right beside each other on the peak of Mount Sinai. Since the story of Moses is a story told by Islam and Christianity, each religion wants to claim Mount Sinai as a holy place, which plays into the importance of land and religion in the Middle East. In the Middle East the people feel a connection to the land. Part of this connection to the land comes from the stories taking place so close to home. Which becomes difficult when three different religions share common stories that connect to the land. One of my favorite quotes, regarding the multiple conflicts in the Middle East, is: “These problems have roots. We need to understand the roots.”  Before we can judge the Middle East or even try to help we need to understand the conflict and the people.

-Peter Dutcher


Reflections on the Empire

It has been two full days of Egyptology! Pyramids, the Sphinx, Tahrir Square, street markets, Museum of Cairo, a carpet factory, and a scenic drive out of the city to the Coptic Christian retreat of Anaphora. We’ve seen artifacts from before 4500 BC, trekked inside (and then sang in!) one of the pyramids of Giza, battled jet lag, and tried to absorb as much information as possible.

I spent the day thinking about empires. The world has always been divided into two groups – citizens of the Empire and those left on the outside. The Empire changes over the years – Egypt, Persia, Rome, the Ottomans, the British, and now America. I find myself a citizen of the Empire trying desperately to understand what life is like on the outside. American citizens regularly fail to understand and appreciate the power and privilege and opportunity they have simply by belonging to the Empire.

I wonder if today’s Egyptian citizens dwell on the past a lot. I wonder if they long for the days when the world belonged to Egypt. It saddens me that everyone is so poor in a country with the richest history of them all. I couldn’t miss the irony of a street salesman stuck in a dead-end job pushing their wares onto tourists, the wares themselves depicting their very ancestors ruling the world in great glory. Egyptians today find themselves outside the Empire looking in, while Americans today usually miss the bigger picture of the human condition – the privilege of the Empire allows this impossibility. I wonder of the Egyptian citizens of the Old Kingdom at the height of its power were similarly absorbed in their own lives, while roaming bands in outlying provinces yearned only to be Egyptian and to belong to the Empire.

I look forward to developing this theme on the trip. In Christianity, God intentionally chose the world over the Empire. Jesus went to the conflicted and dangerous place, not the place of power and stability. Jesus chose the outside, not the center. If Jesus returned to Earth today, there’s no doubt he’d go to Syria or Congo or Honduras or a hundred other places before America – we are the Empire.

Christianity was never intended for the Empire. Constantine adopted it after a war and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire – the greatest one of them all at that point. The religion was changed beyond recognition and groups wouldn’t be able to attempt to reclaim the original message of Christianity for over a thousand years. This project is clearly ongoing. As citizens of the Empire, we are particularly ill-equipped to try and access Christianity in its original form. Our idols are security and materialism, our sins are fear, racism, sexism, and xenophobia. I wonder if the citizens of Egypt and Rome were equally prone to the same missteps in the face of the message of a God who proclaimed peace and goodwill toward all men – not just within the Empire.

Empire is a thread that runs start to finish on our trip. Like the Bible, we start in Egypt and end in Rome, with a lot of the real world in between. I hope we find human moments of peace and goodwill in the middle, hindered though we are by our citizenship in the Empire.

-Eli Wenger



Coptic traditions at Anafora

We had the opportunity to spend a few days at a Coptic Orthodox
retreat center an hour out of Cairo called Anafora. The Coptic church traces their roots back to the apostle Mark and a visit he made to Egypt. So this experience was a chance to worship with one of the earliest church traditions.

The leadership at Anafora are working to create a place where people can come to seek retreat and new life. They have started to build biblical structures, the Amanmesia, which means remembering, to help explain some of their beliefs. So far they
have built a replica of the tabernacle, the Sea of Galilee, the Mount
of Olives, a small version of the ark of Noah, and a model of
Jerusalem. They are currently working on painting the walls of a
church building showing different Bible stories and of the 12
apostles. Overall, Anafora is doing well at creating a relaxing
environment where all feel welcome despite the differences in color,
culture, and religious practices.

We got to take part in the Epiphany service which was in a mix of
Coptic and Arabic. The Coptic and Greek Orthodox churches celebrate the baptism of Jesus as part of Epiphany. The service starts with two hours of prayers, then an hour and a half mass, and finishing with a ceremony of placing a cross into water. The mass was a new experience for many of us who come from the Mennonite tradition, which doesn’t feature as much liturgy and sacraments. The mass had us using all of our senses. When entering the chapel, we were overwhelmed by the smoke and smell of incense. We listened to the sound of songs, spoken liturgies, and cymbals. We saw the different icons of crosses and apostles, took part in passing the peace by touching hands, and observed the taking of communion.

IMG_0509After the mass we received candles and processed to an
amphitheater which included an island surrounded by a pool of water. Following some singing and liturgy, Bishop Thomas placed three baskets on fire, an anc (an Egyptian cymbal used to represent the cross), and a cross into the pool. Upon the completion of the service, everyone enjoyed a meal together as the Coptic Christians had been fasting for Epiphany.

It’s fascinating to witness how Christians in all different traditions
and cultures used different practices and traditions to listen to God.
In the Mennonite tradition we use four part hymns and in the Coptic
tradition they use incense and liturgy. After processing this, it made
me realize that the way Christians pull in parts of their culture to
encounter God is an example of how God can not be bound by
traditions. He moves and speaks in all places and through many ways.

A section of the liturgy used in the Epiphany service:
O King of peace, grand us Your peace, establish for us Your peace, and forgive us our sins.
Disperse the enemies of the church, and strengthen her so it will never shake.
Emmanuel, our God, in His Father’s Glory with the Holy Spirit, is now in our midst.
That He blesses us all, purifies our hearts, and heals the sickness of
our souls and bodies.
We worship You, O Christ, with Your good Father and the Holy Spirit for You were baptized and saved us.

-Janaya Sachs and Rachel Holderman




18 January 2016

So, we are finally in Cairo and I am jet lagged, but am so excited to
see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Cairo has a distinct smell to it, a
mixture of smoke and incense. The streets are chaotic and bustling
with life and everyone is trying to get you to buy something. The
streets get busier in the evening when the shops open up and there’s
traffic and cars everywhere. The people don’t follow typical traffic
laws and walk in between cars when and where they like. The drivers themselves aren’t law abiding citizens either. The constant honking is something that you learn to ignore.

When we came to the pyramids, we were all excited to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Was I really here? I felt adrenaline rush through me as we walked around and listened to the tour guide tell us the history of these amazing architectures. I honestly was expecting the pyramids to be further out into the desert, but they weren’t. They were right outside the city, and you could actually see part of the pyramid while driving up. When we came up to the third biggest pyramid, we all got tickets to get to go inside. It was a great
experience. It wasn’t anything out of this world, but just being able
to say “I was inside the pyramid”, is just the best feeling. Kind of
like bragging 😉 After we saw the pyramids, we went down to see the
Sphinx. There were so many tourists there and like everywhere else, the locals tried to sell us souvenirs. Later we went to a papyrus shop and saw how papyrus was made. We could also purchase some papyrus paintings there, and mostly everyone decided to get at least one. I am looking forward to seeing and experiencing new things.

-Jessica Longenecker