Monthly Archives: January 2014

Today would be a interesting day to be in Almaty

I would have to say Almaty, Kazakhstan felt like one of the most incongruous or diverse places I have visited. So many aspects of the place felt familiar, but from other places all over the world … and yet when you put it all together, it is an incredibly unique place.

Mountains

The red-dust-edged roads between the city and the villages reminded me of driving through country Australia … although the transport looked more like rural China.

Cart

The apartment blocks in the city reminded me of former communist East Berlin (and the bureaucracy certainly had that Iron Curtain feel!)

Apartments

The snow-capped mountains covered in fir trees could have been in Canada or Switzerland.

Mountain chalets

The crazy traffic reminded me of both Cairo and Bangkok.

Street

The glitzy new shopping mall would have been at home in Paris …

Mega Mall

 while the village food markets were more reminiscent of Africa.

village Street market

The light displays and fountains in President’s Park could have been in many US cities.

Presidents Park fountain

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral is, obviously, very Eastern European …

Russian Church

… while the village mosques were similar to those I saw in Indonesia.

Village mosque

It can be difficult to know whether you are in Asia, Eastern Europe, the West, or the Middle East!

All this is not to criticise! I loved my time in Almaty and think it is a fascinating place, with some amazingly friendly and hospitable people. I particularly loved looking down on the city at night from the mountains above.

Night view

I also loved that pretty much any car is a “taxi”, and I really enjoyed the local shasliks, where there was certainly no skimping on the meat!

Shaslik

So, what did I learn from Almaty?

Formerly part of the USSR, the Kazakh people are reclaiming their identity along with their independence, but this makes for lots of challenges in a population made up of two different ethnicities with different languages, cultures, religions, values and dreams. It’s not always easy negotiating the history of past hurt and the competing current agendas.

The Panfilov War Memorial
The Panfilov War Memorial

But they are giving it a go and learning along the way, and while it can be easy for outsiders to criticize, I actually think we have much to learn. I live in a country that claims to be “multicultural” but has not really come to terms with many of these issues and challenges. The diversity I saw in Almaty certainly challenged my thinking about what it might look like to embrace and accept differences. And the hopes of people for justice and peace and significance are the same hopes of people the world over. We are all so very different … and yet so much the same.

A tree tied with ribbons to represent prayers, luck, hopes (depending who you ask)
A tree tied with ribbons to represent prayers, luck, hopes (depending who you ask)

Am I a feminist?

“Feminist” is a label I have never been very comfortable with, even if I can understand why others may assume it is one that fits me. Partly it is because I don’t like any labels. Giving yourself a label, or being given one by someone else, seems to me to put a person in a box, assuming they hold a whole set of ideas, values and perspectives. But in my experience most people don’t come in such neat packages, and I know I certainly don’t. I can quite easily hold opinions and perspectives that might seem to others to be contradictory, belonging to two quite different boxes at the same time.

But I think perhaps another reason I haven’t liked “feminist” in particular is that others can see it as self-serving. I am a woman in a profession which was traditionally reserved for men, and so holding views usually associated with ‘women’s rights’ can be seen as having an agenda for myself, pushing myself forward, wanting to get ahead. I hope those who know me know that has never been my motivation for anything. But as a Christian, even the fear that other people would think I had that agenda has sometimes been enough to prevent me from speaking up about issues of gender inequality. I don’t want to be seen as ‘strident’ and I don’t want to be seen as concerned about one single issue when there is so much more to who I am.

I have also had the privilege of being treated equally to men in spaces where people might not have expected that to be the case, and so perhaps I haven’t always felt like I ‘needed’ feminism. But the older I get, and the more the internet and social media allow me glimpses into some of the attitudes others have, the more I have begun to wonder about this. Is it time to start calling myself a feminist?

Only if I get to define what that means to me, and not be judged by your expectations of what that word signifies!

One of the simplest definitions of feminism, oft quoted but apparently originally attributable to Marie Shear, is this:

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too.”

Seems obvious and easy to assent to? I like it, but there is a second part needed, as Emer O’Toole points out with humour and punch in this article: feminism also involves the belief that there are systems and attitudes in our world which sometimes lead to women not being treated as such.

Now, as a Christian, I actually don’t think Shear’s definition goes far enough. I would say, “The gospel includes the radical notion that women are created in the image of God, called to play a vital part in God’s plan of redemption for the whole world, and co-heirs with Christ,” as of course men are too. But there have certainly been times, and systems and attitudes, in the church when the people who embody the Christian faith have not treated women as such.

I am thankful to be in a church context where women are accepted and affirmed as members and as ministers. That has not been my ‘fight’ and I’m humbly grateful, knowing that many others throughout history and around the world have not been so fortunate. But sometimes I wonder … does the fact that we can ‘tick the box’ that says women are allowed into ministry sometimes lead us to think that all issues are resolved and we can move on? And do we then fail to notice the more subtle ways in which women can be overlooked or looked down upon? Or the unspoken assumptions that unintentionally reinforce the message they have heard in so many other places, that they are not enough?

Perhaps here lies another reason I have been reluctant to name this issue as one I care about. It is subtle and can therefore seem less important, not worth making a big deal about, especially when there are bigger problems in the world. But we are allowed to care about more than one thing at a time. And given what I am seeing in our culture, this is something I believe the church needs to get right.

So, part of my thinking aloud includes commenting on some of the things I see in the church that can cause her daughters to feel less valued, less called, less gifted or less loved, simply because they are female. I want to use my voice, not because I have an agenda, but because I have an opportunity. I look at the young daughters my sister and my friends are raising in today’s culture and I hope and pray that in the church, of all places, they will know that they are loved and valued not for what they look like but simply because they are. If I can use my voice to play some small part in these young girls knowing and experiencing that they are equally valued and loved by God and are called to play a significant part in His plan, then I will take the opportunity to do that. And if that causes people to give me the label ‘feminist,’ whether as a positive or a negative … well, I guess I am okay with that.

Today would be a good day to be in Aswan

This week is going to be a scorcher here in Adelaide, with five days in a row above 40C/105F. Last week I was thinking about being somewhere cooler, but today I’m remembering the hottest place I have ever been … and what a great time I had there anyway.

Philae Temples at Aswan
Philae Temples at Aswan

Aswan was the southernmost point of our cruise down the Nile in Egypt and we were moored there for three days. The town was a hive of activity in the mornings and evenings, but quiet in the middle of the day. We discovered why when our group, not wanting to waste a moment, organised a visit to one of the temples from 12-2pm. The temperature hit 50C/122F in the sun and we felt like we were going to melt … but at least we pretty much had the place to ourselves!

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What did I love about Aswan?

The Nile in all its activity …

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… all its serenity …

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… and all its beauty.

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This model/map from the museum gives some sense of what it’s like, passing by ancient temples and monuments almost as if they are just houses on the side of the road.

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I also loved walking through the street market in the alleyways of town, bartering for food and gifts, experiencing new tastes and smells.

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Seeing history come alive with places like the “kiosk” built by the Roman emperor Trajan

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… and the merging of cultures when Greco-Roman architecture meets ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

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The beautiful Coptic Cathedral, which had only recently been completed. We were given a tour by a lovely lady who shared some of the tensions and struggles the Christian minority face in Egypt. She extended an invitation to visit part of one of their services that weekend if anyone was interested.

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So, what did I learn from Aswan?

I certainly gained knowledge about aspects of history and politics that I wasn’t taught in school, where Egypt is pretty much just the pyramids. The huge Aswan dam is fascinating in its size, its functionality in regulating the Nile’s floodwaters, and the politics surrounding its construction.

The Soviet-Arab Friendship Monument atop the Aswan High Dam
The Soviet-Arab Friendship Monument atop the Aswan High Dam

The Nubian Museum in Aswan was excellent, explaining the history of the region and its people in an interesting and easy to understand way. Well worth a visit.

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But the real privilege was meeting the Nubian people themselves and sharing a meal with a local family in their home.

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It was here I got my first tattoo, inked by a girl who asked questions about my life in a way that emphasised how different our experiences of the world were, and yet how similarly we thought about things.

(Okay, it was henna)
(Okay, it was henna)

I was also reminded of how easy it can be to overlook our shared humanity with those who seem unlike us, particularly in the way I saw some of my fellow tourists treat the locals as they served us. I wonder what they think about us, about me, as every day they observe people like me throwing money around, drinking themselves into oblivion, making ignorant and crass statements about their culture, barely looking them in the eyes as they labour for our comfort?

Our Felucca crew
Our Felucca crew

A nice surprise for me was when one of these men told us the name of this Island we sailed past: Elephantine. It didn’t mean much to anyone else, but I was quite excited because I knew that name – I had taught about it to my students! A collection of papyrus documents were found on this island that record the history of a Jewish community who had fled Israel after its destruction by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC. I love it when my travels and studies come together!!

Elephantine Island
Elephantine Island

And I did return to the church for part of their service on our final day. I didn’t understand a word as I stood and kneeled and sat when everyone else did. They chanted in Greek, sang in Arabic and prayed in Coptic Egyptian (I think). But I knew what they were expressing and why they were worshipping. Because it was Good Friday. Together we looked to the cross, to the symbol of torture that has become the symbol of hope; and we looked to Jesus, the one who reconciles us to God and to one another, the one in whom all things hold together. And it was a very good day to be there with them.

Inside the Coptic Cathedral
Inside the Coptic Cathedral