March 12, 2003: Perspective

The meaning of language
Studying Hebrew, Arab Christians learn about themselves

By Elisabeth Robertson Kennedy ’95

Elisabeth Robertson Kennedy ’95 is a minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She lives in Cairo with her husband, Darren ’93, and her son, Calvin.

My students come from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, the Sudan, and Egypt. They are mostly single young men, in their 20s, with college educations. None are wealthy; many grew up in traditional farming villages far from the big cities of the Middle East. They are all Christians.

I am an American clergywoman with the unusual assignment of teaching these young people the Hebrew language, in Arabic. I am here for the long haul – even the Egyptian government agrees, granting me the coveted long-term work permit most religious professionals from the West cannot get. I am here by invitation of the Coptic Evangelical Church in Egypt, the largest Protestant denomination in the Middle East. I teach at a seminary in Cairo which, over its 140-year history, has produced a majority of the Protestant clergy in the Arabic-speaking Middle East.

In Cairo, “normalization,” meaning openness to Arab-Jewish exchange, is a serious accusation hurled against public figures who attempt to introduce nuance into the popular anti-Israeli stance. Usually the career effects of the label are devastating. It is easy to see that learning about Judaism does not top the list of priorities for young people in today’s univocal intellectual environment.

Yet here I am, in my fourth year of teaching Hebrew. My students truly enjoy their Hebrew coursework. The similarities between Arabic and Hebrew are strong, and the students are able to achieve reading fluency much faster than did my students in the U.S., where I was assisting in a Hebrew course at Princeton Theological Seminary. My Cairo students are eager learners. The draw for them? A clearer sense of what it means to be an Arab Christian.

Arabs who are Christian live with a profound ambivalence. The neat equation of Islam and Arabic culture, growing stronger every day, leaves them on the outside of wholesale identifications and straightforward patriotism. Further, the alliance of Zionism with right-wing Christianity in the U.S. causes Christians in the Middle East to be eyed askance, their allegiance always in doubt. Some American missionaries have exported a pro-Israeli interpretation of Christian scriptures, but that does not sit well with most Christians here.

How do my students integrate a positive view of their Old Testament scriptures with an Arab perspective on Middle Eastern politics? That is the question that drives their passion for Old Testament study. Some Arab Christians have sidestepped the question dramatically. One Syrian student tells me his uncle refuses to join their local Presbyterian church because membership requires an affirmation of faith in both the Old and New Testaments as Scripture. In Syria, he says, some Christians just stick to the New Testament.

Certainly my students have mixed feelings. When I taught biblical Hebrew in the U.S., throwing in a bit of modern conversational Hebrew was part of the fun. My American students hoped to visit Israel and further their cultural and linguistic knowledge. In Cairo, I have stuck to reading the Bible. Greeting my students in Hebrew as they enter class would conjure up entirely different associations. One of my students, a Palestinian Lutheran, is excelling in Hebrew. She transferred to Cairo this year from Bethlehem Bible College, which closed because of frequent curfews in the West Bank. “I don’t think I’ll ever really love Hebrew,” she says, “just because – it’s Hebrew.”

Yet many of my students have devoted passion and hard work to learning Hebrew. Some hope to devote their careers to a specialization in Hebrew Scripture. One Egyptian student quietly has a friend in Jerusalem send him Rabbinic recordings of Scripture recitations. A Sudanese student hunted down textbooks for modern Hebrew in a used bookstore and is studying them on his own. Both my students and I are careful about how we get our Hebrew resources into the country. We may be misunderstood. I certainly avoid copying my Hebrew teaching materials at the neighborhood print shop. Predominant attitudes in the area toward Judaism are simplistic and one-sided. But I am proud of my students because they are trying for something better.

My students walk a fine line, striving to balance their many ideological commitments in an integrated whole. I can sympathize; after all, I have spent my life trying to do the same. My growing-up years were in the country of Jordan. I was raised in an American, yet bilingual, home, with an almost entirely Arab social circle. My sister and I were the only American children in our Arabic school during the first Palestinian intifada and then the Gulf War. I remember desperately trying to hold on to high school friendships amidst swirling loyalties. I was an American Christian, but had been raised on a steady diet of pro-Palestinian propaganda, and I took in the Gulf War through the lens of the only country in the world that supported Iraq. My undergraduate work in the Near Eastern studies department at Princeton added layers of complexity to my outlook, as did my decision to become a Presbyterian minister and my studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Now, living in Egypt with my husband and my two-year-old son, I am constantly faced with fresh challenges to my world-view. I find myself in a unique situation, and the opportunities for original contributions are exhilarating. I am writing an Arabic textbook for biblical Hebrew, with the first draft already in use at seminaries in Lebanon and Egypt. In the realm of church life, I don’t know of any other woman in the Middle East officiating at Communion in Arabic. But the highest personal rewards for me come from my sense of assisting Arab Christians – a group that has long claimed my loyalty – in a journey that they have defined as a priority.

Survival is an urgent issue for Christians here, where they are a fast-shrinking minority. They emigrate in droves, enough to constitute the majority of Arab immigrants in the U.S. The pattern will change only if the dominant Islamic ambience grows more pluralistic. Perhaps it never will.

But some of my hope lies in the Christian contribution to public exchange, and so I believe that the education of Christian leaders is a vital part of emerging patterns. I hope to see a public Christian voice in the Middle East that is increasingly confident of its unique identity and capable of clear and tolerant self-expression. The Presbyterian Church in Egypt holds a similar goal, and that is why I am here. But ultimately, I’m here because it is good for me, too. I don’t see any chance of stagnating in Cairo, and I hope to be a part of religious higher education in Egypt for a long time.


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