One of the goals of this blog is to capture moments and memories. The older I get, the more I find myself easily lost in a kind of momentary daze – especially if I’m visiting a place like camp or my grandfather’s farm that was a big part of my early childhood or late teens. Sometimes, even out of nowhere, that nostalgia can jolt me as if I just go into a kind of numbed trance and disappear into what was, mostly, a happy past. Blogging about those moments has been a way for me to cultivate them, a way to claim them as mine, wholly mine, as well as a way to share them with others who understand what it is to be “captured” by a good (or bad) memory.
Recently, my old pal Driss, an English teacher and activist in Morocco, was kind enough to share with me one little moment from his past. His thoughts speak to the power of old photo albums and television shows, and his thoughts even conjured up for me one of my favorite old television shows growing up, as well as one of my favorite bands I discovered while living in Scotland. Even though there’s a little French-Moroccan nostalgia here, I love how someone else’s memories can make us reflect on our own – and I wonder what yours might be, too.
So, here’s a few thoughts from today’s (and my first ever) guest blogger, Driss Laayadi:
Sébastien Le Marocain
…while rummaging through some dusty boxes in the attic, I stumbled across an old, shabby photo album comprising a few worn-out pictures of me during both my primary and middle school years. Skimming through the album’s photos, there was a genuine delight which caused me to reminisce in bittersweet memories reviving mixed feelings of joy and disappointment over my teenage life. Some memories literally rekindled that fleeting spark of joy and pride in my heart like the day of my father’s return from Bosnia where he was deployed as a member of a UN peace-keeping mission. So, too, there were tragic recollections like my grandparents’ sudden passing, for instance, which unkindly rained on my parade and mercilessly ruined my short-lived joy.
For a moment, a photo that captivated my undivided attention was one where I and my elder sister were squatting in the living room, wide-eyed and stuck right in front of the TV watching our favourite cartoon – “Belle and Sebastian.” Many of my fellow country-(wo)men over their twenties joyously recall the Japanese anime which recounts the adventures and good deeds of a six-year old boy (Sebastian) and his loyal companion, the big white dog (Belle), across small towns and villages bordering the French-Spanish frontier.
The initial impressions the Japanese cartoon might have left on any of its viewers as far as its content and overall production were ones of admiration at a time when good TV productions were quite scarce, so the show attracted a great number of appreciative viewers in Morocco. However, what many people didn’t realize was that the cartoon was merely an adapted version of a French TV series bearing the same name that was first broadcast in 1965.
The series was based on the French author Cécile Aubry’s novel, Belle et Sèbastien. The tenacious Cécile took the reign and set out on a journey of a sixteen-episode series and could not allow anyone but her fils-à-maman ["mommy's boy"], Mehdi, to play the role of Sebastian. Mehdi El Mezouari Elglaoui is the son of Cécile and Mohammed Elglaoui and the grandson of Thami Elglaoui who served as the Pacha [an official title, like that of the governor or town mayor] of Marrakech during the French Protectorate over Morocco in 1912.
Mehdi/Sébastien, who was born in 1956, grew up only to follow in his mother’s footsteps and turned out to be a great comedian, a film producer, and a writer, though not as prolific as his mother. His latest 2013 book, La belle Histoire de Sébastien ["The Beautiful Story of Sebastian"], exposes the other tacit and covert side (the Moroccan side) of the French hero, as it traces back over the ten-year old’s lonely childhood along with his quest to seek out his mother’s love. On top of that, the French producer Nicolas Vanier recently produced “Belle et Sébastian” hence resurrecting the French odyssey and extending its lifespan once again:
The thrilling plot and actions of the movie take the viewers into a world of déjà vu, of childish innocence, and of a dogged loyalty… all of which, for me, started with a little rummaging through an old photo album in the attic and made me a kid again.
I always loved a little more than Sunday,
always understood the nails a little more
than the hands that wore the holes,
but I guess, maybe, I was born in guilt
and determined to shame not just me
but you, too
with a holy stigmata to wear around
like some truth to shout
a love so harsh we’ve worn it out,
but we always stop short before we call it hate
even if it is what it is,
old, dark Friday -
though we pray to be blinded by the light
With Congress at a 13% approval rating, it’s probably fair to say that the great democratic experiment is suffering just a little. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court striking down the giving limits for campaign finance just about guarantees that government decisions are now in the hands of the highest bidder if they weren’t before. It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that politicians are likely to feel more obligated to “the people” with money than they are to those without. Some comedians (and realists) have even joked that Congressional representatives should be forced to wear logos belonging to their corporate sponsors like NASCAR drivers. Or, at least, a lot of politically-minded folks certainly feel that way.
I like thinking about these sorts of things – y’know, what’s wrong with the country and how we should fix it. But as just some average Joe in little ole Tennessee, I sometimes think, “Why even bother worrying with this? It’s not like any arguments or solutions I could think of would ever make it to Capitol Hill.” But it’s still fun to think about; I even enjoy reading a good Facebook argument here or there where an art major and a biology student engage in
civil bitter discourse employing their knowledge of the Constitution they gained from that one college class they took where they spent all of a week talking about American politics. On the one hand, it’s silly and unproductive if not also depressing to watch (or be a part of). On the other hand, the fact that we live in a country where we’re afforded the freedoms to engage in this level of banter is something we all too-often take for granted. And I also think there’s something to be said for the way discourse can impact not so much the people we’re arguing with but, instead, ourselves. I’ll try to put that another way -
Though I’ve got a pretty ugly history to the contrary, I generally try not to engage in Facebook politics these days unless it’s to provide an interesting fact or to shed light on a theological concept, since my education is situated within that realm. But my goal isn’t to change anyone’s mind the way it once was. Instead, I’m more interested in changing my own mind. I want to be challenged and pushed, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that my goal is selfish in that way. Rather than pretending like I could change the world with my words, when that’s actually silly, I at least know I can change myself if I’m open to listen and hear out the perspectives of others. That’s education to me, and I want my education to be a lifelong experience, not something restricted to a few golden days at Wabash or Vanderbilt. In that sense, I love a good Facebook argument. And I suppose I’d like to think our whole world would be better off if we argued with that goal in mind – the goal to change ourselves instead of others, but seeing as how my wishful thinking contradicts my goal to change only myself, it’s probably best not to get caught up in that kind of meta reflection.
So, not too long ago, while complaining about the state of the union to family in what amounted to one of those arguments where none of us were actually going to change anything, I was surprised when my Dad offhandedly made a few remarks about how he’d make the country better. It was surprising because I can’t think of a single time where Dad made a staunchly political statement at all, so when he just sort of quipped about a different system of government entirely, I wasn’t expecting such a, well, brilliant concept: his basic idea was to randomly appoint everyday citizens who would be required to serve in legislatures much the way citizens are required to serve on jury duty.
Call it legislative duty. I’ve been turning this idea over in my head for a while now, and I think it’s actually more democratic than our current republic. It would need some tweaking to deter corruption, but with the right checks-and-balances in place, it might just work. That is, you’d have to make sure the selections happened randomly but that they would be representative of state demographics (though I think it would become somewhat obvious if they were not). You’d also have to have something in place to make sure that people would perform their assigned duties and were capable of fulfilling their obligations to the state (via something akin voir dire), though as a friend of mine pointed out, “if you relegated current congressional salaries towards compensation for this, people would actually want to do it.” And if it were something people wanted to do, it would increase the likelihood that it would be done well. It would also do away with political party alliances (or at least extreme ones) and increase the likelihood that people were voting their conscience in the best interests of their fellow citizens. You could keep, say, the Senate, and let the new group replace the House of Representatives. The executive branch could be responsible for selecting representatives with the judicial branch responsible for confirming them to either two or four-year terms.
I mean, it would never happen. But in a day and age where money decides policy, it was just nice to think about something different for a change. It was nice to be challenged by a totally different idea in the midst of what is usually just silly, harsh arguments where everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong.
Yesterday, as I was driving to visit the church camp I used to work at, I had a moment where I decided that if there’s a hell (and if I go there), I will probably spend eternity in a continuous loop of being forced to drive Highway 641 North between the interstate and Camden on what has to be the most boring stretch of road ever constructed. Inevitably, I’m always stuck behind a car going forty in a fifty-five, and the speed limit should’ve been bumped up to sixty eons ago.
Camp, though, is the opposite of hell to me, and maybe that’s why it’s such a pain trying to get there, since you’re likely to twiddle your thumbs on the steering wheel in anticipation that whatever camp holds is good and can alter your current mindset of “not-good” or whatever else the world outside of camp seems to always deliver. It’s a sanctuary, a holy ground, a tabernacle, a sacred grove. It’s home and family and memories of family – the ones we’ve hurt and been hurt by and the ones we’ve loved and been loved by. And so, it’s a refuge of sorts.
That said, I think there’s a fine line between seeking refuge or replenishment and seeking to escape, and sometimes the same place can be both, and sometimes, we need both of those things to cope, but when I sat down with the old staff (and by “old” I mean “wise” in case they’re reading this) – whether it was a candlelit Mexican dinner with Martha or closed-door conversation spouting out painful honesty with Gary or silliness and serious banter with Chris Alexander – I’m convinced that, at camp, we find ourselves always able to say, “Here, it’s okay to be you.” I think anybody who’s ever been to any half-decent camp, secular or sacred, would have similar findings.
Earlier this afternoon, I set out on a mission of sorts to locate a part of camp that bears my name. A few years ago, one of the staffers built an orienteering course in the backwoods of camp property than ran along a creek called “Polk Branch.” Using a compass and a small map, you’re tasked with the responsibility of finding ten locations named after former Wilderness camp directors. They’re places like the “Taylor Tall Beech Grove” or the “Brock Grassy Knoll” or “Pulliam’s Squeeze.” And one of them near an embankment is called “Eubanks Bank.”
When I set out to find my little spot in the woods, I put the compass in my pocket and decided I didn’t need it. The map looked easy enough to follow, I told myself, but about thirty minutes in and on a tight schedule, some part of me was debating whether I should try to recall exactly how to use the compass from my Boy Scout days. I wasn’t exactly “lost.” I knew those woods well enough (because I’d been lost in them before), but for a split second or two, I did have the sickening feeling that I wasn’t prepared or that I might not be able to find what I was looking for. When I stumbled upon the first marker in a copse of beech trees, the tension eased up and instead of trying to figure out what to do with the compass, I settled on just following the creek and letting it lead me where I needed to go.
The orienteering paperwork describes my little spot in the woods thusly:
Eubanks Bank: named for Philip Eubanks, Director 2006, this embankment rises up about 5 feet above the valley and flattens out like a table just above the creek and floodplain. There are signs of old cornrows in the ground here that are still visible from when these woods were farmland.
When I stumbled upon the marker, I sorta crouched down in the remnants and kind of admired the serene scene much the way I imagine an explorer planting a flag in the ground to lay claim to new lands. I powered on to Al-Chokhachi Balcony and a few others before I ran out of time and had to head back.
As I was walking back to the road, I thought a lot about my refusal to use a compass on an orienteering course. It almost seemed to defeat the purpose in a way. I had this map and this compass both of which gave me straightforward directions (quite literally) but instead, I chose to let the creek and the wind be my guide. I thought about how the compass and the map were symbols of religion and religious texts to me, but somewhere along the way, I’d been so angry with the compass and the map that I’d gone the extra mile to also ignore the creek. And yet, the creek was a power to be reckoned with. On the surface, it’s quiet and peaceful and glides along the little pebbles, but it’s a great mover and shaker - one that carves the whole landscape and replenishes the roots underneath. For too long, I’d turned a journey into a destination, but with the compass and the map in my pocket, it all came flooding back – who I am and the things I need to cultivate and care for. The veins and crunch of every yellowed leaf, the birds soaring overhead, the call of the creek flowing into itself: who needs a compass to know where they’re going? Or, to quote Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.”
Driving back to Jackson on good old Highway 641, Tennessee was beautiful. The redbud is in bloom leaving a lavender touch on a green and gray landscape. The pine trees have kept their promise through the winter and are still green. The road lies and leaves the false impression that you’re surrounded by land as flat as Indiana, but in fact, if you pay attention you’re sure to notice rolling hills and even a cliff or two somewhere between the interstate and Camden. It was a drive I can say I thoroughly enjoyed.
It was the spring of 2002, my senior year of high school, and I’d been invited to Wabash College for the Lilly Honor Scholarship weekend, along with thirty other guys, many of whom were a lot more accomplished than I. Imagine a room full of thirty Max Fischers fighting at a chance to go to Rushmore Academy, and that’ll give you a decent idea of the steep competition I was facing. Ten of us were going to win a full ride to the school, plus a stipend to travel abroad – valued at about $101,000. The other twenty would likely go home empty-handed.
To win the competition, there was no paper or computer exam. No essay. No tests. There was just an interview – a thirty minute interview with a few professors, alumni, members of the Board of Trustees, as well as the President and Dean of the college. The interview was the test - an opportunity to hear about us, but it wasn’t quite like a job interview or even a news interview. We were told that we’d be asked one serious question about a major current event but that the rest of the interview was to revolve around who we were, what we did and didn’t like, etc.
And of course, there was a lot of superstition around the interview. Rumors of rules we needed to follow if we wanted to win. “On the table, once you walk into the room,” an alumnus told me, “there will be a glass of water in a pitcher. Pour yourself a glass and drink the water. All of it.” Rumor was, historically, the winners of the scholarship were only those who finished the glass of water. I was instructed not to take any chances. Pour the water, drink it all just to be safe, or as my friend had put it, “Finish the damn glass.”
I remember when I walked into the room, I was a deer in headlights. There was a large, rectangular oak table. Around it sat men in business suits and bow ties, grey hair or balding. There was only one empty chair – at the head of the table – and it was mine. On a tray to the side was a pitcher of water and a pitcher of lemonade. My stomach churned: “Oh God, options.” I picked the water, poured it, and took a seat at the end of the table. I was nervous. I took some awkward sips. But I didn’t finish the water.
Then, there were a series of questions, and I had an answer for all of them. “Do you think Sept. 11 changed the world?” or “Why did you choose Wabash?” and “What do you think you want to study here?” At the time, I had my mind set to study biology, actually, or maybe art. I don’t quite remember which. But I remember a religion professor – the renowned Dr. David Blix – a short, stout man sitting next to me as he leaned back into his chair and dryly asked, “Tell us, Philip, what kind of music do you like?”
It seemed like a joke of a question. And it probably was. When I answered that I loved the Beatles, he followed it up by asking me what my favorite Beatles song was. And I went blank. And not like I took a few seconds to think on it and then found an answer, no. I mean Brick Tamland-level blank. I stumbled over words, laughed awkwardly, named like five or six great Beatles songs before finally settling on one. “Love” by John Lennon, I told them. Yeah – it’s not even a Beatles song. I walked out of the interview kicking myself. I immediately started listening to Beatles songs straight through – every single one of them. I was going to pick a favorite Beatles song, and for the rest of my life that was going to be my answer. I settled on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and even bought a sitar. I should probably sell my sitar.
When I’ve told this story to friends in the past, I liked to say that my inability to answer that one simple question was why I didn’t win the scholarship. In truth, it probably had something to do with me telling the committee that I didn’t think September 11 changed the world. I didn’t actually believe that. Of course I thought September 11 changed the world. But I was so convinced that would be everybody’s answer that I decided I was going to try my hand at being different. Probably a bad decision in hindsight, though I think I did a half-decent job making the argument at the time. I told them that Americans had changed momentarily. September 11 had brought us together as a nation. Suddenly, everyone was a patriot with an American flag on his or her car, and we’d become all rallied up. Disaster, after all, unites people. But I told them that change was not to be long-lasting. I told them that those flags on the cars would fad with the sun, that people’s sense of unity would eventually corrode. I told them that it was an important, huge event that had altered us briefly, but people always get back to the ugly business being people in the end. Yeah: I was a cynical kid. And though I wasn’t entirely wrong, I didn’t quite have the foresight to quite understand what it means to change the world. And at this point, Iraq was still not on the table.
I guess there were two lessons I learned that spring of 2002. The first was, “always have an answer ready,” and the second was, “don’t assume being different makes you better.” As I’ve gotten older, the first lesson seems immature to me. A better answer to the Beatles song question would have been a simple: “I don’t know; they wrote so many great songs, the one I value today isn’t always the one I’m going to love tomorrow. We change with our music, and it also changes us.” There’s wisdom not only in not knowing but also in accepting how little you know and being a-okay with that.
The second lesson is one I still struggle with. I’ve always been someone, maybe partially because of having been adopted, who felt different and even wanted to be different. If I were in a room full of conservatives, I needed to be a liberal voice, and if I were in a room full of liberals, I needed temper that with a more conservative yearning. I loved being a devil’s advocate, because I felt I always learned more by being skeptical, but there was a cost. In a world with considerable deconstruction of every idea and ideology, I often found myself desperately looking for a way to build things back up again, to fix the world I’d deconstructed or helped deconstruct, only to discover I couldn’t do so without sitting around in a cesspool of contradictions I’d uncovered leaving me totally, existentially isolated from everything and everyone I once valued. I think these days, I’m busy doing the work of finally deciding what’s right for me and not just being, well, contrarian.
In the end, I did win a scholarship, though not the Lilly. I won the college’s Fine Arts Fellowship covering half tuition, actually. And even when I changed my mind about majoring in art history and pursued the religion route, the college let me keep the money. But in a way, that one interview four months before I started Wabash was my first real class at the college, and I haven’t forgotten that weekend at Wabash, the Lilly weekend, where a few first challenging questions that probably shouldn’t have been so difficult have given me a deep pause to reflect on what it means to be educated and keep educating myself and others.
About a month before I left to go to Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2010, a family friend had remarked, “Well, is that safe? I mean, with all those Muslims there and all. Will you be safe?” Though even at the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous question, I won’t pretend like there wasn’t some part of me in the back of my head going, “Well, I mean, is it safe? You don’t really know much of anything about this country.” What I did know about Muslims was, as I’ve said before, “driven by the media’s only focus on Islam: terrorism.” Even with an education where I’d studied Islam in dialogue with other religions, I still found it difficult to shed the images I’d been sold about this religious group.
Eventually, I did shed that fear. Through my host mother, Fatima, whose first words and the only English she knew was, “I love you; you are my son;” through Hamza and Omar who danced with me late into the night or welcomed me to meals; through Driss whose English was arguably better than mine and who loved a spirited debate over mint tea; slowly, I was able to realize that not only did I have nothing to fear but, in fact, I had plenty to love about Morocco, about my Muslim brothers and sisters. I even felt safe enough to travel alone thirteen hours across the country multiple times and through just about all kinds of weather, day or night. Mind you, I probably shouldn’t have felt safe doing all of that. A certain one-eyed taxi driver, in fact, insisted on going over 120 km/hour in a sandstorm with zero visibility, and I’m still pretty sure either that or using butane gas to cook was probably the least safe thing I ever did in Morocco or maybe my whole life.
But now that I’m back home in Jackson, Tennessee, safe and sound in America and in a community I care about, that question from the family friend strikes me as especially odd and even off-putting. Was I safe in Morocco in a Muslim community where I was welcomed with intense hospitality? I certainly felt so. But are you safe in Jackson?
Recently, an article published by a California real-estate company listed Jackson as the third most dangerous “small city” in the nation. That went viral on Facebook and Twitter within the Jackson community and prompted the Jackson Sun to seek comment from both the Mayor’s office and from the Chamber of Commerce. Their response, by and large, was essentially to ask who is some California company to tell us how things look in Jackson (you can almost hear them exclaiming in Southern Drawl, “Calaforna!?”)? Both offices questioned the credibility of the report suggesting that the statistics were somehow overstated.
For fun, I decided to do a bit of a comparison and just see how the numbers spoke for themselves. I thought about comparing Jackson to Mos Eisley, but eveybody knows you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. So, instead, take a Moroccan city like Fes. Admittedly, it’s much bigger than Jackson at a population of just over a million. But Fes only had 37 homicides in 2013, compared with 11 for Jackson. That may not sound like many for either city, but it’s a rate of .17 per 1000 for Jackson versus .04 per 1000 for Fes. Fes is looking a lot safer per capita, as did all Moroccan cities I looked at. In fact, for Fes’s homicide rate to equal Jackson’s, you’d have to see 175 murders instead of 37. That would require of Fes a 79% increase in murders from one year to the next.
So, this isn’t looking too good for Jackson. But let’s look even closer at some of Jackson’s statistics: if you live in Jackson, you have a 1 in 68 chance of being a victim of violent crime. Compare that with 1 in 155 statewide and in 1 in 110 in New York City. That’s right, you’re more likely to be a victim of violence in Jackson than you are in the Big Apple. Not only New York, though. In fact, 96% of cities in the nation are safer per capita than Jackson is.
The thing is, Mayor Gist and the Chamber may well be right to suggest that the statistics are overstated. There are a lot of complex factors that contribute to crime rate, after all, and they’re certainly right to point out things like the Hub City’s location smack between Memphis and Nashville or directly on one of the busiest Interstates in the country (I would add that Jackson’s unemployment rate is at 9.6% compared with 7.3% nationwide; or that Jackson is filled with an even mix of white and blue collar professionals who are primarily “young, single, and upwardly mobile”). So, too, while the amount of violent crime in Morocco is significantly lower than Jackson or even all of America, I shouldn’t suggest that Morocco doesn’t come with its own set of issues. There’s far more likely to be a terrorist attack in Morocco than there is for one to happen in Jackson (although, if you considered gang violence as a form of terrorism, you might argue terrorism is a Jackson issue). And there’s a significant risk to females and foreigners, such that traveling at night across the Atlas Mountains would certainly be ill-advised, as it would be anywhere. Every city, every country, comes with its own set of complex factors that contribute to the problem of violent crime, and each of those places must come up with their own, unique solutions to those problems.
And yet, even if the statistics are overstated, Jackson has a very serious crime problem that neither the Mayor’s office nor the Chamber of Commerce nor local churches nor local citizens should ever be making excuses about or too quickly dismissing. Where are the people calling for and suggesting real solutions? Or, as someone who isn’t quite sure what the solutions might be, at least a real discussion, a conversation about how churches, citizens, the Chamber, or the Mayor’s office might take to task the crime before us lest it become the norm? As I see it, the Mayor and the Chamber are in the business of maintaining a positive perception, which is important to drawing companies and tourists to the area. But suggesting that Jackson’s crime rates are “normal for cities this size” in order to maintain that perception is risky business at the least. We live in a world where what social and news media tells us is all too easily the gospel truth when it’s backed up by our experiences or our preconceived notions. Yet, no more should we sell the perception of Jackson as a safe place than we should a Muslim country as one that’s filled with terrorists when in reality both have problems that need solutions beyond painting a pretty picture.
Nashville, XI: ‘I don’t have to answer any of these questions, don’t have no god to teach me no lessons’ – patty
Gotham’s Greek goddess of war
between those poured concrete columns,
gold-gilded and shielded for battle
with eyes fixed forward on some plan,
she might be Parvati Parthenos
with her gift of darshana
in nearly any other forsaken land,
but we pay homage, in deference
to the cold concrete goddess
indifferent to silence,
and hoping she’ll bless us
in loud, shouting presence,
her statue does nothing but stand:
Athena, sweet virgin,
or warmonger emerging,
decide which to be
and come forward
to give us command.