Transit stories I’ve been meaning to share, and a few others, too

So, I’m at this taxi stand, and there’s a guy with two sheep sitting nearby, and I just keep thinking, “Please God, please tell me he’s not gonna try to put those two sheep in the back seat of my taxi.”  I end up waiting for, like, two hours, and the four people waiting with me for the taxi to fill up suddenly disappear.  Meanwhile, this guy gets up and starts putting his sheep… in the trunk of the taxi.  As I’m watching, I’m just like, “Nope, can’t do that.  Not okay with that.”

Most of the time here, I try to remind myself, “This is not your culture.”  Everything deserves that we approach it from its own standpoint, try to understand it from the perspective of those who live it, not from our own American lens.  But something about this one just rubbed me the wrong way.  I’m willing to bet that I wasn’t the only person there who thought putting sheep in the trunk was a little screwy if not also haram, forbidden.  I mean, the Qur’an demands treating the animal with serious respect.

I suppose on one hand, I could’ve just dismissed it as, “Well, I mean, they’re gonna slaughter the sheep anyway,” but the way sheep are supposed to be slaughtered here makes killing a sheep far more respectable than putting a live one in a hot trunk.  I dunno.

So, I end up grabbing a bus instead for that ride.

A little later, I’m back in a taxi, a petit taxi this time, and I tell the guy where I want to go, and he looks at me like I’m crazy, so I repeat it.  He shakes his head and goes, “No.  First?”  And I’m just like, “Do you know where this place is?”  And he’s like, “Salaaaammm?  Salaaammmm?”  In complete, utter shame, I immediately realize that I’ve offended him, because I didn’t start with greetings, so I bust into the most apologetic form of greeting someone in my life, “Salamu Alaykum.  I’m sorry.  Salamu Alaykum.  Are you good?  Everything is great?  I’m so sorry.  Yes, I’m good.  I really am sorry.  A lot.  But you’re fine, yeah?  It’s all good with you?  Yes, I’m great.  I’m tired.  I really am sorry.  I forget.  Praise be to God.”

The conversation then went in the usual direction these conversations go: shock that I speak Arabic, my denying that I speak Arabic (in Arabic), his insistence that I do and no one in America speaks so well.  Questions about where I’m from and what I’m doing in Morocco, which turns into a short chance to talk about the Peace Corps.  And then, the question I always try to avoid: Are you Muslim?

When religious harassment happens in the United States (I won’t name denominations here, but you know, when people feel the need to ask whether or not someone is a Christian, and if they say they’re not, suddenly, they’re preached hell-fire and brimstone), there’s a real disdain created for the person.  Suddenly that person is made out to be a heathen and they lose all validity to who they are outside of their “non-Christian-ness.”

Because the evangelist views a person’s “Christianity” as the most important thing about them, they often don’t bother to get to know the person at all, as though this simple code of ethics is all there is or all that should matter.  Then, the evangelist, in saving the person, views him or herself as the hero of the story, and there’s just no humility in any of that, either.

And of course, there’s not really a whole lot of love in that approach, which is ironic, since it’s seen as such an act of love by so many.  But when we don’t really care to get to know each other or to love each other despite our beliefs (which often change over time), then we’re missing the point.  St. Francis of Assisi says something like, “At all times, preach the Gospel; use words if you have to.”  I take the “if you have to” to mean, “really, you shouldn’t.”  Let me give a more concrete, personal story here:

Around the time I was sixteen or so, I half-heartedly mentioned to a good friend that I didn’t think of myself as “Christian,” really, mostly because I was fed up with hypocrisy.  She then embarked on a “mission” to “save” me with her friend Cindy.  So, one afternoon, we went to a local bagel and coffee place and sat on the couches there for three hours, while Cindy pulled out every argument, every Bible verse she had to convert me.  At the end of the conversation, I prayed the little prayer with them, you know, the one that magically makes everyone a Christian, mostly to make them feel better about sitting there for three hours with me.  And even though I was still skeptical, still angry with Christianity, at the very least, I sort of settled on a “fake it til you make it” attitude toward belief in God.  After leaving that coffee shop, we went to Cindy’s church, where they announced to a group of people I didn’t know, “We saved Philip!”  I never heard from Cindy ever again.

I was pretty livid about all of that.  Later in life, when I did decide that Christianity was important to me, I made a point to make sure I would never do stuff like that.  I knew then that it’s not hell (in the conventional sense) we need to be saved from but actually, it’s each other.  It’s our unwillingness to get to know people, to really get to know people who are different from us that’s a large part of the problem.  What is hell, after all, than some form of alienation from what we regard as divine?  Little experiences like that, ones that alienate us from one another, are the closest to hell I’ve ever felt.

When hell is made out to be this distant realm beyond life, we neglect that the way we treat each other, the pain that we cause, is in its own right, a personal hell of sorts.  Which is just sort of ironic, you know, that there are people on this silly little planet running around warning us against some hell, while they actually fabricate hell in the act of dwindling down the sum of who we are to a set of dogmatic beliefs that may or may not say anything about us.

But that’s all an aside.  I was just getting to religious harassment in Morocco.  In some ways, it can be the exact same thing: people you barely know who don’t really care to get to know you at all telling you that you’re going to go to hell.  Sadly, I get that all the time, and it makes Islam look really similar to evangelical Christianity.  I have some phrases I’ve learned in Arabic to help prepare me for that form of harassment.  Things like, “But if I changed my religion, my mother would cry,” or “I have my religion, you have yours.”  One of the things I’ve used a lot that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t is, “No, I’m not Muslim, but I respect Islam greatly.”

For every struggle with this form of religious harassment, I meet many other Moroccans who view Islam differently.  Those stories are worth mentioning too.  Case in point, I was sitting on the floor of my kitchen with the director of the youth center and a guy I didn’t know who was fixing my fridge.  The repair man started in on the usual harassment asking me about Islam and why I wouldn’t convert, warning me of the dangers of hell.  My director chimed in, “Shut up and work on the fridge.  He’s not paying you to convert him.”

Another time, sitting with my host family even, the warnings of hell came up, but in this case (and in many others like it), the fact that I wasn’t going to convert didn’t upset our relationship or our friendship.  Maybe that’s because we established a friendship first; that is, we took the time to get to know each other, but I feel like, in America, if you encounter someone trying to convert you to Christianity, and you make it clear that’s not going to happen, they’d be wasting their time trying to seek their “crown for the kingdom” and would move on to somebody else.  Maybe Moroccan Muslims just have more patience, but I don’t feel like I’m hated for not converting the way I would’ve felt in America.  It’s a rare occasion that I would feel ostracized or alienated over being non-Muslim.

A few weeks before that all happened, and I had this wonderful conversation (in English) with a friend here pointing out that he felt a lot of people in the countryside who were uneducated didn’t understand the Qur’an or Islam, and if they did, he insisted, they wouldn’t harass us like that.  In fact, he was shocked to hear that we received such harassment.  For him, Islam was more of an inner, spiritual experience.  He made a point to bring up the fact that Mohammed was given Christian slaves as a gift from the Church.  He then freed the slaves and later even married a Christian.  It’s not much, but he seemed to think many people who were uneducated about Islam would be shocked to know that the Prophet had such positive relationships with Christians.

Like the Bible, I suspect you can argue either way using the Qur’an – some Christians view it one way, some Christians view it another; it’s the same for Islam.  Beauty, or in this case, truth, is in the eye of the beholder, yes?  It’s even a different experience for women than it is for men.  My friend Hope recently sent me this quote from a Harvard theologian who is Egyptian.  She is writing about the experience of Islam from the perspective of women who were not allowed in the mosque, who often couldn’t read (whereas the male version of Islam is far more focused on the text), and who were expected to be Muslim anyhow:

“Islam, as I got it from them, was gentle, generous, pacifist, inclusive, somewhat mystical–just as they themselves were.  Mother’s pacifism was entirely of a piece with their sense of the religion.  Being Muslim was about believing in a world in which life was meaningful and in which all events and happenings were permeated (although not always transparent to us) with meaning.  Religion was above all about inner things.  The outward signs of religiousness, such as prayer and fasting, might be signs of a true religiousness but equally well might not.   They were certainly not what was important about being Muslim.  What was important was how you conducted yourself and how you were in yourself and in your attitude toward others and in your heart.”

It’s sort of a no brainer, but how we experience our world, our everyday, mundane world, deeply shapes how we experience our religions, as well.  And I guess I just really want to believe we can approach it a little more lovingly, and I think part of that is to actually get to know each other, because we’re more than just our beliefs.

The conversation in the taxi that I saw going south very quickly turned into a mostly positive conversation about the oneness of God, the taxi driver and I discussing that both Christianity and Islam and making a point to say that there’s only one God, and that’s what matters.  I suppose if I’d been Buddhist or atheist, that conversation might have felt like harassment (hey, harassment, too, is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes, I’m never sure if I’m just in a bad mood or if I’m being harassed), but it was a refreshing conversation, one void of hell and brimstone, one that wasn’t an attempt to convert me but to just recognize a little bit of our common ground.  While I think that inter-religious dialogue should require us to be honest not just about where we agree but lovingly about where we disagree, too, we move in that direction in baby steps.  And with a taxi driver in a language I can barely understand, I’ll take agreeing about the oneness of God as a huge win.

So, those are just a few stories of late.  I’m leaving very soon for vacation in Portugal.  Oh wait!  One more story — the best one:

So, I’m in a taxi, and the driver asks me where I’m from, and I tell him I’m from America.  He then says something like, “Oh well, are you suwria?”  Which I thought he was asking me if I was from Essaouira, a city in Morocco, but after finally figuring out that he was asking me if I was from Syria, I responded again telling him that I was an American.  I then said laughing, “Why?  Do I resemble a Syrian?”

“No,” he said, “but you talk like one.  Did you study there?”

“But how can I talk like one?  My Arabic is terrible.”

“So is theirs,” he responded without laughing and could not have been more serious.  I, on the other hand, could not stop laughing, cause I thought the whole thing was hilarious.

So there you go.  A few good stories from the roads and streets of Morocco.

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