On multiple occasions now, I’ve had volunteers say to me that they are amazed as they come to the end of their Peace Corps service at how good they are at reading people. Or, I’ll be standing around with a female volunteer, and some guy starts talking to us, and she just gives me this look that says, “I don’t feel good about this guy” or “this situation is giving me a bad vibe.” When you first show up in a new culture – one so drastically new and different to us as Morocco, for example – you’re constantly in survival mode. You have to rely on people you don’t know. You have trust people you’ve never met. And you have to do all of that, navigate all of that, in a language that’s not your own. I can remember a volunteer at one point telling me how a family in his village told him who to trust and who not trust, and his entire experience would’ve been shaped by what they said had he not branched out on his own and just talked to people. So much of it is a game, and because – early on, especially – you lack the communication skills, you’re constantly testing people, their loyalty and their honesty. Little things, things as simple as a hand gesture, a bitten lip, a hesitation, or even the way someone looks at you, suddenly become heightened and important to communication. They can say more than the words can. They guide the vibe that ensures your comfort. Or the one that takes it away.
In other words, because your well-being depends on it, you’re forced to learn very quickly in a new culture how to look through people. It’s the art of learning how to quickly pass judgment, really, and as awful as that sounds, it can be a skill that comes in really handy. And so, on some level, while it’s not fair to pass judgment so quickly, it’s also a defense mechanism. Because like people everywhere in every culture, some Moroccans just like some Americans can’t be trusted. And here, our livelihoods depend on trusting our judgments first, while in America, on the other hand, we’re able to navigate through situations with a fluent language, more empowered to handle daily encounters with people we may not know. Words matter when you understand them. And when you don’t, you’ve got to figure out how to look beyond the words.
On the flip side of all of that is something else I hear frequently from volunteers, namely that we all become just a tiny bit more confident, if not also a smidgen more aggressive living here. That’s probably not welcome news for Mom or Dad to hear. But it’s not a bad thing, necessarily. I think it requires a little more explanation and context, though.
Morocco is a bargain culture. And so at the market (souq) or in the medina, everything is about negotiation. You operate in such a way that if you want to get the item you wish to purchase as cheap (or fair) as possible, you need to be ready not only to size up the seller but also to put him in his place. The seller wants to make as much as possible; the entire experience is a game with winners and losers, and the goal is to reach a point where both the buyer and the seller feel as though they’ve won. Unfortunately, because many tourists have the money to throw around, an American walking through a market is seen as a bank, and we’re not going to get a good price as the first offer. So, if you want to be treated fairly or quoted a price anywhere near what a Moroccan citizen might pay, then you have to be willing to, well, argue the price down. You have to be willing to walk away from the seller “angrily” or tell him that he’s crazy or that he must not want to really sell anything. It’s confrontational. And it’s aggressive. But that doesn’t mean there’s necessarily any ill-will between the buyer and the seller. Simply put, if you go into it with an bad attitude, as opposed to a light-hearted one, then the confrontation is not going to be a pleasant experience at all. But Morocco is this interesting place where you can tell someone that they’re a thief for trying to take your money, and there’s no harm done, because you’re approaching that confrontation with a light-hearted attitude, recognizing that, well, that’s just the way you handle a bargain. (I feel sorry for any future American car dealers who have to face me.)
The thing is, this isn’t really limited to a buyer-seller relationship. The bargain culture flows into every aspect of Moroccan life, as I perceive it. Negotiating is a constant process here. We negotiate to get work done. We negotiate to make friendships possible. And so it’s no surprise that many volunteers would come out of this experience, first, better at reading people, and more importantly, unwilling to put up with anybody pulling your chain. We now have this expertise of sorts to be able to diagnose when someone’s swindling or tricking or even hurting us, and we’re not going to put up with it. And we’re not going to put up with watching it happen to the people we care about either.
And so we’re always dealing with accountability on some level. But I think, on some level, we have to start with ourselves. I’d like to believe that I’ve always been the kind of person who holds himself accountable for his mistakes (albeit, sometimes not soon enough and sometimes for far too long). I occasionally had to have people I loved hold me accountable before I was willing to realize they were right, and I didn’t always give in right away. Sometimes, it was a struggle and a pull, a fight within myself to determine what I had done wrong or what I needed to change. Those confrontations were never easy, but they were necessary, and I’m thankful for them. It’s part of what makes me very self-aware, and in some sense, I’m in a constant state of holding myself accountable, of questioning my thoughts, choices, and actions, or as I’ve said elsewhere, in reference to Maria Rilke, of “living the questions.” What that ends up meaning, really, is that I’m painfully aware of how broken I am as a human being. Being aware of my mistakes doesn’t also mean that I’m always capable or willing to fix them. Sometimes, our mistakes are things we have to learn to live with and because we’re aware of them, we can be honest about them up front, but that might be the best we can do with them for the time being. It wasn’t always like that for me, but these days, learning to live with mistakes, holding myself accountable for them, all seems to be getting a smidgen easier.
Unfortunately, what that’s also come to mean is that, if I’m going to hold myself accountable, I’m the kind of person who has this need to hold other people accountable too. I hate bigotry or injustice. I can’t sit by, watch it happen, and do nothing, and I’ve addressed that very thing quite a bit in my writing. When someone wrongs another person, I can’t just sit by and say nothing. It’s been a big source of conflict for me, because that need to stand up for what I thought was right (even if I was wrong, which is an important side-note to realize) made me seem like an incredibly confrontational person at times. In a sense, Morocco augments that, because we all live a somewhat “confrontational” life here, but the flip side of the coin is that we’re learning how to do that in a light-hearted, if not also loving, way.
It’s a prophetic life, a life where we’re constantly negotiating accountability – accountability for ourselves and of others. But the problem of prophets is that they are hated even in their hometowns. So, the trick is learning to be confrontational in a loving manner rather than one that’s simply spiteful or arrogant. That’s not a line – the one between some righteous anger and arrogance or spite – that we know how to draw very well as human beings. We can be loving, speak the truth, and still be hated for being prophets. But sometimes, love can speak through what might sound arrogant, and when we need to be held accountable, it doesn’t matter that the hard truths came from those we call our enemies. Maybe that’s why religion demands that we love our enemies: it’s often them who know our biggest secrets, who can hold us accountable to the truths we least desire but most need to hear, and if that’s all enemies are, then maybe they aren’t so bad for us after all. They start to sound a little more like friends and we could learn a lot about ourselves from them.