One of the major goals of the Peace Corps, if not also one of the sole reasons for its existence, is simply to educate folks back home about the countries we live and work in during our two-year tenure. If I had ended up in Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean like I was supposed to, I can’t imagine how I would’ve managed to connect that to something that deeply mattered to me: “Surf was great today and got an awesome tan; sleeping in hammock now.” I mean, I ‘d have to have a Peace Corps Twitter or something, because I just wouldn’t need a blog. Actually, that’s not true one bit. I’m sure I’d find a way to brood on the Eastern Caribbean the same way I do on life here in Morocco.
Yet, somehow, getting the message of my experience back home would be an entirely different animal. Since when did you meet anyone who was bigoted toward St. Kitts? Or, on the flip side, when was the last time someone from the Caribbean tried to bomb the U.S. Capitol? When I opened up the CNN page and saw that a Moroccan was arrested for plotting a dirty bomb attack on America, my heart sank. Just another story in the continuing narrative that says that Arabs hate the West, a narrative that seems to often imply that the West should somehow return that hate and deal with it in no other way. To read that the person in question, specifically, was a Moroccan was just all the more troubling to me.
Over Christmas, I went to visit Greta Frensley’s 7th grade Geography classes to talk about my experience in Morocco. On Valentine’s Day, over eighteen letters showed up in the mail from her students thanking me and telling me how wonderful Morocco sounded. One girl wrote, “Some day when I am a famous singer I will visit Morocco.” Another student wrote, “I was so excited I told my grandparents Salaamu Alaykum and Wa-alaykum salaam. My sister looked at me aquiredly like Im crazy or something. My grandpa got interested in the words I told him.” You read something like that, and there’s just no better confirmation that I’m getting a positive message home. I mean, there were kids going home and speaking Arabic to their parents, and they were excited about that! That’s a big step forward for me, and it’s by far the most important work I can do.
And then something like this happens. Something that questions the validity of everything I had to say. How many parents will take note of that or will ask their kid in Greta’s class, “Morocco?! Wasn’t that the country you were saying you thought was great at the beginning of January?” Some of us work really hard to deliver a positive and honest message about our experience. I hate, I really hate, to think that message could be tainted by what a handful of bad apples can manage to accomplish thanks to outlandish media coverage or even simply to the human mind’s inability to process that “Moroccan” doesn’t equate with Morocco. [I think it’s telling, by the way, that this man had been in America for twelve years, and I can’t help but wonder whether what “radicalized” him was his time in Morocco or if it was his time in America? I wonder how he was treated Stateside? On some level, it doesn’t matter, because no matter how harshly he may have been treated, these kinds of actions aren’t justified. And yet, we can’t just assume this is as simple as someone hating America for no reason at all. We can’t assume in a “war” where hate spawns hate, America is somehow spotless and perfect. We’re not responsible for changing them. We’re responsible for changing us. And that’s exactly where we’ve gotten this whole “war on terrorism” so mixed up.]
Today, I bought coffee for my friend Youssef. He’s been begging me for months to come out to his town of Belsfrat, about thirty minutes north of me, and I just haven’t yet had the time to go visit him. But he’s been a good friend. We chatted for awhile about religion and politics, and at one point even talked about the importance of respecting and loving one another despite our differences. He was even telling me about a friend of his who is pursuing a Masters degree in interfaith dialogue between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism here in Morocco. To go from a conversation like that, filled with kindheartedness and honesty, to reading a story that will likely only breed hate is a good way to sum up every blog I’ve ever written praising Islam or the Arab world and also why I find it so incredibly important to make sure that people are getting the full picture.
Because CNN is not going to tell you about me and Youssef chatting as friends over coffee. CNN won’t tell you about my landlord insisting that I have soup with him every time I see him. CNN has no interest in stories of love or hospitality from a country where those things are abundant. That’s my job. And I’m here to tell you, CNN isn’t giving you the full picture. And Moroccans do not hate America. Or as I said on Facebook, “this ‘Moroccan’ man in absolutely no way reflects the views of Morocco toward America. Yes, there are tensions; yes, it stems from the ongoing, unfortunate saga where hate just butts up against more hate, but the Moroccan people I’ve met are, in general, kind-hearted, loving people far more hospitable than most of the Tennesseans I know. There are ‘bad apples’ in every culture, so please, God, let’s not let this continue to feed the narrative of hate between our two cultures.”