I sometimes have a bad habit of saying slightly controversial things on the blog. A lot of that stems from suddenly plopping myself into a Muslim country as a Peace Corps Volunteer and having to step back and say, “Wait a minute, these people aren’t the terrorists television in America makes them out to be.” I talk about that a lot, actually. Probably too much. That’s because, on the one hand, I came here having majored in religion, having studied (a very little) Islam, and so I already knew that Islam was not the big, bad religion a lot of people make it out to be, or at the very least, I knew from a Christian education to “judge not lest ye be judged.” But I should step back for a second and admit something that I find slightly embarrassing, something I haven’t yet admitted on the blog —
I was a little scared when I first set foot on Moroccan soil. I was intimidated by how different this place was from my life in America. And I’m sure, on some level at least, that would’ve been true no matter where I’d been sent. That’s just Culture Shock 101. But, again, it’s probably a bit different dealing with culture shock here after having been constantly fed images of this culture in America vs. culture shock in, say, Jamaica. Rastafarian’s don’t really scare me (though maybe they should).
But those first few days in Morocco were unnerving for me in a way I don’t like to admit, because it made me feel prejudiced. And let’s face it, I was prejudiced. I caught myself on more than one occasion encountering an image that I absolutely associated with terrorism, an image that was simply everyday Middle-Eastern dress. I very vividly remember the first time we went “outside” on our own to walk the streets of Kenitra, and part of this “fear” may stem from the fact that the Gendarmes were following us around to “protect” us (although, over a year later, and I’m not really sure what they were “protecting” but I have a feeling it had more to do with making us feel welcome and making them look more serious and caring than anything else). I remember seeing a dirty street, hearing the strange sounds of Arabic, the loud call-to-prayer ringing off the bustling concrete walls, and realizing that my every move was being watched with suspicious eyes – “Who are these foreigners?” But at the time, I had no clue that I was as foreign and as scary to them, perhaps, as they were to me.
There were a few occasions where I’d lie awake and think through what I’d do if someone from Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb showed up and tried to kidnap me. I’d picture myself, of course, fending them off with my impeccable strength and becoming an American hero. Silly. Just absolutely silly in every possible way. And it’s even sillier the longer I’ve been here that those kinds of prejudiced thoughts would even enter my mind. I didn’t have dreams about being mugged when I traveled to New York (probably should have, though), so why worry about something that’s such a small, unlikely threat?
It took getting to know people to help me realize how silly and prejudiced that was. It took sitting down over tea and bread, hearing my host mother echo the only English she knew – “I love you; you are my son.” It took hours of goofing off with Khalil or dancing with Omar and Hamza in their house. It even took frustrating moments and arguments with Moroccans before I settled into the fact that I had been duped, that I had been sold a lie about an entire race of people, and how? 9/11? The television show 24? Constant news reports about terrorism? The fact that other hate crimes are not called “terrorism” if they aren’t committed by “Muslims”?
I guess when I realized I’d been duped, it gave me some sense of urgency to say back home, “Hey guys, don’t listen to all that stuff: it’s not true.” I’m just one little guy living in one little place, and there’s even been a bombing in Morocco since I’ve been here. That story eclipses my own work, my own interactions, and it’s so much louder. But I wish it weren’t.
All that is to say, why would anybody listen to me? Why would I have anything worthwhile to contribute to that conversation? I sometimes fear my one little experience can’t fight the power behind a media that has socialized an entire generation to, well, think that Muslims are bad people (or the reverse, that Christians or Jews or whoever else are somehow “better”). No human beings are “better” because of a political view or a religious view. I don’t agree very often with my conservative friends, but I am not “better” than them, and they are not “better” than me. Being “better” in my opinion really just means recognizing in painful honesty what makes us worse: a humble love that says there is no better; there’s only who we are and we have to work with and through that.
Lately, some volunteers have been passing around a television show that’s apparently popular in America on Showtime called “Homeland.” Have a look see for yourself:
The premise of the show is that there’s an American who was kidnapped by Al Qaeda during the Iraq War and during his kidnapping is “turned” to the other side. Actually, the show has several characters who fit that description, one of whom serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan and then returns to America to plot a terrorist attack. Really? A Peace Corps Volunteer? You had to go there, Showtime writers? It would almost be funny if it weren’t so insulting on some level, because there’s a scary implication in the show that anyone who can respect a different religion might become a terrorist.
I had this strange experience of moving from watching an episode of the show to going to teach English classes with a group of hilarious Moroccan youth to coming back to watch more of the show to going to eat couscous with a family that had begged me to come for dinner, and juxtaposing the show with my real life actually made me sit back and think, “Wow, this form of media is really powerful. And kind of dangerous.” It also reminded me (as has my mom) that the people back home reading good ole Phil’s blog aren’t the ones sitting down having tea or encountering Moroccan hospitality. You can read these words, read about this experience, but at the end of the day, your news channel still tells you something absolutely negative about the world I live in. And I just can’t compete with that.
So, I don’t know what we do. I don’t know how we demand better of our media, how we ask to hear more positive stories and less negative ones. Unless we just share them ourselves, one story at a time. That’s the most I can do. And it’s what I’ll try to keep doing.