I’m homesick for America.
Actually, this is a first in nearly two years. It seems that the closer I get to my close-of-service, the more I can taste America. Literally. Some Honey BBQ on a set of boneless chicken wings from Buffalo Wild Wings. A platter of my mother’s home-cooked lasagna. Perhaps a little San Antonio Taco Co. and who could forget Taco Bell or Five Guys Burgers & Fries? I miss you guys. Sniff.
Of course, I say all that jokingly, but there is this part of me that is, for the first time, capable of visualizing what life in America is actually like, what day-to-day life could be for me again. What that picture is changes constantly from planting olive trees on my grandfather’s farm and writing on an old typewriter to sitting in my best friend’s new Nashville apartment, which they call “Melrose Place,” playing Stratego and laughing it up. I have images of riding around on an old cruiser with a spiffy bike helmet and a leather jacket and cruising into Lakeshore, where I might sit down by the dock for awhile unnoticed and then take off again. I’ve got images of a large university campus, me sporting a grey suit jacket with a red skinny tie as students file into my class ready to either work hard or fail. America. Amurica. ‘murrka.
But life isn’t over here just yet. We had summer camp, where I used Bananagrams to teach my students and later in the week, during what the Moroccans called “Moroccan culture day,” we held a mock wedding, and guess who got married?! That’s right. This guy. To Monica Groen of some little town nobody’s ever heard of, Michigan. Luckily, it’s just a mock wedding. I actually tried to finagle my way out of it and make Anteus, the other volunteer, do it instead, but the students were all insistent that it be me.
The next week, I went to do another glasses distribution in Ain Leuh, where we got 23 glasses out. We gave out a pair of near vision glasses to one man who then used them to help me record information for the project (names, ages, etc. of those being screened). Nice how it came full circle. Now that Ramadan is here (in the next day or two), the glasses project will likely be put on hold for a month, and then will pick up again in early September. I’ve appointed Monica Groen (my wifey) and Nicole Gravante, a volunteer down south, to head up the future of the glasses project.
The day in Ain Leuh was also one of the first times someone said “God bless your parents” to me, and I felt like she really, sincerely meant it. You could tell being able to see again was something that had changed her life in such a positive way. That’s not to say that other people haven’t been incredibly thankful, but Moroccans don’t often show it the same way we do, bustling with excitement. They give more of a calm, honest gratitude, and if you’re not careful, you can misinterpret their calm approach as apathy. I think there’s lots of little things like that, you know, about the culture, that I’ll never be able to fully grasp or understand, and that’s part of why I’ve been so hesitant and careful about how I explained culture here. Because really, there’s too much of a fine line between what is “stereotype” and what is “culture,” and sometimes, I think it’s all just stereotype, and I don’t know how to back away from that and be honest about this experience at the same time.
That goes back to something I wrote forever ago where I’d said that if I had a bad experience with someone in America, I wouldn’t walk away from that experience and say, “Gosh, that was so awfully American.” I’d say, wow, that person was awful, or that experience was awful, but I wouldn’t make it about the culture, I don’t think. I’m torn, though, over whether there are things that happen to us in America that one might actually call “culture,” and if so, I imagine I’ll be painfully aware of those things when I get back in three months. Still, it’s just a fine line to walk – being careful not to let one, brief encounter (or even several) sum up an entire culture.
To push those thoughts a little further, take Islam. I love Islam as a religion. I think so much of it is deeply sacred and beautiful. Even the part of me that won’t be participating in Ramadan this year or the part of me that’s grown tired of some of the religious phrases like “God bless your parents” or “Inchallah,” and I still have this deep respect for the religion and its role in people’s lives. Although, that said, and I’m a bit skeptical how much of peoples lives is about the religion vs. how much is simply tradition. A lot of people don’t know what’s actually in the Qur’an. A lot of people just live the religion based on what they’re told about the religion, and those things aren’t always accurate. Sound familiar? It happens in the American church all the time. How many people go to church because that’s just what you do? How many people spread religious trite around that has nothing to do with the Bible at all and far more to do with pop culture? My friend Melissa recently shared an article she read highlighting some of the very problems of Christian clichés that are part of our cultures and traditions and not really a part of our religion at all.
That does raise an important question, though, about whether traditions are religion, or whether religion is separate from what people turn it into. I’d like to believe that Christianity and Islam are not what people have turned them into. If they are, then the arguments that Muslims are terrorists or that Christians are bigots are probably true. To what standard do we hold our definition of religion? When a lot of evil can take root in religion, we have to be really careful about what we say is religion and what is simply tradition or just bad people perverting something good, or to put all that another way, religion is made up of bad people, but bad people don’t necessarily make up religion. Why not? Because religion, I think, is the set of ideals all those bad people are screwing up, and that’s what makes it always something holy and sacred. No matter how much we screw it up, it’s always a step above us. It’s like when the Counting Crows sing about the Sistine Chapel – “I see God upon the ceiling, I see angels overhead. And he seems so close as he reaches out his hand. We are never quite as close as we are lead to understand.” Honestly, I think you could completely wipe religion off the face of the planet, and people would still carve enough traditions and customs into society that things wouldn’t be all that much different in terms of the bad things that happen. Terrorism isn’t unique to religion; it’s unique to politics, and it would still be a problem our society would confront.
To put all this into perspective, imagine for a second that you love church. I mean, really love it. Say you’re a Southern Baptist or a Pentecostal. Now imagine that church culture consumed your entire life. Everything you did was held to the standards of what it meant to be a Baptist or a Pentecostal in America. You could never quite escape it. Even when you weren’t literally at church, everything about church culture was still with you. Some of my more religious friends might be thinking, “Well, that’s how we should be living our lives. Church shouldn’t just be a Sunday and a Wednesday night thing, but we should be Christians 24/7.” Maybe the more immersed we are into some cultural phenomenon, the more it becomes monotonous and trite and overtaken by meaningless metaphors and traditions. If everything is “sacred,” the sacred risks becoming mundane. Although I suppose the reverse of that is also true on some level: that everything mundane is sacred. Still, we should strive to be aware of what’s sacred as much as we can, sure, but it’s only in the midst of the mundane that we are made more aware of the sacred. The ideals of religion can’t be met when we try to turn them into platitudes or enforce them as some weird requirement. If you want religion to die, force it on everyone, because even though this is an Islamic culture, a lot of people are more tied to traditions than they are to Islam, and I would imagine that Moroccan-American Muslims may have a stronger or more fervent sense of the sacredness of Islam than the average person living here might, but maybe that’s not fair of me to say.
All told, on the rare occasion that I do encounter something that troubles me here regarding “Islam,” I’m reminded, “Oh yeah, that’s not Islam,” or if it was, on any level, it’s not my role or place to try to parse out those layers of culture and then claim that I, the silly American, figured this culture out.
But those are tough things to remember when you’re feeling homesick.
This morning, I got a phone call from Anteus with some bad news. One of my English students from our summer camp, a girl named Samah, had been killed after she fell out of the back of a transit. She was 18. Next year, she was going to take the high school exam all students have to pass before they can go on to university (it has a 50% pass rate). Her English was already good enough that she could’ve passed the exam today. She wanted to be a soldier, like her father. She had plans and was moving up and getting out of Skoura, and when she talked about those plans, her face lit up. I even gave her an English assignment to write about her life as a guard for the King as a creative story.
A little bit of life felt sucked out of me the rest of the day. I thought of the fatalism behind so much of life here, the mantra I’ve grown to despise a little that whatever happens is what God wills, and I thought that God wills some pretty ugly things if it’s God up there willing it. Sometimes, forget culture or religion or the sacred or the mundane, and life is just life, and it doesn’t make any sense, and we just live through that, whatever that is.
So, you could say I’m a little homesick, I guess, but I don’t know that I’m homesick for America really, because I mean, what is America anyway? I guess I’m just moving toward that place where I’m starting to visualize a change. The change is already beginning in me, and while I’m not so naive as to glorify America into a place where people don’t die senselessly, I’m at least a little drained on the way people die here, be it from diabetes or car wrecks or just the whole shabang, really.
It’d just be nice to scoff down three Cheesy Gordita Crunches and not think about religion or culture or any of it. To not be immersed in it all. Just a Cheesy Gordita Crunch. Yeah, that’d be good stuff.