So, here’s a few thoughts about a man who has had a big impact on my life the past two years, but I don’t know that I’ve ever even mentioned him, so it just seemed fitting to say a thing or two.
When I arrived in my village, Hassan – the director of my youth center – was one of the first people I met. He’s a short man, maybe just a bit on the hefty side. If you don’t get to know him very well, you’d think he was a very somber and serious man. I think that’s because he has this tendency to lean back in his chair and scratch his scruffy chin, like a wise, old man pondering over whatever you’ve just said (or in my case how to translate it into something tangible).
My first year of service, I couldn’t seem to crack him. But as my language got better, I found him to be one of the funniest and jolliest men I’ve encountered in Morocco. And not just that: every single volunteer who has spent more than five minutes around him has said something to the effect of, “Wow, Hassan is probably the best counterpart I’ve met.” Why? He gets us. He understands our terrible, first grade Arabic. He understands our goals as American volunteers. I mean, he even understands the concept of volunteerism (and that’s something many people in this country don’t understand at all; just ask some of the folks who are convinced I’m CIA, FBI, or a missionary, because they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that someone would ‘sacrifice’ life in America to come to their little village). He understands that the youth of Morocco are the future of Morocco, and he has devoted his life to improving theirs. I feel like there are plenty of directors in youth centers across the country who do good work and make an impact, but I think it’s rare to find one who can both understand why that impact matters and actually loves being a part of the bigger picture at the same time.
Last week, Hassan helped me do some of the prep work for our Diabetes workshop, but while we were sitting around putting Arabic workbooks together on diabetes information, we just chitchatted a little about religion and politics – conversations I can’t seem to avoid in any language. He was asking me if I’d watched the now-infamous film that’s caused so much hate tearing apart Libya in particular, and I told him I’d seen a good chunk of it and that it was awful. I tried to explain a little about why it was so important to me to get back to America and let people know that Islam isn’t this terrible, awful thing they think it is. Hassan really wanted to know who I thought would win the presidential election, where I thought the election currently stood, and I explained absentee ballots and that I’d be proudly casting my vote for the ‘Muslim ticket,’ you know – Obama).
As we kept talking, I told Hassan about the fiasco with the glasses project in Jonathan’s village – how the Ministry official rudely refused to let us distribute glasses there, because he was worried the technology of the glasses would put doctors out of business. I reiterated the point that the official was incredibly rude to us. “Maybe he has diabetes,” Hassan planted a huge smile across his face, “and he should come to our workshop.” Ah, yes, the “people with diabetes are irritable” joke: very clever, Hassan. Clever indeed.
Maybe that’s just it, though. He has this clever way of taking something heavy or serious and joking about it without trivializing it too much. He’s the same man who, while helping me fix my refrigerator, yelled at a guy for trying to convert me to Islam: “Stop trying to convert him! Do you want to convert to Christianity? Shut up at do your work and just fix the fridge already.” And then he turned to me with a huge grin and shook my hand. That always gave me a deep appreciation for Hassan who is probably more devout as a Muslim than the man who was trying to convert me.
As things are coming to a close, one thing I’ll have to figure out is how to properly say goodbye to Hassan. I thought about writing a letter, as I’m prone to do, but even though I think I could pull it off, it would just take an ungodly amount of time to write a letter in Arabic, and I’d never have the guarantee that he’d understand it all. I also considered giving him honey or a few little gifts. I don’t know how I’ll handle this goodbye exactly. It’s near impossible to sum up in one goodbye what someone has meant to you, especially when you suspect you’ll never see them again. I don’t know if that’s true, you know, that I’ll never see Hassan again, but I know it’s a real possibility. I hope the best for him, and as I am preparing to leave, it is very comforting to see where things are for him, with the Ministry building him a new house and adding a second level to the youth center.
It seems like whenever we part ways with another person, they etch this memory into us, and who they were to us in those final moments is, on some level at least, who they’ll always be to us – unless they enter our lives again later down the road. That’s probably not entirely fair in the day-and-age of social networking, where you can “keep in touch” with people you don’t really keep in touch with, watching them age and change (for better or for worse) without ever having to talk to them. But if it is fair at all, I’m glad this relationship will come to an end with both Hassan and I facing new changes, with both of us carrying fond memories of the other into the remainder of our lives. So, yeah, that’s my thoughts on Hassan.