A few weeks ago, I was on a train for Rabat, and I met this guy named Hicham. Hicham was dressed to the hilt in religious garb, all black, and his beard would have put Sam Beam to shame. To be honest, I had no desire to talk to Hicham; I was tired and not remotely interested in using Arabic. Speaking in a different language can really drain you, and I had not spoken out loud to a native English speaker in over a week at that point. The last thing I wanted to deal with was another conversation that started, “Are you Muslim?”
Instead, the conversation drifted in the direction, “What are you doing here?” I got a chance to talk about our recent diabetes project going around my town with several local youth educating folks at shops and stores nearby. Hicham mentioned that his own twelve-year old son has diabetes. Despite being tired and uninterested in using Arabic, I liked Hicham a lot. He was young, like me, and had studied world religions, like me. At one point, he praised an American institute devoted to “the study of religion and liberty” and this week, he emailed me their website. Hicham was a well-educated, well-to-do Rabati on his way home.
Now here’s where the conversation got interesting. In the train-car with us were two other Moroccans who were, for lack of a better way of putting it, poor. They were “bladi,” as we volunteers sometimes like to call ourselves, which probably translates to something akin “country bumpkin.” So, in this train car were two bladi Moroccans, an American volunteer, and a well-educated religious man from the city. It’s like the beginning of some joke.
As I was explaining what I do in Morocco, the two bladi Moroccans were incredibly confused. The concept of volunteerism is sometimes lost on people in the countryside. “Why would anyone sacrifice their riches in a place like America to come here?” they may well ask. But Hicham got it. He understood development work, the importance of volunteerism, multiculturalism, cultural exchange, religious diversity – you name it. Hicham got me. But then, when Hicham turned to explain to the two Moroccans why I was here, his Arabic was so full of French (and I mean, literally, “French;” that’s not some euphemism for curse words), that they could not understand him. I had to actually step in at one point and help the two bladi Moroccans understand what Hicham was saying by translating his French (which is funny since I don’t know any French, really) to help bring everybody onto the same page. Hicham had been so used to speaking to other well-educated Moroccans in the city where the French language symbolizes wealth and class and is essentially still the lingua franca, that it just never occurred to him that his way of speaking Arabic might fly over the heads of the lower classes.
So, here I was, in the middle. I understood Hicham. He was so much like me – the privileged man, a scholar of religion. But I understood the bladi men, too; I understood their frustration with Hicham. I understood that this train ride was hurting their pocketbook. I understood none of the French that came from Hicham’s mouth. I had somehow managed to cross into all of their worlds and none of them at the same time. Over my two years, I’ve grown to live in the middle of some paradox in this beautiful Kingdom. I belong to it. And I very much don’t. At the same time.
And maybe I’m coming to realize that I feel that same way about America. In fact, I think all of us find ourselves caught somewhere in the middle sometimes. I’m not sure if it’s as stark as sitting in that train car pulling into the capital city, but I do think the more aware we are of our culture, the more aware we are of the things that shape and mold and influence us, of how exactly those things do that, the more likely it is that we’ll step back and ask, “Where do I fit in here?” And that’s a question I wish more of us were asking.