Challenging Assumptions About the Modern Arab Myth: an Exploration of Moroccan Cultures and Traditions

Earlier this month, I gave a lecture to a group of United Methodist Men (and later to a local Rotary Club) about my experience with the Peace Corps.  I am publishing that lecture here with only a few edits.  I have also spliced in Wikipedia links every here and there.  Please don’t regard those links as “sources” but rather as a way of exploring additional information.  Furthermore, I included in my lecture, a PowerPoint presentation with pictures; however, to save space, I am not publishing pictures here except for the very last part of the lecture.  Finally, as fair warning to any current volunteers, this has made a few of you cry who have already read it.  I apologize if it has that effect on you.

I also apologize that this lecture is so long and realize that not many people will read it in full (it was a forty-minute talk), but I wanted it to be available nonetheless:

Good evening.  [Expressions of thanks: Paul Chaplin, church leadership, UMM committee, etc.]

I spent the last seven or eight years studying and teaching religion, including a world religions course at Belmont, so I live by a teacher’s spirit of sorts, and what that means to me is that if you’re not troubled or bothered by something you hear today, then I haven’t done my job.  I’m a big believer that it’s when we’re most challenged by what we hear or see that we will open ourselves up to learn something new.  So, my hope is that, beyond just spouting off facts about Moroccan history or culture, I might also be able to push you a little.  To think.  About your faith in comparison and contrast to the faiths of others.  And, on some level at least, that’s what my talk will be about today.

I should also say that I really struggled at first to figure out, “What could I possibly say about Morocco that might be relevant to a group of Methodist men?”  Because, over the past two years, I was so immersed into Moroccan culture, that I could have given a talk today on any one aspect of Morocco.  We could talk about the process of making and cooking couscous for an hour.  Or we could save that one for the Methodist women.  Or we could talk about the Arab Spring for a series of lectures, and the way the Arab Spring affected this tiny North African country.

Whatever it was I was going to talk about, there’s one thing I needed to be very careful with, and I wanted to say this up front: almost everything I will say about Morocco today is a stereotype or reasoned judgment.  In the same way that it is a stereotype to presume that the Methodist women would prefer to know how to cook couscous over the Methodist men.  Stereotypes are not necessarily wrong, but sometimes, they are, and we need to remember that.  It’s just impossible to sum up an entire culture or religion for you in a brief talk.  It would be impossible to do it if we had a whole semester together.

So, if you catch me saying, “Moroccans think this, or Muslims think that,” please remember that I realize that neither all Moroccans nor all Muslims think or do those things.  But I’m trying to temper my judgments with solid research and two years of experience, including a working knowledge of Moroccan Arabic.

So, now that I’ve listed my caveats, we can start.  I apologize if I speak too fast, by the way.  It’s not entirely because I’m nervous.  It’s also because I’m trying to fit a large amount of information into a short period of time.  So, please bear with me.

I wanted to start today with a little bit of context:

A little bit about me: at one point in my life, I almost became a Methodist pastor, even going as far as earning my Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt.  I have extensively worked with the Church.  I worked as a Youth pastor in Nashville for a few years, and I turned to do social work with the Peace Corps to get a change of scene and to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, as he himself had served in Casablanca during WWII.  So, in some ways, going to Morocco was a way of remembering his life and the impact he had on me.

While many of you, I’m sure, have heard about the Peace Corps, I’m increasingly surprised by the number of people who have not.  So, the Peace Corps is a foreign aid organization that is technically under the wing of the State Department for the U.S. Government.  It was started in the early ’60s by John Kennedy as a cultural exchange program.  There are three basic goals – the first is to provide technical assistant to your host country, and the latter two concern cultural exchange: getting to know foreign people and sharing with them who you are as an American while simultaneously getting the message back home about your host country, what it’s like, etc.

Some quick facts about Morocco: the country is about the size of California and shares a very similar geography and climate in that it contains mountains, deserts, forests, beaches, etc.  Admittedly, Morocco is hotter; it is an African country, but it is the coldest African country and is sometimes referred to as the “cold country with the hot sun.”  You could freeze to death in September in the shade or be burning hot in late December in the sun.

In terms of population, there are about 30 million people, which makes Morocco a pretty small country.  Most live in the cities with a few million in Casablanca alone.  Most of the people are of Arab-Berber decent.  It’s hard to find someone in Morocco who doesn’t have a little Berber in them the same way it’s hard to find Americans who don’t have a little Irish or Native American in them.  Berber, by the way, is to Morocco what Native Americans are to America.  You actually know this word ‘Berber’ even if it might sound unfamiliar to you: it derives from the same place as barbarian, as the Greek term “barbaros” would have been a derogatory term for non-Greeks because they thought other languages just sounded like someone was saying, “Bar bar bar,” again and again.

The official language is Moroccan Arabic or Darija, though many speak one of the Berber dialects – Tamazigh, Tashelheit, etc. – as well.  Moroccans are incredibly good with languages.  The average person knows at least three languages fluently, and many know four or five.  So, if you’re from a Berber family, Amazigh is spoken in the home, but if you’re male, you will learn Darija.  By the time you’re in school, as a first grader, you’ve started learning French and Modern Standard Arabic, and by high school, you need English to pass exams.

Politically, the country is a constitutional monarchy with what I would say was an emphasis on the monarchy part, though the King, Mohammed VI, as a result of the Arab Spring, pretended like he gave up some of his powers to appease public frustration.  The King is well-loved, though his minions are very much hated.  During my time there, Moroccans voted on a new constitution and chose their own Parliament for the first time in what was a relatively peaceful process.  However, during the Arab Spring and in the months following, there were major protests that began with self-immolations in the capitol – coincidentally, across the street from my usual hotel in Rabat – as well as youth rally’s that were off-shoots of what was called the February 20 movement which started around the same time as Egypt and Libya’s spring protests.  Comparatively speaking, Morocco’s protests were incredibly peaceful, though there were some deaths in a fire in Tetuouan in the north and ongoing violence in Taza, a town about three hours north of me.  Additionally, there was a heavy amount of police brutality, some of which I saw with my own eyes.  Humans rights groups have been quick to condemn Morocco’s police state, and this is an ongoing problem in all of the region.

While in Morocco, I lived in a desert outpost town – quite literally – situated five hours from the Algerian border where the Middle Atlas Mountains ended and the Sahara began. The name of my village has many stories to it, but the most succinct (albeit not as interesting) is that it literally means, “The Plains to the Hajj,” or to Americanize that transliteration, “There is literally nothing between here and the holy city Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) but desert.”  My village was a town of about 20,000 people, though most of those were living on the outskirts, and even I moved into the outskirts my second year into a 300 year-old olive orchard surrounded by picturesque mud-brick structures.

As such, I encountered poverty every day, though often this was poverty of opportunity and not poverty of economics.  That is, people very often could afford to put bread on the table, but their daughters and wives were illiterate.  A man might have a farm filled with goats and chickens and fields but he can’t always read or write and doesn’t know how to get a road built or water brought to his village.  It’s hard to conceptualize what this problem really looks like when you live in America.  Case in point, I always hated going to the post office or getting on a train because no one knows how to stand in a line.  Thus, all of Morocco is in this interesting state of development, where it’s not really still the 3rd world but it’s still very far from the 1st.  So, everybody has cell phones, just about, and most of those cell phones have 3G, or internet could be accessed in places where you did not have running water.  That alone might explain the Arab Spring: information and education was increasingly everywhere, to a certain degree, but so was dilapidation and a lack of structure.

More context.

It seems worth mentioning terrorism, because like everywhere in the world, it is an issue in Morocco too.  Morocco has partnered with the United States to help track and hunt terrorists who might enter the country.  In the south, in the conflicted area known as the Western Sahara, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb was an active cell throughout my service and may have moved into my part of the country or slightly east-southeast of me before I left.  This cell had grown significantly as a result of the Libyan conflict, which you all know about because of the Benghazi incident that killed Ambassador Stevens.  Chris Stevens, by the way, had previously been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco.

Now, terrorist attacks in Morocco are rare, the last two prior to May of 2011 being in 2007 that killed no one and then one in 2003. During my service, there was an attack on a tourist café in Marrakesh on a chilly May morning.  Basically, Morocco had turned all its attention to the ongoing Arab Spring movement, and the Secret Police were no longer paying attention to terrorists, so this guy slipped through the cracks.  Coincidentally, the terrorist identified himself with Al Qaeda; however, Al Qaeda had actually rejected him.  You gotta be pretty low to get Al Qaeda to reject you, right?

For months after the attack on the Café in Jima Al-Fina, Moroccans protested these terrorists in the form of skits and sketches and even in street protests.  At one point, I even saw a commercial on T.V. that was “Say no to terrorism” run in the same way those old “This is your brain on drugs” commercials were used for years to fight drugs in America.

The Moroccan people, like the American people, by and large, abhor terrorism.  But in every culture, in every religion, there are some loose cannons. I have much more to say about this issue, and will hopefully get to that later.

Finally, I have not structured my talk today around my work, but in my two years, there were three major projects – along with regular English teaching and several summer and spring English camps – I conducted or helped to conduct.  I will briefly mention those.  The first was a HIV/AIDs and STDs workshop that involved fifty youth learning about the causes-and-effects of these staple issues.  Youth then painted seven healthy living murals on the youth center walls after the event ended.  Next, is the glasses project, which I will briefly describe via video.

The project was featured on CBS News, Gizmodo, Reuters, several other gadget blogs, and will be fully featured in an upcoming major British publication.  Finally, I organized a diabetes education workshop and printed 180 50-page workbooks in Arabic that were distributed to youth and local shops, café’s and photocopy joints in my village.  So, lots of good work happening, but to me, it was really all about getting to know the people, and that’s why I’ve structured this talk around the people today and not the work I did.

Moving on.

Now, there’s a lot there I didn’t cover, and I’ll hit up bits and pieces as we move along, but I’d like to move now to religion. First, some facts about Moroccan Islam:

The first thing you need to know, and many of you may already know this, but the Five Pillars are probably the most basic information about Islam, so I think they are worth listing.  It’s as if Christianity had a couple of basic points – most of which would probably share similarities to four out of five of the Islamic Pillars.  They are: the Shahada (declaration of faith that there is one God and Mohammed is his messenger); the salah (daily prayers); zakat (or almsgiving; mandatory giving to charity); the som (fasting, particularly during the month of Ramadan); and the one-time but not mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj.

Islam is the State Religion.  If you are born in Morocco, you are Muslim (although, this isn’t technically accurate, as being Muslim is a very public experience that requires obligations of prayers and attendance at mosque, and it is not something to be entered into lightly).  Contrary to popular television shows, you can’t be a ‘secret Muslim.’  That would be contrary to the religion entirely.  There is a small portion of the Kingdom who identify as Moroccan Jews (though most have left), and there are a small portion of Christians (though most are foreigners residing in Morocco and not Moroccan Christians themselves).

Here in America, we have separation of church and state, and that’s something we deeply value in this country.  That might make it difficult to wrap our heads around what it would be like to have a State religion that’s enforced.  You simply cannot separate Islam and politics.  The two are tied together deeply.  Even in America, where religion and politics are often very much tied together (or where many think they should be), it’s just not the same.  However, I should also add that even though Morocco has Islam as its state religion, this is not to be confused with Sharia law.  It’s similar to the Anglican Church in England or the Catholic Church in France. They are the state religion, but they do not necessarily always dictate the laws, even if a few might wish they did.  There is a party – the Islamist party – a popular political party in Morocco that may sometimes wish to enforce aspects of Sharia law, and occasionally passes legislation moving in that direction, but at least half the Moroccan legislature is also Marxist Muslim, which is a phrase I’ve coined that, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist and is actually an oxymoron, but many in the Moroccan legislature do identify with both the economic policies of Karl Marx and consider themselves devoutly Muslim.  It’s this wing of the Moroccan legislature that often pushes back against some of the more conservative policies that might be detrimental to women’s rights, etc.

Moroccan Islam is Sunni Islam as opposed to Shi’ite.  These two forms of the religion are based on different interpretations of the Qur’an.  I did not think it was productive to go into a long, drawn-out conversation about these differences.  I merely wanted to say that this difference puts Morocco at odds with some other Islamic countries, such as Iran.

Sunni Islam tends to be more “left-leaning” or progressive, and this probably has a lot to do with Morocco’s encounter with the West (and by “West” I mean, geographically, its history with France as a colonial power and its closeness to Spain and Europe, as well as its very positive relationship with the United States: Moroccans are always quick to tell you that they were the first Kingdom to support America in the Revolution against Britain).

Moving on again, but still on the topic of religion.

Here’s a few quick facts I learned about Islam’s relationship to Christianity, which you may or may not know already:

Allah is the Arabic name for God the same way the Tetragrammaton is the unspoken Hebrew name for God.  However, in terms of history, Allah and Yahweh are the same, monotheistic God of the Abrahamic faith.  Muslims, Jews, and Christians may differ in how they worship and the prophets they regard as great, but they each believe in one God, and that God is Allah/Yahweh.  They also share many of the same characters and prophets – Adam, Abraham, Moses, etc.

Jesus, called Aissa, is born of a virgin in the Qur’an.  Mary becomes impregnated when she eats a date and something akin the Holy Spirit falls upon her.  What is particularly interesting about this text is that this story shows up in our Bible as an attempt to highlight that Jesus is “homo-ousion” (a Greek phrase taken from the Nicene Creed that implies Christ is “of the same substance” as God).  While Muslims deny that Jesus is God, Jesus is nevertheless highly exalted and loved as a prophet, and of holy origins, as you can see.

Jesus is also the judge of mankind in Islam.  That is, at the end times, it is expected – the same as it is in Christianity – that Jesus, not Mohammed, will stand as our judge.  I think it’s incredibly interesting to think about John 3:17, that “No one comes to the Father except through me” in terms of this Islamic worldview, that in order to “get to Allah,” you still have to go through Jesus.  I don’t mean, in saying that, to suggest that Muslims should simply accept Jesus because they’re already half way there.  I simply mean to show some of the fascinating similarities between our two very different religions that are often not highlighted in the discourse our nation has about Islam and Christianity, and this may be because the media often paints Islam in the light of its more extremist followers, such as Osama bin Laden, who probably wasn’t too fond of talking positively about Jesus.

Now.  I want to shift here slightly from context – a quick history of Morocco and facts about Moroccan Islam – to story.  I have three stories I’d like to tell you about my time in Morocco.

Act 1. Arrival.

When I first arrived in Morocco, we were taken by bus to the beach town of Mehdya where we stayed for the first week as part of our training.  I remember being incredibly nervous.  I remember thinking, “How did you end up here?  You’re living in a Muslim country now.”  But for the first week, I was still incredibly sheltered, as all the Moroccans we encountered spoke fluent English.

Then, after a week of training, we were sent to a nearby beach town, called Kenitra, where we were tasked with the responsibility of buying our own telephones in Arabic and to simply have a walkabout experiencing this new culture.  There’s nothing quite as scary, let me tell you, as walking around a strange culture that’s not your own and thinking, “Get used to this, because this is the world you live in now.”  I will never forget walking around in the medina of Kenitra.  When you walked the street, you could smell cinnamon and ginger and cumin filling the air.  The street was bustling and busy and loud, men shouting prices in Arabic, everyone staring at you obviously curious why this white person was walking around the street in their country and what in the world did he want?

I am embarrassed to say that some of my first thoughts were driven by the media’s only focus on Islam: terrorism.  My first thoughts walking the streets of Morocco were not, “Wow, what a beautiful country,” though I wasn’t far from that.  My first thoughts pertained entirely to my safety.  I was nervous, awkward.  I checked over my shoulder constantly.  I thought things like, “It would be so easy to take us Peace Corps folk out with a car bomb or a suicide bomb. Or a gun or a knife.”

It took me a long time to break myself of these concerns.  After I moved to Sefrou, a larger town in the Middle Atlas, I would walk to my Arabic class each morning, a thirty-minute walk across town alone.  Now, I’ve traveled the world before.  Been through all of Europe.  Seen most of Israel.  Even seen a lot of America.  But I’d never really done it alone.  So, it was normal, even wise, to be conscious of your safety.  But to expect a terrorist to come around the corner – something about that tendency bothered me.  And it really started bothering me after I met Fatima.

Peace Corps asks that volunteers, during the first few months of their service, live with a host family to help improve language and cultural integration.  So, my first few months of life in Morocco were spent with Fatima, Mohamed, Youssef, Marouane, and Khalil.  One woman, five men.  And let me tell you, Fatima ran a tight ship and nobody questioned her authority.

Gentleman, it occurs to me that it’s worth saying at this point that no matter what culture, no matter how patriarchal, Fatima had figured out that women really are in charge, and she knew how to boss those boys around like nobody’s business.  It was impressive.
But what was more impressive were Fatima’s first words to me when she met me.  They are the only English she knows: “Hello. I love you.  And you are my son.”  What was more impressive was the way Fatima – and really her whole family – didn’t just say those words to be words, to make me feel more comfortable.  They lived them out in everyday life.  When I got sick, Fatima sat by my bedside and brought me warm milk (why she thought warm milk was supposed to make me do anything other than vomit, I’ll never understand, but I know she was trying).  Each night after I got back from Arabic class, Fatima sat with me and reviewed what I had learned, and then we practiced our language together just trying to make sense of what the other person was saying.

The more time I spent in Morocco, the more people I started meeting who were like Fatima.  And the more I met people like that, the more I started to question this terrorist motif we have in America that makes the word “terrorist” synonymous with “Muslim.”

Act II. Driss and Hassan.

That leads me to my second act.  One of my jobs as a volunteer was to teach English.  Now, it’s worth saying that not a lot of people in Morocco speak English.  Yes, in recent years, English has become more important to know, but people pick it up there the same way many of us pick up Spanish and “know” words like “burrito” and “taco.”  But we don’t really know any Spanish, a lot of us.  This is changing in America the same way it’s changing in Morocco that people learn English, because both here and there, we’re starting to realize that picking up a second language is absolutely one of the most valuable things you can do.

As part of teaching English, I was able to get to know several English teachers in my community.  One of them, Driss Layaadi, became a dear friend over my two years.  Now, perhaps what is most interesting about Driss is just how much he loves English.  I’ve met English teachers in America who didn’t love English the way Driss loved English.  And I say this without the slightest tinge of exaggeration when I say that Driss was more fluent in English than I am, even though he found this impossible to believe.  And I can say this with some certainty because he would occasionally have me read his papers or approach me with spelling or vocabulary or grammar questions I could not answer without an English book and a dictionary to help me.  I can say this because he would use words like “devastated” or “post-colonialism” or “modernity.”  Needless to say, Driss was an incredibly smart man living in the desert when he should’ve been in the university.

I think, in hindsight, it was the fact that Driss was fluent in English that made it possible to have such a meaningful friendship with him.  When your Arabic is at third-grade level, it’s hard to attain a very meaningful friendship with someone your own age unless they speak English.  Driss let me cross the barrier in an open and comfortable way to the point that even though he was Muslim and I wasn’t, we could openly discuss religion and politics and could even disagree with one another in a civil and loving way, something I’ve learned is apparently nearly impossible for people to do these days in our sad world of social media Facebook arguments about restaurants or guns.  Or whatever.

One day, I was walking down the street, and this kid – nice kid – walks up to me and says, “Hey, so are you Muslim?” I gave my typical response, which was either “No, I’m a Christian, but I fast and I pray” or, “I have my religion, and you have yours, and that’s that.”  Or, sometimes when the conversation moved in the conversion territory, “No, I will not convert to Islam, because if I did, my mother would cry. But I respect all religions.”

So, one day, I’m walking down the street, and this kid starts in with those questions, which were rather frequent by the way, and I was giving my usual stock responses, and the kid said, “Well, you know, you’re going to burn forever if you don’t convert.  Your prophet was a liar.”  I should add that this kid didn’t mean this harshly.  He was never anything but nice to me.  And whenever this happened, and it did happen sometimes, people were usually blunt but simultaneously caring and loving.  My unwillingness to convert didn’t change our relationship.  I mention that because that’s different from my experience in America when people have tried to convert me to their own denomination in the Bible belt.  My relationship with those people was not the same afterward.  It was as if they were more interested in being right or in “gaining a crown in heaven” than they were earnestly concerned with my salvation.  I’m one of those people who believes you should preach the gospel at all times and, to paraphrase a quote misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi, never use words when actions are better.  For Moroccans, they just off-handedly made those remarks because they felt like they should, because they really did care, and when I wasn’t willing to convert, they didn’t love me any less.

So, back to Driss.  Naturally, I told Driss about this kid who had tried to convert me.  His response: “That’s just incredulous.  I want to tell you something.  Most people here don’t realize this, but many of us know that our Prophet Mohammed freed a Christian slave and later married and loved her.  She had been a gift to him from one of the Christian churches in Byzantine.”  I do want to make a side-note that after Driss told me this story, I looked it up.  Maria, indeed, was a Christian concubine sent to Mohamed who bore one of Mohamed’s sons, Ibrahim.  It seemed from what I could tell that whether Maria was freed or given similar respect as Mohamed’s other wives was hotly debated by scholars.  But on some level, that didn’t really matter: Driss believed the story he was telling me and it was part of the narrative that drove him to be the person he was.  His point was this: those silly kids you met don’t know what they’re talking about.  As Muslims, we’re supposed to love our neighbors just like Christians.  Driss went on, for example, to explain to me that it is illegal to convert anyone in Morocco; that Mohamed had a deep respect for Jesus, which I’ve already mentioned; and perhaps most importantly, that jihad is not a physical holy war as it’s made out to be by extremists or the modern media.  Rather, jihad is term that translates to mean “struggle” or “difficulty” and is more closely related to the idea that each one of us deals with our own personal struggles that we constantly face, and if we hope to seek heaven, we’ll inevitably face that battle within ourselves.  This might sound familiar to you if you know your Bible:  Who did Jacob wrestle, and what did that being change his name to, and what does that name mean? Israel and Jihad are, on a technicality, very similar words.

This point of view was reinforced not long after my conversation with Driss when my boss, Hassan Qarabach, came over one afternoon with a repairman to help me fix my broken refrigerator.  [I should add, it was my third broken fridge, and never again in my life will I have anything but a top-notch fridge if I can help it.]  As the man started working on my fridge, he started asking me all these questions, “Are you going to fast during Ramadan?”

“Yes, I fasted during Ramadan for all thirty days,” I told him.

“Do you pray or go to mosque?”

“I pray, but I don’t go to mosque, because I’m Christian.”

“But if you pray and you fast, why not become Muslim. It’s very important to convert.”

“Shut up,” my boss interjected finally, “Why don’t you convert to Christianity instead of trying to get him to convert to Islam.  Shut up and do your job.”

On multiple occasions, when someone was trying to convert me, this happened.  A man like Hassan came forward and saved the day, a man I should say I regard as both well-educated and highly devout.  Come to think of it, the more devout and more educated people I met were almost always more welcoming and kind and eschewed all forms of religious harassment.  In fact, one of my last train rides in the country, I sat next to a man named Hicham who wore the Islamic robe, had a long, black beard and was studying to be an Imam.  He called me his “brother” as a Christian, and a few weeks later emailed me a link to scholarships you can get if you’re interested in inter-religious dialogue.

These were the people I was scared of those first few days.  I confess, on September 11th, I was a high school senior.  I was angry.  I was ready to go to war.  To the images of Muslims burning the American flag rejoicing in the streets the day the towers fell, I angrily said to my Calculus teacher, “They may rejoice today, but tomorrow, we’ll obliterate them.”  She looked at me and nodded her head in full agreement.

But something wasn’t right.  These people I kept meeting in Morocco again and again loved America.  They weren’t about to wave a flag and burn it.  They did not support, even slightly, what had happened to us a dozen years ago.  By and large, they were the opposite of everything I expected.  I expected anti-American sentiment.  I was met with hospitality and love and mint tea and couscous.  I was given invitations, practically begged to spend the night.  I was told again and again how much I was appreciated, how much my president was loved.

So, where were the terrorists?  I think it’s when we’re ignorant about our faith that we’re more likely to cling to stories that aren’t true. To replace the truth with those lies. Midway through my service, I read about a sociologist who interviewed several “retired” terrorists.  He had actually focused on a group of Moroccan terrorists who were originally from the town of Tetuouan and who had attacked several trains in Spain.  He found in his studies that most of the people who come to extremist forms of Islam are not particularly religious before they join the movement.  They are, instead, usually poor, uneducated, and desperate.  They will look to anyone who can give them hope.  So, if somebody comes along and says, “Hey, I know you may have to die for this cause, but you’ll get seventy-seven virgins in heaven,” well, if you’ve got no money, no education to think otherwise, and no hope, the guy may have just put something on your table that might give you reason for living.  Or for dying.

This particular sociologist further demonstrated his point when he interviewed nearby school children in Tetuouan asking them who their heroes were. Four answers consistently came up: a Moroccan player for the Barcelona soccer team, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as the Terminator movie had just been released), Barack Obama, and Osama bin Laden, the latter two tying as “heroes” for Moroccan youth.  Now, how could that be?  A world-famous terrorist and a man who was the leader of the free world, complete opposites, tying among Moroccan youth for their “heroes.”  The sociologist had a simple explanation: people will listen to anyone who gives them hope, regardless of religion or politics or any other factors.  Thus, while Islam plays a role in forming the thoughts of terrorists, say, the same way Christianity may have some weird role in forming the thoughts of Westboro Baptist Church, neither Islam nor Christianity could be fully responsible for the actions of those groups.

So, where was I left?  Did anti-American sentiment exist in Morocco?  Well, yes.  I knew of one twelve-year old, for example, who was named Osama – great kid, I hear, really funny – but judging by the way his father acted, it would not be a surprise for me to find out who little Osama was named after.  But anti-American sentiment is not to be confused with terrorism.  We can’t go around equating someone who doesn’t like America’s policies with terrorism any more than we can equate a radio show host who makes a racist statement with the KKK.  They aren’t the same thing.  And we have to be careful about making those big leaps.  I kept telling myself that over and over, that I couldn’t jump to thinking that just because someone might not like my government’s choices didn’t mean they didn’t like me.  Or Americans, generally.  Nor did it mean that they automatically supported what had happened on September 11 or in Libya.  Do I think there were some folks who did?  Sure.  And Osama’s father might have been one of them.  But little Osama was not. Little Osama was someone who just wanted to play or perhaps to learn English from a Peace Corps Volunteer – who was probably a joy to be around, like any Moroccan or American kid.

And at the heart of what I’ve learned is this: there are bad apples in every country and every religion.  But one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch . . . girl.  And in fact, most bad apples aren’t even in the apple family.  Some are oranges masquerading as apples.  Some might be crab apples, but that’s still a long ways from Golden Delicious.

Act III. Hamza.

Hamza

This is Hamza Mahjoubi, my eighteen year old host brother.  In this picture, I think Hamza is seventeen, just a year or so away from graduating high school and following in his older brother – Omar’s – footsteps of going to college in Fes.  He is the nicest kid I have ever met.

One day, he saw me at his school in one of the teacher’s cars and rushed up kissing my cheek excited – the standard way of Moroccan greetings, like the French.  I had a friend with me, and Hamza didn’t hesitate to invite both of us to lunch that very day.  I always loved how this high school kid who probably needed to be more focused on his high school Calculus or who probably had plenty of better things, more interesting things to do than hang out with an American who could barely speak his language nevertheless went out of his way a number of times to make sure I was comfortable and happy, to check in on me.  To be welcoming.  One night when it was way past bedtime, we all stood around dancing for a full hour to music I was playing, and I don’t think I ever saw Hamza happier.  When I told him I wasn’t going to convert to Islam, that was fine with him.  He needed me to be his friend far more than he needed me to be his religion.  Politics and religion may be important on some level, but they shouldn’t be tools of harm that get in the way of family or friendship.

And that’s how most Moroccans are: they’re really . . . a lot like us.  They’re just family people.  They don’t hate Americans; most don’t even hate the American government.  They don’t want to fight.  They just want to live their lives in peace.

One week after I left Morocco, I got a phone call from a friend telling me that Hamza had died.  Bleeding in his kidneys.  The farther I got from the Kingdom I had come to love, the harder it was to actually picture Hamza no longer there.  When I left, he was still alive, and everything I left behind stays in my memory just like it was, untouched, unharmed, unaged.  Could I imagine some awful medical complication, something I know he could’ve avoided had he the medical care we have in the First World, stealing his life?  No.  I refuse to let that happen so easily.  Hamza may be physically gone, but he’ll go with me everywhere I go, everywhere I take him, because for the rest of my life, whenever I hear someone make a comparison between Islam and terrorism, I’ll think of Hamza.  A good, innocent kid stolen not by the evils of a few people who have warped a religion for their own purposes but stolen by a poor health care system.  I’ll think of how different our world could be if all our energies were focused just a tiny bit more on improving education and roads and health care and rights for women and children and eyesight for the visually impaired and friendships – friendships with people who are incredibly different from you, friendships with people you might once have thought were enemies but a little openness and kindness taught you otherwise.

Thank you. Al-Hamdolilah obaraka llah fik.

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4 Comments

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