Stories from Morocco, or Remembering My Encounter with the Muslim Faith

With all that’s been said about Islam lately, I thought I’d take a moment to republish something I wrote after returning from my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave to local churches and a local rotary club in Tennessee:

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 world that’s vastly different from 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 – the streets that smelled of 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. 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 her way of managing “her boys” (including me) challenged all my assumptions about the way gender roles play out in Islam.

Perhaps 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 while she made buttons for a djellaba, and we reviewed what I had learned, practicing 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.” I’m well aware that “the plural of anecdote is not data;” but our lives are merely a myriad of anecdotes, and within them are often the powerful stories that need to be told.

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 become bilingual (or in their case, tri-lingual), because both here and there, we’re starting to realize that picking up a second (or third or fourth) language is absolutely one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself.

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 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, 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 – a person who loved people of all faiths.] 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 are supposed to love theirs. 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, who is born of a virgin and is the Judge during the end-times in the Qu’ran; 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 persevere in our inner struggle. This might sound familiar to you if you know your Bible: God “wrestles” with Jacob at the Ford of Jabbok in Genesis renaming Jacob to signify that he has “striven” with God. Israel, like Jihad, is term that really implies “perseverence with God.”

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 abroad 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. We were all Islamophobes on 9/12.

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. The love extended me put the Christians I know to shame in their ability to show love. I was told again and again how much I was appreciated.

So, where were the terrorists? I think it’s when we’re ignorant about our own faith (let alone others) 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 your virgins in heaven,” or whatever, 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. We see this with people who turn to violence right here in our own country constantly: when you lack education, opportunity, and outlook, violence isn’t all that far away from anger.

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. And 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 Muslims 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, though maybe they should. They don’t want to fight. They just want to live their lives in peace.

One week after I left Morocco, as I was crossing the Atlantic by boat in fact, 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, un-aged. 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.

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