There was a risky wager made when Lincoln gave the South a chance to be reconciled to the North without greater punishment than the loss both sides had so deeply suffered already, a wager that hinged on the hope that the “better angels of our nature” would prevail. The understandable hope was that time would heal the country. And, indeed, some scars were healed, while others kept hemorrhaging and yet others scabbed over only to be ripped open again later. A hundred years on, it took a preacher from Atlanta to acknowledge where gangrene had set in, to expose it for it was, only to have us pretend one more time that we were well on our way to healing so that by the time an African American president was elected, some would rush to claim we’d reached the mountaintop. Vanity of vanities! The words of the Teacher are apt for this moment in our history: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles” (Ecc. 1:4-6). Do we not yet know this? Have we not learned from words etched into the papyrus by now? As long as we humans grace (and break) this place we call home, as we are prone to do, we will confront the ongoing cyclical brokenness to which we seem bound. Either we confront it head on with painful self-honesty or it finds us, sneaking up to surprise us in our arrogance. So long as there is a powerful, there will be a powerless! And every time, the powerless will rightly challenge those who have hard-fought to maintain the status quo of their privilege. Our hope, of course, is always that the challenge would be peacefully fought and peacefully won, but is it so difficult to understand from the shoes of another why some – perhaps with hopes exhausted or in the attempt to seize hope again – might turn to rage rather than calm capitulation? Wouldn’t you? It’s hard from a state of privilege to conceive of what it would be to experience real, every day, systemic oppression. But if it felt that the forces of society had not merely imprisoned you to the life of poverty but so too actively (whether consciously or not) sought to ensure that the populace from which you were born was a populace battered and beleaguered, violence would be a very likely outcome. To say as much is to understand it and to see it as a response to another violence, one that came before it and was perpetrated by a government where real representation of that populace remains absent. We are a country founded in precisely as much righteous violence. That is not to condone it, past or present, but merely to acknowledge with empathy from whence it came so as to then empower the powerless rather than thwarting their cry with riot shields, pepper spray, or bullets. If you wish to know how this story ends, you merely have to look at our own history; either we change to be a better society, or the violence is likely to continue or grow. It simply is what it is. For at the root of all violence is a disembodied despair, the desperate plea crying out to God or to society or to the universe: to whomever might listen that these unfolding events that have and are transpiring were not the lot in life we human beings were promised by simply being born into this world. And in that violent despair, it suddenly seems that what is inalienable belongs to some and not to all – and that those who have attained it will not merely grasp it for themselves but for their progeny too and to the detriment of those who are not their blood kin. And so you should expect it in the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson or in the crumbling streets of Gaza or Egypt or as quiet whispers across North Korea or as loud marches in Hong Kong or in any nook or cranny of this world where people will clamor for justice and peace. Lincoln’s wager goes on, tested and tried, and hope will surely prevail whether it’s hard-won or not. Times like these, we rightly question whether there is anything new under the sun but hope that the expected cycle will tip again toward justice and remain there as long as it can.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lately, some of you have asked about me, whether I’m safe or mentioned that you’re worried, so I wanted to address this directly. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, update yourself here.
Peace Corps forwarded an “unclassified” security update regarding recent events surrounding a film that blasphemed the Prophet Mohammed (insinuating he was an adulterer and child molester and glutton and all sorts of hogwash). If you’ve followed the news, you may know that even images of the Prophet are blasphemous, and this film not only made an idol of the Prophet but went on to make a mockery of him too. What followed was violence spreading across North Africa, particularly in Egypt. The Libyan situation appears to be somewhat different, in that it was more planned and may have coincided with the anniversary of 9/11, rather than having to do with the film. It also appears that the Libyan attacks on the mission there were likely related to AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Maghreb). AQIM does not operate in Morocco; although a State Department release from a day or two ago does now suggest that AQIM has moved into Algeria.
Here in Morocco, things are far calmer, though the Moroccan police have heavily beefed up security at just about any American location, including those not affiliated with the government. My town’s police chief made sure Jonathan and I had his personal cell phone number, which is pretty funny, considering it’s a town of nearly 20,000 people.
There have been protests in Morocco at some American locations, but compared with the tens of thousands of protesters who showed up over the Arab Spring, only around 200-300 people were protesting in Rabat and Casablanca. There may more at the next protest or two, but I’m doubting it. Honestly, I bet you could find more Tea Party members in America willing to shout “Death to Obama” than you could Moroccans.
So, there you have it. I’m safe. I have a bag packed just in case we consolidate or evacuate. I highly, highly doubt that would happen. But we’ve been asked to be prepared, and hey, I was an Eagle Scout.
[Sidenote, Peace Corps just called me doing a quick test of their whereabouts policy to make sure I was in my village (I am) and that they could get a hold of me if necessary.]
I should say, this in no way tests my faith in the Moroccan people or my respect for Islam or the Arab world. I just got back from a lovely couscous lunch with Allal and his family, and he was pulling out old money and showing it to me and asking me how much I thought it was worth. He even has this sixty year-old coin from Queen Elizabeth II’s crowning. I was all like, “Allal, let me tell you all about something called… Ebay.”
I think it can be tempting in times like these to figure out who is to blame. The makers of this film perhaps? I won’t provide you a link to the incendiary film, because I’ve watched a little of it, and I think it’s extremely offensive. When you watch it, it makes you feel a little bit like someone just walked into your Church and took a crap on the altar and then smeared it all over the Cross…while laughing. I hope you’re a little offended by that comparison, honestly, because if that comparison offends anyone, it should help you gain a tiny bit of perspective as to why this has exploded into the ugly, violence it has. Understanding the causes of violence doesn’t justify it, but understanding its origins should help us reflect carefully on how to appropriately respond in its wake. Understanding the origins of violence should be a reminder that if we answer violence with more violence, we enter ourselves into an endless cycle that can only be broken by those willing to take the higher ground and make peace. Even if it makes you look weaker, it’s the stronger moral claim.
In an effort to pass off some of the blame, I’m sure there will be plenty of folks who will point to Freedom of Speech and say, “Well, it’s unfortunate that someone made that video, but it was their American right to make it.” That’s true. Freedom of Speech does afford these filmmakers the right to be bigots, but they are crossing a fine line when they make speech that is intended to incite violence. These people knew what they were doing, and they’ve caused a global crisis for no other reason than the fact that they have shown little respect for others’ beliefs.
But it doesn’t matter who carries the majority of the blame – the instigators or the perpetrators. It’s the manipulators, members of the Arab and American media, who worry me most. I had the thought a few weeks ago that, because this culture is so homogeneous, it can be difficult for the average Moroccan to imagine a culture that’s as heterogeneous as America. It’s like when Moroccans see Jonathan who, with his tan and dark hair, is occasionally confused as another Moroccan. He breaks the stereotype of white, shaggy hair dudes – you know, me.
Now. Apply that concept to what you (or Arabs) hear via the media about worlds far away. You hear about terrorism or about flag-burnings or about other nonsense that doesn’t characterize the average Muslim fairly. They hear about West Boro Baptist Church or Terry Jones hating Muslims and burning Qur’ans. They think you hate them the same way you’ve been told that they hate you. And it’s all this big, ugly lie crafted by the media and used to fuel the hate so there’s always a story, always something to keep you glued to the T.V. worried that the Muslims (or the Americans) are coming.
You wanna know what people here are really like? They’re family people. Probably just like you. They just want to make it in this world, and most of them aren’t concerned about these big ole world events that are fueling so much hate. Most of them just want to drink their tea.
In fact, Allal is here. He wants me to make him tea, but I’ve offered American Kool-Aid instead. So, I better close this up and go have tea and kool-aid and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish with my Moroccan friends while the media continues worrying everyone to death (quite literally). Wherever you are, sit down and have yourself some tea. And stop worrying.
When I was attending Wabash College several years ago, there was a visiting professor in Political Science named John Agresto who actually left the college in 2003 after receiving a call from President Bush asking that he come to Iraq to serve as the “Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education.” Agresto left America a staunch supporter of the war and came back in the fall of 2004 to give a lecture at the college on “why we failed in Iraq.” He also now has a book out called Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions. I remember at the time of his lecture being excited to hear how one academic had gone from supporter of our efforts to saying, “Wow, we got this wrong. We got this really, really, really wrong.”
But his point at the time was that where we really failed in Iraq had everything to do with education of all things. It wasn’t war strategy or even the mess that was the “post-war” plan (or lack thereof). It was all about our expectations (primarily that we thought democracy would stick if you threw it at freedom), none of which took into consideration how Iraqis had been educated their entire lives. You can’t hope to change a society or a culture for better (or worse) without understanding how its education system works.
Of course, my own opinion on that is that we had no business going to Iraq in the first place and no business “spreading democracy” in the second. But it’s an interesting concept to return to in light of these recent revolutions, many of which are pushing for democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and when people ask why this is happening, I can’t help but think of John Agresto and the failure of Iraq.
Earlier today, I had the opportunity to sit in on a few English classes at the high school. The book (it’s called “The Gateway to English”) for students in the class is filled with chapters entitled “Women and Power,” “Citizenship,” “International organizations,” etc. Today’s class in particular was on “Internet Addiction,” a concept that would’ve been (and maybe to some degree still is) completely foreign to Moroccans just three or four years ago. To watch these students raise their hands and answer questions about the internet (in English) was fascinating for me, and as I glanced through the book, I couldn’t help but think about the education students are receiving across North Africa, across the Middle East. How much of it is this, well, Western-centric? How much of it fosters a spirit of capitalist ideals and democratic procedures? And if it is Western-centric, does that have anything to do with why youth, using the internet, suddenly began to rise up and declare that they be allowed to enjoy certain freedoms? Moreover, is the Internet a “liberal arts” experience?
Before French colonization, Moroccan education was essentially Koranic memorization. And that was a little more like someone learning the Latin mass or memorizing the Torah for a Bar Mitzvah without knowing either Latin or Hebrew. No one understood what they were learning, but they still needed to know it. Because of that history, there’s still a heavy emphasis on copying, memorizing, and learning through blatant repetition rather than employing critical thinking skills, but even with that, much has changed. Nowadays, education is not all that dissimilar from the French system (which isn’t terribly dissimilar from the American one), and by the time youth are in university, they’re blabbing on about Karl Marx, dreaming about leaving Morocco, or many of them are talking favorably about secularism. Much has changed indeed. And it started in the classroom.
In the American classroom, critical thinking skills are valued above almost anything else. A liberal arts culture teaches you to how to think, not what to think. It gives you the tools to approach any situation rather than telling you what to believe about individual circumstances. Why? Because critical thinking is really the art of asking tough questions, and very often, asking those tough questions means challenging authority. The end goal of critical thinking, after all, is to foster change to better oneself or better our world. Why else ask tough questions?
And at the heart of that ideal is what it means to be an American. The American spirit is rebellious. It boycotts and pickets. It’s suspicious of authority, any authority. It celebrates the freedom to ask those tough questions, even the freedom to ask dumb questions. And that’s all embedded into everyday ABCs, 123s of the American education system. We were raised to think that way, raised to question authority.
And now that’s happening here, in North Africa and the Middle East, and while this revolution couldn’t have happened without the advent of Facebook or the internet to bring people together easily and quickly, Facebook and the internet are nothing more than mere tools. The real cause, in my opinion, is that people are thinking differently about their lives, about their society, than they used to think, and youth all over are beginning to ask tough questions, to question authority, to exercise their inalienable, human rights.
And it all, all, starts in the classroom.
Haven’t forgotten about part two of that top ten list from last week, but I decided to put it off a few extra days so that I could say a few words about something more important, something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, but I just haven’t really understood enough to know what to say and do it any justice. But a few people have asked, and so I wanted to devote a blog to the revolution that’s popping up all over the place here in North Africa and especially Egypt. In fact, as I write this right now, there are a few Moroccans hovered over a computer screen watching the celebrations taking place in Egypt now that Mubarak has finally decided to leave. It’s big news here.
Let me start by saying that I’m almost completely unschooled on the history that’s lead up to this moment. I know little about the politics surrounding Egypt; I don’t fully comprehend what’s happening or why it’s happening (not sure many people do). For that reason, I have no interest in commenting on the details about a complex socio-political situation I know little about that’s been emerging in this part of the world. And truth be told, if you wanted to get all that information, you’d go to CNN or refer to a political scientist or a historian).
But because I’m living relatively close to all of this, I’ve been afforded a strange bird’s eye view of this revolution, and that strange view is what I want to talk about.
So, while I won’t give you a history lesson, I do want to at least tell you how I’ve encountered what’s been happening and update anyone who has missed the news of late. A few weeks ago now, there was a man in Tunisia who, in protest of how he felt his government had treated the people there, set himself on fire. A few protests and riots later, and the leader of Tunisia fled his country setting in motion the prospects of a would-be democracy overnight.
Of course, that’s an incredible oversimplification of what actually happened, and this is no bed-time story. What sounds like a happy ending has become a story whose ending continuously unfolds and remains vague at best, because the situation in Tunisia has taken a backseat in the mainstream media to the fact that the situation in Egypt suddenly and unexpectedly exploded and has consumed all news. But the point is this: what happened in Tunisia set off revolution in multiple countries like wildfire, including Algeria, Egypt, and – though one would hardly call it “revolution” – the King of Jordan recently dismissed his government in effort to put out the fire before it overtook his country, as well. There’s lots more to say; it doesn’t stop there. But let’s keep it simple. This is just a blog, after all.
Now, every country is different, and each of these situations are complex beyond everything I’m describing, but what has fascinated me the most about this entire string of revolutions is that, as my friend Avery put it, there’s no clear ideological motivation behind what’s happening. In Egypt in particular, the people had one goal (a goal they achieved today), and it’s not religious or economic. It’s just, plain and simple: they wanted their President, Mubarak, gone. They just wanted change.
In fact, the group behind the protests, the Muslim Brotherhood, has no interest in taking power. They’re like Maximus in Gladiator; they’ll fight the Emperor, but once he’s gone, and Rome is again in the hands of the people, their job is done. Or that’s what they’ve been saying, anyway. Now, that the tide has turn, and Mubarak is gone, the real question quickly becomes, “What’s next,” and personally, I can’t help but wonder myself how giving the power to the military is helpful to the people of Egypt. I suspect this is not over yet, even if the primary goal has been achieved.
But whatever. All of that – in case you weren’t up-to-date on what’s been happening leads me to my next point – what’s it got to do with me?
Well, nothing, is the short answer, but the longer answer is that what’s happening in Egypt is, in some ways, something I’m constantly aware of and had become or remains part of my everyday life. Case in point, I was at my favorite food shop (l-hanut) a week ago here in Mos where I buy my red ball cheese. There’s a TV there that usually plays nothing but soccer, but on this particular day, this was showing instead:
That’s right, they paused the protests to pray. So, I’m watching this, and I look at the owner whose eyes are glued to the TV, and I say (literally translated), “This thing in Egypt is crazy, yeah? Has the president left?” He responds, “No, not yet. His head is thick.”
In nearly every encounter I have with this constant footage and the conversations I have with Moroccans about this situation, there are two things that keep being pointed out to me:
1) “It’s crazy.” I can’t tell you how many people have used the word “crazy” to describe what they’re seeing. It’s been unfathomable. It’s been upsetting (seeing the violence, knowing that people have been getting hurt). It’s been exciting. It’s… crazy. A friend here was telling me recently about a proverb that literally translates from Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic), “The catastrophes of some people are beneficial to others.” When I first heard that (applied to this revolution), I thought of Machiavelli, where one evil ruler benefits from the tragedy of others. Don’t think of it like that. Think of it as meaning something more along the lines of, “Something good can always come from what’s bad.” That is, that there was ever a need for revolution and the lives it always costs was seen as unfortunate to most Moroccans, as far as I could tell, but in time, everyone seems to agree that something good will grow out of this, and maybe – today – that happened. In fact, here in my site, a string of cars honked their horns, flashing their lights as the news had been announced that Mubarak had finally left.
So, maybe, something good can always come from what’s unfortunate. But isn’t that true of every aspect of our lives, every struggle and strife we face? I think about what brought me here to Morocco – the struggles I faced this time last year between rejections and my grandfather passing away. But now, there’s a part of me that’s thankful, in a funny way, for the moments in my life – as hard as they were – that brought me here to this place. If only we could enter every struggle able to see that good could or would come of it. Eventually, we’d have nothing to fear. It’s something I’ve talked about on the blog in many posts, but to realize it’s deeply embedded into every aspect of our lives, from the individual to the societal, is huge for me – that some aspects of human nature are so huge that they can apply not only to our unique experience but to a collective, unified experience across cultures and across traditions. Today, we rejoice for Egypt, because we understand something about what they have faced, something that stretches as far back to our identity as the American Revolution itself and is as common to us as rejoicing in hindsight for where all our daily struggles have lead us – to hopefully being a better people altogether. And so “making lemonade out of lemons” (or however we want to put it) it something that stretches across every language, every religion, every facet of human experience.
2) “It couldn’t happen here. I don’t think.” This revolution has spread across the Middle East and North Africa. One question I just couldn’t fathom was, “Why does quiet, little Morocco truck on like this isn’t happening? Why no revolution here? I posted an article not long ago that I think mostly answers that question (scroll down to see; I’m not linking it). It talks, largely, about the fact that, across the board, Morocco is picking up the ball economically, and people are seeing their livelihoods improve in this country. Reform is a part of everyday life here, because the King (Mohammed VI) has made it his every effort and goal to work hard for the benefit of his people to improve every aspect of their life. So, the answer to the question is – oversimplified (because there are always some people who aren’t happy or whose situation has been worsened by nearly any government) – the people of Morocco are, generally, happier here than most other nearby countries in the “Arab world.”
But that leads me to another point altogether. What the heck is the “Arab world”? We use that phrase back home to imply a race or suggest a group of countries where Islam is the reigning, dominant religion, but this notion that there is such a thing that we can conveniently name, label, and categorize as “Arab” is, in my opinion, misleading and false. It’s like calling America the “White World” and then somehow lumping Canada in there with it (as though it wasn’t already wrong to describe America that way). I mean, Canada is just a wannabe version of America, right? And most of America is white, right? Wrong. And such a notion is an offensive idea (or should be) to multiple races and, in this case, religions and nationalities. Canada has its own cultures and traditions. They are different from those of America. The so-called “Arab World” is the same way. Morocco is not Egypt; Egypt is not Tunisia; Tunisia is not Algeria, etc. etc. etc. They each have their own stories, their own histories, their own struggles and their own triumphs. Let’s not “whitewash” all of that away by lumping them all together by a race or a religion.
We want so badly in this world, even if only for the sake of convenience, to categorize and label our ideals and stereotype people with them. That’s a huge struggle for me, in fact, because part of my job (Goal 3) is to share the culture of Morocco with the American people, but doing so forces me to make generalizations about Morocco that are not always right or that are unique only to my experience. What my friends on the other side of the country (or perhaps even just an hour up the road) experience may be an entirely different picture of Morocco. Or how my female friends experience the country is, certainly, an entirely different experience than the one I’m having. Still, the world just isn’t so simple that we can fairly label and categorize each other, so when we can, we need to make every effort to avoid doing that, or at least make a point to say that we realize we’re committing that error.
I’m not sure how we go about that exactly, especially as someone guilty of making that mistake often. But maybe one first step we all need to take is to simply try to let our complexities be what they are – instead of needing to figure out how we’re all different or how we’re all the same. We need to stop worrying about either of those approaches and just… be. Maybe if we did, there’d never be any need for revolutions after all, but since there is, Mbruk to the people of Egypt. You are free. Stay that way.
Keeping this one short.
1. I updated the wish list, so check it out. I know several of you have sent things lately. I will let you know when I receive any of them.
2. There’s a mistake in the address I sent out. I’m still receiving things anyway, but just so you know: CP 33300, not 33000, and if you want to be even more exact, write “Province Boulemane-Missour.” If you don’t have my address yet, ask for it.
3. Big week ahead of me with multiple volunteers in town for a health project educating older women on health issues. I will be helping them make health kits, hopefully. Also, my program manager is coming here for the day to walk around with me and cover as much information as possible.
4. Yes, if you’ve watched the news lately, my neck of the woods (i.e. North Africa) is in a state of revolution of sorts. It kicked off with Tunisia and several people have set themselves on fire in protest of the conditions they face. Now Algeria is facing similar issues. Fret not, Morocco is a much calmer place. But it’s interesting being here and hearing about our neighbors.
Hope everyone is well and warm.