The Terror of the Shabaab, or why we’re our own worst enemies

My job when I worked in Morocco for two years with the Peace Corps was to work with the shabaab, that is the “youth” of Morocco. I worked out of a youth center, or Dar Shabaab (literally: youth house), which was akin something like the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Club. In North Africa, “youth” is defined as those folks who are between the ages of, say, their tweens to about thirty years-old or so (or until a person is married). So, it’s a little different from the way we define it in America.

If you keep up with the news, you already know this Arabic word. In the wake of some terrorist attacks, most recently those at a Kenyan mall, everyone is talking about an Al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali terrorist group called “Al Shabaab.” There’s a few things about this that deeply bother me.

The first is the way the media pronounces the definitive article “al” before the word “shabaab.” This shows a lack of understanding of Arabic. There are two types of letters in the Arabic alphabet – moon and sun letters. When you begin a word with a moon letter, you pronounce the “al” before the letter for a definitive article. However, with sun letters, like the “sh,” or sheen, in “shabaab,” the sun letter absorbs the “al” such that you don’t pronounce it. So, for some words, like “Al Qaeda,” the definitive article is pronounced before the root word, whilst for others it is not. This video takes you through which letters are sun letters (shamsiya letters) and which are moon (qamirya letters).

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the unfortunate reality that this terrorist group has chosen a catch-all term with a positive connotation and shoved it out into the world as though it’s all-encompassing of Muslim “youth.” This terminology is incredibly damaging to the Arab world (which I’m distinguishing from “Muslim world” here to refer to countries where Arabic is dominate, since “shabaab” is an Arabic word). I don’t think it’s good to allow these groups to get away with using this kind of terminology. It’s happened before; the word “taliban” really just means “the students.” It’s a little ridiculous that, after 9/11, we declared war on “the students” and today the world is fighting “the youth.” Can you imagine if the Nazi party had been called “the Peaceful Ones”? We probably would have changed their name.

Which is what I would advocate here. Instead of calling them “Al Shabaab,” we need new terminology. I’d argue for “the Cowards”: Al Jubna’a. By the way, similar to the Shabaab, you don’t pronounce the definitive article “al,” so it would just be “the Jubna’a” if transliterated into English.

What is truly scary about the Jubna’a, though, is their make-up: there were American teens among the members of the attackers on the mall in Kenya. The presumed leader of the group is a British female known as “the white widow.” There were also other Britons, Canadians, Somalis, Kenyans, and strangely enough, folks from Finland all involved in this terrorist cell. So, what’s that mean? The world’s new terrorists are, increasingly, radicalized westerners. 

After a Moroccan was jailed for planning an attack on the US Capitol building in early 2012, I wrote in my blog at the time,

I think it’s telling, by the way, that this man had been in America for twelve years, and I can’t help but wonder whether what ‘radicalized’ him was his time in Morocco or if it was his time in America?  I wonder how he was treated Stateside?  On some level, it doesn’t matter, because no matter how harshly he may have been treated, these kinds of actions aren’t justified. And yet, we can’t just assume this is as simple as someone hating America for no reason at all. We can’t assume in a ‘war’ where hate spawns hate, America is somehow spotless and perfect. We’re not responsible for changing them. We’re responsible for changing us. And that’s exactly where we’ve gotten this whole ‘war on terrorism’ so mixed up.

Now that radicalized westerners are the new rage among terrorist cells, I still stand by those words. These cowards, the Jubna’a, didn’t turn to terrorism overnight. This is a situation where the bullied became the bully. The way our society treats the Muslim community is deeply disconcerting and worrisome, and while our actions don’t justify theirs, it’s time for us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, at the way we really “love one another.” It’s time to ask who the cowards really are.

Quiet days in the Orchard

Since the end of the diabetes project, it’s been a quiet week in the olive grove.  With September ending, the weather is finally beginning to feel like it isn’t August anymore.  And I mean that.  It changed overnight from sweltering hot to, “Oh my God, where did summer go?”  I woke up cold in the middle of the week and had to add a blanket for the first time since June.  I’m convinced that the floods in Spain near the Andalusian region that killed nearly 18 people this week passed through here first, because I found myself sweeping water off my roof multiple times.  There are places where it just cakes up and starts to leak onto the stairwell and into the bathroom.  I’d taken to covering the sunroof back in the spring, but I’ve stopped covering it these days.  So, when it rained last week, it rained inside for nearly three hours, which gave me the opportunity to “mop” my house while “showering” under my sunroof at the same time.

In the middle of the night one night, some herder stopped outside my house with all of his goats, maybe thirty to fifty of them.  I woke up to goat and sheep calls echoing off the concrete walls of my house, which are equivalent to zombies noises, by the way.  The first time I heard this, months ago, I literally thought the zombie apocalypse had begun.  Nowadays, I’m just annoyed that goats are waking me up again.  It’s a preview of the endless goat calls that will surround me as Eid Al-Adha quickly approaches.  I just can’t wait.  Just before the country-wide sacrifice of a few million goats and sheep, every household all over the city has at least one goat calling my name, “Fouad… Fouuuadddd… save me, Fouad.  Help me, please.  You can set me freeee.”

It… haunts me.

When the goats finally moved on, there was this one rooster who thought 2:00 in the morning would be a wonderful time to pretend like it was 6:00 instead.  Stupid rooster.  I bet he’d be delicious in a tajine.

I’ve been trying this week to use up the grant funds for the diabetes project, making 83 extra copies of the fifty-page information booklets in Arabic.  That meant walking to-and-from the olive grove rather than biking there and back.  It’s kind of a long walk, a solid twenty-minutes just to get into town, and usually another fifteen or twenty to cross town once you’re there.  My life, you could say, consists of walking in and out of my village repeatedly, and this process is something I both love and love to hate.  I’ve never really described this before, so I’ll try to give you a good picture of it:

If I bike into town, there’s just one long street that runs through the grove – we’ll call it the “high street,” because it literally runs “up” into the grove [I realize this is the incorrect usage of the term “high street,” as there is virtually no business at all on this street, but I like my version better], and Moroccans always refer to it as “up there” or fuq in Arabic.  The elevation really isn’t noticeably higher unless you’re biking it, but it is five minutes closer to the Middle Atlas Mountains, so it makes sense to me that there’s an elevation change.  The High Street intersects Main Street and Centerville nearby the Post Office and the Baladya (i.e. County Hall), complete with multiple cafes and teleboutiques.

Now, if you’re walking, there’s a different path I like to take that eventually veers off the High Street.  Technically, the High Street begins at my house.  If you keep going “higher” walking away from town, it’s just a gravel path that eventually turns into a foot path that mazes through the orchard.  Alternatively, walking into town, you have a poorly paved road that winds over a few makeshift canals used to water the gardens surrounding the olives.  It’s not unusual here to spot a chicken crossing the road and have this surreal moment where you realize that isn’t just some classic joke but an actual, everyday occurrence.

The High Street itself is lined by mud-brick walls until you reach the beginning of the orchard, where two sets of olive trees line both sides of the street like something out of a classic film.  The trunks and branches of every single tree lining the road lean away from the road making the path look perfectly parallel as you walk it.  From here, you can either remain on the Street walking ten more minutes into town (the same way you’d bike it), or you can take a shortcut at the water tower cutting across a section of the olives that are more copse than grove.  This section of town lines one of the two rivers that cut through my village (one of which is the second longest river in the country), and the riverbed is usually near-dry even in the winter, making it look a good bit like the Martian surface between its rocks and sands.  If NASA wanted to fake a landing on Mars, this would be the place to do it.

The views are usually beautiful on this walk but not nearly as beautiful as they are returning to the orchard.  If you’re always walking away from the mountain, you never see it.  Yesterday afternoon, I was walking back to the orchard on this path as the sun was setting.  The clouds were low enough that you felt like you could reach up and pull them down to make a fog, but strangely, they weren’t covering up the view of the mountain the way they usually do when they hang that low.  The sun was reflecting off the clouds and painting the mountainside some deep crimson hue, while the clouds that buried themselves into the mountain valleys were a mixture of blues and magentas you’d expect to see off some sea-side coast and not tucked into a crimson-painted valley.  It actually made me stop in my tracks and say out loud, “Wow, that’s beautiful.”  I passed by two Moroccan women sitting down and facing the other way as they chit-chatted, and I just couldn’t fathom why they weren’t facing the mountain.  But I guess if you get these views all the time, it can be easy to ignore it.  Maybe they saw some beauty in the other direction that I couldn’t see.

When I got back to my house, ready to settle in for the day, a little trumpeter finch flew in through the sunroof and perched on top of my door watching me.  This same bird has been hanging around my house for months, and I know it’s the same bird, because I’ve heard the other trumpeter finches, and their calls are slightly different.  I thought for the longest time this little bird was a sparrow, mostly because I thought it would be more poetic, somehow, if that turned out to be true.  But this little finch has really grown on me, and someday soon, she’ll fly into the house and discover I’m not here anymore.  The days are now counting down more quickly than I’d like, but I’m happy to report that I really am soaking it all in, at least as much as I possibly can.

“Let your bird go lost.
I will bring her back to you in Spring.
She won’t change at all
Let your sparrow fall to what might be”

Basia Bulat

Transit stories I’ve been meaning to share, and a few others, too

So, I’m at this taxi stand, and there’s a guy with two sheep sitting nearby, and I just keep thinking, “Please God, please tell me he’s not gonna try to put those two sheep in the back seat of my taxi.”  I end up waiting for, like, two hours, and the four people waiting with me for the taxi to fill up suddenly disappear.  Meanwhile, this guy gets up and starts putting his sheep… in the trunk of the taxi.  As I’m watching, I’m just like, “Nope, can’t do that.  Not okay with that.”

Most of the time here, I try to remind myself, “This is not your culture.”  Everything deserves that we approach it from its own standpoint, try to understand it from the perspective of those who live it, not from our own American lens.  But something about this one just rubbed me the wrong way.  I’m willing to bet that I wasn’t the only person there who thought putting sheep in the trunk was a little screwy if not also haram, forbidden.  I mean, the Qur’an demands treating the animal with serious respect.

I suppose on one hand, I could’ve just dismissed it as, “Well, I mean, they’re gonna slaughter the sheep anyway,” but the way sheep are supposed to be slaughtered here makes killing a sheep far more respectable than putting a live one in a hot trunk.  I dunno.

So, I end up grabbing a bus instead for that ride.

A little later, I’m back in a taxi, a petit taxi this time, and I tell the guy where I want to go, and he looks at me like I’m crazy, so I repeat it.  He shakes his head and goes, “No.  First?”  And I’m just like, “Do you know where this place is?”  And he’s like, “Salaaaammm?  Salaaammmm?”  In complete, utter shame, I immediately realize that I’ve offended him, because I didn’t start with greetings, so I bust into the most apologetic form of greeting someone in my life, “Salamu Alaykum.  I’m sorry.  Salamu Alaykum.  Are you good?  Everything is great?  I’m so sorry.  Yes, I’m good.  I really am sorry.  A lot.  But you’re fine, yeah?  It’s all good with you?  Yes, I’m great.  I’m tired.  I really am sorry.  I forget.  Praise be to God.”

The conversation then went in the usual direction these conversations go: shock that I speak Arabic, my denying that I speak Arabic (in Arabic), his insistence that I do and no one in America speaks so well.  Questions about where I’m from and what I’m doing in Morocco, which turns into a short chance to talk about the Peace Corps.  And then, the question I always try to avoid: Are you Muslim?

When religious harassment happens in the United States (I won’t name denominations here, but you know, when people feel the need to ask whether or not someone is a Christian, and if they say they’re not, suddenly, they’re preached hell-fire and brimstone), there’s a real disdain created for the person.  Suddenly that person is made out to be a heathen and they lose all validity to who they are outside of their “non-Christian-ness.”

Because the evangelist views a person’s “Christianity” as the most important thing about them, they often don’t bother to get to know the person at all, as though this simple code of ethics is all there is or all that should matter.  Then, the evangelist, in saving the person, views him or herself as the hero of the story, and there’s just no humility in any of that, either.

And of course, there’s not really a whole lot of love in that approach, which is ironic, since it’s seen as such an act of love by so many.  But when we don’t really care to get to know each other or to love each other despite our beliefs (which often change over time), then we’re missing the point.  St. Francis of Assisi says something like, “At all times, preach the Gospel; use words if you have to.”  I take the “if you have to” to mean, “really, you shouldn’t.”  Let me give a more concrete, personal story here:

Around the time I was sixteen or so, I half-heartedly mentioned to a good friend that I didn’t think of myself as “Christian,” really, mostly because I was fed up with hypocrisy.  She then embarked on a “mission” to “save” me with her friend Cindy.  So, one afternoon, we went to a local bagel and coffee place and sat on the couches there for three hours, while Cindy pulled out every argument, every Bible verse she had to convert me.  At the end of the conversation, I prayed the little prayer with them, you know, the one that magically makes everyone a Christian, mostly to make them feel better about sitting there for three hours with me.  And even though I was still skeptical, still angry with Christianity, at the very least, I sort of settled on a “fake it til you make it” attitude toward belief in God.  After leaving that coffee shop, we went to Cindy’s church, where they announced to a group of people I didn’t know, “We saved Philip!”  I never heard from Cindy ever again.

I was pretty livid about all of that.  Later in life, when I did decide that Christianity was important to me, I made a point to make sure I would never do stuff like that.  I knew then that it’s not hell (in the conventional sense) we need to be saved from but actually, it’s each other.  It’s our unwillingness to get to know people, to really get to know people who are different from us that’s a large part of the problem.  What is hell, after all, than some form of alienation from what we regard as divine?  Little experiences like that, ones that alienate us from one another, are the closest to hell I’ve ever felt.

When hell is made out to be this distant realm beyond life, we neglect that the way we treat each other, the pain that we cause, is in its own right, a personal hell of sorts.  Which is just sort of ironic, you know, that there are people on this silly little planet running around warning us against some hell, while they actually fabricate hell in the act of dwindling down the sum of who we are to a set of dogmatic beliefs that may or may not say anything about us.

But that’s all an aside.  I was just getting to religious harassment in Morocco.  In some ways, it can be the exact same thing: people you barely know who don’t really care to get to know you at all telling you that you’re going to go to hell.  Sadly, I get that all the time, and it makes Islam look really similar to evangelical Christianity.  I have some phrases I’ve learned in Arabic to help prepare me for that form of harassment.  Things like, “But if I changed my religion, my mother would cry,” or “I have my religion, you have yours.”  One of the things I’ve used a lot that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t is, “No, I’m not Muslim, but I respect Islam greatly.”

For every struggle with this form of religious harassment, I meet many other Moroccans who view Islam differently.  Those stories are worth mentioning too.  Case in point, I was sitting on the floor of my kitchen with the director of the youth center and a guy I didn’t know who was fixing my fridge.  The repair man started in on the usual harassment asking me about Islam and why I wouldn’t convert, warning me of the dangers of hell.  My director chimed in, “Shut up and work on the fridge.  He’s not paying you to convert him.”

Another time, sitting with my host family even, the warnings of hell came up, but in this case (and in many others like it), the fact that I wasn’t going to convert didn’t upset our relationship or our friendship.  Maybe that’s because we established a friendship first; that is, we took the time to get to know each other, but I feel like, in America, if you encounter someone trying to convert you to Christianity, and you make it clear that’s not going to happen, they’d be wasting their time trying to seek their “crown for the kingdom” and would move on to somebody else.  Maybe Moroccan Muslims just have more patience, but I don’t feel like I’m hated for not converting the way I would’ve felt in America.  It’s a rare occasion that I would feel ostracized or alienated over being non-Muslim.

A few weeks before that all happened, and I had this wonderful conversation (in English) with a friend here pointing out that he felt a lot of people in the countryside who were uneducated didn’t understand the Qur’an or Islam, and if they did, he insisted, they wouldn’t harass us like that.  In fact, he was shocked to hear that we received such harassment.  For him, Islam was more of an inner, spiritual experience.  He made a point to bring up the fact that Mohammed was given Christian slaves as a gift from the Church.  He then freed the slaves and later even married a Christian.  It’s not much, but he seemed to think many people who were uneducated about Islam would be shocked to know that the Prophet had such positive relationships with Christians.

Like the Bible, I suspect you can argue either way using the Qur’an – some Christians view it one way, some Christians view it another; it’s the same for Islam.  Beauty, or in this case, truth, is in the eye of the beholder, yes?  It’s even a different experience for women than it is for men.  My friend Hope recently sent me this quote from a Harvard theologian who is Egyptian.  She is writing about the experience of Islam from the perspective of women who were not allowed in the mosque, who often couldn’t read (whereas the male version of Islam is far more focused on the text), and who were expected to be Muslim anyhow:

“Islam, as I got it from them, was gentle, generous, pacifist, inclusive, somewhat mystical–just as they themselves were.  Mother’s pacifism was entirely of a piece with their sense of the religion.  Being Muslim was about believing in a world in which life was meaningful and in which all events and happenings were permeated (although not always transparent to us) with meaning.  Religion was above all about inner things.  The outward signs of religiousness, such as prayer and fasting, might be signs of a true religiousness but equally well might not.   They were certainly not what was important about being Muslim.  What was important was how you conducted yourself and how you were in yourself and in your attitude toward others and in your heart.”

It’s sort of a no brainer, but how we experience our world, our everyday, mundane world, deeply shapes how we experience our religions, as well.  And I guess I just really want to believe we can approach it a little more lovingly, and I think part of that is to actually get to know each other, because we’re more than just our beliefs.

The conversation in the taxi that I saw going south very quickly turned into a mostly positive conversation about the oneness of God, the taxi driver and I discussing that both Christianity and Islam and making a point to say that there’s only one God, and that’s what matters.  I suppose if I’d been Buddhist or atheist, that conversation might have felt like harassment (hey, harassment, too, is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes, I’m never sure if I’m just in a bad mood or if I’m being harassed), but it was a refreshing conversation, one void of hell and brimstone, one that wasn’t an attempt to convert me but to just recognize a little bit of our common ground.  While I think that inter-religious dialogue should require us to be honest not just about where we agree but lovingly about where we disagree, too, we move in that direction in baby steps.  And with a taxi driver in a language I can barely understand, I’ll take agreeing about the oneness of God as a huge win.

So, those are just a few stories of late.  I’m leaving very soon for vacation in Portugal.  Oh wait!  One more story — the best one:

So, I’m in a taxi, and the driver asks me where I’m from, and I tell him I’m from America.  He then says something like, “Oh well, are you suwria?”  Which I thought he was asking me if I was from Essaouira, a city in Morocco, but after finally figuring out that he was asking me if I was from Syria, I responded again telling him that I was an American.  I then said laughing, “Why?  Do I resemble a Syrian?”

“No,” he said, “but you talk like one.  Did you study there?”

“But how can I talk like one?  My Arabic is terrible.”

“So is theirs,” he responded without laughing and could not have been more serious.  I, on the other hand, could not stop laughing, cause I thought the whole thing was hilarious.

So there you go.  A few good stories from the roads and streets of Morocco.

Intriguing Find

Leather  nameMy parents came across this the other day on my grandfather’s farm as they were cleaning the place up.  It seems like every few months, something more intriguing about his life in Morocco pops up in his house, and I wish that I could ask him about his life here, about his interaction with Moroccans.

The word “morocco” actually means leather.  In Arabic, the name of the country is actually “Al-Maghrib,” a name I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog.  It doesn’t mean “leather.”  It means “the West.”   But the country is certainly known for its leather (e.g. the tanneries in Fes), so it’s no surprise that my grandfather had his name sewed in leather in Arabic while he lived in Casablanca.  I really wonder how far away he got from Dar Baida (the Arabic name of Casablanca, or “the white house).  Did he go to Fes?  There are pictures of him traveling to see some of the countryside on my Flickr.  Oh, the things I’d like to ask or wish I’d known to.

Anyodd, I have no idea what this actually is – part of a wallet or just a nametag, perhaps.  If anyone has guesses, throw them out there.  I’d love to get one made while I’m in country.  I’d put “Fouad” across the bottom.

Some Random Things I’ve Noticed and Liked, or A Morocco Top Ten List of Sorts, in no particular order

I have an awful tendency, by the way, to write one sentence about something relatively interesting that has happened to me and then thirty sentences expounding on it with some pseudo-didactic philosophical rant on the meaning of life (which might actually be slightly interesting if I didn’t go into some stream of consciousness tirade and completely lose focus on the topic).

Anyway, I wanted to write something a little different to help create a more mental image of Morocco, though I can’t promise you that I won’t go off on some tangent about love or whatever.

So, here it is, the first of (maybe) many similar posts….

My Morocco Top Ten List, the Sefrou Edition (top ten of what, I’m not really sure – maybe experiences, maybe some things I noticed and liked; you’ll figure it out):

10.  G-Star Raw.  Every country, I suppose, has its own favorite clothing line.  The “fashionable” (or “preppy”) kids of my high school days loved their Abercrombie and Gap.  But here in Morocco, there’s no better way to say you’re a hip kid than to wear the latest G-Star Raw fashions.  G-Star, as I understand it, is a Dutch clothing company that’s pretty big in Europe, and appears – to me – to resemble urban, maybe even “skater” streetwear – lots of unnecessary pockets, patches, and metal… things… are attached to the clothing, and quite honestly, the clothing makes the kids look incredibly… European (I’m not sure if I mean that as a matter-of-fact or with a slight, cynical nudge).  At any rate, pretty much all clothing here (and this is an important point, especially if the next time you see me, I’m wearing “Armani” or “Louis Vuitton”) is knock-off and cheap.  That said, G-Star is something I have my eye on.  There’s just something lovely to how tacky it is, I guess.  I’ve already got a hand-me-down G-Star hoodie from one of my host brothers (Marwan), so let the collection begin.

Anyway, that’s how Moroccan youth dress.  I’d say older generations almost always have on a jellaba of some sort, if not a nice suit jacket or something swanky.  I won’t go into that right now, though.

9.  “Say No To Terror.” While in Sefrou, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to watch a lot of television.  I could go on for hours about that, and many of the channels I watch branch beyond Morocco and all over the Middle East and Africa (I have a special love for National Geographic Abu Dubai).   There are channels specific to Saudi Arabia and, of course, I get Al Jazeera and others.  There’s also American movie channels (one of which Fox owns) with Arabic subtitles.  I’ve yet to see a really good movie on those, but I have seen plenty of Noah Wyle’s wannabe Indiana Jones movies.  These Fox movies rarely paint a pretty or accurate picture of America.  It’s no surprise that people sometimes think the Peace Corps are American spies.

All that said, I came across a commercial the other day that shocked me, and I wanted to share it.  It’s kind of like “say no to drugs” commercials in the States… except it’s about terrorism.  Great messages, but the fact that someone felt the need to make these commercials says a lot about our world and the state that it’s in; it’s important I think, though, to get the message back home to people who might not realize that the world situation we face is not “America v. Islam” but the world v. extremism.  We’re in this fight together.

8.  Moroccan Pop.  I’m not going to make a comment on this one.  The music speaks for itself.  This is Don Bigg, the “king” of Moroccan rap with a well-known female musician here too.

7.  Words that stick.  I haven’t commented much on language yet, so I thought I would say a few words (no pun intended) about, well, some of my favorite words and phrases that I’ve learned and used so far in speaking Arabic.  I should mention briefly, though, that the kind of Arabic I am speaking is a dialect heavily influenced by French imperialism (don’t get me started on how much I hate France these days), so I probably couldn’t jump over to another country and easily communicate with other Arabic speakers, sadly.  Furthermore, the dialects of Arabic all over Morocco differ from region to region.  I actually found it easier to communicate in my new site the week I visited than I have while I’ve been in Sefrou.  Oh well, onto words and phrases:

“Shwya” is a pretty common word that seems to fit, well, every situation.  I’ve used it to mean everything from “a little bit” to describing how I feel (as if to say, “just okay” or “not great”).  “Bshwya” means “slowly” and “shwya bshwya” means “little by little.”  So, I am learning Arabic “shwya bshwya.”  Use that one a lot.

“Zwin(a)” and “Mzyan” are two other frequently used words.  “Zwin” seems to imply something is nice, pretty, or beautiful, whereas “mzyan” is equivalent to “excellent” or “great.”

“Enshallah” or “Insha Allah” to be more accurate, is one I use a lot.  It means “God-willing” but is used very frequently to basically say that you’re going to do something “hopefully” and soon.  At some point, I may write a full post on God phrases, because I like them so much.

Finally, there’s “kif kif” and “bhal bhal,” the latter of which sounds more like “palpal” when it’s pronounced (to me anyway).  The phrase means, “it’s the same,” and it’s a phrase I use a lot when a word is the same in Darija as it is in English.

I’ll share more later, but let’s keep it nice and easy for now.

6.  Like a Zelda Video Game.  Several weeks ago, I took a climb up the nearby mountain in Sefrou, and I posted a few of those pictures on my Flickr account.  During the hike there, we passed several small homes, lots of sheep, several chickens just walking around wherever, beautiful green hills with bushes, and then finally on to the brown, rocky incline that we would “summit” in the afternoon, which I now call Death Mountain.  Every time I saw a chicken, I just knew that if I picked it up and carried it around long enough, a swarm of chickens would surround and attack me to protect their kindred.  When I got to the top of the windy mountain, it hit me: “I am in northern Hyrule right now, and I am Link in search of the Princess Zelda.”  See for yourself:

If you actually watch all of that, you’re weird.

5. The Bakery & the Bees.  Every morning, we have a short coffee break, complete with bread (“chubz”), cheese, tea, coffee, and some kind of jam.  We always buy the bread fresh from a nearby bakery which is usually swarming with honey bees throughout the small shop.  I don’t know why, but this is one of my favorite things in the world.  Walking into the bakery, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the smell of honey and bread.  Maybe I just love it because I haven’t been stung yet, but as the Moroccan proverb says, “If you want honey, you have to be patient when the bee stings.”

4.  Moroccan traffic.  When I first got to this country – and really for the entire first month – I was scared to death of the traffic.  Taxis move quickly through streets full of people, and the larger trucks aren’t afraid to whiz by you just inches away from death.  I refused to walk by myself for the forty minute walk to my house, because I was nervous I would do something stupid and get hit, and let’s face it, the number one cause of death for Americans overseas is cars hitting pedestrians.

At any rate, it’s been a month, and I’m much more comfortable with it now.  How, you ask?  I walk like a Moroccan.  As a general rule, you have to keep in mind that pedestrians never have the right-of-way, but they all think that they do.  So, I usually just wait until a clump of people are crossing a round-about, and when they do, I cross with them.  I figure it’s less likely that a large group of people will get hit than it is that one person gets hit by himself.  That’s the strategy they tell you to use in Italy, actually: walk behind nuns, because people are less likely to hit a cluster of nuns than a tourist.  I’ve always been a fan of that advice.

I find it all rather humorous.

3.  Dream Shop.  Every day, on my walk to class, I pass the Dream Shop.  I discovered one night that it’s actually a barber shop, but I’m convinced that behind the barber shop, there’s a secret room leading to a group of people who are currently dreaming sweet (or awful) dreams.  In fact, I can’t help but think of the movie Inception every day I pass this lovely little shop.  In case you haven’t seen it, Inception is sort of the modern day retelling of Dante’s Inferno, except the main characters create dreams within dreams and “descend” into them like descending into Hades.  It makes you think.  On a stupid level.  I mean, maybe I’m not actually in Morocco right now, and this blog doesn’t really exist.  Maybe I’m just the figment of someone’s dream, or someone’s dream within a dream.   Think on that, suckers.

2.  Sunbathing on the Roof.  Many days, we study Darija on the roof of our “school” and just soak in the sun.  There has to be at least a twenty degree difference between the sun and the shade, and a thirty degree difference between inside and outside (those concrete houses are basically just refrigerators).  I think back to Scotland and how many times there I got depressed.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is a for-real thing.  No joke.  When I stand in the sun here, it’s like I’m recharging my battery.  I just soak it in and smile.  Maybe this summer, when I’m scorching hot in the desert, I’ll have less nice things to say about that big yellow ball in the sky, but for now, I soak it in as much as I can before “the winter takes what the summer had to say.

1.  The Run-away Steamroller.  A few days ago, I was walking down the street, and to my surprise, there was a small, unmanned steamroller just strolling along all lonesome and eager to crush someone to death.  I wasn’t the only person surprised by this.  Everyone watched in a bit of shock, probably thinking, “That’s going to kill someone,” and then a man began to chase after the steamroller, caught up to it, and stopped it before it could flatten someone like a cartoon.

Five minutes later, I watched several small kids chase down a truck full of sheep, hop on the back and hold on for dear life.  One of them just held on while roller-blading on the street ala Marty McFly from Back to the Future.

Watching these two events in succession really got me thinking.  With the crazy traffic and the overwhelming opportunity for disaster, one would think that the country would just fall apart or turn to chaos at any moment.  Such is the nature of just about any developing country, I suspect, but Morocco is a lot like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons:

To be clear, I don’t think Morocco has “every disease known to man.”  But sometimes, I do think that, as a country or as a society, there are a lot of things that just shouldn’t work.  But they do work.  Everything seems to work in harmony, despite the expectations to the contrary.  Every problem I encounter, every moment lingering on the brink of potential disaster… it all just works out in the end.  And maybe that’s not just Morocco.  Maybe that’s… life.  It’s more evident here, perhaps, but it all works out some way or another.  Things just kind of come together at the last minute (and differently than one might have expected but together all the same).

That leads me to a final point of sorts.  I post good stuff on my blog.  I generally paint a pretty picture of Morocco, and that’s fitting, because Morocco is a beautiful place.  But I’m not sugarcoating.  There is stuff here that happens that makes this a beloved country crying out in need of help and the place is far from perfect or we wouldn’t even be here, right?

That said, I think I’m growing to have a different view of the world and to see something beautiful in the mundane or even in the downright “ugly.”  I think some people might come to Morocco, see a trashy street and want to go home disgusted.  Or for others, maybe the concept of the turkish toilet is just too off-putting.  But that’s not what I see when I walk down the street or use the turk.  I see those things as part of a much bigger picture.  I’ll explain what I mean with yet another movie reference.

There’s a scene in American Beauty (that’s a bit cheesy and cliché, but it sums up the whole movie and, in some ways, my view of the world) where one of the characters is described as weird because he finds something beautiful in recording video of a trash bag blowing around in the wind:

To most of us, a trash bag is just a trash bag.  It belongs in a dump.  It’s litter.  It doesn’t belong in beautiful places.  But the world and nature can take our “trash” and mold it into something beautiful.  Or, as is said in the movie, there is “an entire life behind things and…this incredibly benevolent force” that is always present and with us.  If we’re willing to remember and live that life and look for that benevolent force, trash is never just trash; bad is never really bad; and the things that hurt or scare us should not hurt or scare us anymore.

That’s Morocco (and the world) to me.  It’s all beautiful, even the stuff we don’t think is beautiful.  Think on that.

So much for avoiding the didactic philosophical rant, right?  Oh well, enough about that.

I have lots more to say, particularly about Eid El Kibir, the Islamic Festival that happened yesterday.  But I need more time to process what all happened.  I’ll try to get one final post up about that before I move to my site on Thanksgiving Day.  So, until next time – hope everyone is doing well.

Hello from Sefrou!

It’s been a few days, and there are so many things I could tell you and so many things I want to share, but I don’t really know where to begin, because like I said in the previous post, I’m just so overwhelmed with information.  So, I’ll begin in media res.

I had a dream last night that several years had passed, and Khalil and Fatima, my host family brother and mother, were coming to the United States to visit me.  I was at the Nashville airport waiting for them to arrive, and when I saw them, they were jumping up and down yelling excitedly, “Salamu Alaykum!”  I smiled big, but just when I was about to run up and hug and kiss them, some redneck started yelling at them and telling them to get out of his country.  I woke up on the verge of tears, realizing the reality of things back home and wishing that everyone could experience the hospitality and love I have experienced the moment I got here to Sefrou.

I am living currently on the border of the Middle Atlas Mountains with a wonderful family, about forty-five minutes southwest of Fez.  When Driss, my “Language and Cultural Facilitator, or LCF” introduced me to Fatima, my host mother, she smiled big and told me the only English she knew – “I love you; you are a part of my family now.”  She then proceeded to list her children from oldest to youngest, starting with me – “Philippe, Yussef, Marwan, and Khalil.”

From that moment forward came the awkward but exciting realization that none of the family spoke even a smidgen of English, and most of what I have been doing since we met is struggling to communicate.  We draw or look at pictures; we stumble through the Darija dictionary; we laugh.  We laugh a lot, actually.  It’s funny to me that I have no idea how to convey the majority of the things I want to say, other than relying on the twenty or so words that I have learned thus far, and yet, despite our language barrier, I feel like I know what matters most, and I find it incredibly comforting: that three thousand miles from the place I have called home my entire life, I am loved for almost no other reason than to be loved.

Khalil, the youngest at fifteen, walks me to Driss’ apartment each morning.  Most of the time, we are quiet, but every once in a while, I’ll ask him what something is, or he’ll want to show me something.  My first night here, he showed me videos on his phone of him trying to kick a futbol and then doing a flip in the air and hurting his knee.  We had a good laugh about that.  Then, he showed me a picture of something that looked like a bird and kept saying, “Hmammah.”  I couldn’t figure out what he meant, so he got up and walked out.  A minute later, he walked back inside holding a pigeon in his hand and handed it to me – “Hmammah.”  Oh okay, I get it now, Khalil.

People in America who say that the south is “hospitable” have never been to Al Maghrib.  This is above and beyond hospitality.  I have been offered the nicest room in the house, certainly the largest.  Tonight, when Allal, my host father, arrived, he brought a Muslim crown (a hat) for me to wear, which I’m thinking will help me integrate into my community, though I look a bit silly with it on the way my hair swings out from the sides.  I guess I’ll need a haircut soon.

The little kids in the Medina or on their way to school (Mdrassa) will run up to us and ask our names and whether we’re Francois or Mirikaini.  I very much look forward to working in the Dar Chebab (the House of Youth) and getting to meet them.  I will be working there through the Ministry of Youth & Sports.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that for now.  I apologize that there’s a lack of pictures.  I’m trying to respect this country before I start snapping away or do the “tourist” thing.  I’d prefer not to take pictures without permission, and I want to show my community that kind of respect.  Don’t worry, though.  There’ll be plenty of pictures in time.   I’m here for two years, after all.  I hope it doesn’t pass too quickly.

Coming to a blog near you: how to use a turkish toilet, or how I learned to squat, poop, and clean up without toilet paper.  I know you’re excited.