Family, against all odds

I had a friend in college who once said to me that, though he considered himself an atheist, he wanted so badly to believe there was something, anything out there watching over us with tender love and care. He just couldn’t. I was always struck by this because I felt the exact opposite: whereas he was burdened by his lack of belief, I was always burdened by my faith. I wanted not to believe. The last thing I wanted to accept is that this life is all part of some grand plan, some ornate and elaborate blessing after blessing or curse after curse or some hodgepodge of the two. And while I don’t know whether I was ready to throw it all to coincidence, it just feels to me even now like it might be a little simpler if I were more in control of my fate, if God or the Universe or the Great Whatever wasn’t hovering over, because like most of you, I cringe at the notion of being out of control.

But my friends who know I’m adopted from birth and know that I’d communicated with my New Jersey birth family since returning from Morocco will know that some strong sense of purpose, some path-crossing synchronicity, has complicated all of those doubts and beliefs of mine over these past few years. Unbeknownst to me, it was finding out my birth father had worked in the church – just as I had. And it was finding out just after returning from two years of living in Morocco (a place Peace Corps had sent me some seventy years after my grandfather had lived and worked there in the War) that in fact, I was tied to Morocco in another way, since my biological father had traveled there and to Southern Spain around the time of my birth. Of all the places on the planet to be tied to my New Jersey biological family and to my Tennessee adoptive one, it seemed so strange that Morocco would be it.

Sometimes, when you get this kind of news, it seems so unbelievable that it feels like it came out of a movie. People call it “stranger than fiction,” and it is. I worry it’s so strange that it inflates my ego and gives me the false notion that I’m in some sort of Truman Show scenario. Would someone please tell Ed Harris to stop already? There is even a part of me that hears it, knows it to be true, and yet cannot fully accept it, because to do so makes me feel sometimes as though I’ve either fabricated these events in my head and am a pathological liar, or even if it is true, why entertain it because no one else would ever believe it anyway? If there’s anything I’ve learned these past few years, it’s that truth is almost always the scarier reality. But sometimes the more beautiful one despite the silly things we fear.

On Christmas day, I left a little sentimental gift for my girlfriend’s adopted brother, Zech. It was a children’s book I loved that was mostly drawings by John Lennon, and I’d penned a little note on the inside saying that I’d always felt a kindred spirit with this Beatle who’s mother had died when he was young and whose father had disappeared. You gravitate a little to the people who share and understand your story, even if theirs is slightly different, and in the past few months, I’ve gravitated more to Zech and really come to think of him as a brother of sorts.

Truthfully, even though I’d known her family for years, I didn’t even really know Mattie had an adopted brother until we started talking just before I moved to New York. I’d only really known Mattie as someone with roots in Tennessee and had been close with her aunt for years since Mattie and I had both “grown up” at the same camp where her aunt worked, Lakeshore. A few months ago, we discovered that Mattie’s mom, too, in attending Lambuth University in my hometown, had known my grandmother who worked for the Dean. Small towns are small towns, so no major surprises there, and the Methodist community is not a terribly large one. But it was still one of those nice human connections that we made, one of those moments when you discover you have a shared history in some way or another, and that’s always a little affirming.

When I left Shelter Island almost exactly a year ago as I write this, Mattie’s family was a refuge to me as I job-searched New York City and New Jersey. They took me in and treated me as family. It seemed fitting that I’d end up somehow in New Jersey since my roots were on the Jersey side of Philadelphia. And when Zech moved home, it felt like just one more member of the family was showing up.

So, on New Year’s Eve when Zech and I were talking about our Irish ancestry, he mentioned his birth name, and I jokingly asked how he spelled it since it sounded similar to my own. When it was the same, I asked again, “Wait, I’m a Johnston; aren’t you from outside of Philadelphia?” We both started naming areas: Cherry Hill, Mt. Laurel. I mentioned my birth father’s name, and Zech mentioned his grandfather’s name, and that his grandfather had died three weeks ago, and he pulled out a picture of my birth father, his grandfather. My girlfriend’s adopted brother is my biological nephew. His mother is my biological half-sister.

Like I said, stranger than fiction. I want to write Nate Silver, the famous statistician, and ask how that’s statistically possible that a girl I met in Tennessee happened to have someone adopted into her family who was my biological kin in New Jersey. When we sat down with the family to tell everyone else what we’d discovered, Zech joked that I will be more related to his child than anyone else in the family once the kid is born. These days bring a quiet reflective awe, an awe at the power of fate or coincidence, whichever it is.

And so, indeed, back to that whole conversation about coincidence and fate. What am I to say? The facts are in front of me. They are either the craziest coincidence ever or there’s some force pushing us toward a certain reality. Or maybe that’s too limiting a view? Maybe this happenstance and others like it are far more common than we realize or might choose to believe. If you told me that my grandfather had crossed paths with a Moroccan who knew my biological father fifty years later and who also met me when I lived in Morocco, I just don’t think I’d be surprised at all anymore. In fact, knowing how small Morocco can be, I half-expect that was the case. And not because fate wills it that way or because coincidence rules the day with its own sense of destiny or lack thereof but because we, dear humans, are so much more connected than we too often choose to realize. Redneck jokes and “I’m my own Grandpa” music aside, we cannot deny the interconnectedness we all share – sometimes an interconnectedness we may know nothing about. What if this revelation had never come my way? In a way, it changes nothing, because I’d already decided to love Zech as family. Nor does this revelation take away from the daily decisions I’ll make down the road. I am not bound to Zech now anymore than I was before. Because unless I am bound by love, all other sense of duty and obligation is vapid and meaningless. Who we make our family is as much a matter of our choice as it is a matter of blood, and that has far-reaching implications for the world we now face, a world where we seem so divided by our choices to be distant, by our perceived sense of kinship: “you who are not my kin because you think differently or look differently.” I’ve played into that narrative too frequently myself, and maybe sometimes, we do distance ourselves from the ‘family’ because doing so becomes temporarily necessary for our safety and sanity, but how should I act if the family is much bigger than I was prepared to admit before? How should I act if the family is, yes, blood, but is also bigger than blood and, indeed, global? To that friend in college who struggled to believe, I think our sense of the divine, then, is rooted not in belief but in active, faithful choices of love. Whether there’s a God overseeing that or not is less important as whether you chose to love as big and bigger than you might have intended when you started on this little journey we all share. And anything we might call God that lacks that faithful action really isn’t a god I’d like to believe in anyway. However I construe it, I do see something sacred and whole in the choices behind me and in the choices ahead.

In the meantime, you can just think of me as your crazy Uncle Phil. Whether by blood or by choice, there’s a good chance we’re related anyway.

Game of Bastards

So, the HBO miniseries, “Game of Thrones,” has grown increasingly popular over the last three seasons. The show – a spin-off from a book series, for those who are unfamiliar with it – is a bit like Lord of the Rings, except instead of chasing down the one ring, it’s a story of multiple houses vying for power to be King of the land of Westeros, a mythical island not too dissimilar from England.

I’ll spare you the details of the show as best I can, but at the very least, I’ve come to notice as I watch that it is obsessed with blood relation and kinship. In fact, in the pilot episode, we meet the “bastard” Jon Snow, and a noble-born dwarf named Tyrion Lannaster says to Jon“Let me tell you something, bastard: never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”

Since that first episode, I’ve gotten the impression that Tyrion’s words are central to the entire show. That’s because everyone in the show who isn’t a bastard likes criticizing bastards, and everyone else is a bastard or at least has questionable origins. The show seems to obsess over the question of what makes a person legitimate (or not). The characters who acknowledge their bastardy very often play the role of the underdog (pun intended), and though they don’t always come out as winners in the show, you are left with a soft spot for them, especially for Jon Snow, the show’s most notable bastard.

I think I want to give just a little more information just to show how obsessed “Game of Thrones” is with this topic, or rather, just how obsessed fans are who watch the show. Case in point, in the series online wiki, a fan forum which documents characters, towns, and everything you ever wanted to know about the land of Westeros, there is a page dedicated to explaining bastardy. The page explains some of the bastards in the show, and it goes one step further to explain that, in the Westeros mythos, bastards take different names from their biological parents, even if they are acknowledged by their biological family. Thus,

Flowers is the bastard name in the Reach.
Hill is the bastard name for the Westerlands.
Rivers is the bastard name in the Riverlands.
Pyke is the bastard name on the Iron Islands.
Sand is the bastard name of Dorne.
Snow is the surname for bastards north of the Neck, generally referred to as the North.
Stone is the bastard name in the Vale.
Storm is the bastard name in the Stormlands.
Waters is the bastard name of Dragonstone and the Crownlands.

Finally, the wiki page goes on to say that “bastards are born from lust and lies, grow up more swiftly than other children, and their nature is wanton and treacherous,” though I’m not sure the show illustrates this point well, even if characters in the show hold a similar stereotype of bastards. You get the idea.

I think there’s several questions that have been raised for me as I watched the show, but this blog isn’t really about “Game of Thrones.” It’s about what “Game of Thrones” says about our culture, about our own obsession and interest in blood relation. We seem to talk around issues of adoption, blood relationship, and kinship constantly, without ever really offering any sort of meaningful, critical commentary about what all that means to us, and that concerns me. So, I wanted to ask a couple of questions that relate to the show but are ultimately about our own culture. Here goes:

1. Does “Game of Thrones” perpetuate, inadvertently or not, negative stereotypes or a second-class citizenship of “bastards”?

As exemplified by Tyrion’s words above, the show seems to offer a positive message about legitimacy ultimately. And yet, I’m not sure the uncritical mind walks away with that message. You know, if you’re a 14 year-old watching MacGyver in 1990, you aren’t thinking about the fact that dear old Angus, in avoiding gun use, is constantly making a liberal commentary on gun control. You’re just thinking it’s cool that MacGyver blows stuff up. Thus, I worry that a kid (or even a twenty-something) comes to the show, hears the word “bastard,” thinks it’s cool that everybody in the show hates on the idea of illegitimacy and then perpetuates those stereotypes in later conversations with friends.

I suppose you could argue that the show is offering a commentary on a kind of mythical medieval period, so we shouldn’t dwell on what it says about us, but as consumers and the audience at hand, the show is very much about our own society, a society where we – sadly – still look down on those born out-of-wedlock. The difference is that, in the show, it’s blatant: everybody knows who is and isn’t a bastard. It’s connected to your name, so as soon as you say, “I’m so-and-so of the house of Stone,” your bastardy is unveiled. I think that’s an intentional effort to allow the show to make its commentary on kinship, because for our own culture, bastardy is an invisible shame, a slur people use often without knowing who they’re insulting. And, to be fair, insulting someone’s legitimacy isn’t as common as racism or homophobia. So, too, it’s far more subtle and tends to play out more in the way we value or understand the construction of the family or in the way we look down on people who come from “broken homes.” I’ve written extensively about some of the examples of this happening.

2. What are we to do with the term bastard?

Along that line of thought is the issue of the word “bastard” itself. It’s a hateful slur, and in recent years, it’s a slur that’s not always been connected to someone’s legitimacy. To the contrary, it’s a term that’s been used most often to demonstrate when a person is being a jerk. But to someone who has questionable origins, the original connotations of the term don’t go unnoticed. We no longer say to the queer community, “Oh, I meant ‘faggot,’ as if to say he was just being uncool.” Instead, we recognize that term to be off-limits.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about the term “bastard.” Some groups, like “Bastard Nation” have picked up the terminology and embraced it the same way “queer” has been embraced and given a positive connotation. This practice of reclaiming language fits squarely in line with Tyrion’s advice to “wear it like armor.” It’s a smart way to empower the powerless.

And yet, I still don’t know whether “bastard” is more like “faggot” or whether it’s more like “queer.”

But I do know that the concept of illegitimacy should have already died out when medieval periods like the one portrayed in Westeros advanced into the modern era. Today, we know that kinship is a social construct. There is no such thing as an “illegitimate” child. That is, there are no longer laws on the books that make a child unlawful, to get to the heart of the definition and etymology of “legitimacy.”  While there may still be illegal acts, like rape, that can bring children into the world, the children themselves no longer have to carry the shame and stigma of their parents actions; although, if they do, it’s because out society thrust that shame upon them, not because they thrust it on themselves.

That is, if indeed bastards “grow up more swiftly than other children, and their nature is wanton and treacherous,” it is because of the way society hammered it over their heads that they were somehow different from, say, children of blood relation. And that is very much a societal construct, one we should have already tossed to the side.

Perhaps that is what makes a show like “Game of Thrones” so compelling. In all its blood, sweat, tears, and sex, it forces the audience to ask what makes us human. And the answer seems to be that our family, regardless of whether we are noble, blood-born, or baseborn (i.e. a bastard) isn’t what makes us human or good or special. Sure, our beginnings can give us advantages and disadvantages, as far as we allow the world to define those, but who we really are is defined by our everyday decisions, and far too few of us figure that out because of the lie we are repeatedly told that we are our parents’ children and nothing more.

That is the difference between carrying your past around like a weight on your shoulders and wearing it like armor.

 

On the other hand…. ten year-olds will be ten year-olds

Six months ago, Caity and Avery were nothing short of exasperated with several people as they prepared to leave.  I remember both of them just repeating, “It’s awful, Phil.  It’s absolutely awful.”  This morning, I finally got a taste of what they were talking about.  I guess it can’t all be peaches and cream, right?

Here’s the set up: three days ago, I showed my landlord my fully packed house.  I had moved two couches, a table, a dresser drawer, and several knickknacks into a smaller room.  I was giving them all of that stuff.  (They do not own any couches.  They sit on their floor.)  I was also giving them their very first refrigerator.  Giving them these things was my way of passing it all on to someone who could use it and who actually needed it.  When I showed my landlord everything, you could tell he was shocked.  He and his wife asked me multiple times if the stuff in that room was theirs, as if I were going to suddenly change my mind and give it to someone else.  It was like they were shocked that I was giving them anything.  I told my landlord that I would lock the room up for them when it came time for me to leave.  I also told them I would clean the house – mop it and everything.  They were upset I wanted to do that and told me not to worry about it.  They didn’t even want me to throw out the trash I had collected.  Allal was insistent I let him do that himself.

Okay, fine with me.  The next day, he shows up with several bags from his house and all of their meat from the Eid slaughter.  They basically started moving in before I left – cleaning the whole house, cleaning out the fridge, going through trash to see if I’d thrown away anything they could use.  Meanwhile, the kids ran around my house, and I did not feel comfortable with them rummaging through my things.  I don’t know why it ate at me, but it was sort of like, “Can we please wait until after I leave before we do this?  This is ridiculous.”  There was no way explaining my frustration would make any sense to them.  They saw what they were doing (cleaning the house, etc.) as a way of helping me and making sure I did clean by myself.

As the day went on, I kept kicking Abdelqader out of my room until Allal, in an attempt to show me he would discipline his son for doing wrong, started beating the daylights out of him for not listening to me.  After that, I just sort of let Abdelqader do whatever he wanted.  I wasn’t going to watch him get beat again on my account.  Meanwhile, one of the sons, Mohamed, went through the things I’m bringing with me back to America and kept asking, “Can I have this?”  No, Mohamed, you have an entire room full of stuff I’m giving you.  These are my things, and it’s incredibly rude of you to even ask me or even touch any of it.

So, this morning, Mohamed comes over by himself.  I open the door at 8:00 a.m. already annoyed that he had woken me up.  He insists his dad is on his way over, so I let him in to wait, but he goes right to my room and starts playing with my camera and flashlight.  I tell him to wait outside my room for his dad, but instead, he grabs the camera and runs off.  I just sit there rather than chasing him just trying to take in what the heck is happening.  Really, Mohamed?  Really?

I walk into the other room where he’s going through all the things I had given his family.  The camera and flashlight has disappeared.  I ask him where it is, and he runs off, shutting the door to my house.

Dilemma: Mohamed appears to have stolen my camera and flashlight.  I stood there perplexed.  If I complain to his father, I know he’ll get the daylights beat out of him, and I don’t want that.  I also know there’s a risk that if I get into an argument with Allal about it, I could severe my relationship with this family in my final days in site.  Also not what I want.  But if I don’t complain, I let him get away with stealing.  For a moment, I consider, “Well, you are American; you can afford to buy a new camera and a new flashlight.”  But on principle, he still stole, and that’s not okay with me.  So I decide, nope, it’s their culture, and if they want to beat their children over stealing, that’s their prerogative.  I can’t just let Mohamed get away with this.  Not when I already gave their family so much.  I ring up Allal and his wife answers, and I just say, “Your son came to my house this morning, and he has my camera and flashlight.”  Allal then gets on the line and says something I can’t understand over the phone and then hangs up.  Alright.  That was solved.  I guess.

Twenty minutes later, Mohamed shows up at my door empty-handed insisting he didn’t steal anything.  “Wheres my camera,” I asked him.  He walks into the room where I put the things I’m giving his family, opens up a drawer and shows me that he put my camera and my flashlight under a blanket in the drawer.  Okay, so, you didn’t technically steal it.  You hid it hoping, what, that I would forget about it, so you could “steal” it later?  I asked him why he did that, and he lies to my face and says he didn’t do anything and that he doesn’t know how the camera got there.  Then, he tries to change the subject, “Oh what’s this, Fouad,” he points at some dental floss.  Nope.  Not changing the subject.  I start shaming him left and right and in the middle of shaming him decide that I don’t care, that I like him too much to stay mad at him.  I smile slightly and tell him to get out of my house and tell his father I would see them tomorrow and not beforehand.

Ten year-olds will be ten year-olds.  I don’t think this story is unique to this culture.  But I do understand now why Caity and Avery were exasperated and so ready to leave when the time came.  None of this changes how much I care for Allal or his family.  I suspect when I have lunch with them tomorrow, today will be forgotten.  No harm done, right?  It’s too important to me that I say goodbye the right way.  On the other hand, not every goodbye can happen the way you wish it would, can it?

America: What I’m Most Excited For, or A Top Ten List of Sorts

Over the course of the next few weeks, in anticipation of my two-year anniversary of living in the Kingdom of Morocco (Sept. 15), I’ll be posting a series of “top ten lists” detailing some of my favorite things and some of my least favorite things about this country, some of the ways I’ve changed, and all the things I will and won’t miss as November quickly approaches and my time here comes to an end.

So, without further ado, I bring you the first in this series, a top ten list of what all America has to offer, from everything I’m excited to get my hands on and buy to all the people and animals I just can’t wait to see:

10. Fox News, Tea Partiers, the American South, and all the things I just can’t stand — I guess there’s just one point I want to make here, and that’s that I love America.  I even love the part of America that I despise.  Why?  Because I just love to despise it.  Two years abroad really brought out for me just how awful of a country we can be – how bigoted and idiotic, and I won’t start down that path, because my point really is that I’m so excited to get back to America that I’m even excited to get back to that side of America that disappoints me.  It’s like sitting down in front of the T.V. to watch an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.  It’s a guilty pleasure, and you do it not because it’s a good show (it’s not), but because there’s nothing funnier than watching Walker round-house kick some awful Texas stereotype that misrepresents someone’s race or gender in some terrible way.  And so while I am, honestly, terribly disgusted with some parts of American culture, I’m still glad that America comes with all these rich complexities, that we’re filled with so many different human beings from all walks off life, some good, some bad, and most just trying to get by for themselves.  I think when you remove yourself from a place for any lengthy period of time, you long for that place in such a way that it’s like you’ve stepped outside of a box and can now describe every detail of the box with a clear memory.  That’s, in large part, how I feel about America.  I left one box for another, and now that I’m re-entering the old box (or about to), I worry a little how that will go.  It’s as if I became box-less in there somewhere, as if I lost my culture, because I no longer wanted to be associated with all the quirks and traditions and social stigmas that make up whatever we call ‘us’.  But rather than re-entering the box and suddenly regaining culture, I just want to be able to appreciate what it is for what it is without having to be a part of it.  And while I think there’s a lot wrong with our culture, I do earnestly want to believe that most people, even though they may get caught up in silly little beliefs and traditions, just want to be good people.  No one wants to believe that they are guided or socialized by Fox News or CNN or whatever Pastor so-and-so has to say or whatever the popular music of the moment may be.  So even though we may get sucked into all of that, I like believing that no one wants to be.  It’s the only way to trust people, and it’s the best way to believe that we all have a good heart in common underneath all that crap we’re fed all the time by our interwebs and T.V. stations, and etc.

9. New things of 2012, from clothes to shoes to cars to interwebs — It’s not just because my shoes are falling apart.  Or that a series of Moroccan haircuts have officially resulted in my growing of what some might call a combo between a “fro” and a mullet.  It’s just that Peace Corps is going to hand me this nice, fat readjustment allowance, and I’m tired of living off $250.  I’ve detailed some of the things I’m going to be buying in my “Official Wish List,” (see the bottom of the list) in case you’re just eager to buy it for me first.  *Wink.*  Shameless, I know.  I’ll let the wish list speak for itself, though.  Moving on.

8. My Transatlantic Cruise, followed by a six to nine-month vacation of doing absolutely nothing.  No, I don’t mean a second round of Peace Corps.  I mean really doing nothing —

I’ve already posted about the cruise, but here are the details again.  I’ll let this speak for itself, and for any naysayers who realize this isn’t really “America,” two weeks of luxury aboard the MSC Poesia are the antithesis to my life in Morocco.

7. Finding Moroccans in America and using Arabic with them — Several weeks ago, my friend Zach went to a “Moroccan” restaurant in Memphis called “Casablanca.”  I’m just going to go out on a limb here and guess that there’s probably one Moroccan working there, if that.  It’s probably just some Arab guy who decided that a restaurant named after the famous movie would probably make more money than, say, Saudi Arabia Restaurant in Memphis (although “Lawrence of Arabia” could’ve been a good restaurant name).  The menu looks delicious, but very little of it is Moroccan, except for harira (Moroccan soup), a couscous dish or two, and kifta (ground beef or lamb).  Actually, the idea that I could get kifta (if it’s prepared anything there like it is here) in America is incredibly exciting to me.  The rest of the menu is Levantine food between baba ghanoush, chwarma, and hummus.  Still great food, and on a rare occasion, and I can find it in Morocco, but I am hoping for something traditionally Moroccan.

You just can’t have an experience like this living in a country for two years and then suddenly be plopped back into your own culture, as if you’re supposed to forget this two years like it was all some fantasy.  All that is to say that one of my chief goals getting back to America is to find a Moroccan community or at least one Moroccan person and surprise them with some Arabic.  Or actually get to know them.  I’m not going to pretend like I wouldn’t love to meet a Moroccan-American girl either (take note Katie Frensley).  Or my God, if I could make friends with some Moroccans, and they invited me to their house for some real Moroccan food?!  Best idea ever.

Whatever it takes.  I just want to know that I can continue to connect with this beautiful country even when I’m far from it.  It’ll always be a second home of sorts.  Next.

6. The Unknown

[vimeo 7670356]

Although it can be the source of significant stress, I like not knowing what’s next.  I like the betwixt and between stage of life and the crisis that comes with it as you’re sorting out what to do or where to go.  I like the freedom that comes with that – some feeling that I could pick up and go anywhere in the world and do almost anything, and I like not knowing what that is, because uncertainty fosters dreaming for me.  Of course, I love planning and scheming, too, but I don’t take them seriously anymore.  So much of the time I spent planning things out, I’ve come to realize, is all part of the imagining and dreaming I like to do in the place of all my uncertainties.  Once, that was a place of angst for me, and I loved the angst.  But I no longer have fears about what’s next.  I just trust that whatever’s next will be here before I know it, or as the song says, “The doctor asked him what he was afraid of, just what he was running from; it’s not a fear of success nor of closeness; but of going through life feeling numb.”  You could say, the experience of Peace Corps has made me want to experience so much of life, as much as I can get my hands on, but grabbing hold of those experiences often means not knowing what’s next – of always being on the go in some sense.  I think that fits and describes me well.  And even now when I’m heading home, I’m still heading into the unknown.

5. Nashville, Tennessee – the Athens of the South — Despite all the scene and hipster kids who just want to use Nashville to break into the music world with their raspy, wannabe folksy voices, Gotham City – so named for its one tower too tall – is a lovely, cultured community with everything from the Bluebird Cafe to Vanderbilt University to an arboretum of trees planted by Andrew Jackson.  After living there for nearly four years (and being born there), I’m proud to call it my home, and there’s nothing quite as exciting to me as driving around the 440 with  my city in sight.

I’m most looking forward to hanging around the Bicentennial Park, my favorite state park in the world with its grassy mall, its large state map engraved into the concrete, and a 1400-foot “wall of history” that stretches the length of the park.  To one end of the park, there’s an international market, where I’m hoping (but not sure) I can buy couscous and Moroccan spices, including Moroccan tea, but I’ll have to explore the market again to see if that’s true.

So, yeah, Nashville had to make the list.  It’s just a great city, and it’s a place I very much look forward to calling home again, even though I’m open to moving almost anywhere in the world if that’s what I gotta do to make some money or get back into school.  That Nashville would be on my list should come as no surprise, though.  Who couldn’t love a city that gave us the Bat Poet:

4. Five Guys Burgers & Fries. [and other restaurant chains of American cuisine] — At this point, they really should hire me for all the press I give them.

Every Peace Corps Volunteer, probably every person living abroad ever, has experienced the craving, the deep, heartfelt yearning for American chain restaurants.  That’s because like cigarettes, the internet, heroin, and fast women, Five Guys Burgers & Fries – and other chain restaurants across the United States – are blood-sucking, money-grabbing forms of addiction.  You think I’m joking, don’t you?  Just try to go six months without eating that beautiful, cheesy Gordita crunch from Taco Bell; go a full year without a Lemon-Berry Fresh Fruit Slush from Sonic.  You’ll see what I mean.  If you can make it past two weeks, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  You’ll crave it.  You’re stomach will gurgle and ache for it.  You’ll dream about it, and you’ll even have visions of a giant taco singing, “Eat me, Philip.  Find me and eat me.”

Then, just when you think you’ve broken free of that horrid addiction, they come out with this, a dorito-based taco shell.  And you think, “My God, America.  What have you done?!  What is this delicious morsel sent from the third circle of hell to appease the second deadly sin?  You sweet red, white, and blue damsel, you.  I’m coming for that Doritaco.”

I should not be writing this while I’m hungry.  That was a terrible idea.   Whatever, you get the point: I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into a double-bacon-burger with cheese cooked medium well with lettuce and tomato and extra ketchup and served with a bag of heart-attack fries.  Oh God.  I’ve opened Pandora’s Box.  Next.

3. Abner Doubleday, puggle puppy dawg extraordinaire — I’m afraid, over the last two years, Abner has become like some big Berber woman who loves chomping down white bread and sprawling out on the sofa watching hours of daily soap operas.  Abner has gained approximately 120 lbs. since I left, so once I’m home, we’re going on a strict diet.  While I’ll be busy gaining back the 40 lbs I’ve lost (and that number is not a joke), Abner will hopefully be losing the same amount (that one is).

Truth be told, while Abner is my dog, I haven’t decided what to do with him.  It almost seems cruel to strip him of his life of luxury.  He does pretty much whatever he wants.  He’s a puggle living like a King at the Eubanks’ residence.  And his friendship with Gibson, our golden lab, is like no other.  The two play in the backyard for hours until Abner gets to go inside, while Gibson watches longingly in the sweltering heat.  Actually, according to Mom, Abner didn’t go outside as much this summer to visit Gibson, because it was too hot.  He’d just stand at the door waiting to be let back in to the cool air conditioning.  That’s my dog.  He knows where it’s at!

But since I don’t yet know where I’ll be in four months, let alone six to a year, it’s a bit premature to predict what will happen with Abner, whether I’ll schlep him up north if that’s where the winds take me, or if he’ll continue living like a King at Chateau Eubanks.  Time will tell, but we’ve come a long way since those early days of bein’ a puppy, so I’m looking forward to giving him a big hug and letting him curl up to nap with me in the fetal position.

2. Katie Frensley, Harold Burdette, and the Frensley Family Extravaganza — There’s a lot of people I’m excited to see, a lot of folks who are like family to me, and I hope I don’t offend any of you if you didn’t show up on this list.  But I figured Katie, Harold, Greta, and Jacob had a special place on this list, because come January or February, there’s a good chance I’m movin’ in.  For good.  I’ve warned Katie about this, and to a lesser degree, Greta, but never tell someone they’re “like family” if you don’t want them mooching off you like a leech.  I mean, all I asked for was a corner, and Jacob’s already offered his whole room, so….

Of course, they’ve no need to be too worried.  They are more than welcome to pass me around.  Two weeks at one Frensley residence, three weeks at another.  I’m also willing to cook Moroccan dishes or soups or other delicious meals.  I require very little maintenance; although, if they have guests over, I guess I can try to shave and put on deodorant and use toilet paper temporarily.  And if the guests are still offended by me, they can always just warn them ahead of time: “We, uh, we have a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer staying with us, and uhm, he doesn’t always use utensils when he eats… and he’s kind of offended if you use your left hand to eat… and don’t be surprised if he takes your clothing from you and gives you something of his own in a strange barter system of sorts; he means well.  Oh and sometimes, he clicks.  One click means yes; two clicks means no.”

In all seriousness, though… no, wait, I was being completely serious.  I am moving in, Greta.  Get ready.

But seriously.  Srsly.  I can’t name the number of messages, texts, or emails I’ve had from Katie or Harold reminding me how much they miss me and how much they just want me home.  I think having a community of people is really important, and in some ways, they are my home base, my center-of-gravity, my fan club, my band and we’re gettin’ the band back together.  You get the idea.  Being around them is like being in a sitcom.  So, while I may eventually head off to some new city for school or work, or while I’ll be in Jackson for some time, too, it’s nice to know that I’ll always have a place I can return to – my own little posse, my homeboys (and girls), Team Fouad.  I need to stop doing that.

It’s just that I think one of the things that scares me about America is that I’ll turn into some recluse, that Jackson or whatever city I end up in will be some stale place to me, and the task of having to start over, to work at making friends again, is just this daunting reality I have no desire to face.  I don’t want to explain Peace Corps to people.  I don’t want, like I had to do at Christmas, to have somebody say to me, “So, Morocco, what’s that like?” and then have to explain an entire culture in a thirty-second sentence the other person could care less about.  Katie and Harold and Greta and Jacob are four people I don’t have to start over with or explain myself to.

And besides, Katie is on a mission to find future Mrs. Eubanks anyhow.  She’s got a tough job ahead of her, you know, finding a girl who’s going to be totally okay with the fact that I am mooching off of my friends indefinitely.

There are, of course, a lot of jokes here, and I’m not willing to divulge fact from fiction, so yeah, moving on….

1. The Eubanks‘ — Family first, right?  Although, I don’t mean that in some hokey, cheesy way like, “Oh man, I missed Mama and Baba so, so much these last two years!”  I mean, I did miss them, but not in some overly emotional outpouring of love.  It’s more of a quiet love, an understanding that comes with a heck of a lot of freedom.  Mom’s [been forced to get] used to the fact that traveling is, well, kinda my thing, and I’ll be surprised if anybody’s expecting me to stick around for more than three months before I’m off again on some ridiculous adventure or another.  But over the past few years, I think I’ve developed a new appreciation for how weird I think my family is (though everybody thinks that about their family, right), and I feel closer to them in that I feel as though we actually discuss things like adults these days.  Even though my mother will always remind me if I packed extra underwear and remembered my toothbrush (yes, Mom), between being home for Christmas and a few Skype dates here-and-there, you could say I’ve come to appreciate the range of subjects we can talk about these days.  I no longer feel like a child being talked down to, even though my parents are often saying things I, like a child, need to hear.  In some sense, they are probably the most civil, normal people that I know, and that’s actually what I think makes us so darn weird.  I mean, my parents are some cross between Hank and Peggy Hill from “King of the Hill” or maybe even the Wilkersons or the Morgendorffers.  And Beth is just Beth, you know – hippy sister extraordinaire whose got a bad side and works constantly.  But I love them all anyhow, and I fully expect Mom to be all teary-eyed at the Nashville International Airport in November.  Maybe I will be too.  Who knows.

I guess it can be a little cliché to say that “family” is my number one – what I’m most excited to get home to, but when you go from living in a family-oriented culture like that of the Muslim world, you sort of get this different picture for the value and importance of family.  I think I grew up just thinking that family was a support network of people who loved me, and it is that, but I think it’s so much more than that now.  I think the people who you call family, even if those people aren’t biologically related to you (and I mean those few special friends, too), are the only people you can trust or expect to be there.  I think all our lives are spent trying to find and identify those we regard as that kind of family.  So, it’s a little inevitable that two years in this kind of culture, a culture where family equates with rigid expectations of dependability, and I’m glad to be going home to a place where I know I’ve always had that even though that’s so rare in some ways.

So, there you have it.  Ten things I can’t wait to have or see.  People and places that are consistent in my life.  The days are numbered, and I know at least some of you are counting them down.

Fes

One of the first cities in Morocco I ever had the chance to visit was Fes.  For the first three months I lived here, Fes was sort of a central location in my life before I knew my final site, and with every trip there, I got to know the city a little bit better.

When final sites were announced last year, most volunteers were sent to live outside the Fes region, many toward Marrakesh or Ourzazate in the south.  All of us, it seems, live at least five or six hours from at least one major city in the country.  I’ve had a chance to visit a few of those other cities now, like Oujda and Kesh, and I have to say, I’m thankful to be one of the handful of volunteers placed near Fes, because it’s just a really great city, and I wanted to say a few things about why that is, because if you were to come visit me, this is one place where I’d make sure we spent some time.

I recently went to Fes to meet up with Caity Connolly’s parents on their vacation and took the opportunity to do a little Christmas shopping, as well.  This is actually something about Peace Corps communities that I find really fascinating: the people who are your friends really, in some ways, become more like family than friends.  Caity has definitely become a sister and Avery, a brother, and it’s funny because in a week or so, I’ll get to meet Avery’s dad in Fes, as well.  The idea of traveling five hours to meet your friends’ parents in America just sounds a little absurd to me, but here, it’s just what we do, because we recognize what a big deal it is to have your parents come all this way.

So, when we pulled into Fes, the first must-stop location was McDonald’s.  I almost never ate McDonald’s in America.  If I did, it was because it was close and the only thing open.  Here, though, it’s become a symbol, a little taste of home that I can’t seem to get enough of when I’m in Fes.  Although, it’s a strange experience to walk in and say, “I want a Menu Cheeseburger and biggie fries,” or in Arabic, “bghit wa7d menu cheeseburger u l-frit kbir, 3afak.”  Something about saying the word “cheeseburger” just seems so out of place with my life that I always catch myself doing a double-take when it happens, and I find little things like that funny.  I’ll find that I’m giggling to myself a lot over little things like that, and I’m never sure if that’s weird, but it’s been part of what’s enriched my life over the past year, that something as simple as ordering a cheeseburger is silly to me.

After cheeseburgers with Avery, I’d had my eye on purchasing a leather backpack for myself for months.  I’d seen one a few different places, but I’d never had luck bargaining, and I thought if I tried to buy one in Fes, the leather capital of Morocco with its beautiful tanneries, maybe I could get the price down a bit.  So, I headed into the old medina near our hotel and descended the tlaa sghira (the street in the medina that’s a “little climb”) until I came to a store with leather items.   If you were negotiating for a new jacket or a nice backpack, the mul hanut (owner) would hold a match to the hide to show that it was real leather: “See, it doesn’t burn.”  Okay, I get it: it’s good quality leather.  When the asking price ended up being the price I was prepared to pay, I forced him down another twenty and then settled on a payment.  One more handshake a small leather camel as a free gift later, and I had myself a beautiful new backpack.

Of course, after Avery heard about my success, he decided he, too, needed a leather bag of some sort, and we headed back down into Fes el-bali, the old medina, to find a leather briefcase for him.  Have a look at our finds:

For dinner, Molly, Avery, Nicole, and I joined Caity and her parents at a really nice restaurant in the medina, their treat.  They brought gifts from the land of the free, home of the brave, including Reese’s pieces and candy for Ave and Molly and a taco kit (with hard and soft-shell tacos with seasoning) for yours truly – the closest thing anyone has done to date sending me that Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell on my Official Wish List (recently updated).

The next day, we woke early and ate cheap pissara (bean soup) just inside Bab Boujaloud, the large, blue gate that is one of the nine or so gates into the old city.  Fes el-bali boasts something like 9400 streets and twists and turns, and I’m pretty sure we explored all of them in the next few hours.

When we joined Caity’s parents, we headed down the tlaa kbira to return again to the tanneries, where we shopped and enjoyed watching Moroccans adding dye to leather hides – some of which were camel, others cow hides.  I recently found out that an enzyme in pigeon poop is essential to adding dye to the hides (and may also explain why Moroccans give you mint leaves to hold to your nose when you get close to the tanneries).  Thus, pigeons (hammama) are pretty important to life in Fes and sort of unite the city with nature in a unique way.

After that, Avery and Molly and I embarked on another adventure to hunt down a ceramics store in Fes where we were able to watch everything from men sculpting tajines to building beautiful mosaic tables and fountains to peering inside of an old mud kiln which housed large urns.  They were a bit too expensive for me to be able to afford, but it was still worth seeing, still worth noting that Fes isn’t just known for its leather but for all kinds of art.

Finally, we joined up with Caity and her parents on the roof of their hotel where we sat chit-chatting until around midnight.  Sitting around a table with a view of the new city and a fall breeze coming on, and I just had this good feeling deep down sitting there with people who were like family.  I get it.  I get why it’s so important to share this experience with someone you love.  Not just to say, “Yup, okay, this is where I live,” or because this is our lives here, but because this place, in its own little way, is like a peek into a mysterious world.  And to be able to share that is something I’ll always cherish.

But more than that, so much of my life this past year or so has been about being connected to people in a way I cannot fully describe.  Whether connected to volunteers through this strange experience that binds us together through the similar difficulties we face or whether connected to Moroccans through our shared hopes and dreams and love as we seek to understand one another right down to our differences, something in this world calls and beckons us to be more than just human beings going about their lives on different paths that briefly cross.  Something asks us to acknowledge the kindred spirits we share, to treat one another less like friends or acquaintances or two people from two different countries… and more like family.  Even the closest of brothers and sisters endure their tiffs and must face tough questions about who they are if they are ever to survive together as brothers and sisters.  To live into that calling is difficult but necessary.

As I rode in the taxi returning to the bl3d (countryside), I thought about my own sense of family, my having been adopted and with that, my willingness to “adopt,” so to speak, the people I’ve come to love and find so different from me.   Fes is, in some ways, a second home, a home away from home.  It’ll never be Nashville or Jackson, but sitting at the gates of Bab Boujaloud will always be kind of like sitting on the steps of the Nashville Parthenon, feeling connected to a world that branches beyond here and now.  If for any reason those of you back home are still thinking about trekking to Morocco, I hope I will be able to show you a little slice of this place, that you too could sit in front of the large gate and feel like the world were at your feet.

A Big Family

There’s probably not much I hate more than being sick, so when I was bent over the Turkish toilet last week heaving up my insides, I couldn’t help but wonder what I’d gotten myself into – you know, running off to a foreign country and eating food that’s in the process of taming my stomach.  In hindsight, it had to be that couscous I had the night before, but at the time (and something I’ve noticed for just about any time you’re sick), all you can really focus on is the desire to not be sick.  It really does something to your emotions.  In fact – and I think this was true for me in the States, too – the worst part about being sick isn’t so much the symptoms as it is what the symptoms can do to your psyche.  And for me, I turn into a complete, whiny mama’s boy.

That said, I’ve never been so relieved in my life to find I had someone to comfort me while I was sick.  When I got home and crashed in bed, Fatima felt my fever, brought me water, asked if she needed to go to the pharmacy, literally catering to my every need, even going as far as pacing frantically about the room saying my name out loud, “Fouad, Fouad, Fouad.”  If that wasn’t “motherly” enough, she proceeded to tell me I ate too much the night before and that I needed to be wearing more layers of clothes when it’s so cold outside.  At least, that’s what I think she said.  Thanks, Mom.

Later that evening, she prepared a plate of food for me that was different from what everyone else ate (and more suitable to my stomach) and sent Khalil to get apple juice.  By the end of the day, I was feeling much, much better.  Sickness 1, accomplished… no blood in my stool and a very loving family to take care of me!  Huzzah!

It shouldn’t be shocking, you know, when you go to another country and find yourself loved.   Love is, after all, everywhere.  But what is shocking, maybe, is how powerfully familial that love is here.  I’m part of this family.  They see me as one of them, despite my white awkwardness.  As someone who was adopted, I have a real appreciation for that kind of immediate acceptance – that I was part of the family not out of my own merit but for no other reason than the fact that I’m human and residing under this roof.

So all this has really got me thinking about family, about parents, and about love.  I grew up with the best parents anyone could ask for, really, but only because someone who couldn’t be the best parent decided she would pass me on to someone who could do what she couldn’t.  A friend here mentioned to me that she thought I should be mad that my biological mother would “abandon” me, but I don’t see it like that at all.  I never have.  To me, loving someone can and often means saying “no” or letting them go, and that can be as important as being welcoming, accepting, and nurturing when it’s done in the right way.  It’s all part of realizing that loving someone is always communal, or put another way, real love requires that our needs are met in multiple ways from multiple people.  No one person can do it all for everyone, and the most successful relationships we have might be the ones where we know and accept our limits to provide for the other person or vice versa.

I guess that’s why I’m starting to really appreciate the value of loving each other like we are all adopted, all brothers and sisters, and I don’t mean that in some hippy, peace-loving way.  Well, maybe I do.  I just wonder how much differently I might treat someone who annoys me if I said to myself, “He’s my brother,” or, “She’s my sister.”  I would still be annoyed with them, perhaps, but also keep the obligation to care for and cherish them.  For some people, that’s easier than it is for others, though.  Here’s, it’s often the Americans who test my patience, not the Moroccans.

KhalilAs I said, my sickness didn’t last very long at all, thank God, and the next day, we traveled to Fes to explore the old Medina (an ancient market or city center of sorts) with its tanneries for dyeing cow, goat, sheep, and camel hides.  I posted a video about that, but it’s brief, and quite honestly, I’m not too interested in spewing out details about it even though the weekend might have been the best time I’ve had in Morocco thus far.  Sorry.  Sometimes, I like keeping the best stuff to myself.  That said, I will tell you briefly about my wake up call at 4:30 in the morning: we got a small hotel room just inside the gates of the old Medina.  Most of them are like walled cities or castles with battlements fortifying the entire Medina.  I’m getting off-track.  As I was lying in bed, I heard the call to prayer louder than I had ever heard it.  We must’ve been right next to the mosque.  There are five “calls to prayer” each day, and Muslims have time between each call to pray.  The morning prayer, obviously, begins before sunrise.  The prayer is usually sung or chanted through a loudspeaker from a mosque and can be heard throughout the entire neighborhood or the city.  Since, in larger cities, there are multiple mosques, you can sometimes hear multiple calls happening at the same time.  I woke to a voice chanting, “B’smillah,” which means, “In the name of God,” and the prayer went on for nearly forty minutes.  My Arabic is still pretty awful, but the general gist of the prayer is that “there is one God,” a phrase so central to both Christianity and Judaism (like the Shema), as well.  Then, while the first call was happening, a second mosque began its call to prayer, and the two started to harmonize with one another (well as best as loudspeakers can), which may or may not have been intentional.

All of that is to say, especially in light of what I said earlier about love and adoption, that being face-to-face with a world that is absorbed in its religious duty brings the sacred to the forefront in every aspect of life.  Nothing here happens without being filtered through those religious goggles, even if the “religiousness” of those goggles has, like it often has in Christianity, become more about tradition or social relationship.  I, of course, don’t agree with every aspect of Islam, and I certainly don’t agree with every aspect of Christianity, but I see God in these people and the way they love and also in the way they devote themselves wholly to what they believe.  We have something to learn from each other, despite our disagreements, even despite how religious we may or may not be.  There’s this little family called Planet Earth, and whether or not the family gets along all the time, it’s obligated to try.  So, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, start living like everyone around you is your family.  It might just change a few things.

On Being Different, or maybe not so much.

Maybe it just stood out to me for some weird reason, but I seem to remember a time when we were kids and one of the big topics of conversation in school was to celebrate our differences.  After all, every single person has a unique set of fingerprints, different colored hair or skin, different ways of speaking or acting, etc.  This was basic, kindergarten-level education, and the point was always the same: you are special; you are unique; you are your own individual.

What a load of hogwash.

That’s not to say there isn’t something valuable in recognizing our cultural or ethnic differences or even our more basic differences from freckles to big noses to little feet.  After all, much of what I do here every day is keep constantly aware of those differences.  It’s right there on the surface, of course.  In fact, I can’t walk down the street without being stared at or talked about frequently, because I’m so blatantly, obviously different… “There goes that white guy.  Is he French?  Bonjour!  Is he American?  A tourist, yes, a tourist.  What?  He knows a smidgen of Arabic and no French?  That’s strange.”

Strange.  Different.  We want so badly to hold onto those things, to think we are special, even special enough to let those surface-level differences tell a very ugly lie.  It’s the very lie that cuts to the heart of all our strife.  It’s the lie that explains all our wars, our hatred, our cruelty to one another, this lie that we have this odd need to celebrate.  There’s a dangerous, fine line between loving and hating what makes us different, a line we don’t know how to navigate well.

So yes, while there is a part of me that can appreciate and understand the many ways we are different, I only appreciate those things in that they tell a much deeper story, namely a story about how we are all really the same.  A story that suggests, if we are to survive, we must learn how to get along, to seek that sameness.  That can be a hard truth to swallow, because it means we are the epitome of both the worst and the best of what it means to be human.   Carl Sagan says it better than I ever could when he sums up life on a pale, blue dot in the middle of the cosmos:

“Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam…think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.  Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.  …To me, [this] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

There are good and bad people everywhere.  It has nothing to do with religion or politics or economics – the best and worst of those spheres are only as good as the people who make them up.

Last night, Khalil and I were on his roof staring at the stars.  Even with the light pollution in Sefrou, the sky was filled with millions of tiny specks, a handful of glitter tossed across the dome.  Khalil picked up a small rock and dropped it near a cat three stories below.  We both laughed as the cat scampered off scared by the sound of the rock hitting the ground.  Then, we just sat there quietly, no idea what the other was thinking and no good ways to easily express our thoughts even if we could have tried.

Still, my thoughts were plain and simple: we were given that same glorious sky, that stretches from Morocco to Tennessee; the same earth that – no matter how hard we try to divide it with imaginary lines – will always be one solid clod of dirt for our food and feet; the same waters that so pervade us, they make up not only our vast oceans but even the majority of our flesh and bone; the same hearts that can love and hate, hurt and heal, no matter how willing we are to accept or deny this.

Our differences are inevitable, surface-level truths we negotiate daily.  They are the tip of the iceberg to what makes us us.  The real task and the hard choice, though, is to look below the waters, to ask and discover what brings us together and makes us all the same.  Then, only then, we can stare up at the stars, the vastness of the sky, and humbly, quietly, just stand there and smile.