Some Brief, Not-So-Classified Thoughts

I’ll keep this one even shorter.

Yes, Osama bin Laden is dead.  People ask me here if I’m happy about this.  Most of them are, it seems.  I just respond, “I never rejoice when anyone dies.”  That’s not a lie.  It’s unfortunate that bin Laden is just one more death in a war I wish had ended long ago or never happened in the first place.  Killing him doesn’t really accomplish a whole lot when violence just begets more violence.  When will it end?

Most of what I wanted to say I’ve said before, a thousand times, it seems, now.  Osama bin Laden did not represent traditional Islam.  He was an extremist and his views were and are still abhorrent to most Muslims.  Yes, he had sympathizers who were Muslim, but that says much about how little they understand about this beautiful religion, as well.  As someone who lives in an Arab country where the mosques ring out the call to prayer multiple times a day, I have nothing but heartfelt love and deep respect for this religion and wish my American friends to be just as respectful.  We don’t have to agree with each other to love each other.

Finally, I did talk at length with one Moroccan friend about the death who expressed concerns with the way bin Laden’s body was dumped into the ocean.  In actuality, he had less respect for bin Laden than I do.  He nothing short of hated the guy, but his concern that the body wasn’t handled appropriately, in accordance with Islam (that all bodies should be buried), had less to do with him caring about bin Laden (he doesn’t) and more to do with him worrying that organizations like al Qaeda would use the opportunity to grow their organization by displaying American “cruelty” toward something sacred in the religion.

Valid point.  Although, I trust that, even if America had disposed of the body by burying it in a secret location, al Qaeda would still find a way to use the death as a recruitment tool.  Again, violence begets violence.  Period.  I explained to my friend that America was trying to avoid the creation of a shrine and that burial at sea was actually a respectful way of disposing of a body, a way many Chaplains during the World Wars had conducted funerals for American soldiers; it’s a soldier’s funeral, in essence.  Doesn’t quite meet the standards of Islam, and it will probably be used as a recruitment tool, so valid point.  But then again, Osama bin Laden wasn’t a true Muslim either.  Any more than the Ku Klux Klan can claim to be Christian, anyhow.

So, that’s that.  Figured some of you had been wondering, and I wanted to at least say it and move on.  All is well and calm here in Morocco, almost as though nothing happened at all, and though it’s probably still the talk of the town for now, all eyes are turning toward Libya.  Ghaddafi will be next, after all.

[One addendum I wanted to add regarding bin Laden’s death relates to a recent realization I had of sorts, namely that bin Laden succeeded in exposing racism in America toward Muslims.  I wonder if he foresaw that happening?  What’s so fascinating about that is that bin Laden managed to turn America against an entire race of people who, aside from a similarity in dress and language, shared almost nothing in common with the terrorist.  By tying himself to Islam, he tied Muslims to terrorism unfairly, and we in America – because of venues like Fox News (though Fox is hardly the only media form to blame) – allowed bin Laden to get away with this; we let him sew hate into our society.  We bought it hook, line, and sinker without questioning it.  Shame on us for not rising above that.]

Thoughts for a Spring Day, or Identity Not-so-Crisis

So, it’s a breezy day, and I’m sitting in a chair chewing gum with my mudir (boss) in what might be the only grassy place (the Dar Chebab, or “House of Youth and Sports” where I work) east of the Middle Atlas Mountains, where everything else is desert.  So, we’re sitting there having a short conversation about what’s ahead later this month with all my travels and the different projects we both want to try to make happen.  In September, again thanks to the collaboration with Caity Connolly (and this time, Avery Schmidt), we’ll be bringing forty youth on a two-day education workshop concerning the risks and effects of HIV/AIDs and other STIs, as well as some basic gender education.  Exciting stuff, really.  I’m sitting there getting it all planned out, the finer details, that is (like the cost of paint), and the breeze slaps me in the face just slightly enough to remind me that summer is coming but is not yet here.

And then something else hits me, like a breeze, something I’ve known for awhile but haven’t really had a chance to express or explore.  As much as I love Morocco and as much as I feel that this next year-and-a-half is a part of who I am and where I need to be, development work is not what I want to do with my life.  No surprises there.  I majored in religion and kinda already had different plans anyway, but it’s just nice to have those little confirmations along the way, to have a clearer picture in your head of where you need to be, and it wasn’t one of those negative moments where you’re suddenly like, “Oh crap, I hate my job.”  To the contrary, like I said before, I’m really happy and feel privileged to be here and know this is where I need to be right now, and yet at the same time, I could recognize how temporary this is, like it was a stepping stone to something else and far more about following in some special footsteps, those of my grandfather.

Which really goes back to my last post, about how there’s no such thing as true altruism, that everything we do – whether we want to admit it or not – is actually at least somewhat self-serving.  No kidding.  I’m not here because I decided one day that “I want to help people” (and I don’t even think that’s an appropriate way of phrasing what the Peace Corps does).  And I’m not here because I want to make an impact or a difference in Morocco (and statistically-speaking, I’m not convinced the Peace Corps actually does that either).  I mean, if along the way, I touch someone’s life in a positive way, then great, that’s wonderful, and I’d like to think – be it thru this HIV/AIDs seminar, the glasses project, or something else – someone will gain something.  We’ll have worked together so we can all have something to smile about.  After all, what I actually think the Peace Corps is here to do (or should be here to do) isn’t so much about the bureaucratic numbers we’re required to report about how many Moroccans we worked with or how many organizations we helped to create sustainable programs; I think it’s a little more about the more immeasurable aspects of life and the little stories that come with those.

That is, you can’t really measure the friendship I’ve gained with Omar, when he comes over to my house and pretends to enjoy the tea or the spaghetti I make him.  You can’t really put statistics on sitting at a cafe with Driss discussing the Arab Spring, revolution after revolution.  But that’s more about what I’m here to do, to foster friendships.  Plain and simple like that.  And I’m not sure any report I could write or submit to Peace Corps could ever capture the importance of that (or the importance of that for American tax dollars), but I think and believe it has a lasting impact on these two societies, fostering these little friendships that ultimately reflects the friendship of not solely these individuals but of these two societies, as well.  And that’s something to write home about.

But in the long run, however you choose to “measure” our “efforts” in this country, I imagine I’ll gain more out of this than any “host country national” will, and I imagine I’ll have moments where I can picture my grandfather leaning against a Moroccan building, one leg kicked up against the wall with a half-smile across his face, and I might mimic that just a tad.  Because we live like the people we love.  We mimic their moves and try to be who they were, and God willing, the people we love and admire, the people we want to reflect, will be good people, people who lived the kind of lives worth reflecting.  There’s too many people in this world reflecting and admiring the wrong kind of people.  Which brings me to a whole other conversation altogether.

I was chatting with a few friends, different conversations but both of whom have really been struggling with gaining a sense of identity and purpose lately, and one of whom is in many respects reflecting anyone who will listen, it seems, anyone who will make him feel like he’s cared about.  [This, by the way, was another one of those confirming moments for me, where I realized that development work may not be my calling but listening to people and giving them some degree of guidance might be more my speed.]  So, in both conversations, one of the realizations I had was that when we’re faced with the trite question, “Who Am I?” we force ourselves to find answers to that.  We never just stop, sit back and let that question be a question.  We have to fill  that void with something and constantly be prepared to provide a very concise answer.  Who am I?  I am a hipster.  I am a goth kid.  I am a Republican.  I am a Democrat.  I am an American.  I am this music, not that music.  I am the North Face with Adidas sandals.  You get the point.

Okay, but this isn’t solely a critique of labels.  The point, rather, is that we never let ourselves just chew on that question – who am I  – and be comfortable without having an answer.  Why is that?  Why are we so afraid of uncertainty, even to the point that many of us would rather be something we don’t fully understand or like rather than simply… being.  Just be.  See, I already want to go buy Nike now.  What the heck?  But just being, simply being, was the best advice I had to offer my friends, and I think in time, we grow into who we want to be, and it’s often far more complex than any labels could give it justice, and that’s okay.  We’re human beings.  We don’t have to be easily understood or have simple answers to who we are, and if we did, we’d be much simpler creatures and not the top of the food chain.  Who am I?  Lately, I’ve been my grandfather’s grandson, but who I am is ever-forming and changing, and letting that shape and move and grow is extremely difficult but necessary.  Lest I be trapped in some label I can’t escape.

But all those complexities of our identity aside, and I think who we are as a human race is actually a bit of a paradox between what makes us complex and what makes us simple.  We are love.  That’s what I believe.  And yet, there’s so much more to it than that, now isn’t there?

The Days of Allah are Longer.

This is sort of backtracking a week or so, but it’s a story I wanted to share, because it’s about one of the highlights of my time in Morocco so far.  It’s not that it’s exciting or adventurous or anything like that; it’s just one, long, really good day, especially since most days, I just study Arabic for six hours a day.  When I do get a break, it’s special.

Last Sunday, I woke up at 5:45am and went running with Khalil and Marwan, my brothers, as well as their friend Haleef.  Haleef is a bit of an interesting character in that he’s one of the only Moroccans I’ve met so far who speaks English fluently outside of the Peace Corps staff.  We ran together for a good twenty minutes until we arrived at a large arena with three dirt soccer fields, one basketball court, and a track around them.  For two hours, we played soccer or ran, but in the middle of our fun, the wind started to kick up the dirt until everyone pulled their shirts over their heads and ran off the field.  It quickly became difficult to breathe with all the dust in the air, and we had to seek shelter behind rocks, trees, or walls that were falling apart.  Haleef joked, “This is Morocco.  Don’t you want to go home now?”  I told him this was the kind of thing I both loved and hated at the same time.

I’m finding that’s quickly ringing true in my life, that real beauty in the world is seeing the best and the worst in something and loving it as it is.

Around nine in the morning, we ran home for breakfast, which typically consists of one or two types of bread, butter, oil, and the infamous mint tea you find everywhere here.  There’s also usually kind of apricot jam for the bread.

Honestly, I’ve been fairly mum about the food thus far, because I don’t really know what to say about it; it’s more than simply food.  It’s an entire experience.  Case in point, my class recently ate “bastilla,” a sweet or sometimes savory dish that will cost you upwards of 1000DH (about $120) to eat in a restaurant.  To get this treat is rare, and we probably should have invited David Lille, the Country Director, to eat it with us.  He did say he would drive the three hours from Rabat if we had it.  But alas, we didn’t really know we were having it until the day before.

The meal itself is a smörgåsbord of different flavors and dishes, including eggs, chicken, brown sugar, cinnamon, and layers of finely breaded crust, topped with confectioner sugar and almonds.  Of course, there are many different kinds of bastilla, but ours was an overwhelming reminder that food is not just energy that replenishes the body but can also be an encounter with the divine!

I’m getting off-track, though.

After breakfast and a short nap, we spent two-and-a-half hours at the hammam.  I’ve already written about the hammam, so I won’t dwell on that other than to say two hours is probably a bit much for me personally.  I think I shampooed my hair three times and scrubbed myself down five times.  Haleef also walked on my back to pop it, so after all that rubbing and scrubbing in the Moroccan hammam, I think most people find themselves pretty tired.  I mean, it’s like a sport activity or something.  Who would’ve thought taking a shower would be so much work?

You’d think the day would’ve come to a close after all that, and I had been worried that I wouldn’t have time to see my American friends (all of whom live a forty minute walk through the city away from me, by the way). …but there’s a saying in Morocco – yamat lla twila, or the days of God are longer.  Basically, this means that with God, there’s always plenty of time to do what needs to be done.  I love this concept, especially in terms of how counter-cultural it is compared with America, where it seems there’s never enough time.  We always stress and worry about accomplishing the next goal, making that important meeting date, checking off every little project we have to do.  Not here.  Here, those things are not worries, really.  There’s plenty of time.  Love God, love people; the rest will fall into place in God’s time.  What a nice concept to live by.

So, with Khalil at my side, we walked to the taxi stand to meet my teacher, Driss, and a few Americans.  Then, if we weren’t tired enough already, we hiked to the peak of a small mountain (really it was more like a cliff) and spent time there just letting the breeze catch and carry us over Sefrou, which stretched from cliff to cliff across the valley below.  I’ve already uploaded those pictures and a video.  Check them out if you haven’t already.

By the time we got back, there were still several hours left in the day.  It’s funny – if Mom and Dad call me at ten o’clock my time, we’re usually eating dinner at the same time.  Dinner here can be as late as eleven, and most families seem to go to bed not long after eating the last meal.

So, there you have it (for now) – a day in the life.

The next three weeks are fairly stationary with mostly lots of careful language study, and a Peace Corps Volunteer will train us in the afternoons on how to teach English to Moroccans.  Next weekend, one of my friends is coming to Sefrou to celebrate a birthday of another friend.  Then, two weeks later, we find out our final site and take a week to visit and discover the place we will live for the next two years.  It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.

Oh!  I also received my first mailings – a letter from the Madison County Election Commission (go McWherther!); a letter from Hope Montgomery; and a letter from Kurtis MacKendree.  All three of them have mail on the way to the States, so write me if you want.  I will write you back promptly!

And go vote!  I voted from Morocco, so you have no excuse for not voting.

That’s all for now.

For the Good of a Slightly Controversial Topic.

I’m fourteen days or so away from moving to Morocco as a Peace Corps Trainee, a country that is around 98% Islamic.  While there, I will be learning Moroccan Arabic and immersed into a community of people undoubtedly devoted to their faith.  My responsibility to love and to serve this community includes the obligation to respect their religious customs and traditions.  To be honest, I couldn’t be more excited about that.  Having studied religion for ten years or so, I still feel ignorant about Islam, largely because no book or television program can compare or do justice to living with a people and learning about them firsthand.  If that’s not enough reason to encounter Islam on its own turf, the current political climate here in America is rather sickening with regard to how it treats this religion, and it’s time that the truth was told.

Here in Tennessee, the Jackson Sun recently published a poll where 69% of its readers believe that Barack Obama is Muslim.   I’m not going to rehash the facts, especially since most people who believe that don’t care about facts anyway.  I’m more interested in pointing out the absurdity of the poll in the first place.  When you ask, “Do you believe the President is Muslim?” I think there are three big assumptions embedded in your question: first, you’re essentially asking whether or not you think the President has repeatedly lied about his deeply personal faith; second, there’s an underlying assumption that anyone other than an evangelical Christian won’t be able to adequately serve as Commander-in-Chief; and finally – and most worrisome for me – there’s something deeply negative being placed on Islam as a religion.

So, of course, I don’t think Obama is Muslim.  But what if he was?  Why should that be such a big deal?  Is it about morality?  That doesn’t make sense.  As a future Peace Corps Volunteer, I expect to meet and encounter many wonderful people who are Muslim, many of whom are probably more “moral” than some of my Christian friends.  In fact, I’m certain to meet many of whom are more “moral” than me.  So, is it about Jihad or September 11 or Al Qaeda?  As I’ve said before, that makes about as much sense as judging Christianity via the Crusades or the Ku Klux Klan.  I don’t understand why that kind of sweeping generalization can stand any ground.

I came across this graphic a day or two ago and thought it was brilliant.  It depicts the size of Islam vs. the size of America and asks, if Islam were truly a violent religion, why has America not been obliterated yet given the population difference?  Further, the graphic makes an excellent point regarding the size of Al Qaeda vs. the Muslim world – the two should not be equated.

All that said, the media here in America is so obsessed with sensationalizing and entertaining that the true story about Islam goes untold.  That’s why I’m writing this and why I see one of my major responsibilities as a volunteer (and as an American Christian) is to educate people.  As I’m immersed into this culture and meet these people and their faith face-to-face, I hope I’ll be able to make a tiny dent into the bigotry and idiocy that currently consumes our country.  At the very least, it’ll be nice living in a place where I don’t have to hear Glenn Beck brainwashing the country anymore.