From Fallen Towers to Chemical Weapons, or why non-intervention may be just as inhuman as intervening

I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that today was 9/11, to be honest. In the past, that’s been a big thing for me – something I blogged about fairy regularly. Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in North Africa, acquainting myself somewhat with Arab culture, I gained a new perspective on the relationship between Islam and terrorism. Or rather the fact that the two should never be equated. 9/11 for me became a day to highlight our humanity and not solely who we are as Americans. But that didn’t mean that I wasn’t interested in remembrance. When I was younger, I even wrote poetry to commemorate 9/11. But today just sort of went by. I didn’t stop and think about the planes or the towers falling. Or about where I was when it happened. I didn’t really stop and think about terrorism or our response to it. I just went about my day.

I remember that’s what we were told to do on 9/12. If we didn’t go about life like it was “business as usual,” then “the terrorists were winning.” They wanted to disrupt our norm, so we shouldn’t let them. But then, ironically, we rushed off to war, and in a way, that began to feel like the terrorists were winning. Our norm was disrupted. We became reactive instead of proactive. Two wars, actually, dwindled on for a decade and a little more.

In the wake of those wars, we’ve become a country both weary and wary of fighting. Our unwillingness to intervene in Syria probably stems from our worries about the failures of Iraq and Libya. It’s perfectly understandable. What’s happening in Syria is awful, and yet, we now realize that our intervention there probably won’t make anything any better.

“I am not my brother’s keeper,” we seem to say. Some of us would go further: “That’s not even my brother.”

I have struggled with what I think about the crisis in Syria, though. Maybe it’s the little Arabic I can pick up and understand as I watch what’s happening. Maybe it’s how similar Syria looks in video to me from my little village in the Middle Atlas mountains. Maybe it’s because, in a way, I do see the Syrians as our “brothers,” even Assad, even the rebels, even the terrorists. If you’re part of a family where one brother goes astray or attacks other members of the family, disowning both members of the family just doesn’t make sense to me. So, as much as I lament the fact that these problems always seem to fall in the lap of the United States when it should be the responsibility of the whole world, I also find myself wondering and wanting to ask, “Are you your brother’s keeper? Are they your brothers?”

I’m not making an argument that we should go bomb Syria. Or put troops on the ground. I certainly think the Russian proposal kicked off by Secretary Kerry inadvertently was probably a stumble in the right direction. Regardless of what we do or don’t do, though, I think the way we approach the question of action may need rethinking. And I’m referring less to what the government does or doesn’t do and just as much to what the average Joe-Schmoe posts in a social media forum saying ill-informed things, like “America shouldn’t be fighting for Al Qaeda.” I think we need to try our best to humanize our “enemies” in every circumstance even if doing so might make us look “weak” to the rest of the world. When I hear that “we need to take care of our own,” I agree with that. America seems to be tumbling toward another financial decline – not that it has gotten better since 2007. And yet, I think “taking care of our own” misunderstands that, in the global marketplace, they are very much us. And from a loving, moral perspective that seeks to find compassion and empathy, their problems are very much ours.

So, I guess I worry about this attitude of non-intervention or how close it sits to good old isolationist ideals of the early 20th century. And lately, I’ve wondered whether history just repeats itself. Is a great war brewing? Is a financial collapse worse than the depression brewing? It all sounds so doom-and-gloom and fodder for conspiracy theorists to almost be laughable. And yet, should America ever begin to go the way of the dodo, I sure hope there’ll be someone out there who is willing to say about us, willing to fight for us – “I am my brother’s keeper, and we’ll figure this out together.”

A Capstone Experience to my Service – a visit from the Country Director

On Monday, the Country Director and the person in charge of gifts and grants for all of Peace Corps drove out to our province in the Middle Atlas.  It was an opportunity for several volunteers to come together and talk about (and show off) some of the work we were doing based on the grants we wrote to make it all happen.  Jon and I managed to pack their day full, which in turn packed our entire week full of prep work for their visit.

The day before they arrived, the children at Jon’s local primary school painted a large mural of fruit to promote nutrition and a Peace Corps logo on an adjacent wall (that included both the American and Moroccan flags).  After the children finished painting, Jon worked with them to prepare a series of “welcome” and “thank you” songs in what was none other than an awesome, shameless act, and quite possibly the most adorable thing you could imagine next to a room full of teddy bears and butterflies.

In the meantime, I sat down with Monica Groen and Nicole Gravante, as well as several Moroccan counterparts (two awesome guys named Hassan), to prepare for what was to be my final glasses distribution in Morocco and to “pass the torch,” so to speak to volunteers who will continue distributing glasses after I am long gone.  It gave us a chance to put our heads together and say, “Okay, here are some problems with this project, and here are some ways to overcome those concerns.”  One problem we kept running into, for example, was a lack of understanding over how to use the new technology for the glasses.  For you and me, it’s simple – you just turn a dial, and a sliding lens corrects your vision.  But imagine explaining that concept to an 86-year old Berber woman who is illiterate and whose first attempt to use the glasses was to put them on upside down.  That’s not a joke.  That happened.  Distributing glasses, it turns out, takes an incredible degree of patience and a willingness to teach.  I was thankful that we had Hassan and Hassan to do some translation for us and to sit down and work with people who might not have understood the first time.

The next morning, during the distribution, I gave a pair of negative lenses to a 59-year old who understood exactly how the glasses worked.  He turned the dial, stopped it, smiled, and belted out a, “Oh yeah, bless you; God’s blessing on you!”  I asked him if they helped, and he grinned big and joked, “There’s nothing blurry anymore.”

When Peace Corps staff showed up, we had a big presentation at the school with children handing staff roses and fresh pomegranates from the teachers.  Then, they gathered around to perform a special kind of Berber dance called an “ahidous.”  That looked a little bit like this video, except performed by 8-year olds and minus the horses at the beginning.  Again – adorable.

For lunch, we got a chance to sit down with the country director, a couple of members of the diabetes association from my town and talk about our diabetes project and the prevalence of diabetes in Morocco.  Allal, our counterpart, insisted that diabetes affects 50% of the population.  I know it’s at least 20%, and sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if hyper- and hypo-tension  along with Type II diabetes, put that figure pretty close to accurate.  Allal’s excitement about working with us makes him a great candidate for a future host family.  In the meantime, Jon and I may try to squeeze in one more education project before Eid El-Kbir.

After lunch, Jon and a few other volunteers took the country director to Beni Hassan, a nearby village on the outskirts of Jon’s site, where they got to talk about a medical caravan Jon completed, bringing over a dozen doctors and nurses to do health trainings last May.  When they got back, we sat down in Jon’s house for a few hours with sage tea (barroumbo) and harcha, which is basically sweet corn bread.  Jon used the school projector to project a slide show on the wall, where he was able to show the reconstruction of a cellar roof that fell in at the primary school last winter.  Peace Corps funds had been used to repair the roof, freeing up space to store food for the children.  The conversation with Peace Corps staff gave us a chance to really reflect on our service, on our projects, and on why we came to this country in the first place.

Just before concluding the night with dinner, we went to another ahidous, this one put on by an association of guys in their 20s and far more like the video above.  Jon and I wore djellabas, and by the end of the dance, the country director, the staffer from D.C., and all of the Peace Corps volunteers were dancing ahidous in a circle with our Moroccan friends.

Honestly, the whole shindig was like a capstone experience to my entire two years, getting a chance to reflect and celebrate with our Moroccan friends.  The next morning when I rode back to my town in a beat-up old van listening to Berber music the whole way, it just dug in more and more how much I will miss this place.

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

One More Week Stateside.

Well, this time next week, I’ll be scrambling to finish any last minute packing so I can get to the Nashville International Airport.  I fly out of Nashville at 7:30 in the morning for a flight to Philadelphia.  I’ll stay the day there for what the Peace Corps calls “Staging” or “Pre-Departure Orientation,” along with sixty-five other trainees making their way to Morocco.  Then, we’ll take a bus to JFDelay (as a pilot to New York once described the airport) for the flight to Casablanca.  Even though we won’t be staying in Casablanca (as we’ll be taking a two hour bus ride to Mehdya, a beach town  north of Rabat), I’m excited to start this adventure in the same city my grandfather lived in for over nineteen months during World War II.  It just seems appropriate to me.

Let’s see, from there, things get a bit more complicated.  We spend a week or so in Mehdya and then move to Fez in the Middle Atlas, and we’ll be in that region for four weeks or so moving between the “hub” site and the “community based training” site.  I’ll try to explain all of that later.  By late October, I should have some idea where I move to and should be sworn in, hopefully, on November 24.  Until then, I’m just a trainee, not a volunteer.

It’s a bit overwhelming to think about, honestly.  Maybe it’s my cynical side, but I have a tendency not to get truly excited about something until it’s happening.  I spend too much time leading up to it convinced something could go wrong, or that it won’t happen at all.  That said – am I excited?  Well, I know I will be the second I step onto the flight for Casablanca.  Right now is more about anxiety and, as you know from the past few blogs, figuring out how to say goodbye.

Honestly, other than Mom, Dad, and a very small handful of people I hope to see this week, I’ve pretty much said all my goodbyes already.  At least, I’ve said my goodbyes to people.  There are a few other “goodbyes” that are going to be necessary, though.  One in particular is going to be incredibly difficult.

As I type, he’s laying on the couch with his head buried between three pillows.  King of the couch, he’s in a kind of regal position, stretched out as though no one belongs there but him, and of course, nearby sits Bearemy Bear, his teddy bear who seems to follow him around to the ends of the earth.  Mom and Dad agreed to hang on to Abner, and I think having him around will make the fact that I’m not around a lot easier in ways.  I mean, no matter how down you are, Abner always manages to do something just stupid enough to get a laugh out of you.  Man’s best friend, y’know.  I am taking quite a few pictures of him with me.

…and of course, there’s the Aztek.  If Abner is my best friend, my Pontiac Aztek is like my armored, black stallion.  Yeah, that’s right; laugh all you want; you know you’re jealous.  Whether it’s sold and in the hands of a new owner by the end of the week or sold a few weeks after I leave, the Aztek will not be here when I get back.  It’s funny that a car would be something I would get attached to, especially when I actually think it’s such an eyesore.  I mean, let’s face it, a Pontiac Aztek is one ugly car.  But ugly or not, we’ve traveled many miles together, from my recent trip across the Midwest to the Grand Canyon sleeping in the back on the side of the road.  It’s carried me and my many friends and family to old and new places, to places I couldn’t wait to get to and to places I couldn’t wait to leave.  So, to look at it all shiny and clean in the backyard, I can’t help but be sentimental.

I don’t suspect, though, I’ll ever own one again.  I like change too much to get another Aztek.  When I get back, I’m thinking… motorcycle.  Or at the least, a small, fuel-efficient car.

Still, what strikes me most is that there are a lot of “things” that I cherish that might seem silly when I’m able to take them for granted, but once I’m in Morocco, how much will I miss them, the things I decided I just don’t have room to take?  I can’t even really fathom what all those things are, really.  A computer mouse?  A t-shirt I like to wear?  A pair of shoes I wish I could’ve taken with me?  My grandfather’s war paraphernalia?  Hard to say right now, but I’ll probably get a “wish list” going once I’ve been there for a few weeks.

We really love our stuff, right down to the things we put on the walls in the museums of our homes.  To strip it all away and start over from scratch, in some ways, really challenges us to redefine ourselves, to really face who we are and what we care about.  The next few months will be definitive for me in that sense.  I just don’t yet know how.