A Happy Eid from America

Today is Eid Al-Adha, and it’s the first one in three years where I wasn’t helping somebody slaughter a goat. Instead I spent most of the quiet Wednesday working on editing my novel while it rained outside. Maybe it’s the rain or the fact there’s a little cold mixed in with it, but it felt like Eid today. It feels like Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner, and I’m already eager as all get-out to bring on the Christmas music. Funny how Eid would kick in the American holiday season for me. It’s a stunning realization, really, to recognize that a holiday that isn’t my own, perhaps because of the solidarity I feel toward the many Muslims I came to know and love, is now a holiday that carries a deep meaning to me. I marked it by firing off a few messages to some of my Moroccan friends and exclaiming, “Happy Eid!” or literally, “Mbrouk!” Congratulations!

For the Columbus weekend, I took a hurried trip to Nashville to see a couple of friends, and on my way into the city, right around Charlotte Pike on I-40, I filled with this sense of excitement I haven’t felt in a long time. It was a sense of belonging, really. Nashville: This is my city, I exclaimed to myself in the car. Kinda silly in hindsight, but having been born there, I feel I can stake a claim to it. I suppose when I lived there, I probably had some things to gripe about, but there’s very few places I’ve ever returned to where I got that excited to be there. I can think of three besides Nashville – Lakeshore, Rabat, and San Diego.

I guess it’s funny to me how a place can get under our skin and make us feel so at home, even to the point that later on in life there’d still be remnants of those places, such that I’d give a quiet little nod to Morocco on Eid or shout with joy when I saw the Batman building in Nashville or just be excited my plane – on its way to Seattle a few years back – made a pit stop in San Diego. In a way, I think, we become the places we go. And we leave our little mark on those places while we’re there, as briefly as we may grace that little spot. That’s why it’s so important to be mindful of where we’ve been and where we’re going and to never forget that one informs the other. It’s like my mother’s insistence to “never forget where ya came from.” I think it’s just as important to never forget where you’ve been.

So, to my Muslim friends out there – and to my other friends, too – happy Eid. It’s a good day to be thankful.


Hicham and the Paradox of Cultures

A few weeks ago, I was on a train for Rabat, and I met this guy named Hicham.  Hicham was dressed to the hilt in religious garb, all black, and his beard would have put Sam Beam to shame.  To be honest, I had no desire to talk to Hicham; I was tired and not remotely interested in using Arabic.  Speaking in a different language can really drain you, and I had not spoken out loud to a native English speaker in over a week at that point.  The last thing I wanted to deal with was another conversation that started, “Are you Muslim?”

Instead, the conversation drifted in the direction, “What are you doing here?”  I got a chance to talk about our recent diabetes project going around my town with several local youth educating folks at shops and stores nearby.  Hicham mentioned that his own twelve-year old son has diabetes.  Despite being tired and uninterested in using Arabic, I liked Hicham a lot.  He was young, like me, and had studied world religions, like me.  At one point, he praised an American institute devoted to “the study of religion and liberty” and this week, he emailed me their website.   Hicham was a well-educated, well-to-do Rabati on his way home.

Now here’s where the conversation got interesting.  In the train-car with us were two other Moroccans who were, for lack of a better way of putting it, poor.  They were “bladi,” as we volunteers sometimes like to call ourselves, which probably translates to something akin “country bumpkin.”  So, in this train car were two bladi Moroccans, an American volunteer, and a well-educated religious man from the city.  It’s like the beginning of some joke.

As I was explaining what I do in Morocco, the two bladi Moroccans were incredibly confused.  The concept of volunteerism is sometimes lost on people in the countryside.  “Why would anyone sacrifice their riches in a place like America to come here?” they may well ask.  But Hicham got it.  He understood development work, the importance of volunteerism, multiculturalism, cultural exchange, religious diversity – you name it.  Hicham got me.  But then, when Hicham turned to explain to the two Moroccans why I was here, his Arabic was so full of French (and I mean, literally, “French;” that’s not some euphemism for curse words), that they could not understand him.  I had to actually step in at one point and help the two bladi Moroccans understand what Hicham was saying by translating his French (which is funny since I don’t know any French, really) to help bring everybody onto the same page.  Hicham had been so used to speaking to other well-educated Moroccans in the city where the French language symbolizes wealth and class and is essentially still the lingua franca, that it just never occurred to him that his way of speaking Arabic might fly over the heads of the lower classes.

So, here I was, in the middle.  I understood Hicham.  He was so much like me – the privileged man, a scholar of religion.  But I understood the bladi men, too; I understood their frustration with Hicham.  I understood that this train ride was hurting their pocketbook.  I understood none of the French that came from Hicham’s mouth.  I had somehow managed to cross into all of their worlds and none of them at the same time.  Over my two years, I’ve grown to live in the middle of some paradox in this beautiful Kingdom. I belong to it.  And I very much don’t.  At the same time.

And maybe I’m coming to realize that I feel that same way about America.  In fact, I think all of us find ourselves caught somewhere in the middle sometimes.  I’m not sure if it’s as stark as sitting in that train car pulling into the capital city, but I do think the more aware we are of our culture, the more aware we are of the things that shape and mold and influence us, of how exactly those things do that, the more likely it is that we’ll step back and ask, “Where do I fit in here?”  And that’s a question I wish more of us were asking.

Telling Time by the Moon, or Stories from the Endless Ramadan Days

The Boulemane Province, at least on this side of the mountains, is a little like Southern California.  It never rains.  Or rather, when it does rain in the summer, it does so for maybe twenty minutes and then dries up before you notice it even happened.  The only reason it is noticeable is because of that familiar scent in the air that lingers around as though something that had been shackled up by the endless days of sun was suddenly set free.

The rain, though, is a potential disaster to the fort on my roof, which I called “Fouad’s Palace” (El-Ksar Fouad) to my landlord who thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard in his life.  I even got a full-on handshake out of that “joke.”  Usually, if I suspect the rain, I have to remove my sofa (ponj) and blankets before the droplets come crashing in.  Once, I didn’t quite make it, and I’ve been dealing with a moldy smell ever since.  I seem to remember America had some sort of device that when you pressed a button, a refreshing smell would pour out of a nozzle and overtake those moldy scents, but I can’t remember if I just dreamed that or what.  I’ve yet to see anything like that for sell in my village.  Maybe I should invent it.

Come to think of it, I’ve actually had several moments lately where I think of something back in America (or imagine it, if it didn’t actually exist), and then I think, “If a Moroccan sold that here, that particular Moroccan would make a fortune.”  Like maybe Febreeze.  Case in point, this country needs laundry mats, and the first person to open up laundry mats in seven major cities here will be a millionaire overnight (in Dirhams, let’s not get carried away here).  I’ve had plenty of time in Ramadan to think this through, and it’s a fool-proof plan.

Anyhow, back to rain.  So, after my one disaster where my evening home base, Fort Fouad, was torn apart by a storm, I’ve been incredibly wary, and if I so much as see a cloud I don’t like, I move the sofa into the stairwell.  Somehow, today, when I moved the sofa, it got stuck in the stairwell so that the only way to get down the stairs was to go over the sofa, but when I tried to go over the sofa, I slipped on it and then slide down the rest of the way.  And then it hit me.  I have a slide in my house.  And boy does she slide.

So, between a Fort that I built on my roof and a slide in my stairwell, the only thing I was missing was some sort of cool beverage to be able to sit back and enjoy it all.  Problem solved: I bought fresh mint, seven lemons, and sugar.  Fresh-squeezed lemonade with mint all to myself.

I guess it’s pretty obvious that there’s not really any work to do during Ramadan, or the little there is to do, no one feels like doing it.  It’s hot.  No one is eating or drinking anything, and everything is closed until nightfall.  That’s turned me into a strange hermit of sorts (no, really, stranger than usual) who only goes out at night to dine with Moroccans, and this year, I’ve had to schedule my meals because I’ve had so many invitations.  I have to fight to just get one night in to myself where I can cook my own food.

The rest of the day is literally spent loafing around just trying to not be bored or lonely, and that’s where things like building forts, reading Steinbeck, writings novels (working on my second currently and up to Chapter 4), making lemonade and sliding on make-shift slides, all become a part of the magical land of Fouad.  It’s all just a little bit wonderful and a little bit silly, but I’ve gotten incredibly good at being productive with different personal projects when there is absolutely nothing going on.  I think that is something that is required of a Peace Corps Volunteer: you have to learn to be comfortable with yourself and to enjoy countless hours of being by yourself.  This is something I think I’ve always been good at, but here, it goes a step beyond mere solidarity and steps into a zone where you really start to discover the things that you love.  I actually think if everyone was required to spend one year to themselves like this, we would all be so much happier.   Because you just can’t love other people if you can’t be comfortable in your own skin loving whatever mess of cards you’ve been dealt.

Yesterday, on my way to Allal’s on my bike, I passed a seven year-old banging two empty coke bottles together like drums.  I thought, “Those are his toys.”  And that’s something I see a lot here.  People don’t have all the junk that occupies our every waking moment in America between iPhones and iPads and PCs and cool sports gear, etc.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love all our American techno-gadgets and toys, but seeing a boy banging two empty plastic bottles together and knowing he was perfectly happy with those two bottles, and I just thought, “Yeah, we don’t just need a year of solitude to figure out what we love.  We need a year of being stripped of all the techno-junk we have, to get back to something more simple and be reminded that life is pretty darn good no matter how rich or how poor, if you’re just willing to be happy with what you have.”

I think Ramadan gets to the heart of that idea – being  happy and thankful for what you have.  When I first moved up to Fort Fouad and started sleeping under my mosquito net, I wrapped a group of Christmas lights around the net, because I thought they were peaceful when they blinked, but the first night of Ramadan, I turned them off, and as the crickets chirped, I just lay there and stared up, straight up into the night.  From my roof, the Milky  Way (El-triq el-labnya) stretched across the horizon shining brighter than usual thanks to the New Moon.  It took moving all the way out into a three hundred year-old olive orchard before I could actually see the Milky Way out here.  But let me tell you, it was worth it.  But as the moon grew in the sky, it faded the Milky Way a little and gave me something else to look forward to.

Ramadan follows the path of the moon from one new moon to the next, so each night, as I would glance at the moon before bedtime, I could see Ramadan passing by from the waxing crescent and now to a half moon as the month is one-fourth gone.  I don’t know that I’ve ever really watched – I mean, really watched – the phases of the moon so carefully, knowing that they are guiding my month and not just the tide.  It’s actually this incredibly comforting feeling.  You feel sort of like the moon is watching you, and it’s not just happening the other way around.  You can’t help but glance up, and your eyes are drawn right to it, and it’s just you and this big orb in the sky that’s busy tellin’ time.

And time, she’s a movin.  She’s moving quickly.  Soon, Ramadan will be over.  My Close-of-Service Conference will have passed.  I’ll be in America in just three or four more cycles of that moon, and before I know it, on to the next thing.  That’s the way a sky works, I think.  It just glides along the horizon, new seasons, new constellations.  The longer you sit and stare up at that old sky, the more convinced you are that the crickets and the stars have some secret plan they’re working on together, some sort of great, electric light symphony they’re getting ready for.  It’s just hard not to stare up at that sky and not be overwhelmed and not know that there’s some thanksgiving that must be spoken, that Ramadan, indeed, is generous.

Remembering 11 September

I remember sitting in my desk laughing at the television when all planes were diverted to Canada.  Someone in the class busted out with a joke, “Yeah, screw Canada,” and we all started laughing desperate to find something to keep us from crying.  Mrs. Hardin, our senior English teacher who deserved more love than she received for how much she challenged us, turned off the television and began to cry herself, “You guys don’t get it, do you?  People are dying.  God only knows how many people are dying, and you’re laughing.  What’s happening right now is going to change your lives, and you don’t even get it.”

We sat there in silence.  I’ve never felt so guilty in my life, but a few minutes later, Mrs. Hardin turned the television back on as the images bounced back and forth between the Pentagon and the Trade Towers, what was left of them.  And black smoke; lots of it.  I became obsessed with the images, unable to look away from the television.

By third block, there were confirmations that the attacks were likely the result of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.  Images on the television showed Middle Easterners dancing in the streets and cheering.  “They’re dancing today,” I said in fury to my Calculus teacher, “But tomorrow they’ll all be dead.”  She agreed.  But I didn’t really understand what I was saying.   I knew nothing about them.  Nothing.  To me, they were just a different color and for some reason, they wanted to kill us.  So the natural response seemed to be that we would have to retaliate.  Yet, for every part of me that was ready for vengeance by mid-afternoon, I carried this sickening feeling buried deep down as I looked around at my peers thinking we’d find a way to overplay the need for “justice,” that nothing positive could come from the possibility that all those dancing Muslims could soon be dead.  I was deeply conflicted, a part of me ready to fight; another part of me believing that couldn’t be the answer.  And what was worse, I knew nothing about Islam, mostly because in American high schools, we were taught nothing about religion, lest someone complain about the separation of church and state.  The attempts to keep Christianity out of the public sphere had made us all stupid when it came to other religions.

By fourth block, I sat in an art class with Mrs. Haubold.  She turned on the television for Tony Blair’s speech, but a few other students wanted it off.  A couple of girls in the class passed notes around about their most recent relationship issues, which made me even more furious.  In Tennessee, it seemed, what had happened that morning so far off and in New York or Pennsylvania was already forgotten by some.  I didn’t understand students who weren’t obsessed with what was taking place.  But Mrs. Hardin’s words sunk deep within me, “What’s happening now is going to change your lives, and you don’t even get it.”  I had to “get it.”  I had to figure out what Mrs. Hardin meant.

And so it’s been ten years, and now I’m surrounded by Islam and working in the Arab world.  I’ve even taken on an Arabic name, Fouad, which means heart.  I sometimes wonder here what Fouad could’ve said to that young, naive Philip sitting in the classroom watching the television angrily and building up stereotypes and generalizations for an entire race of people I knew absolutely nothing about.  I wonder if I had been educated on Islam, would I have been able to say on that first 9/11, “Hey, that’s not Islam.  That’s a twisted, extremist take on a beautiful religion.”  Would I have been so quick to suggest that hate was the answer to hate?  Would I have been able to ask myself deep questions about why this tragedy was happening or about how to handle the grief in an appropriate way?

I don’t know.  I don’t know if I could have been educated to think about what was happening in a more critical way.  But part of why my work here, my blog, my need to speak out against injustice toward Muslims, my need to speak positively about a religion that is not my own… all stems from my need to recognize that if I had not bothered to educate myself about Islam or to think critically about the tragedy of 9/11, I might still be that young man who answered hate with hate.  I might still be advocating stereotypes and passing judgments on many Muslim Americans who are supposed to have the same rights as any other Americans.

And so remembering has become incredibly important to me but only where remembrance breeds humility, understanding, and peace, never vengeance.  Do you get it?  Do you understand what happened or why it happened or how it changed our lives?  A lot of Americans today will pray for the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 or for the American troops fighting overseas.  I believe firmly that we should add to that list of prayers our brothers and sisters in America and abroad who have had to feel the impact of our choices to answer hate with hate rather than to seek peace and understanding.  And I would add a prayer that educating ourselves to think critically about this tragedy and others like it, becomes a priority for us in the hope that nothing like 9/11 or the responses to it could ever happen again.

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.