Stories from Morocco, or Remembering My Encounter with the Muslim Faith

With all that’s been said about Islam lately, I thought I’d take a moment to republish something I wrote after returning from my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave to local churches and a local rotary club in Tennessee:

Act 1. Arrival.

When I first arrived in Morocco, we were taken by bus to the beach town of Mehdya where we stayed for the first week as part of our training. I remember being incredibly nervous. I remember thinking, “How did you end up here? You’re living in a Muslim country now.” But for the first week, I was still incredibly sheltered, as all the Moroccans we encountered spoke fluent English.

Then, after a week of training, we were sent to a nearby beach town, called Kenitra, where we were tasked with the responsibility of buying our own telephones in Arabic and to simply have a walkabout experiencing this new culture. There’s nothing quite as scary, let me tell you, as walking around a strange world that’s vastly different from your own and thinking, “Get used to this, because this is the world you live in now.” I will never forget walking around in the medina of Kenitra – the streets that smelled of cinnamon and ginger and cumin filling the air. The street was bustling and busy and loud, men shouting prices in Arabic, everyone staring at you obviously curious why this white person was walking around the street in their country and what in the world did he want? I am embarrassed to say that some of my first thoughts were driven by the media’s only focus on Islam: terrorism. My first thoughts walking the streets of Morocco were not, “Wow, what a beautiful country,” though I wasn’t far from that. My first thoughts pertained entirely to my safety. I was nervous, awkward. I checked over my shoulder constantly. I thought things like, “It would be so easy to take us Peace Corps folk out with a car bomb or a suicide bomb. Or a gun or a knife.”

It took me a long time to break myself of these concerns. After I moved to Sefrou, a larger town in the Middle Atlas, I would walk to my Arabic class each morning, a thirty-minute walk across town alone. Now, I’ve traveled the world before. Been through all of Europe. Seen most of Israel. Even seen a lot of America. But I’d never really done it alone. So, it was normal, even wise, to be conscious of your safety. But to expect a terrorist to come around the corner – something about that tendency bothered me. And it really started bothering me after I met Fatima.

Peace Corps asks that volunteers, during the first few months of their service, live with a host family to help improve language and cultural integration. So, my first few months of life in Morocco were spent with Fatima, Mohamed, Youssef, Marouane, and Khalil. One woman, five men. And let me tell you, Fatima ran a tight ship and nobody questioned her authority. It occurs to me that it’s worth saying at this point that no matter what culture, no matter how patriarchal, Fatima had figured out that women really are in charge, and her way of managing “her boys” (including me) challenged all my assumptions about the way gender roles play out in Islam.

Perhaps what was more impressive were Fatima’s first words to me when she met me. They are the only English she knows: “Hello. I love you. And you are my son.” What was more impressive was the way Fatima – and really her whole family – didn’t just say those words to be words, to make me feel more comfortable. They lived them out in everyday life. When I got sick, Fatima sat by my bedside and brought me warm milk (why she thought warm milk was supposed to make me do anything other than vomit, I’ll never understand, but I know she was trying). Each night after I got back from Arabic class, Fatima sat with me while she made buttons for a djellaba, and we reviewed what I had learned, practicing our language together just trying to make sense of what the other person was saying.

The more time I spent in Morocco, the more people I started meeting who were like Fatima. And the more I met people like that, the more I started to question this terrorist motif we have in America that makes the word “terrorist” synonymous with “Muslim.” I’m well aware that “the plural of anecdote is not data;” but our lives are merely a myriad of anecdotes, and within them are often the powerful stories that need to be told.

Act II. Driss and Hassan.

That leads me to my second act. One of my jobs as a volunteer was to teach English. Now, it’s worth saying that not a lot of people in Morocco speak English. Yes, in recent years, English has become more important to know, but people pick it up there the same way many of us pick up Spanish and “know” words like “burrito” and “taco.” But we don’t really know any Spanish, a lot of us. This is changing in America the same way it’s changing in Morocco that people become bilingual (or in their case, tri-lingual), because both here and there, we’re starting to realize that picking up a second (or third or fourth) language is absolutely one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself.

As part of teaching English, I was able to get to know several English teachers in my community. One of them, Driss Layaadi, became a dear friend over my two years. Now, perhaps what is most interesting about Driss is just how much he loves English. I’ve met English teachers in America who didn’t love English the way Driss loved English. And I say this without the slightest tinge of exaggeration when I say that Driss was more fluent in English than I am, even though he found this impossible to believe. And I can say this with some certainty because he would occasionally have me read his papers or approach me with spelling or vocabulary or grammar questions I could not answer without an English book and a dictionary to help me. I can say this because he would use words like “devastated” or “post-colonialism” or “modernity.” Needless to say, Driss was an incredibly smart man living in the desert when he should’ve been in the university.

I think, in hindsight, it was the fact that Driss was fluent in English that made it possible to have such a meaningful friendship with him. When your Arabic is at third-grade level, it’s hard to attain a very meaningful friendship with someone your own age unless they speak English. Driss let me cross the barrier in an open and comfortable way to the point that even though he was Muslim and I wasn’t, we could openly discuss religion and politics and could even disagree with one another in a civil and loving way, something I’ve learned is apparently nearly impossible for people to do these days in our sad world of social media Facebook arguments about guns or whatever.

One day, I was walking down the street, and this kid – nice kid – walks up to me and says, “Hey, so are you Muslim?” I gave my typical response, which was either “No, I’m a Christian, but I fast and I pray” or, “I have my religion, and you have yours, and that’s that.” Or, sometimes when the conversation moved in the conversion territory, “No, I will not convert to Islam, because if I did, my mother would cry. But I respect all religions.”

So, one day, I’m walking down the street, and this kid starts in with those questions, and I was giving my usual stock responses, and the kid said, “Well, you know, you’re going to burn forever if you don’t convert. Your prophet was a liar.” [I should add that this kid didn’t mean this harshly. He was never anything but nice to me. And whenever this happened, and it did happen sometimes, people were usually blunt but simultaneously caring and loving. My unwillingness to convert didn’t change our relationship. I mention that because that’s different from my experience in America when people have tried to convert me to their own denomination in the Bible belt. My relationship with those people was not the same afterward. It was as if they were more interested in being right or in “gaining a crown in heaven” than they were earnestly concerned with my salvation. I’m one of those people who believes you should preach the gospel at all times and, to paraphrase a quote misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi, never use words when actions are better. For Moroccans, they just off-handedly made those remarks because they felt like they should, because they really did care, and when I wasn’t willing to convert, they didn’t love me any less.

So, back to Driss. Naturally, I told Driss about this kid who had tried to convert me. His response: “That’s just incredulous. I want to tell you something. Most people here don’t realize this, but many of us know that our Prophet Mohammed freed a Christian slave and later married and loved her. She had been a gift to him from one of the Christian churches in Byzantine.” [I do want to make a side-note that after Driss told me this story, I looked it up. Maria, indeed, was a Christian concubine sent to Mohamed who bore one of Mohamed’s sons, Ibrahim. It seemed from what I could tell that whether Maria was freed or given similar respect as Mohamed’s other wives was hotly debated by scholars. But on some level, that didn’t really matter: Driss believed the story he was telling me and it was part of the narrative that drove him to be the person he was – a person who loved people of all faiths.] His point was this: those silly kids you met don’t know what they’re talking about. As Muslims, we’re supposed to love our neighbors just like Christians are supposed to love theirs. Driss went on, for example, to explain to me that it is illegal to convert anyone in Morocco; that Mohamed had a deep respect for Jesus, who is born of a virgin and is the Judge during the end-times in the Qu’ran; and perhaps most importantly, that jihad is not a physical holy war as it’s made out to be by extremists or the modern media. Rather, jihad is term that translates to mean “struggle” or “difficulty” and is more closely related to the idea that each one of us deals with our own personal struggles that we constantly face, and if we hope to seek heaven, we’ll persevere in our inner struggle. This might sound familiar to you if you know your Bible: God “wrestles” with Jacob at the Ford of Jabbok in Genesis renaming Jacob to signify that he has “striven” with God. Israel, like Jihad, is term that really implies “perseverence with God.”

This point of view was reinforced not long after my conversation with Driss when my boss, Hassan Qarabach, came over one afternoon with a repairman to help me fix my broken refrigerator. [I should add, it was my third broken fridge, and never again in my life will I have anything but a top-notch fridge if I can help it.] As the man started working on my fridge, he started asking me all these questions, “Are you going to fast during Ramadan?”

“Yes, I fasted during Ramadan for all thirty days,” I told him.

“Do you pray or go to mosque?”

“I pray, but I don’t go to mosque, because I’m Christian.”

“But if you pray and you fast, why not become Muslim. It’s very important to convert.”

“Shut up,” my boss interjected finally, “Why don’t you convert to Christianity instead of trying to get him to convert to Islam. Shut up and do your job.”

On multiple occasions, when someone was trying to convert me, this happened. A man like Hassan came forward and saved the day, a man I should say I regard as both well-educated and highly devout. Come to think of it, the more devout and more educated people I met were almost always more welcoming and kind and eschewed all forms of religious harassment. In fact, one of my last train rides in the country, I sat next to a man named Hicham who wore the Islamic robe, had a long, black beard and was studying to be an Imam. He called me his “brother” as a Christian, and a few weeks later emailed me a link to scholarships you can get if you’re interested in inter-religious dialogue.

These were the people I was scared of those first few days. I confess, on September 11th, I was a high school senior. I was angry. I was ready to go to war. To the images of Muslims abroad burning the American flag rejoicing in the streets the day the towers fell, I angrily said to my Calculus teacher, “They may rejoice today, but tomorrow, we’ll obliterate them.” She looked at me and nodded her head in full agreement. We were all Islamophobes on 9/12.

But something wasn’t right. These people I kept meeting in Morocco again and again loved America. They weren’t about to wave a flag and burn it. They did not support, even slightly, what had happened to us a dozen years ago. By and large, they were the opposite of everything I expected. I expected anti-American sentiment. I was met with hospitality and love and mint tea and couscous. I was given invitations, practically begged to spend the night. The love extended me put the Christians I know to shame in their ability to show love. I was told again and again how much I was appreciated.

So, where were the terrorists? I think it’s when we’re ignorant about our own faith (let alone others) that we’re more likely to cling to stories that aren’t true. To replace the truth with those lies. Midway through my service, I read about a sociologist who interviewed several “retired” terrorists. He had actually focused on a group of Moroccan terrorists who were originally from the town of Tetuouan and who had attacked several trains in Spain. He found in his studies that most of the people who come to extremist forms of Islam are not particularly religious before they join the movement. They are, instead, usually poor, uneducated, and desperate. They will look to anyone who can give them hope. So, if somebody comes along and says, “Hey, I know you may have to die for this cause, but you’ll get your virgins in heaven,” or whatever, well, if you’ve got no money, no education to think otherwise, and no hope, the guy may have just put something on your table that might give you reason for living. Or for dying. We see this with people who turn to violence right here in our own country constantly: when you lack education, opportunity, and outlook, violence isn’t all that far away from anger.

This particular sociologist further demonstrated his point when he interviewed nearby school children in Tetuouan asking them who their heroes were. Four answers consistently came up: a Moroccan player for the Barcelona soccer team, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as the Terminator movie had just been released), Barack Obama, and Osama bin Laden, the latter two tying as “heroes” for Moroccan youth. Now, how could that be? A world-famous terrorist and a man who was the leader of the free world, complete opposites, tying among Moroccan youth for their “heroes.” The sociologist had a simple explanation: people will listen to anyone who gives them hope, regardless of religion or politics or any other factors. Thus, while Islam plays a role in forming the thoughts of terrorists, say, the same way Christianity may have some weird role in forming the thoughts of Westboro Baptist Church, neither Islam nor Christianity could be fully responsible for the actions of those groups.

So, where was I left? Did anti-American sentiment exist in Morocco? Well, yes. I knew of one twelve-year old, for example, who was named Osama – great kid, I hear, really funny – but judging by the way his father acted, it would not be a surprise for me to find out who little Osama was named after. But anti-American sentiment is not to be confused with terrorism. We can’t go around equating someone who doesn’t like America’s policies with terrorism any more than we can equate a radio show host who makes a racist statement with the KKK. They aren’t the same thing. And we have to be careful about making those big leaps. I kept telling myself that over and over, that I couldn’t jump to thinking that just because someone might not like my government’s choices didn’t mean they didn’t like me. Or Americans, generally. Nor did it mean that they automatically supported what had happened on September 11 or in Libya. Do I think there were some folks who did? Sure. And Osama’s father might have been one of them. But little Osama was not. Little Osama was someone who just wanted to play or perhaps to learn English from a Peace Corps Volunteer – who was probably a joy to be around, like any Moroccan or American kid.

And at the heart of what I’ve learned is this: there are bad apples in every country and every religion. But one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch . . . girl. And in fact, most bad apples aren’t even in the apple family. Some are oranges masquerading as apples. And some might be crab apples, but that’s still a long ways from Golden Delicious.

Act III. Hamza.

Hamza

This is Hamza Mahjoubi, my eighteen year old host brother. In this picture, I think Hamza is seventeen, just a year or so away from graduating high school and following in his older brother – Omar’s – footsteps of going to college in Fes. He is the nicest kid I have ever met.

One day, he saw me at his school in one of the teacher’s cars and rushed up kissing my cheek excited – the standard way of Moroccan greetings, like the French. I had a friend with me, and Hamza didn’t hesitate to invite both of us to lunch that very day. I always loved how this high school kid who probably needed to be more focused on his high school Calculus or who probably had plenty of better things, more interesting things to do than hang out with an American who could barely speak his language nevertheless went out of his way a number of times to make sure I was comfortable and happy, to check in on me. To be welcoming. One night when it was way past bedtime, we all stood around dancing for a full hour to music I was playing, and I don’t think I ever saw Hamza happier. When I told him I wasn’t going to convert to Islam, that was fine with him. He needed me to be his friend far more than he needed me to be his religion. Politics and religion may be important on some level, but they shouldn’t be tools of harm that get in the way of family or friendship.

And that’s how most Muslims are: they’re really . . . a lot like us. They’re just family people. They don’t hate Americans; most don’t even hate the American government, though maybe they should. They don’t want to fight. They just want to live their lives in peace.

One week after I left Morocco, as I was crossing the Atlantic by boat in fact, I got a phone call from a friend telling me that Hamza had died. Bleeding in his kidneys. The farther I got from the Kingdom I had come to love, the harder it was to actually picture Hamza no longer there. When I left, he was still alive, and everything I left behind stays in my memory just like it was, untouched, unharmed, un-aged. Could I imagine some awful medical complication, something I know he could’ve avoided had he the medical care we have in the First World, stealing his life? No. I refuse to let that happen so easily. Hamza may be physically gone, but he’ll go with me everywhere I go, everywhere I take him, because for the rest of my life, whenever I hear someone make a comparison between Islam and terrorism, I’ll think of Hamza. A good, innocent kid stolen not by the evils of a few people who have warped a religion for their own purposes but stolen by a poor health care system. I’ll think of how different our world could be if all our energies were focused just a tiny bit more on improving education and roads and health care and rights for women and children and eyesight for the visually-impaired and friendships – friendships with people who are incredibly different from you, friendships with people you might once have thought were enemies but a little openness and kindness taught you otherwise.

Seasons of Transition, or Autumn on Shelter Island, or Rummaging through Other People’s Stuff to Know Where You Belong

AutumnShelter Island is brimming with the colors of autumn. The trees are surrendering their leaves eagerly, and gold and crimson paint the landscape against a still-green grass. Needless to say, I am mesmerized by it, caught up in an awe that leaves me wandering around the island – quite literally – as though I’ve been transported into a dream, a surreal landscape of colors made only in the movies. Now that the summer residents have vacated, the island emptier and quiet, there’s a kind of freedom to everything, and watching the leaves fall doesn’t tell, as autumn often does, of the impending winter with all the deadened silence it promises. Instead, there’s the sense that the leaves are just doing what it’s time for them to do and are glad that now is their time. Even the trees that are already bare don’t seem cold and sad to me the way they did in other climes. Here, it just feels so much more like a kind of invitation, as though they’ve shed their heavy fur to better stretch out and feel the breeze against their naked skin. And this process is happening all around me at once. It’s as if the breeze has whispered to them all, “Now, now! Become light!” And to be in the midst of it is thrilling and humbling.

I started drinking my mother’s Russian tea again and am eager to carve pumpkins and warm up some apple cider. The cooler air doesn’t yet freeze: it just invites other reasons to bring about more warmth in other ways. As I’ve taken to exploring more of the island, I’ve wanted to see every tree I could and feel and smell the sea-breeze anywhere it might blow. And it’s lead me down some interesting paths:

One such path, in fact, has been to venture to estate sales on the island, and this past weekend took me to a four-story house overlooking the Heights. From the top floor, you could see the little peninsula – Jennings Point – where I live and beyond it all the way to the edge of the North Shore where Long Island Sound stretches to Connecticut. Strangely, I was more taken with the views from the house and with the house itself than I was with what was in it, but everything was for sale. I guess that should be obvious given that it was an estate sale, but I’d never been to one, and it felt sudden and intense like the changing leaves. Just somehow sadder.

Asbury

Nothing had been moved. It all sat exactly where it had been when it was last used (some of which may have been a very long time), and the only difference was that a tag had been added claiming what it was believed to be worth in dollar amount and not in sentimental value. I wondered whether estate sales were ever happy events? Wasn’t the natural conclusion that someone had died? And so much of their stuff, the things they’d held dear perhaps, was now just a reason for someone to make money to be able to buy more stuff or pay off what was already owed. The words of the Teacher, that “everything under the sun is meaningless” (Ecc. 1:14) were on my tongue but were held within. Outside the leaves were still rushing to the ground to make a happy, final journey, and I hoped much of this story and the many stories the stuff therein lent to an equally happy end.

But as I wandered around peering into room after room, I realized that without those stories, the stuff felt flat to me. I kept thinking that if someone told me about the grandfather who carved the wooden giraffe in the corner, I’d just have to have it. Or if I overheard a conversation about the old trunk in the middle of the room, I’d long for it, too. A few months ago on my first yard-sale outing, I came across something that looked like a clock but one that counted high tide and low tide instead of time, and as I looked it over, a gentleman in his 70s smiled and said that he’d made it himself, carved the wood by hand. It wasn’t pride that he spoke; just the assurance and hope he conveyed that something handmade would have the right home. I smiled back and told him that my grandfather had done a lot of woodwork, too, and I bought the little clock on the spot. Stories extend the impermanent; the better the story, the longer the permanence of a thing will last.

All of that is to say, my mind lately is so heavily-focused on things that last amid major change, on the movement from old to new and seasons doing what they must. But how can you tell a leaf from a tree if they had the same roots? How can you know what of the past isn’t just a dusty tradition but is something that belongs?

I am not from New York, and this is something my southern drawl, faint though it is, reminds me and my coworkers of daily. And yet, I pride myself on the little accomplishments – on learning how to correctly pronounce “Lawn Guyland” and maintain that pronunciation each time I say it. For as much of a belonging as I feel I have gained here already, there’s still much acclimation I have ahead of me, acclimation borne in the task of determining what belongs and who I am to make that call. My job right now, in fact, is deeply tied to this question as I prepare a new season of camp, one that will impact some 700 people directly and countless others along the way.

Part of being so “new” to a place is to learn how to dissect, understand, and respect the cultural differences of that place and how you either fit into it – or don’t. And, along with that, what to do when the fit doesn’t happen as nicely as you might wish it did. As a Peace Corps volunteer, the first six to nine months of my life in Morocco were devoted almost entirely to this aim, the process of adjustment, and so it’s interesting that in a culture where I speak the same language, eat pretty much the same food, and share the same nationality, I can still find myself needing to “adjust” to a different kind of culture shock, the kind where, say, a four-story mansion leaves me feeling likes the leaves rushing to the ground outside but still wanting to know what my place is in waltzing about ooing and aahing at the beautiful view. Peering across the Peconic Sound at my home from a mansion in the Heights was eye-opening to say the least —

PharmacyI have come to feel strongly that in order to do my best job, to be my best self, I have to have a very clear understanding of the vision that’s been laid before me. It’s important to me how I worded that, too. Note that I didn’t say “my vision,” though I hope to shape the one that’s long been a part of this place. To have vision is more than merely peering selfishly into the future to foretell the best possible outcome or how to get there. It requires understanding the past in all its flaws and with all its greatest triumphs. And in looking backward and forward together it requires remembrance, something that is markedly different from simply “remembering,” which is a cerebral process, but remembrance is instead an action, if not even a kind of ritual that moves from the cerebral recalling of a narrative toward the acting it out. Vision takes the “stuff” cluttering our homes and hears the old stories, but, instead of leaving the stuff to gather dust, picks it all back up again and makes a space for new stories to stand alongside it. That is, vision is wholly utilitarian. And it requires community. A vision for yourself is dead. It’s not merely a fallen leaf. Those grow back or replenish the ground. Vision without community is dead at its roots. Vision with community knows how to decipher the leaves from the trees. It celebrates change not as an end but as part of the regrowth process. But not every leaf will understand that’s what’s happening as it falls or will grasp the beauty of the process, and that’s why change is sometimes so much harder than it should be; that’s why vision, which includes change, demands seeing the whole picture: not merely the leaf but the tree; not merely the tree but the ground and the roots below; not merely the roots of one tree but of the many they’re connected to; not merely the many root systems but the whole of the forest and its ecosystem.

Walking around the little downtown of Shelter Island Heights, I ended up in Dering Harbor just off Bridge Street on the 114 between the North and South ferries. A car pulled up and the window rolled down, “Can you tell me how to get to the ferry?” someone asked. I pointed them in the direction and assured them they were on the right road. Another car. Same question. And another. Somehow just walking down the street, I joked to myself, I must look like a native. I must seem like I know where I am and what I’m doing. I don’t. None of us really do. Even when we are natives to an area. But I’m gaining the ability slowly but surely to look back and know where the roads I’ve traveled lead. I’m looking forward and pointing out the best route I know for now. Isn’t that all any of us can ever really do? At least until the time comes that, we too, will happily fall from the tree to replenish the ground, and the whole season will celebrate what’s come before and what’s coming after.

Peace Corps on Shelter Island?

FerryAt the risk of sounding like I’m boasting, I’ll avoid any overuse of the words “idyllic” or “bucolic” or “precious” to describe the little island I recently moved to on the Eastern end of Long Island. But it’s hard not to have this strange overwhelming sense of awe when I drive around Shelter Island – a land without streetlights, a land without postal service to your home, a land with no speed limits over 35 mph. It’s… a different place.

Between Long Island wine, the Hamptons, or some of the homes on Shelter Island that are on the market for millions of dollars, there was a part of me at first that felt deeply out of place. My last exciting adventure took me to northwestern Africa, and though it’s been a few years since, the images of a developing country are never far from my mind. And they are even more evident in the midst of some of the wealth I encountered moving to the “not-exactly-but-almost” Hamptons. That is not to badmouth people who have come into wealth by any means. It’s just to say that it’s been a somewhat jarring experience to move to such a place from, well, the kind of poverty you might expect to encounter in a Peace Corps country. No surprises there, I guess: going from one extreme to the other is always going to be jarring.

And yet, maybe that’s why this next sentence is going to sound so insanely ridiculous: Shelter Island is more like Peace Corps than just about any other place I could imagine moving to in America. But maybe not how you think.

The first reason why it’s so much like Peace Corps here is transport. Like Morocco where I lived in the Peace Corps, you often find yourself limited to travel by certain hours. Shelter Island has a very reliable ferry system, but the fact that it shuts down between midnight and 5:45am could leave you stranded on the island or on the mainland. When there is no bridge or tunnel, you have to plan everything around the ferries. And in bad weather? You could find yourself stuck on the island for a few days at least. That does two things: it creates a tight-knit community on the island but it can also make you feel isolated at times. I can’t begin to tell you how similar that was to my life in Peace Corps.

The next thing is the wildlife. My first morning waking up in my temporary little cottage in the woods (still with a seaside view), I woke up to deer, turkeys, and chipmunks running around outside. Deer are heavily populated on the island, having swam here across the Peconic. But it was really the turkeys that took me back to Morocco. So much of the experience of Peace Corps made you feel like you were backpacking, always communing with nature in some way or another. That is very evident to my life currently. And there’s plenty other sea life to enjoy: whales and sea lions in the winter, ospreys and seagulls everywhere.

Finally, it wouldn’t have been Peace Corps if it wasn’t meaningful work. I am working on Jennings Point at Quinipet Camp & Retreat Center where we do spiritual and environmental education and run both summer camping programs and retreats for very diverse groups. The work we do impacts people in real, meaningful ways, and that’s something I needed to be doing, something I see myself devoting my life to one way or another.

IMG_20150506_150253979_HDR

So, to some Shelter Island residents, it might sound a little crazy to compare the place to a developing country in Africa, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s those very characteristics that drew me to this wonderful island sheltered between the North and South Forks of Long Island. It’s those characteristics that are why I’ll stay.

God [Bless] You

A week or so ago, on my way to the metro in downtown St. Louis for a ride to the airport, I was stopped by a man who begged me to buy him a meal. I don’t usually offer anything to beggars, partially because I don’t have anything to offer and partially because I worry that doing so creates systemic problems of dependence. Every once in a while, though, empathy gets the best of me, so I reached into my pocket and gave him all that I had at the time – three bucks. “Three bucks?! I can’t do nothing with that! Give me some more,” he demanded, and I walked off a little stunned.

[Before going any further, I should pause to make two worthwhile notes: The first is that my last experience with begging happened in North Africa while I was a Peace Corps volunteer where, for the most part, if I handed someone the equivalent of 6 cents American (50 cents in Moroccan dirham), they usually responded with, “God bless your parents,” and moved on. While North African beggars could be persistent until you told them a phrase in Arabic that roughly translated, “God ease your burden,” I never carried fear of beggars there. After all, it would be pretty strange to come across a Moroccan beggar who had a knife, let alone unheard of to come across any Moroccan carrying a gun unless they were a soldier. So, maybe it’s because of the reality of that fear and how different life is in America, or maybe it’s some kind of inherent racism you’re bound to be born with if you were raised in the south, but I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that I’m an incredibly privileged white dude who was carrying out these conversations with poor, black men (one of whom I stereotyped to be gay) in an area with a history of violence, and to say my fears weren’t fueled by stereotypes isn’t owning up to those realities. So let’s start there.]

Burned by the lack of gratitude at first, I gave a rather forceful “no” to the next beggar that asked. And even though I knew it wasn’t fair to carry the stereotype from one experience to the next, I had a tough time shaking the shear chutzpah of the man who demanded more after seeing my wallet empty. In response to my “no,” the next man glared at me and said in a sarcastic tone, “Well, God bless you, then.”

No one had sneezed. He said, “God bless you,” I heard, “God has blessed you, and yet you do nothing.” I heard, “God blesses you but curses me.” I heard in his tone not the word “bless” at all but the word “curse,” and in the tone, I realized just how interchangeable the two words are. So many blessings, so many curses, all right before us and many are one in the same. The curse of being privileged is the real risk of forgetting or misunderstanding what it means to be blessed in the face of those who have endured so few blessings.

There’s a scene early in the Book of Job where the blameless Job has already lost nearly everything that matters to him. His children are tragically killed and now even with failing health and “boils” showing up all over his skin, he scratches at them to remove them one-by-one with a pottery shard. His wife looking on kind of mocks him in 2:9, “Are you still holding onto your integrity? Curse God and die.” In the English of this text, the word “barech,” or barak, is translated as “curse,” but – and here’s the interesting part – it also (and more frequently) means “bless.” In the Hebrew, much the way “God bless you” was spoken to me on the streets of St. Louis, the antithetical “curse” was what was meant. It gives you a good picture of the tone of Job’s wife: “Yeah, sure Job, everything will be better if ya just keep scraping off all those boils like that. Why, you should just bless your maker who’s given you this abundance of awesomeness and go on ‘living.'” Needless to say, I bet Job’s wife and I would’ve gotten on well.

Because, in a sense, Job’s wife hints at a deeper meaning that there is no blessing without a curse. Nor is there a curse without a blessing. That’s kind of how I read the whole Book of Job. I don’t like to think of Job [spoiler alert] being rewarded in the end with a new family and riches all as a result of his faith so much as it is a recognition that life is bound to deal out this endless cycle of blessings and curses all meshed together for which anyone might endure regardless of what they’ve done or who they are. To walk the streets of St. Louis, no less the streets of Morocco, is to encounter that two-sided coin, of which everything is, and to live in the tension of never really knowing which side of the coin you’re giving or receiving. And even when the answer is almost always “both,” that doesn’t really clear a whole lot up. Though privileged, I am not a person without trials or temptations or without my own baggage constantly being schlepped around with me. So too, I do not know the in-depth, personal trials of those who walk the streets hungry, wanting, faced with desperation. Have they known what it is to be cursed? Surely to God and sadly, and yet, I suspect, they’ve known better than I what it is to be blessed at times, as well. The great challenge of this stupid, beautiful little life is to see not merely each other’s blessings nor simply each other’s curses but to lovingly accept the painful beauty of both.

Because It’s the End… Until It’s Not

If I could categorize my life down into relationships and work and education and just sorta divide it all up, it would be easy to think of the last several years as having been a series of beginnings and ends – the ‘Wabash years’ or the ‘camp years’ or the ‘Peace Corps adventures,’ and so many of those two- to four-year chunks of time would feel completed. Something about the way my brain functions seems to draw me into compartmentalizing life to try to make the most sense out of it as I can. But maybe it’s not that clean-cut with such clear endings.

I remember finishing college and thinking, “Well, that’s it. I’m done with Wabash.” But in so many ways, Wabash was never really done with me. The things I learned there carried into my Vanderbilt education and went with me to Morocco. And, speaking of Morocco, there’s the Peace Corps. There was something incredibly final about leaving, as the boat pulled away from the Port of Casablanca. You could say, I don’t live in Morocco anymore. That chapter of my life is closed. Except it’s not. The third goal of the Peace Corps is lifelong: “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” That’s why I started blogging, and it’s why I’ve talked in churches and classrooms about Morocco and about Islam. It’s been crucial to me to get this message out that says, “Hey, I lived with these folks; they aren’t terrorists. They’re incredibly wonderful, incredibly hospitable, and I consider them family.” In a period of transition right now, I can’t say where that adventure leads me, but when the boat pulled away from Casablanca, I now know that wasn’t the end of that experience. I mean, the fact that I still dream in Arabic speaks volumes, after all.

When I got back from Morocco, one of the things I thought I was done with was organized religion. For too long, I’d either watched religious people hurt one another or even been one of the folks causing the hurt. It was easy to typecast religious people as manipulative, controlling hypocrites, cause a lot of the time, they were, and so I said I was done, that it was time to distance myself from it for good. And that’s who I was; it was who I needed to be in the midst of that grief. But in coming to realize that life is process, not outcome, I’ve come to see that, sometimes, we’re done… until we’re not anymore.

I’m not done with Wabash or camp or Peace Corps or organized religion. Those things are embedded into who I am and always will be. We may sometimes have moments where, for our own sakes, we have to distance ourselves from the people or the institutions that made us who we are, but we’re never really done with them. We’re “in the soup” with them, so to speak, constantly working through and negotiating how our past is going to navigate our present.

Time

One of my Facebook friends shared a picture this morning (above) that shows two images of time – how we perceive time as a linear movement of cause-and-effect vs. what time actually is, an intertwined collection of causes and results that lead to other causes and results. That first image is what we like to believe because we really do want to hold to this notion that we can categorize our lives with beginnings and ends. That’s the easy way to make sense of it. But in reality, one thing just leads to another which leads to another, and there’s no reason to think we won’t eventually be brought full circle. That image of time may be chaotic and crazy, but there’s something refreshing about it. And it’s worth remembering in those moments when we think and claim we’re done, with anything, that we never really are.

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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