Changing Trains, or a little life update of sorts

There’s this moment after leaving the Secaucus station where the train ducks into a tunnel, and the deeper into the dark it goes, the quicker the air pressure changes as if to suck the little sickle cell up the vein to the heart of Manhattan. From under the Hudson, all the passengers are adjusting their ears with those closed-mouth yawns where they move their jaws into their throats repeatedly to equalize the pressure. And all the while they are staring into the black windowpane as though just outside the train there’s more to see than the bleak concrete tunnel. In reality, the windows have become mirrors. And in the tunnel, the train feels smaller, a community traversing together even if momentarily. There’s the woman doing her make-up because she woke up a little too late. The twenty-something is wearing a pair of Beats and bouncing his head up and down as though the whole train has been sucked into his favorite Eminem song. A woman walks the aisles begging for loose change so she can get home. A balding, slim man with glasses reads the Times. Another man with slightly hipper glasses, the Daily News. Most today are buried in their phones. The Quiet Car, the “no-talking” section of the train, is surprisingly louder than the other cars, mostly because everyone is so quiet that every screech, every bump, and every “Oh my God is the train about to break apart!” cacophony has been deafeningly heightened. Everybody is waiting. That’s what this is more than anything else. The City is coming but it isn’t here yet, and we have all resigned to the hard fact that this just is what it is and isn’t about to be any faster. Commuters are surprisingly patient people. Most of the time.

Sometimes, I think, I get so good at waiting that I could just end up living there in the train. I used to think it was because I loved the unknown that I ended up in wait. But the unknown implies some kind of obsession over the destination, and maybe for better or worse I just really like the journey. Suffice to say, I’m no longer on Shelter Island. I guess I sort of unintentionally traded it for Manhattan. And so, the last month and a half has been train ride after train ride between the City and New Jersey. I worked briefly delivering food via phone app as I walked from Greenwich Village to Harlem and back again. The tips were terrible. The work was exhausting. But when you walk miles on end around New York City, it’s hard not to fall in love with all the steel and glass – the way it stands fixed and stately while the arteries and veins below and beneath are dangerously alive and well.

In all the walking I did, I found myself meandering about some pretty fascinating places. I attended a faith table in the halls of The Riverside Church where Dr. King and Paul Tillich and past Presidents once preached. So, too, I found myself laying down in the street of Federal Plaza to stage a “die-in” protesting deportations of undocumented immigrant children that ended in their death. I spat on the steps of Trump Tower. I slurped down my first oysters with an old friend from the archaeological dig in Israel. I grabbed drinks in a quaint little bar in the Upper West side making new friends as we discussed just how to tackle the problem of Islamophobia head on. There’s something about this city, its mecca of ideas and hope, that makes you feel as though this could be where it all begins, whatever ‘it‘ is exactly. Every part of me that believes in changing the world, however narcissistic it may be to believe I could get to have a hand in doing so when that task belongs to us all, nevertheless feels called to this island more than any other.

Of course, it hasn’t been without its eye-openers. I was in Penn Station recently doing what people in Penn Station do: waiting. And killing time there, a homeless man approached me and asked me to buy him food. I hesitated and wanted to ignore him but went into Duane Reade and bought him a sandwich anyway. Afterward, I was upset with myself for having done so. My mind wandered to concerns about the “system of dependence” and whether I’d contributed to that. I felt guilty for having helped someone. And then it sort of hit me: is our country so broken, am I so broken, that there’s inevitable cultural guilt now ingrained in helping someone in need? And it’s not really about whether I’d bought the bloke a sandwich so much as it’s about the authentic kindness I was so hesitant to offer. I’m not even sure there was anything kind in the way I bought him a sandwich. I just wanted to give him the food as quickly as possible so he could go his way and I could go mine – both of us returning to our different worlds of waiting. And looking back on it, I don’t even think my hesitance or lack of kindness was about concerns over “systems of dependence,” the way my brain had conjured up that lie to make me feel better so much as it was about this very strange human desire to not want to confront real pain and suffering – be it our own or someone else’s. Suffering is something we’re so afraid of, given we’re so determined not to be reminded of our own mortality or our own flesh, that we’ll add to the pain by ignoring it as long as we can lest we have to see and do anything about it. But it’s the very fact that we have absolutely no idea what to do about it, how to help, that we end up preferring to ignore than to act.

A few weeks before, uncertain of my future and reeling from all this unexpected change, my girlfriend Mattie and I went to see Avenue Q and then to a Moroccan restaurant afterward. When it was over, we headed back to Penn Station for what had been a fantastically-successful evening. But when we got to Penn, we discovered there were no trains out until 11:11, two hours off. We were both exhausted but figured, “Hey, the City is ours, so let’s just keep walking around.” But every corner we turned, the City was just covered in darkness. A man wailing for help as if the world was ending. An addict coming up and begging for money from Mattie as his hands shook. When we said we wouldn’t give him money, he started grabbing for Mattie. I stepped between them ready to do whatever was necessary. There was more: people who smelled so badly you couldn’t sit within twenty feet of them in the train station, drunk people vomiting, a woman touching herself, a man who could barely walk. It was as if our romantic, privileged night had had the veil pulled, and the suffering side of the world was out in full force. It was scary, all that suffering. And so we naturally turned to those questions about what the hell we could do. Admittedly there was something off-putting to our white privilege luxury of getting to ask these questions. I was job searching and technically “homeless” and still saw “them,” these sufferers, as a “them.” Again, was assuming we can do something not kind of narcissistic? Who the hell are we to think we could tackle any of the problems these people have?

So, too, Mattie and I are really different in how we approach solutions to problems. There’s that old metaphor you might know about the guy walking on a beach with his friend, and he sees thousands of starfishes. Every so often, he picks one up and throws it back to the ocean. His friend asks, “Why are you doing that? It’s not like it matters,” and the guy responds, “It mattered to that one.” Mattie is relational. She sees throwing one starfish back into the sea to be hugely important even if it’s small in the grand scheme of things. I’m, sadly, embarrassingly, not often interested in the starfish as individuals – not as much as I feel I should be. It’s not that I don’t want to help. It’s that I’d rather go find the scientists, find out why all the starfish washed up here to begin with, discover it’s, say, the cause of Big Oil or some form of pollution, and then I want to go and speak truth to power. I think there’s salvation in Mattie’s approach. We need to see each other as people and not as broken systems even if the systems desperately need change. But I struggle with that.

We talked more: we joked about creating an organization of lobbyists who lobby lobbyists but for good causes. Such organizations are out there, I guess, but I don’t really feel they’re collaborative or united enough. We pressed the metaphor more. Mattie works in a pet store and is well-aware of how broken the pet industry is; she’s literally raised caged birds from the egg. The system is broken, and though Mattie abhors the notion of caging these creatures meant to soar, she understands that as much as she’d like to free them, a broken system means more birds, and it’s unlikely they would survive in the big blue yonder. She can do what little she can, though, and that’s to make sure they have good homes, that their cages are clean and well-kept and enough for them for now. It isn’t really a solution to the systemic problem, but it’s necessary work. A homeless shelter, a food pantry, a welfare check, food stamps: they don’t fight the system. They may even inadvertently shore it up at times. But until someone really tackles the Powers that Be, really breaks them apart or exposes them for the injustice they bring to our world in a way that begins meaningful change from the top-down, Mattie is right in caring for the caged birds, in throwing back one starfish at a time, or at least drizzling a little water on it to keep it alive. I don’t mean in using these metaphors to in any way cheapen that I am talking about people, human lives in reality. But it’s a point worth acknowledging – that it takes a metaphor about animals (where the power dynamics between human-to-animal are obviously very different than they should be when we’re talking human-to-human) before we often empathize with our fellow humankind, that we recall that they are, indeed, an us. And it’s fear, ours and theirs alike, that’s rendered us a them to them and them a them to us.

Our fellow humankind. Our brothers and our sisters. That’s where I’d like to leave this little blog. Back in September, a Facebook argument with a former Wabash professor of mine went from a post on his wall to a private message to exchanging emails. I won’t rehash the argument entirely, but I will say that the late Dr. Webb and I were on two polar ends of the political spectrum, and yet, he was more than willing to engage with me not just civilly but kindly, something I deeply valued and haven’t always been able to do myself. We talked, mostly, about adoption and how adoption should be understood by Christians in particular. He, as an adoptive parent, and me, as an adoptee, and again, we mostly disagreed, but on one point in particular, Dr. Webb and I couldn’t agree more: For him, his adopted children were his children. To put the word “adopted” in front of that cheapened it. They are “my family,” he stated, “My kin. As much inside of me as my ‘biological’ children. That’s a miracle made possible by grace.” I felt the same way of the wonderful people I call Mom and Dad. Where we disagreed was in the nuance: Dr. Webb felt strongly that blood is what makes someone kin, and to adopt someone was to make them by grace your own flesh and blood. While I appreciated what he was trying to do with that, I felt too much of our country’s negative history, of racism and tribal mentalities, were tied to privileging blood over choice. To me, our own flesh and blood are not our kin unless we’ve chosen to make them so. In a sense, even if someone is “biologically” yours, only through adopting – that is, choosing to nurture them – do they become yours or you theirs. If adoption creates blood bonds, as Dr. Webb argued, the family remains too small for me. The beautiful act of choosing to love, to adopt, radically reshapes how large the family can and should be, and it removes those barriers that keeps us an us and them a them.

But those barriers aren’t broken unless we strive to know each other, too, to really know each other, and that means to know our suffering, to confront and help carry it for one another. A week before his untimely death, Dr. Webb posted a beautiful, albeit haunting, article on depression, and as I read it over, I couldn’t help but think that it’s those old fears and those same broken systems that have kept us disconnected from one another. Dr. Webb’s beautiful theological definition for depression is that it is “when your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence.” He goes on to say, “If joy happens when your gifts fit the needs of the world around you, depression results when your emptiness echoes God’s silence.” This is true and God’s seeming silence, I believe, is felt most by the “silence” of those who surround us and by our own ways of silencing our true selves. But finding our voice and hearing others is hard work, and I can say I have, sadly, incredible understanding of when and why we fail to do so. I am thankful to have known this little giant of a teacher; his voice was heard. And will continue to be.

And so, the train keeps moving. We can put down our phones, our headphones, our newspapers, our staring into the bleak windowpanes and begin to talk again. We can begin to view those of us on the train car (and those off it) as an us and not a them. We can do the hard work of giving voice to ourselves and to others but only if we are willing not to give into our fears of the inevitable suffering that surrounds and too often destroys us. For now, I am gainfully employed in the City. I’ll be securing resources that will benefit on-the-ground workers from Syria to Gaza and from the horn of Africa to India. And every morning and every evening, I’ll hop on a train or a subway car, and as it sways back and forth in some rhythmic chant to the bloodstream of the City, I’ll try to do more than just waiting. Because the City isn’t what we’re waiting for. It’s not some distant place we’re trying to get to when the train pulls into the station. It’s right here, right now. It’s the train and the people on it. And it’s up to us whether they’ll be family or not.

Imprisoning Fear with Faith

Being a Tennessee boy, when I first moved to New York, my biggest fear was – and in some ways still is – New York City traffic. I’ve managed to get around the City a few times now, though, and while it still leaves me tense at moments, I’m more annoyed by it than I am afraid. It’s like I up and told myself at some point, “Well, Philip, this is just something you’re gonna have to suck it up and do.” Of course, by all means, I have every reason to be terrified. In the United States last year, there were over 32,000 fatalities from motor vehicle incidents, and this year is shaping up to be much worse. But, y’know, we do it anyway. It’s a risk we’re not only willing to take; it’s kinda just understood we’re supposed to endure that risk to get where we want to go.

Lately, my social media has been flooded by the claim of risks and the fears from them. Some are rational; most aren’t. But what strikes me as truly strange is the number of fears that seem to be completely disconnected from their claimed risks. That is, we’re willing to risk our lives on the roads of America or on its streets, but we’re not willing to allow in vetted refugees, mostly women and children, because of the possibility that one or two could be dangerous and slip through the complex, lengthy process? We’re willing, if not even eager, to risk the lives of our young men and women in uniform to fight and kill strangers in a strange land for the sake of “making America safe” (which it turns out is a lie we were told, as our foreign wars had the adverse effect of creating ISIL instead of stomping out the “evil-doers” of terrorism), but we aren’t willing to do anything – anything at all – to combat domestic dangers that stem largely from poverty, a lack of education, mental illness, or the ease-of-access to guns. I could get on that soapbox and stay on it for the rest of this blog, but there’s enough of those points floating around social media already.

Instead, I guess I just want to make note that we are absolutely terrified, it seems, of everything. No, really, everything. We’re scared to be honest with each other. We’re scared of our relationships and the future of them. We’re scared of not being good enough or of being forgotten or neglected or wanted. We’re scared of our job security. Or of never finding a job. We’re completely frightful of change, especially of long-held traditions that have had little, positive impact since they were started. We’re scared of not changing, which is funny, because we feel damned if we do, damned if we don’t. We’re scared of what we know and what we don’t know and even of what we don’t know we don’t know. We’re scared of people who look different from us and the ways our power dynamics seem to be shifting as our society grows more multicultural, and we’re scared to admit that’s the root cause of our anger. We’re even too scared to admit that to ourselves. We’re scared to admit anything to ourselves – let alone anybody else, especially if its authentic or too real. We are riddled with fear, you see. Absolutely consumed by it. Oh sure, we might have a moment of clarity here and there, but the manner in which fear aborbs its way into our every day, into the nooks and crannies of even the most mundane thing? Is it any surprise we’re terrified of Syrian children? We’re scared to death of ourselves!

I practice (or try) to hold myself to something greater, to what I call God, that “intuition of the universe,” that “Ground of Being,” because I believe fear doesn’t get the final say. And aligning myself to faith instead of fear is the only way I’ve ever known how to combat what actually does terrify me. It is not an easy practice, and I call it a “practice,” because I am afraid and can only really confront those fears by constantly claiming out loud what they are, chaining and imprisoning them in honesty rather than allowing them to chain me. I am not always successful at this endeavor. But I believe in it enough that when I see, in social media, all the ways in which we’ve allowed fear to tell not just our stories as individuals but our collective story as a society, I am immensely sad more than I am fearful. Sad because I’ve experienced personally what it is to order your life in a way that says, “This is just something you’re gonna have to suck it up and do” without letting fear guide whether or not it should be done, without even letting fear be part of the conversation. How, I wonder, might that change, well, everything we choose for ourselves or for our society?

My Summer, 2015

DepositI had this moment today driving through the Catskills where I realized I was sipping Pepsi in a glass bottle as I drove a red, Ford truck from the early ’90s, and I just felt overwhelmingly American. I couldn’t help but be a little culture-shocked. Before me were acres of pristine, seemingly untouched conifers lining the mountainside and surrounded by fields of corn. In the valley sat large red barns, black-and-white cows as if from a painting you’d find in Cracker Barrel, a run-down Harry Ferguson tractor or two, and the vibe of rural America in all its depressed, hard-working love. Appalachia stretches all the way to New York in more ways than geography.

To me, this is how America should be seen: on the road – and not the interstate system – sipping a Pepsi. But it was so foreign to what I’ve come to believe is “New York” (living in what’s basically the Hamptons) that I felt somehow removed and jarred by it all. It was one of those strange moments where I could peer over the last five, even ten years of my life and think on the many roads I’ve ridden over that brought me to this one. And how vastly different those roads have been.

In some ways, this summer has been one of the most wonderfully-strange summers in recent history. And I think it’s because of moments like that one. Where you just open your eyes and realize you’re driving through the Catskills and it’s all a little surreal somehow, because you never quite saw your life unfolding in that way. My summer started off with earning a series of certifications I needed (“Team building initiatives,” “First Aid & CPR,” “Lifeguard Manager,” “Food Handler’s Certificate,” etc.) to be able to run the camps where I work. On my birthday, the day after I earned my CPR certificate, I was walking around in Greenport with Johnny Gall when a man collapsed and started bleeding on the street. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever actually had to direct someone to call 911 (and for a complete stranger at that), and that it happened the day after I finished my certificate was, well, just one more of those surreal moments.

A few days later (and this has become a regular thing that sometimes annoys me), someone visiting [one of the two] camp[s] where I work was just beside himself that I was in the kitchen serving him food. “I don’t understand,” he said as nicely as he could, “You have a seminary degree from Vanderbilt, and you want to be here, doing this?!” [This is sort of a general theme I encounter often: that “camp” is not a “big-boy job,” and when are you going to get your “big-boy job,” especially if you have a Master’s degree.] I don’t think anyone means it harshly. It’s just that it’s a position that tends to be associated with someone who’s in their early 20s and still figuring out life, and yet, as I served the food, I couldn’t help but think, “But wouldn’t you want to be doing this?” In St. Louis, I went to a seminar with a friend that was all about achieving financial freedom, and the underlying message of the seminar (which I don’t agree with at all) was that what people are really looking for in saving up their money is to be able to have the freedom to do what they really want to do. If you can plan out you finances early on and in a smart way, you can retire early enough to achieve your real dreams. That sounds stupid to me. Somehow, I managed to figure out how to live on a friggin’ beautiful island only accessible by ferry – and do it cheaply. I’m two hours from one of the greatest cities in the world, and I can take a bus or a train there almost whenever I want. Want to kayak? Sure. Learn how to sail? Why not? Travel around for work? Yup. Live in a haunted cottage? Well, okay, maybe not that one. But help young and old alike learn how to find their true selves all while getting to do the rest of that stuff? Yes. I could go get a “big-boy job,” whatever that even is anyway, or I could just live a little of that dream now. And have a meaningful impact on people’s lives while I’m doing it. But even that is yet one more of those surreal things. Was I right to choose this path that people don’t usually take, that I chose to defy some of the “normal” expectations to money-making and living and dreaming? I don’t know.


Still, as I was driving around this afternoon, and I was thinking about all the roads I’ve crossed and the different directions I could’ve taken, I kept thinking how much I loved the endless skyscape out here. I know those two clauses don’t seem like they go together, but hang with me. Something about the mountains makes the sky so much more grand. Maybe it’s because the sun has more to work with when it’s busy painting its sunset or sunrise not just in the sky but in doing wondrous things to make green trees yellow-orange. Or maybe it’s how much more blue the blue seems against a green backdrop. You do not get this effect in the bay as much. A sunrise over the sea is unquestionably beautiful, but it’s a very different kind of beautiful. It’s one kind of blue flowing into another kind of blue. It’s the kind of beautiful that is repetitive and predictable (seriously, how many sunset pictures can you take before it’s kind of a tired meme?) – and while I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, it does make the mountain sky a little more appealing to watch at times.

And yet, I am called to the sea. For as much as I love the mountain sky, the waters of the open ocean refresh me whether they’re stilled and calm or churning in a mad splash that threatens drowning. Last week, a gale bringing in gusts of around 80 miles an hour passed over the camp knocking down a few trees and setting a transformer smoking (and eventually on fire). Somehow, I woke up before the storm began at 5:45 in the morning and sat through it in the stairwell of my cottage watching a 100-year old oak sway back and forth like it was a sapling and listening to trees literally five feet from my cottage crack, split, and hit the ground with a thud. Immediately after the rain passed, I rushed outside to check in on campers, review damage, call the electric company, etc. I was at home with myself in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever been. Here on the sea, I knew what to do. So much of life is spent juggling between what we think we love and where we really belong, and sometimes those things can match up, but the greatest sadness I have ever experienced is in discovering where those two things pull us in the most opposite of directions. You can love the skyscape of the mountains, but will you know your heart and calling belongs to the sea? Can you accept that truth not just when the seas are calm but also when the gale threatens to blow your house down? Can you – as surreal as it may be – love the mountain for what it is, temporarily gracing it with your presence, but then return to where you actually belong when your days in the woods are done? Either way, you should at least try sipping a Pepsi in a glass bottle while you drive a red Ford through Upstate New York sometime. I highly recommend it.

Some Thoughts for a Good Friday

The world has become ugly and dark. Terrorist groups slaughter. The wealthy grow wealthier as the poor remain poor. The planet itself is slowly but surely dying off, we’re told. Our most precious resources are grown increasingly scarce. Our politicians follow the money instead of the heart. And for most of us that’s just the stuff we read about but don’t actually endure. What we do endure, we are stricken by our own ugliness: a broken friendship or lost love, self-doubt and indecision, self-righteous certainty in the places we actually should’ve been doubting, a fear of others or of self that cripples us or grows our hatred. These are the voices shouting at us from our computer screens and televisions to our parents and loved ones to our friends and enemies to our innermost thoughts plaguing us, weighing us down. It is a world without silence, these days, without respite. Instead, today’s world is one of loud extremes. There, on the fringes, voices from a small handful have pushed the moderate many to their own extreme – a world now of false dichotomies no one seems to notice – and the cycle only repeats. Honest concern with nuanced perspectives are lost to sound bites and memes that appeal instead to our emotions. Ideologies are dwindled down to 140-character barking – all context and concern washed out by our desire for the quick-and-the-easy.

And yet, perhaps, seventy years ago in the midst of world war, the same could have been said: the world was dark and ugly then, too. Another seventy or so before that, and we were a country divided – family against family – an unquestionably ugly time in our history. Trace back through humanity’s short breath on this “pale blue dot,” and it’s always there: fear and hatred and war and the loud, powerful few who long for control. We were bombarded, then as now, just by a different medium. Is it that we think we’re special that the world is just now unbearably bad? Is the fact – if it’s a fact – that it’s “always been this way” meant to reassure us with hope that we are not alone in our suffering or sink us into some despairing fatalism that there is no cure for the human condition but death?

Maybe that’s why I relate so strongly to Good Friday. It is not the story of resurrection. Don’t be fooled by the fact that we think we know the ending. Easter morning is not yet come. It is instead a story of wondering, of questioning. It’s a story of seemingly intense abandonment, of scattering, of hiding away in denial. And it’s the story of that which we inevitably face – the death of those we love and of our own end. In a sense, it’s a story still being told, repeated daily on our screens and in our heads and in our exchanges. That same ugliness – from Rome to Flanders Field to Normandy Beach to modern Syria and Iraq to Capitol Hill and into every major corporation – it does not go away.

And yet in the midst of that, the hope we do manage to conjure up as human beings – when we can – is the best kind of hope. Because we don’t yet know how it ends, just that it will. And to say that there is hope in the face of this unending uncertainty that so surrounds us is to participate in something near miraculous: Against all the odds, against our own history, against our guaranteed nature, even against our guaranteed deaths or in spite of them, we conjure up sometimes something good and try to live into our best selves no matter what the next day or hour or minute could bring or brought before it. For all the voices shouting and pulling and drowning out our common space, it’s on that note, when that happens – that hopeful harmony – that “resurrection” arrives, that something wholly good is able to conquer our cynicism. It’s when we whistle walking through the dark house or hum a beloved tune to calm ourselves – hours before the choir exclaims any joy at all. And so, we wonder, can we bring nuance to the conversation, silence to the constant noise of the day’s desire to pull us in a thousand directions, peace to a world in terror, sustenance to a planet hungry for new life, wealth free of want to the wealthy and trust again in our leaders? Judging by our history, the answer is no, probably not. But we’ll hope anyway, be our best selves anyway, drip our drop in the bucket anyhow, and if we fail at those great endeavors, we’ll still have succeeded, somehow in the most important way possible. Happy Good Friday to you and yours.

Why I hated Interstellar, or why maybe I’m just a Debbie Downer

I’m not one to do movie reviews usually, but I’ve been churning the movie Interstellar over and over in my head ever since I saw it. Maybe that makes it a good movie. If it’s good enough to make me think this much about it, then it’s gotta be worth the dime and nickel I paid to see it. Then again, a really bad movie can be worth money if you’re just wanting to watch a really bad movie.

The truth is, for a good chunk of the movie, I felt my high school science teachers had just failed me miserably, and that was why I couldn’t wrap my mind around the depths of Christopher Nolan’s commentary on general relativity. I kept wishing Neil deGrasse Tyson would be sitting by my side going, “That’s good stuff, but it’s not really accurate! You couldn’t survive getting that close to a black hole!” …though, honestly, it’s not going to make-or-break my movie-going experience when a film defies what we know of science for the sake of creativity. At least, so long as there’s a decent explanation provided, I’ll be okay. Y’know, something like, “We’re using a special kind of metal that won’t break apart when it encounters a dense star with an event horizon!” I mean, okay, even that explanation is dumb and annoying, but I can get with the program if you show me you’re trying. (Although, one big gripe I have: if you know the gravity of a black hole is powerful enough to affect time on a planet that’s a candidate for a second Earth, you should already know the planet won’t work as a possible Earth. Duh. Just saved everybody 23 years. This one scene just about ruined the whole movie for me.)

All that is to say, something about Interstellar tried too hard. And still managed to fail. The movie was ripe with explanation after explanation to a fault. Little time was given to character development – which had to be sacrificed for the sake of making sure we were following the philosophy of science that had been set up. More so, the philosophy of science managed to be a kind of new age mythology, and I find that especially frustrating in a world where we’re (rightfully) critical of religious fundamentalism, but then we manage to trade in our criticism for another extreme of sorts, for a mythology of science and reason. It just seems laughable when we’re willing to shriek that God doesn’t exist but we’re still afraid of ghosts. We’re a species obsessed with a need for the mystical, but in the postmodern world, we sure do try hard not to admit that. And I wish we could handle that a little more honestly.

I digress. Wait, no I don’t. I’m still on this soapbox: I guess I found it silly the way religion was tossed around in the movie like a mythology from the past we finally progressed beyond only to discover that all the “ghosts” and gods were us. I found it disappointing to imagine some advanced version of us as “better,” or even godly in their ability to manipulate space and time. I certainly don’t think humans in 2014 are “better” because of technological advances than, say, humans of the past. More equipped, healthier, wealthier, longer-living, perhaps, but better off? Spend some time living among the poor in some of the poorest places, and your notion of “advanced” will be greatly challenged. I know – I sound like some crazy curmudgeon who is anti-technology, and that’s not the case at all. If we can go to the stars and colonize other planets, we should be investing in that. But not at the expense of hoping to trade in our humanity for technological advance. That is, I agree with Nolan that we can’t just be a planet of caretakers; we also have to explore; that is part of our nature. But we haven’t even gotten care-taking right yet!

To view some “us” made into gods and goddesses by the advances of technology, I don’t take to be a statement about a hopeful future. I take it to be a statement about our present narcissism. “Look at all we can do!” is a scary way of handling religion or science. Yet, I guess on some level, there’s a truth to it worth commenting on pertinent to the present. Religion today, after all, is steeped enough in idolatrous language that when Nietzsche says, “God is dead and we have killed him,” there’s the sense that what’s been killed off isn’t the Sacred “God above God,” but rather our inadequate language and theology for whatever that is. Surely some of that needs to die off! But when Nolan suggests it’s just some advanced us, when the “magic” is stripped away, the way it is by young Murphy, I don’t hear the progress of science in that. I hear desperation: we couldn’t figure out who we were as a species, so we made ourselves into gods and goddesses via technology and black holes to give some inkling of sense to our lives and save what we called humanity.

But the gods and goddesses they manage to create should scare you! Humans with the ability to manipulate space and time?! That might be the thing I liked least about Interstellar. The movie is steeped in a kind of science fiction Calvinism. “Whatever can happen will happen” is a form of predestination in a way. Pulled back into some fifth dimension where you can manipulate time, the implication that there is no past, present, or future makes us into robotic beings manipulated by some advanced us. When everything that will happen has already happened, it’s scary to think some us was overseeing all of that. And we’re supposed to leave the theater going, “Wow, what a great movie.” Cooper gets it right the first time when he sends the message, “Stay.” Care-taking isn’t all that bad. Even if it costs us everything.

I know, I know. I’m just a Debbie Downer, and you could argue I’ve missed some overarching message of the movie about love and the way love – like gravity – is the missing piece of the equation. Really? Cause, yeah, no one has ever done anything awful in the name of “love.” But yeah, all that is to say, I hated Interstellar, and now I think I finally know why.

Challenging Assumptions About the Modern Arab Myth: an Exploration of Moroccan Cultures and Traditions

Earlier this month, I gave a lecture to a group of United Methodist Men (and later to a local Rotary Club) about my experience with the Peace Corps.  I am publishing that lecture here with only a few edits.  I have also spliced in Wikipedia links every here and there.  Please don’t regard those links as “sources” but rather as a way of exploring additional information.  Furthermore, I included in my lecture, a PowerPoint presentation with pictures; however, to save space, I am not publishing pictures here except for the very last part of the lecture.  Finally, as fair warning to any current volunteers, this has made a few of you cry who have already read it.  I apologize if it has that effect on you.

I also apologize that this lecture is so long and realize that not many people will read it in full (it was a forty-minute talk), but I wanted it to be available nonetheless:

Good evening.  [Expressions of thanks: Paul Chaplin, church leadership, UMM committee, etc.]

I spent the last seven or eight years studying and teaching religion, including a world religions course at Belmont, so I live by a teacher’s spirit of sorts, and what that means to me is that if you’re not troubled or bothered by something you hear today, then I haven’t done my job.  I’m a big believer that it’s when we’re most challenged by what we hear or see that we will open ourselves up to learn something new.  So, my hope is that, beyond just spouting off facts about Moroccan history or culture, I might also be able to push you a little.  To think.  About your faith in comparison and contrast to the faiths of others.  And, on some level at least, that’s what my talk will be about today.

I should also say that I really struggled at first to figure out, “What could I possibly say about Morocco that might be relevant to a group of Methodist men?”  Because, over the past two years, I was so immersed into Moroccan culture, that I could have given a talk today on any one aspect of Morocco.  We could talk about the process of making and cooking couscous for an hour.  Or we could save that one for the Methodist women.  Or we could talk about the Arab Spring for a series of lectures, and the way the Arab Spring affected this tiny North African country.

Whatever it was I was going to talk about, there’s one thing I needed to be very careful with, and I wanted to say this up front: almost everything I will say about Morocco today is a stereotype or reasoned judgment.  In the same way that it is a stereotype to presume that the Methodist women would prefer to know how to cook couscous over the Methodist men.  Stereotypes are not necessarily wrong, but sometimes, they are, and we need to remember that.  It’s just impossible to sum up an entire culture or religion for you in a brief talk.  It would be impossible to do it if we had a whole semester together.

So, if you catch me saying, “Moroccans think this, or Muslims think that,” please remember that I realize that neither all Moroccans nor all Muslims think or do those things.  But I’m trying to temper my judgments with solid research and two years of experience, including a working knowledge of Moroccan Arabic.

So, now that I’ve listed my caveats, we can start.  I apologize if I speak too fast, by the way.  It’s not entirely because I’m nervous.  It’s also because I’m trying to fit a large amount of information into a short period of time.  So, please bear with me.

I wanted to start today with a little bit of context:

A little bit about me: at one point in my life, I almost became a Methodist pastor, even going as far as earning my Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt.  I have extensively worked with the Church.  I worked as a Youth pastor in Nashville for a few years, and I turned to do social work with the Peace Corps to get a change of scene and to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, as he himself had served in Casablanca during WWII.  So, in some ways, going to Morocco was a way of remembering his life and the impact he had on me.

While many of you, I’m sure, have heard about the Peace Corps, I’m increasingly surprised by the number of people who have not.  So, the Peace Corps is a foreign aid organization that is technically under the wing of the State Department for the U.S. Government.  It was started in the early ’60s by John Kennedy as a cultural exchange program.  There are three basic goals – the first is to provide technical assistant to your host country, and the latter two concern cultural exchange: getting to know foreign people and sharing with them who you are as an American while simultaneously getting the message back home about your host country, what it’s like, etc.

Some quick facts about Morocco: the country is about the size of California and shares a very similar geography and climate in that it contains mountains, deserts, forests, beaches, etc.  Admittedly, Morocco is hotter; it is an African country, but it is the coldest African country and is sometimes referred to as the “cold country with the hot sun.”  You could freeze to death in September in the shade or be burning hot in late December in the sun.

In terms of population, there are about 30 million people, which makes Morocco a pretty small country.  Most live in the cities with a few million in Casablanca alone.  Most of the people are of Arab-Berber decent.  It’s hard to find someone in Morocco who doesn’t have a little Berber in them the same way it’s hard to find Americans who don’t have a little Irish or Native American in them.  Berber, by the way, is to Morocco what Native Americans are to America.  You actually know this word ‘Berber’ even if it might sound unfamiliar to you: it derives from the same place as barbarian, as the Greek term “barbaros” would have been a derogatory term for non-Greeks because they thought other languages just sounded like someone was saying, “Bar bar bar,” again and again.

The official language is Moroccan Arabic or Darija, though many speak one of the Berber dialects – Tamazigh, Tashelheit, etc. – as well.  Moroccans are incredibly good with languages.  The average person knows at least three languages fluently, and many know four or five.  So, if you’re from a Berber family, Amazigh is spoken in the home, but if you’re male, you will learn Darija.  By the time you’re in school, as a first grader, you’ve started learning French and Modern Standard Arabic, and by high school, you need English to pass exams.

Politically, the country is a constitutional monarchy with what I would say was an emphasis on the monarchy part, though the King, Mohammed VI, as a result of the Arab Spring, pretended like he gave up some of his powers to appease public frustration.  The King is well-loved, though his minions are very much hated.  During my time there, Moroccans voted on a new constitution and chose their own Parliament for the first time in what was a relatively peaceful process.  However, during the Arab Spring and in the months following, there were major protests that began with self-immolations in the capitol – coincidentally, across the street from my usual hotel in Rabat – as well as youth rally’s that were off-shoots of what was called the February 20 movement which started around the same time as Egypt and Libya’s spring protests.  Comparatively speaking, Morocco’s protests were incredibly peaceful, though there were some deaths in a fire in Tetuouan in the north and ongoing violence in Taza, a town about three hours north of me.  Additionally, there was a heavy amount of police brutality, some of which I saw with my own eyes.  Humans rights groups have been quick to condemn Morocco’s police state, and this is an ongoing problem in all of the region.

While in Morocco, I lived in a desert outpost town – quite literally – situated five hours from the Algerian border where the Middle Atlas Mountains ended and the Sahara began. The name of my village has many stories to it, but the most succinct (albeit not as interesting) is that it literally means, “The Plains to the Hajj,” or to Americanize that transliteration, “There is literally nothing between here and the holy city Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) but desert.”  My village was a town of about 20,000 people, though most of those were living on the outskirts, and even I moved into the outskirts my second year into a 300 year-old olive orchard surrounded by picturesque mud-brick structures.

As such, I encountered poverty every day, though often this was poverty of opportunity and not poverty of economics.  That is, people very often could afford to put bread on the table, but their daughters and wives were illiterate.  A man might have a farm filled with goats and chickens and fields but he can’t always read or write and doesn’t know how to get a road built or water brought to his village.  It’s hard to conceptualize what this problem really looks like when you live in America.  Case in point, I always hated going to the post office or getting on a train because no one knows how to stand in a line.  Thus, all of Morocco is in this interesting state of development, where it’s not really still the 3rd world but it’s still very far from the 1st.  So, everybody has cell phones, just about, and most of those cell phones have 3G, or internet could be accessed in places where you did not have running water.  That alone might explain the Arab Spring: information and education was increasingly everywhere, to a certain degree, but so was dilapidation and a lack of structure.

More context.

It seems worth mentioning terrorism, because like everywhere in the world, it is an issue in Morocco too.  Morocco has partnered with the United States to help track and hunt terrorists who might enter the country.  In the south, in the conflicted area known as the Western Sahara, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb was an active cell throughout my service and may have moved into my part of the country or slightly east-southeast of me before I left.  This cell had grown significantly as a result of the Libyan conflict, which you all know about because of the Benghazi incident that killed Ambassador Stevens.  Chris Stevens, by the way, had previously been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco.

Now, terrorist attacks in Morocco are rare, the last two prior to May of 2011 being in 2007 that killed no one and then one in 2003. During my service, there was an attack on a tourist café in Marrakesh on a chilly May morning.  Basically, Morocco had turned all its attention to the ongoing Arab Spring movement, and the Secret Police were no longer paying attention to terrorists, so this guy slipped through the cracks.  Coincidentally, the terrorist identified himself with Al Qaeda; however, Al Qaeda had actually rejected him.  You gotta be pretty low to get Al Qaeda to reject you, right?

For months after the attack on the Café in Jima Al-Fina, Moroccans protested these terrorists in the form of skits and sketches and even in street protests.  At one point, I even saw a commercial on T.V. that was “Say no to terrorism” run in the same way those old “This is your brain on drugs” commercials were used for years to fight drugs in America.

The Moroccan people, like the American people, by and large, abhor terrorism.  But in every culture, in every religion, there are some loose cannons. I have much more to say about this issue, and will hopefully get to that later.

Finally, I have not structured my talk today around my work, but in my two years, there were three major projects – along with regular English teaching and several summer and spring English camps – I conducted or helped to conduct.  I will briefly mention those.  The first was a HIV/AIDs and STDs workshop that involved fifty youth learning about the causes-and-effects of these staple issues.  Youth then painted seven healthy living murals on the youth center walls after the event ended.  Next, is the glasses project, which I will briefly describe via video.

The project was featured on CBS News, Gizmodo, Reuters, several other gadget blogs, and will be fully featured in an upcoming major British publication.  Finally, I organized a diabetes education workshop and printed 180 50-page workbooks in Arabic that were distributed to youth and local shops, café’s and photocopy joints in my village.  So, lots of good work happening, but to me, it was really all about getting to know the people, and that’s why I’ve structured this talk around the people today and not the work I did.

Moving on.

Now, there’s a lot there I didn’t cover, and I’ll hit up bits and pieces as we move along, but I’d like to move now to religion. First, some facts about Moroccan Islam:

The first thing you need to know, and many of you may already know this, but the Five Pillars are probably the most basic information about Islam, so I think they are worth listing.  It’s as if Christianity had a couple of basic points – most of which would probably share similarities to four out of five of the Islamic Pillars.  They are: the Shahada (declaration of faith that there is one God and Mohammed is his messenger); the salah (daily prayers); zakat (or almsgiving; mandatory giving to charity); the som (fasting, particularly during the month of Ramadan); and the one-time but not mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj.

Islam is the State Religion.  If you are born in Morocco, you are Muslim (although, this isn’t technically accurate, as being Muslim is a very public experience that requires obligations of prayers and attendance at mosque, and it is not something to be entered into lightly).  Contrary to popular television shows, you can’t be a ‘secret Muslim.’  That would be contrary to the religion entirely.  There is a small portion of the Kingdom who identify as Moroccan Jews (though most have left), and there are a small portion of Christians (though most are foreigners residing in Morocco and not Moroccan Christians themselves).

Here in America, we have separation of church and state, and that’s something we deeply value in this country.  That might make it difficult to wrap our heads around what it would be like to have a State religion that’s enforced.  You simply cannot separate Islam and politics.  The two are tied together deeply.  Even in America, where religion and politics are often very much tied together (or where many think they should be), it’s just not the same.  However, I should also add that even though Morocco has Islam as its state religion, this is not to be confused with Sharia law.  It’s similar to the Anglican Church in England or the Catholic Church in France. They are the state religion, but they do not necessarily always dictate the laws, even if a few might wish they did.  There is a party – the Islamist party – a popular political party in Morocco that may sometimes wish to enforce aspects of Sharia law, and occasionally passes legislation moving in that direction, but at least half the Moroccan legislature is also Marxist Muslim, which is a phrase I’ve coined that, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist and is actually an oxymoron, but many in the Moroccan legislature do identify with both the economic policies of Karl Marx and consider themselves devoutly Muslim.  It’s this wing of the Moroccan legislature that often pushes back against some of the more conservative policies that might be detrimental to women’s rights, etc.

Moroccan Islam is Sunni Islam as opposed to Shi’ite.  These two forms of the religion are based on different interpretations of the Qur’an.  I did not think it was productive to go into a long, drawn-out conversation about these differences.  I merely wanted to say that this difference puts Morocco at odds with some other Islamic countries, such as Iran.

Sunni Islam tends to be more “left-leaning” or progressive, and this probably has a lot to do with Morocco’s encounter with the West (and by “West” I mean, geographically, its history with France as a colonial power and its closeness to Spain and Europe, as well as its very positive relationship with the United States: Moroccans are always quick to tell you that they were the first Kingdom to support America in the Revolution against Britain).

Moving on again, but still on the topic of religion.

Here’s a few quick facts I learned about Islam’s relationship to Christianity, which you may or may not know already:

Allah is the Arabic name for God the same way the Tetragrammaton is the unspoken Hebrew name for God.  However, in terms of history, Allah and Yahweh are the same, monotheistic God of the Abrahamic faith.  Muslims, Jews, and Christians may differ in how they worship and the prophets they regard as great, but they each believe in one God, and that God is Allah/Yahweh.  They also share many of the same characters and prophets – Adam, Abraham, Moses, etc.

Jesus, called Aissa, is born of a virgin in the Qur’an.  Mary becomes impregnated when she eats a date and something akin the Holy Spirit falls upon her.  What is particularly interesting about this text is that this story shows up in our Bible as an attempt to highlight that Jesus is “homo-ousion” (a Greek phrase taken from the Nicene Creed that implies Christ is “of the same substance” as God).  While Muslims deny that Jesus is God, Jesus is nevertheless highly exalted and loved as a prophet, and of holy origins, as you can see.

Jesus is also the judge of mankind in Islam.  That is, at the end times, it is expected – the same as it is in Christianity – that Jesus, not Mohammed, will stand as our judge.  I think it’s incredibly interesting to think about John 3:17, that “No one comes to the Father except through me” in terms of this Islamic worldview, that in order to “get to Allah,” you still have to go through Jesus.  I don’t mean, in saying that, to suggest that Muslims should simply accept Jesus because they’re already half way there.  I simply mean to show some of the fascinating similarities between our two very different religions that are often not highlighted in the discourse our nation has about Islam and Christianity, and this may be because the media often paints Islam in the light of its more extremist followers, such as Osama bin Laden, who probably wasn’t too fond of talking positively about Jesus.

Now.  I want to shift here slightly from context – a quick history of Morocco and facts about Moroccan Islam – to story.  I have three stories I’d like to tell you about my time in Morocco.

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 culture that’s not 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.  When you walked the street, you could smell 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.

Gentleman, 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 she knew how to boss those boys around like nobody’s business.  It was impressive.
But 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 and reviewed what I had learned, and then we practiced 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.”

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 learn English, because both here and there, we’re starting to realize that picking up a second language is absolutely one of the most valuable things you can do.

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 restaurants or 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, which were rather frequent by the way, 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.  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.  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, which I’ve already mentioned; 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 inevitably face that battle within ourselves.  This might sound familiar to you if you know your Bible:  Who did Jacob wrestle, and what did that being change his name to, and what does that name mean? Israel and Jihad are, on a technicality, very similar words.

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 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.

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.  I was told again and again how much I was appreciated, how much my president was loved.

So, where were the terrorists?  I think it’s when we’re ignorant about our faith 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 seventy-seven virgins in heaven,” 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.

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.  Some might be crab apples, but that’s still a long ways from Golden Delicious.

Act III. 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 Moroccans 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.  They don’t want to fight.  They just want to live their lives in peace.

One week after I left Morocco, 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, unaged.  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.

Thank you. Al-Hamdolilah obaraka llah fik.

The Calm Before the Storm, or Awaiting the Arrival of 700 Eyejusters Glasses

All’s been quiet on the western front lately.  Lots of my classes have been canceled due to rain.  Even a light mist or lots of dust can keep students from coming, and it’s not advantageous for me to ride my bike all the way to the youth center if there’s not going to be anyone who shows up.  I’ve done lots of one-on-one tutoring for students, though, at cafe’s or in the youth center, and I guess if they think that’s helping them, then I’m happy with it, but I feel like my students are sometimes upset with me for not being able to magically click something in their brain that helps them get it overnight:  “BAM!  Now you know English (and we just spiced dinner).”  I’m sorry, but, if you don’t study the material, why are you even bothering to come to my class?

But mostly, the quiet and peace has been a good quiet and peace, though I know what it is – a calm before the storm.  Allal, my landlord, checks in on me a lot.  It’s become tradition to have couscous with him and his family and one of my students.  I’ve just about decided that moving into the house he built and paying him each month may actually be the most helpful thing I will ever do for a Moroccan family.  At first, I thought, well, he owns a house he’s renting out, so he must be wealthy, but owning buildings here is not necessarily a sign of wealth.  Buildings are actually quite cheap to build; in fact, there are more buildings out here than there are people, probably [#overstatement].  I can’t help but wonder if his sole reason for building it was a matter of desperation, hoping someone would want to rent it.  And then, he just got really, really lucky when an American walked by.

But the reason I think that I’m helping him by paying him rent is because I’ve seen his actual house.  There are dogs and cats and chickens and pigeons and rabbits.  But not in cages.  They’re all just running around making everything dirty.  He lives between the river and the fish market, and the foul smell next to the house is just overwhelming.  One of his kids, Soufianne, was excited to show me a severed cow head that was diseased just laying on the floor of the fish market.  Thanks, Soufianne.  I had to continuously fan my face from flies and gnats.  I caught myself going from thinking, “Wow, this is disgusting,” to, “Why are you so disgusted?  This is what you signed up to do; this is the actual ‘African poverty’ people devote their lives to helping.”  And then I had this moment of clarity (or guilt) where it just sort of hit me all over again, that colonial sense of self-importance where I realize I’m being the white man who has come to “save” these “poor” African people and how much I just don’t want to be that.  Actually, all of it disturbed me.  It disturbed me that I was disgusted.  Then, it disturbed me that I felt pity for them.  They are a happy family, a very close-knit and loving family, and in some sense, they have what, in America, is so hard to come by, happiness with what you have, with simplicity.  So, my take-away from those encounters has been some strange attempt to ignore the poverty and just enjoy the people.  Allal is a nice man (despite his insistence to try to marry me off to some Moroccan girl).  His family could not be more welcoming.  And despite their excitement over severed cow heads, Soufianne and M’hammed are good kids whose faces light up every time they see me.

I call all that the ‘calm before the storm,’ because I’m about to be insanely busy and stressed.  Tomorrow or the next day, I will start making my way for Zagora and Marrakesh.  Owen and Greg from Eyejusters have purchased their plane tickets, and 700 glasses have been shipped.  They are bringing an additional 100 on the plane with them.  Now for the stressful part – convincing the post office to give us the glasses without charging the ridiculous customs tax of nearly 500 quid.  Then, there’s the worrying over whether or not the glasses will arrive on time.  Owen thinks he can pull strings to make sure they arrive by 2 April, but I’m just a crazy worry-wart over it.  As of right now, the glasses are being shipped International Priority and are sitting in Paris.  I think I’ve got a lot riding on how smoothly this process goes, because Owen’s offered a potential several hundred more, provided all the kinks are worked out, and I know several volunteers who could benefit from that.  It’s nice to see it all coming together.  It’s just a lot squeezed into a short period of time.

I’ll get pictures posted or update everyone as soon as we’ve got the glasses.