A Happy Eid from America

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

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

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

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


Hicham and the Paradox of Cultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Random Notes

With all these top ten lists floating about, I feel a little like I’ve neglected updating everyone on what all’s been taking place around here lately.  Really, I had a few very random thoughts that I wanted to share, too.  I’ll bold the highlights —

We used to joke a lot that it would be fun to try to cross the Algerian border.  Peace Corps bans travel there, and it’s on a no-go list of sorts for the Embassy, as well, I believe.  From Saidia, a town on the Mediterranean in the northeast, you can see the Algerian mountains and even a nearby city from the beach.  The only thing separating the two countries is some bushy overgrowth in a small ravine along with a few border guards.  Tempting, right?  Except that I recently heard (can’t remember if it was from a volunteer or a Moroccan) that the Algerian guards shot a Moroccan donkey when it lingered too close to the border.  So, maybe it’s best to keep a distance.

If you don’t like reading about poop, this next one may not interest you.  Last week, I was in Rabat for my “Completion-of-Service” Conference.  Most of that time was spent in meetings, at the doctor, or carrying poop across the capital.  That’s right, we had to poop three times in these little cups for a stool sample and then carry it in a brown bag across town to the lab.  Someone asked, “But what if I can’t perform that many times in one week?!”  Peace Corps’ response: “Do whatever you have to do.  Figs will help.”  One of those mornings, I left the hotel to walk across Rabat with my stool sample, and I walked upon a street sweeper sweeping leaves.  Instead of using a broom or a leaf-blower, though, he was using a giant palm branch.  It was one of those rare moments here where I just smiled and was reminded that, even after two-years, I can still be surprised by something; I can still appreciate those simple things where even the big city with its fancy restaurants and American food… it’s still not America.

Finally, I recently went back to Oulad Ali to help Jonathan with a camp there for primary-age kids.  At one point during the camp, we were supposed to put on a skit show of sorts, but there was a lack of communication between some of the Moroccan leadership, leaving about fifty 7-year olds free to overtake a small schoolyard.  This turned into utter chaos with children climbing chairs and walls and fighting.  It was total child anarchy.  And it was awesome.  Earlier in the day, we had played a simple game of duck-duck-goose, or as we called it, “chicken-chicken-turkey,” largely because we didn’t know the Arabic words for duck or goose.  Jonathan was demonstrating the game and picked one of the girl’s as the “turkey,” but when she got up to chase him, she was carrying a large knife.  We’d used about thirteen knives for “soap carving,” and some of them had gone missing.  So, fast forward to the great skit show anarchy, and you had missing knives and fifty kids running around screaming and laughing and climbing things you didn’t know could be climbed.  Honestly.  It was fantastic.  Other than those few flukes (that were awesome: I can’t reiterate that point enough), the camp went really well, and I came back to Outat yesterday just in time to play foosball with Mohammed in my garage.  In the meantime, Peace Corps has dispatched me to Melilla, or “Fake Spain” later this week on work leave to “renew my passport stamp,” since my residence card will expire  before I leave the country.  I can’t say I’m complaining about being forced to go to Spain.

On a last note, I’ve been doing some thinking about my return to America, and I wanted to put the word out that I’m probably going to be looking for a job and a car.  Both are likely temporary.  Because, yes, I am applying to graduate school, but there’s no guarantee that will work out, and even if it does, it won’t start for nearly nine months.  In the meantime, I have loans I have to start paying off as soon as I’m stateside.  The car thing is a little more complicated.  If I end up moving again two or three months after I get back to America, especially if I move to a city, I won’t need a car.  So, I don’t need to buy a car.  I need to borrow one.  I don’t think that actually ever happens, but I’m putting the word out anyway, just in case you know someone who has a job offer or a car they aren’t using and don’t need.  Lemme know.

So, there you go – some random things, right?

Sacred Goodbyes

A lot has happened lately.  There’s a thousand little stories to pick from.  My friends leaving.  New ones coming to visit.  Glasses being distributed left and right.  Emails that show up with exciting or wonderful news.  Emails that show up that cause you to take a step back and take a few, slow and deep breaths.  I wish I could dip into every one of those stories and give you little pieces of all of them, since I’ve been sort of absent from the blog for awhile, but I think I’ll just find one story and stick with that:

Hope Montgomery was here the last few weeks, and I got a chance to show her around my village and put a really clear image with lots of names of places and people I had referenced in a thousand conversations.  I’m not sure if there’s anything more fulfilling than bringing a story to life like that when you can share something tangible that before was just words.  Every moment, from weaving through a little olive grove to watching a mountain be painted by the sunset to little sacred conversations in the windowsill of a hotel room to eating tuna sandwiches behind a waterfall to climbing on top of an ancient Roman ruin to watch a city’s veins be pumped with the ebb-and-flow of a never-ending chaotic liveliness….  all of that… it all just makes you feel painfully awake and aware of everything around you.  I think that’s something that Hope and I had both been searching for, you know, that moment where you strip yourself of all the complexities of life and find that in the simplest of things, when life is its most raw, we are more one with ourselves, more alive than ever.  That’s God to me.  I think Morocco has been that for me in a powerful way, constantly watching the order out of chaos that moves like a cycle, a little Islamic samsara, if you will, birthing and deathing us from one moment to the next.  It can just get tough when those births and deaths seem to come in quick successions and overwhelm you.

On her last day in Morocco, there was a protest of 50,000 people in Casablanca, and I’m pretty sure I know what they were pissed about for once.  Hope leaving.  On the train, we split a couple of oranges and some cookies, but the train was running late, and as it pulled into the airport, her flight was scheduled for take off in 30 minutes.  We had to stop at a  bank to pull out some money with her card.  I took a gander at the board and told her to go ahead to Terminal 1 to check in, that I would catch up.  But I ended up stuck behind some French couple, and in five short minutes, I’d lost Hope.  At Terminal 1, I couldn’t find her anywhere.  I ran (literally) between Terminal 1 check-in and Terminal 1 International departures.  I kept saying out loud, “Where is she?  She’s going to miss her flight.  This is crazy.”  I was absolutely frantic.  10 minutes passed.  Her flight was leaving in four minutes.  I walked to an info desk, something I should’ve done ten minutes before, only to discover that her flight was leaving from Terminal 2.  I ran.  As fast as I could.  But when I got there, it was too late.  No Hope.  I paced back-and-forth and asked a guard if he’d seen a girl in blue, and he retorted that everyone was wearing blue.  I said something awful to him in Arabic and should’ve been arrested on the spot, but I guess when you’re crazy kind of frantic, you get away with more.  I did the same thing to a lady at an info desk who refused to help me contact Hope or make sure she’d made her flight.  As the feeling sunk in that Hope was gone, I kept repeating out loud, “Not like this.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  This is so wrong.”  I walked toward a front desk to see if I could purchase a ticket to Paris.  Hope had a nine-hour layover.  There was a chance I could get there to say goodbye on a later flight.  No passport.  It was in the orchard, eight hours away.

I pulled out my phone and dialed, but before my friend Sairah answered, I was already in tears.  I bawled to Sairah on the phone that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my best friend, that I’d been robbed of my sacred goodbye, while I crouched in the corner of the marble floor with my head in my hands sniffling.  There was a chance Hope had missed the flight, so I waited.  I waited for an hour, and then another.  That was when I decided the best thing to do was to get back to Rabat and check the computer to see if Hope had made it to an internet kiosk.

When I got back to the hotel, everything was eerily right where we’d left it, my laptop on one of the beds, cookie wrappers on a table, the windows wide open to the street below with the view of the Parliament building across the street, and the curtain flapping lightly against the wind.  I had a text from Hope’s mom saying she’d called, and a few minutes later, Hope popped up online.  Her story wasn’t all that different from mine.  She’d been told to go to Terminal 2 and kept looking for me.  She’d gone through the check-in and then the gate entrance and realized I couldn’t get there.  She’d tried to double-back but the guard stopped her.  She’d tried to message me on some guy’s smart phone, but he turned her away harshly.  Like me, she’d found her way to a frantic chaos and welled up in the same tears feeling so wrong about something that was supposed to be as good as the whole two weeks had been.

You could say, I’m still recovering from all of that.  It was all like a Wes Anderson film gone wrong.  And yet, at the same time, it all just goes back to what I was saying earlier, that liveliness that grips you birthing you from one moment to the next.  It was like we were jolted off of the wheel, that for half a moment, the cycle hiccuped, and all those past lives and even the future ones met in one place and in one time.  I’ve always thought of Hope as an old soul like me, so when the goodbye didn’t happen, the only comfort I could find was in knowing that even when the cycle hiccups, it keeps moving.  More births.  More deaths.  More sacred moments.  More waves slamming into the beach as they’re prone to do.  You can’t stop it, life.  It keeps coming.  And pain and beauty mix together and find an agreement or a resolution or a balance, just a balance, somewhere in all that mess.   I think that balance is where you find what’s most sacred, where you figure out what’s truly “right,” if there is such a thing.  But all that endless going and coming, and I could see Hope in a thousand lives that had passed and in a thousand lives that were to come.  Not that many people fit into my life that way but the ones that do are the ones I learn to cherish and love the most.

So yeah, I guess you could say a lot has happened lately.  But no matter how good or bad, it’s all been sacred.  And that’s always something to write home about.

Because “Nothing Succeeds as Planned”

So, I’m sitting on a train with Caity, Avery, and Nicole making our way to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, for a training on how to educate people on healthy lifestyles and HIV/AIDs prevention, and I’m not really sure what it is about trains, but you can get lost in the moment staring out the window watching the world whiz by you.  It’s almost like this strange out-of-body experience where you know you’re not physically moving yourself but being carried along hurriedly, and as you focus close up or far away, the speed seems to change.  Far in the distance, you can focus on one palm tree that will remain in the window for what seems like an hour, while the little details of the foreground – the rocks and tracks below, a crop of sunflowers so close you’d think you could pick them out the train window – just fly right by you.  And when you take it all in at once, there’s this strange overwhelming sense that even life is just flying right by, the little details mushing together with the big picture and all the while there’s the sensation of being carried through it all, even on days when it felt like you were struggling to put one foot in front of the other from shear exhaustion.

It’s things like that, when the world seems to throw the little details and the big picture together where you start to ask yourself how it all fits or whether it even should, as though life is a puzzle, and the different aspects of your life eventually come together to tell a clear story.  The path that lead me here, from majoring in religion to following the footsteps of a grandfather who lived in Casablanca, almost starts to look like a linear path, a few chapters to a good story with intrigue, fate, and faith.  As much as I’d like that, I’m not sure life is that clear or succinct.  We like – we need – to find ways to make it that clear; we add a narrative to give us a sense of meaning and purpose, but sometimes, life can be a little more random than that, for better or for worse.  We move from phase to phase and from unexpected moment to unexpected moment.  Our plans, whatever they may be, don’t always turn out the way we wanted or thought they would; no surprises there – thought I’d be finishing my first year of PhD candidacy this June.  But I live in Morocco, and still have yet to grasp that fact, especially considering how happy I could be doing something totally opposite of what I expected to be doing.  We should live unexpectedly open to whatever comes our way.

Case in point, our first day in Rabat, we found ourselves across the street from a garrisoned wall that turned out to be the Chellah, or an ancient Roman city (which had been built over during the 13th century, as well).  Rabat was the last place I ever would’ve expected to happen upon a major archaeological site with Roman streets, forums, or old graves paying homage to Constantine.  But when in Morocco, expect the unexpected, I suppose.

But back to phases for a moment.  I look around me, and largely, that’s what I see – that we move from phase to phase in our lives, and it’s pretty cut and dry how we do it, even though we take some side routes to get there sometimes.  It usually involves some combination of school, work, a family, more work, maybe a little more school, and then helping the family follow the same cookie-cutter path we made.  One of the fears I’ve had to face this year and the last, especially as I suddenly found myself headed to Morocco out of nowhere, is that my life might be headed in a different direction than I expected, one that doesn’t clearly follow some known path.  Now that I’m no longer afraid of uncertainty and the unexpected for my life, my real fear is missing out on the cookie-cutter path – looking back and wondering what could have been if I had just settled down and been like everybody else.  Or maybe that’s too arrogant of a view; I can’t be that different or that special.  I can still see my life in phases, between college and summer camps, an archaeological dig, or living in Morocco.  It’s like being on that train, and it all mushes together and tells a story, but I’m just learning how to make that story my own and live into it as carefully and as intentionally as possible.  I guess, the reality is, we all have to do that one way or another.

Or to go back for a moment to the HIV/AIDs training.  We happened to be in Rabat at the same time Shakira was giving a free concert – a concert that has gained a significant amount of protesting in the days following, given how much money the government spent to bring Shakira to Morocco.  Many Moroccan online boards posted in the wake of the concert, “We don’t need Shakira; we need bread.”  Some levels of violence appear to be increasing in many of these protests, mostly with police attacking protesters (one protester killed in the town of Safi), though the government is denying this.  I had planned to attend the concert with Liz, but when we realized the taxis were charging ungodly amounts to get from downtown Rabat (near Parliament where protests have taken place on Sundays ever since 20 February) to Agdal, it just made better since to make a night of staying in instead.

In the days following, I made my way north with Caity, Avery, and company to Asilah, a town within a day’s walking distance along the beach to Tangier.  My in-service training was taking place four days later in Mehidia, and four days wasn’t enough time to make the trek all the way back to the desert, so I figured I’d use the opportunity to see some of this beautiful country instead of returning home only to have to turn around and head back to the coast.  Asilah is gorgeous and known as an artist’s haven of sorts, especially for ex-patriots who needed a place to find inspiration.  The Old Medina there is a labyrinth of white-painted streets with blue doorways that seems to stretch on forever inside of a fortified city.   Given that it’s the off-season, the lack of tourists gave us the opportunity to explore the city and its beaches on our own.

I decided on our second day there that I would go on a walk on the beach with a new friend, Galen Welsch.  We weren’t sure how far we were going to walk, but we both agreed that tanning on the beach was just too boring for us, especially when there’s miles and miles of beach to explore.  So, we left the girls behind and begin our walk in search for shells and marine life.  After about two hours, we finally came across a shell or two, though nothing special, really.  Then, an hour later, finally saw some signs of marine life, though all of it dead – a washed up octopus and a washed up eel were the best we could do.

And then it happened…

A day spent on the beach seeing almost nothing but sand and in the distance we saw what we thought was a cow.  And then another.  And then another.  At first, we were denying the possibility that there were five cows – three laying down – on the beach, but soon there was no denying it.  It is Morocco, after all.   The cows watched us as we approached, laughing at them.  Then they watched us as we kept walking, the rest of the beach completely empty for what looked like miles of nothing but two guys and five cows on a sandy beach.  As I said before, in Morocco, expect the unexpected.

I had planned to head to Mehidia for my training after a few nights in Asilah, but we decided to leave Asilah a day early to trek further north to a town called Tetouan (I’ve mentioned it before, because it’s the town for which the Star Wars planet, Tatooine, is named after).  When we arrived at the taxi station, an argument ensued, making it clear that the director of the taxi stand was trying to overcharge us and didn’t want to take us to Tetouan, so instead, we decided to go to Tangier.  Not what I was planning, but whatever.  Go with the flow, right?

I won’t go into every single story from Tangier, but one stands out in particular as worth writing home about.  Tangier, you should know, like Asilah, is an artist community, mostly of ex-patriots, many of whom had established themselves there in the 1960s.  The city inclines slowly from the beach, where you can see Spain in the distance across the Strait of Gibraltar.  Atop the hill sits the medina, with its occasional, beautiful views of the beach and marina down below.  Tangier was especially famous to the beat poet movement, so one of our first stop-offs was at the Cinema Rif Cafe, a hotspot for poets and artists alike, especially in the heyday of Tangier.

We sat down and chatted briefly with a Moroccan who was part owner of the cafe and who insisted on giving us free t-shirts, because he was aware of and respected what the Peace Corps was doing in Morocco.  While we were sitting there sipping tea or coffee, we lost track of Caity only to find her later sitting with two older gentlemen in an odd setting that looked as though she had found herself in the midst of a scene from Alice in Wonderland.  The two distinguished gentlemen she sat with, we would discover later, referred to themselves as Francisco, a Baron from Chile and an unnamed Duke from Ireland.  As Caity tells it, she was taking a picture of the Cinema Rif when Francisco, wearing a grey blazer with black trim around every edge of the jacket (on a sunny day), his hair slicked back looked similar to Doc E. Brown from “Back to the Future,” called to her saying, “Excuse me, darling, why are you taking a picture of this fine establishment?”  After she explained to them that she just thought it seemed like a picture worth taking, they prodded her with more questions, tried to guess where she was from, and eventually asked her to join them while they argued with one another over who was more knowledgeable about the city of Tangier, its history, and blabbed on and on about the politics of the ex-pat community.  From our perspective inside the cafe looking out on this strange encounter with the Mad Hatter and Cheshire the Cat, it just became clearer and clearer that it was another one of those things, you know, that only happens when you least expect it.  And so the list of the unexpected grew longer and longer.

After leaving the cafe, I found myself standing in the middle of the main square of Tangier when I got a phone call from another PCV I didn’t know was in the city when he saw me from his hotel roof.  The next morning, we ended up taking the train together to Mehidia where I’ve been this week in training.  I spent part of my afternoon today walking down another beach, wondering if I’d happen upon any cows only to happen upon a shipwreck instead.  The hull was all that was left, and the ship appeared to have – at one point – measured somewhere between thirty-five and forty feet.  By the time I walked to the ship – alone – I found myself along a stretch of beach where I could see nothing but sand and water for miles, no people, no buildings.  Just me, an endless stretch of sand and an endless stretch of water.

Standing there at the shipwreck forced me to think back to my childhood.  My parents made a point of taking us every year to Florida, something I’ll always cherish, and I can remember having my first taste of freedom being allowed to walk down the beach for miles and miles – several hours alone.  As a youngster, it had been a place where I was most overwhelmed by some divine presence.  Something about the rhythm of the waves, the never-ending nature of it or the very fact that the water would continue and nothing could bring an end to the life it gave as it slapped and beat its foams against the countless grains of sand below.  Everything about it was eternal and beautiful, and standing in the middle of it – alone – you couldn’t help but feel as though it was you and God and nothing else.  Nothing else mattered.

I found myself remembering and sifting through those same thoughts I used to think when I was younger; I found myself being thankful that I was in a place where I could now expect the unexpected.  Sometimes, those unexpected things that come our way give us cause to be saddened.  Other times, we giggle to ourselves walking by a group of cows who decided they’d spend a day at the beach.  But whether we expect it or not, whether it’s some mix-up of the big picture with the finest details, we find our ways to give it all meaning.  Some way or another, it all adds up and starts to make sense to us.  Some way or another, there’s something eternal to it.  I don’t know whether we give meaning to a life that has no meaning at all.  I don’t know how much of the unexpected is total chaos and randomness at work.  But I like the narrative we try to give to our lives.  I like living into a greater meaning and purpose and feeling that great sense of divine presence overwhelming us whether we’re walking on a beach or just sitting in a cafe overwhelmed by things seemingly a bit more mundane.    That’s something in my life, that beauty and eternity, which despite everything else that happens, I know I can always count on, always look forward to, always expect.  Even when something unexpected comes my way.