Eid Marks the End, or a Relief as Ramadan Comes to a Close

It’s been a hot, long month – that sweltering, god-awful hot where, as Anteus likes to say, it’s so hot your sweat sweats.

But yesterday afternoon, that heat spell was finally broken by an hour-long rainstorm.  I was napping and woke up to the smell of the rain in the house and the sound of the droplets hitting the floor because I hadn’t covered the huge hole in my roof.  Shower time, I thought.  I jumped out of bed and ran to stand under the sunroof and just let the rain cover me right there in my hallway.

And that was it.  That momentary relief was when I knew Ramadan was over.

After the rain shower (literally), I spent thirty minutes trying to brush the blue kool-aid off my tongue before I biked over to break fast with Allal and his family for the last time.  When I got there, there was this explosion of happiness and joy in the air, and it wasn’t just the fact that Allal was stuffing his pipe full of hash the way he always does when I see him.  It was this happiness that the holy month was reaching an end.  You couldn’t hide from it.

I don’t remember being so grateful at the end of Ramadan last year, which is especially funny, because I didn’t fast this year (even though I was lying about that a lot), and last summer, I fasted every single day, even from water.  I think a big part of it is that I’ve spent so much time with families this year, whereas last year, I may have been fasting, but I was doing it completely on my own.  This time, there was this sense of relief that came with it that I don’t know how to fully describe.  It was like letting go of some incredible weight.  I definitely understand how this month can be so sacred to Muslims, even if I’ll never be Muslim.

This morning, for Eid Al-Fitur, that sense of relief was replaced with horror, as the delicacy of the morning was none other than goat liver wrapped in stomach lining fat and shoved onto a skewer.  I think I might have to be conveniently sick and in Rabat for the upcoming big holiday, because I just don’t know if I can do even more goat organs, and this was a little reminder of the fact that I will still be here when the big holiday arrives.

As I was eating the kabob, I glanced around the room while one of the women prayed.  I feel like that’s not something you get to see very often, the women praying, and I was a little shocked she was comfortable doing it in front of me.  That’s a big difference between my host family and my landlord’s family.  In my host family, it’s work just to get the women to eat in the same room as me or to get permission to watch them cook.  In Allal’s family, it’s just one big party, and gender doesn’t seem to come with the same barriers.  I sense that they aren’t quite as religious as some other families I’ve come to know, but I use that term loosely, because Allal and his family are definitely, definitely religious.

Glancing around, I noticed that the walls of Allal’s dining room (if you can call it that) are bare and pink.  There is one black-and-white picture of an older gentlemen with his head covered who I suspect is Allal’s father.  Moroccans generally leave the walls empty, because the Qu’ran deems it shameful to have idols in your home.  That’s not to say people don’t hang things on the wall anyway, but if they do, it’s usually of someone extremely important – a family patriarch or the King.  This morning, they covered the floor with beautiful, wool rugs.  Allal doesn’t know it yet, but when I leave, I’m very likely to give him my two sofas, my bed, and my two couches.  For a family that literally has  nothing  beyond rugs and blankets to sit on, I feel like that’s a pretty big deal as a gift, and Allal tells me that after I move, they are going to move into my house and live here.  I find that exciting, and I know they’ll love it here if this house brings them half the joy it’s brought me with its turquoise walls and its candy-apple red, cement floors.

Allal’s family is obsessed with the fact that I’m leaving.  They keep asking if I’ll call them from America, or they tell me things I shouldn’t forget before I leave.  It’s still well over two months before I finish my service, but they make it seem like it’s coming tomorrow.  Like today when Allal reminded me that I need to make sure I lock up the door and give him the key back before I leave.  Cause we won’t have that conversation eighteen more times between now and then?

So, leaving’s sort of been implanted onto my mind, y’might say.  I keep telling myself that I have a long way to go between now and then.  Jonathan and I just submitted a $500 grant to Peace Corps for a diabetes workshop.  I’m pretty excited for this project.  Maybe even more excited than I was over the glasses, because this one was my baby, and the glasses project was a hand-me-down project from Caity that I grabbed hold of and ran away with.

I’ve mentioned the diabetes project a few times now, but the details are this: on a Saturday in late September, we’re bringing 50 kids over sixteen to the youth center and training them on the causes, effects, symptoms, prevention, and treatment of diabetes.  We’re giving each kid two workbooks filled with information on diabetes and nutrition in Standard Arabic.  Then, we’re feeding them lunch, and finally, they are going to be sent out as part of a peer education model to local shops and cafe’s to educate fifty additional people around town about diabetes.  The next two days, we are partnering with the Ministry of Health and a local diabetes association to provide insulin and blood pressure checks for anyone in the entire community who can come to the health fair.

Y’know, for all the money Peace Corps forks out for AIDs prevention, I think this is far more important.  I don’t mean to be knocking HIV/AIDs assistance, especially in Africa, but you’re far, far more likely to contract HIV in America than anyone is in Morocco.  It’s just not the crisis here it is elsewhere in Africa.  Of course, you could credit that to the good work people are doing to make sure Morocco doesn’t become, say, West Africa, but 2 million people have been diagnosed with Type II diabetes in this country, and there’s only about 8 million people in the country altogether.  I’m hoping my project can set a precedent for other volunteers, because while I know of a few health lessons here and there, I don’t know any other volunteers who have done a whole project on this issue, and I think it’s absolutely daroori (necessary) that Peace Corps make diabetes education a major focus of its efforts.

In the meantime, the reminder of my service is relatively quiet.  My director, Hassan, is closing the youth center so that they can build a second floor and put his house next to the building.  No English classes.  So, instead, I’m working on grad school applications, manuscripts, my second novel (six chapter deep), packing, saying goodbyes, etc.  I’m definitely keeping busy.  It’s just mostly a kind of busy that keeps me writing constantly, but I like that.

Tomorrow, I might even go to a cafe during the day and drink a coke.  I can’t even begin to express how exciting that is.

The Difference a Year Makes

Last Ramadan, something didn’t feel right.  For the life of me, I was having all kinds of trouble integrating.  The only time I got to break fast was when I went to Avery’s site to see my host family who lived there.  I had moments when I felt jealous of all my friends living in the countryside and being swarmed by invitations to eat at this house or eat at that house while this “city” boy got no invitations at all.

The difference a year makes.

Now, I’m still complaining (big surprise from me, right), but it’s because I can’t handle all these invitations.  It’s not that I did a great job integrating in the last year.  It really just boils down to making a good decision to move to the olive orchard, where the community is more intimate and everyone knows you.  I’ve literally flip-flopped in a year from having not a single invitation to so much as drink tea at someone’s house to actually having to turn people down for El-Ftour because I promised a different family I would eat with them.  It’s to the point where, if I want to cook my own meal at my own house, I have to fight (read: lie) to be able to do that: “Oh, I’m sorry, but I told Momma and Babba that I would talk to them tonight.”  Really?  That’s the best lie I can come up with?  When did I get so bad at lying?  Maybe it’s just that lying in a different language is more difficult to do.  You’re more exposed to the truth, because you’re more aware of the ways you use words to veil what other words mean.

I don’t know.  It’s not that I mean to complain, by the way.  This is what I wanted.  It’s why I moved out of the city.  Plus, I love breaking fast with a family, and the food is delicious.  In fact, even though I wasn’t planning on fasting when Ramadan started, I’ve been fasting for the past week, just because I’m on this schedule of breaking fasts with families, and once again, I’m just not good enough to lie to them, so I actually fast so my “lie” can be true.

Yesterday, I ate at Lahcen the Saharawi‘s house.  He likes to call himself the “Saharawi,” or “Guy from the Desert,” (specifically the so-called “Western Sahara”) so – he says – I don’t confuse him with any other Lahcen’s who live in my village.

His family is beautiful.  Three curly-haired girls, all under four, named Nadia, Nora, and Asma, and not a one of them spoke a lick of Arabic, because they’re a Berber family, but they all knew my name and proudly said “Hello Fouad” in English when I arrived.  That was a new experience for me, you know, sitting on the floor breaking fast and having better Arabic skills than the family I was eating with, except the father.  Oh, and the coffee was by far the best spiced, cinnamon coffee I’ve had in this country.

The day before that, I broke fast with Hammou, the assistant at the youth center where I work.  His wife made lamb rolls and bastilla rolls (a pigeon and chicken pastry of sorts topped with confectionary sugar), but I never actually saw her.  She hid away in the kitchen.

I’m blabbing.  The point is, those are all things I’m thankful for, and it’s food I know I will miss when I’m gone, but tonight, I was reminded again why I just need a break from it sometimes.  When it gets to be too much.

I decided tonight that I was determined to cook for myself, so when Allal asked me to come over, I went with a new lie: “I have to pack my clothes so I can travel.  Another time, God willing.”  Actually, that was true, except that I haven’t packed, because I’m lazy.  I ended up making a curry dish that was incredible.  I got the sauce just the right thickness, and the rice came out perfectly, too.   Then, after I finished eating, I was burning up, because eating in the desert without air conditioning is actually difficult work.  There’s not many feelings worse than the sweat that starts beading up on your stomach and chest from eating a hot meal in a hot desert.  Eating should not be a workout.  You should not feel like you just lost 10 pounds because you just ate 5.

But because I felt that way, I took my clothes off.  Then I stretched out on my bed and started watching a movie.

Just before midnight, my landlord shows up, and I hear him unlocking the garage.  Now the thing you need to know here is that I don’t have access to the garage that’s connected to my house.  I don’t even have a key to it.  But the door to the garage has a window that sees right into my bedroom, so if my landlord is around, I have absolutely no privacy whatsoever.

So, there I am.  On my bed.  Nude.  Sweating.  Feeling awful.  Watching a movie.  When I hear my landlord coming in.  I jump up and slam my door and start throwing on my jeans, while I hear, “Fouad!  Ah, Fouad!”  I respond from behind my door, still slipping on my shirt backwards like I was just caught doing something shameful in my own house.  When I get my clothes on, I walk to the window in the door to the garage and start talking with Allal who is interrogating me as to why I didn’t come break fast with him.  I told him the truth: “I wanted to cook American food for once, Allal.”

“You don’t like breaking fast with us?”

“No, I love it, but… [back to white lies] I’m traveling, and I needed to pack.”

For the next two hours, Allal worked in the garage while I watched movies burning up with my clothes on.  We’d agreed to drink tea together when he finished, and as 1a.m. rolled around, he and his uncle showed up and asked me to make tea for them, so I put on a pot of tea, while we made small talk.  And then it happened, the thing I have been dreading or hoping I could escape before it happened: Allal asked me what I was going to do with all my stuff before I left for America.

The amount of “stuff” a human being collects in a two-year period is ridiculous, I assure you.  I have a fully-functioning house complete with a stove and oven, buta tanks, pots and pans, cutting boards, dresser drawers, couches (four in sum), a queen-size bed.  I came to this country with two backpacking backpacks.  I now have so much crap that not even half of it can fit on one donkey cart.  Allal went on, “I heard the volunteer in Tirnest gave all of his stuff to his landlord.  We don’t have a refrigerator.  Are you going to give away your refrigerator?”

Caity and Avery had told horror stories about this.  When someone takes you into their home and treats you like family, your stuff is their stuff.  To separate it out and say, “This goes to so-and-so, while that goes to someone else” could be very damaging to that relationship.  Problem is, Allal may not be the only person who feels entitled to my things.  My host family, especially since they are from Tirnest where Avery lived, has to know how this works.  My host family is rich, relatively speaking; they don’t need my crap.  But I have every expectation that they will ask me at some point when they are getting my things.  It makes me want to run away and just leave the house unlocked so anyone can take whatever they want.

The best way I know to describe it is this: it feels a little like you’re dying, and everybody knows it, but rather than caring about the fact that you’re dying, they just want your crap.  I don’t actually think that viewpoint captures the culture fairly; I know these people do care about me and will miss me when I leave.  Allal keeps asking me, after all, if I’ll call him from America, if I’ll miss him and his family.  It’s just how it feels.

And that’s fitting and fair, because so much of Peace Corps is, actually, a lifespan in two short years.  You show up new like a baby, and you have to learn how to talk right and how to use the bathroom properly.  You grow up a little and can speak a little and can navigate your way through things fairly easily.  You work.  You work hard.  Eventually, you’ve got such a hang of things, you’re like a grandfather showing new volunteers how to take the right baby steps so they will grow up too, and then – you prepare for death.  And you go home.  This life here, as you know it, this entire world and culture, comes to an end.

So, when Allal asked me for my things tonight, it was like finding out that I have some sort of terminal illness, and my life here is quickly coming to an end.  Pretty soon, I’ll be kickin’ the ole Peace Corps bucket, and I’ve entered the first stage: Denial.  And I’m not talkin’ about the river that’s on the other side of this continent.

I think, maybe, I’ll go to Casablanca to see Dark Knight Rises.  I hear they have an IMAX Theater there, and it would be nice to pretend like I’m not going to die.  Or watch a good American movie and pretend like I was never even born here.  Denial.  Yup.  I like it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramadan Mubarak Said

Since Ramadan started, my landlord’s son, eleven year-old Mohamed, consistently shows up at my door every evening at approximately six o’clock sharp, which is about an hour before the call-to-prayer that sounds when everybody breaks fast (el-ftour).  Mohamed always has on his blue shorts and a blue wife-beater that says something in English on the front of it that I’m sure he doesn’t understand.  He’s a dirty little kid, filthy actually.  The other day, he picked up my water bottle, which was perspiring as the ice in it melt, and took a big gulp in front of me.  When he sat the water back down, the outside of the bottle was covered in dirt, and I just kept thinking, “How are you so dirty?  Where did all this grime come from?”

Think Pig-Pen from Peanuts and you’ve pretty well got Mohamed pegged.  Because he is eleven, he’s not yet fasting (you start when you’re thirteen), so when he comes over to my house, the first thing he does is walk right to my fridge and start exploring what there is to eat or drink.  Yesterday, he got his hands on a bottle of honey, tore the cap off and started sipping the honey like it was juice.  I grabbed it from him and said, “Okay, see, this is where diabetes comes from, Mohamed.”  I probably understand about 10% of the things he says to me.  I don’t know why it is that children are so much harder to understand than adults, but I guess that’s actually true even when kids mumble English at age eleven.

On a typical day, I grab my backpack, even though it’s empty, and we head out the door to make the twenty-minute walk over to my landlord’s house with Mohamed.  I don’t know why I have this obsession with totting my empty backpack around, but I guess I’m always convinced that I might buy a kilo of apples on a whim, or something equally ridiculous.  I mean, it’s always a possibility.  Just yesterday, after el-ftour, Ori and I, along with our friend Hassan, stopped to eat prickly pears on the street.  They taste a little like a cross between a pineapple and a banana with large seeds infiltrating an otherwise slimy fruit.  I’m not a fan, and honestly, even though someone else cuts them for you, they’re too much work and hardly worth it.  My first time dealing with a prickly pear was in Israel, and that was before anyone told me that the outside of the fruit is covered in the needles that cover the rest of the cactus.  You can’t see them, but you can feel them, and it’s quite painful – hence the name.   That one bad experience was enough to sour me on them forever.

My landlord’s house is not nearly as nice as mine, which is something that has confused me for months, considering I am renting his house.  During the day, there is no electricity, so usually when I show up, even though the sun is going down and almost gone, there’s still no electricity, so we begin el-ftour in the dark, and about five minutes in, someone somewhere must turn on the power, because suddenly, the room is lit up, and the table is covered in dates, chebakia, eggs caked in olive oil, honey and apricot jelly, an assortment of breads, including the traditional Moroccan bread called khobz fresh out of the oven, and a very thin, almost leaf-like tortilla of sorts that’s been drenched in what tastes a lot like pico de gallo.  As the meal progresses, we all gather round a small circular table on the floor awaiting the main dish, harira, a kind of tomato soup that includes small noodles, lots of cilantro, chickpeas, and fava beans.  Finally, dessert is plums, nectarines, apples, and a large melon that might be the juiciest melon I’ve ever tasted in my life, all topped off with a glass of mint tea and some orange soda (or a few nights, fresh-squeezed orange juice) that I suspect was bought specifically because I was coming.  Allal’s family doesn’t have sofa’s (ponj) or couches, so the whole meal occurs atop several blankets where we stretch out watching the calls-to-prayer on television after we’re stuffed.

Then, that’s pretty much it.  I sit for a little while there on the floor watching T.V., and then, I get up, announce to everyone that I am going home, giving the appropriate thank yous and “God bless your parentses” and this-and-that, and then, I walk back to my house in the dark until the next day, Mohamed shows up again in his smurf outfit, parading around my house like some explorer in a foreign land until I say, “Okay, let’s go, Mohamed,” and off we go again to do it all over.  It’s like that Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day for a straight month, except it’s set in the Arab world and no one is drinking water or eating anything so long as the sun is up.

I said a lot about Ramadan last year.  I think this go around, I’ll just leave it at that, just a nice little story about what life has been like here in the olive orchard the past few days and what it’s probably to continue to be like in the coming few weeks.  As I approach the end of my service, there’s been this part of me that has been able to get a real taste for America, enough of one to almost make me homesick, but there’s another side of me, too, a side that has grown ever so (incredibly) slowly more sentimental for my life here, and I have these moments where  I’ll stop myself and think, “This.  This is something you will very much miss in just four months from now.  Cherish it while you have it.  This is Morocco.”   I think dirty little Mohamed in his blue shirt and shorts, a table set for a feast to break fast, laughter (and occasionally silly dancing) filling a simple room that has everything in it a person could ever need (i.e. the people who matter), and those are all the very images that have etched themselves into my soul and will remain there until I get the itch again to pursue another crazy adventure in God only knows what place, whether it’s America or halfway across the world or back to Morocco.  Yes, Ramadan is generous.  A happy celebration within, for every reminder of how blessed and privileged we really are.

Ramadan Kareem (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), a Tell-All Tale of the Holy Month of Ramadan, plus a how-to on when to “Say Yes to the Dress”

M’brouk l-3id, or essentially, happy holiday.

A month ago, when Ramadan first started, I posted on Facebook, “Ramadan Kareem,” which means that Ramadan is generous.  A friend commented back on my post, “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” who is the retired Lakers basketball player and hopefully equally known for his role in the movie Airplane! as co-pilot Roger Murdoch.

Though my friend was joking, and I never quite understood what he meant by responding with the name of a Lakers player, I’m now content to repeat his silly mantra: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, indeed.  It just seems more fitting to use the name of some American basketball player to describe my Ramadan experience of fasting from food and water for a month than describing it any other way.  For as the month dragged on, I was mostly struck by how American and Christian I really am, not that that’s something I’ve forgotten, but when you live in America and go to Church every Sunday, I think you tend to forget all too easily what it means to actually be an American or perhaps even what it means to be a Christian.  I mean, you just don’t need to think about it; nothing’s happening that would make you need to ask what it means.  It’s only when we’re thrown into this strange new context that we realize the fullness of who we are, like we’re walking around in an MTV pop-up video, and every pop-up screams some stereotype reminding you just how American you are and how that sets you apart from everybody else you’re around.  Or to put that another way, perhaps we come to define ourselves best by who we are not rather than by who we think we are.

Or maybe it’s that, when we’re removed from America, we start to grow these ideals in our heads of what America or Christianity should be, and if it’s not, we want it to change.  And for me, I want America to be this peace-loving country where we all just get along with each other rather than despise our differences.  Come to think of it, I want that for the world: a world where we can agree to disagree, move past that point and work together in love.  I know, I know, I sound like a hippy, Peace Corps Volunteer – what’s wrong with me?  I think that’s why, for a large part of Ramadan, I found myself writing blogs against the Tea Party or criticizing any form of American fundamentalism, especially within Christianity.  When you’re removed from it, you get to look at it from the outside and name what you think it should be and how you think it should work properly.  For all of those who have said Peace Corps is like an anthropologist’s dream, the real anthropological experiment, I think, is looking back at your own culture temporarily removed from it.  Or at least, those seem to be some of the things Ramadan really brought out of me.

A month ago, anyhow, I stated in a blog that “Ramadan this year [should be] about humbling myself, experiencing – in small ways, mind you – this very different religion and culture in a way that intend[s] the utmost of respect and in a way that might teach me a little more about who I am, as well.”  That is, I didn’t go in this hoping to play Jr. Muslim.  But I did hope to reflect on how this Muslim holiday in this Muslim country could shape and guide my American, Christian sensibilities, or rather, how might I as an American Christian learn a little bit about myself and about my own sense of holiness if I compare that part of who I am to how Muslims in Morocco understand (or misunderstand) their own sense of holiness?  I think that happened, but I don’t think it happened in any of the ways I would have expected.

Case in point, twas the night before l-3id l-ftur (pron. “layed”), the holiday where Muslims break fast and greet one another celebrating that the month has come to an end, and I invited the director of my Dar Chebab over hoping to get an invitation to his house for breaking fast.  I asked him, “What should I do tomorrow for the holiday?”  He responded, “You should wake up.  And then you should eat something.”  I cracked up, and he told me he was traveling to Guercif, so he wouldn’t be around for breaking the fast; otherwise, I could’ve joined him.  (As an aside, I think it’s worth mentioning that one of my real struggles here, amplified by the Ramadan experience, has been living in a city as a male.  Females and people who live in smaller villages get invitations to eat with families to the point that they are overwhelmed by the hospitality – really, it puts America’s southern hospitality to shame.  But for whatever reason, people in the city aren’t as welcoming and certainly aren’t as welcoming to males, so if you kind of have to put yourself out there and go the extra mile if you want to make friends, and that’s been difficult for me.)

When Hassan got ready to leave my house, he teased me saying, “Now, since you fasted and prayed, you’re sort of Muslim.  Just… sort of.”  I smiled back.  Even though I knew he was joking, it was probably quite the compliment in some ways for him to say that.  And yet, I just thought, “You know, it’s funny you should say that, because this whole experience reminded me just how not-Muslim I am.”  On the other hand, at the heart of being Muslim is the notion of submission to God, a submission that very much comes out in the strange and stringent obedience of fasting during Ramadan.  That notion of submission is even embedded into the meaning of the word “Muslim.”  I think it’s worth mentioning that, even though “submission to God” is not really a phrase we regularly use to describe Christianity, it is something our two religions share deeply, so in that sense, maybe I am – indeed – a little bit of a Muslim.  But just a little bit.

Since Ramadan has come to a close, I’ve been on the sleep-schedule roller coaster trying to return to a decent bedtime (my previous bedtime having been four in the morning), and since work won’t kick back up for another week or so, I’ve had ample time to sit and think and plan out the future.  Too much time on our hands is something every Peace Corps volunteer has to face at some point or another, and Ramadan is, most certainly, a prime example.  Having spent the past few nights thinking about my post-Peace Corps life, I was telling my friend Maria that I was planning in November to sit down and plan my “post-PCV” ten-year plan.  Life after Morocco.  Ordination.  Military Chaplaincy.  Ph.D. programs.  Fulbright Scholar.  Teach for America.  I had every option under the sun thought through in vivid detail, or rather, I was planning to think them all through in vivid detail.  And then rethink them.

Maria stopped me.  She started telling me that I sounded like I was an overdrive with all these plans.  Something could happen tomorrow that could change them all.  You need to do, take action, not obsess with plans.  It’s like when Master Yoda says, “Do or do not; there is no try.”

Actually, Maria had a different metaphor in mind, one not from Star Wars at all.  For her, it was like the TLC television show, “Say Yes to the Dress.”  In the show, brides-to-be try on upwards of eighty dresses as they plan out their wedding in attempt to find the flawless dress – “You need to ‘say yes to the dress,’ Philip,” Maria chided, “You need to decide which one it’s going to be and put it on, wear it, and be happy with it already.”  Because our plans can change.  The dress, even if it’s the perfect one, can tear.  And being happy is dependent upon our decision to be happy, not on pinning down the flawless plan, or the flawless dress.  Those things don’t even exist.

As Ramadan passes and September returns, I have a sense of confidence about who I am I didn’t have a year ago.  I’m an American.  I’m Christian.  I understand more about what that means now.  I’m neither Muslim nor Moroccan, though I hold those things close to my heart as though they are like brothers to me.  And knowing who I am means understanding that I don’t need to have a clear picture of the future or plan it out in vivid detail.  I don’t need to make myself anxious over plans that could easily fall through anyway.  And realizing I don’t need those things, that I can – in fact – be comfortable and happy with who I am, gives me the confidence to let who I am grow into who I will be later on, as well.

A Few Minor Adjustments

In only a week and a half or so, Ramadan will be over.  It’s gotten hotter, unbearably hotter, and I’m always a little hungry, always a little thirsty, and probably more irritable than I’ve ever been.  Something tells me I’m not alone in this.

I was talking with Caity and Avery about that, about how this two years abroad challenges you in ways you didn’t know you could be challenged.  We all got into this experience thinking, “I want a new challenge, one that will make me grow,” and that growth happens to almost all of us in the Peace Corps, I think, but the stress we face is quite literally a world different from what most people back home could even begin to fathom.  And describing what I mean by that is even more difficult to pull off.  You find yourself annoyed by the strangest things here, like people cutting you in line at the post office or someone overcharging you pennies, literally pennies, for something you think should cost pennies less.  It’s like we bump up against how the world works with our own opinions about how the world should work, and we’re constantly in this struggle to make things happen a bit more the way they make the most sense to us.

It’s funny, too.  It’s like Peace Corps gives us all this reading material that tells us exactly what I’m telling you now; we couldn’t be more prepared for this experience in theory.  They even map out exactly how we’ll feel at different stages of our service on the roller-coaster ride of volunteering.  And yet none of that information, perhaps because this experience is so different from anything we’ve encountered before, prepares us for reality.  It’s a tried and true example of where knowledge just doesn’t compare or match experience.

So, where’s the growth?  I think a huge part of the Peace Corps experience is coming to a state of acceptance about a different culture (or even our own) and what it is, and part of that acceptance means letting go of the expectations we hold for how that culture should work, learning to just be comfortable with where life is and how it’s panning out, even if especially if it’s not really panning out at all.  That’s not to say we should get complacent or lazy (as some volunteers do); but we have to walk that fine line between pushing cultural boundaries just enough that we can be ourselves versus integrating into the culture just enough to be able to appreciate and understand it for what it is.  (And it occurs to me that’s as pertinent to living in America as it is to living abroad, though we don’t always think about our own American culture in such terms).

A more concrete example of my recent struggle is in order.  A few days ago, sitting around in my host family’s house to break fast, I was just overwhelmed with exhaustion and ended up passing out on their floor for two hours.  Normally, I would’ve stayed up, tried to be sociable, worked on my language a little, joked with my host brother Omar.  But I just couldn’t do it.  I was too knackered.  And for every part of me that knows it was probably a little rude to show up, eat their food, pass out on their floor, then leave, there’s another part of me altogether that just recognizes that, at the end of the day, I’ll always be more Philip than I can be Fouad.  And that’s okay.  Perhaps part of integration is making clear that you’re not going to become Moroccan, and in my case, that could not be more clear.

Those are all big integration lessons for a Peace Corps volunteer, but I think they hold lessons for life, as well.  Because when things don’t always pan out, when we can’t always be who we’ve set out to be, being ourselves should never be too much to ask.  So many of us do things or try to do things in this little life, where we feel called to some greater sense of purpose, and that’s wonderful and noble, but stepping into those hard-to-fill shoes should never cause us to be scared of the shoes that fit just right.  After all, I’d suspect the shoes that fit just right will take us the farthest.  Or to put that more bluntly, I can’t really wear my grandfather’s shoes.  But I can wear a pair that fit me in a way he would have admired (and we probably shouldn’t put our heroes on such high pedestals anyway; it’s not fair to them or us).  At the least, I’ve become a believer that living into the best of who we are is better than trying to be someone we admire.

So, for now, I trudge on, still thirsty and hungry, still irritable.  Still Philip.

Ramadan Kareem

It’s hot.  

I mean, that’s probably a bit of an understatement – where is it not hot right now, right?  And to be honest, I don’t even have many bragging rights.  You’d think living in the desert in Africa in August would just be awful (and in some ways, it is), but with temperatures in the 110s in America, I have to say that I’m glad to be living in a hot desert in Africa instead of, say, West Tennessee.

Then again, most of you readers across the pond are perusing this little blog from the comfort of your carpeted, plush home, air conditioners blasting, and I envision you slurping on a Sonic Lemon Berry Fresh Fruit Slush as you sit there with your First World problems.  Keep slurping.  I’ll be having one of those in just four short months… in December.  And I will remember how hot it was as I was sitting here in my skimpies sweating like a fat hog at a BBQ on a Friday night.

Truthfully, the little complaining I can do doesn’t compare to my poor friends living south of me, Peace Corps Volunteers who have it about thirty degrees worse, and where they live, I hear some great stories about people dossing bed sheets in a bucket of water and hoping  to God they’ll fall asleep before the sheets dry.  Or – and this is true for me, as well – doing your laundry (two weeks worth by hand) only to have most of your clothes dried before you finish.  I even heard one rumor, though I’m not sure if it’s true, that some volunteers would cook eggs on their cement floors on the roof – no gas stove needed.

So yeah, it’s hot.

But heat isn’t so bad.  Heat, I can handle.  I even prefer it over cold and was notorious in college and grad school for keeping my house like a sauna, to the degree that living inside of this Moroccan cement box feels like home.

Combining heat with not eating or drinking water, however, is kind of a different story, and that’s what I wanted to talk about this go around – Ramadan, from my little perspective.

Even though I studied religion for the past ten years before entering Peace Corps (and this should say something about how poorly schooled our American society is on religions that differ from our own), I have to admit that I never really knew what Ramadan was outside of a month-long Muslim religious holiday.  I had no idea that Muslims fast during the sunlight hours from both food and water (and sex).  Or that the month of Ramadan follows the lunar calendar, which is why Ramadan always seemed to take place a different month every year.  I didn’t know that people broke fast eating dates, like the Prophet, or that there were three meals at night between the hours of 7:30 and 4:00 in the morning.  And that all just scratches the surface.  To be honest, I was pretty ignorant about it all.

And I’m sorry to say that I’m not going to educate you now.  I think you should do that on your own.  Google Ramadan, or something.  I definitely think it’s worth checking out, but the history and details of Ramadan aren’t really what I wanted to talk about.  Instead, I’d rather talk about why, as a Christian and as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I chose to participate in my first Ramadan, as well as what it’s actually coming to mean to me.

First, let me say that I’m not actually fully participating in Ramadan.  I’m not Muslim.  I don’t pray toward Mecca or go to the mosque, though I do pray and do regard it as a spiritual experience; or, to word that more appropriately, I do regard it as a form of obedience.  If anything, my half-participation in Ramadan is probably “shwya haram,” a little forbidden, kind of the same way Christians doing a seder meal at Passover is, at the very least, theologically problematic.  That is, we probably shouldn’t lightly incorporate other religious traditions into our own without at least being mindful about why we are doing so.  Then again, when you consider the similarities of the three great religions, their intermingled histories, their focus and care for devotion to Allah (however differently we may understand “care,” “devotion” or even “Allah”), it seems to me that we’re all, always, shwya haram, never quite fully committed to right-living and purpose, try as we might.  But at the end of the day, if we’re caring about each other and submitting ourselves to a purpose greater than our human posturings, we hold on to something worth celebrating in our common aims.

So, for me, part of deciding to do Ramadan this year was about humbling myself, experiencing – in small ways, mind you – this very different religion and culture in a way that intended the utmost of respect and in a way that might teach me a little more about who I am, as well.  And so far, it’s definitely having that kind of impact on me.

When I worked with a church just outside of Nashville the last few years, we made a point to do the so-called “30 Hour Famine” every spring (note: when it was 40 degrees cooler).  Pretty simple concept and pretty typical for most Protestant youth groups, at least across the South.  The basics included no food for thirty hours (but you could drink as much water as you wanted to stay hydrated), mission projects, such as a flooding clean-up project we did, and most importantly, raising money (almost dollar for dollar) to help fight hunger in impoverished communities across the world.  In addition, a lot of that time was focused on prayer and self-reflection, as students came to grapple with the reality that they were blessed as Americans, that starvation was a concept completely foreign to them.  All done over a thirty hour period, usually in the form of a “lock-in” at the Church, and though my friend Maria teased me and rightly pointed out some of the theological problems of “playing junior holocaust” to feel good about ourselves, the experience seemed to be a positive one for everyone involved.

Ramadan, even with its similar focus on charity and submission to God, I’m learning is much, much different.  I came into this with my 30 Hour Famine headlights on, thinking, “Oh, this can’t be too much more difficult than the famine – that was thirty consecutive hours, after all.  This is only half of that.”  The big difference there, of course, is that it’s fifteen hours a day every day for thirty days in the middle of the hottest month of the year, and without water.  No, Philip, this is not the 30 Hour Famine.  It’s harder.  Much harder.

Last night as I was sitting with Avery in his counterpart’s house for El Fitur (the first meal that breaks the fast around half past seven in the evening), I slowly bit into the date and immediately began gulping down mouthfuls of water.  Then, I started to slow down on my gulping to just stop and appreciate the preciousness of water, its necessity for life.  Food, we can survive without for some time, but without water, we wither and die rather quickly.  Holding the glass, a sense of thankfulness just settled over me, and I thought for a moment about a poem I had written a few years back for a Vanderbilt class on eco-concerns: “so, these are the things of a God who makes new, as a drink from his love would replenish like dew, let us wade through the waters we, together, pass through.”   Though the poem itself has strong Christian overtones, I found it pertinent in what was already a heavily religious context.  We thirst.  And we hunger.  For more than simply water and food.  And those gulps I took did more than simply replenish my need for water; they reminded me of how feeble and vulnerable I am.  And in doing so, they replenished my soul, filling me again with gratitude for the one thing we might take for granted the most.

There’s a word I’ve mentioned elsewhere, spoken as we start our meal or start any activity, really: the word, bismillah, or “in the name of God.”  As I bit into my date and began slurping (yes, we slurp here) my soup, that phrase, “in the name of God” carried new meaning for me.  For in the name of God, there is water.  And in the name of God, there is food.  And bundled up in this one little phrase spoken to break fast are the ideas of thanksgiving, humility, and grace.  They say here, Ramadan Kareem, or Ramadan is generous.  The first time I heard that, I laughed out loud wondering, “What’s generous about fasting from food and water?”  But where Ramadan may seem lacking in food and water at times, it’s generous in the very things we may need the most: the reminders to be thankful, to be humble, and to love with grace.