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.

What I’ll Miss Most, or a Top Ten List of Sorts

Jon and I were sitting at a cafe yesterday afternoon just waiting for the head of the diabetes association to show up, and as I sipped my ice-cold Fanta Citron, I just thought to myself, “My God, Fanta Citron, I am going to miss the daylights out of you.  It’s gonna be back to Squirt, the grapefruit drink, for this guy.”

Every which way I turn, I’m faced it seems with final moments, and even though I have fifty-something days left in Morocco – which is actually quite a long time – I’m already beginning to feel a little bit homesick for this place.  You know you’ve got it bad when you’re saying goodbye to a soft drink.

That seems a fair introduction to this final top ten list, so without further ado, I bring you the ten things I think I’ll miss most:

10. Bromance.  Not that Harold Burdette won’t fulfill this category in full, but a patriarchal culture like Morocco is one big fraternity house.  I’m being a little bit cheeky here, because I think the bad (y’know, like, women’s rights) might actually outweigh the good in a culture as patriarchal as this, but even when the bad outweighs the good, that doesn’t mean the good should be forgotten or ignored.  I think there’s something nice about the fact that men here can have friendships, you know, real friendships with each other, but in America, we live by some kind of code that prohibits that behavior.  If you don’t believe me, think for a second about the fact that meaningful connections between males (i.e. a good, ole platonic friendships) are rare enough that we have a special word – bromance – just to signify how we think of two dudes who genuinely like each other.   You know, like it’s not “manly” for two guys to hug in some parts of American culture vs. Morocco where two dudes are walking down the street holding hands, and nothing about it is remotely erotic.  (Okay, well, usually not anyhow).  But no one’s going to question it or go, “Hey, look at them.”  This is something that just baffles my mind, because you would think that the more patriarchal the culture, there would be more boundaries against a dude showing affection toward another dude, but no, only in the far-less patriarchal America do we find bans on males, you know, caring about each other.  Or, to sum all of this up in the words of Jermaine from Flight of the Concords, “Why can’t a heterosexual guy tell a heterosexual guy that he thinks his booty is fly?  Not all the time, obviously; just when he’s got a problem with his self-esteem.  Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not humpable, because you’re bumpable; well, I hope this doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable.”:

9. The convenience of your friendly, local l-hanut.  You’re hungry.  The pantry is empty.  You need to go to the grocery store, but that means getting in your car, spending gas money, and driving somewhere between five and ten minutes to buy something.  Not the end of the world, but the nice thing about Morocco is that there’s a local vegetable store around nearly every corner.  It’s not driving distance; it’s walking distance.  You might be thinking, “Well, that’s more work.”  Maybe.  But, especially when I lived in the January house, there was just something so incredibly wonderful about thinking, “Oh no, I just forgot to buy butter.  Oh, that’s okay, I can leave this cooking while I run out and grab it really quick, because there’s a place I can buy butter a two-minute walk from here.”  I mean, I guess if you live in a big city (or just really insanely close to local food stores and other shops), then you can easily have that, but it’s really something I’ve loved here.  I like the little conversations at the mahaliba (the milk store) with the owners there.  I love the Super-Hanut, which is the one place I can buy canned pineapples and redball (gouda) cheese.  The guy who owns that place is so, so incredibly nice and funny.  I love that it’s not just some giant chain with people in the same color uniform, but that I can stop and have nice little conversations with the people I’m buying food from, knowing that my money is actually something sustaining to their livelihood in some occasions, and not just chunk change thrown at some large, corporate market.  When will I ever have that sort of Mom-and-Pop convenience store experience ever again in my life?  Maybe never.

8. Moroccan cuisine, including lamb tajine with plums, pastilla, arfissa, etc.  You know what.  I can’t even write about this. I just can’t.  Thinking about it makes my stomach growl, and I think my taste buds are actually screaming.

7. Mak-Doh Abroad.  That’s right.  I said it.  I’m going to miss McDonald’s.  You might be thinking, “But Philip, you’re coming home to America; there’s a McDonald’s on every corner.”  No, my friends.  Mak-Doh (the appropriate Moroccan pronunciation) is a venue of high-class and luxury.  It’s like going to the movies in America; it’s where the cool kids go on a Friday night.  And it tastes better, too.  Come to think of it, the one we went to in Porto was even beautiful.  I mean, when was the last time you felt dirty after you walked into a McDonald’s, because everyone there was dressed nicer than you?  I’ve now had McDonald’s in the UK, Spain, Israel, and Morocco, and I can honestly say, I’ve never been disappointed in Morocco abroad.  But don’t think you’ll catch me there in the States.

6. Bab Boujaloud, and the Mdina Qaddima.  There’s no city in the country I love more than Fes.  I mean, I wrote a whole blog about it.  Check it out.

5. Cafe Culture, complete with Mint, Sage, or Wormwood (Absinthe) Tea.  First of all, you might again be thinking, “But Philip, America has Starbucks!  You can get your tea or coffee, quite literally, on any corner.”  Not the same.  In fact, not only is there a cafe on every corner in Morocco, but for every corner cafe, there’s five more cafe’s in between each corner.  And I can promise you this, I can’t get absinthe tea; I can’t even get Moroccan traditional mint tea prepared the same way.  Where will I find a perfectly chilled bottle of “Coka” at a cafe in America?  Where can I sit and people watch while I sip a ns-ns (half and half: half coffee, half sugar, a tiny bit of milk)?  Where else can I sip freshly-squeezed orange juice or banana milk or avocado milk whilst munching on harcha or malawi?   It’s, by far, one of my favorite things about Morocco.  It’ll be something I crave secretly for a long time.

4. Taking the Train.  When I first heard that President Obama had proposed a high-speed rail as part of his 2008 platform, I was ecstatic.  Sadly, America is just so incredibly huge that a high-speed rail would have a lot of trouble competing with the plane, but something Europe – and Morocco – have done right is the train.  You know, come to think of it, I can’t picture myself taking a taxi, a bus, a van with a goat cage on top, or a train anywhere in Tennessee.  This may be the third world, but the third world knows how to travel a lot better than we do in America.  It’s a shame that we’re all so obsessed with having cars in America or that public transportation is somehow a “lower class” phenomenon.  I just love falling asleep on a train and waking up, and bam, you’re exactly where you wanted to be.  I can honestly say that I wish America would invest in this idea, even if it doesn’t pay off in the end.

3. The Arid, Mountainous Geography of the Boulemane Province.  Morocco’s geography, I like to say, is a lot like California. We’ve got the sand dunes, the beaches, the mountains, the arid desert, and the green forests.  It’s just far more condensed and probably a little more on the arid side.  I’ve lived near farmland and on a beach (twice) and in the suburbs, but I’d never in my life lived in a place like the Boulemane Province before I moved here.  There’s no place quiet as desolate, quite as beautiful.  I discovered that I actually really love mountains.   But over time, I’ve really grown to love the Middle Atlas in particular.  I mean, just behind Avery’s village was the second tallest mountain, Bounasseur, in all of North Africa.  I got the opportunity to hike a lot of it, over the Tichoukt where I stood at the peak and saw green on one side of the mountain and an endless desert, the Sahara, on the other side.  I think one day I’d like to live on an island with a mountain and a desert.  And I’d live in a suburb really near a large city.  Somebody find me that island.

2. The People: Hassan and Hamou, Allal, Lahcen, Ahmed, Kaotar, Omar and Hamza, etc.  How did I manage to not have a Mohammed in there?  I’m finding it more and more difficult to speak about some of the things I’ll miss.   I just regard them as something I hold dear, and there’s not much more to say about it.  Today, I cracked jokes with Hassan about the history of our village.  Earlier this week, I was having lunch with Allal, and a week or two ago, I bought a beautiful carpet from Ahmed.  It’s a no-brainer that the people are what I’m going to be missing the most of, their smiles and their laughter and their jokes.  They are who I came here to get to know, and I will never, ever say this experience was about me helping them.  They helped me.  They helped me appreciate and love life a little more, and I can’t be more thankful for that.  They are more Morocco to me than anything else ever will be.  To say anymore would be to do an injustice to who they were to me deep down.  So I’ll just leave it at that little bit.

1. The Olive Orchard.  My home in the woods.  My first encounter with an olive grove, ever, was the Garden of Gethsemane.  I loved it, because that’s probably my favorite Biblical story ever – the disciples still getting it wrong, the sacred tempted by the profane, the dark and mysterious garden of trees whose branches are like the arms of monsters.  There’s this peace here I can’t really fully describe to you.  It’s not constant.  It’s very often interrupted by a donkey or a stampede of goats or even an occasional car rushing by.  But there are moments when I feel and know it, when the wind just rushes through this quiet place, and I feel a little like I’m part of it, embedded into it, like I could fall asleep just like those disciples, or maybe – more fittingly – a little like Rip Van Winkle.  It’d be a nice place to sleep for a 100 years.  Or maybe forever.

Well, there you have it.  On Saturday, my big project with Jon – the so-called “diabetes project” – is finally happening.  We’re distributing 100 workbooks in Standard Arabic on literally everything you could ever want to know about diabetes and nutrition.  Then, after training fifty youth on how to teach diabetes nutrition, we’re dispatching them into the community to do just that.  Keep your fingers crossed for us, because there are a lot of people we have to depend on to make sure this whole shindig goes off without a hitch.  I’ll leave you with an exciting preview – the cover of our workbook, put together by myself and Jon with some Moroccan help.  It says, verbatim: “Booklet Sickness (of) Sugar and Nutrition” followed by the name of our village and then “Peace Corps America.”

19 Months

One month before I left for Morocco, I wrote a blog called, “A Legacy of Service, or Why Morocco Mattered to Me Before This.”  Call it a tribute of sorts to my grandfather who I’ve written about in multiple blogs now.  If you’re a regular reader, you already know why my grandfather was so important to me, and you ought to know that he spent time in Casablanca working on planes as a mechanic during World War II.  It’s just a little thing that gave me a strong sense of purpose in coming to this country, and so, I reference it quite often.  At the end of that August blog, I wrote this: “I look back at his generation, and I see a people who were mobilized to make a difference, and I want badly for my generation to be as eager and as willing to do that as our ancestors.  I want us to look on that people who’ve been called “the Greatest Generation,” and live into that calling, to be great and to do something that genuinely is helpful and good in this world.  I don’t know what kind of dent I can really make in teaching Moroccan youth to write English or even in just loving people the way I’ve always believed we should.  The last thing I want is to come away from this experience and be arrogant about the fact that I gave two years of my life to help people.  I don’t want this to become some yuppy white boy experience to add to my resume.  I just want to love people and love my grandfather and do something for once that’s not all about me.”

19 months.

That’s how long he lived in Morocco.

And now that I’m moving into my nineteenth month of living in this country, I’m a little beside myself.  19 months is a long time.  This has been – or felt like – a huge, important chunk of my life.  It was, I know, a huge chunk of his.  He was still talking about it on his death-bed.  But now that I’ve been here the same amount of time as him, I need to rethink some of those words about living a legacy.

Coincidentally, my grandfather was roughly the same age as me when he set foot on Moroccan soil, so in a way, I imagine we were both in the same place mentally and emotionally (not physically; I’m sure he was healthier than I am).  Of course, we’re talking about seventy years ago, so I would imagine that’s not entirely true, but it’s something I relate with deeply.  It makes me feel connected to him in a way I’m not sure I could have connected to him while he was alive.  It’s a funny thing how that works.  Sometimes, we get closer to people once they’ve died than we could’ve gotten to them in life.  It’s the ways we live out those we’ve lost that makes them immortal.  

And yet, my life is worlds different from his.  My attempt to “help” Moroccan youth teaching them English or bringing them glasses isn’t remotely comparable to fighting a war against a common enemy in Nazism.  I work in a youth center; he worked on aircraft on an airfield that is now Mohammed V International Airport.  I travel all across Morocco, meeting and befriending multiple Moroccans in their common language; he was, as best I can tell, confined to the greater-Casablanca area, knew very little Arabic or French, and interacted with very few Moroccans beyond “the shoe-shine boy” he sometimes talked about.

And yet, those differences don’t stop me from thinking frequently about what his life was like here.  Before I came here, saying that my grandfather lived in Morocco wasn’t really something I could make sense of, as it was this distant world I knew nothing about, and to say he was here for nineteen months meant virtually nothing to me.  It was just a meaningless block of time, but living it made it tangible.  When I’ve had great days, I could stop, sit back, and think, “There may have been a war on and all, but I bet he laughed and enjoyed conversation with friends or playing cards or whatever.  I bet he had days when he genuinely enjoyed being here, no matter how awful the circumstances were that brought him this way.”  When I’ve had bad days, I think also, “This wasn’t just some empty block of time in my grandfather’s life, but there were days when he, I’m sure, yearned to be home, to see Kitty [his wife to-be, my grandmother], when sending a letter just wasn’t good enough.  Days when planes wouldn’t fly right, and he just couldn’t seem to fix anything, despite being a mechanic.”

And then there are places here that do the same thing, places that seem to call him up from the grave like a kind ghost sitting nearby with that slight smile of his, an old soul not easily forgotten looking out at some pasture wondering how Moroccan farming differed from the techniques of Americans.  I cannot go to Casablanca without thinking that.  The train ride to the airport cuts south of the Anfa district and runs through stretches of green, grassy fields.  Surrounding the train tracks are slums, mere cardboard boxes of houses with Moroccan youth running and kicking a sorry excuse for a soccer ball about making the best of what you and I would think was the worst.  It’s those fields where I see him the most, standing near some crooked, old olive tree staring at a donkey that’s pulling a makeshift tiller across a field as the Moroccan sun sets toward the Atlantic.  It’s things like that I’m most excited for my pledge brother and his wife, Patrick and Lindsay Drake, to see.  It’s what I’ll be excited to point out to Hope Montgomery on our ride from Casablanca to Rabat when she arrives.

All that aside, and I’ve had to be really careful not to let those ghosts haunt me to the point that I feel like what I’m doing isn’t good enough.  Or that what I’m doing pales in comparison.  I didn’t come here to save the world.  Which is especially funny, because even though my generation may think that of his (that they were “saving the world”), I bet my grandfather probably thought at times, as he was repairing planes, “I didn’t come here to save the world.”  I can just hear him saying that now.

But that’s not what Peace Corps is to me.  I don’t think of it as a mission-oriented organization.  It’s about cultural exchange, and I’ve been doing everything in my power, despite my efforts to bring glasses into this country, to avoid becoming a “do-gooder.”   I don’t know why that bothers me so much.  I just fear the notion of ever assuming that I have something better to offer these people than what they already have.  It’s not that I think I’m not helping people (or that I don’t want to help people); it’s that I don’t think I should define my service in those terms without recognizing that this experience, at the end of the day, will do (has done) more for me and who I am than I could ever hope to offer another human being.  This experience is as much about me and my love for my grandfather as it ever was about Morocco or Moroccans.

So, I hold those two things in constant tension: on the one hand, always questioning whether what I’m doing is “good enough” and, on the other, trying to avoid becoming a “do-gooder.”  It’s like walking a tight-rope, and part of living the legacy of my grandfather is learning how to just balance myself in my own way, where my steps don’t have to be the same ones he took, but as long as I’m taking the steps that are right for me, I’m still living into his calling, as I see it.

So no matter how much I wished and yearned to follow in those footsteps before, I have my own story to tell, too, and I can only follow him so far and in so many ways.  Being a legacy isn’t about becoming someone or even following in their footsteps so much as it’s about just remembering who you are in light of who they were.  Im not Jewell Francis Jones.  I just love him.  And that’s good enough.

Some thoughts on a rainy afternoon on a train from Oujda

Had time time this afternoon to write, so this is what I jotted down:

I’m sitting on a train in Oujda waiting to leave, and there’s pellets of rain slapping the windshield pretty viciously.  Thought I’d kill some time writing and studying.  Doubt the studying will happen, though.  It’s been a good trip to the Algerian border (we call this part of the country “Peace Corps/Algeria,” because the Arabic here is a little more influenced by Algeria than Morocco, and well, it’s just so far away from the majority of the other volunteers).  I got in yesterday and ate dinner at McDonald’s with my friend Meetra who is from Ohio.  It’s always nice eating an American French Fry even if I wasn’t really a big fan of McDonald’s back in the States.  Plus, I was so hungry after my taxi and bus rides that I could’ve eaten at Arby’s.  Actually, Arby’s sounds great right now.  Or some Wendy’s.  Whatever, I need to avoid that topic if at all possible.

So Meets and I went to a hotel but got turned away because the stamp on our passports said we’d been in-country for more than three months.  I was hoping the receptionist wouldn’t notice this small detail, but alas, this was what, in Morocco, we call a “mushkil kibir,” or a big problem.  After three months in country, you’re illegal unless you apply for the Carte de Sejour.  I think I’ve mentioned that before.  Anyway, it’s a resident card similar to a license required for every Moroccan.

The train just started moving.  Side note that I’m hoping I can get a taxi from Guercif to my site when I get there, because I hear that’s very difficult to do, and I really don’t want to spend the night in Guercif.  I mean, I couldn’t get a taxi to Oujda on the way here, so I had to take a bus, but a bus was a better choice anyway.  It was just surprising because Oujda is a big city and my site is so small, so shouldn’t it be more likely to get a taxi to a big city than a small one?  I dunno.  We’ll see.

So yeah, anyway, I’ve applied for the Carte de Sejour, which is good news, but I forgot to bring the receipt with me proving I had done so and officially making me an illegal resident in this country.  Bad news.  The hotel receptionist wanted to call the police, but we decided we’d try a different hotel first and hope for better luck there.

Success.  They gave us the keys no questions asked, so we put our stuff away and then headed out to Marjane, the Wal-Mart of Morocco.  You can find one of these in pretty much any major city in country, and they have everything you could ever want, though it’s expensive.  It’s basically a supermarket, like I said.  So what’d I buy – a nice heater (tried to get a Whirlpool, but they were sold out), brie cheese, chocolate, and a Michelan Map of Morocco (that should be checked off the list soon).  Oh, another side note, the guy across the seat from me just finished eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Like, what country am I in, seriously?

So Meets and I stayed up munching on cheese with my spork, eating chocolate, and chatting it up about our past lives in America which seem so far-removed now.  Really, it’s just kind of interesting how a place and circumstances in it can change a person.  I don’t know that I’m changed or different, but I keep hearing volunteers say this experience does change you, so I guess time will make that more clear?

Meets mentioned that I seem really optimistic on the blog, which kinda shocked me, and I’m not sure if she was contrasting that with how she thinks I am in reality, but we sort of agreed that there are many aspects of living in a foreign country that make life difficult but simultaneously worth the experience, if that makes any sense.  I guess that is to say that I have had days here where I’ve been overwhelmed or felt inadequate to be able to do everything I want and need to do (i.e. learn the language, make a positive impact on my community, etc.)… days when I just don’t have the energy for it, but then something happens that makes me smile or reminds me of why life really is good.  I mean, to use the trite phrase, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” seems to sum it up well.  I’m not aiming for some magical moment where it all comes together, makes sense, and is perfect.  I’m aiming to ride the roller-coaster, the goods and the bads, the bumpy-cart ride so to speak… to explore both the best and worst of life and to appreciate all of it together.  I think thats what’s changed for me.  It’s not that I’m suddenly Mr. Optimistic.  It’s that I can suddenly appreciate the bad news in a way I haven’t been able to before now.

[Of course, having written that earlier this afternoon, I came home to some especially bad news, that one of youth from my Church back home, Juri Bunetta, was killed in a car-wreck this weekend.  It’s put me back a little, and I dunno I want to say more about that right now other than to ask that prayers be with his family and with the Church.  Juri was a wonderful kid.]

So, someone knocked on my door at nine in the morning (that’s early for me); it was the receptionist, and he had just realized that I was in the country illegally.  Mushkil.  Kibir.  I had my camera with me, though, and it had a picture of my receipt for the Carte de Sejour.  That wasn’t enough.

He called the police and they told him to bring me and Meetra to the station.  Uh oh.  I joked with Meets about it a little, something to the effect of, “Well, four months in-country without going to jail was a pretty good run while it lasted, right? I mean, what do you think the punishment is for being here almost illegally?  Just deportation, not decapitation, right?”

So, at the police station, Meetra shares her receipt, and we explain that I had one like that but forgot it.  Sorrryyyy.  heh.  They tell me to remember to bring it next time, but it’s okay.  Obviously, I’m writing this from a train instead of a jail cell.

Meetra and I made the best of our early morning and went to the Old Medina where we bought some malawi and cheese and ate breakfast across from an art gallery while a kitten begged me for some of my cheesy, sugary pastry.  Then, of course, we figured we’d check out the gallery, but it was empty.  The two men standing in the doorway realized we knew a little Arabic so we talked with them some about the gallery and Picasso and drank some tea.

And that was it.

Now I’m on a train heading home and excited about the upcoming week.  The rain is gone and the view out my window is absolutely tremendous – rolling green hills with rosemary covering the small cliffs in the distance.  Here and there is a copse of trees whose branches twist and turn and remind me, “This is Africa.”  Here and there a herder stands alone with his sheep and goats.  The low-lying clouds, like a flock of sheep themselves, grace in the sky, spotting the ground below to provide an olive grove with a little relief from the scorching sun whose rays still can burn on this cold day.  I could empty my head and stare out this window for hours.