Oh, to be a Hedgehog or a Fox?

I’ve had Dietrich Bonhoeffer on my mind a lot lately. If you’re not sure who that is, Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian who at the cost of his life had the courage to speak out against injustices of the Third Reich. He was eventually accused by the Nazis of his participation in a plot to assassinate the Führer.

Bonhoeffer really throws a kink into how I understand what it means to be a Christian. Here was a guy who had every reason to denounce the religion altogether. In his context, Christianity had become a silent supporter of the Nazi Party. So, there’s obvious heroism in Bonhoeffer’s willingness to speak openly against the Nazis, but what I find perhaps more shocking and heroic about Bonhoeffer (looking back from my 21st century context) is that he remained Christian, that he never allowed the culture to determine what Christianity meant to him.

I’m not sure we live in a world that affords us that courage anymore. Culture overpowers us. If we don’t like the culture of something, we run from it rather than confront or change it. We attempt to divorce ourselves (and others) from that identity and take on something new. Bonhoeffer confronted Nazi Christians; we run away from Christianity over homophobia and bigotry. Lately, I’ve caught myself doing just that – trying to distance myself (through language) from “Christians” I don’t like. In the midst of Obama saying that “ISIL is not Islamic,” I’ve agreed: ISIL is no more a part of Islam than West Boro Baptist, or the KKK, is Christian. But then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life seems to say otherwise. That is, it makes it a lot harder to say that “ISIL is not Islamic” simply because they’re extremists. In a way, Bonhoeffer was an extremist, too, just the kind of extremist we happen to agree with today.

My working theory up until now has been that as one’s ideology approaches an extreme on any given ideological scale, the likelihood increases that he or she ceases to adhere to their claimed ideology to instead favor a new set of principles altogether. Seems logical enough, right? But the kink in the theory is that it relies entirely on cultural perception. Who defines ‘extremism’? Who defines the “norms”? Some of the most renowned religious figures throughout history might well be “extremists,” or at the very least counter-cultural enough that they questioned the norms of their religion and traditions. Kinda like Jesus.

So, does it all just boil down to self-identity? I am who I say I am and, for each of us, that’s final? We may choose to say “ISIL is Islamic,” because they say so, but judging by their actions it seems that they’re just really, really bad at being Muslim. Or, perhaps the KKK is Christian – simply because they claim to be. They’re just really terrible Christians (in the opinion of many). To say as much is a commentary on their actions – the how, not on their identity – the what. To put that another way, if we were to separate the how from the what, we’d be saying that a person’s “true” identity is not really our judgment call. Or that we can judge a person’s actions based on the evidence of harm but cannot judge their inner reasoning or their heart. To make that argument is ultimately to say that a person’s identity is left to themselves – or to God or to Allah. But I don’t find that satisfactory. I want to believe we can strip people of the labels (and, thereby, the power) they claim lest we devolve into some kind of Sheilaism, or new age relativism. But who am I to strip anyone of their label? What a shame it was those who silenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or those who tried to silence Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to say we want to strip people of their identity when the people we’re talking about are beheading innocents. But what happens when we’re the ones doing the beheadings?

And yet, ironically, Bonhoeffer had no qualms calling Hitler the antichrist, because to him, that’s how Hitler lived. Perhaps because of his encounter with social justice movements of American Christianity, the young theologian didn’t separate the inner identity (faith or “the what”) from the action (practice or “the how”) the way some of us might today. On this note, one author writes:

…as an undergraduate, Bonhoeffer joined a university fraternity, the Hedgehogs. The Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided the world, intellectually, between the ‘Fox’ and the ‘Hedgehog.’ While the Fox’s worldview draws upon a diversity of ideas and experiences, the Hedgehog claims to know one big, supremely important thing. Theologically, Bonhoeffer may have had the Fox’s broadmindedness, but in his highest convictions, he was a Hedgehog. His one big thing was that Christianity is not merely a matter of what one believes, but of how one lives.”

And that seems to be my dilemma here. It’s said that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing),” and those are the two worlds I juggle. Am I to be the Fox proclaiming, “To each his own,” the way our postmodern world beckons us or the Hedgehog melding faith and works with a set proclamation that “right is right,” and “I know it when I see it“?

The truth is, I fear, even if I could find some way to be a fox, I’d probably be a hedgehog about it.

Intriguing Find

Leather  nameMy parents came across this the other day on my grandfather’s farm as they were cleaning the place up.  It seems like every few months, something more intriguing about his life in Morocco pops up in his house, and I wish that I could ask him about his life here, about his interaction with Moroccans.

The word “morocco” actually means leather.  In Arabic, the name of the country is actually “Al-Maghrib,” a name I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog.  It doesn’t mean “leather.”  It means “the West.”   But the country is certainly known for its leather (e.g. the tanneries in Fes), so it’s no surprise that my grandfather had his name sewed in leather in Arabic while he lived in Casablanca.  I really wonder how far away he got from Dar Baida (the Arabic name of Casablanca, or “the white house).  Did he go to Fes?  There are pictures of him traveling to see some of the countryside on my Flickr.  Oh, the things I’d like to ask or wish I’d known to.

Anyodd, I have no idea what this actually is – part of a wallet or just a nametag, perhaps.  If anyone has guesses, throw them out there.  I’d love to get one made while I’m in country.  I’d put “Fouad” across the bottom.

Deciding to be Happy Already.

I’m not one to tout karma, but last year when load after load of bad news kept coming my way from my grandfather dying to multiple graduate school rejections, I felt like something good was destined to happen.  I even felt like I deserved it.  After all, I’d hit rock bottom, and it was past time for a bounce.

Well, here I am, in the bounce, and I’m not sure if it’s crested or what, but I’m loving it.

I’m actually not so sure I believe the world works that way either.  I tend to think it’s a lot simpler than that: sometimes, bad stuff happens; sometimes, good stuff happens, and it’s not weighed out on some grand scale that eventually equals out somehow.  It just happens.  Still, when we’re in the moment living from day-to-day, it’s no surprise that we feel as though there is some giant scale weighing out the good news with the bad, because we begin to view our lives, to view the past and the future, in those ridiculously dualistic terms.  It’s the Plato in us.  We never really let go of that.

Hamza, Omar, and I have spent the past two nights dancing in their room (that’s right, I said dancing) and then doing push-ups and sit-ups (yes, I said we exercised), just for fun (yes, I said it was fun).  Then, we lay on a blanket on a floor in an empty, cold concrete room exhausted and listening to more quiet music overwhelmingly content with the way this evening had come to a close.  Me and my brothers just completely zoned out and happy.  It’s ridiculous how something so simple can mean everything to you.  The modern age, I think, has fooled us into thinking we need something big to happen to be happy, when just lounging around with someone we care about is often enough.

I caught myself wondering after I went to bed last night when my luck would run out, when things would go back to “normal,” whatever that meant, or when I’d find myself again trying to climb out of some rut.  Then I thought, “That’s not the right attitude to have; life is what you make of it, and it’s all about your perspective,which may sound cliché, but things that are cliché often become trite solely because there’s truth to them, right?  I think I’m just still in shock with how genuinely happy I’ve been lately, something I mentioned in a recent post that I’m finally trying to pin down and understand.

The thing is, there are plenty of reasons I could be sad if I chose to be – I’m far from home, from family and friends; I don’t have a great grasp on the only languages everyone here knows; I’m almost always tired; I don’t remember when my stomach was churning out something remotely normal (maybe the day before I flew to Philadelphia); you get the idea.  But for some reason, minor or even major frustrations that enter my life can’t seem to get in the way of this inner joy I exude.  I call it “joy,” because it’s more long-lasting than having just a “good” day, and don’t be fooled into thinking I walk around smiling all the time hugging people like a Care Bear.  No.  That will never be me.  But deep down, I’m changed.  It’s kind of like a happy identity crisis, because I’m not really sure who this new Philip (or Fouad) is, but I like living this way.  It feels so much healthier than the past.  Maybe it’s the food?

Of course, that’s not to say I was depressed back home.  But last January, I kinda got hit extra hard, and most people who know me know I can be cynical from time-to-time.  Or harshly realistic.

Maybe this newfound joy is just how you feel when you’re in the place you know you’re supposed to be, whatever that means.  Again, not to tout karma or fate, but when I look around my house, at my host brothers, or sitting in a cafe and looking across the dusty, sandy desert plains here, I tend to think, “Of all the places in the world I could be right now, I can probably think of a few that are prettier but no place I could actually go and gain such a sense of belonging at this time in my life.”  So, this place is becoming a kind of home away from home slowly but surely, from the amazing, though small, community of Americans who live nearby to the beautiful Moroccan people I encounter everyday.

That’s not to say I don’t “belong” back in Tennessee.  I can see my Mom ready to strangle my neck already, but there’s something about this place carries a constant reminder about why I’m doing this and why I’m here, and that’s just one of those very wholesome feelings, for sure.

Let me be more specific:

One of my first nights in my host family’s house, an old refrigerator kicked on and took me back well over ten years to my grandparent’s house (my paternal grandparents).  Something about that buzzing noise took me in time to my childhood, reminding me of family, the food we ate around Christmas and Thanksgiving, and hours of sitting on a couch wishing I could be anywhere else.

But it was a fond memory, one of those memories you don’t realize was a good one until years later when you can look back on it and think, “That was a special time in my life with people I will always hold dear.”

I think a lot of what contributes to my joy in this place is how much this place reminds me of things I had forgotten or things I hadn’t forgotten but deeply cherish.  I talk often, actually, about my grandfather and his having served in World War II in Casablanca.  Earlier today, in fact, I pulled out an Army Air Force publication he gave me called “Rocket Run” that was printed in Casablanca in 1942, a book he received when he arrived in country specifically about Morocco, and I looked over parts of it with Omar.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Soon after take-off from Cazes Field, your ship will settle on a course almost due east.  Rugged mountain country follows the [s]table land of the Atlantic coast.  Far to the south may almost be seen the dim outlines of the Atlas mountains.  The higher peaks are snow-capped.  Later, the mountains come closer, for the Middle Atlas range bends across this country from South Morocco northeast to the Mediteranean.  Occasionally, you will pass over towns which look almost like medieval fortresses.  These are walled native villages [where] the Berber [and Arab] people live.  […] You would see, were it possible for you to get off your plane at one of these native keeps … blue tattoo marks … displayed on the chins and foreheads of the women; [and] orange henna protect[ing their] hands and feet.  … These people live almost entirely on sheep and goat.”

Some of the information in his book is no longer accurate (if it ever was), but as I read that portion, I kept thinking, “That’s me; that’s where I am right now, here in this little book my grandfather carried around with him for months and months in Morocco.”

The fact that Morocco hasn’t changed a whole lot (some of my pictures of Rabat look almost identical to some of the pictures my grandfather took in the 40s of downtown Casa) makes me feel sometimes like I got in a time machine and stepped back into the very same world my grandfather saw only sixty-something years ago.  For example, I remember sitting in a cafe one of the first days I got here sipping a banana smoothie and listening to Lady Day while a few Mafioso-esque Moroccan men smoked cigarettes in the dark corner of a nearly abandoned room that looked like it hadn’t changed since at least 1950.  Even the transportation on the street, an old broken-down Volkswagen or a mule standing right outside the cafe, all made me feel like I was in a different time rather than a different place.  And it was a time I have always kind of longed for and wanted to experience.  That gave me a powerful sense of connection to my grandfather that I can’t begin to fully describe and that I don’t think I could’ve experienced any other way.

But I think that’s where my joy of late comes from… from knowing that I’m doing something that always reminds me of such a good American who lived such a good life, to continue – in some weird way or another – to try to live out a legacy of sorts.  I haven’t mentioned him a lot on the blog lately, but I think about him often, carry his dog tags and a few other trinkets of his with me, and try to view the world the way I think he would view it.

So maybe being happy isn’t such a complex thing after all.

A Legacy of Service, or Why Morocco Mattered to Me Before This

Pop Morocco was, strangely, my first choice.  I say “strangely” because as I dreamed about Pacific Islands or Guatemalan potholes to hell (my dear friend Maria really wanted me to go to Guatemala), Morocco was never a serious consideration.  I mean, I certainly mentioned it in one of my application essays, but I just never got excited about the possibility of Morocco, because I knew early on, especially after I was nominated to the Caribbean, that it’s very difficult for the Peace Corps to send people to the country or even the region they request.

It’s also a strange first choice in my mind because it’s not a country that’s ever been noticeably on my radar, and as countries I would enjoy traveling to go, I guess I’d just never really been educated enough to even know what Morocco has to offer.  On that note, a brief pause just to say that the United States does kind of a sorry job of educating people (maybe at all but) especially when it comes to geography.  I knew nothing before two weeks ago about the Atlas Mountains or that the size or exact location of the Sahara in relation to Morocco, etc.

So, Morocco would not have come to my mind at all, and it certainly would not have been a part of my application essay if it hadn’t been for my grandfather who died in March, Jewell Francis Jones.  The picture above is actually from a book he received from the military about North Africa during World War II.  He served the North Africa Air Transit Command in Casablanca, Morocco for nineteen months working as a mechanic on B-24 bombers until the end of the war.  I’ve mentioned some of this briefly elsewhere, but I wanted to dedicate this blog entry and really my willingness to serve in Morocco to his example, his legacy of service to the United States.   It’s largely what I’m about these days.

Cigar Box

Of course, things in his day were a little bit different, and Morocco is much different now.  During the 1940s, Morocco was still under French control, making the Kingdom a kind of melting pot for Berber, Arabic, French, and Spanish cultures all in one place.  It’s said that Morocco is one of the more “Westernized” countries in the Arab world, and given its history of European and American culture clashes, that’s probably not all too surprising.

Having inherited all of my grandfathers war belongings, I gathered up several pictures and documents and scanned them this afternoon.  I came across this page in a book printed on Cazes Air Base in Casablanca and found it to be kind of humorous.  Surely no one still refers to Westerners or to the military as “Joe.”  I’m still unclear, also, how the words “Business, Joe?” translate to “Danger!  Dynamite!”  Really makes you want to go to Morocco, eh?

4871039770_7f18f507de_bSo, there’s just a lot of “stuff,” most of which is just amazing that he held onto, that came from Morocco or Italy or Colorado or somewhere else he was posted during the war.  In the wake of his death and in watching Mom sift through over ninety-three years of the things people collect and keep, it’s kind of a slap in the face that, once we die, we take none of it with us.  We spend so much time, especially today, obsessed with these material possessions, but we leave it all behind for someone else to sift through, to decide what’s worth keeping and what’s not worth keeping.  I look at my own things that I’ve hoarded here and there, a ticket to PETCO Park or a postcard from my friend in Maine, and those things are important to me, random though they are, but the treasure isn’t the item so much as the memory it evokes.

Since his death, I’ve really taken the time to explore more about his travels and his world and his generation.  His war things are something that I have really come to cherish in a special way.  But I’ve come to realize that I cherish them for a different reason than he did; I cherish them because they evoke in me the memory of his life and his service.  Some of those things will go with me in September in some form of fashion.

Most of the war stuff came out of a large treasure trunk that had been inconspicuously sitting in his living room for years and years and rarely opened.  I went with Mom in April and started perusing through the trunk and stopped dead in my tracks when I came across a fifty cent cigar box from Casablanca.


Inside of the box was even more to cherish, including love letters between he and my grandmother (who was then his girlfriend Stateside at MacDill Army Air Base near Tampa, Florida.  Reading them is like stepping back in time or watching an episode of Band of Brothers or some other war movie Spielberg put his hands on.  In fact, here are a few excerpts from my favorite letters from my grandmother —

“Did you know that Sandlin transferred to Oklahoma City last week?  It seems everyone is leaving.  I would like to myself.  I’m tired of working.  I wish this war was over and I could quit.  I would like to see you in that uniform and that G.I. haircut.  […] How about sending me a picture with your uniform on?  By the way, I had my picture made for mother at Bryan-Allen Studio the other day.  It’s not so good, but what can you expect?  […] Did you know that the  blonde girl (Helen Kavakos) who used to work in the welding shop, married Lt. Pepper?  They transfered to Alabama.  A B-26 crashed about 100 yards from the runway Friday night.  The four men in it were killed.  We had gone back out to the field to work that night and it really made me sick.  […] Do you have any idea where you’ll be sent next?  […] It’s time for me to go to bed.  Be good and write soon.  Love, as ever – Kitty.”

And from another one (dated May of 1943) —

“Dearest Francis, I received your picture this afternoon and I was tickled to death over it.  I think it’s grand.  It really looks natural.  That uniform looks like a million bucks.  Today was payday, and we had the usual mad scramble.  I don’t like payday anymore.  We had a pay-roll all made up but we had some new War Department instructions and had to do it all over again.  Thyra and I worked Sunday and every night this week in order to get the pay-roll out on time.  Now I feel like sleeping for a week. […] You said they were converting the hotels there into casualty centers.  There are quite a few casualties in the hospitals here. […] Did you hear the one about the moron who was lying in the ditch and put his head up on the curb so he could keep his mind out of the gutter?  We had a little excitement up town this afternoon.  A negro escaped from the city jail but before he could get more than a block or two the police shot him in the arm and took him back to jail.  It’s time I was in bed so goodnight and thanks so much for the good-looking picture.  Love, Kitty.”

A different time, for sure.  The letters are something that I mention not just because I cherish them but because, in the next few years, I expect to write my own letters to friends and family back home (what I’ve called the “penpalorama”), especially if I don’t have any kind of regular internet access.  I’ve noticed in reading them that our forms of communication today are much less central to what’s actually happening in our lives.  The quick pace of our society means sending a text that says, “Yeah.  Be right there,” or a brief phone conversation like, “Hey, I just landed and the plane is about to be at the gate.  Okay.  Bye.”  Our modes of communication today are without substance.  We spend our time (especially me) behind a computer or behind our phones.  But in their day, without the privilege of regular and easy communication, a letter was something to cherish, and for me, I suspect it will become that again.

Digging deeper into the box, I came across two more items that delighted me.  The first was a War Ration Booklet in pristine condition.  I doubt I’ll take it to Morocco.  It needs to be preserved in some sort of special case or something.  I attached a few pictures of it below, because I definitely wanted to show it off.

Then, I saw something even more odd – Egyptian Hieroglyphics on a brown leather picture wallet.  I opened it up to find pictures of my young grandmother in a swimsuit giggling.  Wow!  Talk about scandalous for that day!  The wallet, of course, was purchased in Morocco, and I suspect I’ll carry it back with me when I go east, though I may put more pictures in it, some of my own to cherish as I’m walking around in this sandy, desert world.

Pop 2I’m also intending to sew my grandfather’s North Africa Air Transit Command patch to one of my backpacks.  I guess it’s a bit blatantly obvious that I idolized the man, that this trip wouldn’t have been on my radar if he hadn’t died and I hadn’t been jolted into wanting to make some kind of tiny impact on this planet.  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.

At any rate, I just wanted to say that Morocco has, in so many ways, become more to me than simply a country I’ve never been to before.  They say it’s the “cold country with the hot sun,” as evidence by the picture here.  In a matter of days, I’ll find out.