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.

Sharing Cultures Workshop

So, my tutor here, Driss Laayadi, has become a good friend and confidant, and earlier today, he and I held a “workshop” at the high school with over sixty students, five Americans (including me), and two English teachers.  It was a huge, huge success, so I thought I would write up a little bit about the event and share a few pictures, which are also on my Flickr.  I also posted two short videos (just to provide a sense of what the workshop looked like) on the Vlog.

The event kicked off with a brief introduction (all in English) of the American panel, including myself, Avery Schmidt, Caity Connolly, Nicole Abrams, and Meagan Guilfoyle.  Each of us took a moment to talk about the Peace Corps, about the fact that this year, the Peace Corps celebrates 50 years since its founding by John F. Kennedy, and next year, the Peace Corps will celebrate 50 years in Morocco.  We then talked at length about the three goals of the Peace Corps (to provide technical assistance and to exchange cultures) and about the four different sectors (health, environment, youth, and small business development) working throughout Morocco.

The conversation then shifted to a true-to-form sharing of cultures with the Moroccan students discussing their love of the King, couscous, and clothing, such as the jellaba.  We shared with our friends stories from our lives in America, as well.  What growing up in Tennessee was like vs. what growing up in Chicago was like, etc.

At one point in the conversation, we discussed holidays and were told about a day where youth will throw eggs at each other.  We responded by sharing about Halloween and how, the night before, people sometimes egg houses or throw toilet paper in the trees.  Someone yelled out something to the effect, “See, we are the same.”   It was a nice, humorous bonding moment.

When the workshop ended, students wanted to take pictures with us and then talked to us afterward about our experiences and our culture (and theirs).  It couldn’t have been a better morning.  It was just one of those days where we all felt like we were doing exactly what we were sent here to do.  The fact that the entire workshop was held in English (to give BAC students an opportunity to practice listening and using English), coupled with the fact that the workshop was so well-attended and generated such excitement meant one thing: it will happen again.  Maybe even multiple times.

Please. Listen to this.

I posted this on Facebook earlier, and I wanted to make sure that anyone who is keeping up with the blog also hears this podcast.  This is from a podcast I regularly listen to called “On Being” about religion and human co-existence.  This week features the recent events happening in the Middle East, and the picture on the main page is actually of a school in Morocco that’s about seven hours northwest of me.  The focus on youth is especially fascinating and interesting and really makes me feel like I’m here doing the right thing.

You can either download the link or stream the podcast:


Stream Podcast with Flash

And just because the guy in the cyber always plays music, here’s a song I’ve recently gotten stuck in my head and am obsessed with by Amr Mostafa.  But fair warning, it’s catchy.  Enjoy.

Tonight, my friend Meetra is coming in, and we’re going to cook chicken noodle soup together, noodles from scratch.  Then, we’re leaving tomorrow to go to Ifrane and are staying the night there with a former volunteer who is also, coincidentally, a Wabash alum.  Then, the rest of the week will be spent in Azrou for our “post-training” training, or “PPST.”  Sunday is Morocco’s “Day of Rage” in Casablanca, Rabat, and elsewhere.  We’ll see if the revolution spreads or not.  Everyone take care.

Hello from Sefrou!

It’s been a few days, and there are so many things I could tell you and so many things I want to share, but I don’t really know where to begin, because like I said in the previous post, I’m just so overwhelmed with information.  So, I’ll begin in media res.

I had a dream last night that several years had passed, and Khalil and Fatima, my host family brother and mother, were coming to the United States to visit me.  I was at the Nashville airport waiting for them to arrive, and when I saw them, they were jumping up and down yelling excitedly, “Salamu Alaykum!”  I smiled big, but just when I was about to run up and hug and kiss them, some redneck started yelling at them and telling them to get out of his country.  I woke up on the verge of tears, realizing the reality of things back home and wishing that everyone could experience the hospitality and love I have experienced the moment I got here to Sefrou.

I am living currently on the border of the Middle Atlas Mountains with a wonderful family, about forty-five minutes southwest of Fez.  When Driss, my “Language and Cultural Facilitator, or LCF” introduced me to Fatima, my host mother, she smiled big and told me the only English she knew – “I love you; you are a part of my family now.”  She then proceeded to list her children from oldest to youngest, starting with me – “Philippe, Yussef, Marwan, and Khalil.”

From that moment forward came the awkward but exciting realization that none of the family spoke even a smidgen of English, and most of what I have been doing since we met is struggling to communicate.  We draw or look at pictures; we stumble through the Darija dictionary; we laugh.  We laugh a lot, actually.  It’s funny to me that I have no idea how to convey the majority of the things I want to say, other than relying on the twenty or so words that I have learned thus far, and yet, despite our language barrier, I feel like I know what matters most, and I find it incredibly comforting: that three thousand miles from the place I have called home my entire life, I am loved for almost no other reason than to be loved.

Khalil, the youngest at fifteen, walks me to Driss’ apartment each morning.  Most of the time, we are quiet, but every once in a while, I’ll ask him what something is, or he’ll want to show me something.  My first night here, he showed me videos on his phone of him trying to kick a futbol and then doing a flip in the air and hurting his knee.  We had a good laugh about that.  Then, he showed me a picture of something that looked like a bird and kept saying, “Hmammah.”  I couldn’t figure out what he meant, so he got up and walked out.  A minute later, he walked back inside holding a pigeon in his hand and handed it to me – “Hmammah.”  Oh okay, I get it now, Khalil.

People in America who say that the south is “hospitable” have never been to Al Maghrib.  This is above and beyond hospitality.  I have been offered the nicest room in the house, certainly the largest.  Tonight, when Allal, my host father, arrived, he brought a Muslim crown (a hat) for me to wear, which I’m thinking will help me integrate into my community, though I look a bit silly with it on the way my hair swings out from the sides.  I guess I’ll need a haircut soon.

The little kids in the Medina or on their way to school (Mdrassa) will run up to us and ask our names and whether we’re Francois or Mirikaini.  I very much look forward to working in the Dar Chebab (the House of Youth) and getting to meet them.  I will be working there through the Ministry of Youth & Sports.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that for now.  I apologize that there’s a lack of pictures.  I’m trying to respect this country before I start snapping away or do the “tourist” thing.  I’d prefer not to take pictures without permission, and I want to show my community that kind of respect.  Don’t worry, though.  There’ll be plenty of pictures in time.   I’m here for two years, after all.  I hope it doesn’t pass too quickly.

Coming to a blog near you: how to use a turkish toilet, or how I learned to squat, poop, and clean up without toilet paper.  I know you’re excited.