Reflections on Religion

Lots of people ask me about religion, particularly what it was like to be a Christian in a Muslim-majority country. Moroccans were really curious about my religious views, and a majority of the Americans I’ve talked to about religion since I returned home have also been curious (in a non-threating way) about how religion affected my experience in Morocco. A lot of the questions I got in Morocco were about Ramadan—was I going to observe it, what did I think of fasting, etc. No one asked me to convert, no one threatened me, and most people assumed I wasn’t a Muslim and didn’t seem to have a problem with it. I think my “whiteness” or my “American-ness” were more evident and on the front of people’s minds than my religious affiliation. 

One conversation in Morocco about religion caught me off guard—it was near the end of my trip, and it took place completely in Arabic.  I was chatting with a Moroccan friend who mentioned to me that many Moroccans have stereotypes about Christians, just based on the actions of a few people on the news. I mentioned Westboro Baptist Church, thinking maybe their protests had made the news at one point.  No, I was told—the stereotype was based on politicians. Weren’t most folks in the US Christians? Don’t political parties talk about religion? And, isn’t Christianity a religion that supports violence—I mean, after all, the US invaded Iraq, right? Christians must be violent people if they’re willing to fight such violent wars.

            In the midst of our conversation, I took a moment to let the words sink in. Yes, its true that Christianity is the majority religion in the US, however not everyone who professes belief practices the religion actively. Yes, political parties use religious rhetoric in their platforms, but they don’t exclusively represent religion, and they talk about lots of other things—healthcare, infrastructure, and even traffic. And, no, just because Christians pick up guns and go to war doesn’t mean that Christianity as a whole supports war or violence. I’m a Mennonite and a Pacifist, and I certainly don’t think that any politician represents my religious views well.  I don’t particularly look to politicians for spiritual leadership or examples; in fact, I don’t find politicians to be a good representation of any sort of moral character.  I started to explain these ideas to my friend—and we had a really constructive conversation about how stereotypes and misunderstanding happen when people communicate across cultures and oceans and languages. 

When I came home and explained my experiences to family and friends, many of them expressed surprise at the irony of the situation.  A friend pointed out to me that many Americans view Muslims and Islam in the same way—as a violent religion led by politicians who speak for all followers of the religion, and who seek to proliferate war and violence.  While those people do exist, they also exist in American culture—extremism isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to one ethnicity, race, religion, or country.  Its also safe to say that the mainstream (the undecided middle, as we say in Political Science) exists and mostly ignores the extremists.  This middle exists in Morocco, too. I ate dinner with a lot of people belonging to this group; I bought groceries from them, spend time chatting with them on the street, and rode in taxis with them.  I like to say that Iowa is full of lots of “normal, everyday folks.” After this summer, I’d like to say, “Morocco is also full of lots of normal, everyday folks.” 

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The first of many reflections

After much journaling and chatting with friends and family about Morocco, I have finally decided its time to post a few reflections about my summer. 

This post is the first of a few that will reflect on my experiences and thoughts “post-Morocco.” I’m hoping to express some thoughts on reverse culture shock, readjustment, and conversations that have been sparked because of my experiences in Morocco. 

The reverse adjustment has been a struggle for me mostly because I didn’t have much time to sit and process. I had a family reunion to attend, friends to catch up with, an apartment to move into, and school to start. The last four weeks have been a blur! 

Below are a few initial questions I’ve spent the last four weeks answering–my “most-asked” questions about Morocco, so to speak. 

What were the most overwhelming things I experienced upon returning to my Midwestern home?  What was the adjustment period like? Is cultural shock even real?

  1. Supermarkets. Morocco has them, but on a smaller scale.  Nothing is labeled with the price, and the selection is basically nonexistent. I went to my local County Market within a few hours of being home—and it was too much.
  2. Prices. Gas, entertainment, and food are expensive in the states, and upon returning home, I realized how little I was willing to pay for a quality meal, a full tank of gas, or a movie ticket after a summer of being treated so well by an exchange rate.
  3. Monolingualism. An overwhelming number of Americans only speak one language. It was (and still is) hard for me to communicate to people the challenges and rewards of learning Arabic and immersing myself in Moroccan culture, especially if they’ve never studied another language or traveled abroad before. While most Americans understand the value of multiculturalism, we often forget the risks and difficulties it entails, especially those associated with travelling abroad.

 

Culture shock is real. To be honest, I didn’t have a lot of it in Morocco—I expected a lot more difficulty than I actually had. A lot of my time in Morocco was characterized by me asking questions and experiencing things I had never heard of or seen before—but I think I avoided cultural shock because I had so much curiosity. The situations that ended up being the most challenging were difficult because I had closed my mind, because I was tired, or because I simply didn’t want to deal with people.   In general, the most surprising situations were the ones in which I saw something that wasn’t completely different than home. For example, most cars in Morocco are made in Europe—however, there are a few Fords on the road. Every time I saw a Ford, I’d stop and stare because it was so familiar and it seemed strange or out of place in an unfamiliar country. Same thing with Dannon yogurt—common brand in the US, and for some reason, seeing it in a Moroccan supermarket seemed strange.

The worst part of culture shock is its reversal; the return home resulted in a lot of culture shock for me.  I went from Tangier, Morocco, to rural Minnesota in 56 hours. It was a leap, and for the first few weeks of being home, it was hard to explain to people why I was uncomfortable, or what I was thinking about. It took a while to break my English language skills back in; I had gotten used to using a lot of common phrases to express myself in Arabic and I still catch myself using them sometimes.  (For my Arabic friends—I say, “mumkin” or “Yaa Allah!” or “La Bess” ALL THE TIME!)  Particular subjects and experiences were really hard to translate when I got home. For example, I learned a lot about Moroccan history and culture in Arabic this summer. It is still really hard for me to explain these subjects in English because they’re stored in the “Arabic side” of my brain. Some words don’t have translations, like holidays or clothing, and it has been really hard to capture what I mean with just English words.  

In general, I’ve found it most helpful to tell stories in bits and pieces. Pictures have aided me the most—its easier to explain a picture than to start from scratch and paint one with words. Explaining similarities, rather than differences between the two cultures has also been helpful for me.

Stay tuned for more reflections! Next topic: religion, stereotypes, and lessons learned! 

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Hostess, friend, and language partner

Nejlae is an incredible woman. She holds a degree in English from the University of Rabat, she speaks flawless English and Arabic, and she’s been a phenomenal friend the last eight weeks. I’m going to miss her and her spunky attitude–but hopefully she’ll be able to enroll in a Masters Program in the states in the future. If not, I’ll have to come back to Morocco to visit her soon!

Hostess, friend, and language partner

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Unwinding and winding down

In seven days, I’ll be on a 747 zooming across the Atlantic Ocean. Its crazy to think that eight weeks have already passed and I’m about to say goodbye to Tangier, Morocco, and everything I’ve come to love about them. This morning our resident director conducted what was called a “re-entry” workshop. We talked for almost three hours about strategies to combat culture shock and re-entry difficulties as we head towards home. The journey home after an intense program like CLS isn’t just about making my connecting flights on time–its also about figuring out how to share stories, keep up with my Arabic, and re-adjust to life in the US. During our workshop, we brainstormed things that we miss about the US, and anticipated things that we will miss about Morocco. Here’s the list I came up with:

Note: Friends and Family go without saying–I can’t wait for hugs and kisses from them all! 

1. I miss cooking. Not just the food (mashed potatoes, hamballs, macaroni salad, and chocolate brownies) but the feeling of the kitchen(s) I’m familiar with. What I miss is the fact that I know where everything is in my apartment at school, the way my Grandma organizes her cupboards, and the fact that my mom never runs out of flour, butter, or sugar.  

2. I miss time. 8 weeks in Morocco made me realize just how important time is in American culture–and how unimportant it is elsewhere. I miss knowing just how long everything is going to take–it takes 6 minutes to drive from my house to the grocery store. It takes 9 minutes to walk from the Pentacrest to my apartment. Morocco is “ala al-aks” (just the opposite) in that it could take 6 minutes to get to the souq–and an hour to find everything you need. Finding food, buying gifts for family back home, and even taking a taxi somewhere is unpredictable to me because I don’t know the system. I don’t speak the language fluently, and I haven’t acquired enough experience with Moroccan culture to anticipate the way that things fit together in a city of 700,000 occupants. I’ve definitely come a long way in understanding Morocco–but its a vast culture that would take years to integrate myself into. 

3. I miss Henry–he’s my family’s energetic black lab and my favorite running buddy. Speaking of–I miss exercise. Specifically, I miss running down long stretches of dirt road with him. 

4. I miss the radio. I really miss knowing what the popular hits are right now–I’d appreciate some KDWB or K102! Even further, I miss reading the headlines of the Des Moines Register and the Daily Iowan–I read the newspaper here, but I genuinely miss easily accessible media. 

5. I miss phone conversations. I have a Moroccan cell phone, but I rarely use it to communicate with people–most of my friends live at the American School and they’re a shout away. Texting is really popular with my Moroccan friends–and its cheaper–so its my preferred method of communication with them as well. 

My last week is going to be bittersweet. Its going to be busy with exams and final group activities. I’m going to say goodbye (and thank you) to some phenomenal professors and teaching assistants. I’m going to plan for one more semester of Arabic class, purchase gifts for friends, and photograph everything I don’t want to forget. I’m looking forward to hugging and kissing friends and family I haven’t seen in eight weeks. At the same time, I’m sad to leave behind the beauty and hospitality of Morocco. She and all of her people have been incredible hosts, teachers, and influences on my summer. 

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The view from the top

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A small group of us took a Grand Taxi (1980′s Mercedes with 6 seats) to Chefchaowen last weekend. Chefchaowen is a tiny mountain village nestled in the Reef Mountains–a rocky range of dirt, agriculture, and cloud tops. We woke up early on Saturday morning and climbed to the peak of the second highest mountain in Morocco–I snapped this photo from the top. The view was incredible, and totally worth the sweaty climb. After the hike, we returned to the village and crashed at our hostel for the night–Chefchaowen might be small, but during Ramadan, it never sleeps. The sounds of card games, Hefla (parties), and restaurants floated in through the window well past three in the morning.  I took a quick spin through the souq and picked up some souvineers before we made our way back to Tangie on Sunday. The trip was a break from studying and a reminder that Morocco is bigger than Tangier in terms of weather, nature, and culture.

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Al-Kitaab, the ocean, and a cup of mint tea. This is Morocco in a nutshell–I’m constantly balancing studying and sightseeing, vocabulary practice and conversation, healthy-eating and helaweat (sweets). This picture is an attempt at balance–a small group of us lugged our textbooks to the ocean to study one afternoon. Turns out study abroad can be done with vocabulary drills and adventures.

Balance

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Language Partners

One of my favorite parts of this program: A Moroccan girl named Nejlaa. She’s 21, a college graduate (English), and gifted with a bubbly and warm personality. We meet twice a week for a total of three hours to speak Arabic. We usually talk about politics or culture, differences between the US and Morocco (she’s never been to the USA), and all of the Ramadan sweets. She’s served as a sounding-board for some of my most jumbled thoughts this summer–I’ve appreciated her conversation, encouragement, and dedication. This picture was taken at a carnival just outside of Tangier–a few of us hopped in a taxi and spent an afternoon wandering around.

Language Partners

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