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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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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Humility

Its easy to find adjectives to describe Morocco. She’s colorful, she’s hot, she’s windy. She’s traditional and vibrant, imperial and simple. Morocco is easy to fall in love with.  She has a certain air about her–and I don’t mean the pungent odor you find in the souq–I mean she’s regal and comfortable and inviting. 

Morocco is also humbling. Its been four weeks since I landed at the airport in Tangier, and upon reflection, a major theme of the first half of this trip is humility. I’ve spend 28 days soaking up sights, sounds, and feels from Tangier, Asilah, Tetuan, Fez, and Meknes. I’ve been to a few beaches, some Roman ruins, and I’ve seen a lot of countryside (a few mountains, too).  I’ve been complimented and catcalled on the streets, I’ve been cheated at the market and I’ve been chased down by a shopkeeper because he realized he forgot to give me my change. I’ve seen heartbreaking poverty and watched brand-new Mercedes-Benz cruise through roundabouts in the center of Tangier.  I think a fair summary of four weeks in Morocco is this: Humility. 

I was humbled when I went to the literacy class at the American Legation Museum a few weeks ago. Every week about 40 women gather in the museum to practice reading and writing in formal spoken Arabic. Most of the women are over the age of 50, and their just beginning to put their letters in order. All of them have families and children and grandchildren. All of them are strong leaders and dedicated members of their family and society. I stepped into the room and realized that I, a woman with most of a college education, was the most ignorant individual in the room. 

When I took a seat in the classroom, I made conversation with the young lady in the seat next to me. She was maybe 7 years old and wearing pink and cheetah print from head to toe. She tapped me on the shoulder and said, in perfect English, “You’re American. Do you know Rihanna?” She was disappointed with my answer (“no”) but impressed with my desire to learn Arabic. “See, this isn’t too hard”–pointing to the papers from the day’s lesson–“even you can read it. Just try. And if its not good the first time, I’ll help you. That’s how I learned English, you know. I just tried. And watched movies.” Morocco humbled me when a 7 year-old reminded me how to conjugate verbs. 

And then I went to Asilah. And Meknes. And Fez. And there are no public restrooms in these cities. In the US, we are very comfortable with our free public bathrooms. We might criticize them for being dirty, or inconveniently located in department stores, but at the end of the day we’re thankful for their existence because they save us from some pretty uncomfortable alternatives. Like squat toilets. Squat toilets might work for men, who can use them standing up. But they’re not made for women. I can attest to that after several attempts that resulted in near death experiences. I learned its all about the strategy–placement of hands for balance, muscle control, and ability to juggle purse, long skirt, and toilet paper. And in the middle of a five hour road trip between Meknes and Tangier, there are no alternatives to squat toilets–so you march into the stall, pretend it doesn’t smell, and you squat. Somewhere between realizing that the water on the floor wasn’t water and nearly soaking the edge of my maxi skirt in it, I was humbled. 

Morocco is noisy–Tangier is home for 700,000 people and I can attest that at 1 or 2 am, all of them are in the streets, celebrating the Iftaar (breaking of the fast of Ramadan). Even during the day, its impossible to find silence when the radio is on, people are chattering, and every restaurant is buzzing with people. Walking through Tangier, even at dusk or dark, I’m pretty confident. I know where I live, where the sweets shop is, and which tomato stand has the best deals at the souq. Its not North Branch, but I’m able to navigate about a 10 block radius.  There’s only one thing–I don’t speak enough Arabic to understand the news word-for-word, my Darija isn’t functional enough to understand music on the radio, and I certainly have no idea what the sports announcers are saying when Barca plays Madrid. This sounds normal at first–of course, I study a foreign language and I can’t learn everything at once. Its okay to miss the meaning of love songs or weather reports–and watching a soccer game comes with a live picture of the game–so I know that it was Barca that just scored the goal. But here’s the thing–if it were in English, I’d know exactly what was happening, just like all the other people in the cafe, or on the street, or in the taxi cab. I’d know more than just the headlines of the newspapers I read, or the restaurant menus I peruse, or the snippets I overhear from corner store radios. If all this information were in English, I’d be complacent about it. But its in Arabic, and I’m humbled. 

I’m from a long line of good cooks. My mom makes a living as a dietitian, and my Grandma makes a mean apple pie. Before her was Grandma Maymie–and I’m sure before her was a strong woman who knew how to make merangue and homemade bread and every other recipe I find in my mom’s Mennonite cookbooks. I’m confident that someday I’ll live up to the cooking heritage I have–right after I figure out how to avoid mixing up lard and cream cheese. When I stayed with my host family in Tangier, I was shocked most by the kitchen. It was a third of the size of my mom’s kitchen; it had two bunson burners, no oven, no dishwasher, and about three square feet of counter space. But oh, the delicious things that originated from those three square feet. My host mom whipped up fish tagine, hot bread, and omlettes without breaking a sweat. Where does she keep enough plates and dishes to cook? I don’t know. I munched on sweets and fresh fruit and pondered the fact that I can’t even get my sweet potatoes to taste right, and I’ve got four burners and gas stove to do it with. And a machine to wash the dishes afterward. Somewhere between the third and fourth cup of tea she served me, I was humbled.  

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