Two of my very favorite things to do are polar opposites.
Hiking up a mountain trail in silence with 26 pounds (12KG/2 stones) in my rucksack, exerting beyond what I would have predicted was possible for myself brings me into communion with my Creator in ways that are hard to explain. Whether dripping with sweat in brutal heat, shivering in the freezing drizzle, or simply inhaling the sweet sunshine on a beautiful spring morning at sunrise, the views have been breathtaking and time just empties when I’m in that place. When my body demands a rest, I find myself periodically re-entering “reality.” As I unlash my physical burden, it feels amazing to drop the heavy pack to the ground, symbolic of the real burdens I’m trying so hard to leave behind. When hiking, I seldom reach for the earphones. How could I possibly hear my God speaking to me, when I’m focused on someone-else’s song? Several days of my planned Moroccan adventure will include these prolonged periods of silence, seeing a part of creation that I’ve never before imagined, and I know I’ll never see again.
But other times I do enjoy climbing inside my media “cave.” Although it drives me crazy when we’re all together and my kids do it (or when were out with friends, and everyone is blindly tapping in their own little phone world), sometimes I enjoy wrapping the beats around my ears and immersing myself into music. If I’m by myself at the airport, I almost always do it. I’ve got a play-list exclusively for this, and it lifts me into such a positive place I just seem to float around the sea of thousands rushing to their next flight, smiling at everyone who’ll meet my eyes and nod or even wave like a big dork. I imagine I’m dancing with my new friends like the YouTube Sensation, Where the Hell is Matt?
I do love to travel. I don’t mind treating myself to luxury once-in-a-while, but 5 star hotels and shopping at Bloomies are most certainly not what I mean by travel. I mean bed and breakfasts, or better yet, staying with the local folks and learning to love them as brothers. I want conch salad spooned from the bowl by the old lady on the street in Haiti, goat kebabs from the vendor in Mexico, escargot and sheep cheese while hiking to Lourdes, olives from the beggar-child in Marrakech and Tangine with the El Harrami family in Fes, Morocco. Cultural immersion enriches us beyond comprehension, and gives everyone else plenty to laugh at. It’s not for the faint-hearted, or those unable to laugh at themselves. Of course some of this stuff sounds a bit frightening, but we don’t grow inside our little box of comfort. I’m not talking about putting myself in harm’s way, after all I have a family looking to me and depending on me to be there.
When we explore and confront that which is very different from us, the world becomes so much smaller. We are called not to put our lamp under a basket, but to hold it high for everyone to see. Love is the only thing that grows, and even expands when we give it away. As such, we ensure we’ll always have plenty of “oil in our lamp” by carrying it around, a light for all to see. And so, learning to love mint tea and eating from the tangine plate with fingers (right hand only!), is truly a beautiful and wonderful thing.
I was less than supportive when my son Cullen went in 2011 to study for a semester in Morocco. The terrorism of 9-11 was fresh in every American’s mind, and the entire middle east was suspect. The lack of public condemnation for such a horrific act of war by “mainstream” Muslim clerics implied that they were at best ambivalent, even complacent with Bin Laden. As time progressed, the “silence was deafening.” After two years, there were still no (public) statements that these were random acts of a splinter group and not supported by anyone practicing legitimate Islam. This made us angry, distrustful, and all the more uneasy. The television images from even the most left leaning media like MSNBC and CNN showed, over and over, the celebration and joy in the street of what would appear to be everyday citizens jumping up and down in a near frenzy of public support for the Twin Tower destruction and loss of so many innocents. It was no wonder that an entire new vocabulary of anti-Muslim words filled daily conversation.
Within ten years, the anthropological equivalent of Stockholm syndrome was upon us. Hajibs (head-scarves) were visible in most public venues, and mosques were being built in many cities. Muslims were demanding prayer rooms and wash facilities for the cleansing ablution. Some cities (such as Dearborn) seemed to become like Paris overnight with olive-skinned outnumbering those that look like “us,” and suggesting Sharia law may more appropriate.
Although we often point fingers at each other, claiming intolerance and judgmental-ism, the United States of America is one of the very few places on Earth where a phenomenon like this could ever happen. Our very foundation is based on immigrants melting together cohesively. Our laws make provisions to accommodate our new brothers and sisters, and assume that they’ll do just that – make an earnest attempt to join American society. We expect them to speak our language, obey our laws, participate in our culture, in other words “assimilate.”
For centuries, our shores have been invaded for opportunity, promises of riches, or at least the ability to eat and provide for our families. Around 1850, the horrific potato famine and oppressive discrimination against Catholics in Ireland brought over 1.5 million diaspora. Similarly, lack of social mobility and religious freedom brought millions of Germans here during that same period. In the 1920’s, and again in the 40’s we welcomed millions of Jews for the same religious freedom. Clearly the “problem” of too much opportunity (or perceived opportunity) continues with our porous “Mexican” border. Starting in the 20’s with the Christeros (again Catholics escaping slaughter) and continuing today with desperate attempts to eat and escape drug cartel violence.
I didn’t mean to slight any ethnic group here, clearly hundreds of countries have donated to the “American Experiment.” (Tocqueville)
Not to say there hasn’t been a bit of kicking and screaming along the way, and none of it is new. We’ve all seen (at least in photos) “help wanted” signs from the past reading “Irish (or Italians) Need Not Apply.” So clearly none of this is unique to our “Mexican problem.”
My point being, America has never been intended as a land “free from religion,” rather it has always been freedom for religion.
And so, it shouldn’t surprise us that the demographic makeup of our next census will change again. And again. And again.
But is it different this time? Have we ever before had so many immigrants from a group after perceived “representatives” of that group have attacked us? Are to believe what we’re told, that hatred of the very American system that allows them to be here, is “preached from the pulpit” of many of these new mosques? And that hundreds attempting to travel there to fight our very own soldiers? What are we to make of this?
Or shall we choose to believe what the other experts tell us: Real, “legitimate” Islam is a peace loving religion, tolerant of others and it is considered haram to kill another (at least an “innocent”), regardless of his faith? Time will certainly tell.
So what does any of this have to do with my travels to Morocco? Perceptions of each other. I remember at least six times when I was asked what I “thought about Islam,” both prior to being there, and if and how that opinion had changed. More about that later, but yes, I certainly did have some preconceived notions. I really don’t think I had any dislike or distrust directed towards them, but rather, I was much more concerned that I’d be perceived as an infidel and not feel very welcome. That notion would quickly be overcome by the wonderful, beautiful, loving, El Harramis and Pyramidistes and their extended families.
I would learn that Morocco is not only the most western geographically of the middle-eastern countries, but, as Cullen assured me, by far the most western politically and culturally. I learned that many (most?) of them are frustrated that they think they are perceived as “terrorists” by westerners and are over–obliging to see to it that we are welcomed and made to feel comfortable, and to understand that they are, most certainly not extremists. The welcomes and courtesy shown me were sometimes embarrassing, and made me feel as if I was an important dignitary, visiting Disneyland.
Truly, the most threatened I would feel over the next two weeks was by so many hands held out for alms, and by vendors who felt obliged to treat me like an idiot and attempt to charge me quadruple retail, because its all part of the game.
And so I stepped off that plane in Casablanca a little anxious. It was 10 at night, I did not speak any of the three commonly spoken languages there, and I had no idea where my hotel was. I had booked the reservation for this first night on TripAdvisor.com, printed out the B & B address, and requested that they arrange a taxi to meet me at the airport with my name on a sign. I was informed taxi would cost 250 dirham (about 25 bucks).
I cruised through immigration and customs – they’re probably not too concerned that I’m trying to sneak anything in. It was very surreal, as I entered “the other side” of the passport stamp. It was so LOUD! Almost electric. So much shouting. A simultaneous “call to prayer,” with dozens of men removing their shoes and entering a partitioned off room/area. Dozens of taxi drivers, all holding cardboard signs, but after almost an hour of walking in and out of them looking for my name, I realized the cold hard facts. I was in the Middle East, and no one was holding a sign with anything that looked anything LIKE my name. So I exited the airport onto the sidewalk, and was approached by literally hundreds of taxi drivers, offering a GOOD price – only 500 to 1200 dirhams to take me to my hotel.
I shrugged it off, hoped that I wouldn’t be charged the 25 bucks tacked onto my hotel room, left to the sidewalk, and started to haggle. When I thought I finally had found one willing to drive me the 8 miles for the agreed upon price of 250 dirham, he shut my backpack into the trunk and I got into the back seat.
I pulled out my flash cards for vocabulary review. “250 dirham, narhama?” He looked at me like I was from Mars, so I repeated in French, “deux cent cinquante?” OK? Oui? He shook his head and said “trois cent!” Haha, I was on to this game. I was not gonna pay 300, when we had just agreed on 250! I opened the door, got out and said, “No. deux cent ciquante!” He slumped and said, OK.
So, this was how it was gonna be? Really? Was my appearance really screaming, “Screw me???!!” After all, I had grown an eight month beard just to avoid this!
Then I remembered the security guard at the airport. If he knew I was a Yank, surely the whole world did. Would everyone know that I’m this year’s “Idiot abroad?”
Fortunately I had enough sense and courage to stand up for myself! So I tipped him and I headed for the front door of Dar Diafa Hotel, shaking my head, wondering if I was headed for trouble this entire trip.
But before I could knock, Kahlid swung the door open and said, “Hello, and welcome!” I replied with my well practiced “SalamuAlaykum.” He seemed pretty impressed (or maybe I was), and repeated my Arabic “Peace of God be with you,” and directed me to sit down for my first (of 460) cups (glasses) of hot mint tea, and almond biscuit cookie things.
I looked around and began to take it in. This is delicious. This is Morocco.