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The “Amen! Hallelujah!” Moments

October 5, 2015

One of my all-time favorite songs is You Can Call Me Al from Paul Simon’s Graceland album.  That entire album is a masterpiece, but You Can Call Me Al has always particularly captured me.  The irresistible driving beat of the bass and the bright hits of the trumpet always take me by the hand, pulling me to my feet, making it impossible for me not to dance.  That song is kind of my happy place.  But behind the upbeat tune, Simon’s lyrics voice deep insecurity.  He paints a portrait of a man living a life that, although comfortable and sheltered, is void of fulfillment.  In the first verse, he voices dissatisfaction, fear, and longing to live a life that counts:

“I need a photo opportunity

I want a shot at redemption

Don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard”

I definitely have moments when I fear becoming nothing more than “a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.”  What if my million-dollar education is wasted?  What if I never make something meaningful of myself?  What am I supposed to be doing with my life???

But by the last verse, our unhappy protagonist seems to have lost his fears and found his meaning.  This verse in particular touches me and speaks to my experience in Spain and Morocco:

“A man walks down the street

It’s a street in a strange world

Maybe it’s the third world

Maybe it’s his first time around

He doesn’t speak the language

He holds no currency

He is a foreign man

He is surrounded by the sound, the sound

Cattle in the marketplace

Scatterlings and orphanages

He looks around, around

He sees angels in the architecture

Spinning in infinity

He says, ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’”

This song reminds me of the redemption of travel and my own memories of gazing in wonderment at the markets, the orphanage, the architecture, and finding my own moments of “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” gratitude.  This September was my “first time around” in a country some would consider “third world”.  I barely spoke the language and held little currency, but I immediately fell in love with Spain and Morocco and all the moments along the way that forced me to stretch and grow.  We can sometimes feel stuck in our little corner of the world, where self-centeredness and self-pity are easily found, but this journey yanked me out of my comfort zone and opened my eyes to a whole new world.  Although my senses were constantly bombarded with the unfamiliar, my heart somehow felt at home, and I was continually reminded that home is not always what is familiar and comfortable, but is sometimes just a common space of learning, love, and gratitude.

I found home in the sensory chaos of the Tangier market,

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in the peacefulness of the beach in Asilah,

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in the exquisite grandeur of the cathedrals,

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in the friendships formed in Meknes,

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in the grabbing hands and seeking hearts of our brothers and sisters at the orphanage,

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in the gracious hospitality and community at the family farm.

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I found home in these moments; these were the moments that made me say “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!”

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Brothers and Sisters

September 17, 2015

Stepping into the courtyard of the Rita Zniber orphanage, still not quite knowing what to expect, I was immediately engulfed by a flood of boys, ages 8 to 20, each one eager to shake my hand and learn my name.  It was a sensory bombardment: the scent of body odor mingled with the sound of a hundred “Salaam!”s in the air above us.  Never had I been so closely surrounded by so many people, each one clambering to talk to me.  I caught Kayla’s eye and we exchanged a “what have we gotten ourselves into?” look.  Then, before I knew it, I was showing a group of boys how to hula hoop, our communication reliant on a combination of dance, hand motions, and smiles.  All walls were broken down; language barriers, personal space, comfort zone all crumbled.  All that was left standing was presence and humanity.  It was obvious how starved for love these kids were, as they enthusiastically grabbed my hand or roughly cradled a kitten that was wandering through the courtyard.

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Hatim, a bright eyed eight year old, gravitated toward me, tugging on my hand, making it clear that he had chosen me as his new companion.  Although he spoke little English and I spoke next to no Darija or French, we bonded through pointing, laughs, monkey imitations, silly dance moves, and a little help from his English-speaking friend, Abdellah.  At one point, Hatim said something to me in Darija, pulling our guide Mouhsin over to translate.  Mouhsin told me, “He says he has gotten used to you now, and he can’t let you go.”

That’s when it hit me: the myth of poverty is the barriers we see between “us” and “them.”  What makes these young people, some of them my age, any different than me?  We speak different languages, live on opposite sides of the world, and have diverse living situations and backgrounds, but we all need love, joy, laughter, and play, and for the afternoon, we were able to meet each other in a common space and share life as brothers and sisters.

We played and played, but after what felt like five minutes, Mouhsin started rounding up the group to leave.  But even as I was heading out the door, Hatim, my new little brother said, in beautifully broken English, “I love you so much,” and kissed my hand.

Refuge from the Harem

September 17, 2015

The hammam.  Girl talk central.  The six of us sat crosslegged and topless on the slippery tile floor, our skin having just been scrubbed smooth and our hair freshly washed.  We chatted with our new Moroccan friend Fatma about boys, parents, school – finding common ground as college students and as women although we live nearly worlds apart.  We Americans were feeling for the first time the gentle feminine unity of the traditional communal bathhouse.  The acceptance and openness of bodies and hearts in the hammam was an almost overwhelming contrast to our Western ideals of privacy, competition, and obsession with perfection.  There is a sense of relaxation and communion in all aspects of Moroccan life very different from my Western experience: for example, complete strangers piling into a taxi, chatting up the driver on the way to their destination, or the Moroccan mother telling us to sit down on the couch while she prepares tea and cookies even though we were only planning to stop by for a minute.  Leisure and generosity are ingrained in Moroccan culture, and to me it is one of the most foreign parts.  The hammam reflects these values.

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Mernissi’s concept of the Western Harem critiques how self-examination, competition, and the quest for the “perfect” body rule Western women.  We are expected to look like Barbie dolls.  A tiny, silent, plastic toy is our beauty ideal.  And from childhood, we are taught to aspire to this unrealistic image.  We mentioned this to Fatma as we lounged on the floor, enjoying the warmth of the steam and each other’s company.

Fatma cracked a small smile.  “In Morocco, fatter is cuter,” she said.  “The boys, they like fat girls.  I hate being skinny.”

This remark stunned me.  A cross-cultural exchange: sharing the harem.  This shows how beauty ideals are socially constructed; a Moroccan man’s desire may be an American man’s disgust.  And why?  Because of constructed cultural cues, handed down and internalized.  As a woman who has never been considered “thin,” I found hope in Fatma’s remark – maybe thinner isn’t actually universally better! – but I was also filled with sadness.  Is it possible to find a culture that does not feel the confines of the harem?

But in a world where we as women are taught to police ourselves and one another, the hammam is a blissful escape, where our nervous condition is scrubbed away with our skin and we can rest in the embrace of uninhibited womanhood.

Washing Away the West

September 17, 2015

None of us wanted to be the first to take our shirt off.  Five American girls in a traditional Moroccan bathhouse, we were obviously out of place.  A large Moroccan woman lounged naked, serenely and shamelessly, on the bench next to us.  As I unhooked my bra and stuffed it in my locker (quick, like ripping off a band-aid), I stepped into that woman’s world.  There is no vulnerability like being naked, and although we were nervously giggling and covering our chests, we were standing with our toes just inside this ancient sacred space of ritual cleansing.  Inside the domed, tiled room, thick with warm steam, we crouched in front of our buckets, coating our bodies with the gooey black soap, its earthy scent filling the air.  Touching, pampering my own body – every square inch – I began to step farther into the sacred space, into a place of self-acceptance.  Caressing our bodies with the black soap and rinsing it off with bucketfuls of warm water, it felt like we were symbolically bathing off the external expectations and perceptions of our bodies.  Washing off the first layer of dirt and anxiety, I began to relax.  All of a sudden, I was jolted out of my relaxed stupor by an ample nude woman grabbing my bucket and pushing my hair aside to wash the soap off my back, all the while jabbering away in Darija.  A mother figure, she sensed my obvious helplessness and accepted me as one of her own, helping me to further cleanse myself of anxiety and welcoming me into the circle of Moroccan womanhood.

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Next: the scrubbing.  A woman with turbaned hair, unshaven legs, and a bold smile beckoned me over, signaling me to lay in front of her so she could scrub my skin with a sandpapery glove.  As I lay supine with my head resting on this woman’s thigh while she scrubbed clean every surface of my body, I thought of Dr. Segall’s advice: “Be the baby.”  And with that mindset, I stepped into the inner circle of the sacred Hammam.  As this woman arranged my limbs, scrubbing clean parts of my body few people touch – my breasts, my thighs, my neck, my armpits – I realized how much of a baby I am here in Morocco, constantly out of my comfort zone.  And I finally began to embrace it.  In this space of intimacy, both with ourselves and with each other, our Western perceptions of the “perfect body” were washed away and our freshly cleaned eyes could finally see ourselves as members of a beautiful, welcoming, diverse family.  There were women there larger and smaller than I.  Smoother, softer, stronger, fatter, thinner; a sixty year old woman and a four year old girl.  But in that blue-tiled steam room, we were sisters, all daughters of God – Allah – equalized and bonded in the Moroccan Hammam.

Our Crossing: The Not-So-Dangerous Journey

September 15, 2015

Even in a ferry the 14 kilometers seemed far.  Sitting on a soft, cushioned seat in the nearly-empty ferry, I tried to concentrate on the grey mist sprinkling the windows and not the way my stomach was sloshing along with the rolling waves of the ocean.  After waking up before five in the morning and passing through countless passport checkpoints, I am practically melting into the seat with exhaustion.  With the Spanish coastline fading behind us and the northern edge of Morocco barely visible through the fog ahead, I found myself feeling unmoored, on a transnational journey in which I could not call either nation my home.

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My surroundings and uncertainties made it easy to step into the mind of Murad, from Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, who takes a transnational journey across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco to Spain, the reverse of mine.  And although our motives for transnational travel are very different – Murad’s crossing emerges out of desperation and financial need, whereas mine is the result of abundance and economic blessing – our futures are both somewhat unknown.  Murad sets sail for Spain in the dead of night in a tiny, overcrowded boat, part of a “motley mix” of Moroccans who sold their rights for extraordinary sums, opting to leave their old lives behind to create new ones as illegal immigrants in Spain (Lalami, 2).  These individuals embark on their journey with perhaps only a faint idea of where they will lay their heads that night, facing perils such as drowning, detainment, and deportation.  They dream of a life of ease, comfort, and success in Spain.  But Lalami shows the repercussions of an idealized transnational imagination; the characters who make it to their destination fall prey to the gritty realities of their dangerous pursuit of hope.  So for now, instead of trying to imagine my future as an outsider in this new nation, I will let my apprehension pass over me like the strong Mediterranean breeze.

Lessons for Travel from a Harem Slave

September 1, 2015

In reading Scheherazade Goes West, we accompany author Fatema Mernissi on her quest to try to figure out the “Western harem.” While traveling to promote her books which discuss her childhood growing up in a harem in Morocco, she is met with astonishment, embarrassment, and amusement by Western male reporters. When Mernissi decides to question these Western men on how they perceive the harem, she realizes that there is a very stark difference between the Western man’s harem fantasies and the traditional Eastern harem that she is familiar with. Growing up in a harem in Morocco, Mernissi builds the perspective of the harem as a “prison, a place women were forbidden to leave” (Mernissi, 1). Mernissi’s childhood harem was a large blended family, in which there was very little privacy, for sex or anything else. Instead of the “orgiastic feast” of nonstop, unresisted sexual pleasure that the Western men imagine (Mernissi, 14), in actuality harem wives are filled with sexual frustration, even to the point of creating elaborate vengeful schemes to win favor with their husband.

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Early on in the book, we are introduced to snippets of wisdom from Mernissi’s grandmother Yasmina. An illiterate woman who spent her life locked in a traditional harem, Yasmina “regarded the opportunity to cross boundaries as a sacred privilege, the best way to shed powerlessness” (Mernissi, 1). What do we, free educated Westerners, have to learn about power from an illiterate harem slave? Are we Westerners perhaps locked in our own prison, a prison of comfort and ignorance that we build up around ourselves?

As we head off to spend three weeks experiencing cultures very different from our own, I think it is interesting to look at the lessons for travel relayed to us by Mernissi, inspired by her grandmother Yasmina. Sure, we know that travel is a privilege, an amazing opportunity, but by looking at it through the eyes of a woman literally locked in her house, we get a new perspective on the opportunity for the gaining of knowledge, understanding, and thereby power. To gain the power of enlightenment, we must work on increasing our capacity to listen (Mernissi, 24). Of course it is always easy to listen to those whose opinions we agree with, but Mernissi also emphasizes the need to confront and dialogue with the “different other” and to “savor situations where the outcome of battle is not rigidly fixed, where winners and losers are not predetermined” (Mernissi, 52).

And one of the most relevant lessons (at least for me, on the eve of our trip) is that fear in the face of adventure is normal, but must be faced; Yasmina says that “when a woman decides to use her wings, she takes big risks,” but “when a woman doesn’t use her wings at all, it hurts her” (Mernissi, 3).

Sparing a Glance: Moving Beyond the Tourist Experience

August 18, 2015

When traveling someplace new, it is so easy to get caught in the tourist trap; seeing, doing, eating, photographing the same things as everyone else. Staying on the surface of the culture may feel comfortable and safe, but only through an alternative mapping of the location do we find space for a true, holistic experience of the location’s culture.

In my hometown of Pendleton, Oregon, people visit to experience the famed rodeo and “Wild West” history, but they neglect to notice the sacred spaces that truly make Pendleton what it is. For example, my town was recently featured on national news websites for a local man setting up a huge volunteer work party to repaint and fix up an elderly couple’s decrepit house. Small, rural Pendleton is predominantly lower-middle class, and there are a lot of people who are struggling to stay afloat, desperate and embarrassed with their situation. But there are also a lot of people who are acting as the hands and feet of God’s love in the community, reaching out and making life-changing differences for others. But when you come to town solely to bar-hop and go to the rodeo, you miss this entire narrative, which, in my opinion, is truly the heart of Pendleton.

I feel that this experience is only all the more true for Americans traveling overseas, especially to Arab or Islamic countries. It takes deliberate effort to peer past the prominent perspectives of mainstream Western media and see the sacred spaces and cultures at the heart of the community.

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When I tell people I am traveling to Morocco, I am met with diverse reactions. Some people do not even know where it is, some people voice excitement about the adventure and the learning opportunities, but some people, knowing that it is an Islamic country in Africa, show apprehension or concern, either in their words or in a more subtle expression. Before learning about Morocco and Islam, I admit that I shared a bit of this apprehension about the “Middle East”- without even knowing exactly why. Whether it is due to our political culture, the media gaze, or just our self-preserving humanness, we are programmed to fear “the Other.” But this fear causes us to live our lives in the tourist experience, where comfort and safety abound, but connection and growth are elusive. In order to break out of the tourist experience, we must shed our shell of judgment and fear and recognize the common struggles and joys of humanity that are shared among people everywhere in the world.

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In her book, Performing Democracy, Dr. Segall outlines three correctives that counter the media gaze and help us see “what is less noticed”: gender locations, social contestation, and artistic revision.  Looking at gender locations helps us to see the important roles of women, a group who, almost universally, goes unnoticed.  Examining social contestation shows us the diverse groups in a community, rounding out the one-dimensional view of media.  And artistic revision shows us how individuals move on through healing and protest following a collective trauma.  As a whole, these three correctives remind us to “spare a glance, a moment to consider the imaginative ways that individuals name themselves” (Segall, xvii).  Recognizing the ways individuals name themselves as opposed to the (often narrow-minded and incorrect) names that Western media gives them, allows us to turn away from the kitschy tourist experience and step into the sacred spaces at the core of the community.

Images of Hope in Ali Zaoua

May 28, 2015

The opening image of Ali Zaoua is disturbing, yet somehow typical.  It shows a grimy little Casablancan street kid with a horrific past, his life tragically cut short by a rock thrown by another street kid.  And, sadly, this image of hopeless tragedy is all too often the one we are shown of the non-Western world.  In mainstream media, the non-Western world, especially the Arab world, is often portrayed as oppressed, poverty-stricken, and desperate. Ali Zaoua, being a story of homeless children, contains plenty of oppression, poverty, and desperation, but that is not all there is.

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In Ali Zaoua, we see the struggle of homelessness through the eyes of Ali and his three friends, Kwita, Omar, and Boubker. We witness their vulnerability to violence, sexual abuse, and addiction. We sense the psychological toll that the harsh situation takes on them. We see the continuation of a cycle of rejection and trauma, illustrated in a scene where Kwita is approached by a stray puppy attempting to show him rare affection, but each time the puppy reaches Kwita, he tosses it away. The desolation is even shown in the catchphrase of the street kids’ gang: “Life…is a pile of shit.” But even in the midst of this heartbreaking image, we see a glimmer of a dream. Ali Zaoua has a dream of being a sailor, of assembling a crew and sailing far away to an island with two suns. Ali’s dream offers his friends and him an escape from their gritty life on the streets, an escape far more satisfying than a sniff of glue. Even when Ali dies, his dream does not die with him; it captures the boys’ hearts, and they resolve to bury him “like a prince.”

In this we see a revision to the initial image of desolate trauma. Horror is juxtaposed with scenes of hope. There are moments of childish silliness and joyful play. There is fierce loyalty in the boys’ friendship and their steadfast determination to give Ali a proper burial. There are serene escapes created by Ali’s dream of sailing away to his island and by Kwita’s surreal fantasies of having a beautiful girlfriend and living a happy life with her. There is help offered by an old fisherman who validates Ali’s dream and assists with the burial. And there is love from Ali’s mother who cares deeply about her son despite having an unsavory profession.

The tone of the final scene of Ali Zaoua starkly contrasts that of the first scene, pushing back against Western media’s pitying gaze. In the final scene, Ali’s mother, the three boys, and the Captain come together to give Ali the most noble burial possible with their limited resources. We see the creation of a new family, bonded by their love for Ali and their belief in his dream. Instead of a boy who is rejected and stuck in an impossibly tragic life, we see Ali as someone whose dream brings people together, creating an alternative image with a renewed sense of hope.