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Snapshot of my Service

Snapshot of my Service

Before joining the Peace Corps I spent a lot of time sitting in a studio apartment debating the sanity of leaving a perfectly comfortable couch to live in Morocco. Everyone I knew seemed pretty supportive of the Peace Corps, even if they didn’t know much about it. But telling folks about my impending move to North Africa could also feel a lot like discussing a mild form of skin cancer. You hear a lot of things like, “We are putting you on the church Prayer List! ☺” “I just want to hang out with you while you’re still around.“ “Do you have decent medical insurance?”

Nor could I be very specific about what projects I’d actually be working on. The project focus in Morocco is classified as Youth Development, but that’s an incredibly broad program with a wide spectrum of projects that can change radically from site to site in reflection of each community’s specific needs. Nostradamus couldn’t predict what someone’s service will look like.

Not that this stops most of us from trying to envision it anyways. Plenty of office space daydreams over the course of countless Friday afternoons had provided me with ample opportunities to visualize it. But for the most part I was wildly wrong. Expectations have been both dashed and exceeded, and it’s been all the more enriching of an experience for the entropy. So, two years later, in the last week of my service, I’d like to share a snapshot of what it has actually been like in light of my original expectations. More than anything, I want to take a moment to thank those who’ve made our projects possible and give prospective PCVs a glimpse into what their service might look like.

Original Expectation.
(Youth and Community Development Volunteer)
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Reality
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Micro Library Enthusiast

What if every textbook, legal document, or website in your country was written in your third or fourth language? Would you read recreationally? Would you be able to truly understand the nuances of whatever contract you’re signing? This is the challenge facing every person in my Amazigh (Berber) village. Their native Tamaziert and Moroccan Arabic dialects are effectively unwritten languages. They begin learning Classical Arabic and French in elementary school, and English later on. To make literacy challenges more complicated, books in any language are disproportionately expensive across the country. I noticed not long after arriving that recreational books are comparatively non-existent in either private homes or public schools. So with this in mind, literacy efforts became interwoven into all of my projects. By the end of my two years, we were able to help create two small libraries within my village’s academic institutions and supplement 4 other schools with book donations and teaching supplies. These little libraries serve to support existing clubs and classes, and offer kids an opportunity to think about the wider world that they are apart of. And who knows, maybe even spark a lifelong love of learning?

These libraries were only possible through the generous international donations and a SPA Grant through USAID. But above all, I’d like to thank the Morocco Library Project for their substantial donations of over 300 high quality English books and teaching tools. The founder, Barb Makraz, is bolstering libraries and clubs across Morocco and is helping to encourage aspiring students to explore the world of writing. To learn more the Morocco Library Project, check out the link below.
https://www.moroccolibraries.org/

Adjunct Professor

One of the more memorable opportunities was the chance to teach a creative writing course with the Masters students at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech. Over the course of the semester, we explored how literary icons like John Muir and Langston Hughes used their written works to influence society and fan the flames of progress. By the end of the academic year, each student created
a creative writing portfolio composed of poetry, short stories, and essays utilizing the themes we discussed to explore concerns within their own lives and communities.

It was a lot of fun proposing and implementing the course, and without a doubt one of my favorite semesters as a teacher. Here’s a quick look at the winning video of our class’s slam poetry contest in which students competed to deliver the best poem describing a social justice issue in Morocco. Zahra, the young lady on the right, went on to help us select the books for our libraries after the completion of the course. Take note, she’s going places.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vxrstxhNP3RZ1wIHtS5OC9qtN7TUY9BA/view?usp=sharing

I’d like to thank the State Department’s visiting scholar, Jennifer Borch, whose example of interactive teaching strategies and practical recommendations made this course possible. Thanks for teaching me how to teach!

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(Our class along with fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Josh Griffin, winner of the Seattle Slam Poetry Competition, who gave a great lecture and helped to judge our class’s poetry contest.)

Rec Center Manager

With the help of my host family, I opened a small but well supplied community center in my village known as a Dar Chabab. Inside the perennially closed building stood stacks of boxed goods like Ping-Pong tables, chairs, and computers. Although the equipment worked, everything had sat idly over three years collecting dust and little lizards because local government didn’t have the revenue to hire a manager. Enter Peace Corps. This place was my primary post.

We used a cocktail of community contributions, international donations and grant money to transform parts of the rec center into the community’s first public multimedia library. Computer literacy and recreational reading quickly became the primary focus as a way to open up the world for our everyday visitors; many of whom came from even smaller and more isolated villages than my own. But the Rec Center was also a fun place just to enjoy side clubs like English, art, soccer, music, and geography lessons. It was located next to a large middle school, so it always has a steady stream of visitors. Over the summers we even got to do some archery after students took an interest in my side hobby.

Let me tell you, the absolute lack of permission slips and legal concerns can really streamline the development of a club. Although perhaps the extra steps aren’t always such a bad idea. For example, this one time, a couple of the kids thought it was pretty hysterical to momentarily hide behind the archery target.

I’d really like to thank my friend Abdellali for making everything within the Dar Chabab possible. I don’t think I could have made it two years here without him, let alone trying to coordinate with local government or businesses in the creation of our little multimedia library. These days, Abdellali is earning a degree in Political Studies at the university in Marrakech, and is founding his very own association in coordination with the local government to ensure expanded use of the Rec Center library. He did all of this as a volunteer, while also helping to support his family whilst his father works construction in Casablanca. There aren’t enough people like Abdellali in the world.

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Original Expectation
(Intrepid Outdoorsman in the Wilds of North Africa)

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Reality
Health and Peace Hike

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Although I lucked out and was placed in a naturally beautiful site within the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, my best nature experiences came last summer. Over the course of 11 days, a group of American and Moroccan volunteers hiked 120 miles along the Atlantic coastline from Essaouria to Agadir. Along the way, we stopped at a couple of isolated schools and conducted simple service projects. 5 of the Moroccans were medical professionals, and offered free diabetes screenings. The rest of us worked to paint the exterior of isolated schools, build gardens, etc.

It was by far one of the more physically challenging and rewarding activities that I have ever done. Some days we hiked over 23 miles of rough terrain with full packs, pausing only to conduct service projects and eat lunch. Some days I thought about catching a bus back to Agadir.

But the coastal route was also among the most beautiful and isolated settings I have witnessed. Imagine the coastline of southern California, but with more cliffs and relatively little development. We spent three days recovering in isolated surfer towns, and spent every night of the trek camping on the beaches. Between new friends, towering sand dunes, boulders made from marine fossils, and sea cave sunsets, it was among the more unforgettable experiences of my service.

Major props to Mohammed Arif for organizing the hike and coordinating with partnering organizations. It couldn’t have been easy to convince the police to hike alongside us just to make sure the Americans were safe. These days, you can find Mohammed working in Quebec under an international leader exchange program. To learn more about the Health and Peace Hike, check out…

https://www.facebook.com/hph.maroc/

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Original Expectation
(Home Sweet Home)

Home

Reality
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After living with host families for the first 4.5 months, I was eventually able to move into my own apartment in the upper half of a concrete duplex. One of the first things I noticed about it was the large hole in the roof designed to provide ventilation during extreme heat waves. Between the open air design in the wintertime and the absence of amenities like a toilet/shower/climate control, it was pretty much like camping indoors for two years.

What I’m not mentioning are the strikingly beautiful ceilings within it and the view from the roof complete with vistas of mountains, cliff side homesteads, and olive groves. I’m eternally grateful to my community for helping me to find such a hospitable place to live at a discounted rate. I have zero doubt that this will always remain one of my favorite homes, and it sure was a lot more capacious than my last studio apartment on Capitol Hill.

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(View from my bedroom. My house looked like the ones you can see across the street)

Thanks for Reading!

It’s been more difficult than anticipated to summarize this experience. Peace Corps Morocco was a mind-bending opportunity that has left an indelible impression upon me, changing the way I view the world. I feel very fortunate that I was placed in a new home with the right people, project opportunities, and location to truly allow me to relish this experience and never have to rationalize it. And while completely cliché’, its difficult to emphasize just how much it has completely highlighted my sense of good fortune for having been born in middle class America, and the all encompassing privilege that accompanies it.

I think that if I had to choose one word to summarize this entire experience, it would begrudgingly have to be fortunate. I wish it could be something a little more pizzazz… But fortunate is the only appropriately pithy word I can conjure. Not lucky. Fortunate.

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(Me looking smug after seeing a new painting on the side of a local school)

“My heart could no absorb with greater gratitude, nor my soul with greater sensitivity, the completely new atmosphere in which I am now living. The surprising and unexpected encounters… that I am offered every day in this blessed place.”
-MC Escher

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Morocco’s Christian Heritage

I’ve started praying a lot more since moving to Morocco. Much of it occurs while walking down unlit alleyways of a medina, or during taxi rides, in which you and your 5 closest new friends crowd into a tired Mercedes diesel or minivan and jettison down chaotic streets – dodging dogs, potholes, motorcycles, donkey carts, and horses along the way. Particularly bumpy rides provide fantastic inspiration for heartfelt negotiations with God, in which I shamelessly offer to swap my sinful ways for salvation if only I can live just a little longer.

I’m still working on salvation though. A little while ago I made the trip to a western supermarket in Marrakech to purchase a couple bottles of Sahari Reserve; a Moroccan wine produced in the formerly French vineyards outside of Meknes in central Morocco. It’s worth noting though that whenever a person buys wine here, discretion is paramount. Although alcohol is legally produced, taxed, and consumed by Moroccans, it can still carry a negative stigma in an Islamic culture.

Many of the French owned supermarkets in large cities have a roped off corner in the store where alcohol is sold separately, and such areas often come equipped with a less conspicuous exit. This way, patrons aren’t seen walking out. They also have separate exits, I suspect, to avoid offending their other customers.

I myself walked out this less conspicuous exit with a noticeably heavier backpack. But as I stepped outside, I saw something unexpected in the nearby skyline. Amid Mosque towers and modern apartment buildings stood the silhouette of a church steeple and small cross.

Between the aforementioned taxi rides, the contents of my bag, and the creeping guilt of a year’s worth of sinning since my last Church service, I soon found myself in front of its gates.

It was a Catholic chapel, and the first church I had been able to successfully enter since moving to Morocco. After poking around, it struck me that the congregation placed a strong emphasis upon public works, particularly with disabled children in the area. There are approximately 40 thousand Christians in Morocco, and they are all legally forbidden from evangelizing. I wonder if the Christian community here focuses more on demonstrating their faith and presence through good deeds. If that’s true, I wonder if that’s not such a terrible unintended consequence. God works in mysterious ways, I’ve been told.

While sitting somewhere in the pews pondering all this, the Muslim call to prayer erupted from a mosque located directly across the street, and it filled the church halls with the Islamic call to worship in Classical Arabic.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Aq0goJ0v7Bwa3yIUeT3WWRf7rGyPuftq/view?usp=sharing

I don’t think I’ve heard anything outside a hymnal while sitting in a church pew before. It was a unique and memorable moment. There was something about it that briefly illuminated the experience of being a member of a minority religion.

Christianity has always been the dominant religion in my travels, and I had never experienced that sensation before while travelling in North America, South America, or Europe. And as the melody of this society’s preferred religion drowned out any sound within the church, it made me curious about Christianity’s history in Morocco.

I was surprised to learn that Christianity first came to Morocco approximately 1700 years ago, and that Morocco has a Christian element to its past. The country is officially 99 percent Sunni Muslim, and it sometimes seems like there is a Mosque on every corner, so it’s difficult to imagine. But given Morocco’s location at the crossroads of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Most of what I have read and heard about religion in Morocco emphasizes its Islamic and Judaic heritage. But it seems that all of the Abrahamic Faiths have found refuge in Morocco across the millennia.

At the same time Saint Augustine was reshaping early Christian theology from his home in Algeria, Christianity had already spread throughout Northern Morocco, and much of the Roman/Byzantine Empire in 300 C.E.

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Monotheism probably was not a revolutionary concept when the first Christians arrived in Morocco. Many Jewish-Moroccan communities thrived in ports and trade zones across the country. Interestingly, both Saint Augustine and many of the Jewish Moroccans were Amaziert, the indigenous people of Morocco and much of North Africa. (AKA Berbers)

But as Islam swept across North Africa and Iberia in the 8th century, Christian congregations diminished, and the Muslim call to prayer eventually became the beating heart of Moroccan society. To this day, many Moroccan Christians refer to the omnipotent deity I call God as “Allah”, just as their Muslim brethren do. Again, the country is 99 percent Muslim.

As one of my friends recently pointed out, telling someone you’re Christian or Jewish in Morocco can sometimes feel ludicrously similar to talking about race with a reformed racist relative back home. “Ohh. Ugh.. I like Christians. Christians are safe in Morocco. I have even had one or two Christian friends in the past!”

Other times, people can get slightly assertive about converting you. In my experience, this is often amplified during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic Calendar. Interestingly, I’ve found the only thing that might aggravate a passionate evangel in Morocco more than telling them you’re Christian is telling them that you are an Atheist. Christianity, as limited as many people’s understanding of it may be, is at least still within the same ballpark as Islam. One God. Descendants of Abraham. Etc. But to believe in NOTHING? That’s often seen as somewhat shocking around these parts. In some ways, I think being a Christian Volunteer is easier than being atheist or agnostic Volunteer in Morocco when it comes to explaining personal beliefs.

A lot of Moroccan friends in my Dar Chabab (community youth center) have expressed interest in learning more about religions around the world. It has been a fun chance to compare and contrast tidbits about Christian cultures with Islam in Morocco.

The experience of being treated well as member of a minority religion has reminded me just how important it is for us in the United States to remain vigilant about doing the same. This Easter will be a fantastic opportunity for me to reflect upon that.

At a time in which Christian populations are on the decline across the Middle East and North Africa, I am especially grateful and lucky to live in such a welcoming place where I am free to be myself, more or less, without reproach.

I think most everyone in my life here knows that I am not Muslim, and that I come from a different culture with a different set of social rules and norms.

I don’t fast during Ramadan, and yes, I truly do miss bacon. And with almost everyone here, that seems to be perfectly fine.

Fortunately, though, I am spending Easter in Spain where I should be able to be able to enjoy plenty of bacon. Equally good, I’ll be able to finally see some of the famous Semana Santa religious processions in Madrid. Photos to come. Inshallah.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read my blog.

I wish all things good unto each of you this Easter holiday.
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Sweatshops and the Progressive Power of Capitalism

One PCV’s Perspective on Economic Development in Rural Morocco

I think that a lot of Volunteers come into the Peace Corps suspicious of capitalism and big business. But can you blame them?

There’s widespread debt, averaging 37 thousand dollars for Americans with student loans. There’s environmental degradation, as we witness the decline of biological diversity in the Earth’s 6th mass extinction. There’s widespread wealth inequality, as we live through the most unequal distribution of financial power in American history since the eve of the Great Depression.

I myself came into the Peace Corps troubled by these facts. At the same time, I found myself placed in a small but rapidly growing village in the olive groves outside of Marrakech.

From the overlook of a hill behind my house, you can see the beginnings of a new town set against the backdrop of a lush river valley in an area that otherwise resembles Mars. The buildings are a mixture of the traditional adobe homes, and the new concrete block buildings constructed in the modern Marrakech fashion. (See photos below)

But across the river valley, you can see a different story.

Built into the hollowed-out cliffs of the river valley wall, you can see the preserved shells of what I call “Pueblo Indian” style housing. The stone and adobe homes were built directly into the cliffs in a way that’s reminiscent of the famous First Nation cliff dwellings in the American West. (Such as the Manitou Cliff Dwellings built by the Anasazi)

Over the last year I’ve been asking the old-timers to share their knowledge about them, and roamed around the abandoned houses with friends during their school holidays. According to village lore they are among the oldest surviving houses in the area, and the last of the homes weren’t completely abandoned until about 15 years ago. Because the ancestors of my friends came to this river valley around 1700 C.E., I think it’s safe to say that people were living in that manner for hundreds of years. But everything changed in the blink of an eye a little over a decade ago. What happened?

It was around that time that electricity and running water became available for buildings near the roads. A small economic boom ensued, and new houses and shops were quickly constructed with these modern amenities. Most of the fancy concrete  houses were built within the last 10 years, and the cell tower providing internet connection was completed just a few months after my arrival.

People abandoned their cliff side village in order to move into these new houses, even though the traditional cliff dwellings were also connected with lights and kitchen sinks.

Why?

From what I hear and observe, people found a better way of life in the new village. Their lives here and now are more prosperous than they were in the past.

This more comfortable way of life was only made possible by the economic development of the region. I believe that their lives were improved through private sector business efforts, not foreign aid or governmental intervention.

It was private business interests that built these new homes. It was business interests that originally built the roads into my village. It was business interests that built new shops and cafes, and brought telecommunication services to the area. This growth continues to attract more and more people from the most isolated of villages, and offers them more opportunities in life. Especially the young girls who can now attend school.

I believe that these improvements largely stem from people helping themselves through the pursuit of profit.

I initially pursued a career in legislative affairs because I believed the government was best equipped to improve the daily lives of people. Perhaps it was just unfortunate timing for my brief tenure on Capitol Hill, but I found that Congress was almost entirely unable or unwilling to improve the lives of every day Americans. At least presently.

Looking out at the stark contrast of the abandoned village juxtaposed with the new one, I am gaining a new appreciation for the transformative powers of the private sector. The wealth generated by the new shops owned by small businesspersons seems to stay within the community, and filters back to the benefit of all. The people here not only have better houses to live in, but they also have a better choice of goods and services. Satellite dishes now adorn the roofs of the old adobe homes, and there is a greater diversity in dietary options. Personally, I am pretty pumped that I can now buy pasta in the new shop down the street.

Not that it’s all roses. Untamed capitalism can have unforgivable drawbacks.

I see a powerful reminder of that every time I walk past the old sweatshop.

Well, that’s what I call it anyways. It was a small manufacturing plant that closed around 35 years ago. According to my friends, their grandparents were happy when it stopped producing Moroccan sofas. When I asked why, they told me that the hours were very long, and the pay was very low. They told me that it was dangerous work. Children labored alongside their parents…

Despite my occasional cynicism about the effectiveness of government, this sweatshop reminds me everyday that it too has a pivotal role to play in this transformative economic development. Only the government can truly guard against that which is economically lucrative but morally bankrupt.

Good government also created the conditions in which these businesses could grow by protecting their property rights. I suspect that one reason the cliff dwellings were so successful for so long is that they provided a reliable defensive fortification during extensive periods of anarchy in this region’s history, in which there was little law and order provided by a central government.

The government’s efforts to encourage rural electrification also had a profound effect, as do its continuing efforts to improve roads. And it was the government that built a new school, and the community youth center where I now work 5 days a week.

Freedom is composed of a lot of different factors, and some of these freedoms were provided by the government. However, I believe that it was the economic freedom provided by private sector development that has done the most to improve the average person’s daily life. I believe that the genesis of these improvements originate with the people helping themselves through the pursuit of profit. I believe that they still have work to do, but it’s amazing how fast things are changing.

So, that’s what I see when I look at my village. The best and the worst of private sector development. A new village that’s improved the lives of my friends. The remnants of an old manufacturing plant that mass-produced misery. A promise of hope. A cautionary tale. A reminder that life is rarely black and white.

I hope to return someday in the distant future after the conclusion of my service. I expect to find a small town filled with new houses and cafes, and more advanced agricultural techniques. I hope to see greater autonomy for the women liberated through their own financial self-empowerment. I expect to see the fulfillment of the new consumer class I believe is being born here.

But will the river still be clean enough to drink from? Will the people be as warm hearted? Will the stars still shine so brightly, or will they become covered by light pollution and smog? I am genuinely excited about the future of this place, and pray that they take the high road in its continuing development. It’s up to them. I am just happy to be here, and to do what I can to support the people who have done so much to make me feel welcome and safe.

Thanks for listening! I hope that you enjoyed reading this, and feel free to comment below.

(And to my family and friends back home, I apologize for the long pause in blogging. After a summer of 120 degree days, a 200 km coastal trek, and new teaching opportunities at the university, I found myself distracted. But, with these experiences have come new inspiration for writing, and I am ready to get back to it. Thank you for your support, kind words, and for bearing with me.)

 

One of the Cliff Dwellings 

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A View From Inside

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The New Neighborhood 

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A Traditional Adobe Abode 

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Our River Valley

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Mars

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Atmane Ahdach, Peace Corps Counterparts, and the French Foreign Legion.

I’ve found that an individual’s story can often provide greater insights into a foreign land than a textbook. For me, it’s the individual humans that give the macro facts and figures about a society any meaning in the first place. Today, I’d like to share the story of one such individual, Atmane Ahdach.

Atmane is what Peace Corps administrators would refer to as a Counterpart – a local host country national that partners with a Peace Corps Volunteer to accomplish projects in their community. It’s pretty safe to say that Counterparts are a key component of any successful Peace Corps project. But what a bureaucrat in Washington would call a Counterpart, a Peace Corps Volunteer in the field would usually just call a friend.

Atmane and I facilitated the creation of a Library Council, in which local government and school administrators work together to manage a series of small libraries. With a Peace Corps Grant, local contributions, and crowd sourcing, we are creating a multimedia library in our youth center, and 4 sub-libraries in local schools.

While working on the project, I got a chance to hear Atmane recollect about his childhood in the Sahara Desert. A few of the stories stuck with me, especially the ones about his family. For example, his father’s name was Ibrahim, named after the prophet Abraham. And similarly to the Old Testament patriarch, Ibrahim was 83 years old when his son Atmane was born.

Atmane was born in a large town on the outskirts of Zagora, a small Moroccan city in the Sahara that has served as an important intersection on the caravan trade route for centuries. He and is family are Amaziert (Berber), and speak Arabic only as their second or third language. They are a part of the Ait Atta tribe, a group of over 130,000 tamazight speaking people from various oases that all trace their ancestry back to a common historical person.

The more Atmane told me about his family, the better I came to understand that history in Morocco is not completely divorced from the present. It composes the context in which we find ourselves. Atmane’s father struck me as the personification of this. He was a living link to a pivotal but bloody part of Morocco’s history. A time in which European powers were laying claim to large swaths of North Africa, and the modern state of Morocco was being born. In this particular case, it was the French. During the scramble for Africa in the late 1800’s, the French laid claim to large portions of Morocco, and mixed military might with divide and conquer techniques until their realm of influence reached the Sahara Desert.

Armed with a rifle and a horse, Atmane’s father Ibrahim was among those who fiercely resisted French imperial ambitions. Unfortunately for the French Foreign Legion, the desert tribes had perfected a style of warfare suitable to the Sahara over centuries of raids and repelling invaders. The Amaziert (Berber) tribes turned an expectedly easy French victory into a costly venture – and stood with 19th century weapons against a professional army using airplanes, poison gas, and machine guns.

Despite possessing an overwhelming technological advantage and using controversial tactics, these desert territories would be the last lands in Morocco to be “pacified” by the French, in the 1930’s.

As so often seems to be the case, the invaders do not appear to have benefited much from the tentative conquest. The French would retain their grip on the Morccan Sahara for less than a decade. For soon after, France would be invaded itself by Nazi forces, and Morocco would gain independence with the strong support of the United States in the 1950s.

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(Here’s a picture of Atmane’s father, Ibrahim. He’s the second person from the right)

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(This photo shows a few members of the French Foreign Legion in Morocco)

It was at the end of this era, and the beginning of a new one, that Atmane was born. And although separated by 60 years, his father’s story seemed to link the two worlds together.

Life in the Moroccan Sahara changed dramatically during this time period; arguably more during Ibrahim’s lifespan than the last 500 years combined. Moroccan independence, electricity, running water, and infrastructure development have transformed the lives of the Ait Atta tribe. The Peace Corps has been serving in Morocco for about 50 years now, starting about the same time when these changes began to occur.

Atmane first started working with Peace Corps Volunteer when he was 18, when he met a Peace Corps Volunteer working with a local association. He took advantage of the free English classes and helped her to create a new computer lab, as well as paint a world map mural on the Dar Chabab wall. Not long after this, Atmane moved to central Morocco in Marrakech to attend the university. These days, when Atmane is not volunteering on projects, you can most likely finding him working to finish his Master’s Degree in Linguistics and Advanced English Studies at the University of Marrakech. I first met Atmane while he was working as a Language and Culture Facilitator for Peace Corps Trainees. He speaks 2 tamazight (Berber) dialects, Moroccan Arabic, Standard Arabic, and English fluently.

I think I enjoyed learning about Atmane’s story not just because it’s so radically different from my own. Nor was it solely due to the fact he’s a good guy working to improve the wellbeing of others in an exotic place. Hearing stories about individuals such as Atmane are like tugging on a string interwoven into a greater tapestry. Pulling on one string reveals how it is connected to the rest of the garment. It explains a lot, like how a guy from the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia ended up becoming good friends with a guy from the Sahara Desert. To learn more about this part of the world and the Ait Atta tribe, Atmane recommends reading works by David Hart.

Thanks for checking out the blog! Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Disclaimer

Please note that the term Berber is considered pejorative by many Moroccans, and is often compared with using the word “Negro” in America. This is because the original Greek translation of the word “Berber” meant barbarian.

(Fun Fact: Barbarian was originally a Greek word used to describe any people who did not speak Greek, because to them, they sounded all sounded incomprehensible and like sheep – saying “bar, bar, bar, barrrrr”. Americans would have been considered barbarians by ancient Greeks.)

However, most of the books written to describe Moroccan history to Westerners use the word Berber, so for the sake of clarification, I included the word Berber in this article to avoid confusion.

AtmaneBlogZagora

(Zagora, Atmane’s hometown)

Zagora

(Near Zagora)

Morocco: America’s First Friend Abroad

This 4th of July, millions of Americans will celebrate the birth of our country by bridging ideological divides and coming together in the name of fireworks, cookouts, and pool parties. We celebrate America’s independence, and the values for which it stands. We remember the sacrifices made to gain this independence, and the unfathomable odds a ragtag American “army” overcame to defeat the most powerful empire in the world.

It seems all together fitting and proper to commemorate those who helped to make this possible. And while we rightly salute figures such as George Washington, I thought that we might also pause to remember America’s oldest friend abroad who played a small role in making all of this occur. The Kingdom of Morocco.

(No, it’s not France. Sorry Francophiles. It’s Morocco.)

Seriously, the first country to recognize the United States of America as a sovereign state independent of the British Empire was the Kingdom of Morocco.

I don’t know about you, but this was definitely not in my history books growing up – but I promise you that it’s true. Today, I’d like to share this story with you as it has been told to me.

During the midst of the Revolutionary War, our fledging and fragile economy was desperate for revenue and safe harbors abroad. The British Empire controlled a considerable portion of the world’s trade, so the young Republic’s options were limited. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin enthusiastically sought entrepreneurial opportunities for American enterprises in key trade zones. Morocco, controlling half of the entrance to the Mediterranean, was one of them.

The honor of being the first country to recognize the United States is connected to a trade treaty made in 1777. In the midst of our uncertain struggle against the British, the Sultan of Morocco, Mohammed ben Abdallah, made history by making Morocco’s valuable ports along the Atlantic and Mediterranean open to ships flying the American flag. They did this despite the risk of inviting ire from the British red coats.

In 1787, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship solidified this early understanding and mutually beneficial relationship. This treaty was renegotiated back in 1836, and is still in force today in 2017, making it the oldest unbroken treaty in U.S. history. Letters from President George Washington to the Sultan of Morocco expressed the young country’s gratitude for protecting U.S. ships from pirates during an age in which an American Navy was still a dream.

So as we sit in our lawn chairs gazing upon fantastic displays of fireworks with our families, happily content with our hamburgers and beverages, let’s take a moment to thank our oldest friend for doing their small part in making this possible. Morocco. Even when the chips were down, you were there for us. Uncle Sam remains much obliged to this day. As do I.

Happy Independence Day everyone. Thanks for taking the time out of your holiday to join me in learning about America’s oldest friend abroad.

Interactions with Islam Continued (Ramadan)

Ramadan in Morocco

It’s 7:40 pm in the heart of Morocco’s capital city, and there’s not a soul in sight. The palm tree lined streets running alongside the entrance to Parliament are empty, except for a solitary white cat boldly darting across one of the main intersections.

But this peaceful silence is soon torn asunder by the sound of a cannon blast, signaling to all that the sun has set. As the smoke clears, the mosque’s priest, known as an imam, begins to sing the long awaited call to prayer.

It’s Ramadan across all of Morocco and the Muslim world. In both bustling cities and isolated villages, wide-eyed families are circling food-laden tables, ready to begin their first meal of the day. As soon as the signal from the mosque is heard, these families tuck into their well-deserved dinner with gusto. After abstaining from food and water all day in the hot summer sun, they carefully measure their intake in order to avoid becoming ill. Soon they will depart for the mosque in order to join their friends and family for an evening service.

As you may know, Ramadan is a month-long religious observance in the Islamic world that is considered one of the core tenants of faith for all Muslims. For the practitioners of this particular Abrahamic religion, it marks the anniversary in which the Angel Gabriel delivered God’s revelations to the Prophet Mohamed. For the length of one lunar cycle, all able-bodied Muslim men and women choose to abstain from food, drink, tobacco, and intimate relations during daylight hours as part of the worldwide Islamic ritual.

This religious phenomenon directly affects the daily lives of 1.8 billion people, making it likely that you know at least one person who participates. In America, approximately 3 million people are Muslim, and if groups like the Pew Research Center are to be believed, this number is likely to increase. Due to shifting demographics in the Global South, and declining birth rates in Europe, it is likely that Islam will become the world’s largest religion by 2075. Only 20 percent of Muslims live in the Middle East, so aside from enriching our lives by learning more about humanity, it seems like a practical investment of time to learn more about Ramadan.[1]

Since coming to Morocco, it has become apparent how little I actually know about this widespread religion. Upon reflection, I have come to conclude that the gap in my education about Islam and Islamic history is largely the result of not being taught about it in the American school system. Instead, I was subtly taught that “our” history is the history of Europe and North America – instead of being taught that “our” history is the history of humanity; an interwoven story describing the common destiny of a global community composed of a single species.

Last time, I shared some of my individual observations about Islam in Morocco, and I received quite a few inquiries from people who wanted to explore the topic further. After experiencing my first Ramadan, I thought that I might share some of my personal insights concerning the Islamic holy month as part of this general theme.

 

Ramadan in Rural Morocco

From my window, I can see that the dusty red roads crisscrossing my village have become almost completely void of movement. The uncharacteristically quiet streets seem to magnify the surrounding sounds of braying mules and songbirds in the olive groves.

The few people that I can spy are all sitting in meditative like poses in the shade, conserving their energy during the hottest part of the summer day. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan has clearly taken hold in my rural Moroccan village, dramatically altering the pace of life here.

However, after almost three weeks, it has become clear that a large number of people continue to labor during the day despite the difficulties of fasting in the summer heat. Thirsty students take national exams, parched shepherds tend to their flocks, and undaunted farmers and mechanics continue to practice their trade. The work often begins right after sunrise, when everyone is refreshed from a pre-dawn feast in preparation for the fast. The labor generally dies down later during the zenith of the pre-Saharan summer sun. But as the sun begins to set, a mad rush overtakes the streets as people feverishly abandon their shaded seats and rush home to break the fast with their family.

Not long after, the moonlit streets are filled with the sounds of jubilant laughter and impromptu soccer games as people glow in the aftermath of restored blood sugar levels. For many of my Moroccan friends, Ramadan is an opportunity to increase spiritual discipline, study the scriptures, better understand what it is like to be poor and hungry, provide charity, and spend time with their family. Most of them began fasting during Ramadan around the age of 12.

Because the Islamic Calendar is based on a 355-day lunar year, the exact time in which Ramadan begins shifts about 11 days every year in comparison with the Gregorian calendar. This means that sometimes Ramadan is observed during the hot summer months, when the fast is longer due to increased daylight hours. Ramadan is often said to be less of a burden during the winter when days are shorter and cooler.

Ramadan for Me

Since Ramadan began, absolutely every single person in my village has asked me if I am fasting. It has become about as regular as saying hello. I usually respond with a “shwiya”, meaning “a little”, or a solid “no”. The social pressure to fast is very strong. I cannot recall encountering anything quite like it before. It’s almost like the peer pressure depicted in the theatrical anti-drug commercials of the Reagan/Clinton era; but on steroids.

I personally don’t fast because I simply don’t want to. Some days I even think that it’s good to make a point of not fasting, in a courteous and respectful way of course. (I don’t eat or drink in front of people while they are fasting anyways.)

I say this because many of the people in my village do not interact with non-Muslims, and some individuals seem to assume that everyone on the planet observes Ramadan. I believe that it’s productive for people to see that I don’t fast, and that not fasting is all right. A few weeks ago, I informed about 150 Junior High students that I would not be fasting during Ramadan, and that seemed to absolutely blow their minds.

I have fasted for three days during Ramadan to better bond with my Moroccan friends, and gain a more intimate understanding of what it’s like. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but it was fun to break the fast with them during the evening feast.

I think that the shared experience of suffering through something in unison can sometimes strengthen group bonds. From a sociological perspective, I sometimes wonder if that is one of the functional aspects of Ramadan in Islamic societies.

Legal Ramifications of Not Fasting During Ramadan

Aside from assertive peer pressure, there is technically a legal consequence for publicly eating or drinking during Ramadan, assuming that you are a Muslim. Although it doesn’t seem enforced, Moroccan Penal Code 222 states that a Moroccan Muslim can be sentenced to jail for 1-6 months for such a violation as eating or smoking in public.

According to my Arabic tutor, there are pseudo-police officers who ride around cities looking for infractions. My Arabic tutor also said that atheist/agnostic/non Muslim Moroccans will stage public sit-ins, where they eat and drink publicly during Ramadan to make a point that they are allowed to, and that such life choices are all right. (I suppose that a hunger strike during Ramadan would not be a very effective strategy…)

Legally speaking, they are allowed to do this. Article 3 of the Moroccan Constitution states that “Islam is the state religion, which guarantees all the free exercise of religion.”

Economic Ramifications of Ramadan

Being a red, white, and blue blooded American, I’ve always wondered what the economic consequences of Ramadan might be. Personally, I can’t get any work done when I don’t have coffee, let alone food or water on a hot summer day. On top of that, most Muslim Moroccans seem to be operating on very little sleep because they spend much of the night feasting and conversing with friends. My usual place of employment is completely closed, and many businesses operate on reduced working hours.

According to a Foreign Affairs article, a 2015 Harvard study indicates that Ramadan does indeed have a negative economic impact on Islamic countries. To summarize a study that complied 40 years of data from 29 countries, they found that a one-hour increase in fasting led to a decrease of .7 of a percentage point in economic growth. The longer the fast, the worse the impact. [2]

However, the authors of this study also emphasize that although Ramadan makes people relatively poorer, it seems to have a positive impact on their overall well being, according to their analysis of a World Values Survey.

Life isn’t completely about the pursuit of profit after all.

Visiting Morocco During Ramadan

By and large, you can still comfortably travel around Morocco during Ramadan. Most of the restaurants and attractions in tourist areas are still technically open. However, there are some extra challenges posed by Ramadan, at least in my opinion. For example, taxi drivers can be a bit more challenging to find and deal with later in the afternoon, most bars are closed, and many general stores won’t open their doors before sunset. Furthermore, guides may not be as energetic. From time to time, I have found that people who are fasting for long periods can have “hangry” moments. But given Morocco’s levels of hospitality, most visitors probably wouldn’t even notice. Still, I personally recommend arriving either before or after Ramadan.

Thanks for Reading!!

I hope that you enjoyed exploring Ramadan with me. Please feel free to leave any and all comments below, including suggestions for future blog posts.

(Please note that the views expressed in this blog are entirely my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Peace Corps)

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape/

[2] FAhttps://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-07-14/counting-ramadan

 

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My Interactions with Islam

Not very long ago I accidentally left my IPhone on the floor of a public bus while changing routes. Upon taking my new seat, I quickly noticed the absence of the tool which keeps me connected with the outside world. I was not happy. Some Moroccans seated nearby noticed and quickly asked what was wrong. I relayed my story in broken Arabic, which they in turn shared with the driver. The driver swiftly shifted gears and began shuttling down the dusty red road at questionable speeds. My old bus was soon within sight, and the driver waved them down. As soon as I stepped onto my old bus, the people greeted me with a smile, and pointed to the IPhone still resting on the floor under my old seat. I returned to my new bus triumphantly to the sound of a few cheers and High Fives.

I explained to a Moroccan student sitting nearby that I didn’t think I would get my phone back that day. As I’m sure you can imagine, IPhones are disproportionately valuable in rural Morocco. (I also added that I wasn’t sure I would have gotten my phone back in my American hometown, had this occurred there.)

My new friend explained my good fortune in terms of religion. “The people who live in this area are good Muslims,” he said. “For them it’s a religious necessity to live honestly and to help those in need.”

This developed into a more in depth discussion about Islam, or at least as much as our limited grasp of the others’ language would allow.

Such discussions are pretty regular here. Often it begins with them asking me if I am Muslim. Many times it involves a Moroccan’s heartfelt declaration of disgust with groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, or Al Shabaab. I often share with them that I am a Christian, or Meshihi as they call it here – a follower of the Messiah. They often state that they are worried Christians will view all Muslims like they view the terrorist groups displayed everyday on TV.

One of our goals as Peace Corps Volunteers is to share stories of our host country’s culture with Americans back home. It’s utterly impossible to understand this country’s culture without understanding Islam. The daily calls to prayer echoing from the tops of Mosque Minarets is the beating heart of Morocco.

Today, I’d like to share some of my interactions with Islam, at least as it’s found in Morocco. The experience of being a Muslim is often strongly influenced by the experience of the country you grow up in. This isn’t supposed to be an anthropological overview of a faith with 1.8 billion followers. There are plenty of sources, including Wikipedia , that can provide a bland but wholesome overview of the topic. These are just some of the tidbits that I’ve found particularly interesting. I hope you do too.

Christianity and Islam

Growing up, I spent a lot of Sundays at the All Saints Episcopal Church of Atlanta and the First Baptist Church of Elberton. I got the opportunity to study the Bible whether I wanted to or not, and even managed to cram a copy into a crowded backpack before leaving America. During my service I’ve enjoyed comparing and contrasting Christianity with Islam in amicable conversations with Moroccan friends, and have uncovered some fascinating parallels that would seem familiar to many Americans. Here’s a short list of shared characters between Christianity and Islam to begin with…

• Adam and Eve
• Noah
• Abraham
• Moses
• Joshua
• Solomon
• Job
• The angel Gabriel
• Joseph and Mary
• Jesus

Did you notice Jesus? Me too. I was interested to learn that the Islamic scriptures revere Jesus of Nazareth, and his teachings are discussed amongst their congregations. In Arabic, Jesus is called Yasue. Some Muslims here even say that they are Christians because they follow the teachings of Jesus, but that they are also Muslims because they follow the teachings of Muhammad who they believe to be God’s last prophet. Other similarities include sentiments such as charity to the poor, honoring thy parents, and general Abrahamic principals of worshipping one god. The commonalities sometimes seem endless.

From what I have observed, there are far more similarities between Christianity and Islam than there are differences.

Female Head Coverings (Hjabs)

I’ve always wondered why many Muslim women cover their hair in public. As you may know, these hair coverings are often referred to as hjabs, which in Arabic literally translates to “barrier”.

In my experiences, Muslim women are encouraged to wear coverings as a means of protection from unwanted gazes or harassment. Many Moroccans have told me that they don’t view it as a form of oppression, but rather as a form of empowerment, in which women are given an ability to choose who is allowed to view their bodies.

Some Muslim women in Morocco choose to not wear a hjab at all, and that seems to be socially acceptable. The women who do decide to wear a hjab often begin to do so around the age of 13, at least in my village. However no one expects female foreigners to wear one during their travels in Morocco.

After studying hjabs in Morocco, I have recently realized that some Christian women in America wear them too, although in slightly different way. For example, these types of hair coverings often adorn Catholic nuns for similar reasons.

Science

Moroccan Muslims have always struck me as being very open to science, and even a cursory glance into schools here will reveal that human caused Climate Change is not up for debate in Morocco. It is a fact, demonstrated by the Sahara Desert’s relentless march north.

Islam is historically a very open faith that encourages rigorous scientific and technological advancement. The Prophet Muhammad once said that Muslims should “seek knowledge, even as far as China.”

In my daily job, I’ve noticed that evolution is taught in the classrooms, and that space exploration is spoken about with respect and wonder. A disproportionate percentage of the students here pursue science and mathematics in university, at least in comparison with my friends back home.

Drinking Alcohol

While tolerated, the consumption of alcohol carries a negative connotation in the Kingdom of Morocco. The majority of Muslims do not drink, but they do not impose their views upon visiting foreigners. In fact, Morocco boasts some remarkable vineyards and an excellent array of wines. The high mountain climates and cool winds of the Atlantic Ocean have allowed the Kingdom to become an exporter of the product.

Wine has been produced in Morocco for thousands of years, beginning with the Phoenicians and the Romans. However, it was the French that left the most notable impact upon the industry during their fifty-year occupation. Many of the vineyards are still overseen by French entrepreneurs, where they primarily produce deep red varieties. I personally put them on par with anything I have tried in Italy, France, or California.

Religious Extremism

As stated above, it’s quite common to hear an everyday Moroccan deliver a heartfelt declaration of disgust with groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, or Al Shabaab.

The Moroccan government expresses similar sentiments, and plays a growing role in security issues outside of North Africa. Morocco is a US Ally, and a member of the coalition to defeat ISIS. Morocco’s military reach stretches far beyond its borders, and there are Moroccan troops acting as UN Peace Keepers in dangerous conflicts across Sub Saharan Africa.

Morocco has ample reason to be concerned about the spread of religious radicalism and instability. News reports of terror cells being broken up by military and police raids are not terribly uncommon. A small one even occurred about 20 miles from my site during our 3-month training. A notable number of Moroccans left to fight with radical groups in Syrian Civil War, and the government has been incredibly diligent in keeping a close eye on these individuals. Many of them are never allowed to return. The production and sale of full body veils for women, known as burkas, has been banned in Morocco as part of this overall effort.

In short, Morocco is a welcoming and internationally tolerant Muslim country at the nexus of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. They are open-minded and kindhearted followers of a monotheistic faith with no patience for violent interpretations of their peaceful religion.

Many everyday Moroccans are anxious to let the world know that groups like ISIS do not represent Islam in any way, shape, or form. The Kingdom of Morocco is a safe place to visit and live.

Religion and Politics

Many historians have suggested that there has always been a commingling of politics and religion in predominantly Islamic countries. Morocco is not an exception.

Let’s begin with the most powerful political institution in Morocco – the Monarchy. The King of Morocco claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohamed. In addition to possessing robust executive powers, the King is also the Leader of the Faithful, and traditionally holds the ultimate authority on religious matters in Morocco. The current king has used this authority to empower some of the first female religious leaders in the contemporary Islamic world, as well as the cultivation of a moderate school of thought.

A commingling of politics and Islam may also be found in Morocco’s parliament. The most powerful political party in Morocco at the moment is arguably the JDP, and they are considered by some outside observers to be slightly conservative in their interpretation of Islam. This has taken many forms in the parliamentary procedures here. For example they have increased taxes on vices such as alcohol, pursued an Anti-Corruption agenda, and tried to promote greater Muslim unity.

It is important to remember that the Prophet Mohamed was more than a religious leader. He was also a politician, military tactician, and lawmaker. The permeation of religion in politics has always been a natural phenomenon here.

More to Come

As we enter into Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam, I plan to share more about this particular Abrahamic faith. Next time, we will examine the holy month of Ramadan, and what it means to the 1.8 billion followers of Islam.

Thanks for taking the time to read! I hope that you enjoyed it, and will feel free to leave comments below.

(Please note that the views expressed in this article are entirely my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Peace Corps.)

Ibn Battuta: International Man of Mystery

I don’t envy many people in history. Rampant disease, widespread anarchy, and zero pizza delivery are just some of the challenges humanity has had to overcome throughout most of our 200,000-year story. The Middle Ages were arguably among the worst times to be alive, but there is at least one man from this era that I would consider trading places with.

When you think about an adventurer of antiquity that traversed the known world, your mind usually jumps to Marco Polo. But there is one ancient explorer that made Marco’s journey look like child’s-play. Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan of Amazigh (Berber) heritage managed to crisscross the known world on the basis of wit and knowledge alone in the early 1300’s; dodging bandits, beheadings, shipwrecks and the Black Death to become possibly the most well travelled human before the invention of the steam boat. Ibn visited the equivalent of 44 modern countries over the course of 30 years.

From Russia, to Mali, to Somalia, to China, Ibn Battatu married and marauded his way across 75,000 miles by hopping from Muslim community to Muslim community. Throughout most of his travels he was treated with great veneration, as local rulers and religious leaders eagerly listened to his tales of far away lands. Much of this respect of was based upon his knowledge and interpretation of Islam and law.

Given the scope of his travels and wide variety of adventures, this blog’s aim is to entice you to learn more about this great Moroccan of history. Our discussion will divide his 30-year saga into four parts, based on the regions of the world he traveled.

The Hajj (North Africa and the Middle East)

Ibn’s story begins with the wanderlust of youth. Born into a relatively rich Berber family in Tangier, Ibn studied Islamic Law and science until he was 21 years old. Around 1325 C.E., he endeavored to embark on a pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site – Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. This particular pilgrimage is known as the Hajj, and its completion is one of the requisite tenants of faith for all devout Muslims with the means to make the journey.

The final destination of the Hajj is a sacred building in Mecca called the Kaaba, which tradition tells us was constructed by Abraham; the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Mecca was also the birthplace of Mohammed, the most important prophet in Islam, and the site of many events in the Islamic scriptures. The vast majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Sunni Muslims still orient themselves towards Mecca everyday when they pray in a global display of unity.

Ibn traveled by donkey across the northern stretches of the Sahara Desert along the Mediterranean coastline until he reached Egypt. By the time Ibn passed by the Pyramids, they were already ancient beyond recount. To put it in perspective, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar were born closer in time to NASA’s first moon landing than they were born to the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza.

But before making the final stretch to Mecca Ibn took a small detour, visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem and the bustling city of Damascus where he joined a large caravan making the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. It was only through the charity of wealthy Islamic scholars, traders, and kings that Ibn’s travels were made possible. Sometimes this charity took the form of direct financial contributions and fine clothing. Other times this charity was indirect, such as a king providing soldiers to keep a caravan safe. This would become a common theme throughout his journey. Charity, like the Hajj, is one of the core tenants of faith in Islam. This tradition of charity has allowed the Hajj to continue for countless generations of Muslims.

Ibn completed his journey to Mecca almost 1.5 years after he left Morocco. Throughout his pilgrimage, Ibn had dodged death on countless occasions, become a respected Islamic judge, and the new husband of at least two different wives. He also gained respect and prestige for having seen much of the world, and having fulfilled the Hajj. Upon completion, many Muslims are given the honorable nickname of “Hajj”.

However, most astoundingly, this journey of a lifetime was only the beginning.

In the Midst of the Mongol Empire (Persia and Russia)

By the time Ibn Battuta reached Cairo in 1325, Egypt was under the rule of the Mamaluk Empire, a kingdom that controlled modern day Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. However this empire was in constant battle with direct decedents of Genghis Khan. To put things into context, the Mongols from East Asia had just captured Baghdad in Iraq, and had only recently been driven out of Damascus. It’s interesting to note that for a period of time in this point in history, the four Mongol kingdoms stretched from the Pacific Ocean in China to the shores of the Mediterranean, affecting everything from the Silk Road to the Crusades.

Ibn would spend a great deal of time traveling throughout the various Mongol Khanates, and found favor with some their royalty. In Iran he discovered that the Mongol rulers had assimilated into Persian society and adopted Islam, becoming generous patrons of education and Muslim art. However in Russia, Ibn found that the Mongols of the Golden Horde had retained their traditional lifestyle, and women were still important members of the court. In the central steppes of Asia the vast majority of the Mongols remained nomadic horse lords, and Ibn travelled with them throughout the Mongol realm until he entered into India through Afghanistan in search of employment. During his time in the Mongol Khanates, Ibn had at least one child with a steadfast servant who accompanied him across the endless expanse of the steppes.

The Far East (India, China, and Indonesia)

Ibn entered India through Afghanistan, just as the Turkish invaders had about 100 years prior. These conquerors brought Islam with them as they carved out a new Muslim kingdom in a predominantly Hindu land. Ibn quickly found favor with the Sultan of Dehli, who was eagerly hiring foreign Muslim administrators and scholars to help govern the young empire. The Sultan was suspicious of hiring Hindus, and therefore offered enormous salaries and lavish gifts to Muslim experts from distant lands. Given his resume, Ibn was hired to be both a judge and the caretaker of an immense Muslim mausoleum. However, there was little peace in the kingdom. Constant Hindu uprisings, revolts, and Mongol invasions took their toll. The Sultan became cruel and suspicious, and Ibn feared for his life. As he plotted his escape, fate intervened, and Ibn was offered the role of Ambassador to the Mongol court of China.

Ibn took to the sea in order to reach China by way of the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Along the way he married and divorced approximately 7 times, and lost all of his wealth to shipwrecks and pirates. It was only through the charity of Muslim kings and traders he encountered along the way that Ibn was able to finally reach China. By the time he did arrive, the royal entourage he set out with had long since disappeared, and Ibn contented himself with merely observing the curiosities of China. He discovered that the descendants of Genghis Khan ruled with an open mind, and welcomed people of all creeds and ethnicities into their courts. But as beautiful as Ibn found China, he at last began to long for his home in Morocco. After meeting another Moroccan in China, he confessed “The memory of my homeland moved me, affection for my people and friends, and love for my country which for me is better than all the others.”

Three years later, Ibn was back in the Moroccan seaport of Tangier at the nexus of the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean.

The Journey Home

Ibn picked a pretty good time to return home. The empires he had visited were beginning to descend into chaos. To make matters worse, the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) had appeared, and was wiping out countless communities along the world’s trade routes. Some scholars estimate that the Black Death killed up to 450 million people worldwide in the 1300’s, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that population levels recovered. The widespread death and destruction Ibn witnessed only hastened his trip home. But even after he arrived in Morocco, he would not stay put for long. Ibn would take trips into Southern Spain and Mali before retiring. At the behest of local rulers, he would later write a book about his travels called the “Rihla”, meaning Journey. It became a timeless classic, and is still studied to this day by historians and academics. Ibn would become one of the most celebrated Moroccans in history, and the source of knowledge and inspiration for generations of travelers to come. To learn more about Ibn Battuta, I recommend a detailed analysis published by Berkeley University designed to help teachers better understand this topic. Despite its depth, it is very reader friendly, and incorporates quite a few helpful videos.

http://orias.berkeley.edu/resources-teachers/travels-ibn-battuta/journey/across-north-africa-cairo-1325

I hope that you enjoyed today’s overview of Ibn Battuta. I promise that the next entry will be far briefer, as we discuss Islam and its role in Morocco. If you have any questions/concerns/contributions, I hope that you will leave a comment below!

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A Map of Ibn’s Journey East

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A Map of Ibn’s Journey into West Africa and Spain

Handmade_oil_painting_reproduction_of_Ibn_Battuta_in_Egypt,_a_painting_by_Hippolyte_Leon_Benett.

Another Depiction of the Adventurer Himself in Egypt

(All photos published in these blogs are either my own or from wikamedia commons, and may be shared freely)

An Introduction to the Berbers: “The Lords of the Atlas”

It’s impossible to understand Morocco without understanding its indigenous people, the Berbers. Many Americans, including myself, mistakenly mark Morocco as being entirely Arab before diving deeper into its history and culture. Last week, I shared some of the cultural and ethnic background of my host family, who just happen to be Berber. Although they can speak Arabic, their native tongue is Tashlaheet; one of the oldest languages in the world. But it should be noted that they would prefer the classification of “Amazigh”, which means Free People. Berber was a title bestowed upon them by the Romans, meaning Barbarian, perhaps given out of frustration from their inability to truly penetrate their loose kingdoms of fiercely independent micro republics.

The story of the Berbers begins in a time in which the Sahara Desert was still green, encompassing an area the size of Europe. Over 12,000 years ago, shallow lakes and pre-desert grasslands stretched across the majority of North Africa, and was home to the ancestors of the people we now call Berber. Although their exact origins are lost to the sands of the Sahara, recent genetic analysis has shown that their hereditary composition was quite similar to many of those who settled along the coasts of the Mediterranean, especially in Spain.

As the landscapes of North Africa rapidly changed, so too did the Berbers. When the Sahara transformed into the world’s largest warm desert many Berbers became expert traders, guiding salt and gold caravans by camelback across desert trade routes that were arguably more productive than those along the famous Silk Road. Many of these goods traversed the known world, starting in places such as Timbuktu before reaching final destinations as far away as India or China.

The story of the Berbers is complex, and entangled with the history of the pharos of Egypt, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Byzantines, the Spanish, and the French. Many empires have tried to assert their influence over these people. Few have prevailed, and none have lasted very long. Other times, it has been the Berbers themselves that have done the conquering. At least one of the pharos in ancient Egypt was Berber, and two different Berber dynasties once stretched from Northern Mauretania into the heart of Spain and Portugal.

The only force that seems to have left an indelible impact upon the Berber people is Islam. Before the 8th century invaders from Saudi Arabia swept across the Middle East and North Africa, the Berber tribes were host to a wide array of religions; ranging from animism to Judaism to Christianity. In fact, Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the most profound theologians in Christian history, was Berber.

In modern day Morocco, it’s quite rare to find anyone who is purely Berber, or purely Arab. The two have become entirely interwoven through marriage over the last 1,300 years. However, the Arabization of the Amazigh (Berber) people has been a powerful phenomenon. Aside from Islam, many Berbers have adapted certain cultural customs that originated in Arabia. Over the centuries, the use of Berber dialects has decreased considerably, with some Berbers now speaking only Darija. (Moroccan Arabic that incorporates some Berber words)

In 2017, most Berber people live in Morocco, Algeria, and Libya. However, notable communities may still be found in Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso. Their present and past physical appearances vary broadly in tandem with their broad array of homelands across North Africa. In my village, it’s very common to see young children with blondish hair that slowly grows darker as they grow older. Blue and green eyes are more prevalent than one might anticipate.

The best way to identify a person of Amazigh (Berber) heritage in Morocco today is by their language. Although a disproportionate share live in the Atlas Mountains, which have remained their cultural stronghold for millenia, people of Berber heritage can be found across Morocco. There are three dominant dialects; Rifian, Tashlaheet, and Tamaziert. Throughout history, one could also identify Berbers by their distinctive attire, and other cultural identifiers such as tattoos, intricate carpets, and architecture. As we delve deeper into the history and culture of Morocco, I hope that we can discuss in greater depth the Berber’s cultural contributions to the world. The fingerprints of their civilization can be found from Spain to the Sub-Sahara if one looks just a little deeper.

I hope that you enjoyed today’s introduction, and will join me next time as we learn about one of the most prodigious travelers in history. Ibn Battuta; a Moroccan who’s adventures even Marco Polo would have envied.

As always, I hope to hear from you. If there are any topics that you would like to learn more about, or that I can provide any clarification on, please leave a comment below!

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(This map highlights where the majority of Berber dialects are concentrated today.)

My Host Family

The call to prayer echoes across the village around 5:30 every morning from the top of the mosque minarets, and the day begins shortly after. But the true stirring of life starts with the sound of slapping dough, as my host sister and mother begin preparing the daily bread. As in many houses, the women are the first to awake, and the last to bed. There are chickens to feed, mules to water, and groggy eyed guys such as myself stumbling around in search of coffee.

My host sister, Latifa, is 25 years old, and the proud mother of a 3 year old son. From dawn until dusk, she works tirelessly to keep her family’s adobe and cement house in order, raise a healthy child, and teach in the local elementary school. Her sister, Mediha, was recently married, and moved away to a nearby village to live with her husband’s family at the age of 18. Although the separation from each other seems to be a burden for both of them, they remain connected through cell phones, something unthinkable just 5 years ago.

My host mother smiles as she hears the sound of a tired motorcycle putter it’s way up the steep hill, heralding the arrival of my host father, Omar. Omar serves as the guard of the village Dar Chabab, and spends every night there to keep its contents secure. 3 year old Nasser immediately rushes out the door to greet him, hoping desperately to ride on the motorcycle, if only for a few moments. Nasser’s hobbies include chasing chickens, dancing, and waking his mother up at odd hours in the night.

My host family is Berber, and their native tongue is Tashlaheet; one of the oldest languages in the world. Although it should be noted they would prefer the classification of “Amazigh”, which means Free People. Berber was a title bestowed upon them by the Romans, meaning Barbarian, perhaps given out of frustration from an inability to truly penetrate their mountain kingdoms of fiercely independent micro republics.

Signs that this is an Amazigh household can be found even before the breakfast of fresh bread and olive oil is served. If one looks carefully, you can see a fading Amazigh depiction of the sun in indelible ink on my host mother’s forearm. You can see her seated on a beautiful rug she wove over the course of a year, with its vibrant colors and traditional Amazigh patterns standing out in stark contrast to the adobe walls. Neither she nor her daughters have the facial tattoos once prominent amongst the women of this culture, a tradition now confined to only the oldest of a passing generation.

My two host brothers have left to find work in the cities for a few months until Ramadan, when the religious month-long holiday will bring them home to fast, pray, and celebrate with their family. If they were here, they would likely be saddling their mule in preparation of heading to the family olive groves for the harvest. There they would work until 2, when they would return home to a lunch of tagine or couscous. After a day’s labor, it would be a safe bet to find them watching a televised soccer match at the small cafe with friends. Although no alcohol is served at the cafes, they are frequented by only the men of my village, and my host sisters do not venture forth from the house after nightfall. My village is a very safe place, but traditions continue to shape the everyday activities. I honestly cannot yet fully say which traditions stem from Islam, and what traditions are indigenous to the indigenous people of my village. I can say that the other half of my village is Arab, and their daily lives seem almost identical, at least from what I can gleam.

I can also say how fortunate I am to have such a wonderful host family. They are among the most honest, happy, and good-hearted people that I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. Being from Atlanta, Georgia, I thought I knew something about hospitality. I did not, at least in comparison to what I have encountered here. Whatever the problem, whatever the need, my host family and neighbors will do anything to help a wayfaring stranger, just as they would help their closest relative. I consider myself blessed by providence to know them, and will strive to help improve their lives as much as they have improved my own.

I hope that you enjoyed reading about my host family, and will join me next week as we explore more about the history and culture of the Amazigh people.

(Due to their requests, I will not be able to share any photos of my female host family members.)

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