Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Islam and Me in Morocco

This is a sensitive topic (again) so I’m going to apologize ahead of time for the offensive things I write and the errors that I make. Also, as regular readers of my blog would know, my perspective on Morocco is no way representative of the country; someone living in Fes for two years would have a different perspective on religion in Morocco. What I’ve written here is by no means exhaustive.

99+% of Moroccans are Muslim. I believe that it is illegal to renounce Islam or convert to another religion. So there isn’t much religious freedom here. If a non-Muslim man wants to marry a Moroccan woman, he must convert (since lineage is patriarchal, a non-Muslim woman is not obligated to convert). The closest thing I’ve had to a girlfriend here (which consisted of some conversations and a few late night text messages with a girl from Fes – quite scandalous) ended when the girl asked me if I would convert to Islam.

Islam came to Morocco in the 8th century when Arabs invaded the country. The history books I have say that the Amazigh people (also known as Berbers, the natives) accepted Islam without coercion. Islam’s message of egalitarianism and respect for one’s parents were jived well with Amazigh values. Since that time, Islam has been a huge force in shaping Moroccan history. The best monuments in the country are religious ones. Beautiful mosques, schools, and entire towns were built with religious money. Fes and Meknes stand out in my mind as having the greatest religious monuments.

There are five “pillars” of Islam that a Muslim must follow (there is an order to these, which I am ignorant of). First, witnessing that there is one God and his prophet is Mohamed, Second, prayer: The observant Muslim (and most people that I meet are observant) prays five times a day: sunrise, midday, afternoon, dusk, and after nightfall. There is no freedom in prayer: you say the same thing every time with the same routine of bows and kneels. Third, fasting: one lunar month a year (Ramadan) Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, bad words, sex… from sunup to sundown. Fourth, pilgrimage: every Muslim who is financially able must make a pilgrimage to Mecca (Saudi Arabia). Fifth, alms to the poor.

Enough about Islam that you could read in a book. The thing that makes the biggest impression on me is the way that Islam and God are always on people’s minds. God is ubiquitous. It is difficult/impossible to have a conversation with someone here without mentioning God. There is a “God phrase” for just about every feeling and situation. I plan to do a post at some point listing all the God phrases I know. Here is a quick taste: Bismillah (in the name of God) precedes every meal, journey, meeting, etc. Inchallah (God willing) follows any discussion of future action. Humdulillah (Thanks to God) can follow any expression of a positive feeling or outcome. People in my village like to say “kulshi rbbi” (everything is God) to explain most anything. When I say it people tell me that I’m smart and wise. I used to think that the frequency with which people used God phrases cheapened them into platitudes, but I’ve recently changed my opinion. God really is on people’s minds all the times and these “God phrases” are not platitudes, but expressions of people’s worldview.

Conversion: people in Morocco try to convert me to Islam frequently. It happens less often now in my village (been here for over a year), but it still happens. I react to it differently depending on my mood, the person trying to convert me, and how polite and respectful they are about it. The worst conversion attempt I had was with an employee of the local government who I generally don’t like. He told me to say the “shHada” (the phrase that you say to become a Muslim) in front of a group of people. I went through my typical defenses (my religion and my prophet are God’s too, it’s important to follow the religion of your parents, would you convert to Christianity if you went to America?) but he wasn’t really listening. He just kept saying, “Say it.” I stopped with the polite responses and started saying “no.” This exchange repeated itself maybe 8 times before I walked away.

This sort of conversion attempt is very frustrating. The person isn’t interested in having a conversation about beliefs; they just want me to say the shHada. After the first time that I say “no,” shouldn’t it be obvious that, even if I did say the shHada, that it wouldn’t be sincere? I’ve found that this sort of attempt comes more often from non-observant Muslims. Guys that tell me about how they drink alcohol, see prostitutes, don’t pray, smoke, etc etc tend to be the most likely to demand conversions like this. I’ve started telling them that they should worry about saving their own soul rather than mine (which always gets laughs from bystanders).

The strange part about deflecting conversion attempts is that it makes me pretend to be something that I’m not. To everyone in my community, I am a God-fearing Christian. I would never tell someone my true beliefs here: I would be ostracized. During a recent, more nuanced conversion attempt a couple days ago, I found myself passionately arguing that Jesus is the Son of God. The person I was conversing with kept saying that Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God (they do believe he is a prophet) because God is not like humans and cannot interact with them like that – only a mortal can have progeny. I totally agreed with what he was saying, but there I was, confusing myself. And I don’t have the language skills to express the idea that the “Son of God” may not be literal, but metaphorical.

One more thing about the conversion attempts: most people in my village have not tried to convert me. It’s really just a minority of annoying people while the rest are more respectful.

I can’t have a “Islam” post without discussing religious festivities in my community. I’ve already done posts on Ramadan, a sadaqa, and L3id Kabeer (the big holiday), so I won’t rehash those. Just Friday afternoon there was another event. We’ve been getting a lot of big rainstorms recently, which means the river overflows its banks and floods fields. So my entire community slaughtered some sheep and goats in order to ask God for better weather. Although I find such requests ridiculous, the nice part of the event was that everyone in the village ate as a result of this ceremony. All the men in the village gathered near the mosque (which happens to be next to my house). Couscous was brought out and we all ate outside. Then we ate the meat of the animals that were slaughtered. Women ate in small groups in their houses. So it was a nice community event. A transit overflowing with people from another village drove through as the event was beginning. They were all invited to eat with us and lots of nice words were exchanged. The expression “sharing couscous” is used in Tamazight to signify your intimacy with someone.

Despite the illegality of renouncing Islam, there are Moroccan non-believers. A few of them have “come out of the closet” to me. It’s always a big deal for them to reveal this big secret to me. They mostly tend to be educated professionals – I imagine there are more of them in cities. There are also some people who are openly atheist. There is an Amazigh (Berber) pride movement that is anti-Islam because of its Arab roots. Arabs are seen as colonizers, thus their religion is rejected as well (this is a very small minority).

People here like to ask about how I pray. I tell them that we pray on our knees and we say things like, “In the name of God, God is great, God knows all, thanks to God for everything, God have mercy, God forgive my faults, forgive my parents, etc.” People really like that – it is similar to their prayers and their beliefs. Muslims must pray facing Mecca (to the East for Moroccans). I used to get a lot of shit for saying that Christians do not have to pray facing any particular direction until I started telling people that God is everywhere and that He hears you no matter what.

I’m getting better at saying that sort of thing. I tell people that the different prophets (Mohamed, Jesus, and Moses are the Big 3) are all God’s. I say that our prayers and your prayers are all for God. That God is in everything. I like saying stuff like that because it is closer to my own beliefs that demanding that Jesus is the Son of God. I also like to say things like that because it minimizes the differences between me and people here – we’re all God’s.

Unfortunately, as close as I get to winning people over with my “everything is God” attitude, it’s not quite enough. The fact of the matter is that there are many factors (speaking Tamazight, living here, having kids here, spending time with people) that determine whether or not someone is Oumoussa (a citizen of our tribe). One of those factors is saying the shHada, being a Muslim. There will always be a divide.


Most of my work lately has been recruiting women for the traditional birthing attendant training that I’ll be coordinating this fall. I like the recruiting process (most of the time) because I meet new people in different villages. The other day I rode my bike out to this very isolated village and met with a man there who had agreed to help me find women. When I got there he was not in his house so one of his small sons accompanied me to his field where he was plowing. I sat and waited for him to finish. It was a beautiful day, we had lunch, and the field was up on the mountain. Right as he was finishing the field it started pouring rain and we took shelter under a tree. I was sitting there with two farmers and their three little kids on the side of a mountain waiting for a rainstorm to end. I felt 100% comfortable. It was definitely a Peace Corps moment. The rainstorm delayed our recruiting, so the guy invited me to stay at his house rather than riding back to my village. If I hadn’t had other work to do the next day I would have stayed.

Another project that I’ve been trying to wrap up for months now is a story of frustration. I was going to do toothbrush/paste education and distribution in a nearby school. Rather than speak to the teachers to organize the event (what I normally do) I decided to involve a guy from the village who had been asking me to work with him for a while. My guiding principle for work here is: involve local people whenever possible. This was in April, right before I went to America. I asked him how many toothbrushes I needed to bring and he told me 70. He told me to come back to his house the next Wednesday and we would go to the school together. I got to his house at the scheduled time, but he wasn’t there. I went back to my house (1.5 km walk). A couple hours later he shows up at my house on his motorcycle and we drive to the school. I do my routine with the kids there, but it turns out we are 30 toothbrushes short (because he told me the wrong number). So we skip half the school. I promise to buy some more brushes and that we’ll finish distribution when I come back from America. I get back from America with my brushes and I set a date with him. I show up on that date and the guy is, again, not there. I leave the brushes at his house and walk back to my house. He does not show up on his motorcycle later that day. I show up at his house a couple other times over the next few weeks, but he is never around. When I finally find him, school is out for summer, so we cannot distribute the brushes there. I ask him what the solution to our problem is. He tells me that he will get all the names of the kids that need brushes and he will organize the event. OK. Well I go to his house on the scheduled day and he is asleep. His daughter wakes him up. He bullshits me for a while. I ask him about the project; he says, “I forgot you.” Then two kids come in. He starts asking them the names of the kids in grades four, five and six (the grades that need the toothbrushes). The kids have a (understandably) difficult time remembering all the kids who are in these grades. The list that they come up with is obviously missing a significant number of names. So the guy looks at me and says, “What do you want to do? It will be difficult to get all the kids together; many are out in the fields or somewhere else.” I tell him to forget about it. I’ll do the whole school again in the fall. If I had just done my normal routine of speaking directly with the teachers, the project would have been finished months ago.

Unfortunately, these sort of delays and frustrations are typical with my work here. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a big project, regardless of the status of the person that I’m working with, that I have worked on here that has not had a problem like this. For our hammam project another volunteer and I are working with an agency within the Ministry of Energy – government officials working out of the capital. They set a date for a big meeting with hammam owners then pushed back the date of the meeting three weeks later after we had told all the owners about it. Strangely, they had been pressuring us to have the meeting at the earlier date (in order to meet a funding deadline) even though we were unsure if we could be prepared in time.

That’s it. All is well. I’m trying very hard not to get sick this summer in order to prove to my host mom that heat does not cause illness.


maryellen said...

good post, last line is the best. give mina my love. what did she think about that fabric???

yelfarri said...

wonderful blog , i m moroccan i born in tangier and i lived in morocco until 16 then i moved to norway to my parents .i have to say that i have never tough that type of morocco exists until i read your blog....... very big social gap between social classes.

i m following your blog keep up the good work, your blog is very interesting.

Anonymous said...

The big population of Morocco almost a Islam religion.

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