Every day spent in a different country or culture is a learning opportunity. Of course, many of those opportunities are small – a new word, a new connection made between your own life and the lives of those in your community, that eating sheep brain isn’t as gross as you might think. Small things. The big, soul-touching realizations that come, I find are more rare, which might be a good thing, since having your perspective suddenly change can be a big deal.
I had such an experience yesterday.
In one of my English classes, in order to generate discussion topics as well as exposing my students to ideas from around the world, I occasionally will show a TED Talk using my computer. The other day, I came across a TED Talk by a Muslim American man who had created a line of superheroes called The 99, each hero based on one of the attributes of God, things like wisdom, light, generosity. To paraphrase his words in his talk, the goal was to attach positive ideals to the image of Islam in a world where the West is bombarded by negative media representations of one of the world’s largest religious groups.
So in my very Westernized, Christianized background (where images of God and Jesus are a commonplace and expected part of faith, thanks Michelangelo), all that registered to me after viewing the talk was that:
A) my students might be interested in hearing about what someone who shares their faith in America is doing, and
B) superheroes are cool.
Of course I knew about previous conflict over Islam being depicted in political cartoons and the anger that caused. I knew images are not part of Islam. But for whatever reason, on some level, it didn’t register that any image of God, even one that is purported to be carrying a positive message, would be unacceptable to them. As one of my students put it, it is “a line which we should not cross.”
And for the remainder of class, my students managed to change that deeply ingrained idea that “a picture is just a picture” that has been lodged in my head. And they did it by speaking their faith and voicing their opinions calmly, yet strongly, taking the time to teach me something I didn’t know I hadn’t understood. While I’m not sure I fully understand even now or am able to put into words correctly, their view is that God is God and human beings should not attempt to portray Him visually in any media. It is, you might say, a “deal breaker,” a point of faith they are not interested in allowing any leeway to.
Even now posting this, having realized my perspective was wrong, that I should have thought more carefully about how my students would perceive this idea, I have fear in my heart that the reaction from people reading this who knew better than me will be “No kidding, Johanna, how could you be so stupid to not realize.” And maybe I am stupid, but I hope hereafter I am less so.
The point of this blog is to share some of what I have learned here in Morocco, Peace Corps’ Third Goal – telling Americans about your host country. And while pictures of souk are fun, and talking about eating sheep brains has a sort of exotic flair to it, these aren’t the things that will really help Americans understand Moroccans. To understand them, particularly their young people, we should be willing to at least attempt to understand their faith, which governs so many aspects of culture here. We should listen to the young people of Morocco, and of the entire Middle East. They are navigating a world that consistently presents them with conflict and judgment, and their faith is one of the tools they have to do so.
And as they just showed me, if we are willing to listen, they are willing to talk.