There are similarities in the Jewish and Muslim calendars—to start with, they are both lunar. The Jewish and Muslim new years overlapped as well. And like last year, Yom Kippur coincides with fasting for Ashura, which is the 10th day of the first month in the Islamic calendar.
Ashura comes from the Arabic word for ten (عشرة), which shares a root with the Hebrew word for ten as well (עשר). For the Sunni Muslims with whom I live, Ashura marks the day that God saved Moses and his followers from Pharoah.
According to Muslim tradition, when Muhammad (peace be upon him) saw Jews fasting on this day (for Yom Kippur), he also told his people to fast, to thank God for creating a path in the Red Sea. For Jews, Yom Kippur focuses explicitly on atonement and repentance—it is known as the holiest day of the Jewish year.
Shortly before the death of prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the “Jewish-type calendar adjustments of the Muslims became prohibited,” and Ashura became a distinct holiday from Yom Kippur. Yet Jews and many Sunni Muslims still both fast on this day.
Social versus Spiritual
So, what does this have to do with my time here in Morocco as a Peace Corps Volunteer? Well, like many PCVs, living in a village where Islam is a big part of life here has of course driven me to reflect on my own religious identity, faith, and resolve. As the New Year begins, celebrating Ashura and Yom Kippur simultaneously embodies this experience.
Back home, as bigoted groups take the center of national news, and activists have to take on identity-based hate speech, the social aspect of my Jewish identity in an American context seems to take a front seat. While I undoubtedly benefit from white privilege, anti-Semitism is still a nuanced, subtle reality especially as “hatred toward Jews has been deeply intertwined with the idea of Jews having unique sorts of advantages.”
But in my day-to-day life in Morocco, religion is not a matter of identity, but rather, of faith and belief. Now I’m realizing that when I remove the social aspect of my Jewishness, there doesn’t seem to be much left. That’s especially as a lot of people I hang out with here pray on their own every day, read the Quran, and base many of their daily beliefs and actions on the teachings of the prophet. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to clarify my definition of God.
Collective History and Nationalism
There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, so like in any religion, everyone interprets and practices their beliefs in vastly different ways. Specifically, for many of my friends in my Peace Corps site, faith is not something you observe when it’s convenient, but rather, a sacred code that dictates how to live and view your life. They live out their beliefs with friends and family, but also on their own in their daily routines and perceptions.
My closest friends here know that I am Jewish, but I’m not sure they understand what it means to me back home. Most have never heard of the Holocaust (although they do study the rise of the Nazis in school). While I was explaining to one of my friends what it was, she asked me, “but why did they do this?” and I grew emotional. This collective history of oppression has been a huge part of my Jewish education.
The next aspect of Judaism for me had centered on Zionism as an uncomplicated and strong reflection of Jewish identity. As I developed my own independent ideals and worldview, I stopped believing that being a “good Jew” and being Zionist go hand in hand. And I’m definitely not the only millennial Jew that thinks this way.
Looking back at my days of religious preschool, bat mitzvahs, sleep-away camp, Jewish youth groups, Hebrew school, Hillel gatherings, weddings, shivas, and brit milahs, it’s safe to say I have a strong sense of Jewish identity. For that, I have to thank my family, community, upbringing, opportunity, and eventually, personal choice.
But when I’m alone, without my Jewish community, without people that know my collective history, without any personal sense of Jewish patriotism, I’m only left with my faith—the core belief, spiritual, stuff. Now that I’m looking at it closely, naked, under a microscope, in a sea of other people’s unwavering faiths, I realize just how wavering my own faith is.
Wavering Faith is Still Faith
What do I do with this realization? Clearly, I’m at a crossroads in my, to sound hokey, “spiritual journey.” I could realize that religion is indeed not a “biological reality” and be atheist or agnostic, which would certainly make things easier. I could start from scratch and research all religions, and see which ones I like best. After all, at 26, I’m certainly old enough to pick my own religion, instead of the one chosen for me at birth.
Except—I never did feel pressured to be Jewish, anyway. My community and family, for as long as I can remember, always encouraged me to think critically and choose my own path.
Abandoning my religion would feel like I’m letting Judaism’s emphasis on questioning, doubting, and learning lead me away from Judaism itself. And, to not be Jewish would feel like turning my back on the community I grew up in and the self I’ve created. It’s when I’m critiquing my religion, and observing it alongside friends and family, that I feel most Jewish.
It may not seem like the most solid foundation, but for now, it’s enough to keep me here—and that’s what counts. Maybe that’s what faith is—that simple, unexplainable force that makes you keep going, even when there aren’t so many tangible reasons to do so.
Concealing and Atoning
While the word Kippur means atonement (hence Yom Kippur), the root K-P/F-R in Arabic and Hebrew scripts can actually mean to “ conceal or deny,” as in, denying one’s religion. This possible connection between denying one’s religion and atoning seems perfect for what’s in my head this year.
This Yom Kippur, as I fast alongside many of my faithful Muslim brothers and sisters, I will aim to begin a more forgiving, yet closer, relationship with Judaism. I no longer want to let doubt lead me to denying or concealing my faith overall.
It is precisely that doubt, and talking about religion with my wise and admirable Muslim friends here, that push me to engage with my own faith and grow from it. This internal struggle with faith, by the way, is also a major aspect of Islam, internal Jihad—a struggle against “those basic inner forces which prevent man from becoming human in accordance with his primordial and God-given nature.”
The Struggle is Real
And for me, it really is a struggle to reconcile an ancient body of understanding with real, present-day life. Listening to the podcast On Being, I was inspired by the interviewee Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who said:
Part of the reason why I’m not an Orthodox Jew but a flexidox or polydox and otherwise-Jew, and not just “Jew,” is that I do believe in evolution, not just of our species and the world, but of concepts. And if the Bible and the Jewish values that have sustained my people for thousands of years believe that women were subservient and that sexuality was of a specific type and that types of worship included slaughtering animals, we’ve evolved. That’s not where we are. So we need to read some of those sacred words as metaphor, as bygone models, as invitations for creativity, and for sort of the second meaning and the second naïveté here that still retrieves this text as useful and these narratives as holy, not as literal.
I believe in evolution and recognize that sexuality and gender are spectrums. I might not be able to keep kosher, celebrate Shabbat every Friday, or attend Torah study. It may seem to you that I’m picking and choosing what I want, as if God’s commandments are just an open buffet.
But unlike my ancestors, I’m lucky in that, the only one who can prevent me from being Jewish is myself. It’s with this understanding that I will keep learning about religion, having belief be a part of my life, and connecting with my past and future. My own reality and the Jewish texts will never be mutually exclusive, because my own interpretation of religion gives me not dogma, but rather, a platform for freedom to further explore.
So this year, it is with continued faith, forgiveness, and learning, that I choose Judaism anew. And for that, I have to thank a caring, inclusive, and humble Muslim community in Sidi Bouzid, Morocco for challenging me to do so and showing me what true faith looks like.
Just like the U.S. government was founded on racism and has been dominated by white men, the U.S. Peace Corps, and other government sponsored exchange programs, are also historically white. Today, I am a white Peace Corps Volunteer representing, and thus contributing to, a U.S. image that has been whitewashed around the world.
I think international exchange (and following, volunteer support) is crucial for bringing about social change both at home and around the world. Yet I can’t help make Peace Corps more inclusive, or the U.S.’s image less white, without acknowledging my own complicity in this current reality. I’m writing this post to explore my own place in the context of implicit racism in the international volunteering field, and to see what it means to be an ally for Volunteers of Color (VOC).
I first got the opportunity to travel at an early age, without having to think about border discrimination, racism overseas, or being questioned on my “Americanness.” My positive experiences abroad opened my world. Later on, they motivated me to pursue a career in international affairs and the public sector. And with the relevant unpaid internships and continued study abroad experiences, I could.
My racial and class privileges gave me easy access to enriching opportunities, which came at the expense of others, for example those that had to work during summers to put themselves through school. My experiences became assets essential to finding a job in the non-profit sector, surrounded by many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). I knew Peace Corps well—it was part of my circle. I was confident that my Peace Corps application would be accepted for Morocco, even after I had turned down another Peace Corps invitation a year earlier.
Race and identity was not something I had to think about before coming here. My privilege is what made my road here visible and smooth, and as a current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), and I still don’t have to think about race during my service. Yet for current Volunteers of Color, stepping foot into a historically, and still majority, white volunteer pool, means that my own voice has the power to marginalize.
Focusing on Diversity; Why Now?
In talking about diversity, especially as a white volunteer, it’s important for me to ask why this focus is happening now and realize that before, the white voices at the Peace Corps table had the privilege to ignore how race and racism affects volunteer experience. The small increase in racial diversity is only recent and comes from long-fought battles and hard work from both Peace Corps leaders of Color and Volunteers of Color.
I can’t tell you the racial makeup of the first volunteer classes (because, surprise, surprise, I couldn’t even find statistics on that). But I can tell you that today 29% of volunteers identify as minorities, which is a drastic increase from earlier years. In 2012, Peace Corps finally made a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan and previous director Carrie Hessler-Radelet has talked at length about efforts to reach communities of color in the U.S.
Today, because of the whitewashed image of an American, the (historically and present-day) majority-white makeup of PCVs, combined with discrimination in-country, the (still small number of) Volunteers of Color have to suffer the burden of multi-layered racism that I, as a white volunteer, benefit from. You can understand more about VOC experiences, in general and with racism specifically, by reading blogposts from VOCs. I have highlighted some pieces from fellow Volunteers at the end of this post.
Obviously, the burden of the racism should not just be on those that face it, but rather, on those white volunteers who privilege from it. Yet white privilege still operates in Morocco—I don’t have to actively seek to change the Peace Corps support structures, because my experience, voice, and service is the historic and present default for Peace Corps Volunteers and Americans abroad.
Reframing Volunteer Support
Creating more effective volunteer support mechanisms for marginalized PCVs is essential for bridging Peace Corps’ goals on paper with the daily realities of each volunteer seeking to carry out those goals. Instead of assuming that volunteers are monolithic, selfless robots serving this overall goal, organizations need to look at volunteers as full people, and members of a two-way exchange who are constantly learning and growing.
And people need other people, allies, in order to thrive as volunteers. Because most PCVs are still white, and because any group of Americans carry with them the complexities of U.S. racism, it will take intentional effort from me, as a white volunteer, to support rather than marginalize; there is no neutral ground in this unequal status quo.
Still, institutional changes to include and support Volunteers of Color have been limited. Peace Corps Headquarters has been providing “Intercultural Competence, Diversity, and Inclusion” (ICD&I) training for its American and local staff. It wants its senior leadership at posts to “encourage the development of support networks that promote diversity and inclusion.” In Peace Corps Morocco specifically, there are diversity conversation sessions during Pre-Service Training, In-Service Training, and Mid-Service Training, facilitated by our Volunteer Support Network (VSN).
Outside of these 3-4 collective hours over 27 months, white PCVs like me can continue avoiding race, and perspectives from PCVs of Color, if they so choose. There are not other institutionalized avenues in place to unpack how racism and white privilege play out within our volunteer staj and during our service. Most of the time, volunteer support comes in the form of contacting Peace Corps staff. And feeling vulnerable due to racism is not something I have to think of approaching anyone about.
Whether it be a designated staff person in every country specialized in providing support to Volunteers of Color, special retreats for Volunteers of Color or marginalized volunteers in general, or regional meet-ups to discuss these issues in a structured way, it is clear that the ICD&I trainings and diversity sessions are only beginnings. Carrie Hessler-Radelet said herself, in an outgoing interview, that “we have made a lot of progress” on the ICD&I Initiative, “but we’re not completely done, we still have work to do.”
Working on Fellow support for Atlas Corps, I wanted to help incoming volunteers persist amidst the same American xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism that I myself got to avoid. As I wrote in another blogpost entitled “Learning to be an Ally,” I quickly learned that since ignorance and bigotry affects Fellows in different ways based on intersectionalities of identity and service like gender, location of service, traditions, class, religion, or ability, there is no one prescribed solution for how to provide support—and there is no way to shield someone from a reality that you yourself don’t live in.
The same is true when it comes to being an ally for Volunteers of Color in the Peace Corps. While there’s no one solution for creating inclusivity and equitable support, examining my own privilege, complicity, even ignorance, as a white Volunteer, opening opportunities to hear VOC perspectives, and lending an empathetic ear, are some small ways I can help centralize this conversation in a way that doesn’t sideline other voices.
Indeed, the systemic racism that has always existed in the U.S. is a reality that white progressive circles back home are just recently acknowledging. As a white PCV I must remember that I’m serving in an institution that’s also just learning to talk about and fight racism as it becomes more diverse—because it was racism that excluded People of Color from the Peace Corps Volunteer and leadership pools in the first place.
Racism isn’t just people riding down the streets in white hoods and tiki torches chanting hate speech. And I can’t single-handedly disband the KKK by looking at my computer screen. But I can actively keep trying to make Peace Corps a more just, less racist institution by promoting critical and inclusive volunteer support. Such mechanisms are essential if the Peace Corps hopes to reach its ideal of representing the “American people,” rather than just the “American government” and the groups that it privileges (me).
Some Relevant Blog Posts on VOC Experiences with Race & Racism
I was pretty “nishan” (Arabic slang for straight-laced) growing up. Measuring myself against an imagined norm, I developed holes in my confidence. I wondered what might be wrong with me, since I wanted to be an entomologist, preferred staying inside and playing truth or truth on Saturday nights, I never had a boyfriend, bikinis made me feel exposed, and 100% of my close friends were girls. Honestly, I haven’t changed that much since high school (probably why I relate so much with angsty, coming-of-age books and movies #bildungsroman).
The traits that made me question my normality in the U.S. are really more the societally accepted norm here in Sidi Bouzid. Compared to some other Americans, you really might think I’d fit in well in this Moroccan village. But socially constructed norms have a funny way of never actually making you feel normal. In my current community, I’m just as weird against my Moroccan community’s norms, but for completely different reasons.
Here, some things I carried over from my life in the U.S. make me “hashuma” (shameful)—how I love having a glass of wine and venting, my views on dating before marriage, my propensity for sundresses, and the (from time to time) mixed gender company I keep. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced here is determining when I should hold onto my own norms, and when I need to respect the norms of the people that surround me.
I’ve been toeing this line by untangling my values from the norms that, if stripped away, aren’t actually so important to my identity. A quick Google definition search tells me that norms are “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” Values are “a person's principles or standards of behavior; one's judgment of what is important in life.” A lot of the time, this exercise is easy, and I don’t feel like I have to compromise my values by adjusting. That’s because the friends I’ve made here really do share most of these values.
I am happy to report that we raised the grant money for repainting and refurbishing our center for women and youth in Sidi Bouzid. Members of a local youth association have been working for hours each day to get the job done before the new school year starts. I love working with them, because like me, they value teamwork, volunteerism, and helping their community.
As we worked into the night, I texted a friend, asking if I could come over and have a bite to eat. Instead, she made and brought dinner to all the members of the association working late. Like me, she values generosity and sharing. And this morning, as my neighbor knocked on my door to see where I’ve been, I was reminded once again how much concern my friends in Sidi Bouzid have for the welfare of others. Like me, they also value loyalty and being there for one another.
I can go on to my friends here about how much I miss my mom, and show people the pictures of what my family back home has been up to. That’s because like me, people here also value family and community. It’s safe to say that most people here are in the same page as me in terms of core values, which is what makes me feel so welcome.
Am I Normal?
Of course, there are times when I feel like I have to choose between adopting new norms or staying true to my values. I was faced with such a question last week, when I had some friends staying over, one of whom was male. Since I have my own house, I had the choice of letting everyone in or asking the guy to stay somewhere else. I knew hosting him would be hashuma.
Yet those of you who know me from home, know that hospitality is a value that I hold very dear. I can’t turn a friend away. A few girlfriends voiced their disapproval directly to me, and I’m sure many more people in the community did so behind my back. But I didn’t even think twice about welcoming my male friend into my home, and I would do so again.
Choosing to follow my own norms, especially when they contrast with others, is an opportunity to realize and express what I value most. As most people here ask me when I’m going to get married, I’m learning how important my independence is to me. When I hear a friend making a comical nod to Hitler, I speak up about its inappropriateness—I value calling out bigotry rather than keeping a low profile. As many people here spend most of their time together, I’m realizing how I do value some alone time.
While I might sound confident, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, if I hear someone say something I do is hashuma, I become anxious that everyone in my community will stigmatize me. This fear is compounded by the small, interwoven nature of this community; similar to social circles at home, people here gossip, and things spread fast. I’ve had a recurring vision of myself wearing a scarlet letter, cast out for all the hashuma things that I’ve either talked about with friends about or acted on at site.
Is it possible for me to live freely while maintaining the relationships that are literally everything to me here in Sidi Bouzid? After all, another one of my top values is openness. How can I have genuine friendships without being 100% open about the traits that make up who I am?
Learning to Relax
But alas, I have made real, evolving relationships, without feeling like I’m hiding my true self. Someone might think something I’m doing is hashuma –they might even talk about it with me, or gossip about it with someone else. Yet the more I interact with my community, and the more I open up to friends, the more I realize that, while social and cultural norms can be mean and unforgiving, my real friends are not.
Now that I’ve been here for almost a year, it’s safe to say that to my friends, I’m more than just my “hashuma” traits. And regardless of the Moroccan norms and rules we learned about in pre-service training (PST), every person here is more than the norms and rules of their society—like me, they are full, complex people with varying values, boundaries, and perceptions.
I need to give myself the room, and my friends the trust, to maintain respect for their cultural norms while knocking down my own guard at the same time. These are not the people that will shut me out; only my own fear and anxiety can do that. I feel confident now that I can hold onto my values even when it means being selective in the norms to which I’m adhering.
It’s important to recognize that I’m in a position of privilege as an American. People expect me to be different, and so I can more easily get away with playing by my own rules. In that sense, it is easier for me to hold onto my own values than for someone else who will be here long term. But it is exactly that—the shifting of environments—that has forced me to really consider how fickle norms can be, and what those values are (plug for exchange programs).
I’ve learned so much from my community, especially my counterparts; I’ll save that for another post. But we don’t learn just about others through international and intercultural exchange—we also develop and learn about ourselves. Moving from one set of norms to another is hard and stressful, especially for us anxious and people-pleasing types. But it is worth it. It’s making me more confident in my own skin, with a clearer idea of what values I hold most closely, absent the norms and judgments in both societies that always held me back.
I have been to two wedding celebrations in Morocco; one in a small village in the north, and another in Casablanca. At the village wedding, anyone was welcome and pajamas were even acceptable. At the city wedding, much like the weddings back home, the invitation list was limited and attire was formal. While they were different, both weddings were joyous, warm, and incorporated many aspects of Moroccan culture. While different, both celebrations were equally Moroccan.
I make this clarification because from my perspective, Peace Corps is very focused on providing us with one view of Morocco—that is, the view from our Peace Corps sites. While it’s important for Volunteers to be focused on building relationships within their sites and not treating these two years like a giant vacation, it’s also important for us to have a complex understanding Morocco, in all its cultural diversity.
While Fulbright Scholars are encouraged to travel Morocco, Peace Corps Volunteers have often been scolded for spending too much time outside their villages and towns. Too much of this policy risks a simplified, rather than complex, understanding of what “Morocco” means. This narrowed vision impedes the third goal of Peace Corps, which is “to help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.” Moreover, Peace Corps Volunteers actually benefit from this rural, “roughing-it” vision of Morocco once they go back home, which speaks to a Peace Corps and social sector that thrives on the inequality it claims to fight against.
Resisting the Urge to Generalize
Recognizing that Morocco is a country with thriving cities as well as small villages means recognizing that it doesn’t need Peace Corps Volunteers. And that is a very important thing to recognize if Peace Corps wants to advance, not hinder, social justice. If Peace Corps didn’t exist, Morocco would be the same. People-to-people relationships and cross-cultural learning would decrease, but Moroccan development would no doubt continue.
Some Volunteers’ sites are more rural than others—some sites are more conservative, some have less resources, some are higher poverty, and some are more isolated. While these sites might make someone’s service more challenging, it doesn’t make it more “Moroccan.” In fact, it is problematic to associate the countryside with the core identity of a nation. This trope comes from intellectual elite that rely upon the imagined, stagnant nature of these rural, poor areas to “contain” an idealized nationalistic vision. This vision of the nation is rooted in orientalism left over from the era of colonization.
So, when Peace Corps Volunteers need a break from “Morocco” and head to the city for an iced chai latte, it is a sign of their class and economic mobility--not their Americanness. There are plenty of Moroccans that drink Starbucks on the regular. It’s just that none of them come from my village. But to say they are any less “Moroccan” is to reject Morocco’s dignity as a diverse, complicated, globalizing, and evolving country with many different classes, education levels, and human capital.
The Third Goal is Not License to “America-splain”
If volunteers are only aware of their site in a vacuum, they will offer their U.S. communities a version of Morocco that only reflects their specific experiences. What’s more, American PCVs that hang out together might go down the dark path of having conversations like “I hate when Moroccans do this,” or “the worst part about Morocco is that.” It’s so easy to blame an entire country for the flaws of one specific place, the inevitable trials of being a foreigner, or cultural norms that we have yet to understand. But we (myself included) have to recognize and check the racism and classism inherent in these conversations.
At the same time, we as Volunteers can benefit from this very same, reductive vision of our host countries. We have the privilege of the Peace Corps brand name, network, and “street cred” within the federal government and development organizations upon our return home. Some of us even get jobs based on our in-country experience.
But it's important to remember that we are not even close to experts on this country and all its cultures. For example, in my site, many of the women are illiterate. At the same time, more and more Moroccan women are attending universities in the country as a whole. Indeed, I will never be qualified, and it will never be appropriate, for me to to explain to anyone the “situation of women in Morocco.” Even though we might be more familiar with aspects of Morocco than the average American, two years isn’t enough to speak about the country with any authority.
Then How Do We Help?
Following, it is not our place to point out problem in other countries; it is our place to support other social change leaders who know their countries better. In the international development field—which has historically lacked local expertise and nuanced understanding of other countries—Returned Peace Corps Volunteers should use their experience to consult with, promote the leadership of, and integrate people from their host country into the social sector.
Just like we’re “sidekicks” for youth development work here in Morocco, Peace Corps Volunteers—especially ones with more privilege—should continue seeing themselves as “sidekicks” in the inherently Eurocentric international development field once they go home.
How to Make a Site my Home
I’ve hopped around Morocco quite a bit this summer, visiting various friends, attending trainings, exploring, and yes, drinking some overpriced iced beverages. I’ve dealt with the guilt that often becomes a theme in the service of Volunteers who didn’t grow up poor or haven’t worked closely with vulnerable communities back home. When I bought plane tickets back to the U.S. for vacation, I thought about how no one in my area has ever been on a plane.
But I’m not helping anyone by acting out of guilt. After all, Sidi Bouzid and its people deserve respect, not pity, from any outsider who chooses to live there. My productivity can’t be measured by the hours I spend in my site; my site isn’t counting my hours here, anyway. Rather, I’ll focus on the quality of relationships, sustainability of work, and new perspectives I am exposed to overall. Just like working at mission-driven organizations is a privilege, serving in the Peace Corps is a privilege—and I chose it. So I aim to be genuinely engaged in the work I’m doing while here.
Morocco is a big, complicated country, and it’s okay—and even beneficial—to look beyond my site when I want to, and if I can. I want to miss my site and be excited to return when I’m gone. But I also need the drive to work in my site, even when I’m challenged by the difference in perspectives or lack of happy hours. After all, Sidi Bouzid is not the one image that traps me, but rather, one beautiful, intricate piece of a much larger, ever-changing puzzle that is Morocco.
I was telling my friend since elementary school about how grateful and amazed I am for my friends here. This friend, ever the thought-provoker, asked, “are you just as grateful and amazed by our friendship?” I answered that while I’m grateful, I’m not as amazed. I might even take our friendship, and all its love, for granted.
The first time I made really close international friends was when I studied abroad in Turkey in 2012. I lived with other young women my own age from Germany, Holland, Australia, and Poland. Recently in our Whatsapp group we were recounting memories from a trip we all took together in Barcelona. In particular, we were looking at pictures from a night where I had some emotional breakdown. “I can’t believe you’re still friends with me,” I told them. The thing is, this is how I feel about all my friendships from other countries—disbelief.
But if we’re all just people and identity is a social construct, why do I feel such disbelief that I can be friends with someone from another country?
Well, in my friendships I become my weirdest, most ugly self. In contrast to (non-existent) significant others, my friends have been the long-term, forgiving presences that are always there when I need them. When I want to make a major life decision like moving to a different country, I don’t need to stress about the friendship ending. I don’t need to be all in for my friends. In fact, I don’t need to be any certain way for them. I can send them 10-chin selfies and complain to them when my career, relationship, or digestive system isn’t working out the way I wanted.
I think that when we’re overseas or interacting with people from other countries, there’s a sense that you’re “representing” your country. But when I descend into introspectiveness to the point of self-centeredness or eat so much food that I become immobile, I hardly feel like a representative of my country; particularly when images of my country are substantially more glamorous or idealized around the world.
For some friends, I’m the only American they know. When our different national identities should turn us into representatives rather than our individual selves, I’m surprised when I can bond with another woman over digestive problems, dating problems, dreams, homesickness, guilt, fear, apprehension over the state of our world, insomnia, anxiety, or even loneliness. I’m shocked that I can be just as weird or ugly with them as I am with the American friends I’ve relied on so much growing up.
What’s Different About Peace Corps
Of course, the country where you’re from can say little about your culture or worldview. Admittedly I’ve made some generalizations in this blog when at times I forgot there are so many different cultures within Morocco and the U.S. My friends I met while living in Turkey or working for Atlas Corps often shared many of my perspectives, having known English, grown up in a more urban environment, pursued higher education, or been exposed to more diversity.
Over the course of Ramadan, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot closer with my friends at my Peace Corps site—and our worldview diverges in a way it just hasn’t before with other international friends. Whereas other Muslim friends believe that coaxing someone to convert to Islam goes against the personal nature of religion and the Quran’s call for tolerance and respect of other religions, my friends here, having never been friends with a non-Muslim, are very open about their hopes for my conversion.
Today in our Whatsapp group, they sent me a not-so-subtle hint—a recording of someone converting to Islam at Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech. Up until recently, I used to resent this conversation around conversion, even though it was just coming from a place of love and concern.
Failure to Fast
When I told my friends I was fasting, they were excited that I was trying to understand and integrate, making jokes about how I’m becoming more and more Moroccan every day. They appreciated my efforts and encouraged me to stick with it. Even as a 26-year-old woman, it still felt super great to finally feel like a part of the friend group.
Then, say what you want about my lack of willpower or determination, but after about and two and a half weeks, I stopped fasting. I missed coffee and regular sleep schedules, and was binge eating at 2 am to try and not be hungry the next day. I felt lethargic.
At the same time, I didn’t want my community to judge me. Most of all, I didn’t want to let my friends down. I thought they would stop inviting me to Iftaars or letting me in on plans, since I was too much of a weakling to observe Ramadan beside them.
Yet my friends remained as supportive, reassuring, and understanding as ever. Seeing my self-judgment, they encouraged me to try again, not for them, but only if I wanted to. They still let me in on Iftaar plans, and offered me breakfast in the morning even as they went without it.
While my friends here want the best for me, as true friends do, they believe that the only person who can really judge anyone is God. So they keep welcoming me into their homes and lives, listening to my grievances, helping me with my Arabic, being patient with me, laughing at me, laughing with me—not because I’m Moroccan or Muslim, but just because we’re friends.
It was these friends, and their warmth replacing my fear of exclusion, that helped me confront my own bias of Islam as a religion of judgment towards non-believers. In a world where diverging views often mean diverging paths, international love turns this divergence into growth, and it turns our most human struggles into opportunities that surpass identity. Sometimes the friendship might be more challenging and complicated, but in my view, it’s more miraculous, too.
I originally wrote this for Peace Corps Morocco's Gender and Development (GAD) Committee blog. I decided to put it on my personal blog as well, but you can find the original post here.
See if you can spot what these three anecdotes have in common. One is from home, and two are from my Peace Corps service so far.
I think it’s because development work, both at home and abroad, has for so long been part of that same gendered framework that boxes people into inequality. Peace Corps, more specifically, emerged right at the end of the European colonial period, during a time when international (and domestic) development was even more patriarchal than it is today. We cannot take our work here out of this context—we should always be questioning how it colors our view throughout these 2+ years.
The Shadow of the Ugly American
My first instinct in helping, as you can see from my stories, is sympathy, which means “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” Empathy means “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” But sympathy isn’t productive—instead, it is reductive. It reduces and simplifies the people you’re trying to help.
If I spend more time just hanging out with my friend and hearing about her life, if I learn how the girls in the Dar Taliba do have fun without a designated “safe space”—I can begin to understand them as full, complicated human beings, instead of underprivileged projects. In time, I might even be able to empathize with others—that is, to see where they’re coming from, get how they’re feeling, and know if there’s a way I can actually help them (and vice versa). I might not end up accomplishing that much on paper, but at least I’ll have real friendships.
Yet even if I’m befriending people and learning the language, there are still a thousands ways I can be the Ugly American. This is now a pejorative trope that refers to “perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad, but also at home.” Since Peace Corps was established to counter this very picture, it seems like the Ugly American’s shadow is always hanging over my head, reminding me of what I could so easily, and unintentionally, become.
Personally, like so many with privilege, I have been able to benefit from systems of class and race without ever having to acknowledge the concept at all. Every time I post pictures on facebook or random epiphanies on my blog, I’m wary of becoming like voluntourists whose primary goal is not to understand their host community, but rather, show that they understand it.
Gender and Development, but also Gendered Development
I need to find a way to work productively here, even with that Ugly American ego creeping in the context, threatening to envelope me. If I am going to make these years worthwhile, I need to be myself—my outspoken, feminist, and eager beaver self. But I need to recognize when that self is actually pushing other voices down rather than amplifying them.
As individual Volunteers with varying levels of privilege, we must critique the power structures that lead to gender disparities not only at our sites, but also within the context of our Peace Corps experience. How do our diverse backgrounds affect the way we see life, do work, and relate to people at our sites? As gender advocates, we cannot be selective in what we view through this lens.
I believe productive work doesn’t have to be tangible—it can lie in relationships, conversations, and individual shifts in mindset. That’s what I love about GAD’s approach to work; even if I don’t implement a girls’ empowerment camp, there is still value in my individual conversations surrounding gender. Similarly, critical conversations about gendered development are vital among Peace Corps Volunteers, as our individual services do not exist in vacuums. After all, isn’t it true that we can have a higher impact on our own Peace Corps community than the sites where we serve?
Growing up, my dad always told me that the definition of maturity is being able to get along with everybody. Through school, travels, and work, I’ve garnered my confidence with that truth in mind. If everyone likes me and I’m friends with everyone, it means I’m doing something right. Combined with the “Generation Validation” effect among privileged circles of young people today, I have become quite attached to hearing other peoples’ approvals in order to persevere.
Yet such an attitude can lead to “contingent self-esteem,” which is “self-esteem based on the approval of others or on social comparisons.” In a paper on Contingencies of Self-Worth, researchers write, “in domains of contingent self-worth, people pursue self-esteem by attempting to validate their abilities and qualities. This pursuit of self-esteem… has costs to learning, relationships, autonomy, self-regulation, and mental and physical health.”
People talk a lot about how Peace Corps leaves them more resilient. For me, becoming more resilient means chipping away at my need for validation. It even means being okay with having people doubt me. I’ve been able to avoid this task in every other venture of my life, where I’ve had grades, teachers, mentors, letters of recommendation, annual reviews, and consistent feedback to let me know exactly what I was doing well, and where I needed improvement.
While I don’t have the same formal validation here, I still feel a surprising amount of informal accountability. This might be an outcome of a Peace Corps that is more connected by technology than before. No part of me feels like I’ve said bye to the outside world for two years. No part of me feels isolated.
Sticks and Stones
As I adapt and find a role for myself here, the only negativity I have faced comes from the administration that oversees the institution Peace Corps connected with to establish my site. The people working in this administration do not live in my community, but rather, in the nearby town. They oversee activities in the women’s association in my community, where I have not yet begun concrete work.
“Ma chufna walu minnik,” (we haven’t seen anything from you) the administration director told me, before I left for vacation with my family. He proceeded to discuss with his supervisee whether or not I was lazy. I apologized, and promised them that when I got back, I would start aerobics and technology classes.
Three weeks later, I’ve started a little aerobics but not technology. It just doesn’t make sense to me to start something right as Ramadan is beginning, one month before the association closes for summer. I’d rather put a lot of time and effort into planning a six month long curriculum and gathering a cohort of people to come in regularly. I don’t want to start a class just to stay I tried.
Even as I seek validation from the Peace Corps approach, as well as the real and trusted friends I have made at site, the words of the administration are always echoing in my head – ma chufna walu minnik. Emphasis on the walu (nothing). I dread seeing those two individuals, and I dread what they’ll say to me. Their perception of me as lazy or inept crushes me more than any other words of praise, or love from anyone within my actual community, lifts me up.
It seems simple: “no one can make me feel inferior without my consent,” et cetera et cetera. But the blunt truth is, the administration’s perception of me as lazy taps right into my own preexisting insecurity that I lack the initiative and skill to get work off the ground.
I already oscillate between beating myself up for not trying to do more, and wanting to learn, be patient, and make sure that when I do something, it’s worthwhile and in partnership with others.
While my instincts push me towards the latter, I have social media and the Peace Corps community that act as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, my friends in Peace Corps provide support, comfort and validation. On the other hand, Facebook plays into the whole “social comparisons” part of my contingent self-esteem. And I always think about how people (including myself) talk about previous volunteers that didn’t do anything or were always out of site. I don’t want to be a “bad volunteer.”
When I arrived in Morocco, I was excited to finally, finally stop justifying to other people why I came here. But over eight months later, I still feel like I'm on a continual quest for justification and validation. As I’ve mentioned, being a volunteer in a community where you don’t have a carved-out role is a constant practice in questioning your “purpose.”
In this case, vulnerability is not strength. When one person says one negative thing about my presence here, it shatters me. Instead of motivating me to do anything better, it makes me want to disappear even more.
Indeed, it’s exhausting to ensure that every person I know here has a positive impression of me. It’s hard to maintain a perfect reputation in any community. Every hour I spend at home, or day I spend out of site, I beat myself up mentally. Every time someone in my community asks me, “fin ghaberti?” (where’d you disappear to?) I get defensive.
Reframing This Problem
As Ramadan approaches, I plan to fast to observe the holy month in earnest with my community. But absent a belief that God is commanding me to fast, I’m finding my own internal reasons to do so. So as I fast, I’m going to focus on it as an act that is not for the immediate approval of others, but instead, a test of patience from myself, for myself.
I want to get to the point where I don’t need the approval of others as motivation to keep going. I want to cultivate an internal self-esteem that’s not based on a fragile, always-hungry ego. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie alludes to in a book on parenting, “too many women worry about being liked.” This is damaging, she says, because “it’s not your job to be likeable. It’s your job to be yourself. Someone will like you anyway.”
So Dad, I still believe that maturity means being able to get along with everybody. But I might be learning relatively late in life that “getting along with” is not the same as “being liked by.” And just as making the difficult choice to join Peace Corps was an opportunity to define my commitments, choosing to follow my own path present someone else’s disapproval can be an exercise in faith for my own approach.
In the past two weeks, I attended our In-Service Training (IST) that Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) have after their first three months at site, and then a Training of Trainers (TOT) for young people that want to help run Moroccan camps. Attending a training for American volunteers, and then subsequently a training where I was the only participant not from Morocco, invites comparison.
Of course, having the opportunity and time to attend trainings to develop my #skillz, at no cost, is a big privilege. Same thing goes for “serving” in Peace Corps. So, in particular, at the risk of sounding basic AF, the thing on my mind most is gratitude. Incidentally, attending the Moroccan training reinforced my observation that Moroccan culture has mastered this whole gratitude thing as compared to Americans.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Complaints
During our Peace Corps orientation, a friend and I did stand-up comedy making fun of us volunteers. We introduced to the group our scientific concept of “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Complaints,” with the main idea that if volunteers can’t complain about basic things, our complaints become more and more ridiculous. The top of the pyramid was entitled “Posh Corps;” if we’re so comfortable and taken-care of by the staff in Morocco, how are we supposed to have a “real” Peace Corps experience? The sketch went over big—because everyone watching was thinking, this is so true. At every Peace Corps training, when I exercise this right to “free speech,” no one looks twice.
But at the training with all Moroccans, I started on my complain train about how there was no time for sleeping. I didn’t get too much backup. Our sessions lasted until 1:30 AM each night, and we had to wake up at 7:30 AM each morning. Lectures went on too long, there were no clean toilets, and we never got a rest. But people still participated in every activity with excitement and appreciation for the trainers, who used their own vacation time to run this TOT for free. My friends reminded me that since this training is only one week, we have to be patient and make the most of our time here.
Of course, you could argue that American culture is more complainy because of our democratic tendencies. Contentment leads to complacency, and we cannot afford to be complacent when there is so much that’s broken in our country. At the same time, I don’t think that gratitude and complacency are the same thing. At the end of each day at the Moroccan training, we still had time to share our feedback with the staff. I guess the trick is seeing gratitude not as an absence of criticism, but rather, a presence of eagerness and thanks.
A Happy Sidekick
The thing that I personally am thankful for are the Moroccan peers I met at the camp, who, like me, want to contribute to positive youth development in Morocco. Given the high rate of youth unemployment (38.8% among Moroccan urban youth in June 2016), I had received a picture of hopelessness among youth in Morocco from Peace Corps trainings and individual conversations. But this picture is an oversimplified façade. After attending the Moroccan training, I’m reminded once again that everywhere, there are young people who are driven, innovative, and looking for ways to give back.
To open the TOT, the trainers explained that the impact of the training is bigger than one kids’ camp; the impact will be multiplied by every child with whom every person at the training works. If each of the 30 people at the training works with 20 children, 600 children will benefit.
Along this concept of capacity building for high impact, I thought of a presentation a fellow PCV and I gave during our In-Service training, on how Peace Corps Volunteers are not like superheroes, but rather “sidekicks” for motivated people in our community, who are the real heroes. The people I met at this training, my peers, give me renewed energy and purpose for how I can help as a Peace Corps Volunteer; not just by direct service like teaching English, but more so by supporting and building capacity for Moroccan counterparts.
Save Me a Seat?
The word “counterpart” in Peace Corps lingo means work partners at our site. But first and foremost, counterparts are friends, with whom I feel very comfortable asking work-related questions or posing ideas. Honestly, the fluidity between counterpart and friend is a surprising change coming from my own experience in DC. At conferences or trainings in DC, I feel like when I want to exchange contact information with someone, there is a skepticism that I’m being disingenuous or only talking to them to expand my “network.” In my Moroccan community, absent the trope of the insincere networker, this same skepticism doesn’t seem to exist. I feel more comfortable approaching people about work.
At both trainings, it felt great to be among peers that were always there to reflect, vent, goof off with, and discuss ways to work together. Having close friends by me during the Moroccan training, despite the fact that my cultural background and language skills were so different from the rest of the group, gave me all the warm fuzzy feelings of international exchange (you can make fun of me if you want to).
The little things like saving your friend a seat at lunch, checking if their name is on some list, whatsapping memes during sessions, listening to digestion-related grievances, lending a pen and paper for the 100th time, grabbing a forgotten bag, or bringing them coffee and bread when they miss breakfast, makes you feel taken care of, regardless if those friends are from the U.S., Morocco, or outer space. Despite cultural differences surrounding affection and how we express it, love between friends is a universal concept. Just go into any training in the world and look at the small interactions between the people sitting next to each other.
8 Misconceptions I Had About Peace Corps and Why They’re Untrue **(in my Personal Experience but Every Experience is Different)**
As you might know, this is not my first time at bat with Arabic. I first joined the tens of thousands of other Americans learning Arabic my sophomore year of college. I felt like I “fell in love” with the language. How it sounded, how it felt to write the letters, and how the letter roots combined with word forms combined to make thousands of meanings. Not only that, but I felt like I was learning it quickly. I developed this over-confident idea that “Arabic is going to be my thing.” I applied for the Language Flagship Program and had it in my head that I would pass this rigorous language test and spend my first post-college year studying intensive Arabic at the American University in Cairo. Everything was exciting and fast moving.
I wish I could tell naïve, eager-beaver Julie that language learning is never “exciting and fast moving.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
A Tale of Two Language Classes
When I returned to college for my senior year, after spending a semester in Turkey, I entered a semester behind my previous classmates from Arabic. Moreover, my university’s new, more competitive Arabic program was designed to accelerate classes through hours of meticulously marked homework, completing one “Al-Kitaab” chapter per week, and tricky exams. At the rate I was going, it became clear that I wasn’t going to pass that Flagship test.
That year, I enrolled in both Turkish and Arabic, and my two language classes created a perfect juxtaposition. My Turkish class had about six people, and we started our mornings sitting around a coffee table drinking tea and eating cakes baked by our cheerful professor. In Arabic class, my strict professor had our full class memorize ten different verb forms and tested us on having each vowel perfectly placed for each conditional, irregular verb and plural noun. In Turkish, we wrote weekly journal entries, which were graded with helpful corrections, smiley faces and “süper”s. My Turkish professor even invited us to her home, where we learned to make baklava and played games. Our Arabic professor never failed to remind us that even though our class was “Intermediate Arabic II” on paper, we were really closer to “Beginner I” than anything else. I binge studied for my Arabic final for 14 hours. For Turkish, I spent about an hour a day consistently on homework and studying for exams. Still, I got a better grade in Turkish than I did in Arabic.
So, you get the point. Turkish class was “easier” while Arabic class was a giant struggle. But in the end, it turns out that having a fun, positive, and safe language class provided me with more encouragement to keep going. I moved back to Turkey after college and continued practicing by talking with friends, self-study, watching soap operas, and listening to music.
Of course, there were days where I felt like giving up, because I couldn’t participate in lunchtime conversations, and no matter how many times I asked for water (su), the man at the store didn’t understand me. But the encouragement of my friends, classmates, and previous successes made me wake up everyday and keep trying. By contrast, after college, I stopped learning Arabic altogether—it felt hopeless.
You see, for me, by far the hardest part of learning a language is not conjugation, grammar, or vocabulary, but rather, my feelings. There is never a time when I feel more vulnerable and “unintelligent” than when I’m speaking in a language that’s not my own. Many late language learners might relate to frustrating moments such as:
These seemingly-small frustrations happen all day, every day; and they build up. Overall, the process of learning a language—both in the classroom and through immersion—is so slow, grating, and unglamorous that in my view, learners need all the encouragement they can get.
Where I’m At Now
Given my previous Arabic experience, I was nervous to relearn the basics and enter the world of Darija (Moroccan Arabic). But I was pleasantly surprised—the Peace Corps language program, known for being effective, is the least competitive learning environment I’ve experienced. We weren’t given hours of meticulously-graded homework, because hanging out with our host families was practice enough. And while we spent a lot of time in the classroom, our progress was never measured against one another. Instead, our activities were collaborative; we performed dialogues, shared stories, and created games. Our classroom reminded me of Turkish class back in college. It made me feel like I could keep learning.
Now we’re on our own, with no teacher to tell us how much we’ve improved and no test to motivate us to study. I’m back where I was when I was living in Istanbul, with no idea whether my language skills are advancing, stagnating, or declining. Now that I live in my own house, I’m getting even less practice than before. Regardless of the reality, I constantly feel like I’m not where I should be, and I’m confronting those “everyday frustrations” alone, without validation.
Highway to Nowhere?
To move forward and stay sane, I need to master not the language, but rather, my feelings. I need to focus on what worked with Turkish, and what didn’t work with Fusha (the Modern Standard Arabic I learned in college). I supposedly “loved” Arabic, but I let it go so easily when I realized I couldn’t be the best. In reality, there is no end to language learning, and I’m so far from native-level proficiency in either language, that even saying those words is laughable.
What got me to keep learning Turkish wasn’t being the best, but instead, connecting with the language and its speakers in small, inconsistent bursts. Those moments when I had a really great conversation, led a class, had a meeting, or attended a social gathering with no problem. There will always be better non-native speakers than me. But those memories and moments, with those people, in that language, will always be my own.
To use a cliché, language learning is a long, bumpy road with no real end, but lots of nice cafés along the way. And a healthy language-learning environment makes you feel like you’re worth it, that you should keep going; no matter how fast you go, or how stupid you look. When I help other people with English, I focus on fostering this confidence above all else. And even if learning new languages isn’t really your thing, I think you can apply this philosophy to learning anything else in life, too.