There are three Hibas in my life. One Hiba is a dear friend in DC, and her encouragement, passion, and optimism helped me have the courage to move to her country, Morocco, as a volunteer. She taught me that “Hiba” means “Gift from God.” Second, my host sister in my permanent site is named Hiba—she is a smiley, welcoming, and smart 14-year-old who made me feel at home right away.
The third Hiba, her last name was Safi. She is the beautiful person pictured above and below. “Safi” in Moroccan Arabic means “enough.” It’s one of the most common words heard here—people use it as a substitute for “okay,” as in, “I’m going to make you eat just five more loaves of bread, safi?”
So not a day goes by when I don’t hear the words “Hiba” and “Safi.” Not a day goes by when I don’t think about Hiba Safi.
There are so many incredible things I can say about Hiba Safi, even as someone outside her inner friend circle. For now I just want to articulate what she means to me, and how remembering her every day makes me a better volunteer and person. A disclaimer that there’s no way what I’m writing even begins to capture her unique greatness.
Even though the window in her room stayed broken in the most freezing of DC winters, she had the patience and understanding to still see me, the housing coordinator, as a person and friend. I remember when she and her supervisor answered questions as the model “Fellow-Supervisor pair” at the orientation for Atlas Corps supervisors, because she was always willing to help. The last time I saw her was when she took out time to talk to me about our life plans, weighing the merits of living overseas or at home, during her goodbye happy hour at the end of her fellowship.
One day in May 2015, I went over to her house for an inventory check as part of my job. Hiba shared my love for Istanbul and told me about her recent trip there. Over dinner, she brought out Turkish coffee so I could read fortunes.
I’m good at telling fortunes because I’m good at ‘BS-ing.’ I can read shapes and spin them into the letter of your future husband or a meaningful thought from your past. When I told Hiba Safi’s fortune, I don’t remember what I said, but I know I made it end positively. I always do. It’s more fun to see the excited look on people’s faces.
That same night, Hiba’s room mate Huma tried to teach me to play “Zombie” by the Cranberries on guitar, since I had just started taking lessons. Once they had returned back to their home countries, I was going to record and send them a video of me playing it successfully.
Hiba returned to Tunisia after her fellowship and continued contributing her intelligence, character, bravery, and grace to her amazing country. We lost her in January 2016. I never did make that video.
When something tragic happens in my circle, I pause for a minute and realize how easy it is to let both daily life and long-term anxiety take away my positivity or put seemingly unimportant things on the backburner. Sometimes the markers of efficiency and effectiveness make the job of helping people more competitive than beautiful.
But the small acts for and with others are what hold our memories. It seems like Moroccan culture recognizes that a little bit more than ours. Like making a video that might make someone smile—even if I haven’t finished my to-do list at work, talking a friend through her feelings—even if it means losing sleep, calling a stranger to meet up at my new site—even if I don’t know them, or helping my host mom wash dishes—even if it takes hours.
The thing is, right now, my biggest challenge is being okay with having these “unimportant things” actually be my whole life. This is especially because my site has never had a volunteer, so there’s no carved-out role or roadmap for me. When I think too much and realize how little I accomplish every day, I feel empty. When I try to plan out how I’m going to build myself a community here or what I’m going to do at my permanent site, I become overwhelmed. I don’t think this is because I’m American—I think it’s a challenge for any volunteer striving to make their exchange and service meaningful. We have the continual need to justify this risk we took, since we didn’t take it to get promoted, earn a degree, or make money.
No one would have predicted Hiba’s untimely passing. One tragic aspect was the certain potential she had to keep contributing to her country, as a member of the Global Shapers of the World Economic Forum, World Pulse community, a representative for the Arab Institute of Business Leaders, a published researcher, a keen analyst, a policy advocate and an esteemed employee at the British Council and British Embassy. Who knows what else Hiba would have done for Tunisia and our world?
But Hiba’s very name reminds us that our lives don’t lie in these titles or our potential to gain new ones. Instead, it’s the “unimportant things” that we do for and with others every day. Our memories of Hiba lie in her existence, not in her titles. She will always be a gift from God, and everything she was during her life was enough.
I need to remember that women’s aerobics classes or girls’ empowerment clubs (or other Peace Corps-ish stuff volunteers do) can wait. I can’t predict the future, how full or empty my volunteer reporting form will be, or if I’ll actually end up helping anyone out while I’m here.
So, I’m going to look at life like I looked at Hiba’s coffee cup. My 2016 started with Hiba’s passing. In 2016 I made the decision to come here, which was a challenge in itself. The year is ending in a brand new place, with a lot to be overwhelmed by or a lot to look forward to. I’m going to try and appreciate the present, and look ahead with a smile, instead of thinking about what else could happen.
Because no matter what I do today or in the future, our lives are gifts, and they will always be enough. Hiba Safi reminds me of that every day.
I arrived at my permanent site on December 10, the same day as a twin bombing in Istanbul that killed 44 people, may they rest in peace, in my former neighborhood of Besiktas. It had been a long day, with nine hours of travel and saying bye to the other volunteers. When I arrived at my site, my family greeted me with the same hospitality I found in Turkey. I spent the evening relaxing, eating, and listening to music with my host sisters.
With my spotty cellphone data, I flipped briefly through Facebook before going to bed. Only then did I see a friend’s status—Istanbul with a broken heart next to it. I knew that meant another terrorist attack. But I couldn’t open the news to see what had happened. I didn’t have the option to read details of the tragedy. Before going to sleep, not knowing seemed like a privilege and a hardship at the same time. In DC, I would have been glued to the computer.
I’ve had many former Peace Corps Volunteers say (slightly condescendingly, as if we chose to live in the information age) that they feel sorry for us current Volunteers who have access to Internet and generous cellphone plans. The thought is that this hinders integration. The more time I spend Whatsapping, Facebooking, or reading articles is less time practicing the language, dancing with my host sisters, or helping my host mom in the kitchen. If I use Internet, I’ll be less mindful and less engaged with my local community.
Indeed, my sleep issues have been so much better since I arrived at my permanent site. Even though it’s just a little over an hour from Marrekech, it is one of the most peaceful and least urban places I’ve lived. And even with data on my phone, this is the least amount of Internet I’ve used, ever. It turns out that not trying to keep up with what’s going on with my friends, domestic politics, and international news, all at the same time, helps me sleep better.
Local and Global Communities
The cost of this mindfulness, of course, is being less aware of what’s going on, not knowing news relevant to my communities and friends in other places, and not keeping in touch as well with loved ones. Even if my host family had wifi, I don’t think this situation would be incredibly different, because people here are so much more engaged in their local community that there’s not a need or relevance to discussing what’s happening elsewhere. My host sisters both have Whatsapp and Facebook and are using it—not to talk with friends around the world, or scroll through news updates, but to talk with family, friends from school, and neighbors.
From my small experiences, the Internet is more of an extension of the local community, rather than a global one. But it’s important to recognize that I’m no more outward looking than my host family here. As a foreigner, from a pretty transient city, I’m just engaged in different, less local communities. Regardless of how much Internet we use, we still all live in relative isolation dictated by the communities we’ve made, wherever these communities may fall on the spectrum of “local” and global.”
The continuance of daily life here, juxtaposed by the tragedy in Istanbul, marks the beginning of my service that is supposed to be focused on helping build this local community for others and myself. Indeed, I must start this seemingly unfamiliar mission by debunking my own belittling assumption that life here is any more “isolated” or “community-based” than my life was in the bigger cities where I’ve lived. My participation or awareness of what’s going on in the world at large never actually mattered to anyone except my own communities. The Internet made me feel bigger than I actually was.
Meanwhile, in other communities, families mourn, pundits analyze, politicians incite, innocent people get arrested, terrorists continue plotting, people are protesting their governments, work continues for colleagues, friends are falling in and out of love (remember, no friends are allowed to get engaged or married while I’m gone), and my mom is sending me pictures through Whatsapp of my dog sitting by our fireplace. President Obama predicted that the sun would come up on November 9th regardless of election results. It’s an important reminder that no matter where we are in the world, there are other things happening in other places, whether or not the news covers them and whether or not we know about them. At the same time, locally, daily life continues.
Hierarchy of Human Life
It seems like whenever a disaster happens in a “Westernized” place (like the one most recently in Istanbul), people on social media are quick to point out a hierarchy of human life that exists in Western-dominated media and subsequently our international system. Why does international news highlight terrorist attacks or natural disasters in industrialized countries more than developing ones, or in cities more than towns? Or, why is everyone talking about what’s happening in Istanbul, when the same thing happens more often in war-torn or dangerous places, even within Turkey, but garners little international attention or condolence?
With this significant critique of “international” media, I’m forced to look inward, and wonder why I’m also thinking more about the terrorist attack in Istanbul than the many other terrorist attacks and innocent lives lost that have occurred since I arrived in Morocco. The simple answer is that the attacks in Istanbul affect the community I made there—they literally “hit closer to home.” Talking with friends in Turkey and offering my condolences highlights this reality. I have the added privilege that my news sources care about this attack like I do. Many other communities that suffer from violence and terror don’t have that privilege.
Even though each community and each person in the world is equally important, in an inherently unequal system, it matters to whom they are important. Through a human rights and justice lens, the media focusing on tragedy in some communities over others is extremely problematic and has even more troubling, devastating consequences. The most recent collective outrage at the dire human rights crisis in Aleppo is directed at politicians who didn’t feel enough outside pressure to take risks that match the urgency of the innocent Syrian lives in danger.
On a personal level, though, I wonder if I’m being hypocritical when I make this critique of mass media, when I spend time reading and discussing some tragedies more than others, depending on my connections to those places.
But in the end, what I read and focus on doesn’t matter much to anyone else on an immediate, individual level. As I said, in some ways, Internet feeds an illusion of my own importance and the need to keep up. In other very real ways, it makes me feel connected to people and issues that matter to me.
My goal for now, then, is to be more intentional with the way I use Internet—to make sure that it’s meeting my rational goal of being a good friend and daughter, and a relatively informed person, but not stoking my irrational need to be completely plugged in to things outside my control.
Maybe that’s what true mindfulness is, anyways. In today’s technology-crazed age, it’s not about being cut off from connections to other places. Instead, it’s about finding the humility and peace of mind to realize that our communities, while important, are not the whole world—they are only our world.
Whether your communities are mostly local or mostly in other places, the communities you’ve made are what make your life important. They are what make death of those within them tragic and unbearable, no matter where these deaths occur. Right now, I pray for the beautiful, diverse, and innocent victims of the December 10 bombing in Istanbul, for the strength of their communities to persevere, and the continued safety and fulfillment of my friends living in Turkey. Even if you seem far away, you’re still on my mind. To change that for the sake of mindfulness or local integration is to take away our humanity in the process.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!