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.