I’m Home!

The Hasan II Mosque in Casablanca

The last two months of my life flew by. I really meant to write more, but in reality I found myself with very few opportunities because the program kept me SO busy! When I did have some free time, I chose to explore my surroundings and some other cities in Morocco, as well as spend time with many of the beautiful people I met on my journey. Readjusting to life in America is always a bit strange and I certainly have mixed feelings about being home. And of course, I find myself missing Morocco and all of the people I’ve shared the last two months of my life with.

My time in Morocco was undoubtedly the most challenging experience I have ever undertaken, in terms of academics but also in terms of daily existence. I feel that I don’t even have the words yet to describe it, or even try to explain it. But I will say this, at a certain point in time Morocco stole my heart and captivated me with its beauty. That’s not to say that everything is rosie in Morocco all the time, but it is to say that I was able to make myself fully present there, and tap into its beauty. I must also say, however, that I feel very blessed to be able to make that statement because it was a long, hard journey filled with struggle; all of the students faced enormous challenges there. Perhaps the difficulty is what made the experience one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences of my life.

Bab Bajloud, Entrance to the Old Medina in Fes.

While I was gone, I learned a ton of Arabic and can say with confidence that my speaking and comprehension ability took a major leap forward. I also met some really wonderful people, including my lovely host family, my amazing and beautiful teachers, and all of the fantastic speaking partners and tutors at my school. Oh, and of course the other program participants! The trip ended on a high note – Ramadan began just a few days before we left and I am so grateful I was able to experience it in a Muslim country and with people I’ve grown to care very much about. I fasted the day before we left Fes and I was fortunate enough to be able to break the fast in the company of my classmates, and most of the speaking partners and teachers at my school at the most lovely Iftar I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

Iftar

Mad props to all the Muslims of the world fasting right now – it’s NOT easy! And mad props to all of those people who have helped me on my journey of learning Arabic thus far, particularly my teachers (you know who you are!). I look forward to continued study of the language and many more linguistic adventures in the MENA region.


Personal “Space” and Freedom

This program keeps me very busy, so busy that I hardly have time to breath let alone write. So, this will be quick, but for my own sanity I feel it’s necessary to process certain aspects of my experience here. Most of the students in the program, including myself, have been sick, many of us since we got here. We’ve all shared a cold that’s been going around, and most of us have had some kind of stomach issues, some of us worse than others. I can’t speak for everyone in my program, but I do know that many of us are having a difficult time living with host families. This is not because we don’t like our host families, nor is it because we don’t see the value in this type of cultural exchange. Rather, the concept of space in Morocco is very different, particularly for an American woman in her thirties who has been independent for many years and is accustomed to doing what she wants, when she wants and when it suits her. Personal space as we know it in the U.S. (i.e. alone time) does not really exist in Moroccan culture. Also, another difficult aspect of this program and living with host families is having to give up control over most aspect of our lives – what we eat and when, and even how much we eat. Additionally, we don’t have control over what kind of sanitation we have or where we sleep and even how much we are able to sleep. For example, my host family provided me with a bedroom of my own. However, it is so insanely hot here that I have given up trying to sleep in my bedroom because it is too uncomfortable. Instead, I sleep in the “salon” (aka the living room) on one of the couches where the rest of the family sleeps because this is the only room in the house that has air conditioning. In Morocco, most rooms in a house are communal and the walls are all lined with couches. I’ve gathered that this is because visiting family and family events are very important here and the couches are needed so that everyone has some place to sit at family gatherings. Still, sharing a communal sleeping space is a very different experience for me, and one that is not entirely comfortable for me. But I want to come back to the matter of control briefly before I wrap this up. Americans, generally speaking, are accustomed to having control over their lives, for the most part. Many of us are having to give that up here and it is really difficult. The family unit is really tight here and the parents have a lot of say and control over their children’s lives until they get married and move out of the house. For those of us who are well traveled and have traveled alone and even lived abroad before, the experience of living with a Moroccan family feels restrictive at times because Moroccan families are very protective. Of course, this comes from a place of concern for our well-being. Nonetheless, I can say with certainty that in all of my travels abroad, this is the first time I’ve really experienced culture shock, and it is because I feel as though I’ve lost control over most aspects of my life. I do not want to give the wrong impression here – I really like my host family and I have shared many wonderful moments with them. Yet I will say that navigating space and boundaries is tricky business here. I think I have a new appreciation for what it means to be American, and the personal freedom that comes with it.


My First Week in Morocco

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It’s been quite an adventure the last few weeks. I meant to write more but there has been very little time for that. Today I finally have a bit of a break and a day to rest and reflect on my experience in Morocco thus far. Tomorrow I hope to explore the city of Fes in all it’s glory. I haven’t seen much of the city yet because I’ve been so busy settling in with my host family and adjusting to my daily schedule at school, which is quite full and quite intense. However, having said that I can say that what I’ve seen of this city so far has blown me away. What amazes me most about Fes is the interior of the buildings. From the outside, many of the buildings are absolutely stunning, but some of them don’t look like much – they are old and run down and look very plain. However, once you step inside even the simplest looking building, you are likely to be transported to another world. Moroccan’s are big on Islamic art and decor and many of the buildings have beautiful tile work and extremely intricate and detailed decorative woodwork inside. It’s hard to even try to explain how beautiful it is. I will do my best to capture this aspect of Moroccan architecture in pictures so stay tuned for more.

My classes here are very intensive. This week we had 4 hours of instruction in the morning – 3 hours of Modern Standard Arabic and one hour of the Moroccan dialect. This is followed by an hour-long lunch of traditional Moroccan dishes, and of course, we are expected to converse in Arabic. After lunch, we have 30-minute individual sessions with “speaking-partners,” which gives us a chance to practice speaking and expressing more complex thoughts and ideas in Arabic. Then, after that we have another hour of the Moroccan dialect. Finally, we have an additional 2-4 hours of homework and studying each night, making for very long days. Starting next week, we will not have the late afternoon session of the Moroccan dialect, but we will have different activities – in my case Moroccan dancing, as well as excursions (scavenger hunts if you will) to different areas of interest in the old medina. We will also be expected to write blog posts in Arabic as part of a weekly assignment.

My Moroccan host brother Brahim

The school I’m studying at, INLAC, has placed us with Moroccan host families, adding an all together different dimension to my experience here. I’ve never had the experience of staying with a host family in another country, and I must say I am really enjoying it. My host family speaks very little English, but thankfully the father (Abdu) and my host brother (Brahim) speak FusHa (Modern Standard Arabic) – were it not for that, I’m not sure what I would do! It has been a challenge to communicate without being able to rely on English, but this is actually a great blessing because I am forced to communicate in Arabic all the time when I’m at home with them. I will say, however, that my threshold and capacity for how much I’m able to absorb and tolerate ebbs and flows each day. It is quite exhausting to be immersed in another language when you are just a beginner. And, by the way, learning Arabic is no easy feat! What is most challenging for me is the energy I must expend in trying to understand what people are saying, which is an on-going daily experience, every waking minute!

Yet there is a bright side – I have been in Morocco for just over a week and I am already a much more confident Arabic speaker. I am sure this program will do wonders for my ability to communicate. Prior to coming here, I was very reluctant and often afraid of trying to speak Arabic. During the last month or so of my Arabic class during spring semester at UA I reluctantly forced myself to speak a bit more in class in anticipation of studying Arabic in the MENA region. I’m happy to report that my fear of speaking has dissipated dramatically – there’s simply no way to get around it here. It’s speak, or sink!

My host sister Najwa (left)

 

I’ll wrap this up with a bit of reflection on the experience of cultural immersion. As an American, I am accustomed to living a life of comfort. Although I am a student and thus live a relatively frugal lifestyle in the U.S., the standard of living in the U.S. is extremely high in comparison to other parts of the world. I am reminded, through being here, to be grateful for what I have, and to be more conscious of how much I consume. For example, in the U.S. it would not be unusual for me to take a 20-30 minute shower each day. However, here I take no more than a 5 minute shower every morning, and the water is always cold. My fellow classmates and I have exchanged stories about adapting to life in Morocco – many of us are living outside of our normal daily routines and some of the students must bathe with only a bucket of water, and some of them do not have a western-style sit down toilet in their homes. But these are wonderful and humbling experiences. It is good to be reminded of what there is to be thankful for, and it is good to be reminded that there are many people living with so much less than what we have. As an American, I feel a responsibility to consume less when I return to the U.S. More to come later…


Summer in Fez, Morocco

I think I have finally recovered from the insane semester and am ready to blog again! I’ve spent two lovely weeks in Seattle visiting friends and family and now I am preparing for a great summer adventure. I was fortunate to receive an amazing scholarship that will allow me to undertake a two-month long intensive Arabic program this summer in Fez, Morocco. I was afforded this opportunity through the Critical Languages Scholarship Program, which is administered by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, and is a program of the United States Department of State.  I consider myself very fortunate because Congress is beginning to cut funding for programs like this bit by bit. But for now, provided the escalating situation in Morocco doesn’t escalate too much over the next few months, I will reap the benefit of a brilliant opportunity. I hope to return from Morocco with a much better grasp of the Arabic language, and the ability to express more complex ideas than my current, and very basic level, allows. I will do my best to post updates and pictures here regularly throughout my trip. And, being the good little journalist in training that I am, I am traveling to Morocco fully equipped to do some journalistic multimedia work while there. So stay tuned for more!


Will Climate Change Impact Nuclear Energy in the Southwest?

My latest blurb for Institute of the Environment on how climate change could impact nuclear energy production in the Southwest.

http://www.southwestclimatechange.org/blog/11151


Review of “The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence & Coexistence”

The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence and Coexistence By Shaul Mishal & Avraham Sela (2000)

Introduction

Mishal and Sela’s book chronicles and scrutinizes the roots of Hamas, its emergence onto the Palestinian political scene during the first Intifada – including its political struggles with the PLO and PA after the signing of the Declaration of Principles during Oslo, and its record since its establishment. The authors begin the book by noting that Hamas is primarily identified as a murderous terror organization associated with Islamic fundamentalism and suicide bombings – an organization that is unshakably fundamentalist and monolithic with a fanatic vision.

Yet contrary to the prevailing image, the authors’ main argument is that Hamas is essentially a social movement, and that it is much more flexible and willing to adapt to prevailing political realities than it is given credit for. The authors place Hamas within the context of other Islamic movements, asserting that, “violence has been relatively marginal in the conduct of mainstream Islamic movements in the Arab world, embodied primarily by the Muslim Brotherhood whose activities and interests have focused on religious guidance and education, communal services, and, since the early 1980s, increasingly on political participation.”

Historical Background

In fact, Hamas evolved from the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamic political activity emerged in the late 1920s in Mandate Palestine with the young Muslim Men’s Association. The Muslim Brotherhood then came onto the Palestinian scene in 1945; by 1947 there were 38 branches with more than 10,000 members. In 1973 the Muslim Brotherhood was institutionalized with the foundation of the Islamic Center in Gaza. The Muslim Brothers in Palestine generally refrained from violence, like their predecessors, and focused on social, religious and cultural activities instead. Because of this, Israel generally tolerated them, and continued to do so even through the first year and a half of the first Intifada, before they started to crack down on the organization.

Hamas eventually emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987 within the context of the first Intifada. The Muslim Brotherhood (the Mujamma’) had mostly refrained from violence until then, but felt compelled to adopt “an actively combatant posture” that was more in line with the mood of the Palestinian population at the time.  Hamas split off from the Mujamma’ as a separate body in order to protect the latter from Israeli reprisals. Thus, the authors argue that Hamas adopted jihad as a strategy because of the Intifada. The authors assert that Hamas rewrote its pre-Intifada history and framed itself as a jihadist nationalist movement that had merely been preparing for the Islamic nationalist armed struggle, to refute the claims that it had been dragged unwillingly into the Intifada, which the authors suggest was actually the case. Throughout the book, the authors argue that violence is a strategy for Hamas and not a goal, presumably to illustrate that its violence can be abandoned.

Hamas

Outwardly and publically Hamas’ s agenda, embodied in its charter, includes liberating Palestine through a holy war against Israel, establishing an Islamic state on its soil, and reforming society in the spirit of true Islam. Outwardly, Hamas also refused to recognize the PLO and later the PA as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Yet privately, Hamas was willing to solve its ideological and political dilemmas, including the risk of direct confrontation with the PLO/PA and Israel, through flexibility and adaptability.

The authors argue that, “A comparison of Hamas’s declared principles with its concrete actions shows that it has been in Hamas’s interest to become politically active, to ensure its survival, and not to exclude the possibility of a settlement – albeit temporary – through nonviolent means.” Thus the organization has invested it’s “political imagination… and its organization energies” toward balancing “constantly growing conflicting considerations, competing demands, and contradictory needs.”

To support their argument that Hamas is a pragmatic organization willing to adapt to realities on the ground, the authors include a lengthy secret document that was circulated among Hamas’s rank and file in 1992 as a response to the Madrid talks in 1991 and the burgeoning peace process. The document reflects the understanding on the part of Hamas that it could not preclude the possibility of “an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian settlement.” The document was written with a nonideological and non-Islamic tone, and without the demonization of Israel or Jews, who the authors note are “usually referred to as descendants of Satan, monkeys and pigs” in Hamas propaganda. The document laid out the possible political scenarios that could emerge from the peace process and possible elections, as well as the various responses Hamas could take, including the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Conclusion

The authors argue that adaptability, not fanaticism, is the cornerstone of how Hamas conducts itself politically. Hamas managed its conflicting and contradictory commitments to a renewed Islamic Palestinian nationalism, the fostering of a new Islamic social order, and the liberation of Palestine through holy war on the one hand, and communal interests on the other with controlled violence against Israel, negotiated coexistence with the PLO and PA, and calculated participation in PA administration. The authors assert that it’s extremist tendencies are balanced by its recognition of political constraints and the political realities on the ground by noting that Hamas did not eliminate the possibility of joining the new, emerging Palestinian political order. Indeed, in 2006 Hamas did attempt to join it.

Assessment

The book is not a polemic, nor is it apologetic toward Hamas – it does not shy away from what the authors call the “horrific” impact of the suicide bombings. Yet it is a dispassionate attempt to provide a thorough and realistic revisionist understanding of the organization – where it came from, what its policies have been, and placing those policies within the context of the political realities from which they emerged. It’s informative, if slightly repetitive at times, but well worth the read if you seek a deeper understanding of Hamas.


Dr. Cornel West Comes to UA

Photo by John de Dios

Check out the recap of Dr. Cornel West’s recent talk at University of Arizona, “Borders to Democracy,” that I wrote for the Tucson Weekly. Thanks to John de Dios for asking me to write it – I was thrilled at the opportunity given that Dr. West is someone whom I greatly admire.