Photographs by Reelika Ramot
When I decided to drop out of college for a semester to read books, I wanted to be different than my friends, to be changed, to be extraordinary, and for some reason, I thought the only way to do this was to abandon society as much as possible and live in a shack in the woods of West Virginia. It was a time to come of age, and I knew it, and I thought I could accelerate the long process of obtaining self-knowledge by engaging in some extreme living. Was all this born out of an acute self-understanding or a sincere utopian impulse à la Thoreau? Was I a sensitive soul with a mission to study nature in an age of impending ecological disaster, or most likely, was this merely a plot to piss off my parents?
The plan was to join my friend Cody and build shacks on land, privately owned by a mutual friend, near our hometown of Wheeling, a town off I-70, in what we call the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Cody and I were highly motivated learners, but we had not adjusted well to college life. We had become disillusioned and disappointed with our schools and all the vapid social posturing required to excel. We hated the bureaucratic pressures that college required of students, and we wanted a more “authentic” educational environment. We were convinced that the schools we had invested our time and money were not places of higher education, so much as places of distraction -- training centers for a bureaucratic life, which in many ways they were of course, and we understood at some level that a reductionism calling for a simpler way was what we needed. This was a worldview calling us to action. It probably didn't help that we were very interested in philosophy.
When peers of ours were getting summer internships, seizing opportunities, and showing unbridled excitement to enter the adult world, Cody and I chose to reject that world and its conformist pressures. We were going to embrace our alienation and retreat to the woods, to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge. In the woods, we enthusiastically envisioned living off the land, reading and studying all day, and destroying our reliance on banal comforts like television and mattresses. Like many aspiring intellectuals, we were impressed with ourselves, convinced of our own exceptionalism. We thought that because we were interested in books and grew up in West Virginia, where most people didn't seem to be interested in books, we were somehow destined to be geniuses. We were reading a lot of Ayn Rand at the time.
After spending five minutes with Cody, almost anyone would be convinced of his intellectual talent. As a precocious twenty-year-old, he could engage in stimulating conversations about literature, philosophy, mathematics, psychology, or religion, at the same time he might play you his intricate electronic music, with layer upon layer of unrecognizable samples, challenging melodies, and cryptic lyrics. Cody was the kind of guy who could be a leader of men if he wasn't so suspicious of leadership itself. Born with the body of an offensive lineman, he ended up being an offensive lineman for a bit in college, even though I know for the most part, he hated it. Often seen wearing oversized shorts and hiking boots, Cody was the friend who custom built your PC in 1999, talked about the superiority of Linux, loved Neal Stephenson, and let you know about conspiracy theories before you even knew conspiracy theories existed. He liked the Pogues, They Might Be Giants, and J.R.R. Tolkien. He introduced me to David Foster Wallace and Aphex Twin, and I remember one time he explained the Illuminati to me while smoking a pipe. Before we moved to the woods he wrote me an email that expressed his unbridled enthusiasm to drop out of society, a pep talk for our adventure, and at the time, it was what ultimately convinced me to join him.
Ben, You and I are self-actualized individuals, and our search for transcendent experience has naturally led us to the one place where it can still be found: nature. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not some kind of pseudo-spiritual Geia worshipper. I don't stare into crystals and light rings of candles when the moon is in the eighth house (hehee). I do think that humans were, and still are animals in many ways. We are slaves to our instinct, and modern life is suited in NO WAY to be an outlet for our instinctual motives. Think about it: traditionally, men are the breadwinners, the hunters, the survivalists. But as life has become more comfortable, as the act of breadwinning has diverged from a physical, manly act, to spending eight hours a day sitting on one's ass in a cubicle, man has become lost. Our biology tells us to live life as if there were no tomorrow, to hunt, to kill, to build and to destroy, but the demands of modern life are diametrically opposed! We are taught to conform, to be accommodating, to kiss ass and to be polite. To be good, law abiding citizens (heaven help us, NO!), and thus we will win bread. Thus we will have a suburban home, three cars in a three car garage, and procreate 2.8 children. Thus we will have a safe and happy retirement. Thus we will LIVE COMFORTABLY. It is no wonder our society is as fucked up as it is! Where, pray tell, are we to appease our biological motivations? Nothing good has ever come of comfortable living. Comfort breeds complacency. Only from discomfort is creativity born. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. Can you ever begin to fathom the sheer, unadulterated NECESSITY that a life in the woods will bring? The learning curve will be astronomical! We won't need to spend five years in college traipsing between majors, attempting to “find ourselves.” Ourselves will FIND US.
So in the late summer of 2000, I took my gear to West Virginia to join Cody who already had begun building a shack on the land. Our plan was to stay for the rest of the year at least. We were given permission to build dwellings for ourselves if we respected the land and didn't throw parties while the owners were away. This wouldn't be a problem because, if given the time and space, we would be too focused on the experiment and what we might accomplish. It is probably not surprising, but we were extraordinarily single, so there would be no worry of excessive social activity or any activity involving other people anyway.
We chose a plot of land in a small wooded valley near a family farm. There was a natural spring on the top of the hill near a barn where we could collect drinking water. Our camp was just a short hike downhill. When I arrived at the property sometime during August, Cody had already been there for at least a month. He had turned me on to Tom Brown's Wilderness Survival guides, and we would ultimately get our shack building ideas from these books.
On that first day, I could make out the skeleton of a circular structure from cut saplings, a kind of wigwam with a teepee in the middle. At the base of the teepee was a fire pit, surrounded by a ring of rocks. On the top of Cody’s shack was a translucent plastic that served as the roof, cut in the center so the teepee could poke through and allow smoke to escape. His original idea was to build mud walls, but he never got the right consistency of mud and straw, so there was enough trial and error to lead him to fit store bought plywood for the walls. The result was a wigwam like structure of more than twelve feet across.
As purists, we originally wanted to build our shacks with no nails or other store bought materials. We thought we could become as equally skilled as self-sufficient people of the 17th century or something by will alone. Cody showed me how to lash saplings together with jute twine. This proved to be amazingly effective. But of course, there were tools on the ground all around his shack: saws, hatchets, hammers, shovels. He would later equip his shack with bookshelves and an innovative pulley system that allowed him to lie on his bed, which was made from massive amounts of plastic bags, and pull a rope to open the door outward. Perhaps most impressively, behind his shack there was painter's plastic suspended by intricately placed jute twine tied to tree trunks that trailed up the hill in a kind of labyrinthine zig zag. Cody explained to me that he grew tired of hiking all the way up the hill to collect water, so he decided to build an aqueduct with the plastic. He showed me that if you dipped the plastic in the water at the top, it would drip in a bin right next to his shack. Cody, inspirational genius and college dropout, was experimenting with Roman technology just to confront his own laziness.
Of course, people would ask us “What are you guys doing this for?” If you asked that question you didn't get it, you didn't understand how important it was to reject society, how rigged it all was, how your choices were prefabricated. Maybe one of the reasons Cody and I got along so well was because we were both focused on process rather than results. We were trying to live better in the quotidian existence, to live more in the present.
I searched for a place to build a shack for myself. Nearby, I found a spot that would be dry about three hundred yards up the hill from Cody. I found three trees that were close together, almost in a perfect right triangle. I dug a few holes to make the fourth corner, and this is where my door would be made with simple hinges. I lashed cross beams, followed Cody’s lead with the plastic roof and the plywood, but I put in a single center pole to support the roof. The result was a rectangular structure, more bourgeois, with a fireplace on the outside rather than in the center. This was the most obvious difference from Cody’s design, which allowed for the fire to exist in the center and the smoke to escape upward. The danger of my design, I soon realized, was that at any moment I risked having my whole structure burst into flames. I also used river rocks to build my fireplace, which is beyond stupid because once the rocks dry, they expand and can explode. Basically, I managed to masterfully build a somewhat haphazard, smaller and shittier dwelling. There was a problem of insulation for both of us. We knew that the coming winter months would be a challenge. The idea was to build debris huts, to pile three or four feet of sticks, leaves, pinecones, dirt, whatever, on all sides of the existing structure to keep the cold out. For whatever reason, I never did this.
Inside my shack, I kept a plastic bin that contained my books. I had a good sleeping bag and read by candle light at night. I read Crime and Punishment, Walden, Atlas Shrugged, Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up To Me, The Autobiography of Miles Davis, The Crying of Lot 49. Books that you would expect a twenty-year-old with a whiff of the counterculture and a youthful excitement in literature to pursue. Along with this I sat down to write for the first time and produced some horrendous writing that I would never reproduce here, as I apparently thought writing meant combining language from nature, jazz, pop philosophy and the Beats together with an obvious narcissism. Compare this to Thoreau who succinctly begins Walden with, “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” In contrast to our hero, Henry David Thoreau, I wasn't writing seriously or laboring very hard at all.
I think Cody and I sort of forgot the labor part. We settled into a routine that mostly involved reading all day, dinner at night together at Cody’s shelter and conversation by the fire. We loved to build fires. It became a ritual for us, in the morning, at night – try to keep the embers going, boil the hell out of coffee. Mostly we ate canned food and ramen noodles. Although we read about it, neither of us was ready to kill animals and gut them. Cody had a 22-caliber rifle that I never saw him use. We had it to protect us from black bears, which I never saw. We would sit around and talk about Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, the Pre-Socratics, whatever we learned in our 100 level college courses. The amount of obligations was fantastically lower. We didn't have to worry about making money, shitty internships, or banal responsibilities. We could sit and read whole books during the day and share our knowledge with each other at night. Often, we would hike up to my parked Subaru and listen to music. Radiohead's Kid A had just come out, and we spoke of it with awe and reverence. I remember Cody playing me Cornilius's Fantasma or the song Alberto Basalam by Aphex Twin, an instrumental track that at one point drops the melody for what sounds like a percussion bridge. Cody would speculate about the meaning of such a song suddenly self-containing itself, as if the song itself fell into a tin box. In many ways, I think we sort of did the same. We became too self-contained, too inward looking, we became comfortable too quickly, wanting to skip the labor and enjoy the benefits of woods living first. We forgot to focus on the essentials like shack insulation, the weening off store bought food staples, and the building of a more efficient water purification system. Occasionally while reading, we would be interrupted by the alarming sounds of gunshots, hunters or locals reminding us that we were not alone.
Perhaps this adventure was the result of our early education. Cody and I were both raised in religious families, and although I can't speak for him and his motivations, I know in our early college years we found philosophy and we found Nietzsche. Never underestimate the power of Nietzsche to influence an impressionable twenty-year-old. Reading Nietzsche for the first time not only seems dangerous and cool, the beginning perhaps of a predictable interest in existentialism, but it is simply intoxicating to read books, difficult and respectable books, that tell you religion is bullshit. A book like Thus Spoke Zarathustra can create a desire to be the overman, or worse can convince the undergraduate that he or she is already the overman. I wouldn't say that I convinced myself of my own extraordinariness, for I suffered like most twenty year olds from a deep lack of self-confidence, but perhaps all of this had something to do with my tendency to embrace philosophy with religious like intensity. If you learn anything from an overzealous religious childhood, you learn to attach yourself to other secular things with the same reverence. I think for me, our project was a result of what can happen when you join the philosophical and the personal. I was a young libertarian who had abandoned society for a life in the woods without ever having worked a real job.
For me, what soon developed in our “authentic” individualist pursuit was the distressing realization of just how unprepared I was to deal with the slow pace of life that the isolated woods environment provided. What is interesting about living in the woods is that time slows down to an extreme degree. Suddenly you confront yourself, and in my case, I didn't think I liked what I found. Unable to deal with solitude, I missed others terribly. The journals I've kept from this time are filled with sad romantic entries expressing unattainable love, bad poems of loneliness, and pathetic ruminations about sex and companionship. Not to risk oversimplification too much, but perhaps my libertarian adventure in the woods of West Virginia was so appealing because I was essentially just sad, and I needed a distracting project. Perhaps I wasn’t celebrating individualism so much as I was trying to separate from my parents, in what is a much more conventional, albeit Freudian way of looking at it. I could claim to not need community because I was so in need of finding community. This was not extraordinary, but predictable. In an absurdist way, I was testing the limits of individualism by taking myself hostage. By the end, I learned that I was lonely, and I didn't want to live in the woods at all.
These emotional distractions, I imagine, corrupted our project, as I constantly found excuses to leave the woods, unprepared to deal with the solitude and constant self-reflection. We often left at any time to get provisions, go to bars or concerts, or visit our families. One weekend we drove to Boston, on another we went to see a Sunny Day Real Estate concert in Pittsburgh. I began to leave every weekend, to drive to Morgantown, the closest university town, to see friends and go to parties, to interact with women, sometimes bringing Cody with me. And so began the realization that my educational experiment of life in the woods was a failure, as it was always destined to be with such idealism. What I needed to learn about was how to talk to people.
I think as I try to make sense of this woods experiment I should consider it as being a possible grappling with my home state's complicated political and cultural climate. West Virginia is often talked about as having some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, but the state often gets an unfair reputation because of the perceived backwardness of the people. It is not always portrayed flatteringly in media representations and is usually depicted in a way that reinforces the worst Appalachia stereotypes. Consider the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites and the 2013 MTV show Buckwild. However, I am proud of the state, and I am proud to have grown up there, and in a weird way, I'm proud that at one time I was a wannabe Thoreau. I am not proud that West Virginia still struggles with racism, perhaps unsurprising to many who live there, but startling is its overtness to non-natives. Add to this the destruction of the natural landscape and commercial infrastructure because of rapacious corporate interests: coal and mountain top removal, natural gas and fracking, not to mention the slow erosion of small businesses because of big box stores – all of it offering limited possibilities for residents, and I'm left with conflicted feelings about the place. Perhaps my woods adventure and its libertarianism, the retreat to isolation, was an expression of dissatisfaction of having to witness a deteriorating society, the consequence of an already extreme capitalism. In retrospect, I didn't need to reject all of society, just the parts of it that were not for me.
In the influential book for educators When Students Have Power, Ira Shor writes of his conservative college students: “They focus on individualism and self-reliance two hegemonic values deeply embedded in a corporate society, but which they experience contradictorily as values to resist “the system”” (103). This line makes sense to me. The whole project was flawed from the start because I didn’t understand, as I now do, that the society that I was so dissatisfied with was already obsessed with individualism. I wanted to go more extreme in this direction, not because I was special and had some keen insight, but because it seemed the only way available to express my own form of individualism in the West Virginia milieu. There was no visible liberal culture to join. I didn’t need to focus on myself, so much as I just needed to listen to different viewpoints.
I would like to talk to Cody about all of this. I remember the day when I left the woods, leaving him there alone. I was going to continue college and study abroad in Spain, and I needed to get going. He was planning to persist, to persevere, and in the frigid cold, with the grey landscape as backdrop, I remember him wishing me well. Since this time, he has decided to sever all contact with his West Virginia friends for some reason. Recently some of those friends and I found a resume online with some of his contact information. He is living in Texas but didn’t return our phone calls. I’m sure if I wanted to, I could get his address somehow, drive to his house and show up on his doorstep, but I want to respect his privacy. While I needed the woods experience to appreciate society, to understand that I needed to become community literate, perhaps the beginning of my political awareness, Cody has stayed true to his original vision by dropping out. I imagine him writing code or something, scoffing at the Hollywood butchering of The Hobbit, writing music, reading Pynchon's latest novel, laughing. Maybe he is still apolitical and a visionary for alternative living. Maybe he is even living in the woods.
Learning to be a gracious guest in someone else’s language
Photograph by Andy Lehto
When I landed in Jordan, settling after Peace Corps training in a tiny agricultural village, Islam was all around me: mosques, hijab, skullcaps, “Allah” and “Muhammad” calligraphy, pictures of the ka’aba in Mecca, Qur’aan atop most every television. I heard Islam everywhere, too, starting with the call to prayer five times a day.
Each morning when I walked into school, I shook each of my colleagues’ hands and they said, “As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa-raHmat allahi wa-barakaat-uhu.—Peace be upon you and the mercy of God and His blessings.” Like everyone else, I was expected to respond in kind, “Wa-‘alaikum as-salaam—and peace be upon you.” Then we would go out to the school playground, where the girls lined up by class for morning assembly, including a recitation of the fatiHah, sometimes called the Muslim Lord’s Prayer.
All day long, whenever a teacher entered a classroom, all the students rose to their feet and said, in unison, “As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa-raHmat allahi wa-barakaat-uhu.” If I failed to offer the proper response, my students would correct me.
Beyond the schoolyard, there was God-language in every personal interaction. The most common responses to “How are you?” was “al-Hamdu lillah—Praise be to God”. It was one of the first things I learned to say in Arabic, but I didn’t use it for months.
I was deeply uncomfortable with the ubiquitous presence of God in all these everyday phrases. In the humanist-centered Unitarian Universalist congregation and Wiccan-leaning religious education program where I came of age, we were actively discouraged by adults from using the Bible, invoking God, or even saying the word church. That was what “those people” did on Sunday, but we attended a fellowship. Rev. Kathy helped me understand that many of those adults had been traumatized by conservative Christianity and Judaism, as I had been bullied by Evangelicals in school.
When my Jordanian neighbors asked ‘How are you?’ in those early months, I answered any other way I could: good, fine, well, excellent…. God had been a blunt instrument wielded against me and people I loved throughout my childhood, and invoking his name with every person I met felt hollow, hypocritical, even painful.
I thought it would be subtle, that I could fly under the radar as an atheist by just avoiding the word ‘god’ in everyday interaction. Instead, it became a joke in the village where I taught. My first-grade students started to greet me every morning with two thumbs up and an overly enthusiastic “Excellent!” After John Kerry lost the election, the neighborhood girls came to me one day, faces knit in concern. “How are you really, Miss Maryah? Because you haven’t answered ‘excellent!’ for weeks.”
Umm Alaa was a tall, plainspoken woman, the girls’ school headmistress, my neighbor, and my self-appointed Jordanian mother. I was welcome in her home any time for a meal or a cup of tea. Sometimes she even summoned me to help her stuff grape leaves or paint the verandah railing. Umm Alaa taught me about my professional responsibilities at school, and about my cultural obligations in the neighborhood.
When she made social visits, she would often bring me along. Sometimes, in these neighbors’ sitting rooms, I felt like little more than Umm Alaa’s exotic prestige symbol on display, even though I knew she meant to be welcoming and inclusive. Yet, awkward as they could be, these visits were important to my integration into the community, and there was always fruit and candy and plenty of strong, sweet black tea.
Usually, there were small children hiding behind doorframes, spying on this curious stranger with short hair and no hijab, who dressed funny, talked funny, and wasn’t even a third cousin. When it got too awkward, or I just couldn’t follow the adult conversation in Arabic, I could use the universal language of peek-a-boo and big smiles to make the little ones laugh.
One afternoon, Umm Alaa brought me along to visit her father-in-law’s wet nurse, half a dozen houses down the street. I had met her once before, but didn’t remember her name, so I called her Hajjah—pilgrim. Whether or not she had actually made the pilgrimage to holy Mecca in the pilgrim month of Dhuu al-Hajj, the title was also a sign of respect for a woman old enough to be a grandmother.
Umm Alaa introduced us, and the Hajjah took my hand in her wrinkled, papery dry fingers. “It’s an honor to meet you, Miss Maryah. How are you?” she asked.
It was customary to ask this question half a dozen ways of one’s guest. I had them all and almost as many answers ready on the tip of my tongue. “Well, thank you. And how are you?” I asked.
“Good, al-Hamdu li-llah. What’s new?”
“I’m great, thank you. What’s new with you, Hajjah?”
“I’m well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s it going?”
“It’s going, it’s going,” I said. “And you? How’s it going?”
“It’s going, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s your health?” she asked.
“Excellent, thank you. And yours?”
Gently shaking her head, she said, “Al-Hamdu li-llah at-t’aalah.” Praise God on high. She was an old woman, her health inevitably less than ‘good’ and more at the mercy of God than mine.
“How’s your family?” I asked, ready to move on to the next stage of ritual salutations.
“They’re well, al-Hamdu li-llah. And how are you?” she asked again.
“I’m great. And how are you?”
“Al-Hamdu li-llah, I’m well. How are things, Miss Maryah?”
The ritual seemed to be regressing, beginning to repeat, and I was running out of ways to say, “I’m good, and y—?”
Suddenly, the Hajjah grabbed my forearm, shaking it up and down and squeezing with surprising strength until I thought I might bruise. Leaning her face close to mine, she demanded, “Guli al-Hamdu li-llah! Guli al-Hamdu li-llah!” Say, Praise God!
Haltingly, I said, “Al-Hamdu li-llah?”
Smiling sweetly, the Hajjah patted me on the cheek. “Al-Hamdu li-llah at-t’aalah wa-shukr.” Praise God on high and thanks. She let me go, moving on to take Umm Alaa’s hand. “How are you?”
“I’m well, al-Hamdu li-llah. And how are you?”
“Good, al-Hamdu li-llah. How’s it going with you?”
“It’s going, al-Hamdu li-llah. And you? How’s it going, ya Hajjah?”
“Fine, al-Hamdu li-llah, it’s going. And how’s your health?”
“Al-Hamdu li-llah. How is your husband my nephew?”
“He’s well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How are your sons?”
“They’re well, al-Hamdu li-llah. How are your children, Umm Alaa? Please, have a seat. Tell me about your daughter’s tawjihi school leaving exams.”
Having finally learned my lesson about thanking God, I was served tea but effectively ignored.
So I learned to praise God first. How am I? Al-Hamdu li-llah, good; al-Hamdu li-llah, well; al-Hamdu li-llah, excellent, two thumbs up.
Years later, when I had returned to live in the capital city Amman, a Jordanian acquaintance casually referred to me as Muslim.
“Oh, no,” I said, shaking my head. I have great respect for Islam, but I don’t believe its pillars of faith. “I’m not a Muslim. I sometimes call myself a Christian here in Jordan, for convenience, but in fact I’m a confirmed atheist.”
“But you say al-Hamdu li-llah so easily. You say in shaa’ allah with such sincerity.” God willing. Cab drivers say it when you tell them your destination, and receptionists when you make an appointment, and young men pinning everything on a visa application, and fathers trying to silence children begging for a toy or an ice cream.
“Oh, well,” I explained to my new friend, “in my village, if I didn’t say al-Hamdu li-llah fast enough, some Hajjah would grab my arm and shout in my face, ‘Guli al-Hamdu li-llah! Guli al-Hamdu li-llah!’ until I did. So I learned to say it first, because it was easier that way.”
Yet, although I said these phrases often and fluently, I did not say them easily. I struggled every day with the line between expectation and intention. The Hajjaat expected me to say these things, just as they expected their grandchildren to pray and their sons to go to Mecca. Belief, it seemed to suggest, was either irrelevant or would follow naturally from practice.
Most often, I uneasily chose the path of least resistance.
I struggled for the better part of a year. I found myself returning for answers to a story from my childhood. In the Seventies, my mother’s family hosted an exchange student from Afghanistan named Fakhria. She went to high school with my mother and, together with their class, they rose each morning and said the Pledge of Allegiance. One day, my mother asked Fakria if she didn’t struggle with the ‘under God’ part.
“Oh, no,” she said, “I just translate it in my head to something that agrees with my faith.”
It was not that simple for me. For months, I silently contorted myself into theological and linguistic knots. If li-llah comes from the word ilha—divinity, then I wasn’t really saying ‘Praise God’ but ‘Praise that divine consciousness I may or may not believe in.’ If I said ya’atiik al-‘afiah and left off the subject allah, then that wellness might have been given from anywhere, not necessarily from God. Yet, all of this theological contortion felt dishonest, deceptive.
I do not wear hijab, except in a mosque, because I am not Muslim. I do not ever say the words of the shahadah, that beautiful Arabic phrase that translates to ‘There is no god but God,’ even when I am teaching about Islam. To do so is not just to speak words, but to become Muslim. I don’t take even the words and trappings of Islam lightly, because my Unitarian Universalist faith teaches me that these traditions are sacred, even if they are not my own.
To say al-Hamdu li-llah and in shaa’ allah without intention felt like violating my own values.
Then there was ‘thank you.’
It was no struggle to say. In fact, it was one of the first words--shukran—that we were taught, and I employed it liberally. Then one day, Umm Alaa’s seventh-grade nieces Aaliya and Aiat asked me, “How come you say shukran so much?”
“It’s polite. My mother raised me to always thank people when they do something nice to me or give me something.”
“But you say it a lot. Like, a lot! And you say, ‘No, thank you.’ Why, when no one has actually done anything for you? What are you thanking them for?”
I hadn’t ever thought about it. “I guess I’m thanking you for the offer, for thinking of me,” I said. ‘No, thank you’ was just an automatic polite response that my mother had always insisted on, just as the Hajjah demanded that I praise God.
This conversation niggled at my consciousness for weeks. I began to realize that, as much as I said it myself, I never heard the word shukran from others. No one ever thanked me. And I had always known that Peace Corps, more often than not, was thankless work, but it disappointed and frustrated me all the same.
Once I had started thinking about how ‘thank you’ was and wasn’t used in my community, I started to notice something else that began to grate on my nerves, and eventually I discovered a connection between them.
The women and girls I knew in Faiha’ were terrified of being alone. So was everyone they knew. To them it was clearly human nature, and obviously I must be afraid of solitude too. Especially in my first few months there, I heard this often. “Aren’t you afraid? Don’t you worry that something might happen to you?”
Consequently, I rarely got to be alone. Sometimes it was Aaliya and Aiat with their English homework or younger kids asking endless questions about my family photos. Sometimes it was their second cousins down the road, demanding that I do their homework for them or give them something of mine that they desperately wanted. An A-level student like Umm Alaa’s eldest daughter might chase out the younger ones so I could check her work on a practice test for the tawjihi school-leaving exam. Whenever I was home, there were children with me.
After a while I discovered that the constant invasion of my space had been encouraged by Umm Alaa’s sister, my neighbor on the other side. She would look out of her window and into mine, then snag her daughter or niece and say, “Ya Haram! Poor Maryah! She’s all alone in her house. She must be terrified! You’d better go over there and keep her company.”
“Just try to imagine,” I said one day to her older daughter Alya, “living all day, every day in English. Speaking it, hearing it, trying to understand, to learn it. Imagine you’re in America and no one speaks Arabic and you need English to eat, take the bus, at school, at home. All the time. Try to imagine.”
I watched Alya try to picture a life of English. She didn’t reply, but her eyes spoke volumes.
“That’s how I feel. I love you all, and I love your company, and I love Arabic and want to learn it and live it. But at the end of the day, I need two hours to myself, without people, without Arabic, just me.” To my surprise, it worked. They still didn’t understand, but they let me have my solitude if I wanted it, and it felt good to carve out that time for myself.
It also reminded me that Islam is a tribal desert religion, like Judaism, and the Bedouin are a communal culture. To lose your tribe and be alone in the desert is to be dead, and so maintaining equilibrium within the tribe—be it the Prophet’s tribe of the Quraish or the global tribe of Muslims, the ummah—becomes central to Islamic law and daily practice. Their fears and their communal life was their inheritance from desert forebears.
Maintaining societal equilibrium means caring for the least of these, but it also means humility in one’s generosity. A Muslim does good works, not for thanks or praise, but to support and uplift the community. Indeed, to receive praise might make a person too proud and draw the attention of the evil eye. Whenever I said, “What a beautiful baby!” the mother would quickly say, “Ma shaa’ allah—What God hath wrought,” deflecting attention from herself and her child towards God the Creator.
It was a Muslim fellow volunteer who helped me see that the neighbors showed their appreciation for me every day. They invited me in for tea, delivered meals to my door, took me with them to weddings and on outings … the girls even cleaned my house sometimes. When I did things for their mothers, they said, al-Hamdu lillah—praise God, and allah ya’atiik al-‘afiah—God give you wellness, but they did not say shukran. Not to each other, not to me. I might be blessed in the next world for the things I did in the Peace Corps, but my neighbors left that decision up to God.
Over time, I began to look past the religious overtones and appreciate the beauty in the words they did use. When food was served, yislamu eedayk—bless your hands, and before they ate, bismillah—in the name of God, and at the end of a meal, baarak allah—God’s blessings.
I remember clearly the day I learned the magic words to ward off a stomachache.
One of our colleagues at school had given birth the month before. One day after school, a dozen other teachers and I piled into a couple vans and went down the big hill to the next town where most of my colleagues lived, including the new mother.
Her sisters-in-law had been cooking all morning, and laid out a mansaf feast for us. This national dish of Jordan is goat or mutton stewed in a sharp yogurt sauce, served over rice and topped with roast pine nuts and fresh chopped parsley. Men typically form the mansaf into little balls they ate with their hands, though most of the women I knew used spoons. In either case, it is typically eaten from one large platter, but as was often the case for me as the American guest, I was given my own plate piled high with rice and the choicest lamb.
My mother always taught me to clean my plate, so that’s what I did. To my hostess, though, this meant that I was obviously still hungry. She gestured peremptorily to the teacher sitting next to me. “Give Maryah more mansaf. That piece of lamb there is a good one.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s delicious, but I’ve had enough. Sha’baan—I’m full. Really!”
They ignored me. “Kuli! Kuli!—Eat! Eat!” urged the teacher next to me like a Jewish grandmother, while piling on more food.
I tried to keep eating. My stomach was starting to complain under the weight of all that heavy food, but my mother’s lessons in manners were too ingrained to leave food on my plate.
As I slowly forced down more small mouthfuls, I watched the other teachers. Our hostess and her sisters weren’t shouting ‘Kuli! Kuli!’ at anyone else. When they were finished, there was usually a token protest, but one by one each woman did the same thing.
When I thought I might actually puke, though there was still a massive pile of rice drenched in yoghurt sauce on my plate, I leaned back on my cushions and laid my hand over my heart. “Da’iman, in shaa’ allah, ya sid!” I declared.
My hostess beamed. “In shaa’ allah, ya’tiik al-afiah—God willing, may He bring you wellness.”
I had finally learned the magic words, though it took me several more months to interpret their meaning: da’iman, in shaa’ allah—may there always be plenty, God willing. It was as though, only by invoking God could I make myself heard by my friends in the village.
The Arabic word islam means ‘submission’ and from the same linguistic root comes salaam, peace—in Hebrew, shalom. By submitting to God, you find peace. In the words of my Catholic best friend’s mother, “Offer it up.” Relinquish your worries and your uncertain future to God’s care, and find comfort in knowing, que sera, sera—what will be, will be. Kul shi’ maktoob—all things are written. These thoughts don’t give me peace or comfort, but they are fundamental across many faiths, assuaging the fear and misery of billions.
Ultimately, I decided that I was fixated on the wrong part of my personal theology. I was so focused on rejecting dogma that I forgot my belief in religious inclusivity. I want my Unitarian Universalist faith to be a movement that embraces Jews and Sufis, Buddhists and yogis, Baptists and Quakers, theists and atheists.
This was their language, this was their culture, and I was a guest in it. This was the language that they used and expected. It was how they expressed their gratitude, and I learned to do the same with automatic ease.
The Hajjaat might be disappointed that belief did not follow naturally from practice for me, but they let me in on a rich tapestry of little rituals I still treasure. I became so accustomed to these phrases that, back at home in the States, sometimes I still yearn for them: SaHa to bless a cough, na’eeman to bless a haircut, al-Hamdu li-llah in relief, in shaa’ allah in hope, yislamu eedayk for a beautiful plate of food, da’iman to bless a feast.
Allah ya’atiikum al-‘afiah, ya Hajjaat--may God give you blessings, pilgrim grandmothers.
An expat’s perspective
Remember when you were a kid and your parents would go to parties that you weren’t invited to?
When I was growing up, the couple who lived next door used to throw a yearly party which they called “A Goddess Party”. The tall windows in the room I shared with my sister looked out onto our neighbors’ beautifully designed backyard (they made their living as landscape architects and could transform even a city yard into a small, skinny paradise). Through the thin glass, we usually saw and heard everything that went on there, even with the window shut. So once a year in the summertime, my sister and I would lie awake in our bunkbeds late into the night, listening to the raucous screams and laughter of what seemed like hundreds of women next door, while watching their outlines lit up by lanterns and candles wavering against the closed window screen. Then I’d hear the click of the front door and know that our mother had ducked out to join them.
I’d always wonder indignantly to the ceiling, why couldn’t we come with? We always travelled as a unit in those days, a mother and her two daughters, sharing every adventure. And while the party raged late into the night, I couldn’t help imagining what was happening there and dreaming myself into the backyard, a small child dancing with the tall, lovely ladies.
The feelings I have about my country right now are surprisingly similar to what I felt about the Goddess Party. Just like I had been for the party, I’ve been separated from the group yet I am still trying to get a gist of what’s happening through a closed window. I can hear what’s taking place inside, but I am not a part of it. This is how I feel about the United States, my old – and currently enraged – native soil. I chose to move to another country, and whilst I am still an American this choice, in this political climate, has left me feeling estranged, disoriented, and helpless.
Right now, the American society is reeling, fueled by anger, fear, and defiance. And while those are the feelings which stir my fingers to write, my current surroundings are much different.
For the last six months, I have been teaching English in Poland. While living in the small city of Gliwice in the south, I’ve come to know the country relatively well. Through learning the bus routes to the companies where I teach, celebrating the customs and holidays (especially Tłusty Czwartek, or Fat Thursday, on which we got to eat doughnuts all day), and attempting to learn the language, the country has become a part of me. But it’s a two-way street and I, too, am becoming a part of Poland, from all the money I spend at Żabka -the Polish equivalent of 7/11, to my friends, students, and boyfriend.
So which country am I a part of? I am of my old society but I am not in that society. Can I still call myself an American if I am barely taking part in the heated movement now sweeping the country? Or I am just a lonely individual who has been left out? The same as anyone who has been refused admission into a closed party, I can’t help looking back as I walk away, wondering what I am missing.
Last year, I flew out of O’Hare airport in Chicago, headed west as I had done so many times before. But in previous years, I had always left my country in a relatively stable position—as much as any country can be—and returned to find it the same as when I had left. But after my upcoming return in May 2017, I don’t know what I will find. When I think about going back to Chicago, I no longer feel the quiet sense of comfort that used to flood over me. Now I feel afraid.
After a brief stint in Ireland, I flew to Poland to begin my new job as an English teacher in the small Silesian town of Gliwice. I immersed myself in the country, in its long, divided history, old-fashioned religious customs and with its current state of affairs. I grew more accustomed to hearing complaints about the Polish government from my students than I was about my own.
But the U.S. election season was growing so heated that even my Polish friends were discussing it. When asked, I would give my opinion along with assurances of my absentee vote and then move onto easier, more appealing conversation topics that did not turn my blood blue in fear.
The talk would then turn to a discussion of the current Polish government which is run by a party that many of my friends and students have compared to the American conservatives and a prime minister who they have compared to Trump. But though they complain about their government to no end, it still seems to me that I am living in a functional country with resources, relatively satisfied people, and a rising economy.
Of course, Protests did rise up in early October over a contentious abortion bill, proposed by the Polish government, which would have made almost all abortions illegal. Thousands of women reacted by taking to the streets in protest, causing the bill to be shut down. News of the protests reached American newspapers from the New York Times to the Huffington Post and I began to get texts from friends reading about it. For a brief moment, I found myself in the country everyone else was watching. And in the strong, unified action of Polish women, I found hope for my own country and began thinking that we would be all right even if the unthinkable happened and we elected the candidate that I was so opposed to.
Perhaps it was all the episodes I watched of SNL’s cold open or all the sarcastic political commentary that I listened to through NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, but the U.S. election season didn’t seem real. I listened to the news and I watched most of the debates on YouTube. The week before the election, I drew the lines on my ballot and mailed it. Of course I took the situation seriously, but I was living so far away that it still didn’t affect me that much.
My flat mate Angel is another American living abroad. He commented to me that because of our separation from the majority of Americans, we couldn’t see the opposition. We only heard the viewpoints of Europeans and our friends, most of which were similar to our own liberal leanings. He told me that when he went home for Christmas, his Dad had pointed out a neighborhood nearby his home on the East coast and said,
“In this area, everyone loves Trump. There are signs everywhere, make America great again, you know—”. But seeing the evidence of real-life Trump supporters came as a surprise to Angel, who has been living in Poland for almost a year now. “Being here,” Angel continued, “you only know the opinions of a few people. You can’t talk to other people. That’s why we thought everything was okay.” The newspapers we read and the radio stations we listened to, indicated that Trump wouldn’t be elected. However, these were the newspapers and radio stations that spoke to me and people who held similar ideologies.
For all of us, it still wasn’t real. These were only YouTube videos and Buzzfeed fantasies. The whole situation seemed like an elaborate media gag with no real influence on my life. Voting at the poles even in high school gymnasiums and church basements had felt secret, secure, and official. But voting on my living room table a world away only added to this political joke’s surrealism. If I could fill in the document which reflected one of my primary rights as an American citizen in the same place as I drank wine, had parties and watched Netflix over dinner, than I too was lumping my ballot in with the comedy. The site of my vote was almost comical and seemed fitting with everything else that had happened so far in the campaign season: a joke ballot sent in against a joke candidate tailed by a stream of media jokes that stretched for miles.
Then I opened my phone on November 8th at 5:30 am in Poland (10:30pm in Chicago) and I read the polls like I was listening to the worst punchline that had even been offered after an already poor joke. Trump had been elected.
I was thunderstruck but still, it didn’t feel real.
Then the text messages from over the Atlantic began to stream in.
“I feel like I’m in shock.”
“America is divided.”
“I am afraid.”
“It is bad right now, it is sooooo baaaad.”
“I’m literally sick.”
I let the impact of the words of my friends and family members wash over me until something clicked. Then I, too, entered a state of shock and depression like everyone else I knew.
I consider myself to be a cheerful person, In fact, my main compliment from students has been their appreciation of my positivity; sitting in my classes helps lift them up from whatever dark mood work left their spirits in and into the sunny world of Lucy. But on that day, my usually bright demeanor dimmed gray and I had only grimaces and foreboding remarks to offer my students.
Time has flown since then to the present moment, only eleven days after the inauguration. I find myself typing away at the same spot in my Polish flat where I filled in my ballot. Though Trump has only been president for about a week and a half, he is already moving fast. To hold true to his campaign promises, he is beginning to work on building that infamous wall on the Mexican border, dismantling Obama’s affordable healthcare act, and has input immigration legislation that has sent much of the country into an uproar of protests and outrage. Of course this is common knowledge for many people around the world as it affects countries outside of the U.S., but with these new actions, the feeling of being an outsider from my old society has strengthened.
If I was in Chicago right now, the city I was born in and which I am proud to call my home, I would be living in a completely different environment. My friends there have been protesting at the airport and in the streets, they are taking action. The atmosphere is tense and excited, charged with high emotion and urgency. My friend Ryan told me about the protest he had taken part in right after the election.
“We shut down Michigan Ave during rush hour, which was pretty crazy,” he said, which seemed incredible, as Michigan Avenue is an enormous street that runs through downtown, bordered by towering skyscrapers on one side and parks and museums on the other. Even in the dead of night, it is a street that is never empty. Throughout the protest he heard chants of, “Not my president”, “Pussy grabs back”, “Black/gay/trans lives matter” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Trump has got to go”.
In recent days, people have taken to the streets again to protest and are probably shouting similar chants as they shut down giant streets in other big cities across the country. From here it seems to me that we are living in a terrifying and historic time. This is an era that will change our lives, one in which even moderate democrats must be driven to join and fight.
But it is still an era that I feel barely a part of - I am scratching at the window of my neighbors’ party again and I am craning my neck to see in over the well-trimmed bushes. I have never felt more frustrated. I am of Chicago, but I am not in Chicago.
My flat mate Angel echoed this feeling back to me. “I can’t go protest. I can’t go take my signs. I feel helpless and I can’t do anything. It’s like somebody is choking me, like I’m suffocating.”
Despite the turmoil at home, Angel and I still plan to move back once our contracts end. Somehow this frustration is pushing me to act more than I might have at home. Every day I have discussions with my international circle of friends, trying to narrow down the problem as we circle around courses of action. I think about what I can do from here and once I’m home. I follow the news more closely than ever and keep up with my friends who are in New York, Chicago, and other centers of heavy action around the country.
This feeling and sense of urgency leading to plans of direct action contradicts how I ordinarily behave. I’ve always been the compromising center point in my family and circle of friends. While the conflict whirls around me, I do my best to resolve it. I keep my mouth shut about my own opinion, only occasionally opening up to expand on one or two points when I know I can back myself up fully. I attended one of the most liberal colleges in the country where students were prone to direct action and resistance, but I always preferred to learn about resistance rather than taking part in it. I attended a march and a protest, but perhaps due to the writer I am at heart, I joined in partially so that I could understand the experience and people involved rather than becoming one of those people myself.
But now my isolation and inability to act while abroad is pushing me past my comfort zone. Now I want to take action. I need to take action, because I, too, am feeling suffocated by my own silence.
A realization I’ve come to as a frequent traveller and current expat is that as an American, you can never truly leave American society behind. It goes back to the idea that no matter how far you run, you can never escape where you come from. But you especially can’t if you are from a country that produces the pop culture that the rest of the world consumes. That’s why I was able to move to another country in the first place, to teach the language of cultural conquerors, a language that most people find themselves needing in order to survive in our modern, globalized world.
While I feel like I’ve been living in a constant state of anxiety and fear for the last few months, the momentum to go back has been growing. The U.S. needs me more than Poland does and I cannot escape the call from my all-pervasive society.
During our conversation, Angel asked me if I was patriotic. I shuddered as the catchy slogan “Make America Great Again” flashed through my mind.
“No, definitely not,” I answered firmly. But now that I think about it, maybe I’m more patriotic than I’d like to admit.
I have a lot of negative associations tied up with the word. When I hear it, I think of nationalists who want to force their views of America’s superiority onto everyone else. It makes me think of racism and the fear of others. Yet I’m also reminded about the ideals of life, love and the pursuit of happiness, and I remember that these are still American ideals that I want to support and uphold. Standing by these ideals is what makes me patriotic.
Unfortunately, the conflicting meanings of the word “patriotic” reflect the current state of my country. Rather than upholding an ideal of being united by our differences, we are being torn apart by them. And now Trump is capitalizing on our fear of those differences. If we stand divided, then together we will fall and the pillars of our society will tumble before we can realize what is happening.
Yet it is my hope that this is only the beginning of our resistance. If President Trump has accomplishing anything, it’s to ensure that Americans are going to fight back against intolerance and exclusion, even those who were politically inactive before or those who live on distant shores. Together we will stand, together we must stand, as a society, or divided we will fall.