We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
The following is a post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Laura McAdams. Laura has just returned from volunteering in Morocco, working with women in the textile field. To find an amazing volunteer opportunity, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today.
Sitting in this air-conditioned Starbucks in Portland, Oregon, Ain Leuh, Morocco feels a world away. I recently returned from two months working and living with Amazigh (Berber) artisans. I am very happy to be home, yet am also missing the women of the weaving cooperative.
I left Morocco in the middle of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. As a general rule, all Moroccans in Morocco are Muslim, so all of Ain Leuh and every member of the cooperative were celebrating Ramadan. This meant observing a daily fast from dawn until dusk, over 12 hours during the heat of the day without food or water. Most people didn’t even brush their teeth, to prevent any possible foreign substance from being swallowed. I am not Muslim, but I didn’t eat most days. Since I lived with a family, it was just easier to do as they did. More than this, though, Ramadan was a month of eating, visiting, and chatting with family and friends. I missed this social aspect of life so much that as soon as I returned, I spent a week with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins catching up and talking about my experience in Morocco.
Many interesting questions and comments came up during this time, and I was forced to reflect deeper into my experience than I had expected. There are so many stereotypical representations of Muslims and Arabs in American media; I shouldn’t have been surprised by some of what my own family was asking me.
No, the Amazigh women of Middle Atlas Morocco do not travel on camels and sleep in tents. They live in apartments in the wooded mountains, where snow is common. Many have never even seen a camel, although some own a working donkey or two.
No, the women I worked with did not wear burkas, nor was it absolutely forbidden for them to leave the house with their heads covered. In Morocco, wearing the hijab, or headscarf, is a purely personal choice.
No, I did not meet any terrorists or face any anti-American sentiment. Most Moroccans were genuinely curious to hear about my family, how much food cost and what American weddings and funerals were like. They liked to discuss the apparent differences between my country and theirs, but were also aware of many similarities. Mehma, one of my favorite artisans at the cooperative once told me, “we are all the same, really, we all love our families and will do all we can to provide for them and protect them”.
The Moroccans I lived and worked with were neither innocent victims nor evil terrorists. They are a group of friendly, welcoming artisans who work to preserve their Amazigh culture and provide for their families through weaving. I am so thankful for the opportunity to share a summer with them and then be able to share this experience with people back home. I’ve really come to believe that cross-cultural exchange through one-on-one experiences encourages tolerance, the first step toward achieving understanding, and ultimately, peace.
In the fall, I will be attending a graduate studies program in International Educational Development with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa. I hope to use this experience in my studies and in the future in the field as a development professional.
I am still in touch with Khadija Ouchkak, the treasurer of the cooperative and the woman I lived with during my fellowship, and through her, the other women of the cooperative. They are looking forward to seeing pictures of their weavings displayed at the Human Rights Institute at Kean University in New Jersey later this month. They are also hoping to welcome a new Peace Fellow through The Advocacy Project next summer to continue the work of increasing the cooperative’s exposure and their message of Moroccan Amazigh cultural preservation.