I believe that it is not because we are so different that human cultures and civilizations clash, it is because we are so similar. The search for power, the delusion of superiority, and the shadow of ignorance confuses and masks our similarities, making them appear as differences.
I came to this realization while studying for a year in Morocco on a Fulbright Scholarship. I started my year in Rabat thinking I was going to study “them,” that it would be my responsibility to describe some aspect of “Moroccan culture” to Americans back home. I consulted esteemed Moroccan scholars, read in the royal libraries, and learned some of the more difficult pronunciations of the Moroccan Arabic dialect. My research focused on the idea of the individual in Islam and in Moroccan culture.
What I soon discovered, however, was that in my constant search for differences, in my sometimes frustrated culture shock, in my overwhelmed sense of wonder at the brilliance and diversity of Moroccan culture, in my search for finite and intriguing distinctions between me and them, distinctions between American and Moroccan culture, I was ignoring the vast, profound and fundamental similarities between myself and my Moroccan friends and their families. In the pursuit of academic distinctions I was ignoring the similarities between my culture and history, and their culture and history, the similarities between them and me. Moroccans were asking the same fundamental questions, pursuing the same fundamental dreams as Americans. What is God and how do I communicate with him? Why is there so much suffering and pain? And most importantly, how do I find love and happiness in this world?
As I stayed longer in Morocco, even some of the superficial differences I first observed actually seemed to be more similar to my previous experiences that I thought. The Eid al Adha, the yearly Muslim thanksgiving feast when a ram is sacrificed, is very similar to the American thanksgiving. My friend Nabil’s mom and her friends seemed to gossip and laugh up a storm at least as much as my own. Also, just like America, food cooked at home by my friend’s Moroccan UM (Arabic for Mother) always tasted better than food made in the madina. During Muslim Sufi mystical religious services the swaying and the chanting of the name of God reminded me of the sublime communion of a classic Anglican hymn sang in our church at home or the group-felt spiritual joy of the Christian evangelicals in my high school. Like me, my twenty something Moroccan friends are primarily worried at this stage in finding a partner, in figuring out our role, our job, our title, even our salary – even if we’ve been told by both our religious and ethical cultures that this is not the key to happiness.
Morocco helped me to believe in belief. My experience in Morocco helped me to believe that behind the rhetoric of war, conflict and difference, behind the distinctions of doctrine, scripture and ritual, there is an inherent, universal truth. It made me come to the belief that it is only by focusing on this universal truth, by focusing more on similarities than on differences that this incredibly brief experiment called human civilization might survive its own self-inflicted wounds.
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