Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: September 2009 (page 2 of 3)

Religion is Personal

In a post I wrote recently for Global Voices, I covered the efforts of the Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles, a new Moroccan activist group that recently made headlines for eating in public during Ramadan.  In effect, they broke the law; Article 222 of the Moroccan Penal Code stipulates that a Muslim who openly breaks the fast in public during Ramadan can be punished by one to six months’ imprisonment and a fine.  This is not the first time someone has been arrested – in past years, non-fasters have been arrested and made scapegoats by local police – but it is certainly the first time in recent history that a group has set out to protest the law.

A little legal background is in order – although Morocco is a Muslim country in many senses of the term, its legal system is only partly based in Shari’a, and many laws which would seem to be go unenforced.  For example, it is legal for alcohol to be sold in Morocco, but only to tourists and non-Muslim citizens of the country (e.g. Jews).  Nevertheless, in most cities, it’s quite easy for a Moroccan Muslim to purchase alcohol, except during Ramadan, where a foreign passport is required (and even then, the foreign passport must not be from a known Muslim country; I know of more than one situation where an Egyptian or Syrian friend was refused at the liquor store).

There is, of course, a great portion of Moroccan society that follows the guidelines of Islam closely and neither drinks nor breaks any other rules (whether outlined in the letter of the law or not).  Right off the bat, I’ll say this: they’re not my concern.

What concerns me is this: There is also a great portion of society that drinks, and does other things that are haram, but are condemning the protesters for disrespecting Islam.  This attitude brings to light something I noticed in Morocco: That Ramadan seems to make everyone an expert on Islam, and a great Muslim.  Many of those who might ignore religion throughout the year will at the very least fast (or give the illusion of fasting, even to their own families), often taking it further, lecturing their friends who don’t pray or chastising them for not making it to the mosque.  Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I’ve witnessed this myself numerous times.  In August, I’d be clubbing in Marrakesh with Moroccan friends, drinking and dancing; as soon as Ramadan started, I was the black sheep.

To clarify, I’m not judging people for their level of piety, rather, I’m peeved at their hypocrisy.

Of course, the bigger problem is with the law.  Laws against publicly eating during Ramadan only apply to Morocco’s Muslims, however, there is no official determination on who is Muslim and who is not as, unlike in some countries, Morocco does not denote religion on its passports or identity cards.  As blogger Charlotte says:

In recognition of the fact that not all Moroccans are Muslims, the law officially applies only to those who abide by the tenets of Islam. But the issue is this: how does one determine, exactly, who is Muslim, and who is not? The Moroccan Carte Nationale (National Identity Card, affectionately called “la carte”) does not document a citizen’s religious affiliation, and as far as I know there is no other moment or way in which such affiliation is recorded. In the end, it is simply assumed (and every much expected) that all Moroccans are, in fact, Muslim.* And that is where the problem lies: without official documentation, religious affiliation is ultimately judged by appearance. If you look and behave as a Moroccan, you are expected to abide by Islamic proscriptions…

* According to official statistics, about 99% is, in fact, Muslim. Of course this includes all those whose affiliation with Islam is no more than cultural.

Most of the blog posts and comments I’ve seen from Moroccans and Moroccophiles on this subject support the legal action being taken against the protesters.  The comments on Global Voices, however, tended in the other direction, and tend to be closer to my own position on the matter, which is that religion is a personal matter and not an issue of the state.

One comment to that effect which caught my eye is from Rachid, who says:

I am hoping that people who fast are doing it because they want to honor their faith and no because restuarants are closed and people are not allowed to eat in public.

That is precisely the point.  No matter what Islamists might want, Morocco is, for all intents and purposes, a secular-leaning country.  Whatever the ideal might be (and I don’t believe theocracy is it), Morocco is what it is, and nothing is going to stop the tide of secularism.  And while there are certainly valid arguments against aspects of western influence, to me, this isn’t one of them.

Moreover, the protesters in this case are not, in fact, advocating for everyone to run outside and eat publicly during Ramadan.  To do so would be disrespectful and is something that even most tourists shy away from.  What they are advocating for is in fact a noble cause: an end to the hypocrisy, a change in the law, and a step forward for personal freedoms.



On Travel

I remember a time when the world felt big.  Where, as an angsty nineteen year old, I told a friend over cigarettes and copious amounts of coffee that the better alternative to suicide was to run away, lose yourself in a part of the world that you’d never even imagined.  I remembered that conversation three years later as I sat in a café on Varick Street, awaiting an appointment I’d prepared for judiciously. I interviewed for the Peace Corps and was told I could go to Central Asia.  In the end I declined on account of the demand that I remove my wisdom teeth.  In the end, I’m glad I did what I did.

I spent my late teens and early twenties absorbed in a deep depression.  I know I’m not unique in that.  During a particularly low period, both for my psyche and my weight, I remember sitting, curled up and dressed in black, on the couch of a college counselor, looking out the window at the rapidly turning October leaves and thinking I could run away to Prague.

2650827075_011922df82Strangely, when I finally got there five years later, it just wasn’t the same.  Perhaps the world had changed.  I had definitely changed.  I’d been in Morocco for nearly five months at that point.  I’d figured out the basics of cooking for myself, had navigated the medina to buy a bed and a living room table, and had traveled to Marrakesh and back by myself, twice.  By the time I got to Prague, I was more excited by how western it felt than by its own place in the world.  Mind you, I didn’t miss out entirely.  Thanks to a nasty ATM in Plzen, I had only 200 euros for the whole week, so I checked into the cheapest of hostels and explored the city by tram (the only way to do it in the freezing January cold).  I traced my steps through the first few pages of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, drank beer for breakfast near I.P. Pavlova and memorized the voice on the metro: Ukončete prosím výstup a nástup, dveře se zavírají.52440717_K7kC6-M

My eyes were still wide the next year when I spent Christmas in The Netherlands.  I blushed and laughed discovering my cab driver at the airport was Moroccan.  He wanted to speak English, but I tried to speak darija to him, only to discover that our vocabulary was a generation off.  Two years later I made it to Budapest, where the building of Parliament seemed somehow smaller than I’d imagined and capitalism had made its way just enough to disappoint me.

Perhaps my eyes should have been wider this past March as I landed in Damascus.  Preparing for the trip, it felt like perhaps the last frontier…not because of its foreign-ness, which I hardly felt, rather, because of Syria’s tenuous relationship to the United States.  Even applying for my visa felt like I was doing something wrong (the FedEx employee who helped me mail it raised his eyebrows, breaking character long enough to let me know he disapproved).  Traveling to Japan and Malaysia a few months later, I was hardly fazed.

3358926306_2a2feed23aLest you think of me as jaded by the opportunities presented me (at least lately), rest assured I am not.  In fact, that might just be my greatest fear.  Some of my friends are travelers to envy, having seen half the world’s nations at least.  I, my friends, am not.  According to my passport, I’ve seen 18 countries out of 195.  While that might seem like a lot (even to me), placing them on a map reveals that I’ve seen hardly anything.

But let me not stray further from the point…I began writing this post because I remember the precise moment that I snapped out of at least one period of depression.  I’d spent the fall of 2001 in a fit of desperation over a breakup of a romance that I hardly remember now.  Like many young women, I was starving – for food, for attention, for excitement.  And I was hit by the latter shortly after the start of my fall semester.  I’d attended a study abroad fair in the university’s gym, wandering from table to table with little aim or intent, when I stumbled upon a table advertising a spring semester program culminating in a trip to Senegal.

Dear readers, in that fall of 2001, at 19 years old, I couldn’t point to Senegal on a map if you begged me.  Senegal7Looking back, I’m not even sure I knew what continent it was on.  I’d been to Canada (for which, at the time, you didn’t even need a passport) and to England for ten days.  And yet, talking to the doctoral student leading the trip – Ms. Barrel Gueye – I suddenly felt a sense of excitement, perhaps even purpose.  I signed up for an interview (which I barely remember), and the next thing I knew, I was getting a call inviting me into the course and the trip.  I remember telling my parents, who were excited – and a little peeved, knowing they couldn’t afford it – and my friends (who thought I was crazy), but I barely recall the semester leading up to the trip itself.  When we finally flew into Dakar, I remember so clearly looking out the airplane window onto the city below and its bright lights.  I remember the sun setting as we drove from the airport to Université Cheikh Anta Diop, and I remember that first night as sleep came, relieving us of our sheer exhaustion.

Senegal14

The rest is fuzzy – I have photographs and vague memories, friends I’ve kept and friends whose names I’ve forgotten, but the biggest piece is how I changed.  At twenty-seven, looking back with clarity, I see that as the moment my life changed, the moment my world opened up.

But with a tinge of sadness and a certain amount of nostalgia, I look now toward a December trip to Beirut with the sense that the world will never seem that big again.  Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing?

We’re Gonna Live Forever! (Oops)

asdf

A bit of a diversion from my usual topics, but I got this e-mail from CafePress that cracked me up and I couldn’t help but share.  The popular product creation company is partnering with the new Fame movie brand to allow users to create fan products.  At first this struck me as an excellent online-mass media partnership, until I read the rules.  Some are totally reasonable, and what you might expect from such a contest:

  • No reference to drugs or medication.
  • No derogatory reference to race, gender, sexual preference, religion, mental handicaps, obesity, or physical impairments.
  • No use of profanity, vulgarity or hate language.
  • No use of explicit sexual language, images or graphics.
  • No political party associations (e.g. republican, democrat, or candidates).
  • No creation of products other than the specified Products

While others are just completely nonsensical:

  • All images must be tagged with “fame movie”.
  • No use of copyrighted material from the movie or its promotional materials (e.g. no use of images or clips from the movie, the movie posters or from the movie website).
  • No use of the official Fame logo.
  • No use of lyrics from the Fame theme song.
  • No use of, names, images or depictions of the actors in the movie.
  • OK to use names of the characters from the movie.
  • No use of cartoon, caricature images of the actors from the movie.

Um, pardon my ignorance, but how can you possibly make a fan product for a show if you’re not allowed to use lyrics, logos, characters, cartoon versions of characters, or any other depictions of, well, anything, from the movie.

Way to fail, CafePress and Fame.

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