I don’t consider myself a religious person in the slightest. Though that doesn’t mean I don’t have respect for peoples beliefs, not out of respect for religion but more so out of common decency for their individual rights and freedoms.
Arguably the most controversial religion of our time is Islam. In a world of growing religious extremism, Islam seems to take the headlines in a feudal battle of religious clerics claiming they purely instigate peace and the others waging war against anyone in their way. Huge geopolitical changes have been made due to religious extremism – Brexit and tougher restrictions on refugees are two of the most prominent examples. Spending five weeks in an Islamic country didn’t necessarily bring me to the frontiers of Aleppo, but taught me some interesting things nonetheless. So here are the experiences of a non-religious agnostic with the teachings of Islam in the Kingdom of Morocco.
I’m sitting in the consultation room of the Marrakech Public Hospital after waiting over two hours in the emergency department thanks to a stray dog bite in the medina of Jemaa el-Fnaa. I’m waiting for the intern doctor to arrive and I begin to peruse my surroundings. A shattered glass cabinet, dried blood on the floor and discarded surgical gloves also boasting a crusty crimson shade. The waiting room was so much worse. Almost everyone waiting is in worse condition than me. There are two men that were in a car accident, the one sitting next me reading over his recently paid invoice for emergency care in Arabic as he carelessly drips blood from his face onto the sheet. There’s another man with a metal rod protruding from his leg. There are a few men that seem to be lying on their deathbeds. Prayers ring out throughout the room constantly and a sombre mood is set, interrupted by the occasional weep or scream of pain. It’s these terrible situations that I’ve seem to found the best in people.
A Moroccan man who I met upon entering the hospital who thankfully spoke English constantly checks up on me and keeps reminding the guard in Arabic that I am next in line. After the doctor arrives and tells me I need the rabies shot he also informs me that they do not carry the vaccine at the hospital. Of course not, I mumble under my breath.
The Moroccan man volunteers to drive me to where I need to go and I thank him profusely. We drop off his neighbour who he was driving to the hospital and continue to the Bureau d’Hygiene. Upon arrival, a security guard informs us the centre is closed and to return tomorrow. The problem is I’ve already booked a tour to the Sahara leaving tomorrow morning at 7am. As we shuffle back and forth, the kind man translating to and fro assures me that rabies isn’t a problem until after fifteen days. The security guard recommends I go and enjoy my time in the desert and get the shot when I return home (note: I did not hold his same level of optimism and therefore did not follow his recommendations). He offered to drive me back to my hostel as well. After arriving I took some money out of my wallet to offer him and he passionately refused. He responded, “I don’t do this for money, I do this for God.” I thanked him again from the bottom of my heart and traded him a truly thankful smile. We parted ways, never to meet again.
I found his choice of words interesting. Was he implying it wasn’t out of the goodness of his heart that he did it, but rather out of an obligation to fulfil his requirements to an omnipotent being? Theoretically then, his actions would have been purely selfish, with the intention of gaining him some sort of religious award. I realised I was digressing. He was a wonderful, genuine man. Irrespective of religion he helped me. He did it out of the goodness of his heart and was being a good person; it was just his background, culture and his religious upbringing that seemed to inextricably link being a good person with religion. I like to think people are good regardless of religion, but this was a refreshing experience that in the name of religion people were actually doing good things rather than building walls and berating others.
I’m sitting in a small local restaurant in the northern tip of Morocco, the eclectic town of Tangier. As my sardine tagine sizzles on the open charcoal grill, the owner stuffs handfuls of fresh mint into a huge teapot. I sit back and watch the world pass by, the Muslim call to prayer bellowing over the city, which will soon fade away to the yells of shopkeepers and the sounds of carts being pulled and pushed along the uneven streets. A part of all this commotion took me by surprise. A homeless woman approached the front of the restaurant and (presumably) requested some bread. The man quickly headed to the bread bin and obliged and she went on her way. How kind, I thought to myself. I doubt this would happen in Australia.
Soon after a man clad in the traditional jilaba (but obviously homeless) entered the restaurant after exchanging a few words with one of the workers, took a seat. The worker proceeded to put in front of him a large bowl of soup, some bread and a cup of tea. After finishing, the homeless man exchanged some more words and left, without paying a cent. This happened twice more over the course of an hour. Then it struck me – I’d read before that a requirement of the Islam religion is to feed a hungry person. A local later confirmed for me that this was true and that even though restaurants would sometimes turn away homeless, more than often they would provide something. Whether or not the custom was one of pure kindness or perhaps religious obligation, it was a custom that I respect and think very highly of. In a country where a lot of people find it difficult to make ends meet, there is still place for charity and good human values.
Religious beliefs aside – I am all for people being good people and what I found in Morocco is that generations of religious indoctrination has seemingly helped to mould a culture and society who follow the rules of their religion to be better people. Like I previously mentioned, I feel there is no correlation between religion and being a good human, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the positives I learnt from Islam whilst I was in Morocco. A nice, refreshing change from the media’s portrayal of religion destroying the world. Just people being good people.
Some of my favourite words ever written are those by the late, great Carl Sagan, looking at the Earth from afar.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Here’s to the world realising our similarities far outweigh our differences.
By Sam Turner