I recently supported a conference in Morocco for Middle Eastern and North African university students. They were reconvening to commemorate a shared 6-week summer experience in the US where 120 young university leaders participate in an intensive leadership and civic engagement program in host universities across the US.
After the conference closed, my son Cameron and I went to Fez to visit a past State Department teacher fellow who had spent two months with us at Montana State University. We toured the city and its environs with our friend and accompanied him to teach an evening English class to 11 middle schoolers. They were learning body parts and health issues, so we brought in the old camp song, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes.” Since there was an odd number in class that night, I became the partner of a bright 11-year-old girl we’ll call Zalfa.
Zalfa seemed to be in those magic moments of girlhood where confidence and self-awareness have not been yet touched by the claws of adolescence. The movie “I am Eleven” captures this oasis well. Ramrod straight and self-assured in her responses, Zalfa volunteered to speak in front of the class with an impeccable braid pointing down her back. According to our teacher friend, she is called “the genius” at her regular day school. She instantly captivated me.
Listening to her presentation, I recognized that I would probably never see Zalfa again. Her possible paths ran as scenarios within me — would she live out her life in Fez, eventually wear a veil, travel abroad, follow that intelligence to its peaks, or would she be required to marry young? It became clear that I had just this class to support and encourage her potential. I couldn’t protect her, nor shouldn’t, from the challenges that just the next decade would yield.
I had the same experience with the university students in Rabat earlier in the week. After working with the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI) for seven years now, I have learned to accept that I will see from only a few after our intense weeks together at Montana State. In Rabat, I watched the MEPI young leaders enthusiastically present follow on projects. Some students I knew and others I just met. Yet, with all, I realized I probably wouldn’t know “the rest of the story.” This loss tugs at my heart where these students have a way of sneaking in.
We only have the present; that’s not new news, but I like to ignore that. Hanging out in Morocco, the Islamic Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi’s words kept sneaking into my consciousness. “And watch two men washing clothes. One makes dry clothes wet. The other makes wet clothes dry. They seem to be thwarting each other, but their work is a perfect harmony.” Traveling on bus and train we passed women cleaning rugs and clothing in streams and buckets. No home is complete without a clothesline of drying outfits. Pass a mosque and see men washing prior to prayer. Washing is a constant theme. One guide we met in Chefchaouen added this Koranic verse, “Cleanliness it’s from faith,” النظافة من الايمان
So many of the women I met were also awash in kissing and saying “thank you” and “Allah is great.” As Cameron and I were served wonderful meals by the mothers of those we visited, multiple kisses and shukrans (“thank you so much”) and hamdullahs (“praise be to God”) punctuated their every interaction. Again Rumi sneaks in, “Water, stories, the body, all the things we do, are mediums that hide and show what’s hidden. Study them and enjoy this being washed with a secret we sometimes know, and then not.”
Those I admire in their elder years seem to wash every situation with love. It’s not what they do, but who they are. They seem to hold a constant awareness that we only get this moment with each other and that they may not see you again. They remind me of this secret that I sometimes know, like with young Zalfa, and wonderful MEPI students, and then not. May you each wash with love and be washed and find that perfect harmony each day.