How I Became a Traveler

It sure wasn't my parents' influence. They never made it outside the US. I am not sure they really believed there was anything outside the US. Their idea of what was beyond the US was like what medieval Europeans believed about what existed beyond the Strait of Gibraltar: it was unknown and unsafe and why in the world would you want to go there?

No, it wasn't my parents, but it was family. My great-aunt Alice is the Funnel Cake Queen of the Universe. She came to this place of distinction by traveling to fairs, carnivals and large parking lots to promote her fine funnel cakes to all and sundry. I started traveling with her when I was 11 and for my entire adolescence, being a carney was my summer job.  

I loved the people watching. I enjoyed interacting with people. I was pretty indifferent to the rides, the food was generally horrible, the sites weren't that far from home or very distinct from what I knew, but it was fun to discover what each place had, chat with people, and just be someplace new.

The best part of all, though, was tearing down the stand at the end of the fair and moving during the night to another place. It felt like freedom and adventure to be moving in the night-time summer coolness, tired and dirty from a day's work, just to sleep in our clothes on top of the flour bags in the truck, only to wake later in this new place and start the orientation process again.

Where do we set up? Where is the water source? Where can we bathe? Where's a phone? That feeling of being where we were supposed to be, but knowing little, was exciting and challenging to me, so when I started traveling on my own, not for work, but just to discover, I was already accustomed to going to new places, finding out what was there, and making the best of it.

When I was 17, my best friend from high school and I did a 4-week road trip from SE Pennsylvania as far as Ensenada, Mexico, during January of 1975. We camped without a tent, under the stars, under the car, in picnic pavilions. We got stopped by the police. We had an accident and car problems. We visited Tijuana and had drinks with prostitutes (that's all!). We argued. We laughed. We visited national parks and we discovered lots of things. I felt free. I felt alive. I felt like this is the sort of thing I want to do much, much more of.

Although I eventually grew tired of making funnel cakes, the carney never left my blood. A friend pointed out to me once that as long as I'm moving, I'm happy, and I have to agree with that observation. I used to state that when I turned 50, I would settle down and get a real job, but when I turned 50, I found that I had no inclination to stop moving. I found that travel and the discovery it involves is just as appealing to me as it's ever been. My formula is E = m+c:  enjoyment = movement and change. It works for me.

  1. 'Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God'--Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

Hijab, is it a choice or a law?

Veiled, oppressed and victimized are all synonyms of Muslim women nowadays. The reason being is probably the narrow Western stereotype of the shrouded Muslim woman, who is a captive of her faith and her veil. The freedom of women in Islam has always been one of the topics that create tension whenever it is mentioned. Though Islam has granted women a high position and elevated their status as it is proved in Quran and Sunnah, it is still strongly believed there are many restrictions on a woman's freedom implemented into the laws of Islam.

Farzaneh Milani -author of the book "Words Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement,"- argued in her book that the veil is a sign and symbol of sex-segregation. It covers a woman's body and her voice. In that same book, she conveniently argued that nowadays, the veil has become a symbol and means of desegregation. She wrote that the body of these women might be covered by a mandatory veiling act, but that their reach was becoming global.

"Islam granted to women 14 centuries ago the right to own property, to engage in debate, to travel to China in search of knowledge," Milani wrote. "But that right was eventually attenuated by the fact that successive generations of male theologians restricted women's mobility and implemented sex segregation." Said Milani.

Many countries like Morocco have witnessed years ago some sort of agitations that are coming from female scholars who are confident of their religious judgment and that are trying to promote an alternative vision of the rights of Muslim women. It is coming, as well, from politically active women, who push for change from within Islamist movements. It is coming from ordinary women who fear that legal strictures will prevent their countries from integrating into the modern world.

They all argue that true struggle has never been against the veil, but for freedom of movement. Virginia Woolf said that a woman needs a room of her own. Certainly, a woman needs a room of her own, but she also needs to be able to freely exit that room and re-enter it at will. Otherwise, the room becomes a prison cell.

Morocco is one of the countries where secular ideas prevail and give people the freedom to choose to practice their religions and traditions. While most Moroccan Muslim women wear the hijab, there are those who choose not to wear it for a variety of reasons. Some Moroccan women believe that although the HIjab was clearly outlined in the Quran, they perceive the wearing of the headscarf as a cultural interpretation of these scriptures. Many Moroccan Muslim women might choose not to wear the Hijab; however, most Muslim women agree that it is a woman’s choice whether or not she wears the Hijab.

Hijab is an Arabic word that means to veil or cover and refers to a woman’s head and body covering; it is a sign of modesty as it is meant to cover the women’s beauty. There are various forms of hijab that are referred to by different names; Burqa for instance, which is the black fabric that covers the entire face and body, leaving a small space through which the woman can see through. There is a huge disagreement in Islamic circles as to what extent Quran advocates the wearing of the burqa. However, The Quran does not mention the burqa or tell women to wear such extremely confining clothes. Instead, it instructs men and women to dress and behave modestly in society.

The freedom of Moroccan Muslim women transcends any restrictions; they are not only permitted to practice their freedom concerning the Hijab but also other authority figures and important political positions. Hijab is a symbol of modesty but it can be a sign of great inner strength and fortitude. A Muslim woman who wears Hijab is always in the upfront line not only defending her decision to cover but her religion as well. However, they insist that the advantages outweigh any disadvantages caused by ignorance or media bias.

Doing Business with Muslims

Morocco has been an ally of the US since 1777. Morocco is a Muslim country and has been for well over 1,000 years. It welcomes tourists gladly. I know, because I take US tourists there.

I'm a US citizen, married to a Spaniard, and have been doing business in Morocco since 2005. In over 10 years of taking people to Morocco, I have had many experiences, but none of them included feeling not welcome. There have been obstacles and challenges, but my overall feeling is that doing business with Moroccans is a pleasure.

A few days ago, I was trying to make last-minute arrangements to get a group of American university students into a modern clothing factory for a visit. I went to the Tourist Delegation, who directed me to the Chamber of Commerce. There, without an appointment, I met a Moroccan man who spoke at least 4 languages and who quickly relieved me of my fractured French. I told him my mission and he told me he had a contact who would have it resolved in an hour. He made a phone call and it was done.

The next day, I took my group on an extensive guided tour of a state-of-the-art factory led by the young Moroccan/English owner. He took an hour of his time and showed us everything, as well as answering our numerous questions.

While looking at the hundreds of workers and marveling at the modern facility, I wondered what would happen to a Muslim visitor to the US asking for permission to visit one of our factories or a hospital, or a school, with a group of Muslim students. I don't think they would have been shown the courtesy my group was shown.  

We asked the owner about wages in the factory. Workers are getting minimum wage in Morocco, which translates to about $1.30/hour. There is no shortage of laborers happy to work for that hourly rate. We asked why he had set up his factory in Morocco when his customers are in Spain and the UK. He told us the government of Morocco gave them 5 years of no taxes, plus transportation costs to Europe were very low via the biggest port in Africa, 25 miles away, and that the Moroccan labor force was well-educated and ready to work.

Later that day we met Catholic nuns who were living and working in the country. While they are not able to seek converts, they are free to practice their faith without hindrance. They teach languages among other things. They'd volunteered to be there. Had they experienced any hatred or hostility? No.

We regularly visit families and do home stays on our trips. We place American students with Moroccan families in order that they might understand Moroccan culture better.  For Moroccans, guests are gifts from God. They pray, by the way, to the very same God as that of Christians and Jews. They believe in the prophets of the Old and New Testaments.

Not everything is wonderful. There are sometimes incomprehensible bureaucratic hurdles, but with patience and perseverance, these can be overcome. Not everything works on time, nor as one would hope. Time moves differently there. Things can seem completely unorganized, but it almost always falls together, somehow or other.

Do Moroccans hate Americans? The short answer is no, of course not. They separate the citizens of a country from its government. Do they like being lumped in with Islamic extremists? No. Do they resent the recent actions of the US government? I don't know, because most of them will never have an opportunity to visit the US, so being vetted is not something they think about. They are not ashamed to be Muslims.

I have asked them if they could tell Americans anything, what would it be? More than once, they have stated that Islam is a religion of peace. 'Morocco is your second home,' is something I have often heard.

What do they think about Islamic terrorism? They say those who practice terrorism are not Muslims; that these are political struggles, not ones of faith or religion.

What do they want for their children? Good spouses, good jobs, grandchildren—the same thing most parents want for their children.

I've been working in Morocco for over 10 years and I have consistently felt safe and welcome there. I work with people who are honest and funny and reliable. They respect me and I respect them and their culture. Though I ask them to speak of their faith with our visitors in order that Americans can understand better, we do not often talk about Islam or politics. We work together, we solve problems, we laugh and we trust each other.

What we believe affects our behavior. I believe that if we treat each other with respect and trust, then most times that respect and trust will be returned to us, regardless of a person's religion.

I have found doing business with Muslims to be no different from doing business with other people.

Muslims are not our enemies and if you think they are, then it is your belief which needs to be questioned, not all Muslims.