“You Don’t Believe in God?” Conversations on an Overnight Bus in Morocco

by Tony Fletcher

When a stranger on an overnight bus passionately disagrees with a passage in a book Tony Fletcher is reading, it results in an intense conversation about Africa, god, religion, and identity.

“It’s not true,” says the youth sitting next to me on the overnight bus that is taking my family from the ancient Moroccan city of Fes to its Saharan border town of Merzouga. I am in a window seat, my wife and young son are bundled up in the row behind, and I have my earbuds in place, listening to music for just about the first time in our three weeks of overseas travel at the start of 2016, a year we intend to see out on the road as family backpackers.

The youth – I’d place him around seventeen – boarded the bus just a few minutes ago, in the city of Meknes, with what I assume to be his mother and younger brother, who have themselves bundled up together in the row in front. He is wearing a large, bulky, fashionable baseball cap, with the slogan C.O.D. emblazoned on top, and he has just tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that something is untrue.

“I’m sorry?” I say, removing my right earbud, wondering what on earth he could be referring to, given that I am merrily minding my own business.

“It’s not true,” he repeats, pointing to my iPad, on which I have the Kindle app open. “What it says there, about Africans… it’s not true.”

The book I am reading on Kindle, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, by Joseph L. Mbele, came to me via my friend Protus, back in Phoenicia, our local village in New York’s Catskills Mountains. Protus grew up as a porter and guide on Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, was fortuitously sponsored for an American college education after a tourist took a liking to him, and stayed on, raising a family. He had helped schedule our forthcoming time in Tanzania, assigning one of his qualified friends there as our driver and guide. At a final meeting at a Phoenicia coffee shop, as we pored over maps like a couple of old-time explorers, I had said something about how I would have been fine arranging the schedule on my own, but that, you know, this was Africa. The e-mail that followed hours later, suggesting I read Mbele’s book, confirmed that Protus had registered my insensitive statement – one born, I was immediately aware and embarrassed about, out of a total lack of personal experience. 

Mbele had written Embracing Cultural Differences based on his own actual experiences, both as a Tanzanian adapting to the States during graduate studies and then teaching in the American mid-west, and by the reverse culture shock of the white American students he accompanied to his homeland for research. Some of his observations were delivered with a certain graceful dig at “American ways,” as he called them. Others were more somber. The one I am reading when the Moroccan youth taps me on the shoulder to say, “It’s not true,” falls somewhere inbetween:

“It is normal for African women attending a class or a public meeting to be breast-feeding their infants at the same time. Africans don’t even pay attention to this, let alone think about it. The Africans acknowledge, without any reservation, the child’s right to suckle her mother’s breast.”

From the perspective of the American youth alongside me, the opinion “It’s not true,” is, well, true. Outside of the big cities, I am quickly observing, you’re unlikely to even see a Moroccan woman’s bare arms.

Realizing at last what the youth is referencing, leaving aside his disrespect for his fellow passengers’ privacy, and recognizing that he can read English as well as he can speak it, I take out the earbuds and respond. “Well, this book is written about American perceptions of Africans,” I begin to explain, hoping he will get my drift.

“I am African,” says the Moroccan, stopping me right there. “And what it says is not true of my people.”

He’s got me – and by extension, the author. A book that seeks to challenge and break down international stereotypes of Africans has inadvertently lumped them together, Ethiopians and Egyptians, Tanzanians and Tunisians, Malians and Moroccans alike. Mbele’s Africa, clearly, is that of the sub-Sahara; it does not include those north of the great desert. And that, my new traveling companion has just made clear, is an error. 

I have no choice but to agree with the youth that yes, Moroccans are Africans too and that nobody – not even a black African author from Tanzania – should attempt to paint an entire continent of over a billion people with the same brush. And with that, Mahmed and I find ourselves at the gateway of a grand conversation.

The youth is indeed seventeen years old, his name is Mahmed, he is clearly well educated, and he is evidently keen to educate himself further, judging by the questions he begins to pepper me with. The first of them, however, almost comically, plays straight back into the exact sort of international generalization he has just sought to discredit: “Is it true that Americans eat early?”

Now, this is a good one, because my British mother certainly believes they do, and frequently repeats as much to anyone who will listen. I remain curious as to how such a harmless notion becomes perceived as universal fact. What, after all, constitutes early? In Spain, especially the big cities like Madrid and Barcelona, sitting down for dinner anywhere before 9pm seems almost juvenile, yet I grew up in an England where “tea” – as we called it in my house – was served at 6pm, religiously. Meantime, during my nightclubbing days in New York City, I’d frequently have a meal when the clubs closed after 4am: whether that counted as an incredibly early breakfast, or a ludicrously late dinner, is probably not a question I can resolve with Mahmed.

Accepting whatever soft answer I give him, and recognizing my English accent despite my American wife and son, Mahmed moves us on to the lingua franca of the world: namely, football. As we travel the world through the rest of 2016, I will learn that the name “Messi” carries instantly recognizable resonance and provokes as instant a smile as that of “Obama.” 

With the passion of someone who is more than a passive observer, Mahmed acknowledges Morocco’s poor reputation on the international soccer stage (two days earlier the country was knocked out of the African Nation’s Cup in the First Round). He tells me about Munir El Haddadi, a young forward born in Madrid to parents from Morocco (allowing him to “declare” for either country), and the controversy that followed his decision to to play for Spain. Mahmed is on Munir’s side: the country’s football infrastructure is too weak for a player of this potential to throw away an international career.

Mahmed turns next to the English Premier League, picking apart the current high profile managers’ technical abilities with more detail than I would manage. I am hoping to steer the conversation further towards my own team Crystal Palace, to see what tactics he recommends our manager pursues, when he pauses briefly, like Lionel Messi after a textbook dazzling run through an opposing defense, quickly calculating how best to ensure the ball ends up in the back of the net. 

“What do you think of Muslims?” he asks, but in an almost off-hand way, as if he were Messi deciding to casually chip the goalkeeper rather than drive that ball hard through his feet.

Now, I have been expecting this question at some point in our journey. What with the USA-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan still unresolved despite catastrophic deadly impacts, with civil war waging in Syria, with 9/11 in NYC followed by 11M in Madrid, 7/7 in London, and on through the summer 2015 massacre of tourists across the Moroccan border in Tunisia an the November 2015 attacks across Paris, how could I not? And that was before the Islamophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump, which has worryingly propelled him to the front of the pack of Republican Presidential candidates, served to reinforce stereotypes of the USA as a monotheistic, reactionary, close-minded nation, rather than the multi-cultural and largely progressive country I believe it wants to be at heart. My Westernized Moroccan friend, he of the fashionable baseball cap, love of European football, and fascination with American eating habits, has every right to be inquisitive – and I have every right to hedge in return.

-People are people, I say. -There are over a billion Muslims on the planet. We have many in the States. As with Christians, they’re mostly good people. But there are some bad people in every religion.

I am fumbling. 

-Are you Christian? He asks, and this too is a good question.

-I was raised as one, I explain, truthfully, and I continue that way, -But I don’t believe. I don’t practice. I’m not religious. 

-You don’t believe in God? Mahmed is looking intently my way as he asks this.

-Correct, I say. -I don’t believe in all-knowing God. I feel like he is waiting for me to qualify that statement, so I do. -Mother Nature is my only God, I put it all down to her. 

He pauses. And then he says, slowly and deliberately, – I don’t know that I am able to not believe in God. 

It’s a convoluted sentence that I find myself thinking about long after we part company, for there are two ways to take it. One is that Mahmed, having been raised a Muslim in a devoutly Islamic nation, simply cannot contemplate there being no God; such a notion is beyond the purview of his limited life experience. (This, of course, would be true of many American Christians too.) At the same time, I hear Mahmed saying that he is not allowed not to believe in God, which is another thing entirely – suggesting that, given the opportunity, he would like to explore the possibility, to further grapple with the issues of science and religion and how they can co-exist in a 21st Century world where facts should carry more weight than myths. 

But Mahmed chooses not to elaborate and I choose not to push him on the matter. I am conscious that we are among the only people talking as others strive to sleep on an overnight bus that has not a single spare seat, and I am not sure if it’s my responsibility to pursue such a delicate debate in full listening range of them all. Mahmed, for all his self-confidence, and for all that his fellow Moroccans far outnumber us tourists on the bus, perhaps feels the same way. 

I do ask him more about his own life, and he tells me that his father died three years ago, and that his mother, sitting in front of us, is a wonderful woman, and that she is treating him and his brother to their first trip into the desert; I sense that maybe they have reached a point of financial security and that this is the boys’ reward. Mahmed leans forward to his mother to retrieve a pack of Pringles, and as is instinctive for Moroccans, indeed, a matter of duty, offers some to me, the visitor. I politely decline.

It is late, the bus has only a few more hours before it will deposit us in Merzouga, and I feel the need to try and get at least some sleep. I explain as much, politely, and press play once more on the music on my iPod – a collaboration between Terry Hall, once of the Specials, and Mushtaq, of Morocco. I don’t reopen the Kindle and the book that inadvertently lumps Africans of all colors, creeds, races and nations, together. But it does occur to me that, having met such an intelligent and interesting young Moroccan, I would do well to ask if he has e-mail and to consider an ongoing “pen-pal” relationship. I can’t offer college sponsorship, but Mahmed is the kind of person that our planet’s future depends upon if Muslims and Christians are to stop with this fighting, if the vast number of young people in Morocco are to have a greater understanding of western culture and us of them. It might do him well to have a friend in the States, an older mentor of some sort.

But hey, we are not yet a month into our trip – indeed, we are only into our first week outside of Europe – and I’m almost certain to come across other teenagers of equal intellect and intrigue on our travels, right? 

Wrong. Though there are any number of fascinating conversations in store for me – many of them conducted, like this, in the suspended animation of confined public transport – I will meet no-one quite like Mahmed. I fall asleep, I presume Mahmed does likewise, and when we all wake up and groggily disembark at Merzouga, the night not yet having fully succumbed to dawn, he and his mother and brother head one way in the grey light, and we find our host to take us in a different direction. It seems improper to ask for contact details in front of Mahmed’s mother, as if that might get him in trouble. I have missed my opportunity. 

Almost eight years later now, I think of all that has changed in such a short time and yet how so much has stayed the same. I think of our lingua franca, football, of how Munir El Haddadi switched international allegiance back to the country of his parents – becoming an international test case on the matter – and helped Morocco qualify for the 2022 World Cup, where they became the first African nation to make the Semi-Finals. I think of how the inevitable Moroccan national pride extended to a nascent women’s team that qualified for their own World Cup the following year, indication that a further women’s liberation is inevitable in Morocco. 

I think of how the US shocked even itself by electing that Islamophobe Trump to the Presidency, of how my adoptive country barely survived a full four years of his disruptive violent chaos, and how this demonstrated to the world just what fragile foundations a democracy sits upon. I think of how the conflict that was dominating the headlines in 2016 – that of Islam versus “the west” – has been replaced by other historical conflicts to the north and east of Morocco, first Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and now Israel’s reaction to the “October 9” attacks on its soil by Hamas. I think of how the knowledge we gained on our global travels in 2016, from visiting museums and cultural landmarks as well as just talking to people, confirmed that international borders are temporary anyway, however much we swear allegiance to and even lay down our lives for them in the moment. 

Most of all though, I think of Mahmed, and what may have become of him. I wonder whether he went to college and possibly traveled abroad, whether he found a place in the modern world suitable to his evident intellect and outgoing nature, whether he sends money home from wherever he may be living and working to support the mother he clearly worshipped. Or whether, perhaps, he still lives at home, supporting his mother. Most of all, I wonder whether he is yet able to not believe in God.

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