Streams of Light: Reflections on Foreignness and Understanding
By Meghana Mysore
I have always struggled to understand my relationship to religion. I grew up in a Hindu household, where my parents often practiced rituals as an external manifestation of their religion. For years, I never tried to unravel my relationship to spirituality and religion, especially as it relates to my relationship to writing and journalism.
Being in Morocco, though, has opened my mind to confronting questions about religion and journalism that I hadn’t previously. A few days ago, we made a trip to Casablanca and visited the Hassan II Mosque in the evening. The sky glowed, streams of light in a mass of blue. Jordan, Diana and I stared incredulously at the edges of the mosque stretching into the sky. I couldn’t grasp the vastness of the universe as I saw it then, even though I knew I was only experiencing a slice of the world in this particular moment.
Soon, we were all running through the space that housed the mosque. The yellow and blue of the architecture and the sky bled together, and I could hear children outside the mosque running and playing and their feet pattering on the ground. I could hear the faint voice of a repeated Muslim prayer, and it hummed in my ears.
As we ran frantically, I wondered what distinguished us in that moment from the children playing outside the mosque. Our feet rapidly graced the ground and we laughed uncontrollably. When we reached the other side of the space, we decided to lie down on our backs to face the sky. I could feel my arched back pressing into the cold ground, and while I still didn’t know whether I was closer to unraveling my relationship to Hinduism or religion itself, I knew I was experiencing something transcendent.
I saw Jordan and Diana and knew that they were experiencing something too, perhaps an iteration of my experience. As I felt the cold concrete on my back, I wondered what makes a place foreign to us, and why the word foreign had become so commonplace. We were in a country that seemed foreign, and yet the children who pointed at us and laughed each day when we walked out from our Riad considered us to be foreign and strange.
I began to examine these notions of parallel strangeness and dismantle why we adhere strictly to the concept of foreignness. Naming something as foreign connects to how we conceptualize ourselves as tourists in a place. During our trip to Fez, I accompanied Gabe to a Jewish cemetery. I remember feeling struck by the words of the man who watches over the cemetery every day. In French, he told us how Jewish students would come to the cemetery, but only for a select amount of time. After passing through, they would leave.
On this trip, we’ve aimed to avoid the tourist mentality, seeing the places we go to not merely as spaces to pass through, but places we should try to understand and experience fully. This trip has awakened me to the possibilities and yet constraints of wanting to understand a place’s stories and topography in the context of our work as student journalists. The difficulty with journalism is that we might extract people’s stories at the expense of the people to whom they belong. As I’ve visited schools in Rabat and Marrakech for my story on the teaching of the Amazigh language in schools, I’ve tried to consider why we are here to report in the first place. I’ve begun to frame my interviews not just as potential for sourcing, but rather as opportunities to meet individuals I wouldn’t have otherwise.
People thus far have characterized much of my experience in Morocco. I will remember quiet moments with individuals: speaking to an Amazigh teacher, Ali, at a small language school in Rabat, and learning how he translated Amazigh stories to lesson plans; lying with Jordan and Diana on the ground at the mosque, their experiences separate and yet enmeshed in my own; evening train rides between cities when I can watch people I don’t know taking out oranges and bread from their bags to break fast.
Part of me feels that to truly write about the people here, I should first better understand the culture of this country and make myself more a part of its fabric. When I’ve accidentally forgotten to eat for a portion of the day, I feel a pang of hunger in my stomach but then remember that most Moroccans have been fasting all day for Ramadan. With realizations like these, the distinction between the people who actually live here and myself feels suddenly sharper. Sometimes too, I feel the impulse to go to a mosque and pray but then I think that this impulse is wrong: I remember my own foreignness to the religion of Islam and the greater landscapes of the places I’m moving through.
The questions of foreignness and individuality that I’ve contemplated while in Morocco intertwine with an evolving definition of my personal spirituality and relationship to religion. Moments when I’ve felt most spiritual—running through the space that surrounded the mosque in Casablanca with Jordan and Diana—were times when I felt that I could somehow transcend the limits of my understanding and individuality.
As we ran, I felt that we were the children whose happy voices I heard outside the mosque. I felt free in a way that words can’t quite describe, and I want to carry this feeling with me when I write, because it’s the feeling that others’ experiences can seep into my own, that the lines of our distinctive selves are fainter than they seem. I want to carry this with me when I speak to the people I interview, with my peers on this trip, with the people I meet as my life unravels.
A couple days ago, when we all parted ways to go to our secondary locations, I felt sad to leave one of my best friends and the people I’d grown closer to. On the train ride to Marrakech, I could hear the methodical pulsing of the train on its path forward, but also the sounds of the children outside the mosque in Casablanca playing and running and laughing. Together, the sounds combined into a kind of music, and I could hear it the whole way there.
Meghana is a rising junior in Davenport College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.