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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Adventures in the First Person

Finding Another World in Fez by Samuel Kigar ’06

I jumped into the back of a converted three-wheel pickup truck, sat down on my new mattress, and caught a ride down from the mellah—the old Jewish quarter—into the heart of Fez. A man on a motorbike pulled up, matched our speed, and coasted down the hill alongside us. He was shouting at me in accented English, “Hi! Where you from?”

“America,” I shouted back.

“What’s your religion? Are you Christian?”

I smiled. “You should learn about Islam,” he proclaimed. We stopped at a red light and he passed me a slip of paper with a URL for an educational site, then sped off.

That night, I woke up with the dawn call to prayer. It was 4 a.m., and light was not yet coming through my ornate iron-grated window, but I climbed out of bed and stuck an irritable nose out over the street. People in jalabas (traditional hooded robes) filled the street, shuffling towards the mosque. I’d come to Morocco to find out about Islam. I was quickly realizing that it would be hard to miss.


I was newly back in Fez, settling in for 13 months of language study, Fulbright research, and immersion in Moroccan culture. The drive-by conversion attempt was the first of daily conversations about religion: about my religious background, the meaning of Islam in my conversants’ lives, and why I should be a Muslim. I was first drawn to Morocco on a short trip, three years before, because of my interest in Islam. I studied religion at Reed and wrote a thesis on Islam in American prisons. Conversations about religion come naturally, but not always easily. At nearly every turn I encounter a view that challenges my own, that contradicts what I’ve heard before, and that gives me a more nuanced understanding of the shape of religion in Moroccan society and in the world. My journey in Morocco has been one of making sense of these frequent, sometimes alienating, and often illuminating encounters.

The streets of Morocco are rife with talk. Conversations are easy to strike up and blend into. Sometimes they pull you in. When I lived in Fez a young man would sometimes stop me on my way home from school. He had sparkling eyes, he wore his beard long, and his white jalaba was always neatly pressed. He would ask me, over and over again, if I was doing all right, showing real concern for my well-being even though we’d only spoken a couple of times. Eventually the question came out: was I Muslim? I answered “no” and felt the slightest drop—the tiniest break—in his previously unrelenting smile. My mood also dampened. I chafed against this new barrier between us. Why should my religion matter? It was with this feeling, equal parts warmth and estrangement, that I moved from Fez to the capital city of Rabat and set off on my Fulbright research.

When I was given the chance to talk about American religion with a class of Moroccan Islamic studies master’s students, I enthusiastically accepted. These were my peers in Morocco—they, like me, were interested in religions. The greeting was warm when I arrived at Muhammad V University. Prof. Paul Heck, of Georgetown University, in Morocco on a Fulbright Teaching Scholar grant, introduced me to his students. I started by saying that I came to Morocco to study religion: specifically, the relationship between French colonial scholars and Islamic scholars and how they understood one another. The students asked about my religious beliefs and I explained that my father’s family is Catholic and my mother’s is Jewish but I don’t identify with either.

This, it seemed, was a source of immediate concern: to have no religion is much worse than being Christian or Jewish. Why was I, a non-Muslim, studying Islam? Even more, what is the point of studying religion at all if you’re not particularly religious?

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009