This is the story of my dearest friend here in Rabat. She is 20 years old, the second of three daughters. She lives in a cozy apartment with her family about 10 minutes away from me. She is a passionate economics major at the local university, and she speaks French, Arabic, Darija, and quite a bit of English. She loves the Egyptian singer Sherine, the color pink, and reading lots of books in her spare time. Last week, she was hired to her first ever job , which is a very big deal in a country with such a depressing unemployment rate. She is compassionate, curious, and wise beyond her years.
And her name is Jihad.
Don’t worry, I did a double take too when she first introduced herself to me at the bus stop. “Jihad” is a word we’ve all seen and heard before, thanks to the frequent use of the term in the media to reference ISIS. The definition of “jihad” that we are most familiar with is that of a holy war. Admittedly curious and taken aback by my new friend’s name, I decided to do some research... Did you know that “holy war” is not actually the primary definition of the word? In fact, the way we use “jihad” is linguistically incorrect, as the proper word for war would be “al-harb”. Instead, jihad actually means to put forth a great effort. In Islam, Muslims can use this word to describe three different types of challenges that require great effort. The first and most commonly used meaning is the challenge of living out the Islamic faith in all aspects of life. The second is the challenge of building and maintaining a good Muslim community. It is in the third and final definition, the challenge to defend Islam, where the definition “holy war” comes into play. All three definitions of the word are technically correct, even though they are not all equally used.
So to put this in a potentially more accessible context, let’s take the word August. When we hear the word August, it is safe to assume that we are likely referring to the eighth month of the year. That is the primary definition and most commonly intended meaning. However, the word can also correctly be used as an adjective to describe something or someone that is respected or impressive. The frequency with which English speakers use the word “august” to describe something impressive is about the same frequency as Arabic speakers would use “jihad” to mean holy war. While “august” is not an ideal example because it changes the part of speech for its two definitions, it is the best example I could come up with to illustrate my point. Plus, both words can are used as names, which is all too fitting toward the point I hope to make!
When I first met Jihad, I didn’t know how to react when she introduced herself. But after my research, I felt guilty for my presumptuous concerns. Once I had properly addressed those concerns by seeking to rectify my discomfort, I felt as if I ought to re-introduce her to myself to make up for my ignorance. I imagine some of you may relate.
As I mentioned before, Jihad and I met at a bus station in downtown Rabat. I was waiting for my other friend outside of the hammam (bathhouse: an experience I thoroughly recommend) when she and her mother approached me to ask about whether or not the bus had already passed by. She was by far the most joyful person I had ever met, and I enjoyed chatting with her and her mother as they waited for their bus. About 20 minutes later, we swapped numbers and said goodbye. This is a common practice in Morocco, as the locals almost always go out of their way to make you feel welcome in their country. I never expected to see her again, but I was so grateful for her refreshing conversation and contagiously positive attitude. So when she invited me to her home for Sunday lunch two weeks later, I figured why not?
However, I simply was not prepared for the onslaught of generosity, acceptance, and love that would envelope me during my visit. I spent five hours at their house talking, laughing, listening to music, and looking at old family photos. As Jihad told me to story of her aunt making the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, Jihad’s mother insisted on sharing one of the prized dates leftover from her sister’s trip, along with a sip of water from the Zam Zam Well, which absolutely blew me away. Muslims believe the Zam Zam Well is the spring where God supplied Abraham with water for his son Ismail, and consequently it holds a tremendous amount of religious significance. The water is believed to be miraculous, with unique healing properties. So the fact that this family insisted on sharing their limited supply of such extremely sacred gifts with me, someone they know is not Muslim, was simply overwhelming. I do not think I will ever be able to articulate the raw beauty and humanity of that specific moment.
But the thing I appreciate most about Jihad is, without a doubt, her candor. I often forget that a language barrier even exists between us as we discuss the news, talk about our hopes for the future, and (of course) watch the Olympics! In fact, when the news broke that a Moroccan boxer had been detained for allegedly sexually assaulting two maids in the Olympic village, we had a fantastically cross-cultural dialogue about how the systemic double standards of sexual abuse translate in our respective countries.
These are the conversations that reminded me of the true range and value of our common humanity.
As I left Jihad’s home for the last time, I could not help but marvel at the insurmountable depth that her companionship has added to my experience in my last few weeks. She has inspired so many more questions and curiosities about the Islamist world, particularly anthropologically, all of which I intend to continue to explore in adventures to come. Though I cannot help but be amused as I think back to how it all started... With a misconception of what is truly a beautiful name.