Why Peace Corps is Important: 9/11 and the Third Goal
This is not about where I was on September 11, 2001. Instead, this is about where I am now and why that is important relative to September 11, 2001. Peace Corps and the Third Goal were made for days like this.
Peace Corps service is defined by three goals: 1) Provide technical assistance and training for people in the host country; 2) Give people outside of the United States a better understanding of Americans; and 3) Give Americans a better understanding of people from other countries. Goals 1 and 2 are best done while Peace Corps service is going on, the 2+ years a Volunteer is in Peace Corps, working in the country. Goal 3, however, is a mission that starts from Day 1 of Peace Corps service and continues on for the rest of your life. Creating and updating this blog is one of my biggest contributions to date towards pursuing Goal 3. When I leave Azerbaijan, I’ll have to find a new way to do it. Part of pursuing Goal 3 through new ways will be incorporating the message of this post into my life in America.
After living in Azerbaijan for two years, my Peace Corps colleagues and I have the insights and knowledge of this country that very, very few people have. We know the frustrations of travel here. We know that this is a nation with many incredible people and many more people who are struggling. We know that rice is best served with melted butter drizzled over the top of it, alongside a roasted chicken from an earthen oven. Azerbaijanis are as much a part of the global community that strives to improve their lot as Americans or Chinese or Angolans. We know that, right now, their system is working against them.
The Third Goal is about sharing this knowledge and our experiences with people in America. I can’t give anyone the full feeling of living in Azerbaijan. Yet, I can paint that picture with a palette more alive than anyone else’s, with nuance and understanding, with strokes broad and deep. My painting of Azerbaijan will be added to the gallery of cross-cultural understanding that is the collective mind of Americans.
My days with a host family in Lənkəran always started off the same: breakfast of bread and cheese and butter, multiple cups of tea. My host mother usually prepared everything. The day continued with me going to work or reading or wandering around Lənkəran in tandem with Eli, we, the Giants of Lənkəran. All through this period, my host mother performed her prayers three times per day, as is customary for the Islam practiced here in southern Azerbaijan. It was an unassuming task, something you would hardly notice if you weren’t looking for it. Without a Muezzin singing the call to prayer to remind you it’s there, you might stop noticing it exists.
At home with my host brother, the TV would usually be on. Programs from Baku and others streamed in. Within the first two weeks of my living there, a show came on in which the popular and energetic host invited a distinguished scientist to discuss evolution. It was difficult for the scientist to get a good word in on evolution. Much of the discussion turned on religious points and the host derided Darwin.
Ramazan and Qurban Bayramı come and go every year, and so do Məhərrəmlik and Aşura. And Novruz tops all of those holidays. The first time I experienced those holidays was here in this country, walking to various mosques with my host brother, or witnessing the killing of the sheep for Qurban with my first host family, or learning about the meal at the end of the day, Iftar, which marks the end of the fast that day at sundown. Ending a fast with that plate of buttery rice and roasted chicken is a great thing.
In America, since 9/11, we have learned much more about Islam and Muslims throughout the world. However, there is no doubt that misinformation persists, stereotypes have embedded themselves in our collective consciousness, and our society has shaped itself in opposition to people with Muslim backgrounds, of Islamic faith. It is hard to divorce the word Muslim from the word Terrorist, even though it is patently obvious that the association is bogus.
When I return from my Peace Corps service, I don’t just have the opportunity to share about my experience with Azerbaijanis and the post-Soviet sphere, my work with a bank and helping students. I will have an opportunity to tell about the people I met here who are Muslim culturally and religiously and who are great people because of it. I can talk about the people who were curious about my own beliefs, but never saw the differences as an Us vs. Them proposition, seeing us all as part of the same world. These folks talk about disasters in all parts of the world with an equal sense of grief, regardless of place or people or religion. Or they talk with me about NBA basketball and the tragedy of the lockout.
The anniversary of 9/11 is the type of event that makes Peace Corps service that much more meaningful. Our experiences are deep wells waiting to be plumbed, a water that brings words like Muslim and Islam and mosque to life so that we are no longer talking about flat characters from the other side of the world, but instead people who we’ve shared meals with and shared terrible bus rides with and laughter with and, possibly, long electricity-outages with. A 9/11 anniversary is the type of event that allows us to heal the wounds of yesteryear through better understanding of others. It is in this frame that we can best approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and in this frame that I can best view the changes in me through my Peace Corps service.