On this national election eve, I have been thinking about another presidential election 48 years ago. It was my first chance to vote for a U.S. president.
In Morocco with the Peace Corps, in the fall of 1968, Gaylord Barr and I had moved into a medina house, owned by a cloth merchant Moulay Abderrahman. He had a shop in Sefrou’s small kissariya.
Gaylord had been living in one of Mr. Andersen’s properties, high up the hill at the upper limit of the Ville Nouvelle, past the church, which still held services for a few French families. Andersen was an elderly Danish ex-patriot, with a twin brother in Fes. The little house was charming, but it had tadpoles in the drinking water and was a hell of a walk to the CT (centre de travaux) where Gaylord worked, and a worse one on the way back home. There were no stores or anything else nearby.
I had been living in a very basic house, built for the chicken co-op in the Habouna quarter, in the garden of an elementary school.
There was not much privacy there, and the house was cramped. When I returned from my summer vacation to Spain and France, I found Gay in my house watching the cat, and he suggested sharing a medina place. It sounded great to me, and somehow he found one quickly, just inside one of the city gates.
Living in the medina had a charm for us. It was authentic, and traditional. Of course, the medina was slowly turning into a slum, but we didn’t really notice that. We liked the shopkeepers and neighbors. It was far more interesting than living in the Ville Nouvelle.
The house had several rooms, a convenient location, and great views of Bouiblane to the southwest and the flocks of the kestrels which nested in the city wall next to the house.
There were shops all around, and it was an easy walk to the Bab Mkam where the grands taxis loaded passengers for the trip to Fes.
The election of 1968 looked bad for the Democratic Party. Johnson had decided not to run in the face of the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, and the nation was on edge. Hubert Humphrey, good man that he was, wore the war, his president’s war, like an albatross around his neck. Nixon was offering a secret plan to end the war, and crack down on drugs and civil unrest. Of course, despite Nixon’s victory and his secret plan, the war continued on for six more years. We got Richard Holbrooke as country director soon after, a refugee from the Democratic Party wreckage. His major interest was Vietnam and editing Foreign Policy Magazine.
Our generation wasn’t fond of Nixon, and feared the worst. Living abroad, we had to vote by absentee ballot. I don’t remember mine, but Gay’s Washington State ballot featured some guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt and running on a platform consisting of a recipe for clam chowder!
It must have been cold. November was never a warm month in Sefrou. We had bought an old wood-burning cook stove in Fes and installed it in the room adjacent to the city wall, which served as a kitchen, though it had no running water. The stove’s flue didn’t draw well. Maybe the chimney should have extended up and over the height of the wall. In any case, the wood fire smoked upon the room, and the street below as well. I think the neighbors were happy we hardly used it. Eventually it went to Jan and Ruth, PCVs who moved into the Hajja’s next door in 1970.
Karin Carter, a former PCV was staying with us, though I might be confusing things. I remember her playing the guitar, and singing folk songs, but it could have been a different night. We had some lycée students over who had been friends of PCV Carolis Deal, who worked the co-op before I arrived. I only remember Aboudi, I think, because of his red hair and friendly personality, asking if one song was in Hebrew. It was, and I’m sure the students wondered if we were Jews, but to make a long story short, Karin, a fourth-generation Californian, admired Steinbeck so much that she modeled her college career on his and studied the Bible. There is a tape of her singing and if it is playable and, if I can ever find a reel-to-reel player, I will digitize it and add it to this recollection. Shortwave reception was poor in the kitchen. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe it was the thick city wall. In any case, there wasn’t any doubt about the results. The election was a disappointment, but life went on. The biggest change was that Peace Corps began supplying us with Time Magazine rather than the NYT News of the Week in Review, which we had been receiving. And eventually there was a lottery for the draft. I won a very high number. But for many others, the war continued on.
The roof of the Sefrou house was a great place in good weather. There were always animals: Aid sheep, turkeys, doves, and you could have tea or just get some air. There was a room there that we set up for guests, but it was cold despite the addition of a wood-burning stove for occasional use. We eventually abandoned it and used it as a place for the doves, which were in constant danger from one of the the cats. Later I set up a wood structure roofed with bamboo, which gave relief from the sun, but not necessarily from the flies.
The roof had a terrific view to the southeast, where the eastern end of the Middle Atlas Mountains was represented by Jbel Bouiblane, snow covered for half the year.
Kestrel hawks lived in the holes in the city wall on the other side of the house, where there was an abandoned garden. In the twilight they would turn acrobatic circles in the fading sun, before diving into their nest holes.
One summer evening, with guests at the house, we watched a major lightning storm over Taza, to the east. With every flash, the mountains south of Taza suddenly appeared out of the darkness, and then were gone. The storm was so far off we couldn’t hear the thunder. Over Sefrou there was no storm.