Clifford Geertz

In the spring of 1969 or perhaps it was the summer of 1968, I had gone to the Sefrou post office to buy stamps, pick up a box of developed Kodachrome slides, or possibly to get the postal money order that represented my Peace Corps living allowance for the month. It was a warm, sunny morning, and the Ville Nouvelle was quiet. Sefrou was much smaller then, and most everyday life took place away from the new town. I don’t have any pictures of any real traffic in the Ville Nouvelle from any time from 1968 to 1971 except during the Cherry Festival.

Outside the front door of the busta (post office) squatted this skinny, redheaded kid, clearly an American. He had a big goofy smile, and kept eye contact, which made me search my memory. Did I know him? Was he one of the village idiots? No, he was dressed casually as an American.

I don’t know whether he engaged me or I engaged him. It might have been me, just out of the curiosity of seeing a foreigner hanging around. Sefrou didn’t get many tourists, and most of the French were old bureaucrats getting ready to retire to France or  young coopérants doing alternate service in the former colonies. Other than that there were a couple of Peace Corps volunteers, and an American missionary, Al Jessup. And there was this American professor that one of the Jewish merchants in the Ville Nouvelle talked about, but whom I had not yet met. No one in any of those categories would be found squatting under a post office portico, trying to strike up a conversation.

The kid was Paul Rabinow. He had come to Sefrou to work on his graduate thesis. His thesis advisor was professor Clifford Geertz.

A few days ago I received a copy of Clifford Geertz in Morocco, and it prompted these recollections.

I had met Paul in Pau, France where we were both studying French, but our contact there was minimal. He hung out with a crowd I didn’t know, and lived in a dormitory at the lycée serving the program. I had a room in town, offered by an elderly and very kind widow who let rooms in the summer, and I had a girlfriend with whom to spend time. The summer program at Pau was in 1965. Now Paul had arrived to do his doctoral research in the area around Sefrou, and was hanging out while getting his bearings.

I don’t think Cliff Geertz was there at that moment. I never met him in Morocco, though I am pretty sure I saw him or Hildred driving their kids to school in Fes in a Peugeot 404 station wagon (or maybe a VW), when I worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, so I think there was some overlap. Once I was living inside the wall on Seti Messaouda, my life was pretty much centered on the medina and the newer areas south and east of my house. My maid used the oven near the main mosque, I used the hammam in Seti Messaouda. For some reason, I seem to recall that Rabinow briefly had an apartment in Derb el Mitr, that later got rented to a Peace Corps TEFL teacher. On a little square, it was noisy and hot, with music blaring late.

I never mixed with the French coopérants, nor the few remaining French, and spent little time in the Ville Nouvelle. The French were there for shorter stays, had little interest in learning Arabic, and I had no daily contact with them. Strangely, later, living in Chauen, I did meet and socialize with a crowd of coopérants, but in Sefrou I was in the Peace Corps, and the Peace Corps experience for many of us PCVs was to try to get to know our hosts, not foreigners.

I never saw Paul very much after that, though I am sure I had him over for dinner. He had been in Paris for the riots of May 1968, and he was still excited from that experience. Paul struck me as an almost stereotypical contemporary. Morocco was groovy. I wondered at the time if he would enjoy being in such a small place. In any case, he had research to do, so whether he enjoyed it himself was irrelevant.

Paul seemed to be a bit paranoid about his Jewish background. I think it was certainly unwarranted, as his American citizenship gave him his real public identity, and what did it matter for him, anyway? As a Peace Corps volunteer, I was thought of by some Moroccans as a spy, since the whole idea of the Peace Corps was foreign, even if la Coopération was understood vaguely though through post-colonial eyes. My name, David, labeled me as a Jew, since there were few Daouds in Morocco who weren’t Jewish, though in fact I wasn’t Jewish. In retrospect, it has surprised me how Jewish the Geertz crowd was, though they appeared pretty secular to me, but Sefrou was beginning to get more attention from Jewish researchers because of the old mellah, pretty much deserted by the time I arrived there in 1968.

My contact with Moroccan Jews in Sefrou was pretty limited to my Arab friends talking about mahya, and my limited commerce with the merchants in the Ville Nouvelle. After moving to the medina, Miloud Soussi became my primary grocer in addition to the butcher, Moulay Ahmed, and the grocers and vegetable sellers around me. The only interesting experience that ever involved a Jew in Sefrou, took place one day when I was hitching home from work in Fes. I usually took a bus or a grand taxi to and from Fes, though I had a jeep most of the time I was there. If one missed the last bus, at the corner where the route to Sefrou entered Fes, you either hitched or stayed in Fes. The taxis and buses stopped after dark.

A car stopped, driven by a young guy, and the first thing he did was to show me a picture of his brother or cousin in the Israeli army. I’m not sure why he did that, nor what he expected as a response. I did not know him. I suppose he was just proud, and it was something he could share with an American without embarrassment. In general, most of the people I knew in Morocco wanted a better life, and the easiest, a word I wouldn’t use myself, road to it was emigration. And in the course of the years, many of the people I knew actually left for France for better opportunities. If you were a Jew, you were leaving a place where religious slights and prejudices were a fact of life, and if you were a Muslim, you were entering a new place filled with slights and prejudices that had disappeared at home, but were amplified in Europe.

In 1969 or 1970, I was passing through Paris, and I made a point of speaking dialectical Arabic to every waiter on the Left Bank. All were amazed and flattered that a foreigner would speak to them in their mother tongue! But economic opportunity was at the base of emigration as far as I could see, and Moroccan Jews weren’t going to Israel, so much as to France and Canada. Morocco was a tough place to scratch out a living, and even Israel, with strong prejudices against sefardim and with a contant threat of war, was a better bet than Morocco.

In the course, of my stay in Sefrou, I saw the Geertz researchers come and go, and wondered what they would come away with. I also watched the people who lived around me all go to France.

I was surprised at what happened to Tom Dichter. I didn’t not know Tom or his wife well. In February 1971 I was preparing to leave on a trip through Algeria, and across the Sahara. I had no idea of the drama playing out in the Ville Nouvelle. Sorry, Tom.

To be continued.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

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