There were many stories about the first Morocco Peace Corps programs that we heard as we trained and served. I met a couple of volunteers from an early program in Hanover, NH. I worked at the reserve desk of the library with the wife. One day they needed a babysitter, so I was pressed into service. It was in their house that I saw my first picture of one of the monumental city gates of Meknes. I really knew nothing about Morocco yet, although the following year I was to develop a good friendship with a Moroccan student who lived in the room immediately across the hall from mine.
Strangely the only thing I remember was an offhand comment by the husband that there were no beautiful Moroccan women, which I doubted at the time, and found to be utterly untrue after living in Morocco. The wife, however, did share with me the discrimination that she suffered as a child growing up in Colorado. That was my first insight into the discrimination that Hispanics faced in my own country. It was 1966, I think, and it was a wake-up for me.
Other than that, the older volunteers I knew were either training or country staff, or those still living in Morocco when I arrived (VII or VIII.) They all had stories, and, of course, every volunteer has them. It is unfortunate that there is not something like NPR’s Story Corps to capture them for posterity.
Some of the first programs were apparently disastrous. Morocco had only been an independent country since 1956, and Moroccans tended to be suspicious of foreigners. Also suspicious were the numerous French still working in the government or living in Morocco. France has its own volunteer service, called la Coopération, an alternative to military service for some, and was not terribly interested in having the Peace Corps on what it thought of as its turf. The French government was led by Charles de Gaulle, who distrusted the anglophone world, in general. Peace Corps TEFL teachers could be seen as yet another attack on la francophonie.
Moroccan bureaucrats were perplexed about what to do with these young Americans and probably about the programs that came with them. Foreign aid is a tough business, and my experience with USAID was that many of its projects were questionable and many AID people collected high salaries for doing very little. This may be a jaundiced view, but it still feels right today.
There were stories about the early programs that were difficult to believe. Volunteers from a failed program, hanging out in Rabat, racing their blue Willys jeeps up and down Avenue Mohammed V in Rabat, waving winners with a checkered flag. Volunteers grabbing policemen’s hats and running into the USIS building, where they stood behind the Marine guard, and taunted the policemen.
Two stories were more interesting. The first is true, and the second sounds true, but I did not witness it first hand.
In the early days, a doctor was assigned to the Peace Corps office in Rabat, to take care of the volunteers. Given that one had to be young and healthy to get into the Peace Corps, the Peace Corps doctors had plenty of time on their hands. By Morocco XII, the role of the doctor was replaced by a nurse. I knew the last doctor, who became a good friend, and developed an affection for the first nurse, an older woman, retired from the military, whose gruffness often obscured her kindness and generosity.
One early doctor was a would-be poet and avid surfer, reputed to be difficult to get in touch with on short notice. A volunteer serving in Nador became seriously ill and could not reach Rabat. She had met a Jewish doctor in Oujda at some point, and called him in desperation. He told her not to worry, just go to the airport and wait. Within an hour or so he arrived in his private plane, and whisked her back to Oujda, where she recuperated in his clinic until she regained her health. I don’t think he ever charged for his services.
The second story took place in Fes. It reminds me a bit of stories from the Thousand and One Nights, where the fifth Abbasid caliph, Haroun er-Rachid often wandered the streets of Baghdad in disguise, hoping to discover what his subjects really thought. This was during the Golden Age Of Islam, when Baghdad was a great center of thought and learning.
One day the local police circulated throughout Fes rounding up volunteers. They knocked on apartments, went to volunteers’ work places, and even found volunteers in cafes. Needless to say, this was at first a cause of consternation, but the police made it clear that there was no law problem, but rather that they were delivering invitations to an official dinner, thrown by the local government for David Rockefeller, the banker. Rockefeller had a lifelong interest in Morocco, and was a friend of the King. Tired of official receptions and eager to know more about the work of the Peace Corps, which he admired, he had asked that some volunteers be invited so that he could meet and talk with them.
So the police found as many as they could and that night they dined with some high ranking officials and Rockefeller. At the dinner, Rockefeller told a story about meeting Hassan II a few days earlier. As is customary, Rockefeller brought a gift, a very fine telescopic sight for a hunting rifle. The King accepted it with thanks, and told Rockefeller that he had a little something for him. He led Rockefeller through a palace doorway into a room piled high with fine Moroccan rugs. They continued through another door into a room filled with fine pottery, and then into a third room stuffed with brass trays and kettles. Rockefeller commented at the dinner that he went away embarrassed by the King’s largesse.
It reminds me of a refrain from Georges Brassens’s song, Marinette: “Avec ma p’tit’ chanson, j’avais l’air d’un con…”.
David Rockefeller had a long history with Morocco, and played a key role in some important diplomacy when the Shah of Iran was forced into exile. One of Rockefeller’s Moroccan pleasures was visiting Fes and shopping there.
Perhaps someone out there will confirm or correct the details of this story.