Helping my wife clean out the attic the other day, I came across some boxes of color slides that I had forgotten to store with the rest of my photographic souvenirs. They were on GAF film, a product made by a corporation that has long since gone out of business, and one, that even in its day, was of dubious quality. Kodak and Fuji dominated the market with far superior products and services. I thank my early interest in photography for steering me to Kodachrome. Very slow, the ISO of Kodachrome ranged from 25 to 50, and, even with a super fast lens, available light photography was difficult. But, oh, the color! Not everyone liked it, but I thought it did a fantastic job with both scenery and people. And how it has lasted!
Of course, almost no one shoots slide film these days. My daughter, a professional photographer, hasn’t shot it in ages. On my desk I have an ancient undeveloped roll which I will never have developed. In a drawer is a friend’s Olympus OM-1, the last of the many 35mm cameras that I have used. And while making prints with a slide could be a complicated and laborious process, digital photography allows even an amateur a range of effects that one could only obtain with difficulty in the film age.
I do have thousands of slides and negatives, however, and I am working my way through the digitization of all that seem to me important. When my mother died, I inherited more old black and white negatives, too.
My mother’s negatives are often of family friends and relatives whom I never knew or can no longer recognize. I keep them in hope that other family members will be able to identify the people in the photos, but with my aunts and uncles all gone, there fewer and fewer people to help. It is obvious that I should have taken family history more seriously, and I regret that I did not, because I think it would have been enjoyable to work at it with my Uncle Al and Aunt Mary, who both passed away recently.
Today I am going through old slides of Morocco, and wondering why I took them, what they represent, and, sometimes, where they are! The batch that I am looking at now have labels, which are sometimes cryptic, but still a help. A pile of rocks becomes one of the towers to be climbed on the west ridge of Jbel Toubkal. Nevertheless, many of my slides have no labels. As I put together a blog post on a hitchhiking trip across the Sahara Desert to West Africa, I find myself wondering just where I was. Today, with GPS and digital clocks, one can geocode the photo for an exact location and have the exact time of day that it was taken. I relied on memory for what was then an unforgettable journey, but the memory is failing.
I have to resort to memory, which grows faultier as the years go by. Sometimes my packrat nature helps. A few days ago I found a postcard from an Algerian whom I met crossing the desert. The trip through Algerian oases across the desert to Niger and the West African coast was wonderful, exotic, yet close enough to Morocco in the Algerian segment that I felt at home for half the way. I went back to that trove yesterday and found an old letter from a Moroccan friend, penned as I was leaving the country in 1971.
I also collected postcards from many places. I found a package of cards, purchased in Iran, that help me identify views or places in that country. I studied Iranian history and culture, but that was long ago. Maybe I can put together a post on a long and interesting trip that I made there. Still, there are limits to what one can recall. I have many slides from out-of-the-way places in Morocco which I can only identify by region, and a number with people whose names now escape me.
My GAF slides today look faded and blurry, which is unfortunate, since some were taken in situations that were unusual. Looking for monkeys in the mountains around Chauen, Morocco, mushroom hunting in the cork oak forests surrounding that city, and a pilgrimage to the top of Jbel Alam with the family of a Moroccan student of mine who went to venerate Moulay Abdesslam Ben Mechich are just three examples that come to mind immediately.
I mushroom hunted with French friends. Moroccans do not eat mushrooms, but collecting and eating them is typically French. The newspapers in France always announce the mushroom season; La Dépêche, in Toulouse, recently predicted that it would be a great season this year. When we got back to town with our cèpes and oranges, my friend Giles’s mother, who was visiting, sautéed them in butter. I have never eaten better mushrooms.
Memory is not trustworthy and it is often tempered by time. Georges Brassens, my favorite song writer in French or English, entitled an ironic song Le temps passé, reminding us in a humorous way that time, more than healing wounds, also makes us see the past through rose-colored glasses. I think I agree with Brassens that we should see the scars and feel the pain, even after many years. When Father Time sidles up, to use a Brassensian image, one should take care.
The slides help refresh my memory. As anyone following my blog knows, they are the scaffold that I build my posts around. The fact that I haven’t published much lately is due in part to the fact that I haven’t been digitizing. But slides and photos and old postcards are not the only way my memory has been refreshed.
A couple of days ago, I had a truly emotional experience. An old Moroccan friend from Peace Corps days called me from Tangiers. It was his letter I came across yesterday. About to speak to a group of young people about the Peace Corps, he was looking for personal experiences with culture shock and insights about the nature of volunteers at the time I served, that is, the 1960s.
In college, when I was contemplating Peace Corps service, there was a returned volunteer in my dorm who had served in an Andean village, I think. I asked him if he had experienced culture shock. He was from eastern Montana, a place with counties as big as countries and populations as small as American high schools. “Heck, no,” he replied, “I had culture shock when I had to go to a high school in North Dakota, because there was no school in my county. I had never seen football played, and didn’t even know which way to run. There just weren’t enough kids around in my part of Montana to field a team!”
I don’t remember much culture shock myself, but looking back I am sometimes shocked at how insensitive I was at times. True, I was young, but that is an excuse with which I will not defend myself. Reflection is far more valuable for youth than the elderly.
Talking with someone with whom you haven’t spoken in almost 50 years is a strange experience. Ali sounded the same despite the passage of years. I saw him the way my slides depict him, as a young lycée student, exploring the world, and struggling to make his way in it. Today, he is a university professor and accomplished at what he does. I am retired, waiting for God, so to speak.
Reminiscing was wonderful. The time I spent in Morocco was special, and today I have few people with whom to share it, mostly the old Peace Corps friends with whom I have kept contact over the years, albeit sporadically, and a few blog followers who have grown up abroad or traveled extensively.
In the 1960s days, I was fresh out of college and not much older than Ali. We were both looking at a world which we were soon to enter more seriously, and wondering what to make of it. We were also still children of sorts, he attending the new lycée and thinking about his future, myself, wrapped in a snug cocoon provided by the Peace Corps, trying to decide what to do next.
Today some volunteers refer to service in Morocco as the “posh corps.” The country has a well-developed transportation and communications infrastructure, uses French as a second language, and is only a few time zones removed from the United States. Volunteers are free to travel to Europe and the United States. If many Moroccans are still poor and some regions neglected by the government, there is also a growing middle class, and tourism has expanded, so foreigners are more prevalent than ever. Yes, Morocco is not Bangladesh nor some central Asian remnant of the former Soviet Union nor Sierra Leone. But “posh?”
Comfortable for some seems more appropriate. My first day in Morocco, after a long plane flight via the Azores and Lisbon, was warm and sunny. We landed at the Salé airport, then used for international flights. From the airport it was just a short drive into Rabat, and to our temporary lodging at the Grand Hotel, opposite the Peace Corps office on rue Van Vollenhoven, a street name changed to zenqat Moulay Rachid before I left Morocco. Morocco was still decolonizing itself. The new town, built in the 1920s and 1930s in art nouveau style, resembled architecture I’d seen in the south of France. The store fronts and displays were very French. The eateries were French. Père Louis still had a little desk or stand where the owner would stand during meals, just like many restaurants in France. I felt totally at home there.
I remember how one volunteer, John, when confronted by a staff member who had served in Afghanistan and who asked him if he considered his service in Morocco as being all one big vacation, replied sarcastically, “Yes, and a great, wonderful vacation, at that!” The truth was that he served as best he could at a time when Peace Corps programming left a lot to be desired. And Morocco was not Afghanistan, the Peace Corps experience through which she saw the developing world. We all see the world through an optic defined by our experience, though the view widens as we age.
In my day, volunteers could not travel to Europe or return home unless we enlisted for a second tour of service. Algeria was officially off limits and air travel to the rest of Africa was beyond the average volunteer’s budget. Some volunteers were posted to tiny spots. I always admired the women who went to foyers féminins, rural home economics and extension centers. They showed tremendous resourcefulness, putting up with difficult conditions in very tiny and sometimes remote places.
Sometimes volunteers created their own problems. In Oujda, two volunteers who shared a house arrived at a point where they drew a line down the courtyard, dividing it into exclusive territories where the other was not welcome, and would not speak to each other for weeks. Later, both worked in staff positions for the Peace Corps, and developed a strong friendship.
Sometimes sickness, though rare, would intervene dramatically. A volunteer in Nador, seriously ill and unable to contact the Peace Corps doctor, a surfer and a poet, with healthy charges about whom he did not worry overly, had to rely on a Jewish doctor in Oujda for medical assistance. She called him, he told her to meet him at the airport in an hour, and personally flew her back to his clinic, where it took her a couple of weeks to recover.
Travel to Spain was allowed, because of its Arab past, but, though I visited every major Moorish site to which I could easily travel in Spain, I still think that the ban on Europe and the restriction to Spain was silly. You could have easily argued that Morocco’s recent past was French, so visits to France should have been permitted. Modern Morocco has been created by the French. In any case, volunteers, especially ones with wealthy parents, ignored it and were never punished.
Peace Corps had good intentions. It really wanted volunteers to get to know Morocco better, but most had plenty of opportunity to travel, with good transportation and volunteer friends spread around the country, and most felt they needed a break when they had a long summer vacation.
Algeria was considered a hostile state. Morocco had just fought a war with Algeria along the southeastern border. The U.S. government probably feared dealing with Algeria if American nationals got into trouble there. In fact, in western Algeria, the dialect was very similar to Moroccan Arabic, and communication is not difficult. Cities like Tlemcen were tied to Moroccan history as former parts of Moroccan empires.
The Algerians I met when I finally traveled there treated me just as Moroccans did: with curiosity, courtesy, and hospitality. In the struggle for independence, America had not supported France. There were no hard feelings there with the Algerians. Strained government relations were mainly a result of the division of the world into hostile blocs and the expression of Cold War ideologies. My Algerian acquaintances had Red Army records in their collection— because of trade with the Soviet Union—of which they openly made fun. The Russians were not cool. James Brown and the Beatles were cool.
Many of us laughed about the “super vols,” highly performing volunteers that Peace Corps staff occasionally touted, painting them out as examples of what we should be. We considered some of them phonies. Most of us did as well as we could given the conditions. Some jobs were easier than others. Being a TEFLer was a relative piece of cake compared to others. Peace Corps knew how to train and monitor teachers, Moroccan lycées had administrative structures into which a teacher could be placed and Moroccan students, avid for knowledge and eager to learn, were generally a pleasure to teach and took to Americans, who were far less formal and far more friendly than the French.
Other volunteers were given jobs that didn’t exist. When you are placed in a rigid, government administration, just how do you create a job when there are few expectations for you and little support? Occasionally, volunteers solved the problem, but many more gave up. Indeed, some of our Moroccan colleagues had also given up, content to receive a regular paycheck, and sit most of the day and read the paper and smoke.
As the first decade evolved, Peace Corps programming focussed on more professional areas: architects, veterinarians, foresters, and so forth. What this did was insure that the volunteer did have some kind of employment related to his training. In fact, some architects did little more than design homes for officials.
I remember a staff person who administered an architects program. One of the volunteers had complained that he was being pestered to design water towers in some kind of historical disguise. The staff person, took the train to Fes to see him. As he rode along through the plains of the Gharb, he sketched every water tower he saw along the way. All were, of course, functional designs, with no local color, but form following function. Why waste time on a water tower with all of Morocco’s needs?
But the programs were popular with universities back in the States, and Peace Corps developed institutional relationships with some that were beneficial to individuals and institutions, if not necessarily to the Peace Corps and Morocco.
Everything was smaller and simpler than it is today. Maybe that is why it is so easy to look back and enjoy those days. Volunteers lived privileged lives as foreigners, but were not wealthy. Those of us who lived at higher elevations were never warm in the winter. We did not band together as much as the French coopérants did, who were there in much larger numbers, and who very often had cars. Nor did we socialize with other expatriates very much.
Unlike the French, we were not purveyors of a superior culture, a culture respected by wealthy, educated Moroccans, so we did not look down on the locals, though educated Moroccans may have looked down on those of us who did not speak French well. We sometimes made fun of Moroccan ways, but not in the nasty manner that the American military did. We did not call Moroccan’s “Mo’s” or any other derogatory term. Moroccans, no matter how humble, were the bearers of an exotic culture and a proud religion. For most of us, ordinary Moroccans were a subject of fascination and we admired them for their hard work, faith, and fortitude. We wanted to make them happy, and help them if we could.
Some of us were self-imposed exiles from a war we felt unwise and unjust. Draft boards were breathing down our necks. Peace Corps offered a temporary respite or last chance. Even some of our administrators were exiles. Richard Holbrook, tied to Democratic patrons like Dean Rusk and Clark Clifford, tried to wait Nixon out. He succeeded, too. Never much interested in Morocco, as far as I could ever see, he later was appointed an Under Secretary of State for Asian Affairs by President Carter. I thought him self-centered and shallow. One ambition of his, he confided to me, was to have driven every paved road in Morocco. He redeemed himself in my eyes by brokering an end to the Balkans wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, then died, tragically, in a road accident.
The problem for us volunteers was how to fit in. None of us arrived a Muslim, though one or two converted, so we were excluded from religious life, one of the poles around which Moroccan life revolved. We were foreigners, and Moroccans, once administered by the French and Spanish, dealt with foreigners in the ways to which they were accustomed. They categorized us according to their particular world views. Teachers fit in perfectly. Others were doing training, stages in French. We were Christians or Jews. We were spies. We were tourists. If we were women, maybe marriage material, more likely a potential conquest. Volunteers had little control over how they were perceived, though where and how they lived had a bearing. Some lived sober lives, some lived out fantasies. Some were outrageous. But through work and neighborhood life, many volunteers developed friendships that outlasted their service. Some returned to Morocco to see co-workers after their service. And some did marry Moroccans.
I knew Ali as a lycée student in Sefrou while in the Peace Corps. In 1973 I went back to Morocco with a university sponsored foreign living experience. The students in the program lived in a run-down tourist facility in Salé, and they loved it. The professor with them stayed in a modest hotel in Rabat. I found a Peace Corps volunteer living in Salé who had some extra room so, in order to save money, I moved in paying a share of the rent. Ali was sharing a tiny, dark place in Rabat with other students, so I asked him if he wanted to move in too, and he got to live in a big, uncluttered apartment until I moved out that the summer. I remember the volunteer’s name, but not what he did. His pastime seemed to be picking up foreign tourists, traveling on the cheap, and offering accommodation in hope of sexual favors. I thought that scandalous myself.
I did not hear from Ali again for many years until I received a call out of the blue. He was living in Binghamton, attending the State University of New York where he was pursuing a graduate degree in comparative literature. His call was a surprise and his voice a bit different. He had studied in Manchester, England, and its northern accent overlaid his truly American one, learned from his lycée professor from Yakima, Washington. I agreed that I would meet him soon in Binghamton, where I was trying to jumpstart my Ph.D. Studies.
It was at a difficult time in my life, and I never followed through. He didn’t call again that I recall, and a few years later I heard from his old Peace Corps teacher, then living in Seattle, that I had hurt him deeply. I am more sorry than ever today. It was unforgivable, but I cannot undo it. So when we talked again, 20 years later, I was nervous. As it turned out, it was just two very old friends remembering shared parts of their youth, lived 50 years earlier. Much has changed, but not everything.
Thanks, Ali, for your friendship.