During my first year in the Peace Corps (1968), I worked in a government agricultural center (a Centre de Travaux or “CT”), supposedly as an extension agent. It was located in the country a few miles distant from the town of Sidi Kacem, in a relatively modern farming district that featured some tractors and irrigation along with peasants that worked their fields with horse-drawn plows.
Like others in my Morocco X Peace Corps group, I was somewhat handicapped. I could barely speak Arabic, I knew very little about farming, and the CT where I worked was itself dysfunctional. Even my Moroccan co-workers might go days without any assignment and occasionally without pay. The head of the center spoke to me on only one day—the day I arrived. There was absolutely nothing for me to do.
I was however industrious. Behind one building I found some metal plows, for use with a horse or camel. I gave these metal plows a coat of fresh paint and hauled them to the local souk for sale. I was a success. A well-off French resident bought one, put it in the trunk of his Mercedes, and drove away. I haggled with one worn-looking Moroccan peasant farmer, trying to persuade him that he needed one of my plows. “And what happens when it breaks? Who will repair it?”, he asked. I said I did not know. “You see!” he said with waving hands and a dismissive shrug.
Though I was a baffling curiosity – why was I there??—my co-workers treated me with kindness. Often with time on their hands, they engaged me in conversation. How old was I? Was I married? What was the United States like? What was my opinion on various political issues? The level of sophistication varied. Some had limited education and experience, others maturity and knowledge.
I lived in a small one-story dormitory with some of the other unmarried workers. Sometimes when I would be hanging out in my room, reading, one of the other dorm residents would come and sit down with me, thinking it would be unpleasant for me to be alone.
The most remarkable feature of my dorm was Aisha, the elderly woman who cooked for the dorm residents (we ate together) as well as cleaned. I was made to understand that paying Aisha was my responsibility, a duty I accepted. I got to know her well. Though she could not read, she was well-versed in Koranic lore, and we had interesting conversations. I remember her describing the cosmos—earth centered with the planets, sun, and stars revolving around it. I also remember her warning that demons would consume the astronauts who foolishly tried to reach the moon and her awe and amazement when they did (and maybe a little shaming of her and her country?). She told me the hard experiences of her life that had left her without a family and that required her to work at the CT. When I later moved to Rabat, I had her come and visit me. I remember her looking in the large mirror that was part of my clothing cabinet and pulling back in shock and exclamation at the aged face that greeted her— mirrors not having been part of her furnishings back at the CT.
My year at the CT was punctuated by the Islamic and Moroccan holidays, in which all of the CT workers took part and in which I was generously included. Celebrations were segregated by sex, with men in one tent sharing a meal and entertainment, and women in another location (or maybe cooking the meal!). I remember dancing girls (prostitutes?) visiting the men’s tent one evening although more often I just remember speeches from dignitaries that everyone dutifully listened to, followed by large meals.
One holiday however surpassed the others. Oddly, it was the King’s birthday. In the evening the men assembled in a large tent with bleachers around an open space. The evening started with the usual speeches from various dignitaries, followed by music from a Moroccan band. Cookies were passed around. The music went on and on, with drums and singing and eventually dancing. The hour grew late. Towards the end everyone left in the tent (except me) was down in the tent’s open space, jumping up and down, ecstatic, shouting “Allah, Allah, Allah”. I left not long after, walking the short distance from the tent back to my dorm, very slowly. The next day everyone kidded me about my slow pace. It turns out the cookies had been laced with hashish.
James A. Humphrey, Morocco X
3 thoughts on “The King’s Birthday or Not Quite as High as the Moon”
Nice Peace Corps reminiscence, and well told. Morocco X must have a rich vein of oral histories buried beneath the sands of time, and well worth setting down before these memories fade. Thanks for the memories Jim!
Very evocative writing here. It paints a wonderfully vivid picture of your life there and the people you met. Have you been at the cookies again?
Alas, this happened to my friend, Jim, but the days of tea and cookies are long over. I am searching for spices today, notably a mixture known as ras-el-hanout in Morocco. It is indispensable for Moroccan cooking. Many offer it on Amazon.com, but I am wary. There is always a negative review that claims what they bought is not authentic at all.