Ignorance, if not the progenitor of naïveté, certainly assists it with a guiding hand. The constantly shifting borderline between what we know and don’t know adds another dimension. Without diving into the strange and nonsensical sophistry of the late Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns,” I will be content to state the obvious: experience shapes the questions we ask and how we see the world. We don’t know everything, and though sometimes we do know what we don’t know, the unexpected happens as often as not, like the sudden appearances of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition.
In the nineteen sixties, the nations of the world were often placed in a few simple categories: democratic or dictatorship, capitalist or communist, aligned or unaligned, and developed or developing (or, perhaps less charitably, underdeveloped). As a student living those years, I certainly saw the world from that binary optic. Sex was largely seen from that perspective, too.
My Peace Corps training did not disabuse what I now see was a simple and naive view of Morocco. In California, I learned that Morocco was a contrasting mixture of old and new, of tradition and modernity, and, while that certainly was the case, Morocco as the country of contrasts was also an old cliche. Once in country, as a volunteer living on a limited monthly allowance, I had no contact with the country’s rich, urban, French-educated upper classes. Living in the medina of a small city, a medina rapidly becoming a slum, I knew more modest classes of Moroccans. Modernity was something that they aspired to, though sometimes warily, and it was often as not seen by traditional eyes.
Morocco sometimes offered surprises, though few greater than the one that my buddy and fellow PCV Gaylord Barr had on his return from home leave in 1970. Gaylord had left Morocco as a failed extension agent, and returned, born again from the ashes of his agricultural extension program, as a teacher of English as a foreign language, or a TEFLer as we called them in the Peace Corps. As it turned out, he was a natural, an excellent teacher loved by his students.
On the trip back to Morocco from his visit home in 1970, a man in the Boeing 707 seat next to Gaylord engaged him in small talk. Gaylord politely asked the man where in Morocco he was going and why. The man’s reply shocked and unsettled Gaylord. His fellow traveler was going to Casablanca for a sex reassignment operation.
As it turns out, Casablanca was, and still is, a major center for sex reassignment surgery. Today, despite King Mohammed VI’s announcement of guaranteed medical care for all Moroccans, finding a medical facility in parts of the country can be difficult, yet fifty years ago foreigners were flying into the country as one sex and leaving physically as another. I saw several people die when proper treatment would have saved them—and not all were poor.
The story behind Gaylord’s encounter begins in 1910 in the French village of Juillan, within sight of the Pyrenees. His parents, both school teachers in Algiers, were visiting family when Madame Burou gave birth to a son, Georges, in the nearby city of Tarbes. I will mention Juillan again, in another post, but in a very different context!
Georges Burou grew up in Algeria, and studied medicine to become a gynecologist. After World War II, in which he saw combat as a member of the French army, he moved to Casablanca. He established a clinic in Casablanca, which achieved worldwide recognition as Burou became known for his specialty, sex reassignment surgery. His clinic was so well-known in fact that the expression “going to Casablanca” eventually evolved. One of his patients was the English author and traveler writer, Jan Morris, who passed away not long ago. Morris, incidentally, was the reporter who broke the news of the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.
In 1968, I used to go to Casablanca to pick up truckloads of chicken feed for a primary school chicken cooperative. If one had told me at the time about Georges Burou, I would have been incredulous. Morocco was a conservative Muslim society, where the head of state bore the title “Commander of the Faithful.” At that time, sexual reassignment would have been a rare and controversial procedure anywhere in the world. Yet upon reflection, Casablanca was also a modern metropolis with air links to the rest of Africa, Europe, America, and the Middle East and it had a sizable medical community. Was I naive or was I not?
Today, homosexuality is illegal in Morocco, yet sexual reassignment is permitted. One of the most famous Moroccan belly dancers is a trans person, though her long and strenuous efforts to be officially recognized as a woman have not succeeded. Tradition and modernity are often at cross purposes, especially where the law is concerned. In modern Iran, where almost any sexual activity outside marriage is forbidden, the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring that the sexual reassignment procedure was legal.
Georges Burou drowned in a boating accident in 1987. His work was so controversial that he purposely kept a low profile. He rarely gave interviews. Burou was certainly no saint. Aside from his pioneering surgery, he provided services that many would find unethical or even reprehensible. No one to this day has painted a detailed picture of his life. Even his death was a bit mysterious. I have read that there were only two life jackets for the three people aboard his boat the day it sank, and Burou offered them to his two teenage passengers.