Today, the melting glaciers of the Himalayas are giving up the bodies of climbers from ill-fated expeditions of the past. Time can bury or, sometimes, with a little human help, resurrect.
The film clip below is from March 1970, roughly 49 years ago. Don Brown, the Peace Corps Administrator and excursion cinematographer took it on our hike to the summit of Jbel Ayachi (3,757 m.) I wrote here in an earlier blog about that climb, unaware that Don had video footage. The grainy 8mm film looks as ancient to me today as the early black and white films of the first expeditions to Everest looked to me as a youth. We are all now accustomed to the sharper, better exposed clips, taken with ease by a cellphone. I kept thinking of Merrimack Cooper’s Grass, where he follows a Bakhtiari nomad migration across the Zagros. “Tramp, tramp, tramp.” I see the silent movie’s captions in my mind, along with all the sheep.
What a gift to have this video resurface! The team of three is clearly having fun. The star is H. Louden Kiracofe, Peace Corps doctor. The film begins at the Peace Corps Office in Rabat, Morocco. Louden is clowning as Abderrahman, who took care of the Peace Corps motor pool, inspects the vehicle.
The action shifts briefly to the Setti Messaouda Gate in Sefrou. My house was inside to the left. Don and Louden stopped there to pick me up.
Next we are camping in the Cirque de Jaffar, one of the possible starting points for climbing Jebel Ayachi. Berber boys were fascinated by us, and hoping we would share chocolate with them, which we did, of course.
We left about sunrise, and the mountain shots are dark. There is a narrow gorge on the initial approach, with vertical walls and a stream flowing through it. Afterwards we just continued up through the valleys that lead to the summit. Louden and I had done the climb before, and there was little difficulty finding the route.
Out of breath from the altitude and the march, Don decided that he had had enough and stopped in the large basin about 500 feet below the 12,300 foot peak’s two summits. There he waited until Louden and I returned, hence, no footage from the summit, though Louden and I took 35mm slides. I am the guy with all the sunscreen on his face, and the red cap. Don appears briefly in his yellow parka.
The trip was great fun. Thanks, Don, for finding the old film, digitizing it, and sharing it! To see it, just click on the link, Climbing Jebel Ayachi.
Le Maroc, pays de volcans? On peut en douter fort. Et pourtant…
Quand on pense aux volcans, on se rappelle les coulées incandescentes de Hawaï, qui détruisent tout ce qui se trouve sur leur chemin et allument les cieux avec des fontaines de laves lumineuses. Ou bien on pense à l’explosion de Karakatoa, entendue à 3 000 km de sa petite île, qui n’existe plus. Ou peut-être à l’éruption de Vésuve, ensevelissant les villes romaines de Herculanum et Pompéi. Ou bien au Massif central de France, où de l’activité volcanique s’est manifestée il y a à peine 5 000 ans.
Les volcans actifs et dormants se trouvent à bien des endroits dans notre monde, notamment dans « le cercle de feu » qui entoure le bassin du Pacifique. Le Maroc, par contre, n’a pas de volcans actifs. Cependant, on peut repérer beaucoup de traces visibles d’un volcanisme datant de l’ère géologique récente.
En suivant la route de Meknès à Azrou, on traverse ce qu’on appelle le belvédère, un tronçon de route qui longe le bord des premiers plateaux et qui offre une vue des vallées et des pics du pays d’Ito.
Ces sommets sont les restes de petits volcans. Parfois, comme il m’est arrivé au mois de mars 1968 en descendant d’Azrou où je venais de rendre visite à mon copain, Marc, la dépression paraît remplie de nuages, et les pics ressemblent à un archipel émergeant d’une mer moutonnée et cotonneuse.
Tout près, juste au-dessus d’Azrou, plusieurs cônes sont éparpillés sur les hauts plateaux calcaires. Dans une voiture, on ne les remarque guère à cause de leur faible altitude, mais si on monte au sommet du djebel Hebri, lui-même produit de l’action volcanique, les cônes volcaniques sont bien évidents le long de la route nord-sud qui traverse les hauts plateaux. Dans les photos aériennes et satellites de la région d’Ifrane, on peut distinguer nettement les effets du volcanisme.
Le Moyen Atlas n’est pas la seule chaîne du Maroc touchée par le volcanisme. Dans l’Anti-Atlas, se trouve un volcan éteint, haute de 3 300 m, le Djebel Sirwa, souvent écrit Siroua. On l’aperçoit clairement du mont Toubkal et des sommets environnants.
Djebel Siroua. Vue du sommet du Toubkal.
Le Maroc, tellement intéressant sur le plan humain, l’est tout autant sur le plan géologique. J’encourage le lecteur à explorer ses merveilles qui se trouvent souvent à proximité des grandes routes.
In the sixties, a frequent scam involved an approach by a stranger who offered for sale some precious item that he had found on the beach. Even Peace Corps volunteers, who surely should have known better, were occasionally taken in by the scheme.
One volunteer, in Tangier for training, bought a beautiful Seiko watch, which, not unsurprisingly, stopped working soon afterwards. He took it to a medina shop in Rabat, which serviced watches, and the watch repairman took a look and quickly related the bad news. The watch was a fake.
The volunteer, who had paid good money for the watch, was beside himself. Not able to express himself in either Arabic or French, he began ranting, gesticulating, and jumping about the small shop.
Unfortunately, he stepped on the owner’s dog, which bit him severely enough to draw blood. The watch cost him far more than what it was worth, and he had to undergo a series of rabies shots to boot!
If this were a Thurber fable, I would have a good moral here. Perhaps a reader can supply one for this true story.
Au cours de la préparation de ces billets, j’ai eu l’occasion de discuter de certaines aventures et folies de notre jeunesse. Tout dernièrement, Reed Erskine et moi avons échangé des souvenirs de nos tentatives malheureuses d’escalader le Mont San Jacinto dans le sud de la Californie.
À l’époque on était une quarantaine de stagiaires, vivant dans un taudis qui servait de camp d’ouvriers migrants. Le Corps de la Paix le jugeait une préparation suffisante pour affronter les rigueurs de la vie au Maroc. À vrai dire, pendant les sept années que j’ai passées au Maroc, je n’ai jamais été aussi mal logé, et, quant à la nourriture, elle était tellement infecte que les stagiaires menaçaient de la boycotter. Par comparaison, manger au Maroc c’était comme monter au ciel.
De notre quartier dans la vallée, on voyait clairement la montagne, la deuxième en altitude dans le sud de Californie. Sur une épaule se situe au premier plan Tahquitz Peak, un éperon rocheux, avec en arrière-plan la montagne propre, haute de 3 300 mètres.
Loin de chez eux et pleins d’énergie, une poignée de stagiaires se proposaient l’ascension. Bien que beaucoup moins dramatique, tout ce qui s’est passé me rappellerait plus tard le livre de Saint-Loup, La montagne n’a pas voulu. En effet, Le mont San Jacinto n’a pas voulu du tout !
Cette montagne est une des plus élevées du sud de la Californie, et sépare une vallée intérieure du désert. D’un côté, une région agricole, de l’autre le désert, elle est située dans une forêt nationale par où le sentier Pacific Coast, dans son long méandre entre les frontières mexicaine et canadienne, passe à travers.
Nous sommes partis le soir, après nos cours, faire du camping près du village de montagne Idyllwild pour être prêts à commencer notre ascension de bonne heure le lendemain matin. En arrivant, on a constaté que le groupe n’avait apporté que très peu d’eau. Tant pis, on en trouvera en forêt. La petite carte des sentiers que nous avions apportée n’indiquait pas les points d’eau; c’était à peine une carte, plutôt une représentation schématique, et nous ne nous en sommes pas inquiétés.
Elle ne marquait pas fidèlement les distances non plus. Le sommet était distante de 30 km. Notre route devait nous amener à mi-chemin du sommet de Tahquitz Peak (2 800 m). Remplis d’enthousiasme, sinon du bon sens, nous avons entamé notre randonnée de bonne heure le matin.
Au fur et mesure que Le Soleil montait, le manque d’eau se faisait sentir, et encore loin du sommet du Pic Tahquitz, la quantité risible d’eau apportée s’est épuisée. Toujours optimiste, on continuait à monter, et cela en dépit d’un temps de mi-octobre très chaud et sec! Un des nôtres s’est avisé de jouer aux cowboys et aux Indiens, courant devant les autres, et disparaissant. Nous le retrouvions toujours, perché sur un grand rocher, jambes croisées, assis à la manière d’un Peau-Rouge de Lucky Luke.
Malheureusement, le jeu s’est terminé quant il s’est épuisé à tel point qu’il ne pouvait plus bouger, et, comble de malheur, il n’y avait pas une seule goutte d’eau pour étancher sa soif.
Nous avons commencé à craindre sérieusement pour sa santé. Un ou deux d’entre nous sont descendus chercher du secours et sont revenus à cheval avec le shérif d’Idyllwild. On est descendus, le malade à cheval, les autres à pied. La santé bien rétablie grâce à des boisons gazeuses et des glaces, nous sommes rentrés à Hemet. C’est ainsi que s’est terminée notre première tentative.
MOROCCO X: PEACE CORPS TRAINING IN HEMET CALIFORNIA
Reed Erskine, author and photographer.
In the summer of 1967, gas was 33 cents a gallon. The average annual income was $7,300. A war was raging in Vietnam, its American death toll having mushroomed, for the first time that year, to nearly 1,000 American lives a month. Race riots had broken out in Detroit, Newark, Tampa, Buffalo, and Memphis. I was negotiating, in my 20th year of life, the uncertain territory between being a boy and becoming a man.
Fellow baby boomers, including one of my college roommates, had flocked to San Francisco for the first and last “Summer of Love”; meanwhile I was working a summer job at Montreal’s Expo ’67, bussing tables at the India Pavilion restaurant.
At the end of my sophomore year in college, I had applied to the Peace Corps, stirred by the adventurous idealism of a national service founded only six years before by a president who had captured our imaginations with the possibility of being, in some small way, an agent of peace and understanding.
I had nearly forgotten my Peace Corps application until I got back from Montreal, and heard that the government had been asking friends and neighbors for character references on my behalf. It took a moment to realize that my Peace Corps application was being digested in the bowels of officialdom.
A letter arrived, proposing Peace Corps service in Micronesia. Head filled with images of palm-fringed islands in the sun, I called in to accept, only to be told that the program had been filled. The next program offered a post in Andhra Pradesh, India, but that fell through as well. As I was beginning to reconsider the entire project, I was assigned to Morocco X, an agricultural program.
Looking back over the five decades gone by since that mid-October day in 1967 when our cohort of 43 men and boys came together in Hemet, California for three months of training, I had come to think that memories of that brief time had been all but lost beneath the accretion of intervening years.
When I discovered David Brooks’, “The Morocco That Was” blog, I was moved to revisit my own Morocco X experience, and, in rummaging through my meager memorabilia , discovered a cache of correspondence and journal entries that offered a few vignettes of our time in Hemet. I am setting down this account in the hope that those who were part of our shared experience might add their own memories to this blog, and help fill the remaining gaps in my recollections.
Morocco X was conceived as an ambitious agricultural project intended to aid and expedite a USAID Program to introduce a new and improved strain of wheat, known generally as “Mexican Wheat” to Moroccan farmers.
We volunteers were to be stationed at the numerous centres de travaux, small agricultural extension offices scattered across rural Morocco. Often sited in remote locations, the “C.T” were staffed by extension agents who dispensed aid and information to small family farms. The agents distributed seed stock, introduced modern techniques, pesticides, fertilizers, and provided access to modern, labor-saving machinery, such as tractors, plows and combines to farm communities, who were still relying on methods little changed since the Middle Ages.
Our mission, as volunteers, would be to coordinate with our USAID and Moroccan counterparts to get the new Mexican Wheat to our centres, set up demonstration plots, and introduce an agricultural revolution that could dramatically increase yields by eliminating two devastating problems facing wheat growers.
Wheat “rust”, a parasitic fungal infection on the stem and leaves of the plant, weakens its host, reducing quality and yield. As if the threat of “rust” was not enough, “lodging”, the tendency of the ripe wheat to fall over before harvest, leaving large swaths of wheat fields flattened to the ground, could also jeopardize the success of an otherwise abundant crop.
In 1944, an Iowa farmer and plant pathologist, Norman Borlaug, had begun to find a solution to wheat rust infestation. For the next decade, he and his colleagues crossbred thousands of wheat strains from around the world to create a rust-resistant wheat. The resulting hybrid was still vulnerable to toppling under the weight of its ripe heads, until Borlaug crossed it again with a Japanese dwarf strain to create a short-stemmed, semi-dwarf wheat, resistant to both lodging and rust.
Borlaug’s genius and dedication won him a Nobel prize in 1970, and should have provided Morocco X with a seminal role in the great endeavor of thwarting the dire Malthusian prediction of mass starvation as population growth outstripped agricultural output. This heady prospect, that might have cast us as servants to the survival of the human race, was, like so many hopes and dreams, on a collision course with the ultimate reality of our mission in Morocco.
PEOPLE & PLACE:
On a warm mid-October afternoon in 1967, 43 prospective volunteers for the tenth Morocco Peace Corps program, having passed initial application and vetting processes, arrived in Hemet, California. Most of us came from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Lower 48, with a few from the Midwest, and at least one, that I can think of, from the South. We ranged in age from 19 to 38. An overwhelming majority came armed with undergraduate degrees, a few having pursued or obtained post-graduate degrees. One or two of us had less than four years of college. No one had, as far as I could tell, any agricultural background. Without exception we were white Caucasians which, in 1967, was not surprising.
In those days, Hemet was a nondescript sprawl of a town, set in a semi-desert valley just beginning its evolution from a patchwork of irrigated alfalfa fields and orchards, into America’s first planned retirement community, which offered mobile home sites in a subdivision zoned for residents over the age of 55.
Sierra Dawn Estates, promoted by Art Linkletter, had preceded our arrival in Hemet by only a few years. Its wide, straight streets, bordered by tidy, double wide mobile homes, fronted by startlingly green Sta-Rock “lawns”, had just begun to transform the “Grapes of Wrath” desolation of Hemet into a working-class, suburban Valhalla.
Hemet’s role in the American dream went unnoticed by us new arrivals. We were billeted at a desolate migrant labor camp in an abandoned pecan grove on the ragged edge of town. We remained largely unaware of the Hemet or its inhabitants, whose population would not exceed 10,000 souls until the 1970 census.
Our initial concern was adjusting to our spartan accommodations, a one-story line of dormitory rooms on a concrete slab, separated by a dirt courtyard from an identical set of rooms, which served as classrooms. Meals were taken in a large wooden building on the other side of the road. Both residential and classroom wings were bridged at one end by a shared bath facility. We were four to a room, in each corner of which we found a steel frame cot and thin mattress. A door and two windows completed the decor.
Our other concern was the punishing curriculum, 28 hours a week of immersion language classes, 15 hours a week of basic agronomy, and 12 ½ hours a week of something called “Area Studies”, which consisted of instruction in the essential aspects of Moroccan customs and etiquette. Beyond the classroom, there were field trips to olive groves, date plantations, and the irrigated, industrial-scale agriculture sites of the Imperial Valley.
Behind our barracks were a few acres of open field, where we were assigned individual irrigated plots to plant and cultivate. Our education included instruction in the production of adobe bricks, and rammed earth wall construction. Our six-day weeks, with morning, afternoon and evening classes, made for a grueling schedule, but we were left to our own devices on Sundays and holidays, which included, in our case, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the arrival of the New Year.
The days got shorter. Our struggles with an incomprehensible language, trying to find warmth enough for slumber under thin blankets through bone-chilling nights, as roommates snored and mumbled in their dreams, plus the seemingly random attrition of our numbers, all conspired to sap morale. We were becoming a brotherhood of shared hardship, but our camaraderie was, by necessity, tentative, as we were soon to be dispersed either by dreaded “de-selection” from the program, or when we were to be dispatched to solitary assignments across rural Morocco.
A palpable sense of shock went through our ranks when one of us was drafted out of training. While education was an acceptable grounds for draft deferment, Peace Corps deferments were up to individual draft boards who didn’t always view trainee status as entitled to deferment. A few trainees left the program early for personal reasons, and a case of pneumonia sent at least one trainee home for medical reasons. By the end of training, our original 43 trainees had become a contingent of 30 volunteers, who, having endured the rigors of training, might succeed the ultimate test of surviving, and hopefully thriving, on their own in Morocco.
PAINS & PLEASURES:
Our 12 weeks of training in Hemet have left a few memorable impressions intact to this day, basic sustenance being one of them. The food provided by the training organization, the anonymously titled “Development & Resources Corp.”, was so bad that two months into training, it nearly provoked a mutiny. In one of my letters home, I described it as 40% fat and 50% carbohydrates. The cost of our upkeep, per head, was rumored to be $3.50 per day. After all, the more D&R spent on us, the less would be left for the company. On the bright side was the mid-morning visit by the Taco Truck, whose coffee and crunchy fare were often the high points of our day.
Language training, all 336 hours of it, was brutal, but our Moroccan teachers were tireless, effective, and patient. In retrospect, it must have been much harder for them than it was for us. We spent hours on the pronunciation of sounds that don’t exist in English: glottal stops, unfamiliar consonants, tricky vowel sounds, and extravagantly rolled R’s.
Our lazy, middle-of-the mouth, American English was no match for a language that demanded agility from the tip to the root of the tongue, lips and deepest recesses of the throat. We learned just enough darija, as Moroccan dialect is called, to learn some more. Our crash course in the language endowed us with the gift of comprehending, if only a little, the complexities of life in a culture very different and distant from our own.
In spite of our six-day work weeks, Sundays and holidays provided free time for all kinds of recreation, as long as it didn’t involve spending money. I’m not sure when our $75 a month salary kicked in, but our circumstances were, at the time, necessarily miserly and monastic. After weeks of admiring Mt. San Jacinto, rising to nearly 11,000 feet above the Hemet Valley, a small group of us decided to make the ascent. We were mostly naive easterners, and set out traveling light, without much food or water. It didn’t take long to figure out the error of our ways.
We ran out of water well before arriving at the summit, where the lone occupant of the Forestry Service fire lookout station studiously ignored our parched entreaties for water. Not all of our number succeeded in making the descent unaided, and our group had to separate, hoping to summon aid when one of us got to the town of Idyllwild at the foot of the mountain. Fortunately, another group of visitors, descending single file on a bunch of sturdy saddle mules, happened on our exhausted comrade and delivered him to the trail head. It was a sobering reminder, that despite our youthful energy, there were limits.
The program included, inexplicably, two horses, corralled in a small enclosure behind our barracks. They seemed to share the boredom of our long days off, and I found that the old gelding, Bub, enjoyed excursions in the sandy dry river bed that ran along the San Jacinto foot hills. It became a solitary source of joy to bridle up Bub, straddle his wide warm back, and set out for nowhere in particular. He was capable of a sweet rolling canter, but had an alarming tendency to stumble. Riding bareback, thin winter sunshine casting our long shadows on the valley floor in the cool waning days of 1967, was a singular pleasure.
On a less pleasant note, were the visits to the local doctor’s office, where we lined up to be injected with an endless variety of immunizations and vaccinations, each with its own level of discomfort. The last of these puncture parties featured the dreaded Gamma globulin shot, 5 cubic centimeters of thick amber liquid with the consistency of motor oil, delivered to the gluteus maximus. This slug of extra antibodies rendered us temporarily impervious to all manner of pathogens.
“Deselection” was the official euphemism for being rejected from training, which could happen at any point if the staff determined that a trainee was lacking in either the aptitude or attitude for two years of service in Morocco. The most dreaded kind of deselection could occur at the very end of training, leaving the rejected volunteer to pack up his hard-won education and move on.
For some reason we trainees were asked to assess our peers, as if we could judge each others’ chances of success going forward, but ours was not to reason why. On the last day, one of our more flamboyant and likable trainees, a California dude, was sent home, which left us in a state of sadness mixed with relief at having gotten through the ordeal, anticipating a return to the comforts of home and family for three days before convening at JFK, at last, Morocco bound.
Arriving in Morocco, we had two more weeks of training and orientation before heading out to our assigned posts. One of our assignments involved trying out the most basic of Moroccan agricultural practices, guiding a traditional wooden plow behind a mule. It was a humbling experience. The only metal part of this ungainly tool was a flat iron blade that scratched a shallow furrow into the earth. We had brought with us a brand new iron moldboard plow. Its curved blade, first designed by Thomas Jefferson, and later patented at the turn of the 19th century, not only cut a furrow, but turned the soil over like a breaking wave.
The traditional Moroccan plow was about two centuries behind the times, and the improvement, in our eyes, was striking. We proudly presented the new plow to the farmer who had participated in the demonstration. He seemed mildly appreciative, but somewhat nonplussed by this newfangled gadget, just as his American counterparts had greeted the introduction of the same newfangled moldboard plow with equal skepticism 167 years earlier.
Morocco X, was never to realize its potential. The Mexican Wheat, and the USAID Program to introduce it was delayed. Our volunteers in the field became redundant onlookers in a bureaucratic system that was barely functional to begin with. Our language skills, while appreciated, were inadequate in an administrative environment that relied heavily on the French language, as Morocco had only gained independence from the French protectorate in 1956, eleven years before our arrival.
A kindly Belgian agronomist in the Taza Provincial office offered me a place as his assistant in a UN Funded program to introduce modern techniques of bee-keeping to farmers in the Rif mountains. Honey was a popular commodity and a valuable cash crop. Apiculture was a good option for farmers who lacked enough arable land to provide for their families. After a month of training with an old Belgian pied noir, who bellowed “praise God” every time I was stung by the ferociously aggressive African bees, I finally had a mission whose only drawback was its seasonality. To fill in the winter off-season, I became an English language teacher at the local Taza Lycée.
Morocco X was officially disbanded at the mid-service conference. Some volunteers who had found work at the more active provincial agricultural centers, or other more specialized areas of endeavor, would stay on to finish their two-year term of service, or even extend for a third year. The rest were offered a plane ticket back to the States or transfer to other programs.
An “Evaluator”, sent from Washington to ascertain the nature of Morocco X’s thwarted ambitions, observed, in a moment of candor, that he had never seen such a promising group of volunteers so poorly tasked or deployed.
As the philosopher Kierkegaard observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” The Morocco X experience may have been an exercise in blind optimism, and the futility of good intentions, but for many of us the struggle to start life from scratch in a foreign culture demanded an intensity of self-examination and self-realization that gave us the will and the way to a larger sphere of life, “lived forwards”.
For some of us the experience was a gateway to careers in education and international development, for others the experience opened the door to experiencing a world we could not otherwise have imagined. Morocco X, whatever its faults, changed each of us in profound and simple ways that have resonated throughout life that “can only be understood backwards”.
In the middle of the first snow storm of the winter, with the temperature near or below 0° F and wind chills 20 or 30 degrees lower, every reason to stay indoors is a good one, though I did walk to the road to get the Sunday morning newspaper. Niagara County has issued a traffic advisory, counseling drivers to stay off the roads unless it is absolutely essential. Even Lucky, our male cat, who normally demands to be let out early so he can pad around, sniffing out the intruders of the night before and marking his territory, only went out once. The snow was deep and very cold, and when Lucky ran back in after five minutes, he never asked to go out again. As storms go, this was a good one, but we have certainly seen much worse. Our driveway has been plowed for us, so we are not housebound except by choice. These few days of winter are ones that one enjoys best inside. Winter has settled in for awhile, so why shouldn’t we?
We subscribe to a number of magazines, and often they go unread, piling up in unvisited corners of the house. I try to keep them as long as I can, imaging that I will find some time to read them, but I often end up only skimming them or tossing them unread.
Settling in with the storm, I picked up the latest issue of the New York Review of Books,which had just arrived. The first article was a review, by a Mexican writer, of Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie, Roma. If you are a fan of the movies, you will probably have noted that this autobiographical film about the life of a nanny in a middle class Mexican household has garnered critical acclaim, and is an Oscar contender. The reviewer related her own life directly to the movie: she had grown up in a similar situation. Indeed, it was common for those who could afford it to take on nannies and cooks from impoverished rural areas. These women ended up as primary caregivers to children of others, while sometimes their own children lived far away in their native villages. This was the best they could do. They traded abject poverty for meager positions where loneliness and mistreatment and neglect were common. Any love they gave and received was often only from the children for whom they cared. This is one of the themes of Roma.
For Americans, the live-in nanny is an unusual profession, and only wealthy Americans can afford one. I grew up in a generation of stay-at-home moms, but today two-wage earner families are the norm, and childcare is a common problem. With mobility often a requirement for employment, Americans change residences frequently, and often live far from their own parents and other relatives. Day care and more makeshift arrangements are expensive, and many parents look forward to the time when their children finally begin school, when the need for day care is reduced to a few after-school hours. In Europe au pair girls often fulfill the role of the nanny, trading pay for a chance to learn a foreign language and culture, but, like nannies, au pairs in America are expensive and rather exotic.
In poor societies, lack of employment means that women will often take jobs as domestic servants. This was the case in Morocco, even though there was a strong bias against work outside the home, and women who did it were looked down upon. Rules of modesty were necessarily abandoned by a woman working outside in another’s home Sometimes a poor country relative was taken in, and often treated much as a Cinderella. Many of the French coopérants hired bonnes, maids, to help them. Working for foreign non-Muslims didn’t help a woman’s status, but it was better than nothing. In France, having a bonne was perhaps more common than for an American woman to have hired help, and the word maid, in American English, certainly has strong associations with upper-class living.
When I began my work at a primary school chicken cooperative in the Habouna neighborhood of Sefrou, I replaced two volunteers who had employed a young woman to clean for them. Her name was Khadija, and she came daily. At the end of the summer of that same year, another Morocco X volunteer, Gaylord Barr, proposed that we rent a house in the medina, the old walled part of town. He moved out of a small European style house high above the ville nouvelle, the French-built new town. It was a long, steep walk to his house, and the house was far from everything. I moved out of the little block building in the yard of the school garden, a dwelling that I can easily say had the least privacy imaginable outside of a bidonville or a medina tenement. It was coveted by the chaoush (a kind of page or messenger), and, in the end, he got it. In addition to better housing, both of us looked forward to living within the medina walls. At the time, we naively thought of that as being in the authentic Morocco. In fact, it was the Morocco of the poor. Today, the medina of Sefrou is degenerating into a slum, and there have been calls to preserve it.
With the two of us in a substantial house, we needed help, and, with two Peace Corps allowances, modest as they were, paying for it was not difficult. So Khadija came to work for the two of us. Hiring help was not an uncommon practice among volunteers, but not every volunteer had a maid to clean and cook, nor did everyone want one.
I never asked Khadija how old she was, and though she had an identity card with a birthdate, it might have been wrong. I think she was about my age, or possibly slightly older.
Poor Moroccan women tended to age quickly. She was not an old woman in any case. Her surname was Demnati, which suggests that her family was from the place of that name. I remember her husband, Ali, talking about the famine in Marrakesh, and Demnat is not far from Marrakesh.
She did not speak Berber, as far as I know, though she would not have had any occasion to do so in our house. Ali had served in the French army in Vietnam, and sympathized with American soldiers at the time. Indochina was not a fond memory. He lived on his military pension, and it was not much, so Khadija’s wages contributed substantially to the family income. He had been married before, because he had a son, Mohammed, who lived with them. The three of them shared a house in the medina, with two or three other families. Khadija had no children of her own.
Khadija had no formal education, and could not read or write, which was not unusual considering her generation and social class. She had no trouble with arithmetic or handling money, however. Since Khadija spoke no French, her employment was limited further, but the volunteers of Morocco X were trained in dialectical Arabic, so Khadija’s daily language was fine for us, and speaking with her gave us constant practice as well as information about what was going on in the world. We never attempted to teach her English.
Khadija’s duties were limited, though it might not seem so as I list them. She would shop, bake bread, cook, do laundry and clean house.
She made lunch, and there was usually enough for dinner in the evening. She usually arrived about 8:00 in the morning. Once I began working in Fes, I would only see her on weekends or on holidays, but I knew there would be food waiting when I arrived home, often at seven or eight in the evening.
If we had guests, she would work extra time. When Khadija needed time for something personal, she was always able to take it.
From the point of view of a Moroccan domestic, she had a good job. I think we paid more than the going rate, about $20.00 per month, and we were not demanding. When she made bread for us in the morning, she made her own bread, often I suspect, with our flour, but that was okay with us. When there was extra food, she could take it home for her family, and we gave her things we did not need and took her to Fes to the dentist and doctor when needed.
She in return did us favors. When we had women visit, she would take them to the hammam (the public baths) or to fortune tellers or whatever women’s activity they were interested in.
She also took care of the numerous pets: cats, doves, canaries, tortoises, hamsters. Changing the cat litter, which was straw, was a nasty job, although the cats eventually helped out by using the roof of the room on the terrace, to which there was no easy access, as a giant cat box!
Khadija did laundry (and rugs) in a large galvanized tub on the roof where the laundry was also hung to dry. Gaylord and I sometimes used this tub to take baths, when we couldn’t get to the neighborhood hammam.
It was just large enough to sit in, if you crossed your legs. I’d put a couple of kettles on the stove, drag the tub to the bathroom, which was the only room on the ground floor, and mix the hot and cold waters. The house had no hot water, and I don’t recall anything in the bathroom except a Turkish toilet, though there was probably a tiny wash basin. After a bath, you just dumped the bath water into the toilet hole. You were warm as long as the water in your tub stayed warm, and until the kettles ran out of fresh rinse water.
Khadija cooked from the room we called a kitchen, though it had no running water. The water was on the landing, at the main level of the house, that marked the division between the stairs that led to the roof and those that went down to the bathroom and front door. This was where dishes were washed though I think there were sunny days when pots and pans were done on the roof.
Since the stove sat on a cupboard, the food was cooked standing, but much of the preparation was done as Khadija sat on the floor. As a poor woman, her cooking repertoire was probably limited, but I have never eaten as well since, and she could make all the standard Moroccan fare.
On Aid es-Seghir we would visit her house to break the fast. One year we joined in buying a sheep with her for Aid el-Kbir, and it was kept on the roof. We called it Messaoud, an ironic name, and for the several months it lived above us, I could hear the the patter of its hooves.
It was playful too, and would chase you if you encouraged it. After keeping it a couple of months, it was almost like a pet. If it were possible to later describe your pet as delicious.
Khadija was really a kind of nanny. She took care of us in good health and in sickness, and did her best giving advice about dealing with the life about us as well as the supernatural. Moroccans, often superstitious, worried about the evil eye and malicious spirits. Khadija warned us about pouring hot water down the drain (it would anger the jinn that lived there) and leaving our clothes in disarray when we went to sleep (jinn would wear them and bring illness to the owners.)
She was an intermediary with our neighbors and shopkeepers too, and I am sure she helped us develop relationships with some of them. I don’t know if Khadija loved us with the love the nanny in Roma had for her employer’s children, but the affection she showed was real, and we often treated her more as a friend or a parent than as a servant. I sure she was often exasperated too, by the stupid things we did.
I left Morocco in the late summer of 1971. Gaylord had reenlisted for another year of teaching at the Lycée Sidi Lahcen Lyoussi. Returning from Tunisia, he contracted typhoid, and had to be evacuated to a U.S. military hospital in Spain where he spent a couple of months. During that time, Khadija watched the house and took care of the pets. Before Gaylord left in July 1972, he used some of the money he had saved to invest in a business in which Khadija would be co-owner, but, according to Khadija, her partner absconded with the stock and she ended up with nothing. It was tough for a woman to enforce her rights.
In 1973 I returned to Sefrou for a few months, and rented a place to live. I hired Khadija again. Gaylord visited Sefrou in the late 1990s, and saw her again too. She was working for a French national in the ville nouvelle, and hoping Gaylord, on his way home from Saudi Arabia, would give her money. He was put off by her behavior and complained bitterly about it to me in his description of his visit. I was frankly surprised.
Looking back, I wish I had got to know Khadija better. She might have had it easy working for us, but she had a hard life, as most of the people of her social status did. I felt for her then as I do for her now. If I had planned to be an anthropologist, I would have had four years to document her life. In retrospect, I marvel at how little I knew about her. I never learned how she married, who her friends and relatives were, and how she practiced her religion. Gaylord knew her far better than I, but he has sadly gone. I also would have liked to help her more than I did, but when I left Sefrou that chapter of my life ended. There was no easy way to stay in touch with someone who could not read or write, and the computer era had yet to dawn.
Environ une semaine avant Noël, un article sur le tourisme a paru dans le Washington Post (Tourists are ruining these destinations. Here’s where you should travel, instead.) offrant des possibilités de voyages moins courus en remplacement de certaines destinations très populaires qui sont de plus en plus coûteuses et bondées. On a proposé, par exemple, un autre site au Pérou pour remplacer Machu Picchu.
Au cours des cinquante dernières années, l’expansion du transport aérien a rendu accessibles et abordables des régions autrefois éloignées des sentiers battus. La mention de Machu Picchu m’a rappelé un souvenir.
Au milieu des années 1960 quand j’étais à l’université, Chuck, un étudiant dans la chambre attenante à la mienne dans Cutter Hall, avait été au Pérou. Il se peut que sa famille y restait. Les visites au célèbre site Inca étaient moins fréquentes et plus difficiles que de nos jours. Il m’a raconté comment lui et un ami sont arrivés tard à Machu Picchu, ont regardé l’arrivée de la nuit dans les montagnes, et ensuite se sont installés dans leurs sacs de couchage. Tout seuls au milieu des ruines, « la cité perdue des Incas » leur appartenait. L’expérience était presque spirituelle et ils attendaient impatiemment l’aube.
Quand ils se sont réveillés le lendemain, par contre, l’aube ne leur a pas apporté ce à quoi ils s’attendaient. Dans un vacarme considérable, une équipe de cameramen préparait un tournage, Le secret des Incas, mettant en vedette Victor Mature, acteur de films de série B dont la notoriété reposait sur les rôles qu’il jouait dans des films bibliques des années 1950.
Or, en toute honnêteté, je n’ai pu trouver un film de ce titre mettant en vedette Victor Mature; il s’agissait peut-être de Le secret des Incas avec Charlton Heston ou même d’un autre navet encore plus insignifiant. Quel que soit le film qu’on tournait lors du réveil de Chuck et de son ami, Machu Picchu s’est avéré tout sauf « une cité perdue ».
J’aurais préféré que ce soit un film de Victor Mature. Cette star américaine avait une réputation d’acteur médiocre à tel point qu’à l’université Harvard, les étudiants lui ont décerné le prix de Pire acteur de l’année, et ce plus d’une fois. Bon prince, Mature l’acceptait de bonne grâce. Une fois en Californie il avait fait une demande pour devenir membre dans un club de golf, demande qui a été rejetée « parce il était acteur », ce à quoi il a répondu avec indignation : « Je ne suis PAS acteur, et j’ai soixante-quatre films qui le prouvent. »
Dans la liste de nouveaux sites à visiter se trouve le mont Toubkal en remplacement de l’Everest. Le camp de base du mont Everest est devenu une destination très fréquentée par les randonneurs. Autrefois le simple défi de se rendre à la base des montagnes constituait l’un des dangers et l’une des difficultés de l’ascension des 8 000 mètres des sommets himalayens. Les récits des premières ascensions témoignent des difficultés des approches et racontent des histoires de porteurs qui abandonnent, de passages à gué dangereux et de forêts de rhododendrons infestées de sangsues.
De nos jours, quiconque qui jouit d’une bonne santé et a les moyens de payer le billet d’avion, peut trouver le moyen de s’y rendre à pied et ce n’est donc pas surprenant que certaines parties de l’Himalaya soient débordées. En Europe pour les pistes populaires, les alpinistes doivent faire la file et la France vient d’annoncer des limites (200 personnes par jour) pour ceux qui veulent grimper au sommet du mont Blanc.
Or, le Toubkal se situe à une tout autre échelle que celle de l’Himalaya et présente des paysages différents. Le sommet du Toubkal est des milliers de mètres plus bas que le camp de base de l’Everest et, si vous voulez voir de la neige au Maroc, il faut y aller pendant une saison autre que l’été. Ceci dit, une visite au Toubkal coûte relativement peu cher et, se trouvant à une courte distance de Marrakech, est d’accès facile. Ayant passé du temps dans cette région du Haut-Atlas, je n’hésiterais pas à en recommander les paysages. On peut se rendre facilement à la base du Toubkal à pied ou à dos de mulet, en quelques heures plutôt que jours, et la plupart des randonneurs peuvent composer avec l’altitude modeste du Toubkal.
Malheureusement, peu de temps après la publication de l’article mentionnant le Toubkal, deux jeunes femmes scandinaves qui faisaient du camping près d’Imlil ont été brutalement assassinées. La police marocaine a rapidement mis la main au collet des suspects et, selon la presse, certains des responsables impliqués avaient prêté serment à l’État islamique.
Depuis une vingtaine d’années, le Maroc, à l’instar des autres pays du Maghreb, a vécu des attaques terroristes, mais elles ont été peu nombreuses. Le tourisme constitue une source de revenus importants pour le pays et la protection et la sécurité des visiteurs étrangers a toujours été une préoccupation prioritaire du gouvernement marocain.
J’ai vécu au Maroc peu de temps après son indépendance de la France. À cette époque, la tolérance religieuse envers les non-musulmans était variable et dépendait de plusieurs facteurs, mais peu de Marocains avaient des croyances comparables à celles des islamistes radicaux de nos jours. Les Marocains, à l’aise dans leurs convictions et dans leur religion, abordaient les non-musulmans avec confiance. Après tout près d’un demi-siècle de régime colonial et des siècles de conflit avec des puissances chrétiennes et musulmanes, des conflits qui avaient plus à voir avec la concurrence relative aux terres et au commerce qu’avec la religion, les Marocains s’étaient forgé une identité propre. Les Marocains que j’ai connus, plus jeunes et mieux instruits, semblaient moins religieux que leurs aînés et se moquaient souvent des croyances populaires, mais ils étaient tout de même convaincus d’avoir la véritable religion, à part quelques athées autoproclamés qui prenaient soin d’en parler tout discrètement. Pendant les sept ans où j’ai vécu au pays, j’ai été témoins de bien peu d’incidents de préjugés religieux. Celui dont je garde le plus vif souvenir est arrivé au Jbel Alam pendant le moussem de Moulay Abdessalem ben Mechich, quand une jeune femme a fait exprès pour s’en prendre à moi et à un ami. Elle trouvait que nous n’avions pas d’affaire là et elle l’a dit avec force, mais ses sentiments n’ont pas trouvé d’écho chez les centaines d’autres participants et finalement elle a été emmenée par ses amis ou par sa famille.
Il se peut que les Marocains soient devenus plus conservateurs depuis les cinquante dernières années. L’Arabie saoudite travaille fort pour exporter sa version de l’islam partout dans le monde musulman et, à grand renfort d’argent, a connu du succès. Les Saoudiens que j’ai rencontrés quand je voyageais en Arabie saoudite ne cachaient pas leur mépris pour l’islam marocain qu’ils considéraient infesté de magie noire, de sorcellerie et de vénération de saints. De plus, ils dénonçaient l’attachement des élites marocaines à la langue et à la culture françaises.
L’islam radical offre un débouché séduisant aux pauvres, désenchantés et sans emploi qui ne peuvent autrement exprimer leurs opinions politiques. Un terme ironique en langue arabe, « armée des oisifs » désigne cette source de recrues jeunes et vulnérables prêtes à tout sacrifier pour des causes spéciales.
L’islam est une religion politique et dans les pays musulmans, la séparation de la religion et l’État n’existe pas. Il n’y a pas de pays musulmans laïques. Par contre, il existe bien d’autres façons d’aborder l’islam à part celle des Saoudiens. Le Maroc, quels que soient ses défauts, a toujours fait preuve de modération et de tolérance.
Durant le protectorat, le Club alpin français a construit des refuges de montagne dans la région du Toubkal. Au fil des ans, le tourisme s’est développé et plusieurs compagnies privées, généralement françaises ou britanniques, offrent des excursions et des randonnées, non seulement près du Toubkal, mais aussi dans d’autres pittoresques régions montagneuses de l’Atlas. Grâce au tourisme étranger, Imlil s’est développé et a prospéré.
Si vous prévoyez un voyage au Maroc, je vous encourage à y aller sans souci. Mon seul bémol : pour de jeunes femmes, où que ce soit dans le monde, faire du camping seule constitue un risque. Je conseillerais aux femmes de voyager accompagnées de compagnons masculins, en groupes organisés ou bien de rester dans un refuge de montagne. Coucher sous une tente seule peut s’avérer dangereux. Ceci dit, depuis quelques années il y a eu plus d’attaques terroristes à l’intérieur des États-Unis qu’au Maroc; les incidents récents ne devraient pas vous dissuader d’y faire une excursion.