In the sixties, Sefrou had one movie theater, the Maghrib el Arabi, but it was great! On a hot summer night, the roof would retract, slowly and almost silently, and the cool evening air would pour in from a sky full of stars. I went to the movies whenever I could. I loved films, and, frankly, how many things could you do in a small provincial city where almost everyone went home to their families at night, tired from a day’s hard work? Not that the theater was an entirely respectable place. Now, whenever I watch the Italian movie, Cinema Paradiso, I’m always reminded of Sefrou, its movie theater, and the people I knew.
In those days the choice of films was mostly between Bollywood musicals and spaghetti westerns. Occasionally there was an Egyptian feature, beyond the comprehension of someone already struggling with Moroccan dialect, and, sometimes, a recent American movie, and sometimes a classic. I remember watching High Noon, which for me was iconic and for my colleague puzzling, and, In the Heat of the Night, a contemporary drama about the civil rights struggle in the American South. The big cities had a much better choice of films. I saw Space Odyssey 2001 in the Theatre Mohammed V, not long after the film opened in the U.S. Needless to say, the Western movies were always dubbed in French.
But that was Rabat. In Sefrou, I still remember hearing, through the front windows of the house, the sounds of young men walking home through the empty street at night, a darkened medina street lit by an occasional street light, whistling the theme music from A Fist Full of Dollars (https://youtu.be/9uFlE1cO8Fc), and knowing they enjoyed it, but also wondering what they made of it. It was certainly more a part of their America than mine.
The CBS Evening News ended tonight with a feature on the harvest of argan nuts. Argan oil has become an exotic ingredient in soaps and cosmetics in the United States. I remember it as something the people of the Souss used in their cooking, and the goats in trees, which I have seen touristing in Morocco, just reminded me how unfamiliar and strange the Souss was to me, whereas any old picture of Sefrou feels familiar and comfortable as home.
Every student of French, from my generation at least, probably remembers “Nos ancêtres étaient les Gaulois,” the beginning text of a French history primer. Across the Francophonie, generations of young Africans and Asians must have puzzled over the history they were learning and wondered about its relevance.
When I left Morocco, the migration to Europe was important, and growing, and, possibly, changing from one of single male migrants, who sent back remittances to their families, to one of true emigrants who were taking their families and intending to settle down. If I am not mistaken, Moroccan migration to France dates from World War I, when a shortage of labour produced a temporary opportunity in the war industries.
Temporary migration of young men, for purely economic reasons, is a worldwide phenomenon, of course. In Morocco itself, the Swasa were well known for it (as were the Mzabis in Algeria and the Djerbis in Tunisia, also groups known for running small grocery shops.) Moving one’s family to France, however, is a different matter, and the calculus of considerations is more involved and deeper. Would one expect better treatment by the French after moving from a former colony to the métropole? Some migrants may be naive, but most know that their future may be difficult.
Many of my former neighbors did move to France, and I have since wondered often how they fared there. The younger, single migrants had a tough time, I am sure. I can remember, back in 1971, having a café au lait on a thoroughfare of the Left Bank, and, recognizing the waiter as a maghrebi, began conversing in Arabic with him. An Algerian, he was surprised and delighted to meet an American who spoke Arabic, and willingly suffered my poor command of Moroccan dialect to have a real conversation with me.
Just a few days ago, there was a short piece on NPR, which argued that part of the problem with the radicalization of disaffected Muslim youth in France can be partly attributed to the fact that these young men, born in France, could not identify with traditional French culture. French history has pretty much been a history of France till the Republic, with no role for Arabs, and containing little with which they could identify. Une histoire des autres, for sure. Furthermore, radio and TV do not often portray Frenchmen of Arab descent in high status roles such as doctors or scientists.
This makes me think of the sixties and seventies in America. At the time I served in the Peace Corps, African Americans were still fighting for rights that had been finally enshrined in law, but were not yet accepted by many white Americans. Part of the civil rights struggle involved building African American history and identity. At the time I thought some of the effort was forced and naive, but, after years of Black History months, black Americans and whites, too, have succeeded in creating a common history, ratified by popular textbooks. Perhaps “succeeded” is too strong a word, but back in the sixties I was a young, white, and ignorant of most things black, I knew more about La révolution tranquille in Québec than civil rights in Selma, Alabama. Slowly, but surely, African American history has developed and merged with mainstream American history. Today, American TV regularly portrays African Americans in positions of power, trust, and authority as does the American movie industry.
Culture usually includes a common, shared history, and those French, who are children of Arab migrants in France (or Arab migrants elsewhere in Europe), need to have a sense of their own place in their country’s history as well as society today. Lacking connections leads to alienation. The colonial history of France and the history of migrants is not a pretty one, but many North Africans served in France’s armies and contributed to France in other ways. In the U.S, with a history of slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow laws, and the violence and continued discrimination against Blacks that continues today, history has been rewritten. France has at least been largely free from the American kind of racism, where color bias is so strong that it has been compared to caste.
Efforts by academics in the U.S. to forge a world history are ongoing, and though plagued by the usual problems of the social sciences, they have been met with some success. European History, as taught in high schools and colleges, and sometimes presented as Western Civilization, used to be referred to derisively as “the history of old, dead white men.” World History advocates have challenged that perspective head on, including women’s gender roles and regional histories that eschew the North Atlantic perspective. The French speaking world, too, may need to work to create broader, more inclusive histories, and the effort should not be assumed to be a uniquely French one. Perhaps it is time for the French, and all of Francophonie, to revisit history, and find a place for the new generations who will repopulate Europe.
I was first taught the poetry of Robert Frost in eighth grade, and watched him in 1960 at the Kennedy Inaugural, before I went off to New Hampshire and learned more about Frost firsthand. Over the span of my life, I have come to appreciate his poetry more and more. Mr. Trump would do well to reread The Mending Wall, and think about its message.
When I lived in Sefrou, the house I lived in abutted the city wall. When I looked through my bathroom window, I looked through the masonry wall of my house and then through four or five feet of the rubble that made up the city wall. Just outside my front door (an impressive wooden one with iron studs, a brass knocker, and a smaller door within the main door), was one gate of the wall. If the city were to be attacked, defenders could close the gate. This system worked pretty well in Europe until the time of the 100 Years War, when cannon and blackpowder made walls obsolete. In the four years I lived along the wall, the gate was never shut. The time of bledes-siba had long passed.
Next to my house was a garden that also shared the wall, and created an open space between my house and the next house built along the wall. The garden was not cultivated or used for any purpose. From my rooftop one could see the whole inside face of the wall. It had holes that in other times were used to hold scaffolding that had been used to build and repair the wall. In the holes lived kestrel hawks, and in the late afternoons they would return from hunting and fly in graceful circles before entering their nests and going to sleep for the night. It was a pleasure to watch them. Looking in the opposite direction, toward the southeast, the snows of Jbel Bouiblane caught the same rays that illuminated the hawks.
In the past, not only cities had walls, but empires had them, too. The Roman Emperor Hadrian built a wall right across England to keep out the northern barbarians, today known as Scots. The Chinese built the Great Wall stretching miles and miles across northern China, and furnishing a name for endless Chinese restaurants. The Sultan Moulay Ismaïl, surrounded his capital, Meknes, with 25 miles of walls, some built by slaves. Modern empires have walls, too. Israel has erected what it calls a “separation barrier” between Israel and occupied Arab territories, but I think the word “wall” describes it better. The East Germans built a wall to separate the Soviet-controlled part of Berlin from that of the West. Walls never seem to go out of fashion, whether they are effective or not. Something there is in politicians that makes them want to put walls up, and wall people in or out, or even, sometimes, both.
It was strange to hear the presumptive Republican Party candidate, Donald Trump begin talking about building walls. The height of Trump’s wall depends on what speech he was making and varies, but in one of his last speeches, the wall reached 55 feet! Trump says he will build it along the Mexican border, and that the Mexicans will pay for it. They say they won’t, of course.
One of Trump’s early Republican competitors, and now a political ally of Trump, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, has said that a wall on the Canadian border has to be considered, too. Well, I can sort of understand that. Canada is the only country that has ever beat the United States in a war, and, even if the Canadians aren’t very bellicose these days, we all know that they spread dangerous ideas such as socialism and national health care and poutine. Where I live, a chain of doughnut shops named after a Canadian hockey player, is taking over the fast food market. The Canadians even have two official languages, a really bad example for the United States, which doesn’t yet even have one. And while the United States has yet to make good on its pledge to take in 2,000 Syrian refugees, the Canadians have already accepted 25,000 and are ready to take in another 25,000!
All the cities of Europe once had walls. Most were demolished to provide room for urban growth and expansion, often replaced by a ring road such as the one surrounding Paris, where exits bear the names of former gates in the wall: Porte d’Orléans, Porte d’Auteuil, Porte de Clichy, etc. In smaller towns and cities, walls still stand as tourist attractions, and some such as those at Aigues Mortes represent unique examples of medieval military architecture.
In Morocco, the French colonial policy of building new towns separate from the existing Moroccan cities resulted in the preservation of old city walls, and many cities have them. For me, one of the first views of Rabat was crossing the Bou Regreg and seeing the walls surrounding the Casbah of the Udayas. The walls of Fes, Meknes, and Marrakesh are grandiose, but the walls of Sefrou are special to me. I would get out of a Grand Taxi across from the Bab elMkam, coming home from Fes after work, and walk along the streets outside the wall until I reached the gate outside my house, past the store owners and shopkeepers who were also my friends ad neighbors.
When I began the blog, I chose the Book Locker and Mme Miss Terri as subjects because the first was iconic, and the second was indicative of how we Peace Corps volunteers were struggling to make some sense of our surroundings, where things might not have always been what they seemed to be.
The book lockers faded away as the card board containers molded and broke, and, perhaps, because they may have represented a sharing of contemporaneous literature not universally admired. In 1968, the political winds blew through the Peace Corps offices just as they did everywhere in America. After the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, the New York Times Week in Review ceased arriving and in its place was Time Magazine.
Eventually we even got a political refugee, Richard Holbrooke, whose stated ambition, on one occasion anyway, was to drive along every paved road in Morocco. I don’t think it’s likely that he did that. There were a lot of paved roads in Morocco down which Peace Corps work didn’t take you. His interest was Vietnam, of course, and his second language was French. His knowledge of the French song was limited to Aznavour and I was smitten by Georges Brassens, so there was no meeting of minds there, and while I did like Aznavour, I doubt Dick even knew who Brassens was. We did not hit it off. He was impressed that I was an Ivy grad, but that didn’t hold much interest for me. I thought he was ambitious and shallow. He was ambitious. Others who knew him better can judge his intellect. But in fairness to Holbrooke, he went on to broker the Dayton Peace Accords, and halt the genocide that consumed the Balkans in the early 1990s.
This long digression ends with its primary subject, the mystery women who was no mystery to the Moroccans among whom she lived, and her successor, Al Jessup. None of us Peace Corps volunteers had any interest in spreading Christianity in Morocco. Most of us did not practice our own religions. A few volunteers even converted to Islam! We were in Morocco to help the country any way that we could, but our jobs had nothing to do with religion.
I have noticed, after writing my blog entries about Maude Cary, that American evangelicals have been pushing hard, trying to spread “la Bonne Nouvelle” in Morocco. Under the French Protectorate, there doesn’t seem to have been much of an effort to spread religion. France was a secular state, and it deferred to the nominal ruler, the sultan, as far as religious matters went. France wanted peace and had no interest in provoking any kind of unrest. Some French religious orders ran schools, orphanages, and training centers. After independence, the GOM discouraged missionary activities. The Maude Carys and Al Jessups faded away.
Today, however, American evangelical organizations are mounting an effort to enlarge the sphere of their missionary activities, and enlisting Congressmen to pressure the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Administration views missionary activities as contrary to the wishes of Morocco, and has not supported their requests. Morocco is a long standing ally of the U.S., with which it has enjoyed good relations for many years.
This is a tempest in a teapot, but reflects the rise of the religious right in America, and active attempts to reverse the traditional secular orientation of the U.S. Government. I find it extremely ironic that Americans are so frightened by extreme fundamentalist Islamic organizations, while ignoring the promotion of religious agendas at home. Unlike Morocco, which is almost homogeneous in its religion, and is headed by a ruler who claims the title Commander of The Faithful, the U.S., a nation of many immigrants, has a diversity of religious beliefs and a Constitution which forbids the establishment of an official religion.
When you begin to remember, new recollections follow one after another. Miss Terri’s real name was Maude Carey. If you look at Amazon’s offerings, there’s a book by Evelyn Stenbock, entitled Miss Terri!: The Story of Maude Cary Pioneer GMU Missionary in Morocco, which I bought and read long ago when I was a graduate student. It was published in 1970 by the Back to the Bible Society. While it provided information on her life, I did not find it very interesting. I wanted more information about Sefrou. Wikipedia has an article about Maude Cary. She died in 1967, the year I joined the Peace Corps.
Gaylord and I knew her successor, Al Jessup, but never witnessed what he did. He liked to fish, and was friends with a French merchant who sold sporting goods, and spent a lot of time fishing. The rainbow trout fishing was great in the eastern High Atlas, not too far from Sefrou. And there was always fishing for European pike in the Middle Atlas lakes close by. I think Mr. Jessup had a Land Rover.
Mr. Jessup probably wrote us off as poor Christian souls who had lost our way. He and his wife were kind, and invited Gaylord and me to have Thanksgiving dinner with them in 1968.
There are a couple of pictures of Mr. Jessup. One is with Gaylord Barr on a trip to Azrou where there was a leper colony. The trip was memorable for two reasons: first, because it was the first time I had ever met anyone suffering from the disease of leprosy, and second, because the weather was icy on the trip over from Sefrou, and, Gaylord, who was driving, lost control of the Peace Corps jeep in a sleet storm somewhere along the main highway on one of those long flat stretches before Ifrane. I was in the back, which had no seats, and as we spun around on the road, I worried about a big truck approaching from the south. We slowed and slipped into a shallow drainage ditch and the jeep tipped over on its side. None of us were hurt, the jeep was undamaged, and the truck crew stopped, and helped us right the jeep, a little short wheelbase model with a canvas top, and we were off again to the leper colony, not injured but a little shaken. Gaylord took this as a sign to slow down! Mr. Jessup probably saw it as Divine intervention.
Our Peace Corps group was in Morocco at a time when things were changing. The French presence was still strong, but career bureaucrats were retiring from Moroccan posts. In the short time I was there, the church in Sefrou, high above the Ville Nouvelle, was open for Sunday services, then shuttered, and finally sold and used for another purpose.
French coinage, in denominations of francs and in the name of the Empire Chérifien, were still in circulation. I still have some of the old aluminum 5-franc coins, worn almost flat.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, with a lot of time to read, I sometimes went to the Christian bookstores. While I was briefly stationed at a Centre de Travaux Agricoles (CT) on the main route south out of Meknes, the shop I visited was La Bonne Nouvelle in Meknes. There was also one in Fes on Mohammed V. It was run by a pleasant Englishman and his Moroccan assistant. I still have a copy of Huxley’s Mediterranean Wild Flowers, which I bought there and enjoyed and looked at often.
And speaking of changes, the Peace Corps office, which I think had been next to Aeroflot office, had been moved to Rue Van Vollenhoven, in the heart of Rabat. Great location, with plenty of room, but sitting on valuable real estate. Before I left, its address had been renamed more appropriately, zanqat Moulay Rachid. Today it is elsewhere.
I remember emailing Gaylord Barr, a Peace Corps volunteer who served in the late 1960s in Sefrou, some questions about Madame Mystérie. I was surprised that he did not recall that my reference was to the first missionary to come to Sefrou, in early years of the 20th century. Her name was Maude Cary (I have a little book about her somewhere, published by a missionary society.) Unmarried, she became known as Miss Cary, which made more sense to non-English speakers as Madame Miss Cary as she got older! Of course, I misheard her name Madame Miss Cary as Madame Mystery, mysterious till I figured it out. It seems that my Moroccan friends also knew her as Madame Mestiry.
Every one tries to take unfamiliar things and place them in a context that makes sense. Near the end of the French Protectorate, when King Mohammed V did not support the French and spoke out for independence, the French exiled him to Madagascar, then a French colony. For many Moroccans who had never gone to school, Madagascar meant nothing, and some, asked about the King, said that he was sent to see “Madame Cascar.” Madame Cary was a lot like that to us naïve Americans.
I think the last missionary, Mr. Jessup, left in 1969 or early 1970. He couldn’t proselytize, and he had nothing to do and spent a fair amount of time fishing. When I told this story to an old friend, Ali Azeriah, he wrote back with his own recollections, and they contain a lot more detail than my own, and his story is interesting.
“Now to Madam Mestiry. She too was part of my childhood. I was eleven years old, and I used to go to a school in Derb l’Miter. My family used to live in Setti Mesouda. At that time (about 1958-59) many Jews (the wealthy ones) began to move out of the mellah and settle in such districts as La Ville Nouvelle, Setti Mesouda and Derb l’Miter. So Derb l’Miter hosted many Jewish and Muslim families living side by side and maintaining good neighborly relations. Madam Mestiry, the American missionary, used to live in a house in Derb l’Miter, it being the ‘Beverly Hills’ of Sefrou then. She was well known in the Sefrou community, and especially among pupils my age and teenagers in general, including those who did not attend school. At six o’clock in the evening when we came out of school, most of us students would pass by her house, and there she would be standing at the door of her house with a big smile on her face. She would ask us to come in in Moroccan Arabic ‘Aji! Aji!’ (Come in! Come in!) And a whole bunch of us (ten or twelve of us) would walk in. She would take us to a large room furnished with many chairs, a piano (the first time I saw one), a cross on the wall, and a bookshelf full of books. She would make us sit on the chairs arranged for the event, and she would sing to us hymns in broken Arabic. I can still remember one half sentence from her many religious songs: ‘something (I can’t remember the word) will take me up to the Lord.’ After about twenty minutes or so, she would stop singing, and give us pictures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Then she would invite us to the kitchen and give us the thing we cherished most: French bread and cheese or bread and chocolate, one day French bread and cheese, the next day bread and chocolate. Hungry as we were, at 6 o’clock we would flock to Madam Mestiry’s house to be fed food which we had never had at home: Boulanger (French Bread), red cheese and chocolate. We did not care as much about the religious songs or the pictures as we cared about the food, which we, the miserable kids, enjoyed very much. One day my uncle, having found the pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in my satchel, asked me how I came to get them, and I told him the truth. He gave me a thrashing and ordered me to never go to Madam Mestiry’s house. ‘She will make a Christian of you, you donkey.’ I promised him to never go there again. But I did not keep my promise. I just could not resist the temptation of ‘boulanger” and cheese or chocolate.
My generation still remembers Mme Mestiry. I do not know any one (from among the circle of my friends) who converted to Christianity, but I heard of some who did actually embrace Christianity.
This is my story of Mme Mestiry. She was well known in Sefrou.”
Thanks, Ali, for shedding light on the mysterious Mestiry and the Sefrou that was.
I lived in Sefrou, but worked 20 miles away in the provincial capital, Fes. I commuted every day by taxi or bus, which I caught across from the Bab Mkam. During the half-hour rides, I read voraciously. In the early years, volunteers were furnished “book lockers,” collections of classic and contemporary books. The “book locker” collections were a varied mix, and, as volunteers added and subtracted from them, they grew ever more diverse. Volunteers visiting Rabat would find book lockers in storage at the Peace Corps office on rue Van Vollenhoven, and look for new titles.
The book locker was an American idea, conceived in the earliest days of the Peace Corps. The names of those who put the original collections together seem to be lost. The Peace Corps knew that volunteers in remote places might find it difficult to find reading, and that they would have lots of time to read.
In Morocco, I found English language books at a certain newsstand in the villenouvelle as well as at the missionary run store, La Bonne Nouvelle. I did a lot of reading in French, and searched the medina booksellers for old items on climbing and mountaineering, my passions, as well as history.
Since that time, I have never had so much time to read.
This may seem like a slow start, but the trivia of everyday existence is as relevant as anything else. I am not aiming at profundity, just a start to the blog.