In the sixties, only well-off Moroccan families had TV sets, and broadcast hours and programming were limited. No Peace Corps volunteer whom I knew had a TV. Most listened to the radio. The choice of stations was limited, and depended on where you lived. In the northeast one could get Spain, Algeria, and, where or when reception was good, France. Moroccan radio, in literary Arabic, was too difficult to follow. Before the Internet, shortwave was the only choice.
While going to college, just before Peace Corps, I began to listen to the BBC World Service. I think it was because I had bought an old, wooden console style radio and record player at a garage sale where I was helping out someone with whom I worked at the reserve desk at Baker Library. I was living in a basement dorm room, and, to improve reception, strung a long wire antenna out my window. At the time, I was interested in Canada, and I also listened to the CBC and, once my French was good enough, Radio-Canada.
When I was selected for Peace Corps training, I bought the best shortwave radio I could afford. Shortwave radios were expensive in those days, and the one I purchased, a GE multi-band, wasn’t great at all, but it worked. In Morocco, I hardly used any bands but the shortwave ones. The best English language programming was on the BBC World Service. It broadcast 24 hours a day, and it kept Greenwich Mean Time, which was the time Morocco used. I could generally tune in on one band or another and get decent reception.

My bedroom, the multi-band radio, and the cats.
My bedroom, the multi-band radio, and the cats.

In those days, the signature tune for the World Service, played before the news, was Lillibullero, and it was played in more than one arrangement over the time period I listened to BBC. I really had no idea of the origin of the tune. Recently, I searched for more information, and found that the tune dates from 17th-century revolutionary England, and was also played by the Orangemen as a regimental tune, a history that must have given a pause to the Irish who listened to the World Service. For me, Lillibullero meant that the BBC World Service was about to broadcast the news, and the World Service had the best, least biased news. Assassinations and riots were shaking America, there were troubles in Northern Ireland, Rhodesia broke away from Great Britain, and the U.S., in the midst of the Cold War, was mired in Vietnam. Far from the U.S., I depended on Alistair Cooke’s weekly Letter from America to help me understand events such as Kent State, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, often, comfort my fears that the world was going to hell in a basket.
I also listened to a variety of other BBC programming: quiz shows, pop music, comedy, and short fiction from around the world, just to name a few of the categories. It was entertainment, but also an education. There wasn’t much else. I had a record player, inherited from former volunteers, and an eclectic collection of music: Simon and Garfunkel, some later Beatles, Bob Dylan, the musical Hair, Amal Hayati (Oum Kathoum), Judy Collins, and some 45s of current popular songs. Most of it was collected by Gaylord, who actually attended an Oum Kalthoum concert at the Theatre Mohammed V in Rabat along with a number of other volunteers from our group. I wish I had gone.

The BBC remained the mainstay of my entertainment as well as a major source of the news. Even today I have a great deal of affection for the BBC, which epitomized independence and integrity. If you’ve ever listened to the World Service, you know the signature, but for those of you who have never heard it, you can listen to it at this YouTube link  (Lillibullero).

If you don’t recognize the name, Oum Kalthoum, she was the grande dame of Arabic music, an Egyptian whose life was the subject of perpetual interest to her followers, and whose voice made her admirers cry. Amal Hayati is over an hour long, and you may just wish to hear a few minutes from an old TV broadcast to get an idea (Amal Hayati) from this YouTube link.


Morocco Rabat Oudaia Casbah Tour Hassan Pano copy
Casbah of the Oudayas and the Bou Regreg, from the top of the Tour Hassan.

Rabat was about three and a half hours from Fes and Sefrou. It was the capital, and the Peace Corps office and U.S. embassy were there, so volunteers went there often. Rabat was also a pleasant place, urban, but not huge like Casablanca. It was fun. There were theaters, restaurants, big bookstores, historic sites, and, besides the volunteers and staff who lived in Rabat, there were always other volunteers passing through, and sometimes other friends, Moroccan and American. In 1968, there were direct flights to the U.S. from the airport in Salé, too, so most new Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Rabat.
Morocco Rabat Sale Ferry 2 copy

The water taxi across the Bou Regreg from Rabat to Salé. 1973

CTM buses were plentiful, running virtually every hour on the hour, and cheap, and, because the windows opened, they did not have that awful, stale odor that buses in the States had. The train took longer and was more expensive. Volunteers made the trip all the time for Peace Corps business, or en route to destinations south and west. I drove the road many times in my Peace Corps jeep. And I even hitched a ride once or twice.
About halfway to Rabat was the town of Khemisset. For Morocco X volunteers, it has a special significance. We were housed nearby at Tiflet for a couple of weeks, while we waited to be picked up and taken to the CTs (centres de travaux), basically agricultural extension stations, where we were to be stationed. It was January, and cold. The Tiflet center was in the country, and there was nowhere to go. There was jubilation when, after a week or so, the showers were finally turned on.
But the true significance of Khemisset, for me anyway, was its location, not as the chef lieu for the Zemmour tribe, nor as a temporary step on the way to my assignment, but as a great food stop, known for kifta and brochettes, on the way between Rabat and Fes.Morocco Khemisset Kifta copy

The kifta stand. Khemisset. 1968.

A line of stalls with charcoal grills served sandwiches. Seasoned with cumin and hot pepper, and filling a section of a round Moroccan bread, the skewered meat was terrific (though, it should go without saying, never as good as what I had in people’s homes.) Still, when one is on the road, a good truck stop is a special pleasure. I always stopped at the same shop, and bought food from the same guys, often enough that they recognized me, probably as the tall foreigner who spoke broken Arabic.Morocco Khemisset Brochettes copy

We always stopped here for brochettes. 1969.

Leaving Fes for Rabat, the road descended through a hilly, terraced landscape.

Morocco Cork Forest Zemmour copy
Mamora Cork Forest.

After Khemisset, it crossed the Mamora forest, the largest cork oak forest in the world, and, from that point, the road was straight and flat where it crossed the Gharb. Today the Mamora Forest is under siege. At the limit of conditions where cork oaks can grow, overgrazing threatens the forest, from what I have read, and it remains to be seen whether efforts by the government will be enough to preserve it. Other cork oak forests, such as that near Chauen, where I spent some happy times mushroom hunting with my friend Gilles Narbonne and his family, are doing better.
In the summer, the coast announced itself with humidity. It is always a strange sensation to leave a dry hot area and to find oneself suddenly in a humid, coastal climate. I had this experience at Bandar Abbas in Iran and Dakar in Senegal, but it was a regular part of living in the interior of Morocco. And mild as the coastal climate was, I always preferred the hotter, drier weather of the interior.
I had a lot of experiences on the road from Fes to Rabat. Once I had to wait for a bus, so I spent the afternoon with a friend, lost track of time, and carelessly missed the bus. Unfortunately, I had already checked my unlocked suitcase, which contained, among other things, my passport. Since I was destined for a medical evacuation flight from Keneitra to the U.S. Air Force base at Torrejón, outside Madrid, I figured I was in real trouble. I decided to see if I could beat the bus to Rabat by hitchhiking. I got a ride right away, by a young guy whom I assumed was French. I explained who I was in my best French, and the driver introduced himself in excellent French, and after a few minutes of conversation it became clear that he was an American, and, not only that, but a graduate of the same college as myself, but a year later. There’s more to the story, including a visit to the so-called secret military base in the Gharb at Sidi Yahia, but the gist of it is that we beat the bus and I was able to get my bag down from the roof rack before the bus pulled out for Casablanca.
Another time, Dick Moench, an anthropology professor at Binghamton University was driving me to Rabat. I had been in Sefrou for the weekend (at the time I was staying in Rabat or Salé), and had fallen seriously ill. We kept putting off getting gas for the little Renault 4 Dick had, and ran out of gas before reaching Khemisset. It was raining and cold. I think it was January or February and poor Dick had to hitchhike in the rain to get a bidon of gas.
Back in Rabat, I was fortunate to be taken in by Diane and Jerry Ponasik, who had a house in the Casbah of the Oudaïya, and I stayed there a couple of weeks until I regained my health. Morocco Rabat Casbah 2 copy

Casbah of the Oudaïya, Rabat.

And finally there was a time when Gaylord Barr and myself were riding the bus into Rabat, and he had needed a toilet so badly he asked the driver to stop. He signaled the bus to go on, and so it did, leaving Gaylord frantically looking for trees to hide behind! He easily got a ride in to Rabat a bit later. Moroccans were always great about giving foreigners lifts.

Sur le boulevard du temps qui passe

Gouraud Cedar, Gaylord Barr, and Peace Corps Jeep. All are gone today.

Ali Azeriah pointed out that Al Magrib Al Arabi no longer exists. That’s a small change. Add many small changes together and perhaps a place no longer is the same. From the census, we know that great changes have taken place in Sefrou. When I left in 1971, it had an official population of under 30,000, and was part of Fes Province. It was not a tourist venue, except for the Cherry Festival, which was primarily a local celebration. Was the Cherry Festival an artifact of French occupation, or dreamt up by the Moroccan Government? Morocco Sefrou Moussem Cherry Queen copy

Cherry Festival Float. Sefrou, 1968.

The first time I attended was in 1968, and is the only time I really remember the festival. I know that I was there for other ones, but the memories are less clear. Morocco Sefrou Moussem 2a copy

Cherry Festival. Dancers. 1968

Other PCVs came and stayed for some of them.
Actually, when I think of Sefrou, I think of the delicious strawberries that were grown in the irrigated gardens very close to the built-up area.Morocco Sefrou Strawberries copy

In the gardens of Sefrou, picking strawberries. 1968.

I imagine much of that is gone now. That’s often the case with explosive urban growth. Next to Los Angles is Orange County, California, and it was named for the orange plantations that used to be there. Most of those orange groves are gone forever, a victim of urban sprawl. Florida now produces most of America’s oranges.
One tends to assume things are still the same after 40 or 50 years. How foolish! Sometimes progress, or what passes for it, sweeps away the old, sometimes it is just time passing. We are all on the Boulevard du temps qui passe, the title of a Brassens song. I noticed that the Gouraud cedar is no more. I remember visiting it several times. Since it was several hundred years old, it certainly had a good run, but that doesn’t make me feel much better. I like the belief that those old cedars, some from before the time of the Prophet, may the peace of God be upon him, still stand.
I worry about Morocco. I have always worried about Morocco. I loved it the way it was, but I have always known the ecosystem was fragile, and that population growth would eventually stress it, just the way California has been stressed by development. That was something I learned in Peace Corps training in Hemet, California. Scarce water, rainfall irregular, thin, shallow soils, and beautiful forests disappearing through logging and charcoal production were a reality 50 years ago as they are now. California has just got a little relief from its long drought, but it isn’t clear where things will go there as climate change is added to the existing climate variables.
But I don’t want to sound like Edmund Burke, who regretted the decimation of the French aristocracy during  the French Revolution, but not so much the common people. Thomas Paine rightly reproached him for “Pitying the plumage, while forgetting the dying bird.” And thank you, Arthur Wilson, for using that quote in one of your history of political theory courses at college. I will never forget it!
The people I knew when I lived in Morocco were poor or lower middle class, and I knew people who died for lack of medical care and a great many who worked honestly to make just enough to get by. So please don’t accuse me of pitying the cedars and forgetting the people. The people took me in and took care of me. The cedars sheltered monkeys and boars.

Al Maghrib Al-Arabi

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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.

Featured on the poster, The Devil’s Man with Guy Madison.

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 (, and knowing they enjoyed it, but also wondering what they made of it. It was certainly more a part of their America than mine.

What makes us feel at home?

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.

Morocco Sefrou Miloud Soussi
Miloud Soussi, who had a grocery store in Sefrou. 1973.

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.


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

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 bled es-siba had long passed.

The gate by my house (just inside to right.) Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary and daughter, 1969. My bathroom window is extreme upper right.
The gate by my house (just inside to right.) Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary and daughter, 1969. My bathroom window is extreme upper right.

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.




Beyond Maude Cary and Al Jessup

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.

Don Brown, Dick Holbrooke 1970

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.