- North Africa and the Middle East, Morocco
- Personal Essay
September. Sunset. The town of Safi, Morocco. I was washing dishes in my sink. From the minaret in the mosque three doors down came the evening prayer call, a song, actually, blaring out of the loudspeakers, stopping the faithful in their tracks, turning them toward the east, sending them to their knees. To my ears, the cadence, the rhythm, the tone were all wrong, about as musical as a burglar alarm. I remember my words as I turned to my roommate: "Even they can't think that's pretty." I had been in Morocco four months.
Eight months later I was walking a friend to the bus station where she would catch the express to Casablanca. It was quiet, just before dawn, no horizon to speak of yet. No one else was about. From somewhere behind us, the muezzin's prayer call floated out over the silence, was answered from a nearby quarter, and then came at us faintly from several miles off to the south. The beauty of the chant stayed my step; I had to be still and listen. And then I remembered what I had said in September.
It was then I grasped my first Peace Corps lesson: You can accommodate the strange, the unusual, even the very unpleasant and make some kind of peace with it. You are not irrevocably the way you started out. With a little luck, you can grow.
* * *
Backpackers, hikers, and all manner of latter-day mountain men and women won't think much of the following story, but consider that it happened to a guy who, before his Peace Corps staging in Philadelphia, had always slept under a roof, in a bed, eschewed picnics, and never owned a sleeping bag. But who bought one at the same staging in Philadelphia (a cheap, cotton-lined number with green-hued scenes of deer in a forest, scenes that kept coming off on my underwear in the damp Safi spring).
In the spring of 1972, four of us rented a car and drove over the Tiz'n Tichka pass in the High Atlas Mountains down to the desert. We pulled up one night, just as the sun set behind the Jbel des Saghro in a place called Agdz. French tourists had filled the only hotel, but we could sleep on the floor of the cafe if we liked. I didn't like, but there was no choice.
The floor was cement, unrelentingly hard. I tried to lie in such a way that the greatest percentage of the softest parts of my body were between me and the cement, tried to become my own cushion. I thought I would never fall asleep, but I did.
And woke with the light. Not exactly refreshed and renewed but exhilarated all the same. I had slept on a cement floor! That was my second lesson, courtesy of the Corps: how to do without. In that instance, a bed. In others, a bath or a shower, hot water, a refrigerator. Peace Corps whittles away your list of necessities. And when you consider that these are the things you can't live without, that you live in fear of not having, that you would fight to keep—then you understand that you can only be as free as that last list is short.
* * *
The scene is a cafe in Tangiers. Tomorrow is Saturday. I've just invited a Moroccan friend to a picnic at the beach. Will he come? "Perhaps," he says in English, translating from the Arabic, inshallah, which literally means "God willing." And I'm feeling hurt. What does he mean, "Perhaps"? Either he wants to come or he doesn't. It's up to him. And if he doesn't want to come, he only has to say so. He doesn't understand why I'm upset. And I don't quite grasp "Perhaps." Our two cultures confront each other across the tea cups.
Only several years later did I understand. He would come, he meant, if Allah willed it. His wanting to come and his being able to come were not one and the same. In Morocco, unlike America, where there's a will there's not necessarily a way. So who was I to demand an answer to my question? And who was he to give one? When I understood this—and realized how strange he would find my ethic—I had learned my third lesson: I saw we can't confidently speak of truth, only truths, and I understood the power of culture. It was as if I had discovered a parallel universe, one founded upon a different auxiliary verb, on may rather than will. And where there was one different universe, might there not be others?
But the feeling wasn't at all what I expected; in embracing the possibility of countless other worldviews I should have loosened my grasp on my own. But instead I embraced it with renewed confidence, not in its rightness, of course, but appreciating anew the need to have a perspective—your own perspective—on the world in order to entertain the possibility of others.