Plus ca change

Whenever I run across a Peace Corps Morocco Volunteer blog, I am reminded just how long it has been since I was in country.  In 1988, we had no computers, no Internet access, and no cell phones.  Where i was, even the regular telephone service was only available by walking down to the Post Office and asking the clerk to crank the phone until he was able to reach Fez or Rabat.  The difficulty in communications was both frustrating and liberating, since it forced us to rely largely on our own resources and our relationship with the village.

Notwithstanding the advances in technology, it seems that interpersonal relationships have not changed much.  A recent post on a volunteer blog describes how a female volunteer, after a year alone in her site, decided to ask Peace Corps to send a second male volunteer to her site.  With some frustration, she describes being harassed on the street and propositioned on a regular basis in person as the reason for asking for a second, male volunteer. 

When you are a foreign woman in Morocco, accompaniment by a man, or better yet, another Moroccan, can help reduce incidents of harassment.  However, i well remember at least one instance in which my presence failed to deter harassment of the woman I walking with down the streets of Fez.  The behavior of indigent men on the city streets  toward foreigners and particularly foreign women has long constituted the ugly side of a beautiful country.  I am regularly assured that it has been ameliorated, but articles such as this one make me not so sure.

High Atlas Foundation

I had the unusual privilege and pleasure of joining a group of Moroccans and Americans for lunch with Dr. Yossef Ben Meir, president of the High Atlas Foundation, one of the best known organizations promoting sustainable development in Morocco through cooperative efforts between Moroccans and Americans. The organization is particularly known for its 1 million tree reforestation program, but this is just one among its many initiatives.  Discussion ranged over a wide range of topics, but one particular concern was encouraging greater participation in the foundation's work in United States, particularly among members of the growning Moroccan American community.

A bas le francais?

I am a francophile. There, I admitted it. I spent ten years studying French in school, by choice. I could have taken Spanish in Junior High; I could have taken Spanish, German, or Latin in High School, and almost any language in college. But I chose French. To this day, I love the sound of French. I love French literature. In fact, I know I am hopeless because I even like a lot of French popular music (Charles Trenet, Jacques Brel (yes, I know he's Belgian), Annie Villeneuve, Isabelle Boulay (both Quebecoise)). France is one of the garden spots of the world, and French food . . . well, it is French food. And it was arguably my love of French that led me to a French-speaking country — Morocco — as a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the more fortunate events in my life.

None of which is to say that I do not love Morocco on its own terms, or that I do not think English has a major role to play in Morocco's future. After all, the justification for my being in Morocco as a Peace Corps Volunteer was to assist with the country's already quite competent program of English language instruction. Still, I have a little hesitancy about the push to supplant French in Morocco, as described in a recent article by well-known writer and blogger Hisham G.. Quite apart from my sentimental francophilia, I think that revolutionizing a culture is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Morocco does have a rich francophone tradition, and I would argue for supplementing it with English rather than seeking to banish French.

I also suspect that English is not the panacea that some of its proponents imagine. As the article hints, English may well be relegated tomorrow to the place of French today if the Chinese ascendancy continues. (My five-year-old is learning Mandarin in school.) Quite apart from the fact that English is not really widely spoken in Morocco, it seems to me there are other glaring deficiencies in the Moroccan educational system — particularly in the scientific and technical sector — that need to be addressed if the country is going to be an effective global competitor. Allowing for differences in scale, Morocco might be the "next India," but it is not going to happen by itself.

In addition, I think the arguments quoted in the Morocco Board article from the Pittsburgh Gazette are slightly misleading. According to year 2000 census data quoted by Wikipedia, the top second languages spoken in the United States are Spanish, American Sign Language, Chinese, French, and German. (Arabic is number 13 on the list, and Hindi is number 18.) Most Americans, of course, speak only English; to my mind a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis Moroccans, who often speak anywhere from two to five languages. According to one study, seventy percent of college students taking a foreign language in America were taking either Spanish or, to a lesser degree, French. So while the Pittsburgh Gazette may be correct that little studied languages in America are gaining adherents at a rapid rate, it is clear that the primary emphasis on language learning in the United States is still on Spanish and, yes, French, at least to the extent that Americans bother to learn any other language at all. To the extent that Americans are likely to be able to communicate directly with Moroccans who do not speak English, they are likely to be speaking French or possibly Spanish. (The number of Americans who learn Arabic is, sadly, minuscule.) Maybe French should not be counted out completely just yet. After all, it is still a first language to 70 million people and an official language for 220 million, according to the Cambridge Factfinder.

Because Americans are fortunate enough to have the currently dominant world language as their mother tongue, America may not be the best model for charting Morocco's linguistic course. It might actually make sense to take a closer look at what the European approach is. Of course, one may well find that they are all learning English too, but it might also be useful to examine what other factors play into their economic success or lack thereof.

Finally, it seems to me that the difficulty of trying to determine the value of French to Moroccan economic life is increased by the complex intertwining of colonial oppression and class snobbery with economic progress, technical assistance, and post-colonial economic progress. The French language, culture, and people just strike too many raw nerves too often in Morocco, a situation not ameliorated by current French attitudes toward immigrants or indeed the country's legendary arrogance. My thought however is that it is probably possible to cultivate English without uprooting French. Morocco is a country of rich cultural diversity, a diversity I would prefer to see augmented rather than diminished.

Blogs and Black Sites

Some of the most interesting news about Morocco comes from the many blogs written by Peace Corps volunteers currently working in country. When I was in Morocco, the word "blog" had not yet been coined, laptops were largely an expensive proof of concept, and a cell phone the size of a brick cost $2,500. On the rare occasions when I wanted to make a phone call from Outat El Haj, I went to the post office and asked the operator to crank the phone and connect me in a scene reminiscent of American movies from the 1930's. Nowadays, however, Peace Corps blogs pour in with news from across the country, written by Americans who nevertheless are solidly ensconced in local communities.

On a recent perusal of one of these blogs, Amber Shiel's The Life and Times of Moroccan Amber, I came across an offhand comment that was both tantalizing and shocking. Ms. Shiel reports:

But Moroccans are not the only ones to have created and used secret prisons. There is a CIA blackout site in the middle of nowhere in eastern Morocco near the Algerian border between Outat el Haj and Guercif that was used to harbor suspected terrorists until 2006. Because it was conveniently located off US soil, many human rights laws were ignored. The site has been closed down, but it is scary reminder that the days of secret prisons are not as distant as history might make you think. Having an old secret prison in our own site is an even more insistent reminder of the past.

Now, for some people, Outat El Haj may be the "middle of nowhere." For me, it was home for two years. So I do find it shocking to hear of a CIA secret prison in my former back yard. While I lived in Outat, I used to laugh at the rumors that I was a CIA agent. What was I going to do, call in missile strikes on the desert? Somehow, the idea does not seem quite so laughable anymore, and the thought that our government might have planted an outpost of hell near my friendly little village, where I was so warmly welcomed, makes me grieve.

Global Voices Online » Morocco: An Introduction to Peace Corps Bloggers

Global Voices Online has a roundup of Peace Corps blogs. We've clearly come a long way from the day when the only blogs were pen and ink. Clearly the blog is a much more effective way in most cases to promote the Peace Corps' third goal: communicating the Peace Corps experience to the American public. One wonders, however, to what extent the Moroccan countryside has kept pace with the technological revolution.