A story of Moroccan-American relations: the “Magic Window”

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By Dr Mohamed Chtatou

Introduction

The agreement on the establishment of Peace Corps in Morocco was affected by exchange of diplomatic notes at Rabat dated February 8 and 9 , 1963 ; entered into force February  9, 1963 and amended by exchange of notes signed at Rabat March 10, 1972 ; entered into force March 10, 1972.

This agreement (1) stipulates that :

“The Government of the United States will furnish Peace Corps volunteers as may be requested by the Government of Morocco, upon arrival of the request, to perform in Morocco tasks mutually agreed upon by our two governments. The Volunteers will work under the immediate supervision of private or governmental organizations in Morocco designated by the two governments. The Government of the United States will provide training to enable the Volunteers to perform their tasks more effectively.”

 Since the agreement between Morocco and the United States to begin Peace Corps activity in Morocco, about thousands of Volunteers have served there to undertake with  its people the search for mutual understanding and peace and to work along with Moroccans to achieve economic and social development in the areas of education, agriculture/rural development/food, renewable energy, health, small business development, wildlife, social services, environmental education, etc.

 Background

As a result of a problem of piracy in the Mediterranean Sea, Morocco and the United States signed an agreement of friendship in 1776. This agreement is still in use today.

On this subject Luella J. Hall says :

« While Vainly soliciting European support, the United States had been neglecting opportunities to deal directly with Morocco. In what was virtually a recognition of the Independence of The United States, Sultan Sidi Mohammad XVI issued a declaration on February 20, 1778, notifying all consul and Christian merchants in Tangier, Sale, and Mogador that henceforth all vessels flying America’s flag might freely enter Moroccan ports. There they would be permitted to take refreshment, and enjoy in them the same privileges and immunities with those of the other nations with whom His Imperial Majesty maintains peace”.” (2)

 This treaty was followed by an exchange of emissaries and the establishment in Tangier of an American diplomatic mission called The American Legation (turned today into a museum of the relations between Morocco and the US) that played a major role in strengthening the relations between the two countries.

King Mohammed VI with President Barack Obama: Strategic Partenership

 This Treaty which has gone over two centuries without being broken in spite of some political mishaps is considered as being the longest running treaty that the United States has ever had with any foreign country.

The exemplary understanding and friendship that exists today between the people of Morocco and the people of the United States is undoubtedly the result of unrelenting work on both sides of dedicated people who sought to reduce the cultural and linguistic differences between the two nations and to build a bridge of peace and acceptance over the raging waves of the Atlantic.

Stereotypes

Yet, in spite of centuries of friendship, understanding and peace between Moroccans and Americans, the distance, cultural differences, ignorance of each other and lack of interest combined together have created the ideal environment for stereotyping, bearing in mind that such phenomena result in a distorted image of reality.

To slip into a stereotype is an extremely easy step to undertake , but to slip out of one takes a bit of goodwill and willingness to acquire knowledge about the other and to get to know him better without bias and prejudice.

In this respect, Moroccans have, with time, cultivated the following stereotypes about Americans as the result of many factors such as the mass media ( radio, television and the cinema mainly) as well as travellers’ exaggerated accounts, etc.

The stereotypes in question are as follows :

a. Wealth   :  all Americans with no exception are rich. This idea has in recent years been consolidated by such popular TV series   as   “Dallas”, “Dynasty”, etc.

b. Violence   :  the streets of America are real battlefields where people get killed like  flies (3) especially in such cities as  New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles.

c. Beauty  : all American women are beautiful, tall and have blond hair with blue eyes

d. Selfishness  : all Americans are self-centred and have no sense of sharing.

e. Family : Americans have no sense of extended family and no respect for old age and seniority.As for the Americans, they harbour consciously or unconsciously the following stereotypes about Moroccans  :

  1. Dress       : all Moroccans wear robes, turbans, veils and layers of clothes.
  2. Women : all Moroccans women are sensual, exotic, conservative and untouchable.
  3. Men         : Moroccan men are egotistical, macho, chauvinistic, exotic,  ruthless   and  scheming.
  4. Religion : Strict, restrictive and extremist.
  5. Society      : corrupt, selfish, backwards and reactionary.
  6. Culture : traditional and old-fashioned.
  7. Habitat : People either live in Kasbahs or in tents in deserts among palm-trees and camels.

In addition, when the name of Morocco is mentioned, Americans associate it with the all time great classic film “Casablanca” of 1942; starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and they all think that the hero’s hang-out, “Rick’s American Café”, actually exists. Others associate Morocco with another film which is somewhat less popular than “Casablanca”; the film in question is the “The Wind and the Lion” of 1975 starring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen,  Which relates the story of a female American consul who was kidnapped by a local chieftain Raissuli in Tangier in the beginning of the 20th century during the election campaign of President T. Roosevelt and who asked for  a ransom in order to free her. While waiting for the money to arrive he fell in love with her. In reality what happened was that the kidnapped consul was not a woman but a man by the name of Perdicaris (an American diplomat of Greek origin) who was freed after payment of a ransom by the American Government to Raissuli. In spite of the settlement of the ransom-money, President Roosevelt used the incident to give his election campaign, which was hitherto running out of steam, some impetus. (4)

In  short the stereotypes exist on both sides and they generally are the result of sheer ignorance, lack of focus, exaggeration or gross deformation of events for the purpose of belittlement and disparage or just as a result of ignorance.

The Cultural Window

The Peace Corps Act, as established by US Congress, states that the broad purpose of this volunteer organization is to promote world peace and friendship and that its three specific goals are as follows:

  1. To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained people.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

The goals stated above are certainly great guidelines for the action of the Peace Corps; however, the question that people ask in connection with such an organization is to what extent it affects the lives of people it serves in cross-culture as well in development terms.  Gerard  T . Rice says in this respect  :

“The question most often asked about the Peace Corps is : where is the impact ? Because it brings no capital resources, and because it works with small groups of people at the village level, it has always had trouble answering the question. Also, because the Peace Corps has gone about its work quietly, relatively few Americans have been aware of its accomplishment overseas. The Peace Corps recipients however, have been all aware and appreciative. “They come and go” , said Essedine Daoud of the Moroccan Press Service, and I think that this is good that no too much great publicity is given, because the best work is done  – not in secret  –  but  with discretion. We have a saying that you can achieve what you have set out to do if you don’t show it around, just do it. I think that the Peace Corps is doing just that.”    (5)

 

Morocco’s recognition of US independence

 Reasons for success in cultural interaction

To achieve good cultural interaction in a given environment, many people believe today that certain knowledge of the language is sufficient to that effect experience has shown that they are wrong. Good Cross-Cultural communication is achieved only if verbal language is supplemented by non-verbal language which Edward T. Hall quite rightly calls “silent language”:

“Of equal importance is an introduction to the non- verbal language which exists in every country of the world and among the various groups within each country. Most Americans are only dimly aware of this silent language even though they use it every day. They are not conscious of the elaborate patterning of behaviour which prescribes our handling of time, our spatial relationships, our attitudes toward work, play, and learning. In addition to what we say with our verbal language we are constantly communicating our real feelings in our silent language – the language of behaviour. Sometimes this is correctly interpreted by other nationalities, but more often it is not.” (6)

 Peace Corps owes its success in cultural interaction to the fact that its trainees go through a very intensive training of ten to twelve weeks during which they are not only taught the language but also situations in which to use it, in addition to a very comprehensive cross-cultural course that covers different aspects of everyday life in the host country as well as background information on history, geography, politics, economics and religion.

 The importance of such training lies in the fact that it aspires to create an environment similar to that which the trainee will have to live in real life, so by the time he leaves the training site he has enough information to allow him to function in the outside world in an active way which would make his stay beneficial to him and most importantly to the community he is serving.

The  Magic “Window”

 The greatest asset of Peace Corps Volunteers is their ability to reach classes of society that are not otherwise reached by foreigners working’ in the field of development. It is to be emphasized here that Volunteers not only reach these people but also affect their lives in a positive manner.

Wherever Peace Corps Volunteers go to accomplish their service, people start immediately contrasting them with other foreigners who work in the area,  i. e., the French  “coopérants” in general. It is true the two don’t compare because the “coopérants”  live in nice quarters of the city with other foreigners or with the bourgeoisie whereas the Volunteers quite often live in popular neighbourhoods among the poor.  ” Coopérants  draw very good salaries every month ; Volunteers are given a stipend to allow them to live like the people they serve.

Coopérants know nothing or very little about the language and culture ; Volunteers know both. But in spite of all these differences Volunteers are remembered for years after they leave because they have succeeded in communicating with the people; they have succeeded in opening a “window” onto their world for the people who can’t afford the luxury of reading books, magazines and newspapers, watching foreign films or documentaries, conserving with foreigners in their languages, travelling and discovering other societies and cultures.

 

Former Assistant Secretary of State, David Welch (2005–2008) who in 2007 expressed strong support for Morocco and its autonomy plan in the conflict over Western Sahara, calling the plan a “serious and credible” solution.

 The story of the “Window

The story I am about to narrate in real and unique. Its value lies in the fact that the message it carries is of importance to different categories of people : development workers, sociologists, anthropologists, culture specialists, etc.

It takes place in a small city by the name of Sefrou, with about eighty thousand people, situated at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains about thirty kilometres south of the imperial city of Fes. The story happened in the early seventies of the last century, it involves a sixty-year old illiterate Amazigh/Berber man who keeps a shop and a twenty-three-year old English teacher Volunteer who shopped there.

The old Amazigh/Berber man and the young Peace Corps Volunteer liked each other from the very first moment they met because, apparently, according to both of them, they did not speak Arabic as well as they would wished, but in spite of the linguistic handicap, they communicated beautifully.

In the beginning, while the ice was not totally broken, their discussions centred around family, relatives and other insignificant issues. Both of them knew that this was not what they wanted to talk about but it was a necessary preliminary phase, a kind of warm-up for the real thing. Suddenly one day while they were sipping tea at the entrance to the shop, the old Amazigh/Berber man cleared his voice and said in a solemn way :

  • Son, you know my wife died years ago and all my sons and daughters have married and left. If it were not for your friendship I would feel very lonely though I have family and relatives. The truth is I am not on the same wavelength with them as I am with you. I have a request. You know that I live  in a house that  has three rooms, and in each room there is a window. I am tired of looking through the same windows; I want you to open a new window for me”.
  • why me ? I am not a mason”, said the Volunteer.
  • The old man went on, “you are a mason of a different kind. I want you to open a magic window on to your world for me.”

Immediately after the discussion, the young Volunteer set to work on the “window”. He wrote to his family informing them of what happened and asking them to send him slides, pictures, picture books and all items that were representative of American culture. Little by little the window was opened and the most extraordinary cross-cultural story started. In six months the old man was able to identify on the map different regions of the United States in his own descriptive terms. He was also able to identify the major cities giving some information on their population, their monuments, their major industry or attraction, etc.

The old man did not keep the “window” for himself alone, instead he shared it with other people. Indeed, he invited the young Volunteer to bring the “window” for himself alone instead he shared it with other people. Indeed, he invited the young Volunteer to bring the “the window” and go with him on a visit to his native Amazigh/Berber village.

The visit was very important for both of them; for the Volunteer it was his first assignment to the bled  (7) with people he had never met and as a result he was apprehensive : would he be a good cultural ambassador ? Would he be able to communicate with the village people in spite of his limited language abilities? The old Amazigh/Berber man, on the other hand, had different worries: would the Volunteer like his village and his people? Would he be comfortable with them ?

After various arrangements on both sides, when nothing was left to chance, the two men took a souk bus  (8) to the village where they were greeted with a great show of hospitality and friendship. In the evening after a succulent dinner of mechoui, chicken tagine and couscous (9) and the tea ceremony, the Volunteer brought out his picture books, slides and maps and both he and his friend, the old Amazigh/Berber man, starting giving explanations and information on various aspects of the U.S.

This introduction was followed by a slide show that was perceived by everyone as a great experience in cross-cultural communication and consequently the question-answer session that came after the show lasted until early in the morning and for weeks after the event “the window” was the subject of discussions.

Many Volunteers later, the old Amazigh/Berber man and his people in the village were among the most knowledgeable people on American culture, thanks to the ” Magic window”.

The instance of the “the  Magic window” is one of the examples that show how a Peace Corps Volunteer  can be a window into his world from which people can learn about his culture without constraints or inhibitions that result from cultural interactions. There are hundreds of ways Volunteers can be ambassadors of their culture. However it is difficult to quantify the achievements in the field of cultural exchange.

In the Arab world, Peace Corps has played a vanguard role in strengthening relations between the American people and the Arabs, in encouraging cultural exchanges, in improving the image of the US that is, at times, tarnished by political tensions.

It is evident in this respect that Arab Countries where Peace Corps is present have remained friendly to the U.S. in spite of various diplomatic blunders on the part of the Americans, as well as unpopular political decisions and cultural faux-pas.

On the other hand, in some Arab Countries where Peace Corps is not present, America remained unknown to the general public and offensive and warlike because if its world politics.

North-South Dialogue

In recent years, The North-South dialogue has been the focal point of both developed and developing countries. It came about as the Third World was getting deeper into recession and economic crisis after a few years of growth and optimism following independence. But this dialogue was not immediately translated into beneficial development programs mainly because the agencies that were entrusted with carrying out the provisions of this undertaking were frustrated at a very early stage by all kinds of mishaps resulting mainly from poor cross-cultural exchange as well as poor planning.

In Morocco, right after Independence the French took upon themselves to contribute to the development of the country colonized for over forty years. A lot of people saw in the move an attempt to control the economy by attaching different strings to the package and the opposition denounced this as a neo-colonial scheme aimed at restricting the freedom of movement of the country.

The cooperation package consisted of sending scores of “coopérants” to work in the fields of education, health, agriculture, etc . The majority of these “coopérant” did not come with the mentality of development workers but their presence in the country was an alternative to military service in their country.

Most of the “coopérants” were snobbish , unfriendly in their attitude towards the native, hardly ever spoke the language and avoided all cultural exchanges. After two decades of this scheme the French were even more unpopular among the Moroccans than before.

The Peace Corps scheme on the other hand, in spite of unfounded allegations of spying from the opposition in the beginning, soon became popular for the very same reasons that “coopérants” were not : the Volunteers were friendly and open; spoke the language : learned the culture and participated in it ; lived in modest accommodations, and most of all ; shared their culture, knowledge and know-how generously.

Moroccans always compared the French Cooperation scheme with the American Peace Corps and always concluded that while the French act as a charitable society with an air of superiority the Americans were genuinely involved in development work.

IMPLICATIONS

As result of Peace Corps Volunteers success in attaining Goal II , many Moroccans had their life changed one way or another :

  • Many students specialized in American studies and have completed doctoral dissertations on the subject;
  • Many students became English teachers in lycées or lecturers at the university;
  • Many marriages between Moroccans and Americans took place;
  • Many businesses were started both in America and in Morocco involving the people of the two countries;
  • The people of Morocco and the people of the U.S. are closer today than they ever have been in their two hundred years of friendships and cooperation; etc.
From attorney to Peace Corps Volunteer at work in Morocco

 

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

End Notes:

  • letter (N 504) addressed by the Ambassador of The United States in Morocco, John H. Ferguson to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Morocco, Ahmed Balafrej on February 8th 1963, in Treaties and Other International Acts. Series 7297  P.  4
  • Luella J. Hall, The United States and Morocco 1776 -1956,  p. 47
  • This an genuine statement made by a male Moroccan, Middle-aged, urban civil servant who has never been to the States but who is fond of American movies.
  • Charles Andre Julien, Le Maroc face aux Impérialismes, p.  44-46.

Perdicaris was kidnapped in May 18, 1904 along with his son –in-law of British nationality. They were released after Raissuli received 70,000 U. S . dollars as a ransom and a promise to become regional governor.

  • Gerard T . Rice, Peace Corps in the 80’s, p. 29.
  • Edward T . Hall, The Silent Language, p. XIV-XV
  • Bled: countryside
  • Souk bus: an itinerant bus that goes from market to market transporting peoples, goods and occasionally Chickens.
  • Mechoui :   roast lamb

Chicken Tagine    :   a kind of stew

Couscous               :    Moroccan national dish made out of semolina

References:

Chtatou,    Mohamed. “Evaluation of Peace Corps Contributions to the Development of  Morocco” in The Atlantic Connection: 200 Years of Moroccan-American Relations, 1786-1986. Editors  Jerome B. Bookin-Weiner, Mohamed El Mansour. 1990. Edino  Press :  Rabat.

Cooper,   Robert and Nonthapa   1982.    Cultural Shock  :   Thailand.

Times Books International    :  Singapore.

Hall,  Edward   T.      1959  .       The Silent Language.

Anchor Books     :    New York.

Hall,   Luella J. 1971 .          The United States and Morocco 1776-1956

The Scarecrow press    : New Jersey.

Hollinger,  Carol.  1956  .         Mai Pen Rai   :   Means Never Mind.

Weatherhill Asia Book     :       Bangkok.

Julien,     Charles-Andre.  1778.   Le Maroc face aux Imperialismes

Edition J . A   :   Paris.

Rice,        T . Gerard.       1986 .  Peace Corps in the 80 ‘s.

Peace Corps   :  Washington  D.C.

Williams,  Raymond.       1981.   Culture.  Fontana : Glasgow

 

 

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