Ben Pennington: Interview with an American Who Lived in Morocco for Two Years (Part 2)
By Larbi Arbaoui
Morocco World News
Taroudant, Morocco, March 26, 2012
MWN has conducted an interview [read part 1] with Mr. Ben Pennington who is an American athlete, musician and poet. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in N’kob, Zagora, Morocco for two years [from 2009-2011].
Since the interview is long enough to be published in one piece, we decided to publish it in a series. The following is part 2 of a 4 part series.
L A: Before your first visit to Morocco as an athlete, how did you imagine it?
BP: Morocco is known in the West partly from film and partly from the Sixties’ counterculture movement, with Dylan and Hendrix and the other rock stars that lived in Tangiers and Essaouira. But this was very vague in my mind then, and the places I hoped to see I knew would be very different from the coastal region where they were. The one thing I knew was that a competitor in the race had become lost and he accidentally was found at a hospital in Algeria, after losing 1/3 of the water in his body. The race environment is very focused on the wildlife and natural aspects of the country so that there was not a lot of contact with local people, other than passing through the very small villages in the Moroccan Sahara. Only a couple of times did I leave our hotel to visit artisanal boutiques and a spice store in Ourzazate, a great city that is now my favorite in Morocco for those trying to relax for a week. The rest of the time was focused on preparing for the race. In fact, the first weekend we were in the Moroccan Sahara before the race began, and a fierce sand storm blew our tents down while we were sleeping in them. But these were crazy people, the competitors, and they danced Salsa despite the strong winds and lack of visibility from the biting sand in the air. It was surreal on many different levels, especially since it was my first time out of the country. In the video, I was afraid and exhilarated thinking that I’d be running for 250 kilometers directly into that wild, hellish-looking countryside. I couldn’t imagine living there, but later when I did come back and live there, I loved the desert. Now I want to return and live there in the future, hopefully for a large part of my life.
In the States, we are too aware of ‘the rules’, so much so that we act like there are more rules than there really are. It’s like a mental prison, and you’re simultaneously the prisoner and the guard. Then you go there, and it feels so much more open, free, and you get to decide things on an individual basis because you don’t have that same sense of orderly machine-like existence that the States have. And there’s a chance and reason to celebrate anything and everything. The one has its advantages just as much as the other, but it’s important to appreciate both.
L A: During your stay in Morocco, have you found anything interesting or unique to this country?
BP: Many things. One important benefit of coming for two years is the fact that you are there long enough to go through the long process of cultural acclimatization, which is tough and painful. Humbling. It is a long enough time for the initial honeymoon stage to finish, long enough for the first discomfort stage to be over, and long enough where a year and a half later you’re still learning new things. You have periods of intense culture shock, then learn, then relearn what you thought you once knew. That happens every few weeks, because you find it’s not as uniform of a country as you thought, with surprising cultural differences in one town to the next. It provokes continual reassessment inside yourself both of the culture there and the one you came from. We do this, they do that, what do I like better? Both the same? None?
Just like walking outside from a dark room into the bright sunlight, it takes a long time for your perception to be able to focus clearly on what is in front of you, and you see things that you missed the first time through. To explain this, I say how your cultural identity is this big, invisible bubble that you live in, with a very particular shape. Here in the States, the doors (daily interactions) are made the same shape as that bubble, so you pass through them with very little friction. But then you go to a different country, and the doors of that country are all a crazy shape. And yet you have to pass, so you contort your body and mind in order to survive. When you feel the pain from this, you are able to discover what exactly the shape of your own invisible bubble really is—you know that now because the corners of it are sore! So one advantage was that, by not only learning what it means to be Moroccan, I also learned what it is to be American at the same time. Unfortunately, you lose some of the shape that you originally had, and take some of the new shape, but now you no longer fit in either door!
Then you think you know the typical Moroccan person, but with another year left in your service, you discover that there’s an amazing amount of variety in what is considered ‘typical’. You stay long enough to see the subsets and sub-subsets in the population, as well as enough time for your own tastes and preferences to change. Later a person then loses their own culture, without being completely enveloped in the new one. You’re neither-, nor-. So even after having returned, the only people that truly understand you are other Moroccans living in America, or other Americans that have lived in Morocco.
Specifically, I’ve learned there and appreciated is about how Morocco has a bit of everything: it is a few parts sub-Saharan Africa, a few parts Dutch and French, a big part Spanish, a big part Arabic, then half is native Moroccan, or Amazigh. And it is all of these things at the same time. After a year of living in my own community in the South, I went to the big cities and saw men and women that have a real vibrant night life, with a contemporary social and dating scene, and they live the same as people in Berlin or Barcelona might. Later you see these influences everywhere and since so many people have family in each of those places, you cannot ascertain where their hearts and loyalties lie – a man wearing a jilaba in the South of Morocco during Ramadan may live in a condominium in Amsterdam for half of the year, with a Dutch family, etc. Looks can be deceiving: these roots come from all places and likewise extend in the opposite direction as well. I once went to Tombouctou, from Zagora, and I was able to communicate to some people by speaking a combination of Darija Arabic and Tashlheet, because they were close trading partners for a long, long time.
A part of that, too, is its reputation for tolerance. Anyone and everyone is welcome, and you can see that from the counterculture set that settled in the North, as well as the more-intellectual -types from Europe and America, like Gide and Camus in the early XX-century and Burroughs later. Some of them never left, like Paul Bowles. This is a good indicator to me that demonstrates an open-mindedness extending to nearly all others, if not necessarily to their own. As I’ve observed, foreigners play by different rules and with more forgiving expectations than those that the locals themselves reserve for each other.
To Be Continued…
Larbi Arbaoui is a Teacher of English who has been teaching for more than 5 years. He studied English language and literature in Moulay Ismail University, Faculty of Arts and Human sciences, Meknes. He Attended and participated as a speaker in several Regional colloquium of the Moroccan Association of Teachers of English. He wrote a short play entitled ‘Aicha, the Talented Student’ performed in Dar Athaqafa, Zagora. He is Morocco World News corespondent in Taroudant, Morocco.
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