Newsletter: Vol. 14, Iss. 3
December 2015

The Magic Window
Dr. Mohammaed Chtatou

On the 4th of July, the United States of America celebrates its Independence Day with much pride and joy. Morocco, on the other hand, celebrates over two centuries of uninterrupted good relations of friendship and beneficial exchange in total respect with the U.S. Morocco recognized within hours the independence of the U.S. and extended protection to its vessels from the pirates of the Barbary Coast. Today, the U.S. considers Morocco not only as a friend but most importantly as an ally, an important political player in the unstable Arab World and a model for Islam in the Muslim World which is torn apart by radicalism and violence. Both countries have embarked on strategic cooperation that will hopefully perpetuate understanding and goodwill between the two countries in the centuries to come.

Since the agreement between Morocco and the United States to begin Peace Corps activity in Morocco in 1961, about three thousand 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.

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. 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.

Moroccans have 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 travelers’ exaggerated accounts:

All Americans with no exception are rich.  This idea has in recent years been consolidated by such popular TV series as “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” etc.
The streets of America are real battlefields where people get killed “like flies” especially in such cities as New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles.
All American women are beautiful, tall and have blond hair and blue eyes.
All Americans are self-centred and have no sense of sharing.
Americans have no sense of family and no respect for old age.
Americans harbour the following stereotypes about Moroccans:
All Moroccans wear robes, turbans, veils and layers of clothes.
All Moroccan women are sensual, exotic, conservative, untouchable, vain and playful.
Moroccan men are egotistical, macho, chauvinistic, exotic, ruthless   and scheming, strict, restrictive and extremist, corrupt, conservative, backwards and reactionary, tribal and old-fashioned.
P
eople either live in Kasbahs or in tents in deserts among palm-trees and camels.
The Peace Corps Act, as established by Congress on September 21, 1961, states that the broad purpose is to “promote world peace and friendship” and that its three specific goals are:
To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained people
To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served
To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

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 the “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 behavior 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 behavior. Sometimes this is correctly interpreted by other nationalities, but more often it is not.”

The story I am about to narrate is real and unique. It takes place in Sefrou, a small city with about hundred thousand people, situated at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains about thirty kilometres south of the city of Fes. The story happened in the early seventies of the last century. It involves a sixty-year old illiterate Berber man, who keeps a shop, and a twenty-three-year old English teacher Volunteer who shopped there. The old Berber man and the young Peace Corps Volunteer liked each other from the very first moment they met. In the beginning, while the ice was not totally broken, their discussions centred on 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 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?’ asked the Volunteer, “I am not a mason.” The old man went on, “You are a mason of a different kind. I want you to open a magic window onto 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. 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” and go with him on a visit to his native village.

The visit was very important for both of them. For the Volunteer, it was his first assignment to the bled with people he had never met. 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 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, the two men took a souk bus 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 and the usual tea ceremony, the Volunteer brought out his picture books, slides and maps. He and his friend, the old Berber man, starting giving explanations and information on various aspects of the U.S. Many Volunteers later, the old Berber man and his people in the village are among the most knowledgeable people on American culture, thanks to the “Magic Window”.

Right after Moroccan independence from France, the French took it upon themselves to contribute to the development of the country they colonized for over forty years. The cooperation package consisted of sending scores of “coopérants” to work in the fields of education, health, agriculture, etc. The majority of these “coopérants” “did not come with the mentality of development workers. Most of the “coopérants “were snobbish, unfriendly in their attitude towards the native population, 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 Independence.

The Peace Corps scheme on the other hand soon became popular for the very same reasons that “coopérants ” were not. The Volunteers were friendly and open. They spoke the language. They learned the culture and participated in it. They lived in modest accommodations, and most of all they shared their culture generously. As result, many Moroccans had their life changed one way or another. 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 friendship and cooperation.

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