Moroccan encounter

OF all the lost little train stations in all of Morocco, they had to pick this one. The scenery does make quite a dramatic backdrop. The train, which has been sweeping around a heaving landscape for an hour or more, stops at a diminutive station, alone on the hump of a hill. Before it spreads the land and sky, both made to seem broader by the tree-lessness of the hills. Fields and clouds swoop in impressive curves, cradling the blue mirror of the lake in their midst.

As you set off walking along the road, a sense of tranquility and loneliness begins to envelope you. An old man whistles to his sheep grazing in the crop stubble to the left. He stoops to pick up a rock and lobs it at the ram, which is edging into someone else's field.

Three donkeys pass, each one carrying a little girl perched atop a collection of white and orange plastic bottles which she will fill at the lake. Craning around, the girls silently look their fill at you.

The square, clean-lined adobe houses do not gather in clusters but are scattered off by themselves -- one white-washed, another with an enclosure of dried thorn bushes to the side, each with its chickens and dogs and toddling infants.

An American Peace Corps volunteer has been working here for the past year and a half. He is studying the fish population of the lake as part of a project to develop the country's inland fisheries.

He was provided with two months' worth of Arabic, a rubber dinghy, a motorcycle, and a house -- a small, cubical cement affair, two miles from the lake-shore, and a mile and a half from its nearest neighbor.

The setup was not ideal. He could not transport his boat to and from the lake every day, and he could not leave it at the shore unguarded. While his house was quiet and excellent to work in, it was extremely isolated and lonely. Moreover, his job was not just to study fish: He was also supposed to absorb the culture in which he was a guest and to expose his hosts to the culture from which he had come.

So gradually he began spending more and more time with a family whose house overlooks the lake. They had already had some experience with foreigners; the mother even spoke a little French. Most important, they were the warmest and kindest of the families in the area.

Never asking for anything, they accepted what he gave them gracefully and gave unstintingly of what they had. Slowly they accepted him as a member of the family, and he essentially moved in, sleeping under their mud roof, keeping a couple of turkeys with their chickens, letting one of the girls pour the water when he washed his hair, accepting their protection. And getting angry.

There was certainly enough stress to provoke anger. He was always the center of attention. In a society far more communal and unrespecting of space, physical and emotional, than his own, his novelty afforded him even less privacy than unextraordinary people enjoyed.

He was always being verbally prodded and poked, ceaselessly questioned. Did he have a father and mother? What did his father do? How much money did his father make? Could he get a job for the son, brother, cousin? How much money did he make? Why wasn't he married? Would he marry a Moroccan? He didn't speak Arabic very well, did he? (This would change quickly.) How much did his motorcycle cost? How much, how much?

It always came back to money.

These people are very poor; money is their primary concern. But there is no pathos in their poverty, none of the drama or horror of the thousands starving in Sudan or Ethiopia. In fact, if you visited them and could ignore their lack of such amenities as a toilet, electricity, and running (or even clean) water, you probably would not find them poor at all.

They would greet you warmly and smilingly, prop up pillows for you against the smooth, cool walls of their sitting room, make sweet mint tea, give you a fresh round loaf of bread and, if you came at the right time, butter. Then they would quietly slaughter a rabbit or a chicken, and late in the evening serve you a luscious and spicy stew. When everyone was drowsy, they would spread for you white-and-brown striped blankets that they had woven from the wool from their sheep.

Living with them, however, reveals the difficulty of their life. There are no stores nearby. All shopping is done at a weekly market in a village 30 miles away. By the fourth or fifth day after the market, the vegetables are gone, and bread makes up the diet. If there is money for the vegetables and a once-a-week mouthful of meat, very well. If not, a sheep must be sold. If they can get it to market, very well. If the police have decided to crack down on the illegal pickup truck traffic that provides the only transportation to market, then there will be nothing but bread and rice until they can get there.

The American who lives with this family earns $200 a month. These relative riches pose intense if mundane dilemmas for him. Money and transportation cause him no problem. He can always keep his personal larder stocked. Yet how can he eat his vegetables the day before the market when the family is hungry?

On the other hand, how can he tide them over every week? It would be unfair to himself, unfair to the other families in the area who might be poorer, but less fortunate in not having their own foreigner, and even unfair to that family: If they come to depend on his help, what will they do when he leaves? SO he has spent a year and a half stretched taut between guilt and resentment. He certainly has the means to help this family. He could buy the sneakers that someone else wants for their little girl, and even fulfill most of the other requests that pile up against him like a snowdrift, sifted incessantly from the mouths of the more importunate -- and extremely jealous -- families in the area. None verbally, to be sure, from his family, but neighbors and people he has to work with amply make up the score.

He cannot, however, alleviate all the poverty in the region. A line must be drawn somewhere, but wherever it is drawn there is sympathy for those on the far side of it. As long as there are requests, there is guilt. And there are always requests.

Along with guilt, these requests and expectations have bred resentment in him. Why does everyone assume that just because he is American he must have infinite wealth? Why do they expect gifts from him as a matter of course?

Partly it is the tourists who have driven through in their rented cars, spreading largesse wherever they were offered tea. Partly it is news sent back from relatives or friends working abroad. Partly it is ``Flamingo Road'' or ``Dallas'' on a caf'e television, or Michael Jackson on the radio. The impression left is most stubborn: America is paved with money. Americans can do what they want to do. Money need not even enter their calculations.

To ease his frustration, the young man has been doing a painstaking and difficult piece of work in cultural exchange over the past year and a half. He has been trying to explain that Americans must work and do worry about money. Sometimes they are without a house, or go hungry, or even die of the cold.

It has all gone very slowly. Tales of Americans buying pretty vegetables that have no taste are swallowed and forgotten. Tales of Americans who are unemployed, or cheated, or who sleep on grates are heard with amazement and repeated, but still have little bearing on what the people expect of this American, or will expect from the next one who might happen along. Every family tries to possess a foreigner, assuming that they will thereby have gifts and opportunities on tap. Little by little, though, he has begun to make his point. Little by little he is convincing them that even though his father has a car, he has to work.

Or he was. Then one day a pile of equipment and four fancy black and white tents were unloaded from the train, complete with soldiers to guard it all, and a crowd of Americans in attendance. They were making a film and had come to spend five days shooting a few scenes here. They also concentrated on the world they had to construct and neglected the effects of their real presence on the real world they were using for a backdrop.

When they brought in their own train and, cameras running, set it on fire, they did not consider that there were people watching -- people who didn't have enough to eat. And when they scattered 100 dirham notes around to pay for extras who would wear djellabas and herd sheep, they had no idea what a boulder they had thrown into the lake. How could they, in their eyes, pay less than 100 dirhams -- $10 -- a day to their hastily recruited actors?

How should they know that 100 dirhams here is the wages for five days' work reaping wheat with a sickle; 100 dirhams buys a week's food for a family of 10. Why should they care about the effects of what the villagers saw: that Americans have the means to buy a train just to blow it up; that without a thought they can pay a man 100 dirhams a day just to stand in a field; and that then they disappear.

Those effects, however, are very real. They lie around like the scattered and faintly smoking debris from the wrecked train and will continue to smolder for some time. In five days, that American film company wrecked 18 months' tedious and painful work in cultural exchange. Blew it up far more effectively than they blew up their train.

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