Entering the world view of a walled city

TAROUDANT is a little place, deep in the south of Morocco. A walled city, it is still steeped in the traditions of a bygone age, and bound, both physically and psychologically, by high protective barriers that allow little growth within, and only limited access from without. I came to Taroudant in the fall of 1981, the first Peace Corps English teacher on that site for many years. I came, as most of the volunteers do, out of a sense of adventure, a desire to live in an exotic place and learn about another culture, and because I believed that even if I could not change the world, I could make one little corner of it better.

``What will you do if you get your diploma?'' I asked my intermediate English class as we drilled the conditional tense. Forty-five pairs of eyes stared at me mutely from behind the too-small, wooden desks, where they huddled three or four to a book.

They were, for the most part, the sons and daughters of illiterate farmers, the first generation in their families to go to school. What would they do if they got their diplomas?

Lahcen, my best student, raised his hand. In cast-off Western-style clothes, worn beneath his djellaba with a fine disregard for mixing plaids and stripes, he seemed closer to 10 than 20 in my eyes.

``Sweep the floor with it,'' he said.

I regret that at the time I did not realize that Lahcen had stated a political truth. I knew, of course, that without the ``bac,'' or baccalaur'eat exam, there was no chance for further study, and little chance of a decent job unless you were fortunate enough to know someone.

In those days, however, I still believed in a universal, immutable relationship between hard work and success in life, and thus assumed that with good teaching on my part and hard work on theirs, my students would have a fair shot at getting their bacs.

It irritated me when they talked instead about ``luck'' or the will of God as the determining factors in their lives, but I had not yet learned that the university system was so overcrowded that the government could not afford to allow more than 20 percent of all high school students taking the baccalaur'eate exam to pass. Nor had I attended the final jury deliberations after the exams were graded, when criteria other than academic excellence were often brought to bear in determining whose sons and daughters would pass or fail.

Lahcen knew well that it was who you knew, and not what you knew, that counted; I thought, however, that he had made a joke, and so I laughed and went on to the next student.

I wonder now how many other truths I missed. Because we never mentioned the war in the Sahara, or the food riots in Casablanca, I thought we had barred the door to politics in my classroom. When three Moroccan teachers in a neighboring town were badly beaten after criticizing the King, no whisper of it entered our conversation.

We talked, instead, about what Betty did in the morning and what Fouad liked to eat for breakfast. We sang songs and played hangman, but though we might have ignored it, we could not bar the political nature of my presence in the classroom.

For what was I teaching them, really? It was naive of me not to realize that a language is inextricably bound by the ideas of the people who speak it. Learning English vocabulary and syntax must have been easy for my students, compared with the subtler challenge of entering into an alien world-view predicated on the assumptions that men have the responsibility to question authority, the right to speak freely, and the power to direct their own lives. It was a view diametrically opposed to their own, and once entered, it affected all of them a little, and perhaps a few of them quite a bit.

I taught English for three years. By the end of that time, the majority of my students could comment fluently on the weather. A few progressed much further, of course, but most never got beyond the weather, and they have probably forgotten that by now. Of what use is English, after all, to a farmer, a shopkeeper, or a shoeshine boy in that impoverished little town? Language, however, was not all they learned from me, and though they may have forgotten the English, I suspect they remember the English teacher.

I often think of Lahcen, of Zohra, Abdelkarim, and the rest. I remember the enthusiasm with which they stretched to meet me culturally as well as linguistically. I remember, too, that they trusted me enough to learn from me, though perhaps the lessons were more dangerous than we knew.

It would not surprise me to learn that they have since joined a forbidden political party, or been arrested, even killed, for criticizing a system they had begun to question in my classroom. Sometimes, I wonder if their trust in me was justified; I, after all, could afford the courage of my convictions, for I was free to leave at any time.

It has been almost four years since I left Taroudant, almost three years since the last time I heard from any of my students. Yet, increasingly they are in my mind these days, as I follow the news accounts of the conflicts in Central America, in the Caribbean, Afghanistan, and the Philippines. Volunteers like me once built schools in these places and taught English to people who now, for good or ill, ask for guns.

As I look at newspaper photos of those anonymous warriors, I wonder if there is a teacher somewhere to whom the faces are familiar.

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