I have been to two wedding celebrations in Morocco; one in a small village in the north, and another in Casablanca. At the village wedding, anyone was welcome and pajamas were even acceptable. At the city wedding, much like the weddings back home, the invitation list was limited and attire was formal. While they were different, both weddings were joyous, warm, and incorporated many aspects of Moroccan culture. While different, both celebrations were equally Moroccan.
I make this clarification because from my perspective, Peace Corps is very focused on providing us with one view of Morocco—that is, the view from our Peace Corps sites. While it’s important for Volunteers to be focused on building relationships within their sites and not treating these two years like a giant vacation, it’s also important for us to have a complex understanding Morocco, in all its cultural diversity.
While Fulbright Scholars are encouraged to travel Morocco, Peace Corps Volunteers have often been scolded for spending too much time outside their villages and towns. Too much of this policy risks a simplified, rather than complex, understanding of what “Morocco” means. This narrowed vision impedes the third goal of Peace Corps, which is “to help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.” Moreover, Peace Corps Volunteers actually benefit from this rural, “roughing-it” vision of Morocco once they go back home, which speaks to a Peace Corps and social sector that thrives on the inequality it claims to fight against.
Resisting the Urge to Generalize
Recognizing that Morocco is a country with thriving cities as well as small villages means recognizing that it doesn’t need Peace Corps Volunteers. And that is a very important thing to recognize if Peace Corps wants to advance, not hinder, social justice. If Peace Corps didn’t exist, Morocco would be the same. People-to-people relationships and cross-cultural learning would decrease, but Moroccan development would no doubt continue.
Some Volunteers’ sites are more rural than others—some sites are more conservative, some have less resources, some are higher poverty, and some are more isolated. While these sites might make someone’s service more challenging, it doesn’t make it more “Moroccan.” In fact, it is problematic to associate the countryside with the core identity of a nation. This trope comes from intellectual elite that rely upon the imagined, stagnant nature of these rural, poor areas to “contain” an idealized nationalistic vision. This vision of the nation is rooted in orientalism left over from the era of colonization.
So, when Peace Corps Volunteers need a break from “Morocco” and head to the city for an iced chai latte, it is a sign of their class and economic mobility--not their Americanness. There are plenty of Moroccans that drink Starbucks on the regular. It’s just that none of them come from my village. But to say they are any less “Moroccan” is to reject Morocco’s dignity as a diverse, complicated, globalizing, and evolving country with many different classes, education levels, and human capital.
The Third Goal is Not License to “America-splain”
If volunteers are only aware of their site in a vacuum, they will offer their U.S. communities a version of Morocco that only reflects their specific experiences. What’s more, American PCVs that hang out together might go down the dark path of having conversations like “I hate when Moroccans do this,” or “the worst part about Morocco is that.” It’s so easy to blame an entire country for the flaws of one specific place, the inevitable trials of being a foreigner, or cultural norms that we have yet to understand. But we (myself included) have to recognize and check the racism and classism inherent in these conversations.
At the same time, we as Volunteers can benefit from this very same, reductive vision of our host countries. We have the privilege of the Peace Corps brand name, network, and “street cred” within the federal government and development organizations upon our return home. Some of us even get jobs based on our in-country experience.
But it's important to remember that we are not even close to experts on this country and all its cultures. For example, in my site, many of the women are illiterate. At the same time, more and more Moroccan women are attending universities in the country as a whole. Indeed, I will never be qualified, and it will never be appropriate, for me to to explain to anyone the “situation of women in Morocco.” Even though we might be more familiar with aspects of Morocco than the average American, two years isn’t enough to speak about the country with any authority.
Then How Do We Help?
Following, it is not our place to point out problem in other countries; it is our place to support other social change leaders who know their countries better. In the international development field—which has historically lacked local expertise and nuanced understanding of other countries—Returned Peace Corps Volunteers should use their experience to consult with, promote the leadership of, and integrate people from their host country into the social sector.
Just like we’re “sidekicks” for youth development work here in Morocco, Peace Corps Volunteers—especially ones with more privilege—should continue seeing themselves as “sidekicks” in the inherently Eurocentric international development field once they go home.
How to Make a Site my Home
I’ve hopped around Morocco quite a bit this summer, visiting various friends, attending trainings, exploring, and yes, drinking some overpriced iced beverages. I’ve dealt with the guilt that often becomes a theme in the service of Volunteers who didn’t grow up poor or haven’t worked closely with vulnerable communities back home. When I bought plane tickets back to the U.S. for vacation, I thought about how no one in my area has ever been on a plane.
But I’m not helping anyone by acting out of guilt. After all, Sidi Bouzid and its people deserve respect, not pity, from any outsider who chooses to live there. My productivity can’t be measured by the hours I spend in my site; my site isn’t counting my hours here, anyway. Rather, I’ll focus on the quality of relationships, sustainability of work, and new perspectives I am exposed to overall. Just like working at mission-driven organizations is a privilege, serving in the Peace Corps is a privilege—and I chose it. So I aim to be genuinely engaged in the work I’m doing while here.
Morocco is a big, complicated country, and it’s okay—and even beneficial—to look beyond my site when I want to, and if I can. I want to miss my site and be excited to return when I’m gone. But I also need the drive to work in my site, even when I’m challenged by the difference in perspectives or lack of happy hours. After all, Sidi Bouzid is not the one image that traps me, but rather, one beautiful, intricate piece of a much larger, ever-changing puzzle that is Morocco.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!