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STORY THREE A Straw in the Wind The Middle Atlas Mountains, Morocco, 1971 31 Ben did not begin to understand poverty until Karim died. Or at least he had not yet realized that its essence lay far deeper than surface effects such as the cardboard paper slums he’d seen. Every week Karim’s father, Abdulhaq, whom Ben had hired to supplement his regular Arabic lessons, came into town from his village to sit with Ben for ninety minutes and converse in colloquial dialect. Ben had returned to Morocco as a twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. candidate to do his anthropological fieldwork in a small town in the Middle Atlas. In that quiescent period in Morocco between the end of colonialism and before mass tourism, only a dozen or so foreigners would pass through town each year, and only one foreigner, an aging Dane, was a longtime resident. When Ben arrived, word had quickly got around that another foreigner was in town who might be a source of income. He’d hired Abdulhaq because he had been aggressive enough to come to Ben’s door and knock. Abdulhaq had come to offer his services, any service Ben could use that might earn Abdulhaq a bit of money. Abdulhaq was a thin man in his thirties. His wore his hair just shy of being shaved completely bald. His nut-brown triangular face, with its high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes fit the common image of the Berber lineage. Abdulhaq’s village, one thousand meters higher in altitude than Ben’s town, was fifteen miles away but took almost two hours to get to by car, and that was when the steep, rocky track was dry. Before there were motor vehicles, people came to Ben’s town on market days by mule or on foot. Several times Abdulhaq walked to see Ben, arriving the evening before their lesson, saying he had stayed the night with a friend in town whom he never named. Abdulhaq’s village was the burial site of a famous saint, whose tomb was visited seasonally by pilgrims from many parts of the country. These people, poor themselves, provided a small but steady income to supplement the meager amount of cash that a few people made from olives, the principal crop. Villagers subsisted, planting grains on odd-shaped stony plots one hundred square meters in size and raising a few sheep and goats, living pretty much as had their ancestors during the saint’s lifetime in the seventeenth century. The forty-four-year-long French colonial period (1912–56) had brought neither modernity nor prosperity to Abdulhaq’s village. Indeed, there had been little contact with the French even though Ben’s seemingly nearby town had been a local administrative center and housed one of the oldest French-run modern secondary schools in Morocco. But Abdulhaq had not gone there, nor had anyone else from his village. It was, in every sense, too far away. He had, however, been an excellent student of the Koran, which he had learned, like most male Moroccan children, at the feet of the religious master whose itinerant rounds included Abdulhaq’s village. While people did trade goods back and forth between his village and a cycle of weekly markets in a ten-mile radius, such commerce was measured in the Moroccan equivalent of pennies; it was certainly not enough to alter a centuries-old way of life. Without access to paved roads, local economic life remained just that: local. Needless to say, Abdulhaq ’s village had no electricity, no telephones, and no running water. Abdulhaq was a deadly serious man. During the eighteen months he came to Ben’s house for conversations, he never laughed and hardly smiled. His grave formality made him seem old and dignified. In the beginning, Ben taught Abdulhaq how to teach him, managing to get across that while Ben did not care what the two of them talked 32 Story Three about, he cared how they did. Ben wanted phrases and new words purposefully brought forward from one conversation to the next, to ensure that he would absorb them. Abdulhaq’s intelligence quickly jumped the gap between Ben’s pedagogic notions and his own, and by the third or fourth week the method began to work. Abdulhaq’s world was limited, but his knowledge of it was encyclopedic . There was nothing local he did not understand or could not explain. He knew about the weather, about...


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MARC Record
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