Tangier’s Casualty

In these past 19 months, I have sadly watched my faith in the effectiveness of liberal humanist values falter. They have not provided me an adequate framework to deal with the latest intifada, Sept. 11 and, above all, my year teaching in Morocco.

Most of my background — childhood in Santa Monica, high school at Harvard-Westlake, classics degree from Harvard University — reinforced certain principles: tolerance, the equal value of all cultures, the idea that sympathy, discussion and negotiation can solve most grievances and that force should rarely be used.

But in the fall of 2000, I began teaching junior high at the American School of Tangier, whose students were primarily Moroccans hoping to go on to U.S. colleges. I was joined by a cadre of young American college graduates, all equally dedicated to the same values and all certain that a year in this former Beat Mecca would only bolster our deep-rooted relativism.

It did not. Instead, it profoundly challenged our convictions.

Upon our arrival, a rasping secretary urged us to "start off like Hitler and end up like Patton" in the classroom. But we were reared in the tradition of giving respect in order to get it, and the admonition fell on deaf ears. So did my later calls for discipline. My students were disrespectful, and they often cheated and baldly lied when caught red-handed. My threats to fail them, an American disciplinary tool, met with indifference. Finally, incensed, I became Draconian. My classroom was docile for that whole week.

Such behavior may be typical of hormone-ridden adolescents anywhere, but it also revealed fundamental cultural differences. In Morocco, lying and exaggerating are far less stigmatized (no George and the cherry tree); shame in the eyes of others motivates far more than inward-directed guilt (no Abe and the library book); gentleness in an instructor is not respected (no "Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.")

Morocco is a moderate Muslim country. Tangier itself was once a cosmopolitan international zone in North Africa. But the past 50 years have witnessed a rise in Muslim fundamentalism, increasing poverty and the departure of most Europeans and Jews. Today Tangier, separated from liberal Spain only by the eight-mile Straits of Gibraltar, has developed characteristics we found difficult to accept.

Anti-Semitism thrives. I am a Jew, by the way. I mention it so late because I did not used to think it mattered.

Several weeks into our tenure, the Palestinian intifada erupted. In solidarity, an angry mob marched around the school chanting for Jihad against Jews and Americans. They smashed windows in the town’s only remaining synagogue. In response, King Mohammed VI urged his citizenry not to hurt Jews and placed guards with machine guns at the gates of the school. I alone was in charge of the dormitory that weekend, and my fears were eased by the king’s measures. But they were also heightened by the fact that he felt such precautions were necessary.

No further violence followed, but the vilification continued. When I hitchhiked from the beach one day, several men lectured me that "everybody in all the world is good people, except the Jews. Jews are horrible." A guide summed up the Moroccans’ magnanimity: "Jews are very bad people, but we treat them well."

At the school, the rabbi’s third-grade son (one of six Jewish students) was beaten by a band of sixth-graders in the year’s only violence. Though the boys were suspended, the sixth-grade lionized the instigator, a Palestinian student. Another student announced that Hitler was his hero and heckled me for being Jewish when I substituted in his class.

I tried not to absorb the lesson that such hate could fester even among children. I tried not to be appalled by the gender inequity: respectable women are hardly able to work or leave home. I tried to overlook the absence of political discourse: opposition to the king is not tolerated.

I failed on all counts.

When we arrived, my colleagues and I would never have criticized a foreign culture. That was what we had learned in America. In endless talks, we struggled to reconcile this standard with aspects of Moroccan culture we found reprehensible. My tolerance had met intolerance, and I found myself becoming intolerant. I am disappointed to hear myself say so.

I cherish many memories of my year in Morocco. I still believe in tolerance and in the use of negotiation instead of violence. But I fear these basic principles can be self-defeating in conflicts with people who do not share them and who co-opt and pervert them.

I, and perhaps the world, have slipped through Clinton-Barak’s open arms and landed in the strong arms of Bush-Sharon. It is with alarm and great sadness that I find myself welcoming their grasp. I am often haunted by suspicions that their approach is wrong. I am even more frightened that it might not be.