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The Crazy Folk

The crazy folk. Not the most sensitive term, but admittedly the one I use with other volunteers. Every community has them. They are by turns amusing, tragic, and terrifying.

---

My first was The Top. I met him in my first week of service in Aounate. At that time, I had no internet access in my home, so I lugged my old laptop, Lappy, to the sole wi-fi-enabled cafe in town. Sipping my bitter brew, I saw him there, in the cafe patio, deftly spinning in place. He must have been in his early 40's, in good physical health, by all appearances. Upon his head, a dark, curly quasi-fro, and on his face, intense concentration. His eyes focused on no man, and through his lips passed nothing intelligible. He simply spun. Spun and mumbled.

Another caffeinated patron noticed my interest and alarm. In a most reassuring tone, he said "Hania, hania. Mashi Xatir. Thnna." - "It's fine, it's fine. He's not dangerous. Don't worry about it." 

That night, long after my neighborhood had checked in for the evening, I climbed onto the top of my roof, so as to get a feel for PAM, the compact residential neighborhood to which I had recently moved. I surveyed my surroundings. Late into the night, after the toddlers have been wrangled up and the children have tired of street-ball and the rebel youth have smoked through their last cigarettes, PAM is almost serene. I saw some chickens poking around in a trash pile three stories below. I saw dusty alleyways, empty and dark and strangely inviting. I saw the last few electric lights still burning in half a dozen windows throughout town. And turning to the south, I saw The Top. He was standing in a well-lit street several blocks down, all alone, going through his bizarre ritual motions. His voice was barely audible, but as far as I could tell, his words (such as they were) were not meant for others, nor were they meant to be understood. They just were. Like his movements, or his curly hair, or his unobjectionable presence in public places, The Top and his strange language were just ambience, a thread in the tapestry of everyday life in Aounate.

He spoke to me once. I was at the cafe again, sipping the same bitter coffee that I always order, and The Top walked over and sat at a nearby table. In perfectly coherent Arabic, he began to ask me where I was from, what I was doing in Aounate, how I learned the language - the same battery of questions that will forever be the mainstay of PCV-to-HCN smalltalk. "Come to my house," he then said, after satisfying his curiosity. "Come have tea."

What followed was an picture perfect exercise in the disintegration of polite conversation. The Top was persistent, and fellow patrons offered no assistance, though they followed the conversation with inquisitive, un-averted eyes. My tactics necessarily shifted from the gracious refusal to regretful excuse-making to outright rejection. At this point, he was pleading with me, confusion all about his face. "Why won't you come to my house? Come have tea with me! Come with me to my house!!" I had run out of ideas, so I stood up and walked away, awkwardly apologizing as I went. This wasn't the first time one of the crazy folk had invited me to their house.

---

The first time it happened from the post office. I was setting up my PO box when a skinny, bald-headed skeleton of a man approached, speaking perfect English. Deadeyes Dick, I call him, because when he talks to you, his eyes are as distant as if he were in the thralls of a powerful hallucinogenic drug. He offered assistance in translating my needs (assistance which was absolutely un-needed) to the postmaster. He ran through the usual questions, explained that he used to be an English professor, and offered to show me where he lives. As he spoke, he wore a perpetual sinister grin, and spittle and drool constantly escaped his mouth. He took me a few streets into PAM and showed me his house, making sure I remembered all of the landmarks and right-hand turns. With characteristic politeness, I thanked him and took my leave.

The next day, Deadeyes Dick came into the youth center where I was working. He did not stop to address the director in his office, but made a bee-line for me. He told me to come to his house that evening for a tagine. "Sorry," I replied, "but I have couscous with my host family tonight." Deadeyes left, and as I prepared to do the same, the director hushedly ushered me into his office. In a low, barely audible tone, he warned me: "Do not have lunch with this man." If my own misgivings weren't enough, that did it for me. I exited the youth center to make my way to my host family's house, but Deadeyes was waiting for me. "Come to my house now and have tagine with me," he demanded. I must rid myself of this man, I thought. Something about him is not right. Maybe another adult can scare him away.

So I led him into the office of my host father. Giving every indication that I wanted no part in this man's invitation, I explained to my host father that this man wanted me to come to his house, but could you please explain to him that we have a couscous date tonight. "Mashi mushkil, sir m3ah. Kul tagine m3ah u rj3 3la kusksu. Mashi Mushkil!" - "It's no problem, go with him! Eat tagine with him and then return for couscous. No problem!" Damn, this did not go the way I wanted it to go. Minutes later, I was trapped with Deadeyes eating an extremely suspect tagine under his oppressive stare.

I guess it could have gone worse. He could have torn my throat out with a fork or tried to kiss me, I suppose.

One day, about two months in-site, he disappeared. I no longer saw him at the post office. He did not come into the youth center. People I asked suggested his mental health had gotten worse and he was in some hospital in some other town, but no one seemed to know. I forgot about him for nearly a year.

Then, this last summer, I saw him again. Understand that in the summer, nary a soul ventures into the youth center, and on this day, I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude out in the courtyard. I looked up from my book to see Deadeyes standing in the foyer and looking around as if he were lost. His glazed look slowly drank in the scattered papers pinned to the bulletin board, and then slowly turned its way to where I was sitting. He slumped towards me with a look that bespoke fear, confusion, and rage all at the same time. Inside, I was terrified, but I'd be damned to reveal that to a crazy man. "Hi! How are you?" I queried in the cheeriest voice I could muster. His facial expression didn't change. He arched his neck steadily so as to meet my eyes, as if for the first time realizing I was there. When he saw me, he cocked his head a little and his upper lip twitched a little, and I was in turn filled with not a little disquiet. I tried some other simple English greetings, and when none of those earned a response, I tried again in Arabic. I seemed to be angering him, so I turned my concentration to thinking of all of the best escape routes from my desk.

Finally, he spoke. "Where are we?" It was an angry tone, almost accusatory. I smiled nervously and said, "We're in Aounate, of course!"

"No! Where are we?"
"Umm... why, we're in the youth center in Aounate. Arbaa Aounate. How are you?"
"No!" At this point, he was practically shouting. "Where are we exactly?"
"I.. uh, I don't know what you--"
"I'll tell you. We're nowhere. Everything is air."

I then heard what I can safely call the most ominous and unsettling laugh ever uttered by man. Damn. I'm in a tight spot. I must not let the fear show. Oh god, why has his hand been in his pocket this whole time? What does he have in his pocket? Will my family only remember the good things? I hope Peace Corps pays for the funeral.

"Do you know where Osama bin Laden is?"
Dear god. What have I done to deserve this? "...What?"
"I said, do you know where Osama bin Laden is?"
"He's dead. Osama bin Laden is dead."
"NO! He's alive. He lives here in Aounate."
"..." breathe deeply. keep it together. "Oh really? How do you know that? Have you seen him?"
"No, nobody can see him. He's invisible." *grin*
"I have to go to the director's office. I need to talk to my director."

I can assure you that as I stood to leave, I kept a close eye on that pocketed hand. Deadeyes followed me to the office with the same angry look on his face. To my director, I raised as many red flags as possible. Even a child could have understood the subtext from my body language and tone: this guy is really fucking creeping me out and I don't want him in this building or around me anymore. please help. It all bounced off the director's head. "Safi, Eugene? Ready to go home? I'll see you at 4."

So then I was stuck walking home with Deadeyes in tow. In broad daylight, I felt marginally safer, but when I got to PAM, he demanded I come to his home. I did not bother with politeness, but said, "No. I'm going to my home now." 

"I will come with you."
"No. I will go to my house alone and you will go to yours."

He made no reply but began to focus intensely at my feet. Alarmed, I looked down too, but saw nothing unusual.

"Look out! Look out for the cockroach!"
"What? Is there a cockroach down here?"
"NO!!" His anger flared. "In the kitchen!" More sinister laughter. I hurried to my door.

He has been into the youth center one other time, when a fellow PCV was visiting. She immediately picked up on the creepiness and started to squirm in her chair. Deadeyes was sucking on an unlit cigarette butt and asking nonsensical questions. That time, the director escorted the man out. Apparently, it is unseemly to let a crazy man harass a guest in the youth center, but for me it's A-Okay.

Later, I had a talk with the director about Deadeyes. Despite his assurances that the man is not dangerous, I told him, "You know, Mostafa, sometimes, people can become more dangerous. Maybe he wasn't dangerous before, but maybe his health is getting worse. We don't know."

That seemed to do it, for Mostafa has not let him back into the youth center since then, and hopefully never will again. These days, when I see Deadeyes, I pretend I don't. When he calls for me, I pretend I don't hear him. This is for the best.

---

They are not always menacing. The last man I will describe always greets me with boisterous joviality and goodwill. I call him Brother Smokes, because every time he sees me, he smiles, shakes my hand, calls me brother, and asks me if I want to smoke hashish with him. Needless to say, I have never taken him up on his offer, and he is never affronted by my rejection. It is a peaceable relationship, ours. Brother Smokes always reminds me that we are friends, and amiably keeps his drug-sharing offer on the table. "Do you know Mr. Robert?" He repeatedly asks me in perfect English, referring to a volunteer who served a brief stint in Aounate in 2003 before being evacuated due to the Iraq war. He pronounces Robert's name in the French fashion, for reasons I cannot understand. "Mr. Robert smoked with me. He was a good man. He was my brother. Do you want to smoke with with me?"

I doubt whether the last volunteer would have willingly smoked marijuana with this man, but crazier things have been known to happen in Peace Corps.

Usually, Brother Smokes grabs my attention from a great distance, shouting my name across crowds or traffic or herds of sheep to get my attention. But one time last summer, around the same time as my run-in with Deadeyes Dick, Smokes was waiting for me on the oft-empty little street that runs in front of the youth center. I had just turned the corner on my way to work, when suddenly he was beside me, grinning and shaking my hand and releasing a torrent of speech - only this time, his fluency in English was completely gone. He was rattling line after line of English-sounding words that had no decipherable meaning. Thrown off-guard, I tried to re-rail the conversation by throwing Arabic at him, but a few words in, he cut me off in equally incoherent French-sounding words, which eventually shifted to some French-English para-language fusion. He did not pause for response or check my level of comprehension; he just continued in garbled nonsense for the entire length of the street, holding my hand and smiling all the while. I walked with him right past the door of the youth center, knowing he'd follow me in if I only gave him the chance. Instead, I got to the end of the street and feigned obligation towards the left. Mercifully, he had his own plans on the right, and we parted ways. Only then did he stop talking. I circled the block and went into the youth center unaccompanied and prematurely exhausted.

---

Crazy people are a frequent topic of conversation here in the Doukkala region, where they thrive in inordinate numbers. One question that is often on the minds of volunteers is: Why, in a country where so few people speak English, are almost all of the crazy people fluent in it? One theory is that they exported mentally-ill people from the bigger cities, where English education is much more prominent. This has been corroborated by some Moroccans who claim that the city folk don't want to deal with them, so the countryside serves as a kind of exile. Another theory is that those with enough education to learn English must also necessarily come to appreciate the vast material divide between the English-speaking world and their own society, and some fraction go mad out of frustration or hopelessness. My favorite theory, albeit the least likely, is that there are a great many more crazy people than we realize - that if we could only understand Arabic fluently, we'd see that, for instance, the chatty men sitting across from me in the cafe right now are actually speaking in nonsense on par with Deadeyes or Brother Smokes.

Whatever the reason, the crazy folk are here, part and parcel of life in Aounate. Street vendors often give them free meals, and people here treat them with a decent measure of respect. I often hear from folks that this is a good example of why Muslim communities are superior to Christian communities, where these folks would be confined to a hospital building. 

Let's nevermind that there are about a thousand things wrong with this comparison. It is, however, interesting to imagine a community in which mentally nonstandard persons are not only accepted as a normal part of life, but allowed to wander into coffee shops, restaurants, and Wal-Marts, shouting or staring at customers, or spinning like tops. Hmm, come to think of it, maybe it's better that we treat our mentally ill citizens with health care rather than spare pieces of chicken.
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