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Dr. Strangecountry, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Morocco

I wrote the following some time in the Summer of 2013 to be published in the Peace Corps literary journal, PeaceWorks. I just read the finished product, and thought I would be lazy and reproduce what I wrote there for this blog post. Enjoy!


For one year now, I have listened to Moroccans tell me things—ridiculous things, shocking things, things that fly in from far out of left field, that make me choke on an olive or spray qhwa nusnus all over the table in astonishment. I suffer from chronic bruising about the nose and brow, the result of repeated face-palming (and periodic face-desking). Every volunteer, I imagine, is familiar with the flavors of absurdity to which I allude. A taste:

“Science has actually proven that Ramadan [denying the body both solids and liquids during daylight for one month, then, instead of sleeping at night, gorging on massive amounts of sweets, nuts, and carbs] makes you healthier.”

“Morocco is full of diversity! Not like America... [in fact, Morocco is 98.7% Muslim and 99.1% Arab-Berber]” 

“Our [super-saturated] mint tea [approximating the consistency of syrup] can’t cause diabetes! It cures illness!”

“American Muslims aren’t true Muslims because they are in gangs [because they’re black, and all black people in the US are in gangs].”

“Also, science has proven that eating with your hands is healthier than eating with a fork [Oh c’mon!].”

“It has been proven that it is impossible to have just one drink
of alcohol [...huh?].”

And my favorite: “The way to solve all the world’s conflicts is to exterminate the Jews [well everybody is entitled to their own--wait, what?!].”

Moroccans are fiercely loyal to their team, and their team is--what? Their country? The Arab world? The Muslim world? It is all of these groups, and all things that belong to these groups are, by virtue of belonging to these groups, the best things. Arabic is the most beautiful and poetic language. Mohammed is the best prophet. Couscous is the tastiest food. Muslim values are the most uplifting. Arabic history is the most important and interesting of any history. And any idea, country, or institution that could threaten the supremacy of these things is rightly lambasted.

I think of it as a super-charged, border-flexible patriotism. When Moroccans talk to me about their country, I sometimes picture them with one of those giant foam fingers, but the finger is usually flipping me off, because the implication, more often than not, is that American values are depraved, American history is too short to be important, and American culture is tainted by all sorts of shameful things, like depictions of people in art. I call this show of patriotism ‘flipping the giant, foam bird.’

What especially bothers me is that the tone of this patriotism is indistinguishable from the tone of, say, a group of Steelers fans waxing bumptious, chest-bumping, back-slapping. In fact, fanboyism is exactly how I’d characterize the prevailing attitude toward values, art, religion, and all those things that should not be approached while donning the giant foam finger.

Take me out to the ball game, 
Take me out to the crowd,
Buy me some harsha and mlwi, 
Wash it down with some cloying sweet tea,
Let me root root root for Morocco, 
If they don’t win it’s hshuma,
For it’s one thing to love your country, but it’s quite another to see ev-- oh sorry, were you still trying to sing? I say, it’s quite another to plant evidence for your country’s superiority in every news item, scientific study, and political analysis that filters its way through the creato-destructive, Shiva-esque machinery that is the Moroccan mind.

There are a number of factors that make this so, and it would behoove us as representatives of the U.S. and as foreign aid workers to be ever-mindful of them. In fact, we ought to tape them next to our bathroom mirrors.

In 1954, experimenters introduced two groups of 12-year-old boys into Robber’s Cave State Park, Oklahoma. The two groups were placed in cabins far enough apart that, during the first phase of the experiment, they were completely unaware of each other’s existence. The groups quickly established strong bonds, going so far as to develop their own codes of conduct and daily rituals.

When the two groups were finally made to discover each other, they were at first antagonistic. The experimenters set up a series of competitions for the boys. The antagonism grew. Supplies were stolen. Attack parties were formed. The experimenters had to intervene when the two groups were ready to - no kidding - engage in actual combat with stone-filled socks and Boy Scout knives.

Foreboding though it may be, this is instinctual behavior. We need to form an in-group, a clan. We need to have an ‘other’ to mock, scorn, taunt, and tease (and sometimes overpower and conquer). It was not too long ago in Morocco’s history that clan warfare was still a common occurrence. Remember how strong and primal a feeling this is, how hard it can be to overcome, and how comfortably we slip into clan mentality.

We’ve got webs in our heads. Psychologists call them schemata. They are webs of ideas, like courage is the highest virtue, the end does not justify the means, or Tea Party politicians don’t know American history. When we encounter something that doesn’t fit in this web, we have two options: 1) accommodate the new information by restructuring our web, or 2) assimilate the information into our web by modifying it, reinterpreting its implications, or downplaying its significance.

If I release a piece chalk and it floats to the ceiling, I can either change my idea about how gravity works, or I can think, “This is no ordinary chalk.” That second option, assimilation, is always easier, and is most often the route that groups take (Creationists are well-practiced assimilators, for example).

The tendency to assimilate is so much stronger when we aren’t familiar with the grayness of the world, the nuance and contradiction and moral messiness that is human existence. And because this is our brains’ default tactic, as long as we have plenty of authority figures feeding us assimilation techniques, no matter how bizarre, we are all too eager to employ them.

Remember this, and keep in mind Morocco’s condition: the nature of public schooling, the gravity of tradition, and the reverence paid to that which is eternally unchanging.

Cognitive Dissonance
In 1959, two psychologists tried their darndest to bore people. You wouldn’t think this would be too hard, but nonetheless, they put some work into it. First, they asked a number of students to engage in a meaningless, tedious exercise, which involved a square board with a grid of wooden pegs. Instructions went like this:

Remove peg from board. Turn peg 90 degrees. Place peg back in board. Next peg. Remove peg from board. Turn peg 90 degrees. Place peg back in board. Next peg. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

This went on for an hour.

After serving their time, the students were required to recruit another ‘participant’ (who was actually another experimenter acting the part) by convincing him that the experiment was really fun. “And for helping us out,” the psychologists told the students, “We’ll reimburse you for your time.” Half were offered $20. The rest were offered $1.

Which students were the better liars? Counterintuitive though it may seem, the ones who were paid only $1 were superior. They were so good, in fact, that they managed to convince themselves. You see, after the ‘recruitment’ was finished, the experimenters took the students aside: “Okay, now tell us what you really thought of the experience,” to which the $20 recipients replied, “Are you kidding? I was turning pegs for an hour! It was boring as hell!” But the poor schmucks who got $1? Well, they said something like, “You know, it was actually pretty interesting. I’d do it again.”

Both groups experienced intense boredom for an hour. But for one, it was okay, because, awesome! twenty bucks! For the rest, they had two options: live with the unpleasant, dissonant thought that they had just wasted an hour of their lives with little to show for it, or alter their perception of the experience by convincing themselves that they in fact had a good time, thereby removing the unpleasantness. The second option is what our brains are wired to do.

Which makes me wonder: what kind of psychological toll does it take, living in a society with rampant unemployment, few scientific achievements to speak of, lousy literacy rates, and (no offense, Morocco) terrible movies? More to the point, what is the psychological toll of feeling trapped in such a country, knowing that your chances of getting a visa are slim to none?

I’ll never know, but I’ll bet you one thing – if I were confined to a lifetime of Morocco, it would be a lot more enjoyable if I could convince myself that it was, indeed, the best. Do you see what I mean? 

Okay then, good. Now I can congratulate myself on my keen insight and unparalleled penetration into the workings of the Moroccan people. Satisfied that I finally understand what makes them tick, I-- wait. Americans are prone to cognitive bias, too. PCVs ought to be acutely aware of something called asymmetrical insight.

Asymmetrical Insight
We’re all familiar with this phenomenon. We fancy ourselves to be complex people, mysterious, deep, impenetrable. At the same time, we believe that we basically have everyone else figured out.

When we volunteers voice complaints about x, y, or z, we should keep this tendency in mind. Far be it from us to presume that U.S. culture is nuanced and complex while Moroccan culture is an open book.

If we are at all honest with ourselves, I think we’ll start to sniff – in our judgments, in our thoughts, in the stories we relate to relatives and anecdotes we share with each other – the faint odor of cognitive bias. We are not rational creatures. No, not even PCVs. We are subject to the same chemical tides as our Moroccan brothers and sisters, and forgetting this puts us at risk of assuming a position of criticism we’re not ready for.

Bringing It All Together
Take a deep breath. Now exhale. Your mind is a mound of silly putty, enveloping an egg. Your thoughts are roosters slung from a trebuchet. Your soul is a soggy nursery rhyme.

Okay, so none of those things paints a particularly noble picture of what we’re made of, but then again, we are by and large a clumsy congress of error, bias, and desperate, emotionally-charged attempts to make sense of the world. We’re disturbingly partisan, expert bastardizers of information, and we’ve been placed squarely in the middle of an out-group with whom we share precious few commonalities. The odds aren’t great that we’ll assess the situation perfectly.

Our job is to develop Moroccans. I want to change their thinking, and I want to change their values. Rather than coming at them as experts, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could approach them as fellow mistake-makers, laugh together at human folly, and in so doing, sharpen each other’s self-awareness and critical thinking skills?

May we always keep a suspicious, wary eye on the trajectory of our thoughts and judgments, lest we one day find ourselves filling our socks with rocks.
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