About a month before the end of my Peace Corps service, my friend Craig in Chicago
sent me an e-mail with a long list of probing questions. These gave me an
added opportunity to give some careful consideration to my time here. His
questions are in bold, followed by my answers.
are you going to do with what you've learned?
That makes me wonder: What have I learned? Foremost, I have had the
opportunity to experience that while cultures can be fundamentally
different from each other, it is almost always possible for people who come
from diverse backgrounds to find ways of living with each other
One critical example along these lines has to do with a widespread
misconception that many Americans have about Muslims. In the USA, a common
belief is that all Muslims are “Islamic fundamentalists” who are ready to
set off bombs, thereby killing themselves and others in order to advance
their religious cause.
We know that there are Muslims engaged in terrorist activities. My
experience here shows me that the greater majority of people with whom I
have come in contact in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania – all Muslims –
are peace-loving, welcoming to foreigners, and capable of making the
distinction between the policies of the American government and their
friendships with the American people. In fact, many people have told me,
"Terrorist acts are against Islam." The average Mauritanian is as
horrified by terrorism as Americans are.
During my time in Africa I have traveled to other countries that are
predominantly Muslim, such as Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and
Tunisia. My experience in Mauritania and these other countries is that most
Muslims live remarkably secular lives. Tunisia, for example, has its own breweries
and wineries – hardly a fundamentalist approach to the practice of
Likewise, I have seen several television variety shows, music videos, and
sitcoms that originate from such Muslim countries as Lebanon and Egypt. The
women singers and actresses who appear on these programs could be right off
American television, with their bare shoulders, low-cut dresses, and short
skirts – not a veil or hajib in the crowd! Additionally, many of the
graphics are displayed in English alongside Arabic, which demonstrates to
me that these venues are clearly not Anglophobic.
The most important thing that I can do with what I have learned while
living here is to further the third of the Peace Corp’s three goals, which
is to inform my fellow Americans about the inhabitants of the country where
I have been serving. I will do this by talking and writing about my
At the same time, it’s frustrating for me as one person to try to overcome
the damage that is being done by so many media outlets. Average American
citizens are being bombarded with negative images of people who mean no
harm to them. I know, as a result of what I have learned here, that I
cannot trust the media to portray an accurate picture of life in an Islamic
Being an instrument of peace is not a one-shot deal – not something that
can be applied outside of the USA for two years of Peace Corps service and
then hung up so that “life can now get back to normal” when I return.
the opportunity, what advice would you have given yourself two years ago as
you set out on this journey?
Oddly enough, I did give myself some advice two years ago, and I am
going to stick with it because it has served me well. The advice was to
lower or – better yet, to get rid of – my expectations. The problem with my
having expectations is that they set me up to be disappointed when they are
I am not saying that lowering or eliminating expectations is an easy task
to accomplish, but it has helped me to accept whatever has happened to me,
much of which was totally beyond my control anyway.
has this changed you as a person?
There’s a large stack of old New Yorker magazines, circa 2003-2004,
that just made their way to the Volunteer computer room at the Peace Corps
bureau. I was browsing through them recently and saw a William Hamilton
cartoon of a group of people talking, with the caption, “She said Africa was
a life-changing experience, but I haven’t noticed any change.”
Changes are not easy to come by, especially for an old geezer like me. What
I hope I have been able to affect in the way of personal changes is
a greater amount of compassion and patience in my interactions with other
That being said, I feel that I still have a long way to go, in both the
patience and compassion departments. These are lifelong projects that will
never be fully realized. The best I can do is to keep it in mind so that I
can modify my actions one day at a time, continuing to be aware that a
change of this nature is a process of happening and never one that
has completely happened.
what would you have changed about your experience if you could?
I can’t say that I would have changed anything. Before I came here, I felt
that I would teach what I had to teach and learn what I had to learn. Even
if I had wanted to change something, I would have been powerless to do so.
Travel is funny this way: what you go for and what you wind up with are
often greatly mismatched. The trick is to learn to be resigned to this
outcome, which I think of as being reconciled to the irreconcilable.
have you valued most?
I had two years in which I was face-to-face with a culture that is very
different from the one where I have grown up, and in a physical environment
bordering on hostile. This experience helped me to have a better
understanding of my countrymen and me. Being in a place so alien helped me
get a better understanding of that.
I have had much opportunity for writing and reading, two activities that
have helped me to reflect on who I am and what I need to live for. This has
been extremely valuable to me. These are solitary activities, and I have
enjoyed the tranquility that they have brought to me. By the same token, I
have shared much of my writing with many people, and they have enriched me
by responding to what I have put into words.
did you enjoy least?
There were frustrating and difficult times for me throughout my service,
and there were many of them: I had misunderstandings with people because of
my being inept at understanding the right thing to say or do. When my
landlord’s property had to be repaired, he would not pay for the work,
which meant that I had to have it done myself. People stole from me – fortunately
nothing major, but it was disconcerting nonetheless. Many people, it became
clear, were more interested in me for my passport and the potential
benefits that it would be able to bring to them. Of course, my list of
frustrations would not be complete without mentioning the totally different
understanding of time that Mauritanians have, which led to many missed and
late appointments. Their habit of showing up at my house unannounced,
uninvited, and sometimes unwanted, was a major theme and thorn in my life
here – an invasion of the privacy that I needed desperately.
There is no infrastructure for being organized in this country. When I
moved into my apartment, it was not equipped with so much as a shelf, a
hook, a drawer, or a closet in which to hang or store things. I didn’t like
the feeling of disorganization that I have had: that the only place where I
have had to put things is in plastic bags. Getting something I need means
rummaging through a dusty bag made of cheap plastic that sprout holes all
the time and need to be replaced, rendering them useless for their intended
purpose of storing things in a clean place. I was frustrated by having
piles of things with no natural place in which to put them, which made it
difficult for me to function at the level of efficiency I like.
I have missed close relationships with friends and family. There are many
more people at home with whom I have things in common, but who were not
here. That has left me to socialize with two major groups of people:
Mauritanians and other Peace Corps Volunteers. I have enjoyed getting to
know my fellow PCVs, some of whom will remain dear friends. None of them
lived here in Nouakchott, though, so I didn’t get to spend much time with them.
Most of them are in their twenties, and we don’t have that much in common.
This resulted in loneliness at times. There were also friends and family
members at home who were not accessible by e-mail, which left me at loose
ends from time to time, as I depended on people here to put letters into
the US mail when they went home for a visit.
I missed beauty and art created for its own sake: museums, art,
architecture, and harmonious public places created with both function and
form in mind. The developing world, it is clear, has enough work to do just
to keep daily life functioning at its already substandard levels, without
having any time, effort, or funds to put into such a luxury as beauty.
or what will you miss?
Being an older person here has shown me the positive side of being
respected because of my age and experience. It’s nice to be afforded that
kind of respect, especially when it pertains to having had the attention of
the vast array of young men with whom I have been in contact. I will
certainly miss that in the youth-dominated culture of the United States.
you recommend this experience to someone else in like circumstance?
It has become clear to me that being a Peace Corps Volunteer is not for
everyone. Many friends and relatives who have read my weekly posts have
responded by telling me that they would not have been able to do some of
what I described doing.
Similarly, during my time here I have seen upwards of twenty Trainees and
Volunteers abort their training or service so that they could return to the
United States before the term of two years for which they had originally
come. A wide variety of circumstances led people to do this, including
health problems, death in the family, dissatisfaction with local living conditions,
frustration with the system, and noncompliance with regulations.
It is evident, then, that despite the lengthy application process and
people’s intentions to be successful in their work here, there was a
mismatch for these folks. There was no way of knowing until they got here
and tried it that this would not be an appropriate fit for them.
Even within any given country, there is a huge variety of living
assignments among Volunteers. Some have electricity and running water, while
others do not. The climate affects different people in a variety of ways.
Communities welcome foreigners in a wide range of ways. Some host country
work counterparts and bosses are easy to get along with and some are not.
Work can be satisfying or boring, exactly what you were invited to do or
totally different. Volunteers plunked into a huge host family may crave the
solitude that they will never get, just as possibly as an outgoing person
who needs to be surrounded by people may not find a satisfactory host
situation or find friends with whom she clicks.
At the same time I had conflicting feelings concerning my living situation.
I had electricity, running water, and was living in a much more temperate
climate than many of the other Volunteers. So here I was, living a
relatively easy life, while they were suffering to a large extent, reading
by candlelight at night, fetching their own water, and living under a
constant layer of dust-covered sweat. This led me to feeling that I was “cheating,”
not authentic, not worthy of being a Peace Corps Volunteer.
People may have to rely on their inner strength more than they ever thought
necessary, in facing the challenges thrown at them. It is hard to know
until they are in the midst of it all how resourceful and resilient they
It does make sense, though, for anyone considering this to think deeply
through the motivations sending him away from home. Are you going to a
place to be who you are or to escape who you were?
The Peace Corps puts you on the same road as many other people, but that
does not necessarily mean that you are all on the same path.
you glad you did it?
When I was a senior in college, I had to make a choice as to what I would
do when I graduated: begin teaching in San Francisco or join the Peace
Corps. I am pleased with the outcome, having made the right choice at that
time. Putting off my joining the Peace Corps had one benefit that I never
would have imagined, in that I have done my service during the age of the
Internet. Being in touch with friends and family via e-mail has been a
lifeline, a link that has enhanced my life tremendously.
Yes, I am glad I did it. There were times when it was not easy to be glad I
was doing it, but now that it is over, I am glad I did it.
you think your experience of the country would have been the same were you
free to represent yourself as a man who is both gay and Jewish? Or to put
it another way, do you think they would be as open-minded about your
culture as you have been about theirs?
That’s a really weighty one!
If I can use another aspect of myself – being a vegetarian – as an example,
that may be a good place to start. Most people express their curiosity and
then just let the subject drop. I get the feeling that they think, “He’s
foreign. He’s strange. But he’s a polite guy, so we just put up with his
odd ways.” Of course, being a vegetarian is not as controversial as
being gay or Jewish.
It’s true that
I have been closeted about my religion and my sexuality. The answer to this
question, though, has to do with whom I may have been able to talk about
these topics. Most of my encounters with people have been here in the
capital, which has the highest population of foreigners in the country,
leading to many educated and open-minded Mauritanians who live here.
My friend Mamouni has mentioned on several occasions that his father taught
him to love all people. He says, “The Israelis are our brothers.” Mohamed,
who was educated for three years in the USA, tells me that his best friend
is an Israeli. When one of the Lebanese merchants wished me “Merry
Christmas,” I told him that that was a Christian holiday, and that I am not
Christian. He asked me what I am and I told him I am Jewish. He shook my
hand and told me, “Welcome!”
At the same time, I know that other Volunteers who have been living in
smaller and more insular communities have reported that the residents are
not so open-minded.
As for being gay, I have come to learn that the people here have a
different understanding of what that means. The majority of “gay” men whom
I have met are married. It appears to be perfectly natural for them to
express sexual intimacy with other men, and they have no qualms about this.
Strictly speaking, homosexuality is punishable by death in Mauritania. In
practice, though, this has never happened. The lines of distinction between
homosexuality and heterosexuality are blurred, and they are most assuredly
different than they are in the United States.
There is wisdom behind the strategy of “coming out” to people who like or
love you. These are folks who have already decided how they feel about you,
and they have based their decisions on how they have defined you as
a result of your relationship with them, rather than how you are defined by
arbitrary words. Most people, under these circumstances, find that they can
make allowances for previously held biases that had been based on
incomplete knowledge. Just as many people who hate Americans have never
even met one, the same holds true for these other facets of our lives.
People have been very kind and hospitable to me. I have been welcomed into
their homes and lives. At the same time, truly “integrating” into the
society (as the Peace Corps refers to it) is rife with religious, cultural,
and linguistic hurdles and barriers. As nice as the people are, I have come
to understand that it takes more than “nice” for me to develop and maintain
a meaningful friendship.
Americans need to get out more. Our leadership and citizenry need to
understand that brutality is not an acceptable means toward the much-needed
end of having all the people of the world living harmoniously.
I am convinced more than ever that the military systems of the United
States and other countries need to be dismantled. The world would be a
better place if young and impressionable men and women were trained for
peace rather than for war. They need to see firsthand that we can achieve a
more rewarding and mutually beneficial coexistence through peaceful means
than via exerting military muscle in order to kill people over tiffs
involving real estate and oil.
What does it mean to “fight to keep the world free”? Freedom does not
involve dying or promoting death; it involves living and finding as many
ways as possible to sustain life.