By John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
From a Google Alert I first read about Thomas Hollowell of Indiana and his new book Allah’s Garden. It mentioned that Tom had been in Morocco as a PCV and his book was set in the Sahara Desert. Also it was published by a small-and new to me-Illinois press. Being from the farmlands myself, I was curious about Tom and I tracked down the press, and they helped me find, Thomas Hollowell, who is a hard man to find, busy as he is, and as you’ll see from this interview, trekking through the Sahara when he is not back in the U.S. However, by the magic of emails, I was able to interview Tom about his misadventures in the Peace Corps, and his adventures in the desert.
First off, Tom, where are you from in the States?
I’m from Gessie, Indiana, a quiet town of about 100 people in West-Central Indiana. My twin brother and I attended Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. It is a private, all-male, liberal arts college that gave us excellent scholarships to attend. It opened up the doors of perspective and curiousness that are now insatiable. We both studied literature with minors in Spanish.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
After college, my brother and I went for three months to Costa Rica to volun-tour and live with host families. I came back and got a job. My brother went to graduate school. I wanted to continue traveling and learning (and possibly do something positive in the world); the Peace Corps gave me this wonderful opportunity.
Then you ETed?
I ETed because of a few variables that ended up stacking a bit against me.
As outlined in the book, Allah’s Garden, I found myself in trouble with the law right after swearing into service. Then, the weirdness of being so far removed in the High Atlas Mountains took a slight toll. Plus, I am an avid runner and there were simply cliffs all around. Beyond that, I knew that I could stay in the country, still do some good, still try to learn, travel, and help, but perhaps it would be better without the hovering entity that had become the Peace Corps for me.
So Allah’s Garden is not about your Peace Corps tour?
Allah’s Garden is a true story about a Moroccan doctor whom I met while I was working in Ifrane, Morocco. The doctor had an unbelievable story to tell about his being held as a POW for nearly 25 years in the Sahara Desert by the Polisario, a group based in Tindouf Algeria who claim Western Sahara as their land. In narrative form, I wrote the doctor’s tale and intertwined this with my own time, journey, and even misadventures in Morocco,our eventual meeting, and our talks together. The story progresses to reveal events and a situation that Americans are not aware of all that much with a perspective that has not been written before.
Did you write it from a journal you kept or letters sent home?
No, I have never really kept a journal except to practice languages. Some excerpts in the book, however, are based on letters between the doctor and his father, which adds an extra human(e) depth to the book.
How did you get the book published?
I spent a long time contacting agents and publishers. One publisher who I kept in contact with after some good correspondences said that I should write the book a certain way, mix my story with it, and then they would look at it again. When they did, they accepted it and then started the long procedure of editing, reworking sections, and getting it is the best possible form.
Who is that publisher?
Tales Press, a small press in Urbana, Illinois. They publish “…non-fiction memoirs and works of fiction that document and reveal something meaningful and worthwhile about the human condition.”
Without giving away too much of your book, what are the “events and a situation that Americans are not aware of all” that you write about?
Americans hear a lot about what is going on in the Middle East these days, but not so much what is happening in North Africa. For the region (and for Europe), the issues of Western Sahara hit close to home. So, for me, in my talks and presentations at Yale, among other places, I have really tried to offer a basic historical outline of the WS conflict, while highlighting the groups involved. Some Americans (and especially academics) might have heard about the Saharawi Refugees in Tindouf, but hardly any have ever heard of the perspective of the Moroccan prisoners held there for the better part of their lives (nearly 25 years). So, Americans might not be aware of the past strife, the human rights violations, and what is going on today.
Have you been back to Morocco?
I live in Morocco and am a full-time writer. I have written for magazines and have other book projects now. I am also running a Morocco travel website and actually have my partner and Moroccan staff who help arrange tours for people from other countries. It is a great little operation.
What are you writing now?
I just completed another book, a travel guide to Ireland, which I was able to get by securing a wonderful book agent and writing a proposal that appealed to the publisher. This book should be out in 2010.
Additionally, I am working like mad to market Allah’s Garden. I was invited to do a presentation at Yale University, which went very well.
That led to several libraries requesting the presentation. I am heading to New York this August. One venue named Idlewild Books is hosting the Book Launch Party on August 13, 2009 at 7PM that I invite anyone in the NYC area to come to. Please see http://www.thomashollowell.com for this party and other book signings going on through September 2009.
Moreover, I am also trying to promote a Morocco Trip Sweepstakes with this title where the publisher and the sponsor are offering a private 10-night trip for two for those who purchase a copy of the book and register it online. More news at http://www.Allahs-Garden.com
What is the web address of your Morocco travel site?
My Morocco travel Website is Journey Beyond Travel at http://www.journeybeyondtravel.com The site is special in many ways; we offer awesome tours and we take people into the heart of Morocco. Yes, we do regular and popular itineraries, but our niche is customized trips with quality accommodations (not 5-star, but 3 & 4 star riads), transportation, and local experts who we have met over time who now work with us full time. We work really heard to make sure each trip meets our customer’s demands. Plus, we offer great advice to ensure that travelers understand their trip and what it entails. Our Website offers great advice, travel articles, is easy to navigate, clear, and is a nice piece of eye candy, if I might say so! (http://www.sharktrustwines.com/) are co-sponsoring the event as well, along with the New York Arabic Language and Cultural Club (http://www.nycalcc.com/). Khalid at Wafin (http://www.wafin.com) is also pushing some advertising for us. Tell all of your friends and have them register for the event at the Allah’s Garden Book Launch Party at Idlewild Books (http://idlewild.eventbrite.com/) Website!
Go back to your own Peace Corps experience. Do you think you were treated fairly by the agency?
Actually, I do. They treated all of us very well. I really enjoyed the folks working in the PC Office, fantastic people. I wish that they had more of whatever they needed to do a little more research into the places and locations where they place volunteers and the selection process with where they place certain people. Sometimes as an agency they are rushed, I think. However, overall, yes, I was treated more than fairly and really do love the organization, the ideals of it for sure. The other stuff, the inner politics and other uncontrollable factors might get in the way, but overall a great and worthy organization.
What advice would you give someone who is thinking of joining the Peace Corps based on your experience?
I say do it! Do your research, go ahead and let them know what country or region you might be interested in and why, and go from there. I would say have backup plan in case you have to wait a long time for placement or in case you do not currently meet their requirements. And, if the PC doesn’t work out, there are other things to do. Get a book called Alternatives to the Peace Corps, join a shorter program to get experience, and keep traveling. You’ll find your place and your own way to make a difference, even if the Peace Corps does not work out for you.
What’s next for you?
I am now working on a couple of ideas for a new book, a travel / memoir of sorts written with a unique angle in narrative style, but with a twist. I will be posting more news on my website, so anyone interested in this and other news can join my mailing list on my Website. It is great when people join that and keep in touch!
Thomas, thanks for your time on this interview.