Jack Allison served a 3-year tour with the Peace Corps in Malawi where he was a public health Volunteer in the bush. Here he reviews Thomas Howell’s book Allah’s Gardenon Morocco based on Hollowell’s brief tour as a PCV, and now his extended connection with the country.
by Thomas Hollowell (Morocco 2002)
Reviewed by Jack Allison (Malawi 1967–69)
Thomas Hollowell’s novel is actually a multi-layered reportage of his fascination with Morocco which resulted in a very brief stint as a Volunteer with the US Peace Corps there in 2002, including an historical denouement of the war in the Western Sahara, and a focused account of the capture, torture, and epic struggle of a Moroccan physician, Azeddine Benmansour, who spent 24 years as a prisoner of the terrorist group, the Polisario. Azeddine is one of the longest-held POWs ever.
The novel is well written, with inviting, brief descriptions of the cities, towns, mountains and desert of Morocco, said to have similar topography to that of California. Hollowell apparently wrote the book to expose to the world the atrocities committed by the Polisario deep within the Western Sahara, formerly known as the Spanish Sahara: kidnapping, torture, forced starvation, isolation, death.
The title, Allah’s Garden, alludes to Muslim’s reverent epithet for the Sahara Desert. Hollowell also cleverly uses snippets of language — Arabic, French, Spanish — to convey added, colorful meaning to conversations throughout.
Howell met Azeddine through a student at Al Akhawayn, an English-speaking university where Hollowell worked after his “Field Termination” from the Peace Corps. The majority of the book is based upon a series of interviews Hollowell held with Azeddine. The result is a captivating, at times tedious account of the horrendous travails to which Azeddine was subjected during nearly a quarter-century of captivity in the desert.
Perhaps the most disheartening thread of the book is the success of the Polisario in misleading a host of NGOs into believing that the Polisario was taking excellent, humane care of their thousands of prisoners, including the delivery of food, medicines, mail, and other provisions to their charges. Unfortunately, it literally took years for their massive deception to be uncovered.
Two issues warrant comment: As an emergency physician, I winced at the hyperbole in Hollowell’s description of repeated accounts of torture, for medically, many did not make sense. Additionally, as an RPCV myself, I was dismayed at Hollowell’s disregard for Muslim culture by kissing a young Moroccan woman (who was one of his official Peace Corps language instructors) at a park in Marrakesh. Both were retained, and reading between the lines, most likely resulted in his leaving the Peace Corps after only a few months of service. Personally, this is a major detraction of an otherwise admirable effort to shed international light on a recent dark segment of Moroccan history.
Jack Allison (Malawi 1967–69) served a 3-year tour with the Peace Corps in Malawi, Central Africa, where he was a public health volunteer in the bush. He is best known as a singer/songwriter there, having recorded arguably the most popular song with a message in Malawi, Ufa wa Mtedza (“Peanut Flour in Your Child’s Corn Mush”). After Peace Corps, Jack went to medical school, and recently retired after a 30-year career in academic emergency medicine. He has done 3 public health stints in Africa — a USAID mission in Tanzania in 1982, a Project Hope Mission in Malawi in 1994, and US State Department mission in Malawi in 2005 — the latter 2 involved helping to eradicate AIDS in that central African country. For more information, please log onto afriendofmalawi.com.