by Orin Hargraves (Morocco 1980–83)

First published at PeaceCorpsWriters.org in March of 2006, this essay
was the winner of the 2007 Moritz Thomsen Experience Award

I LEARNED A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO of the death Fatima Meskina, on January 9, 2006. I’m sure that no obituary appeared in any newspaper, and that her death and burial were modest and attended only by a few. But for me — and I expect for a handful of others — her death marked the passing of a legend: in the three years I spent in Morocco she was the most helpful, sometimes the most difficult, the most vivid, and for me personally the most influential person I met.

Fatima worked as a maid for a succession of Volunteers in various programs in the middle Atlas town of Azrou. She signed on with Volunteer Jeanne Spoeri in 1977 and got passed down, like many other Peace Corps accoutrements, to successive Volunteers over the next ten years or so. To pigeonhole Fatima as merely a maid, however, doesn’t tell anything about who she was. To the various Volunteers she shared her life with she was a maid as a matter of convenience, but her other roles were much more important: friend, teacher, cook, adviser, escort, shoulder to cry on, agent, fixer  . . . the list goes on and on. She was the best Arabic teacher I had in my whole three years in Morocco; it would not be exaggerating to say that half of the Arabic that made its way into my brain came directly from her.

My Volunteer service was not in Azrou; I lived in another village, El Hajeb, 30 kilometers away. And except for one summer when I worked in Azrou, Fatima was never officially my maid: I got to know her through my neighbor Volunteers who employed her. Through Fatima’s stories, I became aware of the Volunteers she had worked for in the past. And through letters that she dictated after I left Morocco, I got to know the Volunteers she worked for afterwards. All together we constitute a sort of family: the handful of Americans who were lucky enough to have shared a part of our lives with Fatima.

This small group of Americans is a family in another, much more profound sense: we were Fatima’s family. Fatima had no siblings and grew up without parents. She married unsuccessfully several times, before any of us knew her, and she had no children. Her only blood relatives were distant relations in Midelt, a town three hours away. Her true family was the Peace Corps. She lived the best part of her life for and with Morocco PCVs. Those of us who knew her well had an infinitely richer experience in Morocco because of her: she was our entrée to countless experiences in Morocco that would have remained unknown to us otherwise, and that I think no other Moroccan could have provided us. Her association with Americans afforded Fatima some prestige, but without us, and even with us, she lived at the bottom rung of Moroccan society: her friends were prostitutes, old widows, and fellow kif [cannabis] addicts like herself: people for whom the family-is-everything culture of Morocco had no respectable place.

When I wrote my travel guide Culture Shock! Morocco in the 1990s I wrote a page and a half’s worth of acknowledgements that appear in the front of the book: it was my first book, and I didn’t know then that I would ever publish another, so I thought it was important not to leave anyone out. One of the people I mentioned in the acknowledgements was Fatima, and it would have been quite unjust not to do this: knowing her probably increased tenfold the depth and breadth of my penetration into Moroccan culture. I don’t even know that I would have had the confidence to write authoritatively about it if not for the many experiences that she led me to directly. One of the early Volunteers that Fatima had worked for, Debra Snell, picked up my book at some point and saw Fatima’s name. She emailed me, and through Debra, who now lives in Morocco on a Fulbright scholarship, I have had the benefit and the privilege of knowing about Fatima in her last years.

Fatima’s last years were difficult, but not as difficult as they could have been, had it not been for the efforts of those who stayed in touch with her and supported her financially. She had severe arthritis and was mostly bedridden since 2000 or so. I had always feared that she would die alone and friendless. Happily, events have proven me wrong, and I suppose I should have known that Fatima, after her extraordinary life, would never settle for what I thought would be her fate. I learned of her death from Debra and I can’t do better than to quote from her emails to me:

I was traveling here with three friends the first two weeks of this month, and our plan was to go to Azrou to see Fatima, so we ended up there last week Monday (Jan. 9).

When we arrived we had coffee and then set out across the square to her house. A woman called out my name and it was “Little Fatima,” now a grown woman, about ten years old when I lived there. She said she had tried to call me the day before to tell me Fatima was “very sick” as opposed to “sick” . . . . My entourage got to Fatima’s place and I discovered she had been in a semicoma for three days. I leaned over, kissed her and told her who I was and I was there and she opened her eyes and looked at me for a few seconds. Then, two minutes later, she died.

. . .

I truly now believe this is why I have the Fulbright: to have seen Fatima in the last months of her life and to witness and be there when she died. Honestly, it is still hard to believe it happened.

In another email that went out to all of the people she knew who had also known Fatima, Debra also asked us to send her their reminiscences about Fatima; she was thinking about writing something. Shortly after I left Morocco in 1983 I wrote a short memoir of Fatima. It is part of a collection of my writings about Morocco, mostly fiction, that I circulated among agents and publishers for a while. The collection garnered a few admiring comments, but no offers, and it eventually settled down into a dormant area of my hard drive. But I got out the memoir of Fatima after I received Debra’s email and read through it again, for the first time in probably 15 years. At the risk of sounding immodest, I have to say that rereading the memoir blew me away. It brought back to me, far more vividly than I would have imagined was possible, people and places in my life that had slowly drifted out of active memory.

I sent the memoir off to Debra and put it on my website; it is now making the rounds of various Volunteers and others who knew Fatima. Aside from actually getting published, I have to say that receiving comments about the memoir from people who have read it is the most gratifying thing that has ever happened to me as a writer. I think the experience has a couple of interesting points regarding Peace Corps Volunteers and writing:

For me now, in my early fifties, the great value of that memoir is that it recorded in considerable detail events that happened when I was a twenty-something. Paradoxically, I find that now, at this vantage 25 years after the fact, I have a much deeper understanding of who Fatima was and why her life was so singular than I ever did at the time. In the memoir I simply recorded what I saw and what I felt when it was fresh in my mind — I reckon I wasn’t really grown up enough to understand a lot of it, and there is nothing like the passage of time to drill into you some of life’s more enduring truths. So the moral here is, get it while it’s hot. You will never again have as vividly in your mind the impressions of life as a Volunteer as you do when those experiences are still making your synapses fire.

While we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, are off in exotic places, gathering up impressions and experiences that last a lifetime, we may sometimes overlook the fact that the process is working the other way too: the experience of us in these faraway places may well constitute the experience of a lifetime for the people we meet there. This was certainly the case for Fatima. As I said, we were her family. She had no other. We were also her lifeline in a culture that had no place for a childless, old, drug-addicted spinster except as an object of pity, contempt, or charity. None of these roles was acceptable to Fatima: she was an indomitable, independent thinker who fashioned her own life against every prevailing current. She was lucky enough to find a group of people who enabled her to do it and validated her efforts. Because of that her gratitude to and love for us was every bit as great as ours toward her.

Do not despair if your writing about Peace Corps life, or any writing you do for that matter, does not find its ideal audience as soon as you dot the last i and cross the last t. To everything there is a season. The profuse thanks and appreciations I have received from readers of the memoir who knew Fatima well and who say that I really “captured” her have completely vaporized quite a few of those long-ago rejection slips.

Orin “Buz” Hargraves taught English as a Volunteer and worked as a trainer for Peace Corps/Morocco until late 1983. His first book was Culture Shock! Morocco: A Guide to Customs and Etiquette (Graphic Arts Center Publishing, 1995), and was followed by two other books in the Culture Shock! Series He parlayed his TEFL experience into a career in lexicography, and he has contributed substantially to dictionaries from publishers including Berlitz, Cambridge University Press, Chambers-Harrap, HarperCollins, Langenscheidt, Longman, Merriam-Webster, and Oxford University Press. He is also the author of numerous articles about language and of two language reference books: Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions: A Guide to British and American Differences (Oxford University Press, 2003), and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster),  an ESL self-study book about American slang.
His unpublished fiction includes novels and short stories.