Volunteers of America:
The Journey of a Peace Corps Teacher
by Dennis L. Carlson (Libya 1968-69)
Sense Publishers, $38.00 paperback. $98.00 hardcover
Reviewed by Martin R. Ganzglass (Somalia 1966-68)
Relying on a forty five year old journal he kept on almost a daily basis, Dennis Carlson has written a timely and thoughtful view of his service as a Peace Corps teacher in Libya. The book mainly chronicles his life in the small village of Igsaya, and his teaching experiences in that village and an even smaller school five kilometers away.
Carlson describes the impact of Colonel Qaadafi’s 1969 coup on Igsaya and Tripoli: the food shortages and suffering of villagers due to the closing of market places and a ban on inter-village bus travel; the initial calm in the capital, followed by the threatening presence of armed soldiers, the beginning of anti-American rhetoric and subsequent street demonstrations, the harassment of Italian shop owners, and of Peace Corps Volunteers hunkering down in an apartment, waiting to learn if they will be allowed to return to their posts or be evacuated.
When the monarchy was overthrown, Carlson had served only one year in Libya. If Peace Corps was expelled from Libya, and he was not reassigned to another country, Carlson was subject to being drafted. The Vietnam War loomed large for many young men in the late 1960s. The choices, as chronicled by Carlson were stark: 1) be drafted and sent off to Vietnam to fight in a war he deemed unjust and immoral; 2) refuse to be drafted and go to prison; or 3) flee to Canada. The fact that white middle class men received temporary exemptions for college or grad school only served to heighten Carlson’s sense of the injustice of the war and the draft. Here is how Carlson describes his Draft Board physical:
Those of us who were there for a pre-induction rather than their induction physical
were mostly middle class, white college students, and those who were being in-
ducted were mostly a mix of working class, white, black and Latino kids. So it was
pretty easy for us to see who was who, even in our underwear.
While Peace Corps offered Carlson a way to avoid the draft, albeit temporarily, he like most other male Volunteers of this era, was haunted by the thought that someone else had been drafted in his place to fight and perhaps die in Vietnam. In addition, the idealism that led one to join and serve abroad as “Kennedy’s children,” was always tarnished by the thought that it was the fear of the draft rather than idealism that had led one to choose the Peace Corps.
Carlson’s journal enables him to accomplish the most difficult task for any author writing years after events: to capture in tone and thought, his youthful sense of adventure and invincibility and the excitement of embarking on both a geographical and personal journey. He questions whether Peace Corps is really the “good” side of US foreign policy; is teaching English a form of cultural imperialism; does the goal of western culture to control our lives with predictability offer a better way of life for Libyans than what Carlson calls “the triangle of Libyan fatalism?”
He also discusses his own personal search for his sexual identity, having first read Andre Gide and T.E. Lawrence who made their own journey of self discovery in the Arab world, a similarity not lost upon Carlson.
There are the usual and familiar Peace Corps experiences, common to volunteers wherever they have served: the need for a dose of American food and culture (Carlson gets his fix at an Americans only Fourth of July Peace Corps party in Tripoli) followed by a return to one’s village and thinking of it as “home;” the bumbling of Peace Corps Staff who invariably screw up the cultural understandings and relationships painstakingly developed by the Volunteer in the field (Carlson describes a visit to his conservative village by newly appointed PC Director Joseph Blatchford accompanied by a mini-skirted photographer); and the loneliness of serving in a distant rural post and the warm comradeship resulting from a visit by another PCV.
Carlson includes much useful information about Libyan history: the Greek and Roman colonization (the names Tripoli and Tripolitania refer to the three “polis” or cities the Romans built on the Mediterranean coast); Italian Fascist rule and the construction of planned farming towns populated by sturdy Italian peasants from Sicily and the displacement of Libyans from their grazing lands; the defeat of Rommel by the British Eighth Army in World War II (with a very jarring consistent misspelling of Panzer throughout) and the monarchy under King Idris.
Still, one wishes for more. While his journal helps him to capture events four decades old, what is missing are his reflections on his experience. Did he establish any long lasting friendships with Libyans? Carlson mentions discrimination against “darker” Arabs by lighter skinned ones, but does not explore it. There is very little discussion of religion and the practice of Islam. While it is difficult, in a traditional Muslim society, to know about the lives of Libyan women, he must have learned something and surely talked to female PCVs.
At the very end of the book, Carlson makes this tantalizing reference:
“[King Idris] was to be the first and last King of Libya, of a nation created by the
Italians and the British out of two culturally, economically, and politically distinct
provinces- Tripolitania and Cyrenaica- with the Fezzan, the great province of the
Sahara, thrown in as an afterthought.”
Carlson has written a moving account of his personal journey. It is timely because Libya is in the news. Based upon his rich experiences, one hungers for his explanation of how this flaw at inception impacts the situation in Libya today, or why Qadaafi’s forty year dictatorship failed to produce a unified nation.
Martin R. Ganzglass served in Somalia as Legal Advisor to the Somali National Police Force. He is the author of several articles about Somalia, The Orange Tree, a novel about the sandwich generation, and Somalia-Short Fiction. He is currently writing a novel about the American Revolution.