101 Arabian Tales: How We All Persevered in Peace Corps Libya
By Randolph W. Hobler (Libya 1968-69)
Reviewed by Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971-73)
I’m always drawn to reviewing memoirs from Peace Corps volunteers. What makes this one unique is that it is a collective memoir garnered from interviews of over 100 Libyan Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. I can’t imagine what it must have taken to accumulate this information from so many fifty years after the fact, so I asked him.
He sent me a bibliography with lists of people he contacted, books he’s read, interviews he’d made and emails he’d sent. He kept a diary as did his editor (a 76 pager) not to mention close to 60 letters containing information and some of the stories he brought to life in his book. The opening quote alludes to the interesting circumstances of this book, “The only real voyage is not an approach to landscape but a viewing of the universe with the eyes of one hundred other people.” Marcel Proust.
The author’s narrative anchors impressively embroidered anecdotes throughout the book. Instead of a more typical individual view of the experience, this collection provides many rich hues and shades of experience with hilarious, heartbreaking, insightful and poignant, inspiring results. The 220 photos, maps and graphics add to the mosaic.
The focus on Libya is also timely, since for the last fifty years the country has been in turmoil and often in the news. This group of volunteers arrived in the country in 1968 and provides insights into the Gadhafi revolution. To a degree, Libya has been in a constant state of tribal civil war. The violence would culminate with the Arab Spring in 2011 and would include the horrific attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012, which resulted in the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Unfortunately, in 1969, on the heels of the Ghaddafi revolution, over 400 PCVs were summarily yanked out of the country and thrown to the wider world. Some went to Tunisia, some to Iran, and some to Afghanistan, among other countries. Some of these stories are also included in the “Epilogues” at the end.
The training was in Arizona. But no women trainees. The Peace Corps decided to train the women – 18 who were single and 43 who were there with their husbands/fiancés – in a separate location from the men, deep down in Bisbee, Arizona, on the Mexican border, 900 miles away! The Peace Corps decided to isolate the trainees to help them appreciate that they were unlikely to have much contact with the opposite sex in Libya.
The nebulous process of “deselection,” the use of marijuana and the unwelcomed intervention of draft boards were all part of the initial “counterculture” tales, “ Only in 2018 did I discover– thanks to Kevin Hunt–that 17 male trainees, including him, were told that they had not been cleared to go to Libya by their draft boards, but they must nonetheless show up at the airport fully prepared to either go to Libya or be severely disappointed at not getting a deferment. At the very last minute, they all got “presidential deferments.”
Several stories relate to both the limitations and dangers of female volunteers in a Muslim/tribal setting as well as the treatment of the local women, “The bride does not smile because this is a time of sadness – she is leaving her family. She doesn’t eat or drink. She sits, wearing all the jewelry she has been given. (In this case, the groom reportedly had to pay $5,600 to the bride’s family – a princely sum in such a poor country.” Some women dance, some ululate… around two or three in the morning, the songs become very mournful. And the calls become very deep, almost like a wounded animal’s death sounds. This is just the first of seven days’ parties, with the men partying separately. The next day the bride and groom are shown into a bedroom and left alone for one-half hour. This is the first time they have laid eyes on one another. The husband then comes out to his brother, who shoots off a gun signifying the girls is a virgin. (Without the virginal presence, were the bride not, in fact a virgin, she would be cast out of her family. They would have beaten her or even killed her.) The bride’s sister enters the bedroom, crying hysterically. One of the sisters then sprinkles perfume on everyone. The bride’s mother advises her that she will cook for her new husband, sew for him, weep for him, bear children for him.”
The chapter on “Critters” brought back memories of the dangers of entering a new country as a volunteer, “Flies also carry a dread disease: trachoma. The flies alight on Libyans’ faces, randomly crawling around. When they touch the surface of an eye, the trachoma takes root, at first as a small grey dot in the eye, then gradually expanding over time until the entire surface of the eye is a milky gray, and the victim is blind. In a 1968 survey of 2,800 patients at a Tripoli hospital, 100% of them were found to have trachoma.”
The book is full of pearls of wisdom. As one former U.S. ambassador states, the book is “…a veritable and precious treasure trove of Libyan history, politics and culture, of the individual experiences of Peace Corps volunteers and an exciting piece of storytelling that rivals any academic enterprise.”
Mark Walker (Guatemala 1971-73) managed programs abroad with CARE and Plan International and for over thirty years raised funds for such organizations as Make A Wish International. He was also the CEO of Hagar USA, which supports survivors of human trafficking.