Review —THE COUSCOUS CHRONICLES by Richard Wallace (Morocco)

 

The Couscous Chronicles — A Peace Corps Memoir
Richard  Wallace (Morocco 1977–79)
Self-published
July 2020
260 pages
$14.95 (paperback), $0 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Liz Fanning (Morocco 1993-95)

I loved this book. The Couscous Chronicles: A Peace Corps Memoir was a delightful trip down memory lane just when I needed it most. Hard to say if I would have enjoyed it as much if I hadn’t served as a PCV in Morocco myself, 20 years after Richard. I imagined a similar memoir written about a vastly different place, like Vanuatu, Namibia or China, and yes, I believe I would have enjoyed it just as much! Maybe even more, because I would have learned a ton. For me, this book was an important acknowledgment of the power of the Peace Corps — I the friendships, experiences, and the earnest good work that is universally synonymous with “PCV.” I’ll keep my dog-eared copy on the shelf with my Peace Corps pictures.

It’s always interesting and important to read experiences of other PCVs because it puts your own in perspective, even all these years later. The details he remembers are impressive, like the names of all three hotels that PCVs stayed in when they first arrived — gads. He describes everything from the application process to the parent’s visit, to making the hard but practical decision to early terminate. There’s a whole chapter just on his last few days in Morocco. (All I can remember of my last few days is hanging on the beach in Essaouira.) I wish I had such detailed memories and philosophical reflections of my service — but I’m in luck, I can share Richard’s! So much was exactly the same as when I served in the 1990s. Site visits, negotiating with landlords, the hardworking and gregarious shopkeepers, even El Bahia restaurant — “the hole in the wall place in the medina” in Rabat and Restaurant Dolphin in Casablanca, still places PCVs congregate. Richard and his “Peace Corps wife” Becky lived in the capital city so had a never-ending stream of PCV guests overstaying their welcome. I was a “bleddie” (in a rural site) myself, and dreaded being a burden on the city PCVs, but did it anyway. (Sorry Ed. Sorry Michele.)

Reading Richard’s Peace Corps stories was like reliving it myself — cooking dinners from the Peace Corps cookbook, spontaneous parties and gripe sessions with other PCVs, traveling “flexibly,” enjoying wacky opportunities (like Richard directing Arsenic and Old Lace at the Very Little Theatre Group of Rabat – how cool), reading Paul Theroux (a PCV must!), demoralizing and frustrating work issues (Richard’s was waiting endlessly for film to arrive – argh!), buying furniture from outgoing PCVs and then selling to the newbies when you leave, celebrating with simple treats from America like Kraft mac & cheese and warm American beer – these things were the same when I served 20 years after Richard. At this point they’re cliché, but I hope they never change,

The writing was clear, succinct, and entertaining — artful without being maudlin, detailed without being monotonous. Like a personal diary should be, it’s complete with phonetic instructions; i.e. “SHOW-kron” (thank you) and “fa-TEEM-a” (Fatima), and endless anecdotes, reflections, and basic facts about living, loving, and traveling around Morocco.

This book was clearly a group effort. Every few pages, there’s a “one volunteer remembers” breakout featuring a powerful, amusing, and/or mundane story from a fellow PCV. My favorite was from Steve Long, who wrote a vignette about his third-year extension as a teacher. Peace Corps had a strict policy that extensions must be based on basic human need (good for Peace Corps for having that requirement!). Steve came up with an idea to get himself trained in therapeutic massage so he could work once a week in the local clinic in Midelt to help polio victims mitigate the palsy. During training in Tetouan, in the summer, “. . . we would take the kids to the beach. They were thrilled at the chance to swim in the Mediterranean, stripping off their braces as they crawled to the surf. The able-bodied patients would swim first and then form a human chain to keep those less able to float safely. With some of the most disabled, we would motorboat them around in circles, hearing their squeals of delight at the sensation of the water slipping over their twisted frames. . . .” Sounds like an excellent project.

The foreword, written by the legendary Ambassador Paul Hare, set a friendly, upbeat tone with just the right amount of gravitas. The epilogue was maybe my favorite part because Richard describes how all the PCV characters turned out. I feel like I know them all — and wish I did! The perfect bookends to a wonderful book. Anyone who reads The Couscous Chronicles will want to join the Peace Corps, if they haven’t already served. Or maybe serve again. SHO-kron, Richard!

Liz Fanning served as a PCV in Morocco (1993-95) and is the founder and executive director of CorpsAfrica (www.corpsafrica.org), an NGO that recruits, trains and sends college-educated young Africans to live in remote villages in their own countries for one year to facilitate small-scale, high-impact projects that are identified by local people. With offices in Morocco, Senegal, Malawi and Rwanda, it’s a private effort to create an African Peace Corps. 

 

 

 

9 Comments

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  • As an RPCV (Chad, 1977-79) I always find it interesting to hear about PCVs’ experiences in places I served later as a Foreign Service Officer. Morocco is one of those. I had no contact with PCVs when I was the Economic Officer at the U.S. Consulate in Casablanca (1987-1989) but I love hearing that Morocco was a good country for PCVs to serve. It’s an extraordinary culture, with that mix of the African, the Islamic, the European that makes it so unique. Thanks for writing this review and to Richard Wallace for writing his memoir.

  • I really enjoyed re-living our 2 years in Morocco. As one of the « Azrou Angels » I spent a lot of time with Richard and many of the people of the book. Richard has bought so many memories to mind and reminded me of what a truly lucky group we were. Thank you Richard and everyone who contributed to the book. It is so nice to savour and share these memories. My children have also enjoyed the book …it has sparked quite a few discussions in our bubble!

  • I am one of the “Azrou Angels” described in a few stories in Ricard’s Couscous Chronicles. As Liz reported, Richard really nailed it with his attention to detail, inclusion of humor as well as accurate and fair description of the trials and challenges of living in another country. I appreciate his memory, too, and love that we can reminisce through his stories. One thing all PCVs experience is the community that we build during and after our service and anyone can connect with this aspect of Richard’s Chronicle. Highly recommend!

  • I too felt that reading “The Couscous Chronicles” was a walk down memory lane and I was astounded by Richard’s memory of times, places and experiences. It turns out I didn’t need to write a diary, Richard wrote it for me! As Richard’s “Peace Corps wife,” many of these experiences rang particularly familiar but they also catapulted my memory into overdrive to conjure up other events, special times and unique activities that I hadn’t thought about in years but I was so happy they came to mind. Morocco and Peace Corps is a special time in my life (as well as in my “official” husband Chuck’s life — he is also named in the book) and “The Couscous Chronicles” bought it back to me. It is an easy and enjoyable read. I suspect anyone having lived in Morocco will particularly like it, but I believe any Peace Corps volunteer can relate to the basic story. I also believe anyone could enjoy the journey described in these pages whether they lived it or not. Thanks Richard, for the memories both in the book and for real.

  • LOVED this book – my husband’s mother was from Morocco, so I was especially interested (since I’ve never been there, It really made me feel like I was THERE!! A very profound book with so many thoughtful – and fun stories!!

  • Speaking on behalf of Morocco 77-79, let me say how immensely proud we all are of Rich’s accomplishment here. It was an honor to help with some of the background research and Darija. Yes, as everyone has remarked, this truly brings back the memories full force. Even though Rich’s assignment was very different from mine (I TEFL’d in Kasba Tadla), I could relate to Rich’s experience. One last thing–what a memory! I had long forgotten a lot of the things about the Stage and Lalla Nouzha (which is still there, by the way, largely unchanged). Thank you, Rich, for this masterwork.

  • What I liked most were the “One Volunteer Remembers” vignettes. They reminded me of the parable about the five blind men and the elephant. Our most memorable impressions of our service were the product of our own individual interactions with Morocco and its people and our life experiences prior to our arrival. While these made for a lot of diversity in our impressions, there were some common threads running through all of them, both positive and negative. I think we all shared the same loneliness and felt the same hardship and frustration. But at the same time, I believe we all learned to appreciate the small things–like an impromptu together and “care packages” from home–as well as the occasional sinful indulgement in creature comforts. Finally, I feel that each of us, in a small way, felt a sense of accomplishment. I don’t think anybody contributing to this book regretted a moment they spent in the Maghreb!

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