Couscous is Being Served: Memoir of an evacuation
By Greg Emerson
It was on the morning of the March 20th that the code words came from Peace Corps headquarters to my training cohort in Morocco: “Couscous is being served.” That phrase signaled the beginning of the evacuation process. The Peace Corps sent a driver, we had an hour to pack our bags, and we were back at a hotel in Ouarzazate before barely a goodbye to our families and neighbors.
We were told nothing about where we were going, just that we were not to call anyone (easier in the time before iPhones), and to wait. When the call came to board the chartered Delta airplane, no announcement over the PA system accompanied it; everyone within earshot was encouraged to find their friends, and if they noticed anyone missing, to let someone know.
Only when the doors closed and the plane took off were we told that we’d be landing in D.C. for a few days of processing, then sent along to our homes of record, and to the rest of our lives.
After 13 days in lockdown and two chartered flights, I was back home, trying to make sense of it all.
I had only been gone 59 days, but it felt like a lifetime.
Peace in a time of war
Having applied to the Peace Corps in the months after 9/11, I had wanted to join one of only two programs the Peace Corps operated in Arab Muslim countries at the time — in Jordan and Morocco — even though applicants weren’t able to specifically choose a program back then.
I believed in the organization’s role in promoting diplomacy and mutual understanding among nations, and found that mission to be especially important in a time of conflict. The war in Afghanistan was already well underway, and it was clear that more conflict was on the way.
When I got the call, I was offered Morocco, and I couldn’t believe my luck.
Of course, I knew there was a possibility that my time there could be interrupted, but it was an easy risk to weigh against the reward of spending 27 months fostering goodwill and supporting on-the-ground community development projects.
I arrived in Morocco on Feb 4, 2003. After a few weeks in the capital, my group was sent to Ouarzazate in the south, on the doorstep of the Sahara desert.
As trainees, we spent our time between the dusty three-story Bab Sahara hotel that was our “training center” and the rather dustier villages where we did our community-based training. It was exactly what I hoped the Peace Corps experience would be: Completely immersive, sharing a home and meals with a local family while learning Arabic, getting to know people as much as I could and organizing some basic community projects.
But war loomed, always, around us.
In my village of Afra, my host family had a small, grainy television tuned permanently to Al-Jazeera, as long as anyone was home. We watched it every evening before dinner and tracked the latest escalation of the Bush administration’s threats against Iraq. My Arabic was far from conversational, but we found common ground in our sadness and frustration at the prospect of yet another conflict between the U.S. and a Muslim country.
It was easy for me to put that off to the side though, to squeeze as much juice as I could out of my Arabic classes and village life while I still could. We celebrated the Islamic holiday of Ashura in the village, which involved a massive water fight with the whole community pouring buckets of water on each other, and on us. Barriers broke down as we chased, and were chased by, kids and adults, women and men, seeing who could soak the other most comprehensively. Any animosity between our countries and cultures felt very far away that day.
I was in Ouarzazate on March 17, when President Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq, and things for the first time got real. My ex-girlfriend, whom I left behind when I joined the Peace Corps, had a father who worked in the State Department, and a quick call home confirmed the worst: They were preparing to evacuate non-essential employees, and war was coming.
We went to our villages anyway, and that first night back I had the biggest breakthrough yet in communicating with my host family.
Sitting on the floor around the table, I had some trouble getting comfortable with my long, lanky legs bumping against my host father’s, as he was rather tall and slender like me. I commented that it was hard to fit around the small table when so many of us were tall (with the exception of my other host sister Fatima, was quite shorter than the rest of us). My joke, that we were all clearly related while Fatima must have been dropped off in the night by a djinn, actually landed, and we all had a big laugh. It was the only joke up to that point that hadn’t been caused by my mixing up the words for coffee and testicles (very similar for some reason), and remains the first and only one I have ever made in Arabic. It was exhilarating.
The exhilaration was short-lived though. The morning of March 20th, the evacuation process began with an order to consolidate. The 15 or so of us trainees who were based in communities around Ouarzazate were sent back to our dusty training hotel.
Consolidation was a lot like the current coronavirus lockdown happening in cities around the world. We were told to stay in the hotel — literally in the hotel, no frisbee or soccer in the parking lot, no trips to the grocery store, nothing — until further notice, and didn’t know when we might resume life as usual.
Initially, they said we’d likely be in consolidation for 48 hours. Every morning, a fax would come in from the embassy with guidance for the day, and it soon became clear that the situation was complicated. Morocco, the farthest west of Arab Muslim countries from the Persian Gulf, had long been one of the more liberal Muslim countries of the world and was viewed as more tolerant and more cosmopolitan than the others in its view of foreigners. The Peace Corps decided to wait and see.
Those morning updates held our fate for the day: If the chatter was quiet, we were allowed to leave the hotel to play around in the parking lot, or even to go to an internet cafe or a grocery store. If an antiwar protest was planned anywhere, or if, as happened at least once, the Peace Corps received direct threats to its volunteers, we were to stay within the confines of the hotel. A few merciful times, we were granted the privilege of walking over to the consolidation point for actual volunteers (remember, we were still just trainees), a swanky Club Med with a pool and full bar in another part of Ouarzazate.
Those two days eventually became two weeks living in varying degrees of lockdown, with a frustrating lack of information of how this was all going to play out. Was it a good sign that this was dragging on? Was it a bad sign? Nobody could say. So all we could do was make the most of it.
We played cards, held impromptu dance parties, sunbathed on the roof. We lightened the mood by making ourselves commemorative t-shirts, and I was thrilled when Peace Corps staff allowed me to go to a local print shop (escorted) to make copies of a satirical “consolidation newsletter” that I had whipped up with a few friends on the one computer on the ground floor of the hotel. There was also a single TV in the hotel, showing CNN for anyone interested in watching war footage all day long. I avoided it, for the most part.
Everyone dealt with the stress of consolidation and potential evacuation differently. We had been in Morocco just long enough to get excited about what was to come — we didn’t get to go on our site visits, but we had gotten our site assignments at least, and I was very much looking forward to living on that gazelle reserve, one hour from the beaches of Safi.
Finally, the word came. Again, with plenty of warning, and none at all: We had an hour to pack our bags and we would board a bus to the Ouarzazate airport to be flown to Rabat. Evacuation suddenly became real.
To say there was a sense of relief is a vast oversimplification, but after two weeks confined to a hotel, I was ready for the next phase of the journey. Swearing in and a full two years of Peace Corps service or whatever else was in store – anything but the limbo I’d been trapped in since leaving the training site.
A quick flight brought us back to Rabat, where a much larger and fancier hotel became our new consolidation point. All 160 volunteers and trainees, minus those who had terminated their service during consolidation, spent one last evening together.
The next morning, and another trip to the airport. This time, our charter buses became a motorcade, with a police escort to help discourage any opportunist bad guys from targeting 160 Americans in a concentrated place. As we approached the airport, a line of stopped cars were the only evidence that the road in had been temporarily closed so that we could drive up unencumbered. An entire terminal was closed down for us, and we were brought to a gate with all of our luggage, no security screening.
Adjusting to readjustment
Back in D.C., the surreal mood continued. We got off the plane and were taken through a series of back hallways that led us to another set of buses, again without any customs or security screening. We were taken to a hotel, where the next day military personnel in fatigues came to draw blood and give us whatever shots we needed to complete our official reentry checklist.
My mother was living outside of D.C. at the time, so instead of another plane ticket I got cab fare and headed “home”. A few of my fellow trainees were planning to stay in the area before flying home, so my mother invited them all to crash on her couches and delay our return to “life as usual” just that little bit longer. We weren’t ready to say goodbye.
But it quickly became clear that normalcy didn’t mean what it used to for me, even though less than two months had passed since I embarked on this Peace Corps adventure.
My first time driving a car felt completely unnatural, so much had I internalized the idea that I wouldn’t be behind the wheel for two years. My first trip to the grocery store was overwhelming in its abundance of choice for salad dressing, ice cream, breakfast cereal. I thought about going back to California to kill time with my friends and my ex before I figured out what was next, but she, and they, had moved on.
What I did know was that I wasn’t ready for the adventure to be over. I had never actually been sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I hadn’t been gone long enough for anyone back home to really miss me.
I was only gone for 59 days, but I learned that while two months may not be enough time to grow roots, it’s certainly enough to plant them.
I had a hell of an experience to share, and some great stories that meant a lot to me personally, but nobody to share it with beyond my fellow evacuees. In the days before Facebook, when a text message cost $0.30 a pop, it was inevitable that we’d largely lose touch with each other.
So I told the Peace Corps that I wanted to be reassigned, and since there was no clarity on when volunteers would be invited to return to Morocco, that I’d go anywhere. They told me it would be at least three months before I could be reassigned, and I resolved to use the partial readjustment allowance I was given (around $2,500) to travel before shipping off again.
Thankfully, I didn’t have a travel ban or a global pandemic to dampen my plans. I spent a month alone in Cuba on an academic program and another month traveling through Spain and Portugal before I was sent to serve my two years in Peace Corps Peru.
By then, I was a different person. Morocco had changed me. After my evacuation, chasing the same kind of cultural immersion I had tasted in the Peace Corps changed me. I landed in Peru hoping to more or less pick up where I left off, but of course being a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru was completely different from being a Peace Corps trainee in Morocco.
Looking back, I would give my younger self the advice I would give to all evacuees currently making their way back from their Peace Corps sites to their homes of record: Try your best to accept some closure. No matter what you may do in the future, your Peace Corps experience is over for now. You are a different person than when you left, and the world is a different place than it was when you departed for your service.
The good news is the same skills that helped you adjust to Peace Corps life are the ones that will help you adjust to life back home: Be flexible, curious and ready for anything, and you will find a way to contribute to the world in a way that fulfills you.
Good luck to you all.