The Foreign Service Journal, October 2009

T he first months of my assign- ment to Morocco’s commercial capital were a disappointment. Like any young man who has seen Humphrey Bogart’s “Casablanca,” I was prepared for romance, intrigue ― maybe even a little unconventional re- porting. Instead I collected data on the Moroccan fishing fleet as it battled Russian trawlers overfishing just off shore. And I investigated textile ex- ports to the U.S. that originated in the city’s sweatshops but were labeled “Made in Indonesia.” Not exactly the stirring highlights for a memorable tour. But then things got interesting. One day I returned after a morning at the port with the Fisheries Research Center’s director to find a message to call “Fouad” (not his real name), a pro- fessor of English language at Hassan II University. Students there had decided to produce a play I’d written about mi- grant farm workers who had slipped into America, mostly from Cuba and Haiti, dreaming of “the good life.” In- stead, they wound up on the circuit of following the seasons, traveling from Florida to Wisconsin, harvesting fruit, vegetables and even Christmas trees for pitiful wages, all the while falling deeper into debt. At the time, Morocco’s king—Has- san II — was trying to build the third- largest mosque in the world and was graciously allowing Moroccan citizens the opportunity to contribute to the ef- fort. In other words, people were being shaken down in every quartier of the country for donations. The students had asked my permis- sion to rewrite some of the lines for the overbearing overseer — a nasty char- acter who never appears on stage but is a barking voice ordering them around — substituting the king’s pronounce- ments. It was risky, and I didn’t want the students to get into trouble. Since the play would be performed in English, they were sure that most French- speaking/Arabic-speaking Casablan- cans would be oblivious to their clever ploy. But it would heighten their satis- faction in performing, they told me. When I returned Fouad’s call, he told me that he was bowing out as the play’s director. He didn’t have suffi- cient time to rehearse, he said. This was a radical turnabout. Fouad had been excited about working on the play and was using it as an exercise for his students to master some unique idioms (“throwing in the towel” was one the migrants often used as the sun beat too hot and the quota looked impossible to meet). Some students who were not even in the play were writing term pa- pers about phrasing differences among the characters. I suspected that either Fouad had gotten cold feet about the daring use of the king’s own words, or someone in the Interior Ministry had been tipped off and pressured him to abandon the project. And I accepted that this prob- ably meant the end of the production. The students weren’t willing to give up that easily. We were just a few weeks from opening night, and they in- sisted that I step in as director. In the end, overflowing crowds re- warded the students with ovations each night. In the heart of noisy, smelly Casablanca, they brought to life the plight of farm workers in forgotten fields who fought against “throwing in the towel.” The students escaped any punishment from the government and relished their little moment of flicking the king’s nose. Now in retirement, I often think back on that tour in Casablanca. And every now and then I dig out the play and remember how the students threw themselves into it, becoming migrant farm workers in America, struggling to escape unpleasant pasts and dreaming of new lives, free of an overbearing boss. Paging through the album, I notice again that Fouad is not in any of the photos. And I ponder the fact that while I was mystified by his sudden change of heart, the students seemed to know in their souls why he withdrew. ■ Michael Varga served in the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Morocco and Canada. His stories and essays have appeared in a wide array of journals, and four of his plays have been pro- duced and one published. The students weren’t willing to give up that easily. 80 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / O C T O B E R 2 0 0 9 R EFLECTIONS Throwing in the Towel in Casablanca B Y M ICHAEL V ARGA