Back in Marrakech: An MSIH student returns to the site of his Peace Corps service


By: Aaron Hochman-Zimmerman

Peace Corps in Morocco

Years ago, when I began my first stint in Morocco I felt like I’d gotten myself in over my head. I signed up for a 27-month stint with the Peace Corps. After 10 weeks of language training (in a Berber dialect called Tashelheit) I would be sent out to a village to live by myself, learn about the local people and culture, teach them about myself and my culture as well as lead development projects. It felt like a lot, but over the coming weeks and months I managed, though never felt like I completely mastered the situation. The veteran Peace Corps volunteers would say: “As soon as you’re about to figure this place out, it’s time to leave.” But that’s probably true no matter how long you stay.

This year’s trip would only be six days, but not without its responsibilities. I went as part of a medical mission with an American NGO called Global First Responder. We planned to set up a four-day general medicine clinic in a village west of Marrakech, plus one day of lectures and training for local medical students and interns. And again, I hoped I hadn’t promised too much.

Aaron Zimmerman lecturing on ultrasound in Marrakech

Aaron Zimmerman lecturing on ultrasound in Marrakech

Teaching Ultrasound

I became involved with the project when I came across an email, forwarded by a Peace Corps friend. The team leader asked if anyone would give a lecture on ultrasound. Keenly aware of my ultrasound abilities and limitations, I volunteered, telling myself that I was, at least, capable of operating in the controlled environment of a lecture. My offer was accepted, but as the roster grew and shrank again, the lead doctor upped the ante by asking if I could also act as the ultrasound technician for the clinic. Making it clear that I was still a student, I agreed and ran immediately to Soroka Hospital’s radiology department looking for help, which I got. I didn’t become an overnight radiologist; but I was better than ‘embarrassing’ (and if I could just make it through this clinic, I might not be half bad at this ultrasound business.)

We landed late in Marrakech and I said “b’slaama” to the friends I’d made on the flight from Barcelona. I think I’d been talking non-stop… recommendations, advice and a few cautionary words about the place I had lived for over two years; but I was worried. I wondered if it would all be the same as I’d left it in my head.

The city had been growing over the last five years. The new malls had new lights shining down bright thoroughfares with manicured medians even as midnight approached. It felt a little too polished; but at least the party crowd was still out, grouped together in the parks, at the café terraces and cruising the streets.

Navigating by Faith Alone

By midnight, the main square, Jma al-Fna, was closing up for the night; but my I knew my hotel was just a few minutes into the medina… if I could remember the way. I accepted my own challenge and without one wrong turn, pure-faith navigation, I found the place with the manager out front drinking tea. I greeted him in Arabic, because I always love to see people’s reaction. He smiled, but I still remember some Berber from my Peace Corps days and that really stopped him. He was a Berber-speaker from Agadir, where my instructor was from. After that, he nearly refused to speak anything else… he also refused to speak slowly; but the next morning he wished me a good day and I was off to my mission.

The team was made up of American doctors and nurses, two Swedish-Iraqi interns and several Moroccan students and interns. We were all at various levels in our careers, languages and our overseas adventuring experience.

Eventually, it had to happen, I had to answer for my ultrasound ability. I was handed an attaché case with a portable ultrasound and two probes.

“Is this something you can work with?” the team leader asked.

“I think so. Why does it say ‘bovine’ here?”

“It’s veterinary. Amazon won’t sell ultrasounds for humans… liability. But it’s the same,” he said.

So that was that. I carried the veterinary ultrasound and my usual medical gear as the van left us in a small town of dirt roads and concrete buildings, 15 minutes west of Marrakech. The king’s picture was smiling in the center of town, next to the entrance of a big red and green striped tent where a fresh-baked Moroccan breakfast was waiting for us along with hundreds of curious patients.

The breakfast pastries, jams, honey, coffee and tea was cleared out and the doctors, nurses and translators took their places. Patients went from triage nurses to doctors and then to me if the doctors felt that an ultrasound was in order. I had a small room attached to the side of someone’s house, away from the heat under the tent and away from anyone who could say something like: “are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

MSIH Training

As it turned out, I did know what I was doing. I found gallstones, the hydronephroses and did the biophysical profiles for the pregnant mothers. When there was a suspected abdominal aortic aneurism in a young woman, I ran to get one of the emergency physicians. He agreed it was suspicious and she was referred to one of the Marrakech hospitals. That was the routine.

Besides some basic medications and sound medical advice, we were a referral service.

At lunch, the idea of halal food came up. Some of the Moroccans compared what is halal to what is kosher, but admitted some gaps in knowledge… I helped.

I wouldn’t say my secret was out, because my Israeli phone number was in the Whatsapp group; but some people were a bit shocked to learn I’m Jewish. And some were also surprised that a Jew would come to help Muslims or surprised to hear stories about the way things really are in Israel, beyond the most newsworthy moments of conflict, but rather the simple everyday politeness, Arabs speaking Hebrew, Jews speaking Arabic. One of the interns was interested to see Arabic printed on the shekels I still had in my wallet.

After that, the whole thing went on accordingly. The ultrasound exams got easier, I was able to teach the Moroccan students a little bit. We went for some nice dinners at restaurants in town and in people’s homes. Later in the week, my ultrasound lecture seemed well received.

Aside from mission itself, I was able to find time for my little memory lane stroll. It hadn’t really been that long; but I was happy to see the same guys working at the café I had always gone to. In the mornings I sat there and watched all the interchangeable tourists go by as the workers shuffled around to start the city working. The olive guy at that one corner in souk was still there, but there were unmistakable changes. I saw more men riding on the back of motor scooters while women drove. Fewer kids bugged me to shine my shoes and the tourism industry seemed less pushy and desperate.
That sort of took some of the sport out of it, but I know it’s for the best; and yes, it is just a little more comfortable to be there.
By the time I had to say goodbye again, I got a “boker tov” text from my new Moroccan friend who was taking me to the airport.

All I can say to that and to all of Morocco is: “n’choufu n’cha’lah” (we’ll see each other again, G-d willing.)