Africa John's Tale:
Although I was christened "Africa John " by my neighbors in Summit, Oregon in 1978 I began my career in North Africa nearly ten years before.
In the Sixties almost anything was possible. During my second year at Paul Smith's College in Northern New York, I applied to join the Peace Corps during down time in my Economics Class taught by the famous Lenny Hooton. Although after submitting my application, I was told that the Peace Corps would call me back, they did not for a year. After I inquired as to my status they wrote to me at my parents house, offering me a chance to train as a forester and serve in the FAO Project DERRO in the Rif Mountains in Morocco. My parents failed to mention the acceptance letter from the Peace Corps at first, but the message got through, I accepted and after several months of intensive training, which included 450 hours of Arabic Classes, I arrived in Morocco in late January of 1969. We all hit the streets speaking acceptable dialectical Arabic.
I was eventually assigned to Boured, Morocco where I spent nearly two years finishing out my careen in the provincial capitol of Taza. During this time I gained a reputation as a "Super-Vol " by completely rewiring the small town for electricity after the arrival of the first new electrical generator in fifteen years or, since just after independence. Most of my time was spent surveying for erosion control terracing and the planting of fruit trees on the more favorable sites, by teams of local Riffians working under several work bosses and leaders. The Riffians are an incredibly proud and fierce ethnocentric group of Caucasian Berbers who remain yet as a pocket of unique individuals in the very north of the country. Several more groups of Berbers in the Middle Atlas, High Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains are more commonly known and pictured in travelogues and Magazines such as National Geographic. It is with these tribes that one sees the women decorated in jewelry comprised of silver beads and ornaments separating the most valued of indigenous ancient stones, Amber, Precious Coral, Amazonite and Carnelian. I will greatly expand and expound upon theses stone as I have come to know them in following literary insertions.
After completing my career as Peace Corps Forester, I embarked on a memorable journey on the back of a recently refurbished 350 BSA Motorcycle, to tour the southern extremes of Morocco, with a friend Paul Bourbeau . On the return trip from the remote Oases of the Southwest, we stopped at a New Years Eve Party in Agadir and met the new Peace Corps Director, Richard Holbrooke. As Mr. Holbrooke had also just returned from meeting the former Governor of Taza Province (re-assigned to the Saharan Region ) he had heard tales of the young Peace Corps Volunteer who had fixed the electricity in Boured. This was pretty clever he thought, but the biggest hit was the immediate purchase of a TV by the local cafe owner, which allowed the whole village to watch the first manned landing on the moon. Unfortunately, I missed the event as I sweated my way through Pneumonia for three days and lost fifteen pounds before literally struggling down from my house atop a mountain and getting to a U.S. Naval base some six hundred kilometers away .
All this background is significant as it was several days after meeting Mr. Holbrooke that I found my way to Taroudant Occo and met my mentor in the bead world, Mohammed Marrakeshi. I came away after several days with this very memorable character with a handful of "Looben al Xoor ", "Tirgrah", "Marjan", "Al Koosa" * and "Shayira Al Xoora". (*Do not use this word in Eastern Arabia ! ).
If I failed to mention it above, I was hired by Richard Holbrooke immediately upon my return to Rabat, Morocco and first of all oversaw the repair of an old fleet of Jeeps into a smooth running lot of fruit colored vehicles which included carryalls as well. Next came the restoration of Americas oldest building abroad, The Old American Legation, within which it's sixty five rooms in the old city of Tangier, is rooted a credible amount of important U.S.History....we'll save that for later too...
Again, all this blah blah, but it would be several months later that I would meet the Rais El Fenni Family, who would become my dearest of friends and the subsequent source of fascination with beads and merriment.
Today I fluently speak three dialects of Arabic including Mauritanian "Hassania" as well as the Sudanese dialect. I spent over three years in each of these Countries while working for U.S.A.I.D. and the United Nations Sudano-Sahelian Organization respectively. In the interim I spent two years developing an Oasis Project in Bilma, Niger. Bilma is known as the "Timbucktou of Timbucktous." Guess how many ways there are to spell "Timbucktou " !
( to be continued... )
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