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5.04.2010

4/21/10 Lincoln and Condy

I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln and the men around him, Team of Rivals. On the back is one of the more famous portraits of Lincoln, flanked by portraits of the title rivals - Seward, Chase, Stanton, and Bates.

So I was reading in the transit one day, and the man next to me decided to strike up a conversation.

I'd paused in my reading, to think about what I'd read, and let the book fall closed (my place still marked with a finger). He pointed to the pictures on the back and said, "Who are they?"

I pointed to Lincoln and said, "Ibrahim Liin-kon. The president of America, a long time ago."

Of course, as soon as the conversation began, the two of us became the most interesting thing around.

The moment I'd responded to his question, the peanut gallery began chiming in.

"Hey, she speaks Tamazight!"
"Hey, she's reading about the president!"
"Yeah, she speaks Tamazight!"
"Do you think the book is in English or French?"
"Probably French. Look at the letters - those are French."
"How long ago was he president?"

I answered the oh-hey-you-speak-our-language with a grin, and gave an actual answer to to the one about Lincoln. It took me a second to work out the numbers - I don't usually use numbers over a thousand. "He was president in one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one."

"Oh, eighteen-hundred sixty-one?"

Of course, they simplify the dates - silly me for forgetting. "Yes, eighteen-hundred sixty-one."

At this point, the peanut gallery began asking me the standard questions about my marital status, my age, how much I liked Morocco, whether I thought Berberville was too cold, etc, etc. When I got tired of fielding them, I reopened the book and continued reading.

A few minutes later, my neighbor poked at the page and asked, "Is that French or English?"

"English," I answered. "In America, we speak English."

"And this man was the president of America?"

"Yes."

"So who are these other people?" he asked, pointing to the gallery of faces on the back. [I tried to find an image of the back cover to post, but couldn't. You can see it here if you click on "Look Inside" and then "Back Cover".]

"They're his ... um ... ministers," I said, suddenly recalling the word from my trip to Rabat, when I spent the better part of a day taxiing between different ministry offices, looking for the secret trove of geological maps for sale (which I found! but that's another story).

I pointed to Seward. "This was his ... First Minister," I said, trying and failing to come up with a better translation for "Secretary of State." Then I thought of something. "You know how Hillary Clinton is the First Minister for Barack Obama? Kif-kif."

He still looked confused, so I tried again. "Seward was the same minister to Lincoln that Hillary Clinton is to Barack Obama. And remember how Hillary Clinton wanted to be president, but Obama won, so now she's the First Minister? It was the same with Seward. He wanted to be President - all these men [gesturing to the other faces on the page] wanted to be president, but Lincoln won, so they were his ministers, instead."

At that point, the peanut gallery began an involved discussion among themselves, in an incomprehensible mix of Arabic and Tamazight. When they'd reached a consensus, a designated spokesman explained the problem to me.

"But Hillary Clinton *isn't* the First Minister of America. We know who the First Minister is, and she's a black woman."

I blinked for a second, then figured out what he was talking about. "That was Condoleezza Rice. She *was* the First Minister, for President Bush."

The guy next to me put it together first. "You mean, when you get a new president, you get new ministers, too?"

"Yes! Exactly." A new president gets to pick a whole new Cabinet, I thought, but lacking the words for "pick" and "Cabinet", I let his explanation stand. And I really didn't want to get into the nuances, like Secretary Gates.

"So Hillary Clinton is not president, but she's the First Minister now? Like the black woman was?"

I felt a lot of muscles clenching at their repeated use of "the black woman" to refer to our former Secretary of State, but I took a deep breath and said, "Yes, Hillary Clinton is the First Minister, like Condoleezza Rice - the black woman - used to be." (By the way, the word for "president" in Arabic and Tam is raiis, a perfect homophone for Rice. So this was probably confusing.)

"Yeah," chimed in another voice, "America always has women for their First Minister. Before the black woman, it was the old woman."

More muscles clenched, but I calmly replied, "Yes, President Bill Clinton had Madeleine Albright - the old woman - as his First Minister. And then President Bush had Condoleezza Rice and now President Obama has Hillary Clinton." Then I thought of something else. "But it isn't always women. It can be a man or a woman. Yes, the past three First Ministers have been women, but it can be either."

At this point, the men wanted my opinions on the presidents, and tried to bait me into a discussion of the Gulf War. I dodged most of the bullets and returned to reading.

Just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer...

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