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Book Review: 101 Arabian Tales

101 Arabian Tales: How We All  Persevered in Peace Corps Libya should be required reading for all Peace Corps volunteers and administrators once the 60-year-old federal agency resumes activity — it shut down because of COVID. Meanwhile, the book should also be recommended reading for everyone for what it says about an increasingly important and volatile region of the world.

If Hobler had learned in 1968 from Peace Corps personnel and training materials what he writes about now, he would have been much better prepared to acclimate to Libyan culture and to teach English to fifth graders in the remote, impoverished village to which he was assigned.

Then again, had he and his fellow volunteers NOT had to learn a lot on their own about Al Gala, an old Berber village 90 miles south of Tripoli — no electricity, no plumbing, significant differences from Western ways — the reader would have been deprived of a lively  and instructive account.

Because Hobler writes from the perspective of a 75-year-old returned Peace Corps volunteer, recalling hopes, horse play and harrowing times, his  memoir takes on an elegiac tone toward the end — nostalgia for a time when he and his buddies bonded in service. A time when ideals about establishing community between peoples and among nations seemed possible.

A conscientious objector, he signed up because he opposed the Vietnam War. But who would have predicted that his tour would end with a bang and a whimper when, on September 1969, strongman Muammar al-Qadhafi  mounted an overnight coup against the Libyan kingdom, a move that caught most Peace Corps volunteers by surprise. Some like Hobler, out of the country at the time, had to scramble to get back in to get their belongings and get out alive. It’s his great regret, he writes, that he was unable to proceed with a project he had started to help fight trachoma, a highly infectious, fly-born eye disease  resulting in blindness, that affected 80% of the population of his village.

Over 20% of the second wave of Libyan volunteers in Hobler’s contingent dropped out or were “deselected” (let go), but Hobler and over 100 others “persevered,” as the book’s subtitle has it. They were young. They didn’t want to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. They were inspired by the Peace Corps vision, excited about travel and learning a new language. But their dedication ended when Quadafi forced the Americans out.

Back in the states, Hobler joined VISTA, a national anti-poverty service corps program, and then the Air National Guard before moving on, eventually to high-end consulting positions in marketing. But he kept up with many of  his former comrades. 101 Arabian Tales, a collective memoir, is the result. Two hundred twenty home photos, nicely integrated into the narrative, enhance the text. Hobler is a good writer, clear, direct, conversational, fair. Chapters end with a “you’ll-never-guess-what-I-learned” sentence that sparks curiosity for next chapter. Insects and animals get a whole chapter to themselves, and the life of women in Al Gala — Arabic and American — several chapters.

Near the end of the memoir, Hobler includes a Peace Corps recruitment poster showing The Statue of Liberty with her torch arm thrust to the side and the words: “Make America a better place. Leave the country.” For a brief shining moment, Hobler and his colleagues did both. 

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.