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20 July 2005

Moroccan Encounter:
Letters from a Foreign Land

By David S. Howell
News Bureau

All of us like to receive letters, especially when they are from places far away. Jacksonville State University's Dr. Fred Kelley, professor of computer science and mathematics, invites you to open some of these letters he's written from Morocco -- a home away from home that welcomes him and his wife Denise with open arms year after year.

Kelley began writing the letters in the 1980s as a way to stay in touch with family and friends while he was living in Morocco. The U.S. Navy sent him to work at the Naval Communications Station at Sidi Yahia, Morocco, in the 1970s. After his discharge from the service, he returned there in 1986 and ran a bookstore until 1989.

Returning once again in 1997, Kelley taught math at the new Al Akhawayn University, the country's first accredited university. Kelly said the university was funded by money provided by the King of Saudi Arabia, who donated it to the King of Morocco with the intention of cleaning up an oil spill off the coast of Morocco. When the clean-up took less funds than granted, the King of Morocco tried to return the remaining funds but was refused. As a result, the two monarchs formed an international union and opened the Al Akhawayn University, which means "The Brothers."

Peppered with such cultural and historical morsels, the letters are, at times, nostalgic, spiritual, shocking and utterly hilarious. Kelley said the letters have evolved into a means to promote cultural awareness between Morocco and the United States. They also serve as an outlet for sharing updates about the work with his non-profit organization, Moroccan Encounter, with his family and community.

With help from people from his church and neighborhood, Kelly started the non-profit organization in 1999. He makes regular short trips back to the country for personal reasons and incorporates humanitarian missions into the trips for the people of Morocco.

The mission of Moroccan Encounter is to promote cultural exchange between our two countries. Funded entirely on private donations, the organization sponsors student exchanges between Jacksonville State and Al Akhawayn Universities. Their first exchange student, Raja Daif, came to JSU under the program two years ago.

Over the past four years, the organization has conducted food drives and raised supplies for various projects. One donation drive raised arts supplies for more than 800 orphans and displaced young people. Living under the roof of a government boarding facility, the children were involved in art projects on the weekends with a local artist, but they lacked the necessary art supplies to complete their projects. Kelley said the donations were all supplied by members of Shades Crest Baptist Church, his place of worship. Kelley said that in many of these cases, his group passes the supplies on to local individuals who take over the responsibility of delivering the donations.

"We really don't want to get a reputation as 'do-gooders' from the States," he said. "We do want to establish a reputation of individuals who care about the people we come into contact with."

Next spring, Moroccan Encounter is sponsoring another exchange, this time a Fulbright Scholar. He says he hopes the letters will generate interest in the organization and the exchanges and drive people to their website at In the following letters, you'll find the road to Morocco is full of discoveries.

ALMOST ALGERIA - Events occur as I am waiting to cross the border from Morocco to Algeria. My family has this ongoing, informal competition as to who has visited the most countries. Visa stamps are needed to validate a claim. ALMOST ALGERIA >>>

CURRENT IMPRESSIONS - Denise and I are reflecting on the situation in Morocco and what has changed over the years. CURRENT IMPRESSIONS >>>

PICTURE THIS - Photographs provide a unique opportunity to connect with people. Even in a culture so vastly different from our own, we find that pictures, particularly of individuals, are an unusually helpful way to become an acceptable outsider. PICTURE THIS >>>

FAMILY VALUES - “Family values” is a phrase that often evokes political sensibilities. The term lends itself to many different interpretations. We saw some real family values displayed yesterday in two very different contexts. FAMILY VALUES >>>

I'M CONFUSED - Two years ago I went to the town of Ben Slimane, about 50 kilometers from Casablanca, to meet the parents of a student who would be joining our International House program at Jacksonville State that September. I'M CONFUSED >>>

STAYING WITH IT - I passed several street vendors on a corner near a park as I made my way to the center of town a couple of days ago. It seems there is no shortage of new ideas about what one might sell in order to generate a little income. I saw one young man with a cart, equipped with a buta-gaz cooker that enabled him to boil water. STAYING WITH IT >>>

WATERMELON MAN - Tuesday I stopped by my friend Adbesalam’s house, hoping to spend some time with him and his family, realizing I would be departing from Fes in a couple of days. Abdesalam, one of our Arabic teachers when we were here in the eighties, is probably my closest friend in Fes. WATERMELON MAN >>>

NEVER BETTER - For the hopelessly indolent, it doesn’t get much better than this. Here I am seated in the first class compartment for a comfortable train trip from Fes to the city of Oujda. The air-conditioning is working well, providing relief from the heat in excess of 90 degrees; I have my New York Times crossword from the International Herald Tribune spread out on the small writing table provided; and my bottle of Sidi Ali mineral water, purchased at the train station immediately before boarding. NEVER BETTER >>>

YESTERYEAR NEARBY - Nostalgia has exercised more influence on my thinking over the years than it should have, but I often find some psychological comfort in returning to places that evoke memories of past experiences. I indulged myself yesterday in one such sentimental journey, and found it be an enjoyable and fruitful exercise. YESTERYEAR NEARBY >>>

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