Pochter family

Andrew Pochter

Editorial Notebook: The allure of experience abroad persists – despite tragic death

Published: Saturday, Jul. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A

We sat on a shadeless curb near Beit Zatoun, an outlying neighborhood of Marrakesh, Morocco. Two military guards leaned against a dusty red-brick wall behind us, passively supervising their two teenage charges.

After taking a couple of photos of a street sign, which we later learned was a stone's throw away from a military installation, my roommate and I had landed ourselves in minimum-security detainment for the morning.

We navigated the situation as best we could with our limited Arabic, but nevertheless spent several hours breathing dust and exhaust on the side of the street, followed by a short ride in a paddy wagon bearing the words "sécurité nationale" and a quick interview in a nearby police station.

Chris Sfedu, my fellow detainee, and I spoke for the first time in more than a year on Tuesday, after I read about the fatal stabbing of an American college student during recent violent demonstrations in Egypt.

Andrew Pochter, a student at Kenyon College in Ohio, had traveled to Morocco a year after us with the same U.S. State Department program.

At the time of his death, Pochter worked in Alexandria for a non-profit group, where he taught English to 7- and 8-year-old Egyptians. At his funeral, his sister read a birthday letter he wrote in June to a camper at a summer program where Pochter had been a counselor, the Washington Post reported.

I wish I had the chance to meet Pochter. I'm sure he had some incredible stories to share – in English and in Arabic – about his time in North Africa.

But even his short letter, published by the Washington Post, offered many lessons.

"I lose electricity and water all of the time but that's OK because I have many Egyptian friends to help take care of me," Pochter wrote. "When I am in trouble, they take care of me and when they are in trouble, I always take care of them."

It is easy to forget that unfamiliar and even uncomfortable experiences can bring out the most nurturing side of us. When removed from familiar places, we are forced to actively find common ground with new acquaintances and within unfamiliar cultures.

During my short time in Morocco, I spent many evenings studying Arabic next to my host father, Bouchaib Arioua, who would simultaneously crack open his English textbook. We came from different generations, different cultures and different faiths, but we spent hours every day doing our best to wrap our heads around the other's native language.

Four years later, I still appreciate how Bouchaib would "take care" that I was ready for the next day's classes. I would, as best I could, "take care" to speak with him each day to improve his conversational English.

Pochter's letter should also remind us that the smallest actions can often carry the greatest weight.

As he wrote in his letter, "good friends do not come easily but as a rule, I always appreciate the good deeds people do for me even if I don't know them well."

In Pochter's case, he wrote a birthday note in early June – a quiet act he likely intended for one reader – that has been seen by tens of thousands around the world.

I only had to watch my roommate take a quick photo on a thoroughfare in Marrakesh. It was a somewhat careless act at the time. But by being thrown into such experiences, it has only whet my appetite to keep going back to new regions of North Africa and the Middle East.

Loic Hostetter, a UCLA student, is an intern this summer with The Bee's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter @LoicHostetter.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the location of Beit Zatoun.

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