THE CHALLENGE was too attractive to refuse: "Would you take artistic and personal responsibilty for 43 Moroccans coming to help celebrate the October opening of Walt Disney's EPCOT Center in Florida?" Of course I would.
The Disney people were inviting nearly 2,000 entertainers from around the globe as guest performers in the new theme park. Called EPCOT for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, it is a permanent world's fair displaying new technology and old traditions.
My 43 charges were traditional Berber singers and dancers, selected from two tribes in Morocco, and sent to Florida to represent Berber culture. I was warned that as festival manager for the Kingdom of Morocco my duties would be especially demanding since the group represented tribes from two quite remote areas: they spoke Berber dialects, some Arabic, no English. There were bound to be cultural adjustments that would demand diplomacy, and artistic decisions that would require taste.
The travelers arrived at Orlando airport weary from their long trek, which had begun in the remote Atlas Mountains. I assumed that their slow gait and reserved demeanor evidenced fatigue. I was to realize as our week together passed that these people carried with them their own non-Westernly sense of time and composure. My frenetic theatrical admonitions, sure to get American performers moving ("Two minutes 'til show time! The backstage canteen is closing!"), had no effect. Wherever I raced through the week I was followed by an exotic and unhurried entourage, smiling politely at my urgency but living life to the beat of Berber drums.
The men were elegant in their white turbans, sweeping white robes and bright yellow, pointed shoes, with fierce, curved daggers in their sashes. The women glittered in long, white dresses, gold-embroidered underblouses, coin-spangled headpieces and enormous silver bracelets and necklaces. (Their trip through the airport metal detector was a riot of buzzing and body searching.)
Our first big breakfast at the hotel -- seating for 1,100 -- was a pageant of color, conversation and improvised sign language, as all the performers, in their national dress, met each other for the first time. Chinese opera performers in pale makeup greeted Italian flag-twirlers, dressed like 40 Romeos in blue- and yellow-satin tunics. Egyptians in billowing caftans mimed, "Salt and pepper, please," to Czechs in pleats and ribbons. Koreans in delicate embroidery waved at the German boys' band in their scarlet coats and tricorn hats.
My charges, I feared, felt a little lost. Then, at the end of the gracious, if overwhelming, welcome ceremonies, as the band played its deafening exit, one of the Moroccan women was suddenly on the table dancing wildly and seductively among the scattering coffee cups and breakfast pastries. The other women began voicing the piercing ululation which accompanies the high excitement of their dance. Rhythmic clapping broke out across the huge hall, and in an instant the Moroccan identity in this many-nation mini-community was established.
All was ready for the big weekend. And then the rains came. Performers are adaptable, and the show went ahead in what shelter could be found, despite the drizzle. The Moroccans, lacking a pavilion (theirs is scheduled to open in 1984), danced valiantly through a downpour. Moving later to a cozy hall in the China pavilion, they improvised a Berber "dance-in," wooing soggy guests who joined their spirited gyrations. "They can rain on our parade," intoned a Disney executive in his dedicatory speech dedication, "but they can't dampen our spirits."
There were tearful farewells as the Moroccans boarded their plane -- daggers, bangles, and dozens of K-Mart shopping bags in tow. They had surely succeeded as ambassadors of friendship -- not only through their unique songs and dances, but also through their beguiling blend of innocence and sophistication. Perhaps that was not really Moroccan -- just "human," seen in fresh perspective. These emissaries not only staked out their pavilion site on Florida soil, they also claimed a bit of land in some American hearts as well.