I’ve told you what I saw and what I did and what I ate in Morocco, but I have yet to reflect upon the big picture. I designed this handy outline, 50% to reflect upon what I learned and 50% to help you live vicariously through my adventure.
Things I Stuffed in My Physical and Proverbial Suitcases When I Left Morocco
I. Perspective on Gender
When a strident feminist travels to a Muslim country—and spends some of her time there alone to boot—everyone’s go-to question is either about her safety or the coveredness or uncoveredness of hair (or both). Eight days in Morocco hardly makes me an expert, but I did make a lot of observations.
I felt perfectly safe the entire time I was in Morocco. Of course, I was constantly comparing it to my previous experience on the African continent, in Cameroon, where it was considered perfectly reasonable for men to catcall, blow kisses, and reach out to touch my white skin. Thus, I’ve gotta say, one good thing about a gender-segregated, sexually-repressed society is that men generally left me alone. That being said, there were inevitably a few…
B. Things That Bothered Me
1. Cafés–and there are millions of them—are constantly packed with men watching soccer, reading the paper, and socializing while their wives are at home with the kids. That’s simply not fair. (But, as Nina observed, at least in a Muslim society they’re drinking tea rather than booze.)
2. The great wave of indoor smoking bans has yet to hit Morocco. Moroccans still smoke in cafés and even on trains—or rather, Moroccan men still smoke. Apparently, smoking is very gendered in Morocco. It’s not a legal distinction, but I was told that women are scorned if they smoke in public. No one should smoke, of course, but as long as anyone does, women should be just as free to poison themselves that way as men are.
3. Older men sometimes completely ignored Nina and me, especially when the boys were with us. For instance, the oldish man who owned the haberdashery we got to visit shook hands with Bouz, Amin, and Hatim all in a row and then didn’t even look at us. As an American woman, I find that incredibly rude, but as a Moroccan man, maybe he thought it would be rude if he did shake my hand. I don’t know. I also noticed this phenomenon when, passing people in the street, it was my reflex to smile hello. That’s what you do when you pass people on the street in America. When I automatically smiled at men with whom I’d made eye contact, it was sometimes as if they looked straight through me. I realized quickly that to them, a younger woman smiling hello probably comes off as slutty. If I have to choose between being ogled or ignored, though, the latter is the lesser of two evils.
4. When I got hungry for a snack one night, I was informed by my hosts that it was “very dangerous for women to go out at night.” Luckily, there were six males there available to escort me to a restaurant nearby, so I spared them my feminist rant, but here I would like to point out that that sentence is incomplete. If it’s “very dangerous for women to go out at night,” that’s because men make it dangerous for women to go out at night. Instead of making women stay home, wouldn’t it be easier for everyone involved if men stopped hurting women? Is that so much to ask?!?!?!
C. The veil
In the U.S. and France, the veil is a loaded topic. In Morocco, it’s not. Among younger women in Morocco, I would guesstimate a ratio of about 60 to 40, hair covered to uncovered. Among older women, it was the vast majority. (Traditionally, if you don’t already, you cover up when you marry.) By “veil,” I mean just that: hair covered, face uncovered. Only around 10-15% (again, rough guesstimate) of the women I saw in Fez and Marrakech wore burqas. I didn’t see any of Taliban-style blue ones with mesh over the eyes, but the Saudi- or Emirati-style black ones with a slit for the eyes and a sort of bandanna over the nose and mouth were fairly commonplace.
Again, eight days hardly makes me an expert, but I don’t think I needed to visit an Arab country to figure this out: Westerners make the veil and the burqa way more complicated than they really are. In Morocco, to cover or not to cover is a personal choice. Women are no doubt influenced by their husbands and families, but not by the law. For some women, it has political or religious significance; for others, it’s just a style, kind of like of wearing a hat or not. No woman should be forced to wear a veil or burqa; no woman should be forced not to. (Ahem, France…)
I didn’t bother to cover my hair because no one expected me to, and I wasn’t going to fool anyone, anyway. Veiled or unveiled, I was clearly a tourist. And frankly, I thought the Western tourists who did cover their hair looked kind of silly.
I did dress conservatively, though. My legs were bare for about 40 seconds and then I couldn’t get my tights on fast enough. I was wearing a calf-length dress, so I hadn’t bothered to put them on when Nina and I walked back from the bath a block away. On that block, we passed by two little girls who stared, jaws literally agape, at my pale bare legs as though they belonged to an octopus that had gotten lost in their neighborhood. That was as much gender policing as I wanted to receive, thank you very much, so I kept my legs covered the rest of the time I was there. No need to be a spectacle. Speaking of the bath and my legs, though…
II. Soft skin
One of the greatest things about Morocco is the traditional hammam (bath). Moroccans tend to visit the hammam once a week for the luxury of hot water and a serious rub down.
Visiting the hammam was one of our top priorities. It was wonderful for about a thousand reasons, one of which is that I have never felt so foreign in my life (and I’m including the time a toddler burst into tears because my friend Natalie and I were the first white people he had ever seen).
We entered locker room and immediately looked around us for cues as to what to do. A Moroccan woman was in there, too, so we copied her, undressing and putting on the shower shoes provided in the lockers. We had worn our bikinis under our clothes, but a woman working there frowned at us and gestured to remove our tops, then led us downstairs to a big marble room that, if it hadn’t been in Morocco, would have looked like it belonged in a renaissance castle in France. I couldn’t take a picture of course, so imagine a big room with marble walls and floors, two showers off to one side, four marble tables in the middle, and a steam room and jacuzzi off to the other side.
In this room are a handful of women who may wear burqas outside, but are perfectly comfortable to sit around bare-breasted in the glorious warm steam of the hammam as they get scrubbed raw by women in black swimsuits.
I hope it was as entertaining to them as it was to me that we were standing there bare-breasted, not knowing what to do next. The woman who had led us down the stairs gave us each a handful of a substance that looks kind of like grape jelly but feels kind of like cartilage. Then she led us into the steam room, where you rub yourself all over with the grape jelly cartilage (which is actually called black soap and is made of olives) and then sit around chatting and stretching and relaxing.
Then comes the real fun.
Imagine, if you will, lying on a marble table while a perfect stranger scrubs the daylights out of you with a washglove that looks like it’s made of fabric but feels like sandpaper. On my back and booty, the sensation lay precisely at the border of pleasure and pain…and then she told me to roll over. As this perfect stranger sanded my breasts, I was tempted to shout, “UNCLE! UNCLE! MERCY!” And then she moved south. Every muscle in my body was tense as I tried not to slide off the marble table, equally worried about my skull cracking open on the floor and the frightening proximity of sandpaper to my labia.
When I opened my eyes, I discovered that I was covered in little grey wads of dead skin. Disgusting. My scrubber rinsed me off, then sent me over to the shower to shampoo. I thought I was done, but she gestured for me to come back to the table, where I was again struck by the weirdness of having a stranger massage me everywhere with soap as I tried not to slide off the table to certain death.
After all that, you dunk yourself in an ice-cold jacuzzi. Apparently it closes your now wide-open pores. Finally, as we were headed up to the locker room, a woman called after us, “Wait! Don’t you want to sit in the relaxation room?” And so we were ushered into a dimly-lit room full of lounge chairs where, weirdly, the music from Gone With the Wind was playing softly, and where discovered the benefit of being sanded: our skin was softer than it’s been since we were two. Too bad no one else was going to touch it! It felt incredible.
So thank you, Morocco, for teaching me that the secret to baby-soft skin is not lotion, but exfoliation like an archaeological excavation down to the inner mantle of my epidermis. I brought the sandpaper glove home with me, and now I’ve made it part of my normal routine. Once a week or so, I’m going to sand myself as hard as I can stand. You should find a hard washcloth and try the same thing: scrub ’til you feel like you’re going to bleed. The effect won’t be the same as having a stranger do it for you, but the results will be worth the pain.
III. Awe at Morocco’s genuine bilingualism
I grew up in the staunchly monolingual United States. Then lived in Cameroon, which is supposedly bilingual but even their president doesn’t speak English. Now I live in France, where I’ve been disappointed to discover that Europeans are not the language sluts we imagine them to be (or at least the French aren’t). Thus, I was astounded by how genuinely bilingual Moroccan people are. Arabic is certainly their first language, spoken at home and on the street, but in the parts I visited, nearly everyone (everyone who’s received any education, which is most of them) spoke fluent French. And most of them secretly understand English because they watch American movies. Americans should take a lesson from Moroccans: the human brain is capable of containing multiple languages. Go learn them.
And dirt-cheap earrings.