This might be more of a rant than anything else, but I can’t help it. Again, I’ve had a great time here in Morocco, but I could never live here. In the past 25 days I have come to a better understanding of Arab culture, and you know what? It’s not for me. This is not an opinion on Islam. Islam has nothing to do with this. This is about the culture, and while there are aspects of it that I truly appreciate, the negative ones still tip the scale unfavorably, for me.
We stayed with five hosts while in Morocco. Four of them were men and all four of them were great. Different, but all positive experiences. When we finally made it to Fes, we had the opportunity to stay with a girl. And she turned out to be the least Moroccan, Moroccan girl you can imagine.
Aida, is 26 and works for P&G. She manages a team of 45 men, and all of her clients are men. She has her own apartment in Fes and is unmarried (although she has a boyfriend). Aida has a degree in mechanical engineering and is more of less glued to her blackberry. She could have come straight out of Los Angeles.
Aida represents less than 1% of Moroccan women, but she was able to give me some insight into what it is like to grow up as a woman in this country. She grew up with the attention, the cat calling and she is able to ignore it. It is innocuous to her, but for Maria and me, it is still a bit distracting.
“Not a lot of men work.” she explained.
You can find men, always, hanging out at cafes. Passing by any given cafe, the tables outside are likely to be packed with men sitting either alone or with friends, smoking and drinking coffee. Meanwhile, women walk along the streets doing things. They shop, they buy groceries, they study, they go to work, they go home, they wait for buses. But they are always doing something.
I have never seen so many men in my entire life, all in one place, doing exactly fuck-all.
Unless you count staring, hissing, or shouting at girls who pass by. Yeah, not exactly my idea of a good time. It is some unwritten law that if a Moroccan guy makes eye-contact with you, he is overcome by a compulsion to say something, usually at your back, to get your attention.
Boys will stop their motorbikes, follow us. I’ve had any number of things shouted at me from passing cars, guys on the street, rude gestures. I just, can’t handle it emotionally. For Maria it is easier because she has dealt with this attention from men for longer but it is very new to me and I don’t like it.
Obviously, this does happen in the US, but not nearly as frequently. I managed to live my entire life in America and never had this happen to me. But moving on…
One night, we were sitting with our host in Merzouga waiting for the bus. This boy came up to us on his motorbike and introduced himself. Then he asked if we wanted a beer and to perhaps go to the dunes nearby.
He must have asked Maria and me 10 times if we wanted to go out to the sand dunes with him and “relax.” Politely refusing once is already awkward enough, especially in a country where it is rude to refuse something that is offered to you. But we managed to divert the conversation to the behavior of Moroccan men toward us.
“You see,” he began “When a man tells you you are very pretty, it is because you are. You should just smile and say ‘thank you.”
Yeah that sounds great, except I just don’t buy that a man would shout something like “hey pretty lady” from his motorbike just to make me feel good. It doesn’t make me feel good. It makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. WTF am I supposed to do after you speed by me? Run after you? Wave my arms and call you back and talk to you more?
If you truly want to pay a woman a compliment, there was probably better ways of going about this. I’ve had men say “Hello” to me and smile and felt fine. “Welcome to Morocco.” is also another one I don’t mind. “Bonjour, Madame.” is also acceptable, along with many other innocent greetings. But there something about “Que es bonita” and then following me down the street asking where I’m going and if I need help creeps me the hell out.
But how many times do I have to say “no thank you” before they leave you alone? Answer: at least 10. Why are the first 5 times not good enough? Furthermore, I have to supply justification for why I do not want to go to the sand dunes with this young man. The problem is that they have to be reasons he understands. Finally, I have to resort to something explicit like “Please go away.” and then I am accused of being disrespectful.
The point is, I miss being able to walk down the street without having to have a 5 minute unwanted conversation with every person I pass. I miss just walking to get vegetables and saying ” Hi” a few times, getting a “Hi” back, and just moving on. Trust me, after nearly a month of this, it begins to wear you down.
We actually stayed with another American girl here in the city and she confirmed all of the same feelings. It was nice to have somebody understand without having to go into explaining where you’re coming from beforehand. But it didn’t exactly stop the behavior.
“You can’t change the culture.” she explained. As a Peace Corps volunteer, she was here for a longer haul than we were, and already a year into her service.
“Yeah, it definitely wears you down. Sometimes you have good days, sometimes you have bad days, and sometimes you have really really bad days.”
Well, I finally experienced one of those really bad days. We walked by ourselves to the Medina and we received the usual treatment along the way. Inside the Medina it is a bit different. Vendors will try to pull you into their shops, but they do this to everyone. It’s still a bit annoying, but in a different way and one which doesn’t make me angry at them. I just politely say “no thank you” and walk away.
But I was on edge. So much so that one vendor said something to me as we passed him. I heard “nice ass.” and in perfect sync, Maria and I turned around and stormed over to him. Before we could say anything he threw his hands up in defense and pointed to his face.
“Nice eyes! Nice eyes!” He seemed scared. This made me feel better.
But the breaking point was still to come, and it would happen just as we left the Medina. We passed by two loitering men in the parking lot. I saw out of the corner of my eye that they were following. Maria was a few steps ahead but I was close enough to hear.
“Hey, how many camels? Please, how many camels?”
I stopped and turned. I took off my sunglasses and stared him right in the face.
“Is this how you make friends?” Maria had noticed and came to join me. The man also walked over, smiling confidently.
“I am sorry. My English is not so good.”
“Oh so, you just shout things to us in English but you don’t understand it? Do you even know what I’m saying?” Maria asked.
He smiled and said again “My English…”
I took this as an opportunity to talk at him. I didn’t really give a damn whether or not he understood me. I just wanted to express my frustration to him, specifically and have him hear my tone.
“Actually, you can help me. May I have some money?” I said. He looked at me, surprised, but he immediately reached into his fanny pack and showed me some change.
“You know, for the offense. I think 5 Dirham will do.”
“Oh no, 5 is too much.” He said, still kind of laughing.
“Do you even have a job? Or you just stand around like every other Moroccan guy doing fucking nothing all day?“
“Yes, I have a job.”
“Do you have a wife?”
“I can understand why.”
And then I left. Did it really solve anything? No. Did it change his mentality? Not at all. But I felt damn good. I felt like I just had a warm shower. I felt refreshed. I just needed for once to not be passive. After so much time in this country, it was very apparent that the men who behave this way are not dangerous, they are just annoying and disrespectful. Instead of being passive when I encounter this, I am more likely to engage them. If it’s what they want, so be it, but at least I feel more powerful.
Obviously one can argue that not all men in Morocco are like this. Yes, that is true. But most of them are. You can disagree with me, but you’d be wrong. And even after all of my positive experiences with my hosts, the truly polite and respectful men who were gentlemen, the behavior of the general public left a lasting impression.
I’m glad I came here, and I am glad I spent so much time here, but let’s just say I am really looking forward to my plane touching down tomorrow in the Netherlands.
I want to share a chronicle of what I have done on my trip so far in Morocco and how blown away I have been by Moroccan hospitality. But I also have a lot of thoughts and (a lot) of feelings about what it has been like traveling as a western, white, lesbian couple in a Muslim country (hint: it is a challenge).
Hopefully, I can do this right and give a good account of both. This first entry is all about my hosts and the people I’ve met here. Before I get into the couchsurfing experience, here is where I started:
I spoke with maybe 15 people who had visited Morocco to get their opinion before I went. I received the entire gamut of advice and experiences. I heard “It’s amazing. You will love it.” from a slightly inebriated white, blonde English-speaking Hungarian woman. But I also heard “I really would not recommend it. Please, just don’t go there.” from an older English man from London.
“Well, now I have to go.” I said to myself. Still frightened.
My ticket to Tangier from Tarifa cost 33 euro. Way more than the 6 I had planned to spend. But whatever, it’s go time.
On the ferry, we spoke with an interesting family. The father was from the US, but he was working in the State Department in Casablanca. Maria asked him questions about our safety regarding hitch-hiking. He let us use his phone and then stuffed 200 Dirham into our hands “Just take it. Please. Good luck. Stay safe.”
My First Impression:
So nothing really could have prepared me for what I experienced when I got off the boat. It was a lot like when Maria told me “Traveling in winter is hard.” Okay so I knew it was hard, but I didn’t know it until I did it.
I knew we would stand out, and that we would get attention. It started immediately after we left the port building. A man followed us asking if we wanted a cab. Then when we shook him loose, another guy, then another.
People tried to “guide us”, help us, drive us places. This is just what happens here. Some of the guides will try to rip you off, this is just the reality. But everything is presented in a kind and friendly way. They are never rude or insulting, they are just very, very persistent and aren’t likely to take your first “no, thank you” as an answer. As an American, this is very different and uncomfortable. It just takes some getting used to.
But the general population is something else to consider. Our walk was filled with kissey noises, stares, gestures, etc. from men.(Note:Before you have to ask, I’ll answer your question. I was wearing hiking boots, long pants, a long sleeve shirt and my head was covered. Granted, my hair was in a braid that could be seen, but other than that, I was dressed modestly, as usual).
A fun fact about me is that I grew up completely void of any and all attention to men beyond friendship. As such, I have absolutely NO mechanisms for dealing with this kind of thing. Emotionally, or verbally. So I just try to ignore these things.
We took a break sitting on a bench just people-watching. We observed the men, and how they dressed. We looked at the women and observed how they behaved and what they wore. It really helped me get my bearings and I would recommend doing this to anyone who is experiencing extreme culture shock. Just find a public place and sit for an hour, or two.
During our break, another possibly homeless-looking man was staring at us. I was watching him intently through my sunglasses out of sheer fascination. When another man, carrying a giant pole with nougat candy walked past him, the homeless-looking man got some candy, and then gave the vendor some money and sent him our way.
He began to cut off some pieces of nougat.
“No, no it’s okay.”
“We don’t have any money.”
“No quiero dinero, tranquila.”
And then he handed us some candy. It was sweet and delicious. The homeless-looking man continued to look at us, but nothing more.
Our first two hours in Tangier included interactions with approximately 20 different strangers, including a wink from a boy who couldn’t have been any older than 12. Maria got her wish, this was different than Europe.
Couchsurfing in Morocco:
I should preface this by saying that my couchsurfing search in Morocco is a joke. I sent out a request to two people in Tangier, and in 12 hours I received over 30 invitations, all from men. We needed to be diligent and hope that we chose legitimate hosts and not guys who were just looking for a good time.
Fortunately, we chose wisely for our first host. Abdel greeted us 10 minutes early. He wore glasses and had a bit of 5 o’clock shadow and a big smile. I immediately felt relief after I saw him. Furthermore, after about 10 minutes in the car I realized that anyone who giggled as much as this guy couldn’t possibly do any harm.
His friend Mohammad was driving and in a moment we were off. Safe, away from the eyes of strangers looking out of place. From there, we proceeded to drive ALL OVER TANGIER. Abdel was determined to have us see the entire region regardless of how dark it was, or how tired we were. He bought us tea, and even dinner.
We pulled into an industrial park, at night. The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was something awful. Like fish mixed with gasoline. I had to struggle not to put my shirt over my face. We got out of the car and started to walk. There were people everywhere. And there were fish. We were at the marina and there were fish vendors everywhere.
Men with giant baskets of shrimp, the size of wine barrels. There were buckets and buckets of unknown varieties of fish. There were octopi, and there were squid. There were entire sharks laid out on the pavement. My only regret was that I was unable to take any photos. We realized as soon as we stepped out that not only were we the only white people there, but we were clearly the only tourists there. This was such a beautiful combination of sketchy and culture-shock.
Just when we thought the tour was over, we turned the corner and arrived at some secret restaurant. This place was literally in an alley between two warehouses in the middle of the marina. We couldn’t have found this place if we tried. No wonder there were no tourists, it was borderline scary. But it was busy.
There were people everywhere sitting at tables cracking open shell-fish and eating with their hands. Men, women, children, everybody. Buss boys ushered us to tables where they tore off large squares of paper to cover our tables.
I do not recall anyone ordering anything, but before we knew it there was a basket of bread and a giant plate of steaming prawns before us. Maria looked scared. But I jumped right in.
“What you do in California is one thing, but you are in Morocco now.” Mohammed said as I tried to offer to pay for my own food.
And this is how it went with each of our subsequent hosts. Maybe we just got lucky. I personally think we chose wisely. We read profiles carefully and it is pretty easy to tell who is legitimate and who isn’t. But the bottom line is that our hosts, though all (so far) were men, were all great.
I have experienced a few different flavors of Moroccan hospitality. Abdel drove us around and never left our side. This was the tour-guide style couchsurf. We planned nothing and we were told only vague details about what to expect. We were just along for the ride.
Our second host was Mehdi. He lives in Rabat and as soon as I saw him I was (yet again) overcome with relief. He was a larger guy. Much taller than Abdel but something about his polo shirt and aviator sunglasses told me he was of a different type of Moroccan guy. He is 25 (like me) and is probably the coolest guy we stayed with. He lived with his parents, which meant his house was immaculate and his parents cooked for us (all the time). He was also a perfect gentleman.
We also spent a lot of time at home just relaxing. This was so welcomed after our last few days of go-go-go. Mehdi understood our need to just take some time to do nothing (this manifested in the form of watching 16 straight episodes of Prison Break). No pressure to go out and do things, no planning without consulting us, just good old fashioned laziness.
One of my favorite things was his willingness to communicate. He was always ready to engage in conversation with us and loved to discuss the differences between Moroccan culture and American culture. He is an open-minded dude, and shares most of my taste in music. In effect, he is exactly like any guy you would meet in America. In fact, we felt so comfortable with him that we actually outed ourselves for the first time in Morocco. Obviously, he was totally cool (I don’t think he will ever know how much this meant to us).
The third host we had was Jouaud, and I still do not understand him at all. He picked us up from the train station and left us promptly to go pick up other couch surfers from the airport. When he returned (they never showed up) he brought us to an apartment he rented specifically for our visit. Normally, this would be super creepy, but it turns out he had too many surfers and just did not have the space. Rather than turn people away, he rented a space for them and paid for it out of his own pocket. This is Moroccan hospitality at its extreme. Not only did he do this for us, but he also took us to the Kascades and gave us a reduced-price on our cab. He didn’t talk much, but he seemed intent on making sure we had a good time in Marrakech. But it even went beyond that.
He was so protective of everyone. When Maria and I were in McDonalds waiting for him, he showed up with a girl from Peru. She wasn’t staying with him, but he met her at the airport anyway and stayed with her until she met up with her host. Later that night, she sent him a text saying she did not feel comfortable staying with her host. He waited up for her, met with her later and she ended up staying with him instead.
This same night, he took a trip to the old city and bought us almonds, dates, and figs for our long bus ride the next day AND he bought Maria a birthday present. A little coin purse, a post card, and a pen.
That seems very gentlemanly, no? It actually blew my mind how this guy behaved until we met Mohammed.
We arranged a host in Merzouga, Mohammed. He actually contacted us and invited us out. Upon careful examination of his profile, we determined he was the real deal. And he was. In fact, at one point when we told him casually that we were waiting for our other host (Jouaued) in McDonalds, he asked for his number, called him and told him where we were and then emailed us and said if Jouaued didn’t show up, he had at least 3 people in Marrakech who would come pick us up.
Actually, the entire time after we were in touch with Mohammed, was just like being watched by the secret service. Jouaued and Mohammed were calling each other discussing our whereabouts, drop off locations and contingency plans if something were to happen.
When we finally did reach Merzouga, we were escorted by Mohammed to his awesome house
…and given tea. Along with the knowledge that “if someone does not offer you tea when you are in their home, they do not like you.”
From there, we had breakfast waiting for us every morning in the living room:
and he arranged for me to accomplish one of my goals in life, which is to ride a camel in the desert.
I can’t really say that our fortune regarding hosts has been all luck. Maria and I are very diligent about the profiles of the people we choose to stay with. Perhaps we are lucky in some respects, but I think most of it can be attributed to just reading between the lines and being smart.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive experience I have had with my hosts, there is still some looming factor about Morocco that keeps me from falling in love with it completely. That is, it has been somewhat challenging to reconcile who I am with Moroccan culture. And that is what Part 2 is all about.