What happens when a single American girl goes traveling in Morocco? Salaam Aleikum, baby!
On my first full day in Morocco, I briefly thought I was being thrown off a cliff. It was a most unfortunate, and terrifying, misunderstanding: My ´guide` thought it would be fun to pick me up and spin me around. While I was trying to fight him off and screaming in English for help (turns out I can’t really panic and translate at the same time), somewhere in the back of my mind I was wondering how my usually really good (really) character judgment had failed so disastrously.
I knew Abdul was a hustler, but I had been watching his every move from the time he latched onto me and was pretty confident he wasn’t out to kill me or anything. And he wasn’t; he just invaded my personal space a little and I was enough on edge that I freaked out a lot. But then he got all upset that I thought he was trying to hurt me, and accused me of thinking he was a terrorist. That hit a nerve, and rather than run like hell I spent the rest of the day trying to make peace.
Not many Americans go to Morocco”I couldn’t leave the impression that we think they’re all terrorists. Delusions of grandeur, whatever. He kept me from getting lost, taught me some Arabic, took me to a great café that I never would have found otherwise. I got a little impatient while he smoked joint after joint (I’m all for pseudo-legal and readily available drugs, usually, but not with near strangers who want both money and sex); he kept trying to kiss me; it went without saying that I would pay the bill. But having him around kept me from being hassled by any other guys and his mom fed me dinner and gave me some jewelry.
Such was my solo trip to North Africa: a lot of tradeoffs, not always fun, but fascinating and always an adventure. Everyone told me not to go alone. You don’t understand, the men are horrible. It’s not safe. You’ll be miserable. Someone even told me I’d be better off going alone to Saudi Arabia than to Morocco. I didn’t even want to go alone, really, but it was November and my friends had jobs. And I’m stubborn as hell, so people telling me not to go alone, well… you know. So I learned a little French (easier than Arabic, sorry) and I went. What could happen?
After two days in Tangier, I had decided that the badness of Moroccan men was way overrated. Sure, I was getting a ton of unwanted attention, but it was manageable. I had braced myself for much worse. Then, just off the bus in Chefchaouen, a guy selling ugly necklaces called me a racist for not wanting to talk to him, and that sent me running straight into the arms of Swedish Bjorn, the closest Westerner I could find.
He was sweet and well-traveled with interesting stories, and having a guy, any guy, around kept me from being hassled. But he wanted to hold hands and cuddle and shit. I wouldn’t have been that into him anyway, but was really put off by all the exotic parasites he claimed to have picked up on his travels. And more importantly, I was angry with myself for seeking him out in the first place: Meeting other travelers is fine, but looking for anyone who’s not Moroccan when you’re in Morocco, well…. Was I a racist?
Being a poor country, Morocco has lots of young unemployed people with not much to do. Add to that a culture where people are friendly and outgoing but dating is barely permitted, not necessarily accurate notions of the easiness of Western women, and long blonde hair, and you get a lot of attention. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to people, but I wasn’t looking for a husband or boyfriend. And their general lack of anything better to do meant that new friends could be nearly impossible to get rid of. If not racist, I was definitely rude sometimes; I had to be in order to keep some modicum of alone time and personal space. Besides, the people who hassle tourists on the streets aren’t exactly the high points of Moroccan culture, just the most accessible. The huge upside of all the attention is that you get to really experience parts of Moroccan culture, rather than just watch from a distance.
And it’s not only the hustlers who are outgoing. Put six Moroccans in a train car, and by the end of the trip they’ll all be friends. Everyone invites you over for couscous. A girl I met on a bus insisted that I stay with her family. Her mother literally gave me the shirt off her back. And made me eat, even though I was fighting food poisoning. With a Turkish toilet. Tradeoffs.
One of the themes in Islam is submission to god. I felt like I related a little as I kept submitting to Morocco. Okay, fine, I’ll pay to put my bag on the bus even though you’re not charging anyone else. Okay, fine, you can be my guide for the day. No hot water? Okay, fine….
FÃ¨s was all about submission. Its medina teems with humanity; its thousands (really) of narrow streets burst with people, donkeys, carts, cats, kids. It’s a mosh pit, a snake pit, and the only way to manage is to (guardedly) let yourself be carried away by it.
I let Karim and Abdul be my guides because it seemed easier than trying to get rid of them. Karim was the smoother one: better dressed, okay teeth. He spoke good English and did most of the talking. Abdul was clearly the sidekick. They said they were both 21, but seemed younger. I spent two days sprinting through the medina trying to keep up with them.
At first I thought their complicated routes coupled with excessive speed were designed to keep me lost so I’d need them. Which was maybe part of it, but I realized later that we were also constantly trying to avoid the police. (Only licensed guides can legally show tourists around FÃ¨s; I was clearly a tourist and Karim and Abdul were not real guides.)
I got the hard sell from the carpet seller, the ceramics seller, the Berber pharmacist. But I really did need the help to keep from being perpetually lost. (If you haven’t been to FÃ¨s, trust me. You need a guide. Of some sort.) And I got to be the only woman (besides the old toilet attendant) in a real café (traditional Moroccan cafés are pretty much men-only), something I probably wouldn’t have done alone or with a real guide who knew better. The other men were mostly subtle about looking at me, except for two little boys who pointed and laughed for a while before losing interest. A room full of men drinking tea and smoking hash while watching bad American films on TV: The women really aren’t missing much.
Waiting for Karim and Abdul to meet me at my hotel on my last day in FÃ¨s, the hotel manager showed up at my room with some guy in a track suit to tell me that the police had my guide. They were speaking French so I couldn’t understand much more than that. Karim and Abdul were hustlers, but not actually bad and I mostly felt sorry for them. I appreciated the fact that neither had tried to make out with me. The police thing actually made me feel a little guilty. But also off the hook. I took my newfound freedom to the nearest internet café, which was where Karim found me. Turned out the police only had Abdul, and poor Karim didn’t really know what to do with me. His mom made dinner and we ate mostly in silence while watching Shrek, dubbed. (In the Moroccan version of Shrek, they rescue the princess and bring her back to the king, end of story. Can’t make fun of the king in a kingdom where the king actually rules.)
Walking to the train station the next morning, I ran into the hotel guy again and he had another long story in French about how the police had my guide. Unclear what he wanted me to do about it. I hope Abdul’s okay, but I couldn’t have helped even if I’d wanted to; I just kept walking. Two days of FÃ¨s was about as much as I
I rarely felt unsafe, but I was followed, propositioned, and harassed constantly. Sometimes it was just ridiculous. I had guys tell me, without a trace of irony, Don’t go to _______. The people are bad there. They’ll follow you and hassle you and try to sell you spices. As if they hadn’t just followed and hassled me and tried to sell me spices.
Sometimes it was impressive. I’d meet guys who could hassle in five or six different languages. I can’t do that. Mostly it was a mix of irritating and amusing and it was all easier to deal with than I expected, at first, but over time wore on me more than I thought it would.
After three weeks in Morocco, I left for Tunisia. I had heard it was more woman-friendly than Morocco and was planning to relax a little. Wrong. After weeks of keeping it together, on my first day in Tunisia I lost it and threw a yelling fit in public. This guy had been following me all day, repeating something in French about photos. I had gotten pretty good at getting away from people, but I couldn’t lose him. I don’t even know why he bothered me so much, but I started to panic. I tried going into a bookstore; it was closed. I sat down next to some women at a café; they left. He sat down; I snapped. I pushed over a chair, screamed at him to get the fuck away from me, caused a little scene, and stormed into a taxi.
Oops. The driver of course wanted to know where I was from. A perfectly reasonable question, but I really didn’t want to talk about the United States or Tunisia or the fact that I was a foreigner, so after a few blocks I stormed out of the taxi and walked (stomped, really) back to my hotel. And cried. And tried to call my mom. And thought about leaving. Not quite as tough as I thought I was. Still stubborn as hell, though, and once I calmed down I definitely wasn’t running away. So I forgave Tunisia for making me mad and forgave myself for overreacting and moved on. In retrospect I probably should have gone to Egypt instead, but whatever. Carthage was cool, anyway, and the food was good.
I kinda lost it again on the last day of the trip. Guys who spoke little or no English were always wanting my phone number. Why, if we can’t talk to each other? The day after one of those conversations, I found in my bag a crumpled piece of paper. In French, I’m pretty sure it said:
Do you want to talk with me? Yes or No?
Pathetic, hilarious, and just a little bit creepy, since I wasn’t sure how it got in there.
Anyway, last day in North Africa, I’m walking down the street and this guy starts hissing at me. Hissing. C’mon. I gave him my best you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me look, and he winked. That was what got me started. It was so absurd it was comical. Then he started talking. In French. I kept it together as long as I could, but when he asked for my phone number after it became clear that we mostly couldn’t communicate with each other, I had to laugh. He laughed too, a little, but didn’t get it. He kept asking why I was laughing so finally I tried to explain in broken, broken French that I don’t speak French and he doesn’t speak English, so we couldn’t talk on the phone. He still didn’t get it, which both underscored my point and made me laugh harder. Laughing uncontrollably at him was cathartic. It also made him go away. Huh.
Laughing maniacally makes annoying guys go away. If only I had known about that strategy earlier.