Morocco: the “essay”

Note: I’m trying my hand at more “sophisticated” travel writing, so this piece does not provide the play-by-play or pictures typical of my other posts. 

“You’re going to Morocco… and Turkey?”

Yes, I know those aren’t exactly next to each other; that was never the point. I’ve just started a new decade of my life, so I wanted to aim for places that were entirely different from any I have previously visited. Morocco and Turkey may be on separate continents, but they have one core feature in common: both are predominantly Muslim countries. That wasn’t why I chose them – I had heard a lot about both – but it ended up being the unifying theme of the trip and the thing that most stands out to me about my experience in Morocco particularly.

I used to be pretty passionate about international relations, so I’m not totally without exposure to Islam, but the 10 days my friend Mary and I spent in these two Muslim countries showed us a very humbling amount of things we did not know. From the moment I first heard the call to prayer in Morocco, I had a steady flow of questions about the practices that are a core part of life in these societies, for example about the call to prayer (why five times a day? why at those specific times? how does one qualify to be a muezzin calling everyone to prayer? do they choose from a hymnal-type selection of pieces to sing/call? does the same person do all five calls to prayer each day?) and wearing headscarves (what does the Koran say about this? how tight do they need to be? when do women start wearing them, since almost almost all the young girls had their hair freely exposed?).

Morocco looks and feels more Muslim than the one part of Turkey I saw (Istanbul), and that penetration varied within Morocco as well. Marrakesh was undoubtedly the most Muslim-feeling destination of the whole trip. We saw almost no Moroccan women there with uncovered heads, and we saw significantly more women there than in other places wearing additional coverage, usually just in the form of long sleeves on the arms, but there were also a significant number of women wearing the full veils so that only their eyes were visible. Mary and I, being travelers who care deeply about blending in and showing respect for local culture, had of course packed more conservative clothing in order to be more covered throughout the trip: we spent the entire time wearing long maxi dresses with shrugs, sweaters, or scarves around our shoulders. We also brought scarves that we could wear on our heads, and Marrakesh made us feel this was necessary – not because anyone seemed to care that we hadn’t covered our heads, but because, to the extent it was not already obvious, walking around with uncovered heads was the equivalent of wearing a neon sign saying “I am a tourist!” We had not realized that most women also covered their arms and often their feet, so even after we started wearing the hijab we still had a bit of a give-away in the form of our short sleeves and sandals.

I can only think of one other country I’ve visited where I really wanted to blend in for reasons of security as much as respect, and that was Venezuela. (I went in 2010, two weeks before the New York Times published an article indicating that Caracas – where I had been – was more deadly than Baghdad. I was in no rush to call attention to the fact that I was foreign, let alone American, and the fact that we never encountered a single other foreign tourist should tell you a lot.) The past few days since my return from this trip have been a little funny because so many people have said “yeah, I would have advised you not to go to Morocco with another woman.” I have no idea why we were so unprepared for the challenge of traveling as two (smart, independent, street-savvy) women in Morocco. British people fly down to Morocco all the time for long weekends (we saw plenty of them), and given that the British are just as bad as the stereotypical Americans abroad (I saw plenty of women with tons of exposed skin), I had just taken this to mean that we would be totally fine. Why would so many people visit a place that was uncomfortable or dangerous?

Most of what made our time in Morocco, and particularly in Marrakesh, more challenging was not actually overt danger, though a man did follow us down the alley to our riad one night before turning around when we reached the door, and I don’t think I’ve ever clutched my purse so tightly to my body while walking around. What grated on our nerves, and made us very thankful indeed for the freedoms we enjoy, were the subtleties of navigating daily life as women. We came to feel, and again this is mostly in Marrakesh, that someone was almost always taking advantage of us in some way because we were women. I find it difficult to write about this in a balanced, diplomatic way because I remain unsure about to what extent what we experienced was typical and whether it was more to do with what would happen to any foreigners in Morocco or whether there was in fact some exacerbation of the existing practice (or we were less able to deal with the existing practice) because we were women. There are many countries around the world where, for example, you have to bargain for purchases in order not to be totally ripped off; I’m talking about something more subtle. I think we were shouted at by street vendors more than the men, but that’s not a big deal. More to my point is this example: our riad hired a tour guide to lead us around the medina during the first half of our one full day in Marrakesh. While I loved Abdullah in certain respects – he was very open, provided a lot of great one-liners that I wrote down, and answered every question we asked – we ended up paying him a not insubstantial amount of money for a tour that ultimately did not show us any of the “must-sees” in Marrakesh and instead included quite a bit of what I will call “performance shopping”. We spent half an hour in a carpet shop, where the owner and his assistants gave us tea and laid out at least 30 rugs for us to admire, touch, and evaluate for potential purchase. I’m not saying I did not appreciate the opportunity to see these rugs; they were undoubtedly beautiful, and I might well have bought one if I had a space big enough, but we had not asked for this, and it felt wrong having to pay him for time that was not in fact spent guiding us (he wasn’t even in the room). We stopped at a few other shops as well, and though we did buy some products at a women’s cooperative selling argan oil and other Moroccan beauty products, on the whole this was not something we had anticipated or desired when we arranged the tour. We found it difficult to be assertive because we did not want to be rude to Abdullah or to any of these other people (who, even if it was only because they were hoping to make money, were all very welcoming and polite) – is that reluctance to offend perhaps more typical of women than men? You see why I find it difficult to assess whether our experience was common to everyone or whether it was exacerbated by our gender. And back at our riad that afternoon, the taxi booked to take us to and from our hammam cost much more than the ride the riad had also arranged from the airport, which is significantly further away. We began to wonder if the young man who was managing the riad in the absence of the owner was getting some sort of kickback, and his by then overly familiar attitude with us – which culminated in him being more touchy-feely than appropriate when helping me put on my hijab – started to make us distinctly uncomfortable and glad that we were leaving Marrakesh early the following morning.

Now, don’t get me wrong – Marrakesh is a beautiful and fascinating place, and one to which I’d return in the company of a man. We had a much more comfortable experience in Rabat, which is both more progressive and more polished as a result of being the capital (and one that doesn’t happen to be a major tourist destination). Whereas 99% of the women in Marrakesh had covered their heads, in Rabat I’d estimate that this was more like 50-60%, though there still wasn’t a single woman on the beach wearing anything less than a full set of clothes. Mary and I stayed covered elsewhere but dispensed with the hijab, which in that setting would have almost seemed like too much effort on our part. Rabat also holds the distinction of being the only place on the trip where we managed to have all our dinners uninterrupted by unwanted and uninvited attention from our male waiters. And there aren’t nearly as many tourists in Rabat; I think it reflects very well on a city when tourists are treated more or less like locals. The vendors in the medina did not call out to us or otherwise try to trap us in their stalls; they were content to greet us if we showed interest, to answer questions that we had, and then to let us be on our way. On the whole, we felt much more at ease in Rabat, which is part of the reason we decided to stay there an extra day rather than seeing Fez, which we expected to be a repeat of Marrakesh and thus just not worth the trouble.

So to tie everything together: Morocco was my first foray into the Muslim world. I remain fascinated (and inspired) by much of what I saw and experienced in that context and plan to acquire some reading materials so that I am significantly better informed about Islam. That being said, the biggest questions I have stem from the tangled web of cause and effect relating to the religion and to the status of women. I hope that I can avoid relying on stereotypes as I write this as that is not at all my intention; however, I think it is fair to say that one thing most people associate with the Muslim world is the secondary status of women, at least by Western standards. I was privileged to grow up in a country where, in most essential ways, women are equal to men in theory if not yet in practice, and I personally have never been denied any opportunity or in any way restricted because of my gender, so naturally I believe that this is how it should be elsewhere. That’s not to say that men do not routinely take advantage of women, in various ways, in the US and elsewhere – far from it – but in my experience that feels more like the exception to the rule than it did in Morocco. I have a lot more reading to do before I can offer any educated remarks on the extent to which the teachings of Islam have shaped the role of women in Morocco. All I can offer based on my observations over five days (and I am happy to receive comments on this), is that I do think there is a link between the extent to which women are protected (I am choosing to see it that way rather than something more intentionally prejudicial) and the effect this has on how they are perceived and treated by men. I remain very interested in visiting other Muslim countries, but I think this is the last time I will do so without a man accompanying me. This trip was humbling not only for its reminders of how little we knew about Islam but also for the limitations it has shown us as seasoned travelers. I would not have described myself as conceited, but I did used to think that I was a pretty savvy traveler, that there was not a place or situation (within the bounds of common sense and reason) that I could not adapt myself to or enjoy as a female traveler, at least not if I had another person with me. This is the first time I’ve really come up against something that made me reconsider that assessment and admit some form of defeat. Could I go back to Morocco as a solo woman? No, not even if I pretended to be married. Could I go back to Morocco with another woman? Yes, but the stresses of doing so would likely outweigh the benefits (though I would like to think that knowing what to expect would be half the battle).

All in all, I can’t say I was in any way sorry to leave Morocco. I do hope I will go back another time, with a man, to see the things I missed in Marrakesh and to see Fez. Morocco is a large and richly diverse country with a lot to offer visitors, and in that sense we only scratched the surface. Next time, I’ll be more prepared and hopefully better poised to continue these observations in a more sheltered way.

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2 thoughts on “Morocco: the “essay”

  1. A part of me thinks you should give Marrakech another try without an accompanying male. It’s that part of me that hates to see generalizations made after only a brief encounter. On the other hand, you ARE a seasoned traveler and I know you’re not one to jump to conclusions.

    At any rate, I continue to enjoy your wonderfully detailed and reflective writings!

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