Lessons Learned in Morocco pt. 2
Popular belief and reality are totally in the eye of the beholder. Not only is “good” relative, but so is “fair and just.”
“What was it like, being and American woman, living in an Arab country?” is the most frequent question I get after someone learns I spent seven years living in Morocco. As a starter question this isn’t terrible. There are plenty of other opening gambits that are truly rude, out of line, but equally compelling. Questions about having children, or not; choice of religion; politics; weight; marriage. I know I’ve asked some of them and had them asked of me. This particular question, like the others, contains a large and gnarly bias. Its presumption that North African culture (Arab, Moslem, third world) is hostile to my sort of person (female, American, educated – in that order) bears a bit of exploration. There are choices I made, not always consciously, that made a difference in how I was treated; there was a lens I used to see that affected my behavior. Like Frost’s road in the wood, that has made all the difference.
The first choice was to go to Morocco. That, I’ll admit, was something of a crap shoot. On joining the Peace Corps, I was asked to choose my top three destinations. I knew I wanted to go to an Arab country since I’d spent a year in Jordan as a pre-teen and knew some of the language. I looked at departure dates and chose, in order, Morocco, Bahrain, and Tunisia. I was lucky to be selected for Morocco. In the late 70s it was arguably both less modern and less conservative than the other two choices. There were reasons for this moderation. It had been at the far edge of the original Jihad, the Islamic version of our own Manifest Destiny. There was a tradition that the conversion to Islam had happened as a ruse to get support for a Berber invasion of Spain. There was a long tradition of women holding power in the various Berber tribes, to the extent that women rode into battle, and once a woman passed menopause she had the option of taking a beard, tattooed across her chin, and holding sway in community councils.
The second choice was unconscious. I have always tended to define myself by what I was not. From first grade where I was not cute, and I (unsuccessfully) feigned needing flash cards because I couldn’t read, through life overseas where I was not British, not being a Monkees fan, not being cute (still), not being thin, not fitting in. By the time I hit Morocco I had begun serious steps toward making these “nots” into strengths. I was not like others, so tested advice and was willing to accept the consequences. When told we were best off sticking in groups from our Peace Corps cohort, I wandered about Rabat by myself. The smell of partially burned diesel brought back memories of my childhood in Kenya, as did the spices in the sidewalk food vendors. I ate kefta (spiced burger on skewers), harira (chicken and chickpea soup), and apples, dates, and tangerines. My nose told me I was home. I drank fresh squeezed juice and water from the tap, and proclaimed myself not like others, because I would suffer no stomach troubles. The only time I was ever set upon by diarrhea was after browsing through several fields of green lentils and green chick peas – very tasty but disastrous more from lack of ripeness than bugs..
The third choice was unconscious at the start. From a shockingly young age my mantra had been “I’d rather do it myself.” When it came time to leave the Stage (training program) in Rabat, and move out to our villages to find housing and set up with furniture, I went on my own. I was sent to a small village, El Menzel, in the Sefrou Province of the Fès-Boulemane Region. The place had the sort of reputation designed for someone, like me, who was determined to be not typical. There had been two PC women who had been, they felt, harassed out of town. They cast it as so misogynistic that no PC woman should ever be sent there again. They had been stationed there with R. L., who had been idolized. He spoke fluent Arabic, was learning Chleuh (a language of the Anti-Atlas Berbers), he was a good teacher, and, after two years of service, had moved back to the States. The women, I heard from other volunteers, had spoken only French, had openly carried wine bottles into their apartment in the center of town, had invited single male teachers in for supper and drinks, and had behaved, in every way, like modern Europeans. I was sent to this village with two male volunteers. They instantly scooped up Rich’s former house, a white washed plaster house at the end of a winding lane at the top of a hill. There was a grape vine draping the door and their landlord lived upstairs. He was one of those laid back people that seem to have come through the cauldron to find a sort of Zen peace within themselves, someone you could quietly sip mint tea with, and come away feeling better. I was left to fend for myself. “If we’d wanted to hang out with Americans, we would have stayed in the States,” I was informed by my fellow PCVs.
So I fetched up in Sefrou (there were no hotels or boarding houses in El Menzel) the and started the daily trips to look for an apartment. One day found me in the back garden of the hotel where I was staying, sitting on a bench and wailing, in Arabic, to a cleaning lady about not being able to find a place to live, nor with any idea on how to get furniture or cooking supplies. She told me that I didn’t have much choice but to keep going. I knew my own decisions had landed me in this situation, so I pulled up my socks and moved on. Found an apartment on the far side of town from the other PCVs, got my household goods. I was over the public oven, bad in the summer, but one of the few places that even smacked of heat during the winter when it often dipped below freezing at night.
The apartment was also next door to a family of girls. They were in and out of my home, examining my things and watching my comings and goings. I got a reputation for speaking Arabic, not drinking, walking with other women during the evening constitutional. I gained entre into a part of Moroccan society that French speakers or men could never experience. I saw how sassy women were. I saw that, far from being totally submissive thralls, never allowed out of the house, they ruled the roost and banished their men-folk to the streets. When invited with a mixed group of men and women to dinner at someone’s house, I withdrew when female teachers withdrew, and I never regretted it. I was able to put a face on my own foreignness; I became less a stranger to be wary of, and more a friend whose oddness could be forgiven. When I wore the wrong clothes, a man’s djelleba (woolen outdoor robe) instead of a woman’s, the ladies from the public bath, rather than shunning me, took it as an opportunity to play a prank on the men waiting for their own bath. When I bought a moped, I got invited farther afield and saw even more of rural Morocco. My neighbors saw it all and, I am sure, gossiped about it. By and large it was no more or less unpleasant than living in rural Maine and being from “away.”
Certainly all was not rosy. Abuse and discrimination exists in Morocco just as in any society. It is no better or worse than anywhere else. I learned that we are more the same, culture to culture, than we are different. I learned that if you follow the big rules of cultural morality, you can break the little ones of social convention. I learned that when people see you behaving like they do, they will welcome you in and treat you like a friend.