A while ago, I wrote a list of things I wish more Americans knew about Morocco. Here’s the complementary post; what I wish more Moroccans knew about their own country.
- There are a lot of foreigners. There are not just French expats, but Americans, Africans, Asians, and other Europeans. And not all of them are rich, contrary to popular opinion.
- It is incredibly difficult for those foreigners to get visas. My explanations of what I have to go through to renew my residency are met by surprised looks from Moroccans, and knowing nods from other foreigners. I heard that the majority of French expats in Morocco just don’t bother getting visas, and leave every few months in order to continue living on a tourist visa.
- There is a big Christian presence in Morocco. There are churches in every major city, and there are several different denominations represented.
- It is much easier and much more useful to learn French than to learn Arabic. I came to Morocco with the intention of learning more Arabic, but ended up learning French out of necessity. Speaking French has allowed me to make friends, communicate with others, and be a better English teacher.
- It is not dangerous to walk by yourself in Casablanca. I walk to work every day, and have never felt unsafe (although I do often get annoyed by the traffic and by men). I am occasionally told that I should not walk, but I think it’s actually safer than putting my life in the hands of an impatient taxi driver.
- There are a lot of wonderful things that Morocco has that the United States does NOT have. For example, vacation homes for big companies, maternity leave and generous vacation day policies, cheap organic produce, and cleaning ladies who will clean your apartment once a week for a small price. Which explains my first point, that there are a lot of foreigners.
When I first came to Morocco nearly four years ago, it was love at first sight. The weather was perfect, the people were friendly, the food was delicious, and every day was an adventure.
I thought my husband and I might stay long-term, to keep taking advantage of Morocco’s beautiful diversity of cultures. I was so much more in love with Morocco than any of my colleagues, most of which I thought would leave after a year or two. But as it turns out, my close friends from my first year will probably stay significantly longer than I will. Here’s why:
- There are not many job options outside teaching, which is not my career. I have also worked part-time in two NGOs, but both were pretty shockingly disorganized. I don’t think I ever attended a meeting that didn’t start at least an hour late.
- Getting a visa is a yearly challenge, especially for Africans. My first year, my employer did everything for me, so I never even knew how difficult it was. These past two years, I’ve had quite a bit of trouble renewing my visa due to unhelpfulness both from my new employer and from the staff at the prefecture. And my husband has been working for almost three years on a student visa because his employer doesn’t want to pay the fees for a foreigner’s contract.
- It’s just really hard to walk down the street. I’m lucky enough to be able to walk to work, but feel so much less lucky when men comment on my clothes or appearance, or especially when they try to follow me. It’s better when I walk with my husband, except on the occasions when people (men) yell racial slurs at us. And then there are the broken sidewalks….
- The rising culture of materialism is exhausting. Like any fast-developing country, Morocco has become more and more focused on material wealth. The thing to do on the weekends is to go shopping, and having a car has become a status symbol. I struggle to explain to my students that I don’t have a car because I like to walk, not because I can’t afford one, that I don’t eat at the most expensive restaurants because I actually like to cook, and that I want to become a social worker because I genuinely find that profession fascinating, not because I got rejected from programs in technology or finance. My idea of a good career is one that I find rewarding, not necessarily one that pays a lot of money.
There are things I love about Morocco too; the community I’ve found here, the opportunities I’ve had to meet new people and learn new languages, and the chance to experience another way of life. The ocean in Casablanca is beautiful, the vegetables are always fresh, and my husband and I have wonderful friends. But there’s a time for everything, and I really feel like it’s time to find a place to live with more trees than cars, even if it is somewhere with cold winters and no pomegranates.
When I entered the classroom, there was one Moroccan woman sitting ready in her seat, new course books in front of her. She looked to be about ten years younger than my mother, and was wearing a beige and blue veil that almost matched the blue of our course book. I whispered “bonjour” to the woman before sitting in my own seat and arranging my own books on the desk, two blue paperback books for French as a foreign language. More students filed in, mostly Moroccan women. About half were the same age as the first woman, and about half around my age. We were all students in the high intermediate class at the French Institute in Casablanca, Morocco, although were all there for different reasons. Once the class was nearly full, everyone started quietly flipping through the course book, waiting for the class to start. The teacher came in about 5 minutes late, bringing an abrupt end to the silence in the room.
“Bonjour les enfants!” She waltzed into the room, not pausing for a second to check if anyone had been offended that she had referred to them as children. “Vous allez bien? Vous n’avez pas froid? Il fait vraiment froid aujourd’hui, je l’ai dit ce matin, et je continue à le dire. C’est vraiment l’hiver!” The other students smiled and nodded, still a little shy. The teacher set down her bag and arranged her coat and scarf on the chair before beginning to walk around the circle of desks to ask for introductions. The first student to speak was a Moroccan university student, still living with his parents, but thinking about studying in France. As soon as he finished his introduction, all shyness seemed to have dissipated from the room, at least from the Moroccans. One of the older women began a story about a Moroccan girl she had known who left her family at 18 years to study in France and who became an alcoholic. “But that’s not typical,” she explained. “My daughter is 20 years old, and she is studying in Belgium. She’s a good student, very sure of her values, knows where she comes from.” The teacher stopped the introductions to give a quick description of the French language exams we could take and what would be required for university studies. Her description was punctuated by frequent comments from the students, who already knew a few things about the exams. The next woman then introduced herself; a 30-year-old housewife, married to a doctor, and four months pregnant. Everyone congratulated her, and another one of the older women gave a quick and unsolicited warning about not consuming too much sugar during the pregnancy.
The next student was a student of medicine. She said she had already been accepted to do the preparatory years in France, but her parents wouldn’t let her go. She had therefore lost one year of study, and had been obliged to do the program in Morocco, but wanted to reapply the next year to go abroad. The three older women were next; all three were housewives, and all three had grown children. I was last, since I had sat at the far end of the circle, furthest from the door but close to the board. I knew I had a soft voice, so I figured I would be more likely to be heard if I sat near the teacher. I gave my name, described a bit about my job, explained where I am from in the U.S., and how long I had lived in Morocco. “C’est tout,” I said, and shrugged my shoulders.
As soon as I finished, one of the older women called out, “Are you married?” I smiled and said no, not married, but engaged. The woman next to her shouted out, “to a Moroccan?”
“No,” I said, “not to a Moroccan.”
“All the better for her!” Called the student of medicine. The teacher jumped back into the conversation at that point, shushing the building commotion.
“Les enfants! Calmez-vous! We are going to speak one by one. Why do you say better for her? What is wrong with marrying a Moroccan?”
Five hands shot up. One by one, the other students explained that the Moroccan Man is lazy, does not know how to wash dishes, and sits watching TV while his wife works in the home. The two male students in the class objected briefly, but after some prodding, revealed that neither of them had ever washed a dish. “My mother doesn’t even let me wash dishes at home! She knows I would just break them.” One of the older women admitted to being ashamed for having to ask her husband for money for the French classes, but said that he preferred that she not work. The medicine student said that Moroccan men are spoiled by their mothers and expect the same from their wives. The pregnant woman finished by telling me that it’s really much better for me to marry an American anyway.
The teacher, noticing that everyone in the French class had spoken a lot except me, asked me if I could say how I met my fiancé. In giving the story of how we met at our church in another city in Morocco, I mentioned that he is not in fact American, but Central African. The teacher moved closer to me and asked if I could say what country he was from. “La Centrafrique,” I repeated.
“Il est noir?” the medical student asked. The teacher said, “ah ok, le centre d’Afrique. Il n’est pas Americain alors.” I wanted to jump in again and clarify that he is in fact from “La Centrafrique,” or “La Republique Centrafricaine,” a country that is in the center of Africa, but I didn’t because I always have difficultly pronouncing all the syllables the name of the country and didn’t want to trip over my words on the very first day. The class was no longer erupting with new comments; it was totally quiet for a few seconds. Then the pregnant woman chimed in again to give the last word. “My husband is a doctor, and he once worked in Senegal. He said that his coworkers were very kind. Well-educated, gentle, respectful; yes, they are really nice people.”
I wanted to answer her by saying that I have never known anyone from Senegal, and that I have no idea whether that’s true or not. But I decided to hold my tongue; that was enough excitement for one session of French class.
The number one thing I feel homesick for when I’m in Casablanca is exercise. I miss how easily I could exercise in Chicago; there were two gyms right near my home, a beautiful running path, and just a mile away was the lakefront path, which I biked down many weekend afternoons on my way downtown. Here in Casa, the running is a little more challenging. Cars block the way, motorbikes speed by, the sidewalks have holes, traffic lights and actual traffic patterns don’t quite match up, and men in cafés stare. I only rarely see other runners, and I think I’ve only once seen a female running by herself…and she was clearly also a foreigner.
Moroccan society certainly has more divisions between private and public life than American society does. It is perhaps a little strange for a woman to go out in exercise clothing and run in the streets. Unemployed men have the bad habit of staring, particularly at foreigners. And perhaps the idea that exercise is important and is not just something for unskilled laborers is new to Morocco, as the wealthiest of society live in such a way that they rarely have to interact with the outside world. However, I think it is generally accepted that exercise is a good thing for everyone.
Tomorrow I plan to get up and go for a run in the morning. It will probably be hard to get myself to go out knowing that I will have to dodge cars and bumps in the pavement, and that all eyes will be on me as I pass each café. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I love the feeling I get from running, and the way that exercise allows me to think clearly and positively. I’m going to continue doing what I love even if it can be uncomfortable; but I really hope that it starts to catch on!
This afternoon I went to the hammam, or Moroccan bathhouse, with several other girls. I was pretty nervous going in to it, since all I knew was that we wouldn’t be allowed to wear clothes and that they would scrub us with a rough washcloth. The trip started off kind of frighteningly, since we first had to drive down a steep, winding ramp into an underground parking garage. After holding on for dear life the whole way down, we pulled into a parking space and breathed a sigh of relief. The hammam was oddly placed on the third floor, which seems like a difficult planning scheme since there is water constantly flowing in the bathhouse. We went into the changing room and took off everything but our underpants, though we all kept our towels wrapped around us at that point to postpone our impending nudity a few moments longer.
Opening the door to the bathhouse was a bit of a shock; it was a small, dark, humid room filled with unclothed old ladies being washed by other old ladies who were wearing matching black underwear. Certainly a place to forget any shame or reservations you might have once had about your body. We were told to first rinse off at little sinks, and then to coat ourselves in black soap, which is a Moroccan soap of dubious constitution. We sat at these little sinks in our underwear and dutifully splashed ourselves for a little while. Next, we were told that we could enter the sauna and stay there a bit, perhaps to enjoy the process of sweating. In the sauna room, us teachers got to know each other a little – who is living with whom, what everyone teaches, what our degrees were in, etc. – all done topless. Fast friends, indeed.
After the sauna, we went out to the first room again and waited in line to be rubbed down while lying on a table by one of the hammam ladies using a very course washcloth called a kees. This was a moment of panic for me; my skin is very pale and burns easily in the sun, so I was terrified of having my already-slightly-pink shoulders rubbed raw. Our friend who went first was certainly scrubbed thoroughly; her skin was all red afterward. But thankfully when my turn came, I was able to immediately ask the hammam lady to please not touch my back, and surprisingly enough she listened to me. It was really only slightly uncomfortable for me to be scrubbed down lying on a marble table. Next, I went to get soaped up by another woman. That part was actually kind of nice; almost like a massage, minus the fact that I thought I was going to fall off the table. After that, I just went to a shower (by myself, in privacy) and finished washing off and shampooed my hair.
Don’t you wish you could see a picture of this mysterious place? Sorry, you can’t.
When I had gotten dressed and came out to the lobby, my friends were waiting and exclaiming about how smooth their skin felt. I’ll admit, my skin does feel smooth. But mostly, I’m just thankful to have survived.
I was a student when I first went abroad, and my school gave me a little handout describing the ailment commonly referred to as culture shock. First, it explained, you arrive in a new place and everything is perfect. The people are wonderful, the food is delicious, the water tastes slightly better in this country than in your own, and you are making plans for how to relocate here permanently. This is called the Honeymoon Period. But next, and this is often drawn in a graph showing a line curving up and then plunging down, comes the Crash. This is where the sparkles wear off and you realize that you are homesick, dissatisfied, and hate the weather in your new country. The final period is where everything evens out and you discover that there are pros and cons to every situation, so you just have to make the most of your experience. This is the stage where you settle in, see things critically, and start to feel at home again.
When I first went to Morocco, I had a pretty long and intense honeymoon. I’m still pretty in to North Africa, so I think our relationship will last long term. However, there are some things that I have totally changed my mind about. First would probably be the idea of “taking things slow,” or living on “Moroccan Time,” which is fine if you’re on vacation, but pretty frustrating if you’re depending on someone to help you meet basic needs. The second would be the role of women. Before going to a Muslim country, I had read plenty about repression of Arab women but was hesitant to believe them, wanting to see for myself. It is undeniably true that the Western stereotypes are exaggerations; Moroccan and Tunisian women work in highly skilled jobs, own businesses, and have freedom of movement and opportunities for education along with men. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any problems. When I went to Morocco, I was so in love that I didn’t want to believe that it had any faults, but I do think that there is still a lot to be done in terms of women’s rights. As I learned from my coworkers, many of them have had semi-arranged marriages and can’t get divorced even if they don’t work out. Instead, they must just adapt to a new life with a new family on their husband’s terms.
Morocco does have a very progressive family code, but women often do not get quite enough voice once they are married. There is no such thing as marital rape because it is assumed that if a women marries a man, she is willing to have sex with him. My coworker got pregnant three months ago even though she doesn’t want another child; she is working and building a house for her family and does not have the time or resources to fully support another child. Birth control is totally legal here, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will use it. My coworker was using the counting method to prevent pregnancy, but as another coworker explained, “her husband wanted it during her dangerous time.” Unplanned pregnancies irreversibly alter the course of your life in only a moment. I do not know what the solution to this issue is; maybe education about birth control, maybe changes in family codes, or maybe changes in the expectations of gender roles. All of these seem challenging to bring about, but it’s certainly important to do something to have positive marriages even past the honeymoon.
This morning one of the Tunisian English teachers asked me, “as a father to his daughter,” about whether I think pre-marital dating is acceptable. He was the second person to ask me that in these two weeks, though I should say that the first person who asked truly was curious about American culture and interested in my answer. This teacher, however, interrupted me before I was done answering to say that really it is not good to have serious relationships before marriage, and absolutely unacceptable to have sexual relations outside of marriage. This is a subject I thought a lot about even in the U.S. because a very close friend of mine at my university is from Pakistan and also does not believe in romantic relationships outside of marriage. I don’t disagree that it’s not a good idea to date very casually, or to go through many relationships without being fully committed to them. I do think it’s important to be serious in any relationship, romantic or not. But what I have trouble explaining to people who don’t believe in dating is that in my culture, and in the culture of the majority of Americans, there simply is no way to get married if you do not date. If I decided right now that I do not want to have any more relationships before marriage…well, I would never get married! I have not yet found a way to diplomatically explain this cultural difference.
When you do get married, don’t forget to purchase some honeymoon underwears!
I still feel as though I don’t entirely understand exactly how finding a spouse works outside of my own culture. Several people in Tunisia have told me that they married a cousin, a childhood friend, a neighbor, or the son or daughter of a parent’s friend. I have heard about arranged marriages set up by parents or marriage counselors. One Tunisian man told me that he almost married a girl from the nearby city of Monastir, but she broke the engagement because she thought the culture in Sfax would be too foreign to her; he instead married his cousin. I want to ask more people how this works; but first I’ll need to think of a better way to explain the American version of dating for when the question is turned back to me!
Today my coworker painted my nails for me in alternating colors and with polka-dots. We had to hide in a classroom to do it so the director wouldn’t see us decorating our nails on the job; we’re pretty rebellious. It came out really well, I think:
My coworker told me that she is so dedicated to nail polish that she will remove it to pray and then put it right back on afterward, since prayer in Islam requires having clean hands and feet. But when she is menstruating, she says, she enjoys nail polish so much; women do not pray during menstruation because it is impossible to be clean enough, so the state of her fingernails is unimportant for one week each month.
Later today, the director of the school was asking me what kinds of things are forbidden by Christianity. I don’t know that much about types of Christianity beyond Protestantism, which in my experience doesn’t really forbid most actions, except really serious sins like murder or theft. But when it comes to the body, there are few requirements of what you consume or how you dress, at least as far as I know. Back in Chicago, I sometimes went to Friday prayer services with a Muslim friend, and found it very confusing that I had to plan my outfit beforehand in order to have all of my skin and hair covered even while moving through the bowing and kneeling motions of Muslim prayer. It’s harder than I would have thought!
Tomorrow is the first day of Ramadan (or, it might be, depending on the moon!) which means that eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity are forbidden during the day. In Tunisia, Morocco, across the Muslim world, and across the globe, Muslims will be in the same physical state of fasting from dawn to dusk. This will be my second year living in a Muslim country during Ramadan, and I intend to fast for the majority of it, as I did last year. Hopefully I can improve my understanding of Islam and how it incorporates the body; even if I do keep my nail polish on!