“Listen, it was your decision to follow us all the way here. We didn’t ask for your help. We did tell you we had no money to give you. We made that very clear.”
The scrawny, misshapen-faced young man with the limp handshake stared back at you, feeling the sting of your candor.
“That’s not very nice of you,” he said.
Firm. “I’m sorry if it isn’t nice. It’s simply true.”
Before you could finish, he’d spun off, unwilling to waste anymore time one you. Good riddance.
“I don’t like that,” Katie whined.
“Come on. We were warned. We knew that was going to happen. We can’t let him guilt-trip us.”
On you went, to Cafe Marsa, where you had been instructed to meet your host at 7pm. You still had two hours to kill.
You spent the first 30 minutes walking aimlessly with your bags, taking it all in. The difference between Morocco and Spain was striking and immediate. It didn’t take long for you to determine that you were the only two women on the street—save one extremely mentally ill lady carrying a rock. Just men: old, young, modern, traditional, sitting, walking—and all staring at you as you walked on.
But hey, you’d stare too, if you saw two tough, confident chicks hoofing it up a hill with backpacks as big as yours.
A few people asked for money and offered you services you didn’t want. You ignored them.
After one skinny, middle-aged fuck walking in your direction pursed his lips at the sight of you, make loud squeaky-sucky-kissy noises, and hissed. Gross.
You decided yourself completely unable to navigate the dense streets and decided to return immediately to the Cafe Marsa and was the 90 minutes there, praying that your host, Abdel, would find you on time.
Katie suggested that you occupy a bench in a small strip of public “park” nestled between two streets. From there, you sat in the sun and observed the people. Most people stared at you. Some winked. Some just smiled. Three grimey dudes sat near you for half an hour, one of which did not look away.
You began to tally the number of men who acknowledged you with more than a look; that is to say, if they winked, flirted, made cheeky comments or did anything else other than stare with general curiosity, you marked it down, noting age, dress, appearance, and other things. There was no pattern, barring the number of audacious youngsters.
A 12-year-old boy winked at you like a young man on the prowl.
“Kids these days!” you exclaimed, laughing at him as he continued while still gazing at you and Katie over his shoulder, a wide grin on his face.
The longer you waited, the more comfortable you became. You began to notice patterns. Groups of women walking together, usually in threes, often with kids, and just as often in the company of one man. There were pairs and triples of younger men who touched openly, hanging on each other in a manner that would suggest homosexuality if you had been back in The States.
All very interesting.
Abdel arrived ten minutes early, and to your great surprise, had procured a friend–Mohammad–with a little delivery van capable of seating four and taking your bags in the back.
He giggled a lot. Almost uncontrollably. You felt immediately at ease, even though you had no idea where you were going and you soon realized that communication would be a struggle. Though you French is actually quite good now, you are lost in any attempt to understand the Arab accent in French. So you would speak French to them and they would reply in English, and you suspected 80% of all was actually comprehended.
You made small talk. Thanked them many times over for hosting you, for helping you get your feet wet in a very foreign land with stark cultural differences: hijab, pushy salesmen, stalking taxi drivers, lookey-loos, indifference to garbage, touchey buddies, “creative” driving, non-latin alphabet, and sweet homeless-looking guys who buy you candy from 50 feet away.
“We just feel like…” Targets? Bulls-eyes? Sore thumbs? So unbelievable not from there.
You made commentary on how different it all felt. And how it felt like you were much the only white chicks in town.
Then. A girl. Long hair, adorable spring dress, hitting half-way down the thigh. Little hand bag. Pretty.
“Hey! There’s a tourist!” it was either you are Katie.
Abdel turned in his seat and said, “She is prostitute.”
You then learned that in Tangier, women out without hijab, wearing little dresses and done up in a manner much like a young Californian girl prepared for a summer picnic… they were hookers.
Suddenly clarity knocked you back in your seat. Awestruck. Wow. “That… that just explains so much.” Your experiences hitchhiking came flooding back.
Girls standing on the side of the road are far more likely to be a prostitute than they are to be a hitch hiking backpacker. You say this because in the multiple years of hitchhiking you have noticed that they outnumber naïve female backpackers 10:1. You have cramped some girl’s style several times trying to obtain a lift in the same spot she obtains her clients.
But… but… “Clearly I look like a backpacker!” you’d say in your defense.
“It doesn’t matter,” replied the generic voice of reason.
You’d been solicited for sex on numerous occasions by Turkish guys while hitch hiking—mostly in Eastern Europe. Those “creepy Turkish truck drivers” everyone always warned you about… it wasn’t a groundless stereotype. They really did hope that their backpack-clad young passenger might feel an occasion to sell her body. But in the end, they’d been a non-threat. They’d simply asked. And when you refused, they let the matter rest.
“When you see a girl and she doesn’t wear the hijab, she is prostitute,” Abdel reiterated.
“Do people think we’re prostitutes?” Katie asked.
He giggled and smiled. “No! No, of course not. You are not Moroccan girl. You are tourist.”
You let the matter rest. Allowed Abdel and Mohammed to drive you all over the city. To show you a family recreation park, buy you delicious sweet mint tea, lead a promenade before a fire-pink sunset over the water, arrested in a web of clouds.
Mohammed: “Like fish? We invite you.”
To the harbor. To the fish market. To the place were no tourists go. To chaos.
“Oh my god,” you muttered, trying not to gag on decades-old fish smell. “Some health inspector would have a field day in here.”
The fresh catch of the day lie at your feet, on sheets of newspaper, or on pallets directly on the cement. Men shouted in Arabic over each other, holding fish, eel, shark, and everything else by the ends of hooked fingers, waggling slimey bodies before your eyes.
You toddled behind your hosts, afraid to lose sight of them in the throngs of men and women and children. They led you to a covered area of the market, where you saw a very old, very faded health and safety guidelines sign mounted against a tile column. You looked away from it, and confirmed with Katie that you were they only women in the vast room.
Abdel and Mohammed allowed you to take it on in, before leading you down a dark alley, where you assumed you’d find mountains of trash and stacked pallets. You did. And then you turned a corner and saw the lively secret line of fried shrimp, calamari, and fish restaurants. Whole families, groups of friends, crowded around little plastic tables and threw heaps of fishy debris over paper table cloths as everyone dug into a mountain of fried seafood. They chased with Coca-Cola.
“I can wait to travel to Asia,” you’d once said to Katie. “Then I can learn to eat things that scare me.” Okay, it wasn’t Asia, but it was scary. You picked through eyeballs, brains, and bones for the better part of an hour, licking greedily at your fingers and feeling very happy about a belly crammed full of fish. When all was done, you waited in a long line for a plastic water pump where the locals washed their hands and rinsed their mouths. Everyone discarded everything on the ground. You pocketed your used tissue, unable to break years of training as a non-litterer.
Mohammed and Abdel ushered you back into the car and took you on a very long, very extensive tour of Tangier and the surrounding area. A graveyard. A lookout point. A beach cafe. Downtown. And the market.
Tangier on a Saturday night was probably the most exotic thing you’ve seen in years, and here’s why:
There were only men. Yeah, okay, there were some women. Mostly wives walking in the company of their husbands, and a few older women sitting on carts and blankets and newspaper, selling vegetables and mixed clothing. Other than that… only men. Young and old, crowded in sports “bars” (more like cafes), milling through shops, grouping around other men who stood on crates or walls and peddled things like shirts for the nightclub.
And there were prostitutes. Hookers are everywhere, but you usually have to go looking for one. In Tangier, they stood outside of clubs in little gold mini skirts and flat platinum hair, waggling their backsides, and basically serving as ornaments for the door.
“Do women go to the clubs?” you asked Abdel.
“Yes,” he said. “But only if they are prostitute. Men go and get drunk and they can look for one.”
“Is she a prostitute?” Katie asked, pointing to a lovely young woman exiting from the back of a car.
“Of course,” said Abdel.
You both gasped, realizing that she was “getting off work,” as she wiped gingerly at the corners of her mouth. A blowjob, you learned, cost about 10 bucks.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life,” Katie said. “I’ve just never seen so many men in one place. Where are all the women?”
“They are at home.”
“Do they ever go out to the clubs?”
Abdel giggled. “Of course not.”
“So like, on a Saturday night, women have little parties for their female friends at home and play board games or something?”
Something like that. Unless they’re hookers. And the prostitutes, you learned, might sell their bodies for a decade or so, until they become too old. “Then they have no money for retirement,” said Mohammed. “Many of them become this—au pair. Look after the children.”
“We are in Tangier all night,” Abdel said. “Almost all the questions you have are about prostitute! He laughed. “Why?”
“Because we’re women!” you balked. He talked about these women so normally, with no vein of disapproval or disgust in his voice. He simply stated the facts. And later, in his home, as he showed you pictures of his friends and family, you inquired about a few lovely young women.
“She is prostitute,” he said, and flicked to another picture.
Is he joking?
You couldn’t tell.
Later, another picture. “Is she a prostitute?” you asked.
No, really. He must be joking!
You still couldn’t tell. You have no radar for sarcasm, but it seemed the Abdel had no tendencies toward it. He was a simple, sweet, honest guy. He lived alone in a very large apartment in a building that reminded you of a Communist block, in which the stairwells were littered with debris and had no interior lighting.
Abdel had to light the way to his fourth floor apartment with the screen of his mobile. He opened a thick steel gate that led to his hallway, and then unlocked his apartment—which was totally bare. No furniture in the main room. Just one large prayer mat.
Another room contained only shoes and a few discarded boxes. Another room had a dingy couch, a glass coffee table, and a TV. His bedroom was sparsely furnished. Then there was the toilet, the WC, and the kitchen. And everything—everything—was covered in a thick layer of crumbs, cigarette ash, and grime. The floor around the toilet, mottled with urine. The bowl, streaked with feces. The bathroom sink, peppered with bits of stubble from shaving. The mirror, splattered with water, toothpaste, and everything else. You’ll avoid describing the kitchen.
You were afraid to touch things. You couldn’t relax. Couldn’t sit. Couldn’t do anything to make yourself feel comfortable in all that filth. And you wondered—he’s a 30-year-old man living alone. Why does he not keep his living space clean?
“In the USA,” Katie reflected, “If you’re a bachelor, you learn that it is in your best interest to keep your place clean. That way, if you bring a girl home, she doesn’t think you’re a total slob and you can get laid. I guess that’s not how things work here. I don’t know. Maybe he’s used to living with his mother or something. I have no idea.”
Trying to understand Moroccan men proved to be a challenge. Abdel did not communicate very much with you, and it wasn’t exactly do to a lack of ability. Mohammed, also, was a man of few words—married, with kids. But he seemed content to chauffeur you all around Tangier, and you watched uncomfortably as the fuel gauge read less and less. Once upon a time, you’d been invited on a ride-along in Spain—only to be heavily billed at the end. Left a bitter taste in your mouth. And less trust.
You need thorough communication, and you just weren’t getting it. On that first night, your eyelids dropped and your heads nodded, but the men had an agenda. You were gonna see all of Tangier, even if it was in the dark. Tired or not.
You have no hard feelings. You saw it all. And they clearly weren’t about to bill you. But money they spent on you became ever greater, and with it, your feelings of anxiety about being out of exchange. It’s very difficult for you to unshackle yourself from your Western feminist independence and accept the generosity of others. When you spoke with Bilal, you asked him how offensive it would be to offer money back to someone in such a case. He’d said that it’s mildly rude. You did it anyway.
“When you are in California, you do things your way,” Mohammed said to you. “But now you are in Morocco.”
–where hospitality comes before all else.