It hasn’t escaped me that at this very moment I probably look homeless…
|Note: I left my camera in the hotel in Marrakesh. It's being shipped back, |
but I'm grateful to Dalia Farah for allowing me to use her photos in order to complete my post.
Seven months ago, I would have never even considered sleeping overnight on the floor of Madrid International Airport or any public building for that matter. Tonight, however, I’m doing it for the third time and it has occurred to me that I’m actually finding it increasingly easier to blend in. For example, tonight I’m just another young traveler, hippie type, sleeping on linoleum to save money and time, while patiently waiting for my early morning flight. With Indian scarves and Indonesia sarongs thrown over our heads to keep out the light and passports and money secured tightly against our bodies to guard from the night time pickpockets that troll these parts, another traveler and I share a wall space with an outlet and arrange our bodies in a manner that camouflages our charging laptops, iPhones and iPads. This is yuppie style homelessness circa 2011 and I’m learning to blend with my surroundings.
Tomorrow, when the airport turns all the lights back on to full strength and security gently nudges those who haven’t gotten the hint that it’s time to “look normal”, I will wake and join the women in the restroom washing and changing into whatever appropriate attire is required for the next leg of their journey. This time is different though…
Having spent so much time in Spain trying to get well while juggling sightseeing and tourist demands, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that my next stop, country number thirty-two, is Morocco. I mean, I knew I was going to Marrakesh, but I didn’t really think about the details. Morocco is a North African, Muslim country and I am a female; there are rules to engagement when traveling to countries like this and up until this moment I hadn’t even thought about it. Crap!! Where is my head?! Pulling out my laptop, I immediately started searching. What should I wear? Do I need to cover my head? What about my arms and legs? Can I wear pants?
The first website I Googled, suggested that I purchase a Jelaba, throw it over my clothing and wear it as soon as I leave the airport. It was too late for that so I searched more and found a women’s travel forum where other women advised that modest dress, which consisted of ankle length skirts, no pants, and long sleeve shirts, was a must for women traveling alone through Morocco. This wasn’t my first time in a Muslim country and in general, modest clothing is a rule of thumb for all females traveling solo wherever you are in the world, so I was okay with these suggestions. The no pants and ankle length skirts thing, however, threw me for a loop and I began to worry because I had nothing packed to fit the bill. Opting for a long sleeve, turtleneck tunic over jeans, I changed my clothing and checked in to my flight hoping that I could still blend in.
Let’s be honest… As a black, American, female traveling alone, I rarely blend in completely with the people around me and have learned to live with the stares, questions, random hands reaching out to touch my hair and all the other oddities that go with people trying to “get to know me.” Having long ago given up the notion that I can fade into the scenery, I now opt for being me, in full color, packed with an understanding of my principals and the cultural norms of my host country. To me, showing reverence for your host country’s customs is the cornerstone of blending in.
For the last seven months, I’ve been so in tune with the changing customs and culture of people from one country to another, that I actually get mad when I see western tourists who travel and disregard “the rules.” Seeing booty shorts and tight leggings with spaghetti tanks on the flight to Marrakesh enrages me. When people leave their home and visit another country expecting to act the same because of their status, I see red. In more cases than not, the locals are kind and will give tourists leeway in terms of not understanding all of their customs, but to flagrantly disregard the easiest and most widely accepted standards is a slap in the face. Occasionally you see the same scenario in India, the same in Malaysia, and the same thing in temples, mosques and cathedrals across the world where these same tourists become angry when they aren’t allowed to enter and I walk past with a smile. Idiot!
As the flight lands and I make my way to my hotel, I am absolutely beside myself in wonder. The dessert sand and camels along the side of the road are such an odd juxtaposition to the palm trees, modern red clay buildings, fountains, and contemporary stores of the city in which we are headed. The snowcapped High Atlas Mountains in the background make for an even stranger painting, but I enjoy the contrast. The sun is shining brightly and I’m hotter than hell in all these layers, but I think I’m going to love it here and I can’t wait to get out and explore. However, first I need food and a real nap; not necessarily in that order.
Once I checked into the hotel and got comfortable, I crashed. It was dark outside when I finally woke up, so the hotel ordered me food and I waited in their formal restaurant which they opened for me only. This is my first lesson in the inexhaustibility of Moroccan hospitality and lesson two was on its way…
While sitting alone in the empty, large restaurant among low, dark, wooden Moroccan tables and booths crammed with lustrously colored pillows, the waiter from the hotel’s restaurant at their other property, Samil, enters bringing my food. “I saw you enter the hotel earlier and you look so happy,” he says excitedly while destroying the blanket of quietness, “The British don’t smile, so you must be American!”
“Yes,” I respond giggling; his energy is infectious.
“I love Americans!” he proclaims, clapping and then throwing his hands in the air. He immediately reminds me of Balki from the 1980’s sitcom Perfect Strangers and I’m not surprised when he sits down and talks to me for my entire meal telling me about the landscape, things I should see, and places I should visit while in Marrakesh.
|The hustle and bustle of the souks|
“Samil, I’m concerned that I don’t have appropriate clothing and I don’t want to be offensive. Should I buy a jelaba tomorrow?” I ask towards the end of the meal.
“Oh my goodness,” he replies rolling his eyes and chuckling. “Maybe a decade ago! Marrakesh isn’t like that anymore,” he continues, educating me about the new family laws that King Mohamed 6 created giving women more power and rights as civilians and individuals. “Now you will find four types of women: those dressed entirely in traditional attire and covered completely, those who dress modestly and wear hijabs, those who dress modestly but don’t cover their head, and those who do whatever they want. I, personally, think the short skirts and high, high heels are too much, but it’s their choice,” he says.
Let’s be honest… Everything I thought I knew about Islamic culture I learned in the U.S. I learned it through television. I learned it through superficial interaction with Muslims while in college and I learned it by reading. This, however, was the second time I had actively engaged a young, Muslim in a conversation about their faith and everything I was learning was in direct contradiction to what I thought I knew. So, over the next few days I set out to see and experience modern day Morocco with my own eyes.
|At the tanneries! Photo courtesy of Abdel Jalil|
My first day out, I joined a tour in order to get outside of the city and see the surrounding areas. The tour took me to the Jardin Menara, along the outer wall of the medina and also along Ave Mohammed V up to Koutoubia Mosque within the medina. I saw the Royal Theatre and the Palace of Congress on that route. I also drove through La Palmeraie, an area north of Marrakesh that consists of palm trees as far as the eye can see. It’s so beautiful that expensive resorts, golf courses, and equestrian centers have begun to muddle the backdrop and I’m happy to have seen it now before it becomes over commercialized. I finished my day by rambling through the souks at Place Jemaa El Fna and getting both lost and overcharged at every turn.
Thankfully, my friends in London hooked me up with one of their friends in Marrakesh, Jalil. So on the second day, I connected with him and I was able to re-explore the souks and the Old Town neighborhoods in depth. If I said I wanted to see it, then he made it happen. Jalil guided me through the different areas of the souks, helped me by negotiating prices for things I wanted and took me to the leather tanneries, which were fantastic and uber smelly. I work in fashion production, but seeing first-hand how the skins were cured in pidgeon poop and lye gave me a new appreciation for people in my industry. Experiencing these types of off the beaten path places is one of the benefits of traveling with someone from that country. Not only did I see things that wouldn’t have been on anyone’s tour, but I ate in places in would have NEVER gone into by myself.
|Jalil carving wood. Photo courtesy of Rachel Moyse.|
Many Muslims are essentially just travelers moving through a time period where they each have to negotiate changing international customs and cultures. As such, they are learning to live with the stares, questions, random hands reaching out to touch their hijabs and all the other oddities that go with people trying to “get to know them.” Having given up the notion that they can fade into the scenery, they have now opted for being themselves, in full color, packed with an understanding of their faith and the world’s shifting norms. These are modern Muslims circa 2011 and they too are learning to blend with their surroundings.