Place_Jamaa_al_FnaIt was my last night in Morocco, and I really wanted to hold my boyfriend’s hand. Now I had read and heard that in the Arab world where modesty is key, publicly displaying affection is unwelcome. But it was the last night that I would get to walk through those crowded narrow streets, curiously taking a glimpse at the sea of new faces that passed by, smelling things that I had never and would never smell in America, and seeing the most beautiful shade of blue that existed. I never thought that I would be only 23 when I first visited Africa. I was lucky to be there, and I never forgot that. In just a couple of nights, we had already made it a habit to take a stroll through the streets around 9pm, an hour or so before the famed open air market, Place Jam'aa Al Fnaa, closed.


But on this last night, we would walk hand in hand, and I would remember everything.  We strolled out of the riad -a traditional bed and breakfast style Moroccan house- where we were staying and wound our way through the quiet maze of cobblestone streets.  Once on a main road, the madina (city) immediately came alive in an explosion of sound, visual, and smell. It was a playground for the senses; monkeys, snake charmers, perfumed spices, enticing street food, and beautiful, beautiful people. But first things first: The next day we were leaving and we agreed to pay cash for our room bill. On a street adjacent to the Place, we got money from an ATM. After tucking the money securely in my front pocket, my moment arrived. I reached for my boyfriend’s hand. No sooner than we had connected, I heard in Arabic, what I could only assume was “What are you doing?” or “Stop That!” We looked to our right to see two very angry military police, eyes fixed squarely upon us. I had taken one semester of Arabic and done well, but I understood nothing of the Moroccan dialect.

Yet, it was perfectly clear what he had said. Furthermore, the riad owner told us that “mixed couples” were forbidden there. She even advised us to carry our passports, in case we needed to prove that we were Americans. And I definitely looked Moroccan, so I had been told, and as evident by the different shopkeepers’ and vendors’ many attempts to greet me and speak to me in Arabic. The issue, so we were told, -besides being about the general distaste for public displays- was about European tourists “hooking up” with Arab women. (In fact, for such a religious country, I’m not sure if a term like “hooking up” existed.) But for me, an African-American whose parents had lived through the American Civil Rights movement, this was racism, intolerance.  

Or at least that what it smelled like. Perhaps, religion was at the heart of it- the idea that Arab Muslims ought to marry other Arab Muslims, or at least other Muslims. But going back to the “mixed couples” thing, what constitutes a mixed couple? A "white" guy from the West certainly didn’t look Arab or Muslim. But my boyfriend is actually French with a grandfather from the Caribbean who is darker than me. And me, I’m a full-blooded American although I am constantly told that I look Ethiopian. But in Morocco, I was taken for a Moroccan. And my boyfriend, simply European. Perhaps, it was a religious thing, but there was certainly a racial aspect, i.e., the judgment of people based on a certain combination of skin color and facial features. Superficial assumptions.

NotMoroccanNot all Moroccans are Muslim. And not all people who look Moroccan are Moroccan. Likewise, not all Europeans are fully “white.” Categories based on physical features minimize people. We put others into boxes, and then we are uncomfortable when they don’t fit so neatly into those boxes. Even if I was a Moroccan woman, what does it matter if I want to date a tourist? What if he was a Muslim tourist? Does that make a difference? And isn’t this whole thing sexist? If I was an Arab man with a European woman tourist, would anyone say anything? Why do people always feel that women need to be protected?

My initial reaction was shock, then anger, and finally sadness, more anger, and indignation. In the middle of the streets of Marrakech, I cried. But I didn’t want “these people” to see me cry. What had been moments before, a vibrant people whose culture I was hell-bent on respecting-to the extent that I wore a head scarf on the first day- had suddenly become “those people.” The country that I had been so careful not to offend, had suddenly offended me. I lost my appetite.  I didn’t want to eat “their food” or spend money in “their economy.” I had spoken French, one of the official languages, the whole time to better fit in, but after this I quit. In between my sobs, I spoke English, loudly ranting about the injustice that took place in “their country.” “I am not Moroccan! I am not one of them!” I screamed. I was suddenly proud to be an American-something I had not felt in a while. I pointed to a button on my vintage, navy-style jacked. “U.S.,” it said.

It’s complicated. As an African American, our history set in slavery, revolt, struggle, and finally civil rights and social change, I was proud. We had done our struggle back home. Even if we still had socio-economic inequality, at least we didn’t have any laws that say you can’t do this or that because you are black or because you are female. I’ve lived almost all of my life in the south, a region known for its racist history, but never had I felt so blatantly discriminated against until now.

1968OlympicsI tried to hold my boyfriend’s hand again, but he wouldn’t let me. He said he didn’t want to end up at the embassy that night. I wanted to go back to where the cops were and let them see us. I wanted them to say something again so this time I could pull out my passport. “I’m American,” I would say. I would then add, rather snobbishly, “and we don’t have this kind of thing in my country!” When they took our liberty, we fought for it. We marched! Some of us were sprayed down with fire hoses powerful enough to rip the bark off a tree…or the hair out of an innocent girl’s scalp. In my head, I could see the black and white footage from the 1960s of non-violent protestors being attacked by police dogs. I could see the fists of two young black men in the air in acknowledgement of black pride, as they accepted the 1968  Olympic Gold and Silver medals and protested at the same time. I thought of Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X. I thought of Birmingham, once dubbed “Bombmingham” due to the number of bombs that were placed in hopes of discouraging the black struggle. I thought of the four little girls incident, the innocent victims of such bombs. All that and we still fought. We didn’t stand by and take the abuse. Many died for civil rights. I also thought of the women who were laughed at when they mentioned voting rights. I thought of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the sacrafices made so that other women could have rights. I thought of all those Americans who risked everything to demand rights and freedoms.

In my mind, I turned to the Moroccan people and asked “Where is your revolt?! You people let the police tell you whose hand you can hold? You let these puppets take from you the same types of freedoms we fought and died for in my country hardly 50 years ago. You allow discrimination? You are pathetic!” I thought. “And I am not one of you!”

I reached for my boyfriend’s hand again. He rejected me. He reminded me that I had been on my soap box earlier about “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  I was now eating those bitter words. But as bitter as they were, I’d rather swallow them and smack on their bitter, brackish after-taste, than tolerate racism or whatever “ism” was at hand here. Having dressed modestly through-out the trip, I decided that the next day, I would wear some “skimpy” Western clothing. I would speak only English, and before the night was over, I would ask, no, I would demand, that the Moroccans tell me why they tolerated this. Where is your revolt?” I would ask.

But was it really that simple? Racism, sexism, whatever “-ism,” they weren’t and still aren’t that simple in America. How could I expect it to be that simple anywhere else? My boyfriend reminded me how gay people are discriminated against in America. He reminded me of legislation against gay marriage and the military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He reminded me of anti-immigration legislation and border control, marketed under the guise of homeland security, but suspiciously effective at keeping the growing Mexican population at bay. He reminded me of George Bush’s Patriot Act which effectively took away our 14th amendment rights.

And then I understood. American social issues, although progressive, still have a long ways to go. That’s what makes us “progressive:” We aren’t there yet. We still have lots of progress to make before we can point at anyone else. And as the aforementioned examples demonstrate, we often take steps back.

Later on, I stopped crying. I was still shaken up and angry, but I came to my rational mind. We eventually went back to the riad. I was never happier to see Simon, the 17-year old Moroccan boy who was our host. Earlier during the trip, we had engaged him on Moroccan politics, social issues, and what he thought of things. (Just another reason to talk to local people while traveling.) It was with him that we learned that my ordeal wasn’t really a racial one, but a religious one, although I’m not sure if that made it any better. To me, it was just another type of discrimination. But it was comforting to know that a Moroccan person recognized how this could be unjust. As I reflected on things a little more, it occurred to me that perhaps it was my own racial thinking that led me to assume that our incident had something to do with race, since, in America, racial thinking is taught and reinforced as if it were a science... 

Simon even told me that we were targeted because that’s what some of the police there do: they pick out people who do petty crimes like pot-smoking or public display, and instead of sending people to jail, they demand money. In other words, it was a hustle, a way to make ends meet. And for some reason, something about that made the whole thing sit a little better with me: we all have to eat, right?

BerberVillageMorocco is a wonderful country bursting with culture and sensuous delights from the beautiful gnaoua music to delicious traditional cuisine like tagine and couscous to the pungent smell of spices that lights up the madina center. It is a place with its own cultural norms and traditions that have nothing to with our Western ones. And we should not expect them to.

It is also a place with a young, up and coming generation that does wish to embrace Western culture while, however, still holding on to their own values.  Whatever social change that comes out of today, it is a very exciting time for this country as it endeavors to find a balancing synergy between the social demands of both modernity and tradition.

In retrospect, I loved every part of my trip to Morocco. Having had an emotional journey as well as a physical one, I discovered things about myself and my own culture  as well as other people's culture. And that, fellow travelers, is the best kind of trip.



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