I have three new coping mechanisms:
1) In the morning, I take a taxi for two minutes and pay five dirhams instead of walking to school. I find that by slipping through the streets in the back seat of a turquoise taxi, I can avoid the gazes. I also no longer arrive in the morning dripping in sweat from walking up the 75 rainbow colored stairs of my morning commute.
2) When walking, I count how many comments, looks, and gestures I receive. It somehow has made it more tangible, and also distanced myself from it. "It" is happening to "me" not to the real me. A one-minute walk down the block alone to get money out of an ATM received: 3 verbal engagements, 2 different full-body glances, and 1 time when I considered crossing to the other side of the street.
3) I talk about sexual harassment. I try not to shy away from it. I try not to keep it a shameful secret that is poisoning my day and sucking away all my emotional energy. Tangier is a man’s playground, but I’m not alone in being one of the toys.
Since writing my last post, there have been a few upheavals.
My host sister read my blog post on Facebook, my host mother and sisters stopped speaking to me for 48 hours straight and glared at me whenever I walked past them to use the bathroom, and I have since moved into a new family.
This is definitely not a situation of clear cut "right" or "wrong." I wrote about my host family and published it on a public platform without telling them nor asking for their permission—something that I am currently reflecting on deeply. Writing “about” can be deeply damaging. It can be a poor reflection of the truth. It is filtered through my own emotional landscape and idiosyncratic perspective. I was living with my host family during summer, when the girls are off from school and relaxing whereas they work hard during the school year. I saw only a sliver of their lives. It caused harm: in a Moroccan context, something that I have had explained to me since then, you do not discuss the private world to the public eye. I hurt my host mother and sisters unintentionally and, in a way, that I never expected. I can only speak for myself. I only ever intended to speak for myself.
Since then, I’ve been stuck in an internal dialogue of questions:
What happens when you write “about” someone as a part of your own personal experience? What happens when you live in a place and feel suffocated by the norm? What happens when you name a problem in a society that is not yours? What happens when that society envelops you and includes you (and therefore excludes you)? How do you move beyond any sort of liberal paralysis that tells you not to speak for others, that you are only a guest in this context, yet you're lead by a gut feeling that something is wrong? And how do you say in Arabic, “It was never my intention to cause any harm”?
Words are immensely powerful. They can both create and destroy: they destroyed a relationship with my host family, and they created a community. Upon posting that piece, a wave of kindness reached out to me: other female friends who have traveled and lived in Morocco echoed similar sentiments, the other women on my program and I began to have many conversations about our experiences, and some of the men on our program have stepped up to be supportive and now walk with me to the cornerstore to buy water without me even asking.
Words destroy. And words create. And so of course, it is now that I return to words.
I walked into a bookstore searching for Fatima Mernissi’s memoir and was greeted by a curated table of books that were all feminist texts: Simone de Beauvoir’s Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), the complete works of Fatima Mernissi, Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, and other titles that were unfamiliar to me. After absorbing the haven at my fingertips, I meandered over to the woman working in the store and asked her about the book I’m looking for. The sweet woman swapped between French and Arabic with me, telling me that she didn’t have the memoir but suggests that I read Mernissi’s other books. Upon telling her that I’ve read them all, she laughed with her co-worker who said, “She’s read everything!” She then picked up a different book and passed it to me. Les Contes Libertins du Maghreb— “It will make you laugh, and cry. It’s short stories, traditionally oral stories from Moroccan and Algerian women that have been recorded by the author. They are critical but will also amuse you.”
Upon gratefully buying the book, promising to return to report back to her, she asked me and my friend to sit for a coffee outside. We did, and while sipping an espresso, she shared her life story, unprompted by us. Born in a small village in the countryside, her parents tried to marry her to a 50-year-old man. “His son was the same age as me, he was in my class.” She refused, and since then has left her family and lives in the city. She studied literature and now has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature and works in the bookstore. She shared that her sister, the sister that she witnessed being born, is now 20 years old and has two children. One is five years old. Upon doing the math, I repeated back to her in Arabic, “Five years old?”
“Yes, she was 15 when she was married.”
Her eyes were gleaming with frustration. We began speaking about life for Moroccan women in Tangier specifically, she said it’s much better here than in the village. But it’s still hard. It’s still hard to go out alone places. We made plans to meet again, for a coffee, for a drink, for an exchange of books, for company in a search for solitude.
So, with excitement, I returned home that night and opened up the book. It was wonderfully lewd! It was fabulously crude! It was full of short stories that are repeated around kitchen tables, as jokes, as hearsay, as moral lessons. The author, Nora Aceval, spent over twenty years collecting these oral stories from the Algerian High Plains, where she grew up.
My favorite story goes like this:
A jealous husband made a list of over 100 potential ruses that his wife can use on him to cheat. An old woman comes to visit the wife and tells her that there are many men—handsome, rich, and kind—who have heard of her beauty and want to be with her. The wife cries out that it is impossible, her husband’s list of tricks is infallible. The old woman laughs and tells her, “He forgets that the list of women’s ruses is infinite.” The old woman then proceeds to help the young woman by throwing dirty water on her one day while her and her husband are walking past her window on the way to the hammam. The old woman apologizes profusely and offers to wash the young woman’s veil. The husband waits outside. Inside the old woman’s house is the most beautiful man, and the young woman and the man cavort while the old woman washes her veil and offers the husband a coffee.
(Translated summary of Le répertoir, Aceval 2017, pp. 67-69)
The stories break your heart and make you laugh and cry all at the same time. The context that these women find themselves in is not necessarily favorable: traditions dictate limitations that can have violent and disastrous effects on women’s lives (i.e. jealous and controlling husbands, not being a virgin at marriage), but those limits are broken down spectacularly by the ingenuity and humor and trickiness and communal strength of women who assert their power and claim their own space and autonomy. Women find strategies and games and stories to cope with their lives in constricted spaces. We contort, we seek joy, we hold our ground. We are creative, we stretch the limits, we cross borders, we expand together until the world feels big enough to breathe in. We always do. We always will.
My friend at the bookstore was apt with her recommendation. I’ve already returned to buy the second one in the series from her and make plans for another coffee together to discuss feminism in Morocco.
So now, I’m trying to be a vessel of empathy and absorb stories in order to share them—with permission. I’m drawing a boundary between myself and the world around me. It’s how I’m coping.