Just back from four or so days in Morocco with my friend Liz, a nice bit of sunshine to break up the winter gloom in these parts. We were lucky; when I left today it was completely overcast and I was told it had been cold and rainy last week, but there was nothing but cloudless blue skies and temperatures getting up to the low 20s when I was there.
This was my first time in Africa, and my second visit to a mainly Muslim country, after Turkey in 2008. We booked back in December, before the recent attacks in Paris, and as it got nearer to the time one or two people asked if it was really a good idea to visit right now. Personally I didn't feel it was any less safe to be there than here in Brussels. There's probably more chance of something happening on my everyday commute than on a trip to Marrakech, frankly. The main thing I was concerned about, especially as two women travelling together, was being hassled on the streets.
Marrakech was definitely dépaysant, as they say in French. Looking the word up online, it suggests 'exotic' as a translation, but I think it's more than that. Literally, you could translate it as de-countrying, if that was a word that existed in English. Something that takes you entirely outside the routines and cultural norms of where you're from (or live, in this case). It definitely feels that was as, walking down the narrow alleys of the medina, you have to watch out for everything from mopeds to donkeys coming the other way, often at high speeds.
While no doubt much is a performance staged for the benefits of the many tourists (even in January), visiting the medina and the souks almost feels like a glimpse back in time to how medieval cities would have functioned here as well as in Europe. Take away the motorbikes and cheap souvenirs and you're left with a chaotic, bustling, dirty, noisy, smelly marketplace that seems a lot closer to ancient traditions than our sanitised cities. Mixed up with the mass-produced junk, you can still see artisans crouched on the floor of their market stalls carving wood, hammering metal or sewing leather bags. We visited the tannery district where they still cure leather in vats of urine and spread it out on the ground to dry (this was glimpsed from afar since I made the mistake of wearing sandals out that day, and I was pretty thankful that a bad cold filtered out most of the odours).
I can definitely see the appeal for people looking for a completely different experience than they'd get at home in Europe (or America or wherever). It's inevitably not 100% authentic, but it didn't feel manufactured either. More a case of leveraging whatever was already there for the purposes of tourism.
But... that street harassment. For whatever reason, it seemed mostly fine the first couple of days. There is, of course, a never-ending stream of people calling out "Hello, hello, mademoiselle, hello, do you want to visit my shop? Where do you come from? Scarves, why not?" etc. etc. which can be irritating but in a reasonably low-level way. As a side-note, I'd love for the kind of men who say things like "if someone compliments you, you should say thank you" and "how can you be bothered be someone just saying hello or how are you?" to spend a couple of days in one of these sorts of places and see whether or not they get annoyed by not being able to walk around in peace.
And of course, while I assume men get the sales pitches, I imagine they're not the target of so many looks, "compliments" and annoying clicking and hissing noises, or of quite so many attempts to strike up conversation or follow you around - sometimes for quite some time.
But all of this was still the "low level" stuff. On the last two days, there were a couple of more unpleasant incidents. Minor, but on top of everything else they left a bad taste in my mouth. There was the guy who tried to talk to Liz and me for a few minutes as we were waiting to cross the street and finished up with "I will f@ck you if you want". Like, yeah, old (well, probably around mid-40s but very badly-preserved), toothless Moroccan guy, you'd really be doing me a favour. I was even more annoyed that I snapped back "f@ck you" and he laughed, since obviously getting a rise out of us was what he was looking for. But what do you do, if reacting doesn't work, but passively standing there in silence doesn't seem right either?
Then about 10 minutes later we were wandering around pretty lost and I could hear two guys walking behind us saying things like "Where is the square?" in English. I was a bit confused, since even without turning my head I could tell they weren't tourists, but one eventually caught up to us and said "Where is the square?". We just stood aside to make them go past us, and they laughed and said "they don't know where they're going" and somehow managed to drop back behind us again to keep following us. Which obviously didn't feel great since we did, in fact, have no idea whether we were headed in the right direction or getting further and further into a bland residential area with not so many people around and no signs to tell us where we were. (Thankfully, it turned out in the end that we were going the right way and we managed to get our bearings eventually, which is not easy in Marrakech, I can tell you!)
Liz left early Wednesday morning whereas my flight was on Thursday. I spent the day getting a massage and sunbathing on the hotel roof, but had to head out solo for some food at one stage. My basic strategy was to work with what my mum calls my "stone face" (aka resting bitch face) and just studiously ignore any attention I got. In the space of a few minutes, this earned a "bloody hell" from one guy, a "tu fais trop la guele" from someone else (roughly, you look too sulky) (#sorrynotsorry) and then as I was heading back to the hotel, someone going "hey beautiful, I like you" - and then as soon as I walked past without saying anything - "whore". Which just basically sums up street harassment the world over.
Now, I know these things probably sound petty and worse things happen in the world, but I'd had enough by this point. Since I had a late lunch, I ended up staying in the hotel room and going without dinner because I didn't want to head out alone after dark. Not really because I felt unsafe, but because I reckoned I'd probably get even more abuse or propositions. Which, you know, is not really the mark of jolly fun times if you feel like you can't leave your hotel room for fear of harassment. Plenty of people we met were nice and welcoming and, which I value more, even had a laugh with us and (in other words) treated us as equal human beings, but the percentage who think it's fine to hassle female tourists was just too high for me in the end.