|The streets of Fes can be an unpleasant place if you enter them unprepared for what's coming your way.|
After the tenth time in a single day, this pesky chatter could start to feel slightly annoying, but in general, living with it was easy. Smiling, I would either shrug it off or greet them back in Arabic. They never seemed to pursue the conversation much after that. And in truth, their bantering just blended in with the hubbub of the medina. In quaint, still-medieval Fes, what wasn't to love?
* * *
If we had left after a week or two at most, as all the tourists do, that's where it would have ended.
But we settled in, and after a few weeks, the honeymoon phase gradually petered out.
Soon, Fes took on a harder edge. Or maybe with each day we stayed, I simply grew more sensitive, more critical, less patient. Where early on it had been easy to forgive the street kids' jeering, it now started to get inside my head, increasing even more my anger and sensitivity.
With Jacqueline, things grew even worse, and remain so today. Young guys on a street corner stop their conversation and stare blatantly as she passes. Whether she wears jeans or a jellaba makes no difference. Yet more insulting are the lewd phrases in English or French that they sometimes mutter to her. Some even try to deliver their vile messages in close proximity, by approaching her, grabbing her arm, and leaning close to whisper in her ear.
To be sure, catcalling takes place in American and European cities every day—albeit to a lesser degree—and everyone has felt their gaze pulled toward an attractive pedestrian now and then. But at least back home, there exists some respect for the boundaries of a relationship; hardly anyone would dare catcall a woman walking arm-in-arm with her boyfriend/fiancé/husband. So here in Fes, the fact that men and boys in the street make absolutely no effort to contain their perversion when I walk beside Jacqueline, holding her hand, makes my blood boil even hotter. The constant insults to our dignity hurt enough, but the icing on the cake is the realization that, short of never leaving the house, we are so powerless to stop them.
* * *
The futility hit home for me one day in January, when I decided to accompany Jacqueline on a jog. She was preparing for a half-marathon to take place this spring in Rabat, but finding the streets of Fes an inhospitable training ground. I hate running, but thought (naively) that if joined her, the jeers and catcalls and stopped-right-in-his-tracks stares would lessen.
After that day's run, I wished I hadn't accompanied her. The stares and comments were as frequent as ever, Jacqueline confirmed. Even a group of 10-year old girls had cackled and mimicked us. I was happier before I knew how bad it really was. Now when she runs, I usually stay home. Waves of guilt wrench my old-fashioned, chivalrous side every time Jacqueline puts on her loose, full-body running clothes and headphones. Strong willed as always, she insists she's fine on her own, but we both know the outfit won't discourage all the men's stares, nor the music block out all their words.
* * *
There is an ugly, nasty side to humanity. I knew this already, before I arrived in Fes. I knew that human failings—envy, insecurity, racism, ignorance, and countless others—could draw out this dark core of some people. Every day I wonder what it is, precisely, that makes so many boys and men here behave with such disrespect and contempt for us. Jacqueline and I ponder this question frequently, and discuss theories with our friends:
Judging by appearances, we could be French, and we do speak the language. Maybe that makes us the former colonizer, the hated national enemy.
Political animosity could be a factor in this day and age. In January there were street demonstrations throughout Morocco over the Gaza crisis, with youths cursing Israel and America for pointlessly killing yet more Palestinian civilians.
So many Westerners who come to the Muslim world each year do so as missionaries, ignorantly assuming that Muslims want to be "saved" by the Gospel. Many probably find this attitude insulting. In addition, Muslims feel the animosity that emanates toward them and their faith from the Christian world. It leaves many of them feeling defensive, misunderstood, and excluded.
In Morocco, cultural and religious norms prohibit sex before marriage, but for a man, marrying requires the ability to financially support a wife and children. In today's economic conditions, many men do not reach this stage until middle age. Before that, their only outlets for their repressed hormones may be prostitutes and Western women.
The Moroccan government officially quotes the unemployment rate as "under ten percent" but it is likely higher, and the depth of the problem masked by significant underemployment, especially among younger generations. As a result, many jobless youths loiter in the streets, bored, desperate, and perhaps resentful of others' wealth.
In the last decade, the advent of satellite television has brought warped visions of opulence abroad into the salon of nearly every Moroccan family. But the income gap is visible even in the city's streets. In Fes's old medina, jet-setting tourists and foreign riad owners flaunt their wealth in front of the poorest locals, a dangerous divide I discussed in a recent post (see Two Tales of a City: The Realities of Tourism in Fes). My visit to Rabat, Morocco's more affluent capital, last weekend was surreal; without the constant heckling that follows me in Fes, I felt strangely invisible.
Cultural Conservatism and Pride?
Some residents may resent the rich outsiders who are buying up their traditional homes and madrasas, adding modern, Western fixtures and converting them to hotels. If this loss of heritage were not insult enough, the tourism industry also brings alcohol, sex, and other vices to Fes. (Sex tourism is an under-documented but thriving sector in Morocco.) Some may also resent foreign visitors for intermingling with and marrying young locals, disrupting the city's once tightly knit social fabric.
I doubt the street harassment is a simple phenomenon with one simple answer. When some young guy in an alleyway starts heckling Jacqueline and me, it's difficult to discern his motives. Is he just bored? Practicing his English or French? Desperate to get laid? Does he just want a few dirhams? Or is he really trying to degrade our dignity, to avenge some injustice by knocking us down a notch?
* * *
Whatever the reasons behind this behavior, it makes life in the medina unpleasant. We tried moving to a new neighborhood, but that made little difference. Now, in order to cope I rush around with my head down, ignoring everything that is said to me. Thus, the harassment has done more than just taint daily life here in Fes. It has also made me miss out on opportunities to meet new friends—the surprise acquaintances with locals that made my time in Syria and Jordan so rewarding.
To be sure, Jacqueline and I have met some very warm, nice people in Fes, but only through official channels—Arabic class, renting apartments, etc. In her valuable Culture Smart! Morocco guide, author Jillian York sheds some light on why our relationships may be confined in this way:
"There is a huge contrast between public and private behavior. On the street, the rule is everyone for themselves—being there invites attention, and in Moroccan society staring at or approaching a stranger is not considered rude. If you're a woman on the street, you're fair game. ... In a culture with such an emphasis on family, it is no surprise that there isn't much value placed on the civil treatment of strangers. Strangers are not people one owes anything to, and so it is not considered necessary to be polite to, say, shopkeepers or café waiters."
(Or foreigners who have come here to learn your language and culture, apparently.)
The temptation to embrace cynicism is strong. I have tried to keep from being discouraged, from letting the harassment ruin my time here in Fes. Some recent outdoor activities have helped me cope: climbing Jebel Zalagh, skiing near Ifrane, and playing beach soccer in Rabat. Cooking projects and dinner parties with our new friends Jon and Jen are effective releases, as was last month's retreat to Paris. On days when the heckling really gets to me, I hole up inside, surfing the internet or watching movies, trying to escape the here and now.
Of course, I don’t want be so affected by the harassment that I constantly resort to "escapes." Nor do I want to hold such a low opinion of Fes, or Morocco's culture or society. After all, I came to Morocco excited to explore the country, learn more about the culture, and interact with Moroccans. Today, to hear myself sit around and complain about this place is depressing. It makes me feel ignorant, intolerant, Republican.
I still hope to appreciate this country and its people the way I appreciate the other places I've lived. On the bright side, I have 11 more months to learn how to do that.