I rush through the darkened streets of Fez’s medina in a haze. It’s starting to get late. Not too late that I shouldn’t be out, but late enough that it’s a bad idea to walk alone. Most of the shops have closed up by now, though a few cigarette and chocolate vendors will operate their little hanoots for a few more hours. The narrow streets are cast in a heavy yellow glow emanating from electric lamps hanging from jutted stone protrusions. I’m lost in thoughts whirling through my head. Not watching where I’m going.
A wiry man sidles up next to me. “Hello. Everything’s okay?”
“Yeah everything’s fine.” I look ahead and see that the coming street is dark and empty, while the road I just walked down has one or two open hanoots.
“You have somewhere to stay? Come with me, my friend.” He motions towards me.
“No, I’m okay. I’m fine. Goodbye.” I turned around and walk back to the closest hanoot, staring at off-brand Oreo cookie without really looking at the cookie. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him double back and walk behind me. My shoulders tense up.
“Goodbye!” His shouted word turns my head and the heads of other nearby men towards the source. He’s staring right at me as he marches up the street I came. “Goodbye!” he spits again, venomously. I feel like I’ve hurt his feelings, but I don’t go after him. Instead, I call Ishaq and ask if he can wait for me outside our hotel so we can walk outside together tonight.
Another story. Ishaq and I are navigating Fez’s twisted paths during daytime. We’ve spent the afternoon verbally boxing with shopkeepers who’re trying to coax a few extra dirhams out of our pockets. This time, we’re absolute bargaining machines. We just purchased some truly beautiful art for an almost criminally-low price.
A man calls out Ishaq’s name. Ishaq recognizes him and starts to weave his way quickly though the crowded streets. It’s someone who makes their living “guiding” tourists around the city and then demanding money afterwards. I follow him until we’re stopped in the middle of the street by a pot-bellied shopkeeper wearing a yellowish gallaba (robe).
“Hello! Come into my shop! See what we have to offer you!” I refuse, but the man grabs Ishaq’s hand and pulls him in. I’m standing outside as the “guide” reappears and tries to talk to me. Ishaq motions to come into the shop. I enter and the owner whispers to us, “Just wait here for a little while. He’ll leave soon.” I had completely misconstrued his intentions.
Harassment isn’t an issue on which I, as a heterosexual male, can authoritatively speak. I don’t understand what it’s like to be verbally harassed, something that happens to one of my friends at least five times a day. I don’t understand what it’s like to be followed on the tram or the streets but a curious, but creepy, Moroccan. And I don’t understand what it’s like to feel the stares of a row of men as you walk by a male-only café in metropolitan Agdal.
I do know, however, that while harassment might be more personal here, sexualization is not unique to this country or this culture. One of my friends told me about how she was repeatedly catcalled by police officers in the Bronx while working as a Red Bull girl. American reality TV portrays vapid and shallow celebrities known only for their looks. Victoria’s Secret billboards broadcast an unhealthy and damaging perception of women’s beauty over Times Square.
And not all Moroccans harass. Some of my peers have formed close friendships and even respectful relationships with Moroccan men. My own experience with Moroccans has been overwhelmingly positive: from the humble Meknesian man who showed us a gorgeous afternoon view, to the Fezian shopkeeper who kept us out of trouble, to the boys in El-Jadida who clambered up onto a rampart to return the lighter I had dropped while climbing.
People are complex, both here and in America. Differences in cultural identity and norms further complicate the issue. Generally, I’ve learned you can’t trust everyone in your public and private lives. But that doesn’t mean that people can’t surprise you with their helpfulness, or their kindness, or their willingness to understand a place thousands of miles away that you call home.