August 05, 2008

It's All Just Empty Everywhere

I'm not feeling very popular right now. After 12 days out of touch and out of the country, I had no personal voicemails, no text messages, and barely any emails outside of the innumerable newsletter subscriptions I have.

MohammedBut while in Morocco, I felt pretty popular. Starting with the seedy city of Casablanca, where Arab men as young as 14 or 15 practice making disgusting comments at you, I got constant attention from men. I wasn't looking for anything, relishing the relief of dating pressure by virtue of just being away from New York, but men everywhere leered at me, both repulsively and somewhat flatteringly when they were really hot.

Even when I felt protected standing by our Fes tour guide Mohammed's side, I realized Mohammed was kind of hitting on me, asking my origin (Italian?) and telling me he'd like to see me in a kaftan with pointy, gold-embroidered slippers and a henna tattoo - that then I would be "#1 wife."

Both he and the young man at the poterie commented on my fair skin and dark Poterieeyes, and it all felt very complimentary until my ceramics salesman let his hand creep below my waistline while I got my picture taken with him. He was very cute, so I didn't stop him, but I kind of thought that Muslim men must take out their pent-up sexual aggression on American women who pass through, that they must easily sexually objectify us because, well, we kind of put ourselves "out there" for it.

So I have no real sense if flirtation can really exist in Morocco, or in any other Muslim country. Normally, if I would see a cute boy, I would smile, bat my lashes at him, say something as cute as he is, and start the romantic dance. But in Morocco, it feels dangerous, like being too friendly will land you face-down on the back of a camel, headed for the mountains while your tour guide counts the Dirhams he received for you.

I knew that the men there would like me, given my experience in London with North Africans, but I thought somehow being American would turn them off. The shopkeeper in the hotel gift shop stopped me and asked me in French if I was Arabian or Moroccan. I acted cute and replied "Americaine, pas Francaise, pas Quebecoise" and was a bit flattered to think that I looked a bit Middle Eastern to him, but then I realized he probably was just flirting with me. He didn't seem to mind my American roots and stared into my eyes too long and grabbed at my hands.

There were no single and young and cute guys on the bus tour with us, which was probably for the best, but I was constantly surrounded by hot, swarthy passers-by so it was easy to get confused and wonder where to put that energy.

In fact, I got flattered in Fes when a Moroccan photographer was following our group through the souk and the mosque taking our pictures, many of me, until I heard Mohammed explain that the papparazzo would probably come to our hotel that night or in the morning to try to sell us the pictures. Worse yet, if he couldn't sell the prints to us, he would sell them to the Berber men. Yuck.

Out in the desert, everything felt better, less complicated. My body shed itself of all pain, inflammation, aches and breaks, and my mind cleared itself of heartaches and loneliness. But at our hotel in Erfoud, a Moroccan man asked me if I was a "gazelle," and our driver (also Mohammed) had to translate for me that I was being asked if I was an unmarried woman. A quick "yes" and I jumped on the bus to escape any further inquiry into my availability. But a short bus ride later into Rissani, and I couldn't wait for our local tour guide, Ali, to ask me if I was married, if I lived alone, if I would stay and live among the Berbers.

I know it's impossible to think that I could make a life with a half Berber 29-year-old who speaks eight languages and is finishing his PhD while taking care of his aging mother, but it's a nice fantasy. And for a moment, as I tried to insinuate myself into each of his conversations, I thought I might prefer to never come back to the United States.

Being a gazelle in Morocco certainly has its advantages, especially when trying to negotiate a good price for a horse-and-buggy ride back to your hotel from an insane outdoor market in Marrakech or making sure that your camel man takes care of you during a trip up-and-down some sunset sand dunes.

But it's all as transparent and meaningless as it is in New York. Ali asked me to stay in the desert, but he didn't mean with him and he didn't mean forever. He was probably no more sincere than the Casablanca hoodlums that muttered lewd obscenities in Arabic at us and then called us "bitch" when we didn't respond.

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