The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

How foreign is Fez? A travel yarn in two parts (Part 1)

We welcome Joy Richards to The Displaced Nation as a guest blogger. Though she lives and works in the town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire, UK, Richards seizes the opportunity to travel whenever she can. In May, she journeyed to Fez, Morocco, to visit an English friend who lives in that city. It was her first foray into North Africa and her first time in an Arab country. Richards found herself thinking deeply about one of the topics raised in our blog this month: the challenge of bridging two cultures that have developed separately over thousands of years and therefore do not share the same basic beliefs and values.

My trip to Morocco was full of uncertainties. I was traveling with two friends I had worked with in the past but had very little contact with in the last three years. God bless Facebook for bringing us together again — but I was unsure how holidaying together would work.

We were staying with another ex-work colleague who lives as a single parent with her little girl in the ancient medina (walled city) of Fez. She has lived here for about three years earning an income by arranging tours for visitors to experience the food of Fez. I knew nothing about her home and again had not had any regular contact in three years.

But most worrying of all, we were traveling not long after the major events of the Arab Spring and only a few weeks after the suicide bomb in the main square of the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. Would our short time together be safe and enjoyable?

As the plane landed in Morocco, I immediately noticed the sun was unlike the British sun. It had “photo-shopped” the scenery around me to the maximum color intensity, contrast and brightness.

The black glove treatment

Screwing up my eyes in the late afternoon light, I walked into the small and crowded airport and began queuing for immigration. Ability to queue is clearly a skill shared by Brits and Moroccans.

By the time I got to the baggage area, I could see that that the Moroccan women from our flight were all more covered than when they had left England. (My female friend and I had taken advice from our host in Fez and had traveled in trousers and loose tops with sleeves.)

One lady was totally covered — including her hands, which were in black gloves. As she chatted to her small son in Arabic and he replied in English, with a slight northern accent, it was not the veil or the long black gown that looked strange to me, but the gloves.

Black gloves on a hot May afternoon in an airport in Morocco — and yet I’m old enough to remember summer gloves. Lacy or nylon with a frill, they were worn for church and weddings, even for parties. Polite British gloves worn by polite, fashion-conscious British women in the 1950s and 1960s.

But soon my travel companions and I would be slipping back in time much further than the 50s or 60s, as our taxi dropped us at the entrance to the world’s most intact Islamic medieval city, the Fez medina.

The winding mysteries of the medina

Our friend and her little girl, Francesca, met our little threesome at the gate. We plunged head on into narrow, crowded alleyways full of donkeys, skinny cats, open fronted shops, chickens, vegetables… There were children playing, men selling — and so many smells.

Fez’s medina is said to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free area, and no wonder. Cars couldn’t have squeezed through even if allowed.

I was excited, confused, aware of being female and English and of not knowing this place.

I had read my guidebook, which warned of unwanted and persistent attention from shopkeepers and “faux guides,” and walked on purposefully, not making eye contact with any of the locals. I determinedly ignored every greeting whether in Arabic, French or (occasionally) in English.

My friend and her daughter had clearly not read the same guidebook as they stopped and chatted to several men on the way to their house.

As we turned up a narrow, dusty alley which was to take us to my friend’s house, there was another greeting shouted by a man on the street: “Welcome to Fez.” And then: “Welcome to Fez, family of Francesca.”

I turned, smiled and said hello. Suddenly it had dawned on me that intense, close living in this way required constant greeting. Relationships must be established and confirmed for everyone to feel safe and comfortable.

My friend’s home, at the end of a dark alley, was deceptively unappealing. Inside, it turned out to be a beautiful traditional house decorated with carved wood and traditional Moroccan tiles. That evening, we talked and ate and drank wine as friends do.

Our hostess had bought the wine in one of the large modern supermarkets in the Ville Nouvelle — the modern and rapidly developing part of Fez that has spread out around the Medina.

Alcohol is not illegal in the Medina but is disapproved of. Or, to put it in the Moroccan Arabic dialect (Dirja), alcohol is hshuma (pronounced h’shoo-mah). A very useful phrase, it’s equivalent to a very loud British “Tch, tut, tut” (or the American tsk-tsk) — but, unlike our expressions, hshuma carries the further connotation of being shamed by one’s peers. It’s used when someone has been drinking, smoking, hanging out at a café (women, mainly in small towns), wearing shorts (men or women), dancing with the opposite sex, or engaging in other forbidden acts.

My friend had been heard “clinking” as she tried to get a taxi back to the medina and was evicted from the cab as she had alcohol with her — hshuma.

I work as a psychotherapist and much of my work includes challenging personal shame and its destructive effects, but here in this intense and exotic environment the social control of hshuma in some ways made sense, as a way of navigating the social structure.

Thank goodness for my mum and her directives

The following day my friends and I set out into the Medina, shoulders and legs covered so as not to offend and not to attract unwanted attention.

As foreigners we would not be expected to wear the djellaba (traditional long, hooded outer robe) and headscarf of the local women. Nevertheless, we were expected to be discreet. Skimpy clothes would be hshuma.

My mother brought me up with a good understanding of what was “common” as well as a clear directive that I was not to be “common.” The list of “common” characteristics and behaviours could fill several pages but included: dyed hair, bright lipstick, exposed cleavage, short skirts, a “lot of thigh,” swearing, smoking in public, bare shoulders (unless at the seaside or a dinner dance).

Any woman being common is this way was “no better than she ought to be” and would probably “get into trouble” (some sort of sexual misadventure).

So, stepping out into the medina, I was able to apply my mother’s rule about not looking “common” so as not to be socially ostracized.

A throwback or a step forward?

I wrestled with trying to decide if I minded applying these guidelines to myself in this traditional, Muslim city. Was I being respected or controlled?

I have been, in my youth, a dedicated follower of fashion and have worn mini-skirts, hot pants and many other items of clothing that exposed my body to the casual view of all.

Even now, as a woman of a certain age, I know that I can attract male attention with a bit of cleavage. That is, of course, my choice — but what is the message the Western media delivers to women of all ages? We must be young, slim and, above all, sexy. Boobs, booty and thighs…get them displayed.

So what was the message in the Fez medina? Women’s bodies are private, respected, not to be displayed.

I don’t like being told what to wear, but I realized that I — and I can only speak for myself — felt more comfortable and relaxed with less of my flesh exposed.

As a Western woman, I am glad that I am free to be divorced (as I am) and to have a career (as I do). But does that mean I want my granddaughters to be free to put their bodies on display when they are pubescent, as so many British girls do?

As I hear the call to prayer echoing over the medina, I am being prompted to challenge my assumptions about, my expectations of, this society.

I am an outsider, and as a non-Muslim I can only peer through the entrances into any of the mosques in the city, catching glimpses of beauty and faith, unquestioning perhaps — Inshallah (as God wills it).

My will, society’s will, God’s will — that requires a lot of untangling.

Images (clockwise from top left): The gateway into the Fez medina; a chick-pea salesman inside the medina; Richards’s mother, Thelma Browett, in headscarf while on holiday in Scotland (taken by Ron Browett); and the inner courtyard of the home where Richards stayed in Fez.

STAY TUNED for next week’s installment of Joy Richards’s travel yarn, and on Monday, for Part 2 of “Marriage, cross-cultural style: Two veterans tell all.”

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22 responses to “How foreign is Fez? A travel yarn in two parts (Part 1)

  1. Jack Scott July 23, 2011 at 6:14 am

    When you live in a Moslem country as I do, it’s important to show respect for traditions and culture. It galls me to watch western bikini babes wandering around the streets of Bodrum. It also galls me to see half naked Turkish men walking round with their covered wives. For me it’s an equalities thing.

    • ML Awanohara July 23, 2011 at 9:43 am

      Interesting perspective: I hadn’t realized there were half-naked Turkish men walking around with covered wives!

      • Jack Scott July 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm

        When I say covered I mostly mean in a headscarf and not a burka! However we sometimes see full body cover of long sleeved tops and midi length coats all in 40 degree heat!

      • ML Awanohara July 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm

        That’s actually the one time when I think all directives about anyone’s clothing go out the window — when it’s 100+ degrees (as it has been on the East Coast these past few days) and 100% humidity, with air pollution levels at “very unhealthy.” Under those conditions, you wear what you can bear. You also seriously consider becoming a nudist — but even that’s no solution as you’d have to worry about skin cancer.

    • Mark Damaroyd July 23, 2011 at 11:31 am

      Jack, on your blog you say, ‘Obviously, the events and characters in this blog are fictitious. And as they say in the movies, any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.’ You also write, ‘Imagine the absurdity of two openly gay, recently ‘married’ middle aged, middle class men escaping the liberal sanctuary of anonymous London to relocate to a Muslim country.’

      So working on the assumption you’re gay, I’d like to ask, if the half-naked Turkish man happened to covered, and the woman was half-naked, would it you still feel the same?

      • Kate Allison July 23, 2011 at 12:35 pm

        My personal opinion (and it is only an opinion!) is that sexuality shouldn’t make any difference, because I think what we’re all talking about is the inequality of the situation. If a woman was swanning around in a bikini while she forced her husband to cover up, I would see that as wrong too. Sauce-goose-gander argument.

        Similarly, a few decades ago it was the norm for adverts to belittle women as the dumb wives listening to their much wiser husbands. Very wrong, we all agree now. Unfortunately, if you watch adverts now, it’s quite normal and apparently acceptable for women to belittle their dumb husbands. As a woman, I also think this is wrong.

      • Jack Scott July 23, 2011 at 2:01 pm

        Much less fun to watch from our balcony but, yes, I would.

      • Kate Allison July 23, 2011 at 2:57 pm

        Haha! I wish there was a ‘Like’ button on these comments!

  2. Mark Damaroyd July 23, 2011 at 9:39 am

    I think little is achieved by being galled – as Jack Scott describes his feelings. If Joy Richards, at ‘a certain time in life’ is happy to consider showing a bit of cleavage, where’s the big difference in younger women choosing to show a bit more? If the authorities in any nation felt strongly opposed to the idea, it wouldn’t happen anyway. Sorry, but we need to accept there are more pressing issues to address in the world.

    • ML Awanohara July 23, 2011 at 9:48 am

      @Mark
      But Jack lives in Turkey. Even though it’s more secular and tolerant than most Muslim countries, Turkey is constantly debating how women should dress. As for Joy, she says she feels better being required to wear more in Morocco — and that makes her wonder, has the UK gone too far in this direction, in terms of women’s freedom? (Women’s freedom is a pressing issue for at least half the population!)

  3. Kate Allison July 23, 2011 at 11:46 am

    All this boils down to who is dictating the dress code, doesn’t it? Personally, I don’t care what people wear as long as they’re doing it of their own accord. I would object, very strongly, to the double standards of half-dressed Turkish men and covered-up wives if it were the men insisting their women covered up. If, on the other hand, the women were covering up because they felt more comfortable that way – as Joy was surprised to find she did – that puts a different slant on it.

    I guess Jack isn’t galled at the western bikini babes’ dress so much as their lack of respect for local customs and etiquette, am I right?

  4. ML Awanohara July 23, 2011 at 11:55 am

    @Joy
    I have just a couple of thoughts based on two articles I happened to read in the past day or so:

    1) Dress may be a red herring. If Western societies were to go back to the norms that prevailed in your mum’s day, of women covering their bodies again, then we’d be back in the situation of blaming the victim when a woman gets attacked — and people say, “Well, she was asking for it, wearing such skimpy clothes.” What prompted me to think about this is a report on India adopting the “slutwalk” campaign that started in Canada as a protest against a Canadian police officer who advised women to “avoid dressing like sluts” if they want to be safe from sexual assault. In India, the confrontational “slut” has been softened by adding the Hindi word for “shamelessness” to the event’s title. But what really caught my attention is this quote from the event’s chief organizer:

    In India, no matter what we wear, even if we are covered head to toe in a sari or a burqa, we get molested and raped. A woman’s fight in India is more basic — it is a fight for the right to be born, education, nutritious food, work.

    2) I wonder if a majority of women are programmed to prefer more demure clothes — but then they are socialized into thinking they should wear more revealing outfits once they become adolescent? There was an article in Thursday’s Style section of the New York Times on the enduring popularity of summer dresses because they provide such “cool comfort” — timely given the heat wave the East Coast is now experiencing! Commenting on a Princeton study showing that most little girls pass thru a stage where they demand frilly dresses, the fashion writer, Ruth La Ferla, says:

    It’s not surprising, then, to learn that some women’s favorite [my emphasis] dresses have something demure and old-fashioned about them, if not downright chaste. Ideally, Whitney May [one of her interviewees] said: “A dress should have a bit of a childlike quality to it. It should be elegant and sophisticated but not too revealing.”

    • joy richards July 25, 2011 at 2:32 pm

      It seems to me that it is a complicated issue to recognise why we ‘choose’ to dress or behave in any way. As westerners valueing our freedom it is all too easy to consider ourselves superior to other peoples in this regard. It is challenging to consider the social mores, and issues of power or sexuality that shape our ‘free’ choice. Even more controversially, do we always benefit from our freedoms or can they shake the structure of society such that we lose the ‘freedom’ to be part of a safe community? (Currently wearing a tunic and leggings because I want to!)

  5. Mark Damaroyd July 23, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Moving the topic into a slightly different perspective, a couple of dress and appearance preferences in Thailand strike some folk as being odd. Fashion-following girls spend crazy amounts of money on facial whitening creams, keen to look more Caucasian . Huge numbers of gay men wear makeup and dress as females, some looking absolutely stunning in miniskirts and high-heeled shoes. Many undergo sex change operations. Their fame is widespread.

    • ML Awanohara July 23, 2011 at 11:29 pm

      @Mark
      Curious! This habit of trying to look Caucasian seems to be fairly widespread throughout Asia. In Korea I believe it’s quite common for girls to have plastic surgery to westernize their eyes. The definition of “pretty” is not the standard Asian face, but closer to a Caucasian face.

      At least the women of Fez don’t have the pressure to look, let alone dress, like us!

    • Jack Scott July 25, 2011 at 7:39 pm

      The caucasian standard of physical beauty promoted by the world’s (western) media will change as economic power shifts to Asia. As for the ladyboys of Thailand, let’s not confuse transexuality with homosexuality. The day my partner shaves his chest and dons a miniskirt I’ll divorce him.

  6. Carina July 25, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Looking forward to reading part II of Joy’s experience in Fez.

    The discussion here is (almost) as interesting as the story itself. Here in France, there is much debate and anger about dress code. As international society continues to expand, and borders are less defined than they were before, the debate will continue to arise. The decision regarding dress should (in my opinion) be one made by those upon whom the dress code affects. Perhaps in Turkey in some cases, the women covered chose to be, for they themselves felt the same comfort as Joy in Fez?

    In Belek/Antalya, I knew many Turkish women who worked as hard as their spouses on perfecting their tan lines.🙂 Whether it be from within the core of the family unit, or a governement that decides what is acceptable and not as forms of dress, equality is important.

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