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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