Friday, January 15, 2010

First Culture Shock

Morocco has a strong lounging/loitering culture. I had a hard time walking through the city at night when I first arrived because groups of young men tended to gather in alleyways and doorsteps, generally away from the harsh illumination of streetlights. In the West, there is no licit reason why a group of young men would want to wait for hours in the dark with no female company. It’s pretty much a certainty that those guys would be doing some sort of drug that a redneck cooked with ammonia and lye or were waiting to knife the next passerby. In Morocco, it’s just how guys spend the evening.

This trend carries throughout the day. In the mornings and early afternoon, the same groups of men will sit in cafes. Chairs are often linked together so that armrests overlap and all of them face into the street. The effect is that outdoor cafes take on the feeling of audience boxes. Wherever you walk in Casablanca, a gallery of men is on hand to observe. In the evenings, men tend to shuffle around a bit – wandering en masse from the cafes to the alleys. This all may sound like exaggeration, but it is not. Groups of men, seemingly doing nothing, were the first to induce culture shock when I arrived in Morocco.

Having packs of dudes staring at you is disconcerting, but there was something more... Seeing only men on the streets – innumerable, aimless bands of them – implied that women had somehow gone missing. I remember walking through a park on my second week here when it struck me, “where the hell are all the women?” It is something that has bothered me for a long time – a mystery that I only began to unravel on my recent vacation around the south.

You lose continuity when you fly between two points. It’s like the connective tissue between two cities are their airports, a few hours of your time and a bad in-flight meal. If you can help it, it’s almost always more informative to traverse the space between two places overland. Even if there’s not a whole lot between them, you’ll know it firsthand. Seeing the sites between population hubs here in Morocco was particularly rewarding. The first thing a traveler will notice is how spectacularly rugged and beautiful this country is. It’s easy to forget you live in North Africa – the setting for a range of dramas; from ‘The Sheltering Sky’, to Eisenhower and Rommel’s armored deathmatch – if you live in palm-shaded Casablanca. But the next thing you notice is where all the woman are. They’re working.

There are still cafes in the rural areas between cities – all full of lecherous stares and the thinly veiled homoeroticism of the all-dude clientele. But there’s also agricultural land – full of women. They work the stony ground with picks, carry water, drive cattle, herd sheep.

This is not an unfair generalization drawn by just a few isolated findings. This is consistent and absolute; thousands of kilometres worth of observation in every area of the country. Women work. Men lounge. In the cities, they simply work more invisibly; in homes, kitchens, offices.

I’m not certain why this trend exists, but one can only assume that it is grounded in the religious and ethnic make-up of the country. It certainly has nothing to do with poverty (people are far poorer, and much more egalitarian with the work distribution, in SE Asia and the rest of Africa). If you look at countries that would obviously be on a further extreme of the religion/ethnicity spectrum (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait), you see institutionalization of the trend. I have strong opinions about the former of the two factors that those of you who know me well have probably heard, but it would be tricky for me to get into them on a public forum while I’m still living in this country.

Suffice to say, the division of genders remains my greatest problem with this culture and the most concrete reason why I will never be fully at home in a country like this. Hopefully it will change, though. Saudi Arabia’s high court recently ruled that the laws mandating the separation of unrelated men and women had to be reassessed because they had been based mostly in tribalism, and not the Koran. The marginalization of half a country’s intelligence, ingenuity and labor is a lot to bear for the sake of tradition.