FEAR­LESS IN MOROCCO

Woman trav­el­ling alone ex­plores the North African coun­try

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - FRONT PAGE - By Gio­vanna Dell’Orto

MEK­NES, Morocco — “So you travel... only?” asked the woman sit­ting next to me in halt­ing but in­tu­itive English as we sat in the packed com­part­ment on a train speed­ing through Moroc­can farm­land.

We were the sole un­veiled, un­ac­com­pa­nied women in the car.

Trav­el­ling alone in this North African Mus­lim coun­try, where pub­lic spa­ces are al­most ex­clu­sively male, I got that ques­tion ev­ery­where, from the fre­quent­flyer lounge in the cap­i­tal’s air­port to the kitchen of a riad — a tra­di­tional home with a court­yard — deep in Fez’s me­d­ina, the an­cient walled sec­tion of the city.

With sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault mak­ing news from Egypt to In­dia to Brazil, I was keenly aware that as a blond western tourist, I could not pass un­ob­served. And ob­serve, glare and leer many Moroc­can men do. A jour­nal­ist told me his sis­ters liv­ing in Casablanca were des­per­ately tired of be­ing “ey­e­r­aped.”

In Jan­uary and June, I spent more than three weeks ex­plor­ing Morocco, from its im­pe­rial cities to the desert oases, mostly alone, but at times ac­com­pa­ny­ing a group of stu­dents from a U.S. univer­sity where I teach. They were all women but one.

The group, de­spite mod­est dress, lit­er­ally stopped traf­fic. Alone, I learned to firmly say “la, shukran” — no, thank you — to any in­vi­ta­tion or ap­proach, and got to en­joy the coun­try through a woman’s eyes. That meant some pave­ment-star­ing to avoid con­fronta­tions, but also un­ex­pected glimpses into this mes­mer­iz­ing land where a wealth of cul­tures with an­cient roots abuts il­lit­er­acy and sub­sis­tence. As my seat­mate on the train and I shared uni­ver­sal girl-talk about kohl eye­liner and mar­ry­ing the loves of our lives, this hair­dresser from Casablanca re­minded me of the spunky women por­trayed in the stun­ning Ro­man mo­saics in Vol­u­bilis, a few kilo­me­tres north of our train tracks in north-cen­tral Morocco.

The nearly 2,000-year-old city ru­ins, with a tri­umphal arch and rows of basil­ica col­umns topped by storks, loom in mag­nif­i­cent iso­la­tion amid a rolling land­scape of olive trees. As don­keys laden with har­vested greens plod along its dusty roads, lit­tle seems to have changed.

But the colour­ful floor mo­saics of skimpily dressed, frol­ick­ing gods and god­desses visu­al­ize dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent mores. A few hours’ drive north through the Rif moun­tains, on a peb­bly Mediter­ranean beach nearly in sight of Spain, I alone wore a bikini among women sport­ing veils and an­kle-length tu­nics. The mod­esty equa­tion was sud­denly re­versed when I prud­ishly put on that same bikini for a sep­a­rate visit to a ham­mam — baths — in Fez, the eighth­cen­tury cap­i­tal of the first Arab-Is­lamic dy­nasty to rule Morocco from the same lush farm­land as Vol­u­bilis.

A mus­cu­lar, sweaty masseuse non­cha­lantly pulled it off, leav­ing me cov­ered only in olive-based black soap and pre­car­i­ously bal­anced on a mar­ble slab. As she scrubbed roll af­ter gi­ant roll of dead skin cells off me, I over­heard a dozen other preen­ing naked women shar­ing a friendly laugh at the “dirty Amer­i­can,” as one put it.

In Fez, the me­d­ina is a gi­gan­tic bee­hive of win­dow­less, earth-toned homes and shops crammed in a bowl-shaped river basin. In Mar­rakech, built by the dy­nas­ties that ruled Morocco from the 11th through the 13th cen­turies, the me­d­ina’s rose-coloured walls stand out in the desert against the snowy At­las moun­tains.

In ei­ther me­d­ina, if you like end­less hag­gling, fol­low the flow of lo­cal women through the maze and load up on ev­ery­thing from sweets to ex­pen­sive leather and metal hand­i­crafts.

If you hate shop­ping, as I do, ab­sorb the colours and smells while mak­ing a bee­line for the many madrasas, or Is­lamic schools. In the cen­turies-old Ben Youssef school in Mar­rakech, tiny dorm rooms face a sunny court­yard where ev­ery inch is a kalei­do­scope of in­tri­cate wood carv­ings, stucco in­scrip­tions and geo­met­ric mo­saics.

Most tourists in Mar­rakech con­cen­trate on the souks around Dje­maa el-Fna, the me­d­ina’s cen­tral square bustling with food stalls come dusk. That leaves bliss­fully de­serted grand 16th-cen­tury mon­u­ments, like the ru­ined El Badi palace of pink sand­stone and the Saa­dian tombs, a burial com­plex cov­ered in blind­ingly colour­ful tiles.

The same goes for another for­mer im­pe­rial cap­i­tal, Mek­nes, less than 80 kilo­me­tres from Fez. I skipped the me­d­ina and wan­dered through the eerily empty, gi­gan­tic late 17th-cen­tury royal gra­naries and sta­bles.

In Casa, I ad­mit my high­light was a fake: Rick’s Café, which opened in 2004 to recre­ate the lo­cale of the 1942 clas­sic movie Casablanca. Chan­nel­ing In­grid Bergman, I re­quested As Time Goes By, but was told it’s only played at night. Here’s look­ing at su­perb shrimp pasta and olive bread, in­stead.

In Ra­bat, the his­toric sites line the Bou Re­greg river. Just out­side the city cen­tre is Chel­lah, a Ro­man ruin, once a ne­crop­o­lis and later an Is­lamic re­li­gious cen­tre, and now the rare green space with­out ogling has­sles.

Walk­ing to­ward the ocean, you pass the 12th-cen­tury un­fin­ished Has­san tower next to the gleam­ing mau­soleum of the cur­rent king’s grand­fa­ther be­fore reach­ing the white-and­blue Kas­bah des Ou­dayas. High on a cliff over the At­lantic, en­cir­cled by me­dieval walls and palm trees, it’s the post­card shot of Ra­bat.

In its com­par­a­tively com­pact, lin­ear me­d­ina, I spent one evening watch­ing gen­er­a­tions of women lit­er­ally let down their hair — veils re­moved — to cook cous­cous and bake al­mond pas­tries as a TV soap opera blared in the house’s cen­tral court­yard.

In a busy café near the French colo­nial Ville Nou­velle neigh­bour­hood, I shared choco­late pas­tries, smooth­ies and Cokes with fe­male Moroc­can stu­dents work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary about sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

One of them was get­ting ready to travel alone — to study in China.

Tagines, or meat and veg­eta­bles stews, cook­ing in the his­toric me­d­ina of

Mar­rakech.

Ru­ins of the for­mer royal sta­bles in

Mek­nes.

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