Culture. Shock.

I’m having a hard time starting this post. One one level, a lot of the feelings that I’ve experienced over the past few days in Morocco really intrigue me. And on the other, I feel like that’s just because I’m a naive white-girl who spends most of her time travelling to ‘safe’ places like Europe and America. And that most of what I’m about to write is pretty obvious and uninteresting.

But, anyway, here goes, we’ll give it a shot.

Of course I knew that Morocco was going to be full on. I knew that people in the markets would try very hard to get my attention, to try and get me to buy something. I knew that there would be a lot of poverty about, I knew that wearing revealing dresses (read: my normal summer dresses) would probably bring unwanted attention and I knew that walking about without a man with me would inevitably mean more unwanted attention.

But you can know these things and still be taking aback by the experience of actually going through them and there will of course be many other things you didn’t expect to have to deal with at all. 

In my everyday life, I am usually attempting to please people and not offend them. I’ll admit it: I’m a people pleaser. It’s why I find it difficult to hold strong opinions (particularly in the face of opposition), why I find it difficult to stand up for myself, why I find it difficult to take criticism. In a culture that you are used to, it’s very easy to be a people-pleaser. You know what is expected of you to keep people happy, you know what the norms are, you know what your limits are and how to avoid situations that might cause you to be expectedd to push past them. I’m not saying it’s easy being a people-pleaser (its really not and I’d much rather be a bit more gutsy and ballsy), but I am saying that its easier to be a people-pleaser in a place that you know, and around people that you understand. Obvs.

So the main issue I’m having in Morocco is that I still want to please, but I no longer am certain of what will please people and I’m no longer certain that the things they want from me is going to be acceptable to myself. I’m uncertain of myself and I’m uncertain of how I feel about various scenarios, situations and occurrences. On top of which I’ve been confusing all these anxieties with my half-baked and completely un-researched ideas of cultural relativity. Is me doing this or thinking this ok because I’m somewhere different? Or if I’d be unhappy about this at home then should I be unhappy about this here as well?

The most obvious and easiest example was the meat at lunch on Monday. My hosts clearly wanted to give me a traditional Moroccan meal, so I could experience part of what they thought was an important part of their heritage and culture. Unfortunately, that meal was just meat and spices in a terracotta pot and I’ve been a vegetarian for 9 years now. The whole family was quite intrigued by the fact that I didn’t eat meat. The father came in and asked specifically, ‘Which is the girl that doesn’t eat meat?’ and when I was pointed out he nodded and left. We didn’t see him again. It was like I was a fairground attraction. ‘Step right up, step right up and behold the mystifying GIRL WHO DOESN’T EAT MEAT! You won’t believe the things she won’t put in her mouth!’

Because I’m a polite people-pleaser and because I could tell they really really wanted me to try this meat, because it was something special that I would never have experienced before in my life, I took a tiny sliver of meat and put it in my mouth. I said it tasted very nice, which they took as a cue to give me more meat, which I refused. In this scenario, I feel like I did right – I told them ahead of time I didn’t eat meat, on the actual day I was convinced into trying a tiny piece but then refused any more. I felt like everyone’s feelings were taken into consideration and a compromise was reached. Part of me does wonder if I’m being patronising and if I had ‘stood up’ for my vegetarianism they would have respected that and understood; but the fact of the matter is that I’m not a particularly strident vegetarian at the best of times and mostly the family’s English wasn’t great, so how would I have even been able to communicate my committed, if not so strident, vegetarian views if I didn’t even have the words to express it?

There have been other scenarios though that are slightly less black and white and which leave me feeling more uncomfortable, mainly because I don’t know what to do about them. The monkeys in the square are one for example. There are several monkeys brought into the main square in the afternoons. Their tiny cages sit beside them, they are kept on short leashes, one wears a nappy and I’ve seen another in a dress. They scamper about (as much as their leashes allow), jump up on their owners and any passing tourists that might want their photo taken with one. This makes me uncomfortable. No, this makes me furious. And the worst part is that I know these poor  monkeys are only in this situation for my amusement. It wouldn’t continue if it weren’t for the fact that it’s a sound business idea, that plenty of ‘rich’ European, American and Antipodean tourists will pay money to have their photo taken with a monkey in a dress sitting on their shoulder. And I’m expected to be delighted by it as well – it’s pointed out by the Moroccans around me, ‘Look! Look! How wonderful! Monkeys!’ If I was with a friend who did this I would explain my thoughts on the subject no problem. But when it’s strangers, strangers who are trying hard to please you, I don’t really know what to do or how to react. It’s less about the fact that I’m worried they won’t understand (who really doesn’t understand, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t think its right’) and more about the fact that I don’t want to make them unhappy. They’re trying to please me, I’m trying to please them and we all go round in circles having no dialogue of any significance and perpetuating terrible stereotypes about each other: ‘Tourists love monkeys on leashes’, ‘Moroccans don’t care about animals.’

It gets worse. The stall-holders calling out to you (everyone calling out to you) can be amusing at the start of the day, but grating by the end when you are sweaty, smelly, dirty and footsore. My people-pleasing nature doesn’t allow me to not say something to someone who says something to me, so I pretty much always answer back when someone says, ‘Hello’ or ‘Spices?’ or ‘How are You?’ This then usually means I’m walking away from a stallholder yelling after me attempting to continue the conversation, which makes me feel even ruder. I know that the stallholders are used to it and trying to engage me in conversation is not about being polite, its just about trying to get me to buy something and if I stopped and spoke to everyone that spoke to me I would have no money left (because I’m a people-pleaser and it would please them if I bought their things), but it still makes me uncomfortable having to walk away. And this feeling of guilt and discomfort gets me into arguments with myself about how much money do I have really, and really it is more than these people have and therefore maybe I should buy their ‘authentic’ products and make them happy and help them out just to assuage my Western middle-class guilt a little.

And then there was yesterday. We’d been walking around the market all day in our short summer dresses and sandals and been getting a lot of commentary. Mostly you just ignore it, because mostly its just to get your attention so you’ll come and buy something. And in the small cases that it isn’t about that, what do these men really expect you to do? Turn around and start a conversation? No. Do they really expect that this is going to get your attention so that the two of you can start some sort of meaningful relationship? Of course not. The whole point of the catcall is to shut down any opportunity of connection between the observer and the observed. It’s a superficial comment made to let a person know they are currently being appreciated superficially – and superficially ONLY. It leaves no opportunity for reply (unless it’s an angry one, which usually just makes the catcaller laugh). Whilst at home I would ignore catcalls, over here they make me laugh because they are so ridiculous and so silly and so utterly relentless. I guess the problem with laughing at catcalls is that it looks like I’m enjoying the attention and perhaps that perpetuates a particular stereotype about Western women or at least encourages the men to keep going. Anyway, we’re used to these ridiculous catcalls, the ‘wows’ and the ‘very nice’ and ‘I like’ etc. Yesterday, for some reason, maybe it was the dresses we were wearing, but we started getting much more full-on comments. Liz had her breasts specifically commented on several times. Again, a bit more offensive and unnerving, but at the same time, nothing that we couldn’t just ignore and walk away from. Until a guy reached out and touched Liz’s ass.

There is nothing about that which I will excuse away. It is completely unacceptable behaviour. The problem is, what do you do about it? Back home I like to think I would have slapped the guy, I would have yelled at him and I would have felt comfortable in the knowledge that people around me would have backed me up. I don’t know that slapping and yelling would have helped the scenario, even back home, but that’s how I would like to imagine I would have reacted. Here, I just don’t really know what the correct response is. Liz yelled out, but we didn’t confront the man, which was definitely deserved. I hadn’t even realised it had happened, I thought she had gotten upset about something else and instead of backing her up, I told her to calm down. When we got to our restaurant and Liz explained what had actually happened, she told me she thought it was her fault – she had been wearing lipstick and was dressed up. Which is not a thought that would have ever crossed our minds as being acceptable back home, but here it was suddenly something that should be considered.

A similar situation happened to me when I bought my leather satchel. The man at the stall was all smiles, very charming and lovely all the way through the transaction. Then he asked for a photo with me, which he wanted me to send him. All well and good. However, as we were posing for the photo, his hand went pretty quickly down from my waist to my ass. I jumped away as soon as the photo was taken. But then Liz, who had no idea this was going, said we had to take another one because the first one was blurry. This time, his hand went straight to my ass. And not on the side of my thigh, kind of brushing my ass. No, his hand was very definitely placed on the very middle, the roundest part of my ass. And I said ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Why? Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I move his hand? If it were back home and I were dealing with a friend whose hands tend to rove when he gets drunk I would have had no qualms moving that hand away. If I were back home in a club and someone did that to me when I didn’t want them to, I would feel perfectly acceptable in slapping him away, getting angry and knowing that I would be protected/backed up by everyone else around me.

But here, in Morocco, I felt completely uncertain of myself. I didn’t know how this man would react to me asserting myself in that way and I didn’t know if I would like what his reaction would be. I’d enjoyed the transaction we’d had up until that point and I didn’t want things to suddenly be made ugly or unpleasant. So, I smiled for the photo and I promised to send it to him and I didn’t say a word.

I don’t want to make too huge a deal of any of this. I know there are worse things going on in the world and there are people in far worse situations. Also, that Western middle-class guilt is creeping in again leaving me thinking, well, who am I to complain about their treatment of me? I swan into their country, treat it like a cheap-but-luxurious playground, make no attempt to fit in with the culture and then swan off again to my extremely-privileged life in London. If some guy wants to squeeze my ass during a photo and take me down a peg or two, well, can I really blame him? Maybe I deserve to be taken down a peg or two.

But I think the most interesting thing here, across all these scenarios, is my absolute inability to voice, in anyway, the opinions and beliefs I cling to so firmly back home. Because I might insult someone. Because they may not understand entirely. Because maybe they might get angry at me. Whilst I certainly live the majority of my life in fear of these things, I guess it’s not nearly so obvious how desperate the need is when the people around you *generally* have the same belief system as you and *generally* behave in the same way as you. And I guess that’s one of those odd fringe benefits of going somewhere completely different and experiencing something completely different – it throws you and all your habits, your strengths and weaknesses into the spotlight. Suddenly every assumption you have about yourself and the world is tipped on its head. Culture shock isn’t about seeing a monkey on a chain in a nappy in the square. Culture shock is how you deal with that monkey on the chain in the nappy on the square and confronting the fact that you might not be who you thought you were.



Filed under Morocco

4 responses to “Culture. Shock.

  1. When compared to the US and Europe it would seem to make sense. If comparing to India, I would say that Morocco is rather calm and easy going. Of course it also matters if you are a woman and what you are wearing. There is a book that is rather interesting on this subject as well. I read through it in a couple of days.

  2. As a woman who has been alone in Morocco whilst in the souks and medinas, I think it’s important to wear modest clothing to mitigate the reactions you’re describing. Wearing what I normally wear in the summer in the states is completely inappropriate in a Muslim country, even calm and easy-going Morocco! It makes all the difference as to how you’re treated.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I appreciate its a Muslim country and we’re better off dressing modestly. Just so you don’t think we’re completely naive – we did check with local Moroccan women as well as our hotel who said what we were wearing was fine. In fact, I was dressed ‘modestly’ when it happened to me – I had on a long maxi-dress and a shawl covering my shoulders. Admittedly when it happened to my friend, we were dressed in short dresses and a bit of make-up (though, again, when I say ‘short dress’, they were not tight, showing off our shoulders, cleavage or even particularly short. They were just shorter than the others we had been wearing). We got more catcalls this way, but in terms of being physically harassed it didn’t seem to matter if we were dressed modestly or not. I guess the point I’m trying to make is not about whether or not our clothing was ‘appropriate’ (we obviously haven’t gone out with make-up and short dresses on since), but why I felt unable to speak up when something did happen that I didn’t like or made me uncomfortable. I was more interested in considering my own reaction and the reasons behind it than I was in the actual harassment.

  4. Just seeing this response! No, I totally know what you’re saying. It’s really interesting how travel makes us look at ourselves and our reactions – – like you say! Interesting, all of it! I like reading your perspective! Jane

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