A Month in Morocco: From Fear to Vulnerability

“A journey is a person in itself.” – John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley

Moroccan men look tough. And though I know this is a ridiculous generalization, fact is I wrote it in my journal. In Tangier I had landed in a place quite unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. I was out of place, high-strung and mysteriously frustrated. But mostly I was confused by the face in the mirror. Where was I again? Tangier? How the hell did I get here?

I actually found myself afraid of faces. Men, especially. I even had dreams about them: I’m walking down a street and stop to glance into a café window. A hundred men inside are sipping mint tea, their necks angled towards a wall-mounted TV. Most are middle-aged and dressed in black slacks and oxfords. They have groomed, black beards. Then, as if on cue, they all suddenly turn their heads to look at me. Still gives me chills.

As in any male-dominant society, barely a minute passes without some sort of social posturing. But in Tangier, the cockiness seemed passive, which makes it tougher to translate. I noticed it mostly in facial expressions, or lack thereof. Many Moroccon men walk the streets with stone-like countenances. Their features chiseled through millennia by proud histories, hard work and the virus of repeated colonization. I was intimidated by what I didn’t understand. But when I started looking closer, when I started allowing myself to participate, I became enamored.

In Tangier it wasn’t uncommon to see grown men walk hand-in-hand. Nor was it odd to see them embrace with abandon or greet each other with kisses. Seems that in Morocco they haven’t forgotten the importance of touch. But it’s not sexual, it’s human. And though it would be easy to look through my American lens and criticize the culture’s inability to consider gender equality (among other things), I won’t go there.

The bonds that many Moroccan men shared were foreign to my American eyes, yet I found myself longing for such genuine, platonic intimacy. Which is why I was so available for conversation with a stranger as I sat on a bench in the Grand Socco, a large gathering square in the medina area. He tried to convince me that I needed to buy a jellaba if I planned to travel south. Told me that I’d be better received if I wore traditional garb, that my t-shirt and jeans will only cause problems. He recommend that I follow him to his uncle’s jellaba shop, “two minutes away.”

Earlier that day I had a similar experience with a local chef who was on his way to a spice store. After exchanging pleasantries, I found myself getting schooled on the properties of cumin, turmeric, saffron and another spice that works like Viagra. It was all I could do to get out of there without spending money on stuff I didn’t need. Or want.

So this is how it went for me. I started in Tangier feeling paranoid and then I did a full 180 and became a target. A sucker. It would take a while before I found a middle ground where I could enjoy my vulnerability. Until then, I’d just have to tune into my belly and let intuition be my guide. I wasn’t in control of this trip and I was learning that this was OK.

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