I board the plane to Marrakech with concern. I was told that a solo female intending to visit an Arabic country should be prepared for a negative experience. My mom was convinced women in Morocco had no rights, she feared that I would get abused. Dad told me he didn’t approve me visiting Africa alone. Friends warned me I would either get scammed, robbed or stabbed. I wanted to prove them their stereotypes were wrong, although I was worried they might be right.
I am lucky to meet Najla shortly after I arrive in Marrakech. The city’s smell of gasoline, spices, cooked and raw meat hits me. I approach the Muslim woman thinking “Oh no, we would have nothing to talk about.” Najla is a Moroccan, exactly my age, wearing a hijab (scarf) around her head. I wonder how can she bear all this fabric covering everything but her face and palms. It is hard to even breathe when the thermometer hits “so-hot-you-can-pass-out-if-you-go-outside” temperatures.
We don’t do small talk, we go straight to discussing the meaningful things in our lives such as relationships and traveling. Mentioning the word “travel” creates an instant bond between us. I shouldn’t have judged her based on her looks. I feel she is my friend and a cultural guide ready to answer all my ignorant questions. Stupid comments like “So you aren’t allowed to have a boyfriend here… That really sucks,” don’t offend her. Najla tells me she is actually dating a guy but she keeps this in secret. “My parents also had boyfriends and girlfriends and they had to hide this from their parents,” she explains. I want to peek into her world so I ask her to teach me how to properly tie a scarf around my hair. “We are actually now coming back to the hijab,” she seems excited to do this for me. “It was forbidden some years ago. I can take it off if I want to.” Najla looks at me with pride. “It is ready. You are Moroccan now.” A few years later, I keep following Najla on Facebook and her personal journey to stop wearing hijab, dye her hair blonde and come out as a proud member of the LGBT community. She is the coolest Moroccan I know.
Even though I am a very liberal woman who loves her freedom, I like wearing a scarf, I feel like it gives me protection. Strangers no longer catcall me: “Hey princess, come here. Where are you from? You are very sexy.” Now they greet me in Arabic, in a very polite way. I receive presents from a few shop owners and a free motorbike tour around Marrakech’s trendy neighborhood where I see quite a few women wearing T-shirts and ponytails. My new male Moroccan friends want to talk to me, to get to know me. They appreciate my gesture of respect for their culture and religion. I was wrong to judge Muslim women, to think they were repressed just because they cover their hair and neck. Wearing a hijab is a feminine thing, it gives some sense of safety that is hard to explain to those who haven’t tried it. Besides, the scorching sun can no longer fry my black hair. There is only one side effect of being a single woman walking around with a hijab in Morocco: I got three marriage proposals in one week.
As I wanted to put my prejudices to another test, I decide to head to Imlil, a Berber village in the Atlas mountains. “Imlil, Imlil, Imlil,” I follow the voice coming from a distance. There is a crowd gathered around the what used-to-be-white an old Mercedes minibus. Suddenly, my excitement dies. A one-legged man with crutches takes my 15-kilos backpack, climbs up the ladder at the back of the minibus and straps my luggage to the roof. The air fills with dust as I sit and sink into my hollow window seat. I cough to hide my urge to cry. My eyes are looking only at him, thinking about his disability. It is not fair that destiny has decided to take a limb from someone and give all sorts of expensive things and privileges to another. I want to shout at the other passengers who show no regret for the disabled young man. We are all so arrogant to allow him to climb up with our heavy bags. Moroccans don’t look bothered but I am stunned. Another man, the driver, gets inside and rolls an audio tape around a pencil. It is a genius method for fast-winding the modern world has forgotten. Percussions and foreign voices praise Allah as the vehicle drives off, leaving its sliding door open.
Still outside, the one-legged man runs after the minibus and gets on as the car is speeding. Enraged, I look at the driver with disgust for being so intolerant. Then the young man comes to me to collect the money for my ticket. His sunshiny smile makes me swallow all anger and regret. “Chaal,” my shaky voiced asks him. “Just 50 dirhams,” he replies with a wink. I smile back. He seems like somebody who just wants to live, instead of suffering. Maybe I am wrong to identify him with his disability, like the Morrocan passengers next to me do. If his body can handle all this hard work then his mind must be powerful. And for this, I admire him.
Another stereotype I had of Moroccans was how they often steal and cheat. I hurry to blame the Berbers for stealing my camera during the group desert trip I join. “It is not us, Berbers are honest. We don’t steal. It is someone from the group, I am telling you. Check them too.” Oumar swears in his honesty, but I still don’t believe him and insist on searching his pockets. I am sure it is him. Besides, people in our group are richer and have no reason to take my camera. The Japanese guys had their own professional DSLRs, the two English guys looked way too nice and the Canadian couple was most active in helping me solve the situation. I search the whole camp. The group leaves on camels as I stay alone with our Berber guide, in the middle of the desert. “It was someone from the group, I am telling you,” he seems sure. And then I remember how when I arrive my camera fell in the sand as I got off the camel ride. I didn’t even notice it when it fell. It was Oumar who saw it and gave it back to me. If he wanted to steal it, he could have done it in that exact moment. Now I know he tells the truth but it is too late, I have already caused him trouble with his boss. “Sorry, Oumar. You are right, it was probably someone from the group. I didn’t really searched all of them carefully,” I admit as we walk through the beaten desert path.