Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Still thinking

As usual, thought begets thought, and I keep gnawing on that idea of present-day Moroccans continuing to look out on their world from within a colonial frame. We went out yesterday to get ice cream and Pakistani food (two doors from one another, to be eaten in that order), Paul carrying Hazel through the chill of early evening, across the plaza where rainwater pools on the smooth stone tile and nine huge fountains lift up out of three rectangular basins toward the lavender sky—both of us ruminating on this notion of colonialism, and on gender, while Hazel alternately pressed her forehead into Paul’s nose or, now back down on the sidewalk, capered ahead to leap off the ledge beneath the next palm tree.

Paul had just finished reading a novel by a Moroccan woman who lives in Portland, Oregon—Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits—she writes about Moroccans who’ve gone elsewhere and either stay away or come back. One character, Paul reports, sits in a Moroccan café after time in Spain, and realizes suddenly why it feels so different now: he’s surrounded exclusively by men. Where are the women? They are at home, or maybe sitting together on a bench in Jardin El Harti, or walking arm in arm along Mohammed V. But they are not here enjoying a café au lait or a mint tea together at the next table. Our talk swirled around gender (“I don’t want Hazel to grow up here”) as it’s expressed or repressed. We watch as men look at women—veiled or unveiled, it doesn’t matter. The veil is supposed to hide all the attributes that make a woman irresistible—thus making her resist-able. But how is that possible? I remember back in the good weather watching a guy check out two young women, both veiled and wearing kaftans, their behinds visibly swaying beneath fabric that hugged their forms pretty snuggly. I hesitate to say that the sexual inconsistencies or hypocrisies are more exaggerated in Morocco than in the States—I can think of a thousand and one screaming juxtapositions that give the lie to our own thin shellac of Puritan mores painted unconvincingly over political sex scandal and Palin-style appeal. But I’m getting away from that initial post-colonial idea of lingering colonialism. Let me enlist Toni Morrison to help me back.

In Morrison’s most recent novel A Mercy she tells the overlapping stories of various characters from various extractions in the early days of what would become America, before even the Puritans held sway in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In one scene a free African man, a self-employed blacksmith, tells his sometime-lover, a once-enslaved woman (her father a Portuguese plantation owner, her mother from the Caribbean) that though she has been given her freedom, she has not taken it—in your mind, he tells her, you are still a slave.

Jumpcut to the several stories of white lies that filter in, the seemingly ridiculous ones: the person someone knows who lied about his birthday—“We’re the same age! Wow! That’s so cool!” when it turns out the non-Moroccan (the storyteller in this case) is a year younger. “My mom made it this morning—here, take some,” and he offers a croissant that’s in a brown wrapper, the kind the patisserie around the corner uses. Huh? Is this what Ghita means when she talks about Moroccans continuing to live inside a colonial mind-frame long after the Independence of 1956? That you are continually at work to impress or demonstrate prowess of one sort or another, that you are never completely yourself or completely à laise, at ease? That the white lie serves to fill in the perceived chinks in your armor or plump out your diminished sense of self? And Ghita was talking about Moroccan men in particular. It has to do with what you think people are thinking about you—seconding-guessing and adjusting accordingly. And I don’t for a moment pretend this kind of psycho-dynamic is anything but human, the world over—I’m guessing we all engage in this kind of posturing at some time, to one degree or another, for one reason or another.

Several times in the first couple months I had conversations with older Moroccans (men, of course, as that is who Hazel and I typically meet while out and about—women are just not out and about to interact with in this same way); in separate conversations each of the two older men, speaking in French, said that the French language itself is at odds with what is truly Moroccan, that there is something in the very structure of the language that runs counter to this culture. Each spoke of the colonial past as present in the spoken, taught French language. (One recalled how his French instructor would beat them when they hadn’t learned a lesson properly; I don’t know whether the instructor was French or Moroccan.) This is no surprise to any scholar of post-colonial studies, but how much more alive an idea when you hear it expressed in your own lived conversation, out in the world, rather than inside a classroom or a book. Each, interestingly, said that both Moroccan and Islamic cultures are closer to American than to French—that the Islamic world, like America, is wildly diverse.

These ideas of gender and culture fit into a larger conversation about how Morocco is so different from the home I know, and so the same. The gender issues we perceive here are universal (how do you be yourself but also exist amidst others and within your own society’s dictates?)—but negotiating them, the problems here, is not so easy—the culture isn’t ours, and for no other reason we aren’t able to fully appreciate or perceive the subtleties. And yet, it’s not a subtle observation that a café is full of men, that there are no women, is it? Paul asks if we’ve come to terms with the role of women here. Have I? Paul says he hasn’t. Their objectification, he says, seems even more exaggerated than at home. You see a woman you wouldn’t look twice at in the States, tight this and low-cut that (well, some would look twice, but you get my meaning), she’s alone—and in our building, with its prostitutes to-ing and fro-ing at all hours, you wonder if that’s in fact what she is. It was explained to one of the female teachers (now departed) that if you are a Western woman and you are out alone at night, in this culture you are taken for a prostitute. I don’t want to believe it—nor have I read the same in any guidebook—how is it, then? How do you trust your own perception, or how far do you trust it?

The food was delicious—cardamom-studded rice, aloo ghosht swimming in savory oil—preceded by Hazel’s pistachio ice cream which she declined to finish. She likes the vibrant green, but not enough to lick the dish. We got the food to take away (the second time in five months, same Pakistani restaurant)—and came home in the semi-dark, again crossing the multiple-fountain’d square—Hazel in Paul’s arms the entire way home, snuggled down from what felt like on-coming rain, but then cleared in a march of clouds, west to east. We passed again the spot on Mohammed V where a double-amputee had just been sitting, his two legs ending in stumps at the ankle, one bandaged, the other naked. He was gone now. There was another man across the street in front of the McDonald’s—the first time, he’d been lying beneath a huge billboard advertising Agadir real estate and McDonald’s latest sandwich, eyes closed, fly open. This time when we walked by he was sprawled beside the curb in the street, eyes still closed, head resting awkwardly on the tailpipe of a parked car. Earlier, on our way out the door, we’d crossed our own street and watched an expensively-dressed woman close the door of her late-model white BMW sportscar with a sharp swivel-bang of her hip. Then she stepped into the hanut where we buy milk—her car worth many times over the sum total of all his wares. This place makes your head spin. Home, too, if you’re able to pair such disparities in equal extremes, and perhaps within the span of an hour’s walk. Talk of gender and culture fall away when you don’t have enough to eat and you don’t have a place to sleep.

Hazel and I go to Paris tomorrow morning with my friend Céline and her daughter. We’ll stay with Céline’s mother and grandmother in their apartment in the middle of the city. What will it feel like to leave Morocco (and get to Paris in time for lunch) and come back—to travel with someone who’s chosen to leave France, marry a Moroccan, and make her home here? It sets me thinking, among other things, about the way I can’t keep pace with global travel, that the days of overland routes, boat-crossings and such must have fit more naturally with a body’s rhythms and perceptions of space and time. Hazel, for her part, wants to buy a pair of boots in Paris: “Red,” she says.

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