By nature and by professional training I am a greeter. I make eye contact and smile. I have a keen sense of what is going on around me and I notice things, small details, repetition (the same person or car going by in the same day for example). I say Hello as I pass by strangers. I am the person that people approach to ask questions or directions. Why? Because Carolyn Clark made me believe that a smile is part of my uniform. Because my father made me notice my surroundings and comment on them. Because I am a keen observer of human behavior.
This has always served me well. I have never had a problem in this regard. And then I moved to Morocco.
I have learned rather quickly, that in order to avoid unwanted attention, the easiet thing to do is avoid eye contact. Do not look at strangers directly. Do not smile. As soon as you do (I mean IMMEDIATELY), you send out a Bat Signal. Engage! Engage! It takes very little provocation and suddenly someone named Mohamed is following you and telling you he knows where the best spices are sold, or where you can get a good coat rack, or how he can guide you out of the medina. It happens a lot. But the easiest way, hands down, is to not make eye contact, don’t smile and offer a firm “la, shokran” (no, thank you) No engagement, no magic. Perfect.
Last time I was here of course I couldn’t control myself. So curious. Someone would come by the dinner table with watches to sell and I would look up, curious to see that face. To politely decline and offer my fellow human a regretful look of “sorry dude, but I’m eating and I’m just not interested. Please understand by the look in my eyes that this is not a personal thing. Just go away quietly and we’ll remain friends.” The person would persist. There was an opening there, they saw it. They saw my soft spot. SO Canadian of me. But I have learned – DO NOT MAKE EYE CONTACT, and will be well.
Now this was really really hard for me at first. But I have been well lectured (the more generous term would be informed I suppose but after hearing it several times…..you know), on the virtues of not revealing any (ANY) information to men. Do not engage. Your intentions as a Westerner will be misunderstood. Do not make friends with Moroccan men, do not share with Moroccan men, do listen to Moroccan men. It is very very different here and I probably don’t and won’t fully understand the social impact of this dynamic for some time. I’m starting to get it. Slowly. There is a very strict code among men as it relates to women. It’s not like at home.
So this time when I arrived in Marrakech, especially because I was walking around alone, I employed the blinder system. When walking past a cafe filled with people, or passing between 5 or 6 men on a sidewalk, or walking past a stall or stand, I kept my eyes down, on the ground. No looking up, no looking around. Pure tunnel vision. It damn near killed me the first few times. Completely counterintuitive. But I did it. And I passed by without incident. Occasionally I will give in to curiosity and look up. I almost always laugh and almost always find a friendly smiling face all ready to follow me somewhere and I almost always regret it. But I’m learning.
The exception of course is in more open spaces, with more tourists. Or when I’m with a Muslim man. (The code remember. I am protected and off limits then.) So I am able to look around and notice my surroundings because this noticing and looking is so essential to finding your way around. For building your local mental map. For knowing the routes and shortcuts and how to get back to places.
And that observation served me SO well the other night! My friend Jen came down from Casa to visit for a night. We made a trip to the Jardin Majorelle and the Berber Museum. Later in the day we decided to walk down to Jamaa el F’na Square and take in the crazy medina on a Saturday night. We headed into the souks (covered market) and wandered aimlessly through the super crowded paths with people and kids and scooters everywhere. It’s utter madness and so much fun. Like a ride at Disney. Or human bumper cars with people on scooters and the occasional donkey. A mass of humanity moving, hopefully, forward.
As we wandered I recognized the grilled sardine place I had been to in October! Yay me! A landmark in the maze. A little further ahead and against all logic we ran into Richard and Vinny, the fellows who had driven Jen to town from Casa. So we turned around and headed back towards the square to grab dinner. What a great idea. Me being the one in the crowd who is SO familiar with Marrakech ended up in the lead. I felt pretty confident that we could enter the maze of food “tents” in the centre of the square and find a place to sit and eat. I had done it before under the careful guidance of a guide so surely I could do it on my own no? I decided that as we emerged into one place in the square that we were in the wrong place and it was wise to take a short cut. Wise and shortcut do not belong in the same sentence. Trust me. So off we go to just “cut across” this section of meandering road. Of course the left turn I thought was coming ahead was not a left nor a turn. And we started heading right. Now I have a dear friend and two complete strangers following me and I’m starting to doubt myself as we continue to wander. But I kept my wits about me, held my sense of direction and BAM – out we popped into the square! Not exactly where I thought but good enough. We were able to make our way over to the tents, find a spot and enjoy a wonderful dinner! 300 dh or $38.00 for 4 of us. Whenever I hear people say “Marrakech is more expensive than you think” I will always ask “compared to where?” because compared to Toronto this place is a steal! So proud of myself for finding my way! I am starting to feel better all the time about getting around and have a pretty sense of which way to go. Most of the time. Most. Just as long as I don’t look at anyone on the way there.
Like a boss. I OWNED THAT BITCH!