And I’ve Been to Morocco
May 9, 2009
-A Recent PCV
Nothing makes me cringe so much as hearing someone talk about Morocco. When people talk about Morocco it’s only as real as DisneyWorld and that’s about all of Morocco they ever see or hear about. Casablanca, Agadir, Tangiers and Marrakech conjure exotic Orientalist fantasies filled with Aladdin and bazaars filled with spices or something. On the other hand, there are the people who heard from me when I was at my lowest and these are the ones who never fail to remind me about the worst of my experiences. I don’t regret my service, but I hope to never return to Morocco.
I write this approximately 3 months after I was medically separated for anxiety with 10 months left of my service. Nothing could prepare me for my Moroccan experience, from the unexpected challenges of living in a Muslim society to the unique set of experiences that triggered the beginning of my anxiety. I didn’t walk into Morocco blind, having studied Islamic history and art history, but they don’t talk about street harassment in those classes. I knew I would be in the closet with my community, but I didn’t realize how much I wouldn’t be saying.
I eat pork. I am a smoker. I drink alcohol, like most 20somethings. And, don’t tell my Southern grandparents, I am sexually active. Alcohol and pork are forbidden for everyone by Islam. And good women don’t do the other two. Visits from male PCVs were visits from work colleagues or brothers, and ideally chaperoned by another female volunteer.
Dan Savage once said he only believed in God when his boyfriend was passing another car at 90 mph in a snow storm and stopped believing in Him as soon as they were back in the right lane. Ganesh (a wise Hindu god with the head of an elephant who is known for removing obstacles from one’s life) is my figurehead for a god and I believe in him as often as Dan Savage does in his. Islam (in theory) is fine with other Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity). During in country training, we’re told to just say we’re Christians (unless you’re Muslim) and change the subject. The worst thing you can do is tell a Moroccan that you don’t believe in the God of Abraham, much less imply that you don’t accept the existence of any god, unless the bus is speeding around hairpin turns of the Todra Gorge, narrowly avoiding other cars.
This was the daily struggle, fitting into a culture that had no qualms with not accepting me. To do my job at a Women’s Center (for education), I had to look like a good Muslim, but with a slightly relaxed dress code. I could wear ¾ length sleeves and shirts that only half covered my butt. Leaving the house required changing into street appropriate clothes and steeling myself for the cat calls, the yelling and the general unwanted attention from men that came no matter what I wore, for no reason other than I was a white woman. Every time I thought of leaving my apartment whether for work or food or going to the cyber cafe was weighed against the constant barrage on my self esteem and self worth.
Being a woman in Morocco is hard. There are big cities, where I could relax and be a straight ‘tourist’- something I abhorred having grown up in Florida. During PST (PreService Training) and during IST (In Service Training) I could be my street self with other volunteers. During the one LGBT meeting that was held during my service, I could be my unfiltered bisexual self who is known for a certain wild streak.
In January, the therapist I’d begun seeing in country and I decided that the best thing that could happen for me would be a medical separation. My pillar of strength had COS’d and my province was quickly emptying of volunteers. When, I left my service 10 months early, I was richer a boyfriend, 2 cats and an anxiety/depression disorder. I’m coming to peace with my time spent teaching, which was the highlight of my service, in relation to the bad. I loved my students and the head of my center, and I loved the city I lived in. Will I go back? No. Will I rejoin the Peace Corps? Only if I’m guaranteed 27 months worth of Spam on a beach with attractive and scantily clad host country nationals – so, probably not.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org