Saturday, December 13, 2008

Acceptable... or Not?

One theme that has colored my experience of the past three months in Morocco, is my sense that the relationships between genders seem a lot more free, and a lot less rigidly controlled, than I had always thought. I see mixed groups of friends on the street every day, boys and girls holding hands, touching each other in the way that friends here do, kissing one another on the cheek with each greeting – and all this without any kind of sexual undertone. I still pretend to be completely deaf when addressed by random men on the street, but have noticed also that the occasional brief conversation when waiting in line somewhere, or browsing at a store, is completely acceptable.

Seeing all this flexibility around me, I have been opening myself up a little more. I don’t approach anyone myself, but if someone addresses me on the train when sitting across from me, or asks me a question at a café, I smile and politely respond.

This has happened a few times at a particular café I like to go to. Close to the central train station, this particular café with a Scandinavian name is a very pleasant and comfortable place to sit for women by themselves (which, despite much social change in Morocco, is still uncommon. Cafés remain men’s territory). And most importantly, it has a wireless internet connection. I like to sit at this café during late afternoons, as it gets dark and cold outside, and sip a cup of “café crème” (café au lait) as I write emails, compose new blog posts, read the news, and watch my favorite American television shows on Youtube.

One thing I like about this café is the sense of calm and privacy I have here. There are people and noises all around me, but I am left alone with my computer, I get to drink whatever I want, and there is no one to bother me, to tell me how to do something. Once in a while someone will approach me. This is not something I mind, and it is usually no more than a brief question – usually it is a girl with a flash drive but no computer, who asks me to help her check whether or not she has a certain document on her little portable storage item. Sure, I always say, as long as there’s no virus on that drive…

The other night, two young men sitting at the table next to mine asked me a question about my computer. What kind was it? “Ash pay?” (this refers to HP, Hewlett Packard, which I think is the most well-known brand of computers here). Apples are not well-known here, and I get a lot of compliments on my little sleek, white laptop. The name “apple” didn’t ring a bell with these two men, but “macintosh” did. Yes, they knew it, good computers for designers.

From this, we launched into a polite discussion about what we were all doing in Rabat, and how I liked Morocco. As always, there was the immediate invitation to come visit families in other cities – to this I always politely respond with “insha’llah” – ‘God willing’, which is a great way of neither impolitely refusing, nor making false promises. None of this exchange was unpleasant – they were respectful, left me my space, and politely said good-bye when it was time for me to go and meet up with a friend in Agdal.

I had just been thinking that I had now clearly proved to myself that social contact between genders was thus not as restricted as I had presumed, when I returned to the café the next day and the owner approached me. The waitress (who now knows me so well that I don’t even have to ask for my café crème anymore) had told him what had ‘happened’ last night, and he wanted me to know that he was sorry. He wanted this to be a safe space for people to do their work, he said, and men were not supposed to be ‘bothering’ women sitting by themselves. A little taken aback, I tried to tell him that really, it hadn’t been a big deal – but this was not what he wanted to hear. No, he said, it’s not ok. He assured me he had talked to the two boys in question, who had both apologized. I decided it would be best to thank him. This I did, and a smile of relief came over him. Don’t worry, he said, it won’t happen again.

Left with that reassurance, I sat down at a table, sipped the café crème I no longer have to ask for, and was re-enveloped by a bit of confusion. What exactly had made my exchange from the night before so unacceptable? Did I do anything I shouldn't have? If this wasn't, what, then, is acceptable?

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