Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dreaming in Morocco

In lieu of a written post, I'm going to present you with a visual today. This was sent to me by Hatim, my good friend from Fes. I'm grateful to him for sharing it with me, and will now pass it along to you.

This is a short film entitled "Dreaming in Morocco." It was made in 2007 by Pamela Nice, an independent filmmaker from Minnesota. Hoping to dispel the stereotypes (and perhaps ignorance) that we in the West often hold about Arab youth, Nice interviews a set of young adults in Morocco about their dreams and aspirations. The individuals featured in this film come from all walks of life, and thus showcase some of the incredible diversity that renders Morocco such an intriguing country. The film does not delve into the societal and political issues that confront these youth as they pursue their dreams, and as such does little more than scratch the surface of the true complexity of life in Morocco - but it's an interesting, well-made, and thought provoking film nonetheless. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Running in the park

Last night, I was to have arrived back in Casablanca. I would have de-boarded the plane around nine thirty (had the Air Arabia flight from Brussels not experienced any delays, of course), and I would have tried to catch the ten PM train to Rabat – entering the country would have gone smoothly, because I wouldn’t have checked any luggage.

But in reality, I cancelled both this flight and the one that would have taken me from Chicago to Brussels, and now remain, for the time being, at my parents’ house in Hyde Park. The short version of the story is that, as a Legal Permanent Resident of the United States, one cannot just go and spend two years in a foreign country without keeping the authorities abreast of your intentions and activities. Which is what I am now doing, by means of an application for what is called a re-entry permit.

Hopefully this will be no more than a few weeks’ delay – I told the Clinic that I’d like to start my research around November first, and I hope I can hold myself to that promise. But for now, I’m enjoying the changes of fall (after three years in San Diego, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen leaves change color) and keeping myself busy with episodes of Dexter, movies from Netflix, and new recipes from the Top Chef cookbook. And this morning, I went running along the trail that spans the better part of Chicago’s lakefront. It didn’t go too well – I hadn’t expected otherwise, considering that my last run dates back to the weekend before the start of Ramadan. But whether I’m running, walking, or gasping for air, it’s always a pleasure to be out on that trail and see the Chicago skyline emerging on the waterfront, right as the road curves west around 52nd street.

Ramadan was neither the first, nor the longest break I’ve ever taken from running. In fact, running has only recently become a permanent part of my life in Morocco. Until this past May, being in Morocco always entailed a dire lack of opportunity to exercise – something I tried to make up for by walking everywhere I went (to the great frustration of many a host family, who would rather see me traveling in the safe confines of a taxi).

During my first three-month stay in Morocco – it was Fes, and it was the spring of 2005 – I was advised that exercising was not really something women did. The inescapable (and highly verbalized) male gaze on the street was enough to make any woman think twice about going for a jog – and thus attract even more attention to herself by traversing the public sphere in a run, wearing exercise clothing, and sporting an iPod). Gyms, like cafés, were a man’s domain – and anyway, I was told, I wouldn’t find much there, other than some scant, outdated exercise equipment, eighties-era photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude van Damme, and Moroccan men high on testosterone.

It simply didn’t seem as though there was much more to do than some at-home yoga. I resigned myself to this situation and concluded that exercise must be yet another ‘thing’ that separated the world of Moroccan women so inherently from that of Moroccan men. And I wondered, did the lack of exercise opportunity mean that Moroccan society entertained standards of female health and beauty that didn’t involve thinness and fitness? Or did it entail that women’s bodies will simply always be one step behind men’s in attaining those ideals?*

In any case, I didn’t pack my running shoes the next time I went to Morocco, nor did I bring them the time after that. This was never a decision I regretted, until recently. Stories from people I’d met through the NIMAR led me to discover that, where exercising is concerned, Rabat is no Fes. In my neighborhood alone, there are at least four or five gyms that offer a busy schedule of aerobics and ‘danse orientale’ classes – and every week, that schedule includes a few classes reserved exclusively for those women who wish to exercise in single-sex company.** I’ve even heard reports of actual yoga studios in Agdal – something I will definitely check out personally, if I can afford the rather hefty tuition fees.

But most importantly, there is a certain well-known park in the city’s southern quarters whose name, to most Rbatis, is virtually synonymous with ‘jogging’.

The Hilton park in Rabat is no lakefront trail, but it’s a close second. Located in Souissi, the park spans about a square kilometer of green forest situated right next to the hotel from which it takes its name.*** The park features picnic tables and soccer fields on which families spend their weekend afternoons, but mostly, this park is used by joggers: it features a 3500 meter track that runs along the perimeter and supports consistently heavy traffic, even at my preferred running time of 8 am on Saturday morning.

I encounter people of all shapes and sizes on that trail. Some of them run, and some of them walk. Some are alone, while others exercise in groups. Some listen to music while they run, and others like to chat. I certainly see more men than women, but the women are there – and they are there in all varieties. There are women in full jellaba and headscarf (sometimes topped by a baseball hat to shield against the sun), and women in running outfits like mine. Some wear tracksuits bought from a stall in the medina, and some sport gear from Nike, Zara, or Guess. There are middle-aged mothers, and there are young university students. I run past coiffed and primped groups of friends who chat, laugh, and check their phones for text messages as they stroll around the track – and I am passed by sole women who time their heartbeat as they run and monitor the speed at which they sprint around the track.

I love every minute of my weekly runs at the Hilton park. I love watching this great variety of people out on that trail, and I love the fact that this kind of thing is possible here in Morocco – not just for me as a foreigner, but for all women. And I wonder, what explains the fact that this park is here, now, in Rabat, when there was nothing like it in Fes? Is this a difference between cities – is the culture or population of Fes truly that different from Rabat? Does it perhaps reflect a change in standards of acceptable or ideal behavior that took only four years to take effect? Or is it me – did I simply not see (or take advantage of) the opportunities that existed back then in Fes?

If I have any female Moroccan readers (anyone?), what is your experience or impression of opportunities for exercising in your city, and how is the situation now in comparison to the (recent) past?


I always have some trouble finding inspiration for this blog when I’m not in Morocco. I’ll try to keep writing in the next few weeks as I wait for my paperwork, but I’m afraid my posts will not be all that exciting… please bear with me; I hope I’ll be back to my regular blogging schedule soon enough…

* Islamic theology shares in the very common worldwide belief that women’s bodies are impure during menstruation. According to Scripture, Muslim women cannot pray, cannot touch or read the Qur’an, and cannot fast when they are on their period. I don’t think this necessarily means that Scripture considers women to be inherently inferior to men, but I can’t help but think that this kind of thinking contributes to such a viewpoint, and it’s always made me uncomfortable. And so I wonder, could the lack of opportunity for women to exercise contribute to a general sense that women’s bodies are further away from the healthy or pure ‘ideal’ than men’s?
** For those of you who read Dutch, a friend of mine wrote a fabulous blog post about her local Rbati gym last year.
*** The ‘Hilton park’ is an unofficial moniker. I don’t actually know what the park’s actual name is, but as with many other well-known locations in Rabat, it is the moniker rather than the official name that seems to have stuck to the place.