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.


Anonymous said...

I am a North American living in Marrakech, and while I am desperately out of shape, I have considered myself a runner in the past.
I find a somewhat similar experience to yours in Rabat, but here in Marrakech I see far fewer women running than men. On the street, I have never seen another woman running. At one of the local tracks (a sports area near the Menara Gardens) I did see a couple other women, middle-aged and in hijab with a baseball cap, running/walking. I also saw some other older ladies, not running but walking their dogs. Yet, there are some talented female Moroccan athletes, I have heard of some local Moroccan women who learn martial arts, and girls play sports in school - yet why are they not visible exercising in public areas. The rest of the people at this track were men, in a variety of clothes from those dating back to the eighties/Let's Get Physical aerobics-era, and doing similar, dated, and unsafe exercises, to younger men wearing modern tracksuits and shorts, and doing a variety of more modern-looking exercises.
I have to say, I was extremely disheartened to try to run at this park - though people clearly used it for sport and exercise, it was not maintained in terms of mowing the grass, and it was full of garbage. I will not go back. A lack of public green space and well-maintained free facilities for recreation is an area that the local government or private organizations would do well to give more attention to - not only for exercise, but for play - playgrounds for children are virtually nonexistent here (with the exception of a "play palace" or two which are quite pricey).
I have inquired about gyms here, and have heard that for a decent gym, with reasonably up-to-date equipment, an annual membership can cost as much as 1000 Euros, which is far beyond what I could ever pay. However, in my little neighborhood in the "New Town" of Gueliz, a new gym has just opened up, which advertises lots of different martial arts classes - I will be interested to go inside and check it out. Wish me luck!
I wish you luck in your re-entry process - I know it is not easy. In the meantime, enjoy the sights, smells, and tastes of home!
Thank you for your insights about Moroccan life and culture - I will keep reading.

Omar said...

Actually, Rabat is much more different than Fes.
The major part of people leaving in Rabat, work in public administrations. They have received higher education, and are more open to modernity. Rabat has always been a city full of diplomats and foreigners.
Fez is much more traditional and let's say "macho". Moreover, Fez has become much more insecure these last years...
And by the way, the official name of Hilton Park, is "Ibn Sina Park", but no body uses it :-)
Also, the Hilton hotel nearby is now called the Sofitel. Confusing hum?

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. A few observations from a Muslim woman married to a Moroccan (just to give context where my responses are coming from)...

Moroccan men (well, I can't speak for all, but many many) like a woman to have some meat on her bones, so I believe that Moroccan society does entertain standards of beauty that does not involve thinness. I've also noticed that once a woman gives birth, there is not a single ounce of pressure to lose weight and often thinness is a sign of unhealthiness. As for the second question in the same paragraph, I don't think it's a matter of women's bodies being behind. In Islam, a woman is considered equal, but different. In this regard, health and fitness holds the same importance for men and women in Islam...both genders should take care of themselves in every way.

I think the lack of women's facilities in Rabat (or Morocco as a whole) is actually a matter of social status. Those who are on the wealthier side can afford to think about their physical fitness and actually pay for the gym membership. Those who are on the less fortunate side (of which there are many) are more concerned with where their next meal is going to come from than working off the calories from it. From my point of view, exercise is for the elite of Morocco, whether at a free park or local gym.

As a Muslim woman, I prefer to workout at home (ha ha, when I actually want to work out) to DVD's because I prefer to work out in less attire than I would have to wear if I worked out in a mixed gym atmosphere (it's the one time things get hot under the veil!) Not to mention, I don't find it appropriate to work out in a mixed atmosphere. Even women's gyms are not always prone to no males in attendance. Many other women might feel the same as me and also work out at home instead, but I'm not sure about that.

I want you to know that nothing about a woman's restriction for prayer, Qur'an and fasting has anything to do with inferiority. No one is allowed to pray or touch the Qur'an in a state of impurity, it just so happens women have an entire week of impureness due to menses. I don't have a problem with this idea because I never feel totally clean during that time, but that may just be me. As far as fasting, I think it is also in part a protection for women that they need additional nourishment during that time as well, so it's not just about impurity.

Rachel said...

Hey Charlotte! I just stumbled upon your blog through RiadZany... but this is Rachel Newcomb, we've corresponded off and on about Moroccan research issues. Terrific blog, by the way. But Fes is not that different from Rabat, nor was it when I was there for two years from 2000-02 - I wrote a whole chapter in my book about American Steel Fitness, an exercise club with sauna where men and women could both work out every day. Women didn't like to lift weights much b/c they were afraid of getting too muscle-y, but they were into the aerobics classes. I also used to go running at Champs de Course, an old French racetrack in the vicinity of the new royal palace, and there were always tons of people walking or running around if it was six in the morning, though by eight or so it would get deserted and there would be harassment. I also felt like there were more people age 50+ out exercising, as if their doctors had told them they needed to get back in shape. But when I went back this year I saw they had bulldozed it and were planning to put up a luxury hotel and shopping mall. BUT there is a hot new club now called Taille Fine in Fes that has swimming, yoga, belly dancing, aerobics, etc. It is on the Rue d'Immouzer. Fes is not as cosmopolitan as Rabat, but it tries. :)

Zoé said...

I just came across your blog. I am a recent graduate from the u of c and did anthro! And, I am about to take off to Rabat for a couple of months. I am also a runner so this post was super interesting. I was hoping I could get your e-mail to get a little more insight on what to expect in rabat. This is my first time to North Africa. Besides general advice, I wanted to get some recommendations on reading material. My email is
Great blog!