Letter from Morocco — From the November 2015 issue

Lost Girls

Women, sex, and the Arab Spring

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Meriem became a prostitute because she lost her virginity. She told me this in a house that I was renting in a Moroccan seaside town. It was 2008 and I had just moved there from Fez because the words people used to describe the place were belle and tranquille. Europeans owned homes in the Old City, which they occupied in the summer, when the town was saturated in blue and the beach looked savage and grand. The rest of the year, you saw vacant homes and hungry people and heroin addicts.

Seated on my sofa, Meriem narrated her life story.1 I stopped her on occasion to be sure I wasn’t misunderstanding her Moroccan Arabic. “Your childhood boyfriend raped you?” I asked. I repeated the word she had used, which I assumed meant “rape.” She nodded while I looked it up in my dictionary, but rape wasn’t there.

I tried a different tack. “You’re saying he forced you to have sex with him?” She nodded, sipping her coffee. Then she shook her head. “No,” she said, “we were friends.” I offered her a cigarette. She got a phone call and started arguing with the person on the other end. Then she started crying. She was saying, “I want to live in Spain, Mama. I don’t want to live in Morocco anymore.”

1 Some names and identifying details have been changed.

I noticed that her fingernails had been chewed to nubs and that she had a bruise on her right knee. It was unusual that I could see her knees at all. Indeed, in that first half hour with Meriem, I could almost forget that we were in Morocco and that she wasn’t “good” by Moroccan standards. She was smoking one of my cigarettes; she wasn’t wearing a headscarf; she was exposing her legs. Walking over to my house, she hadn’t even covered her outfit with a djellaba, the traditional hooded cloak.

N. 102 Khadija fumant une cigarette (detail). All artwork and photography by Tiana Markova-Gold, from the series Scènes et Types

N. 102 Khadija fumant une cigarette (detail). All artwork and photography by Tiana Markova-Gold, from the series Scènes et Types

It was Taha, a friend of a friend, who had introduced me to Meriem. Although I had come to Morocco on a grant to study contemporary Francophone women’s writing, I had also begun to learn Darija — another name for Moroccan Arabic, the colloquial language that incorporates bits of Berber, French, and Spanish. There were no academics in the town, and I didn’t want to be tutored by a man. Meriem is a prostitute, Taha had told me, but she’s very smart. I said that I didn’t care what she did when she wasn’t tutoring me. And anyway, it was the kind of language not found in books that I most wanted to learn.

In Fez, I had practiced dialogues that adhered to Morocco’s traditional gender roles: Fatima cooks in the kitchen, while Mohammed sits at the café. My tutor there, an unmarried and conservative woman, punctuated my classroom dialogues with instruction on what good Moroccan women did or did not do. To be seen as good was plainly imperative, which left me at a disadvantage. I wasn’t Muslim, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t a virgin, I lived alone. And I had desires. It seemed impossible for me to befriend good Moroccan women, but I also didn’t want to feel alone.

Meriem taught me: Siir t’Haowa, mEa kht’k Seloua! Go get fucked with your sister Seloua!

I used the phrase only once. It was a hot spring day. I saw a young man walking toward me from afar; as he approached, his gait shifted to a swagger. He could very well have been the same man who’d passed a minute earlier, or two minutes before that. In Morocco, the catcall-to-minute ratio was approximately one to one.

I’d grown skilled at controlling what I saw as I walked: not the catcalling men, but the swallows circling the gates of the Old City as dusk fell, or the tiny seashells embedded in the pavement. This time I focused on an approaching patch of shade — but damn, this man! He placed himself in my path, and at the last moment stopped right in front of me. He smiled and licked his chops. “Salut, ma belle!” he said. “Ça va?” I told him to get fucked with his sister Seloua, and turned away.

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Sarah Dohrmann is a writer in Brooklyn.

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