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Women, sex, and the Arab Spring

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.”

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.

Maybe I had it coming. I was, after all, wearing a black dress cut at the knee. I’d been on my way to a concert at the French Consulate in Tangier, wearing ankle boots and carrying black high heels in my handbag. I had just finished a three-hour online chat with a man in New York. We’d spoken of his impending visit, of sex. I felt reckless and beautiful in my dress as I made my way to the town’s thrown-together bus station.

When I arrived in Tangier, I hailed a petit taxi to the consulate. The hall was almost empty when I entered, leaving me to my thoughts of the chat. I imagined the man’s hands reaching under my dress in a hotel room, the view from our balcony overlooking the port, the distant sound of a ship’s horn reverberating in our room. Then a group of men in suits sat down behind me. One began talking to me as if it were nothing at all — as if we were friends and he knew what I had on my mind. He said he was the manager of El Minzah, the most luxurious hotel in town, and gave me his card. “You will call me if you need anything?” he said. “Yes,” I said, though I couldn’t conceive of a single thing I would need from the manager of El Minzah.

The concert started. A friend of mine was performing. She sang songs in Hebrew while two other women sang in Spanish and Arabic. There was a man who played the violin while the three women sang folk songs and prayers, and my friend played the harp. Their songs sounded like pleas. Afterward, I walked to the veranda to smoke a cigarette. The lawn outside the veranda was a dense green smear, and beyond the glade was a high white wall with a rash of bougainvillea clinging to it. I could hear the shouts and car horns of Tangier on the other side.

The room where Khadija lived

The room where Khadija lived

A Frenchman joined me. He was tall, with boyish curls and a sidewise smile. By then I was on my second gin and tonic. He asked if I would like to have dinner with him and I said yes. We left the consulate and walked up a hill to a small restaurant that served wine. He told me about his Turkish girlfriend, who was either a concert pianist or a human-rights worker, I can’t remember which. We spoke to each other in French; with the waiters, I spoke Darija and he spoke Modern Standard Arabic. I was embarrassed to be with a man who spoke Modern Standard Arabic to waiters. It seemed stuffy to me, but his only other option was French, which had its own negative connotations in Morocco.

After dinner we went to a bar, and then to a club, and then to a strip of clubs on the beach. I took off my heels to walk barefoot in the sand. The Frenchman might have kissed me then.

He was staying at El Minzah. I remember the long hallways, the carpets and candle sconces. He took two Heinekens out of his minifridge. We lay on the bed fully clothed and fell asleep.

The bed in a hotel where Khadija meets customers

The bed in a hotel where Khadija meets customers

The next morning I awoke to the telephone ringing — ringing and ringing, on and on, until I finally answered. A woman was on the other end. “Who is this?” she wanted to know. I hung up. “Your girlfriend just called,” I said.

The phone rang again. “Shit,” the Frenchman said. He answered, sat on my side of the bed with his head in his hands, lit a cigarette, and tried to convince the woman that the front desk had patched her in to the wrong room. “No, darling, there’s no woman here.” He took the phone into the bathroom. My head was pounding. After some time he came back to the bed, replaced the phone on the nightstand, and lit another cigarette. “You smoke too much,” I said. The phone rang again as he took off my black dress and kissed me. Later, we stood on the street in front of the hotel. I was wearing my boots again; the heels were in my handbag. He was on his way to the airport. He told me he was sorry that he couldn’t take me out for breakfast before returning to Paris. I said it was all right. He gave me his card.

When I spoke Darija to Moroccans, even badly, they often took me into their confidence. It made me different from the Westerners who came to buy property and stayed for years without ever learning a word of the language. Some viewed me with suspicion, as a possible CIA operative; others pitied me. Luckily, pity went a long way in Morocco. From taxi drivers, concerned neighbors, teachers, and newfound friends, I received frequent unsolicited advice on how not to be confused for a prostitute. The lessons were delivered so often that I came to see the issue as a national obsession.

If you smoke cigarettes in public, people will think you are a prostitute. Do not put lipstick on in public, not even lip balm. Don’t put anything on your face in public at all. Don’t overly wax your eyebrows — you can have them waxed, but not too waxed. See? Don’t sit on the ground. Don’t spread your legs even a tiny bit while sitting and especially not while sitting on the ground. Don’t chew gum in a solicitous manner. Don’t chew gum at all. Don’t go to nightclubs. Don’t go to bars. Don’t go to cafés. If you must go to cafés, at least go to the right kind, and go with a girlfriend, never a man. Never be seen alone with a man, never, not anywhere. Don’t wear anything that shows your knees. Don’t show your feet, don’t show your upper arms, don’t wear red. Don’t walk alone after the sun has gone down. Never go out alone, and especially not at night — I mean, you can do whatever you want, you’re a foreigner, but not even prostitutes go out alone at night.

The Kingdom of Morocco is a constitutional monarchy based in part on Islamic law. Although its people are diverse (Arabs, Berbers, Saharans, scant Jews and Christians, sub-Saharan Africans migrating northward), it is an Islamic country of Islamic mores. One of these is gender segregation. Another is that a man ought to be his family’s sole provider, although in reality this is becoming difficult. The 2004 Family Law, which aimed to modify traditional practices, was at least a theoretical step in the direction of equality. It granted women more rights in the negotiation of marriage contracts, limited polygamy, and officially raised the minimum marriage age for females from fifteen to eighteen. (It also granted judges wide latitude to allow younger people to marry — in 2011, 12 percent of the country’s marriages involved at least one minor, and almost all those minors were girls.)

But this much hasn’t changed: in Morocco it is still culturally and socially imperative that a woman be a virgin before marriage. Many marriage contracts include a clause stipulating that the bride produce a certificate of virginity before the wedding can take place. A falsified certificate is grounds for divorce.

One night I asked a Moroccan friend about this. He was an upper-class man in his late twenties who’d been educated abroad and whose family owned a grocery-store chain (and who, in fact, I’d been sleeping with). He laughed and said, “Sarah, I don’t know a single unmarried Moroccan woman who’s still a virgin.”

Lucky for you, I thought. “When you get married,” I asked, “will you marry a virgin?”

“Of course,” he said, without hesitation. “For my family!”

Consensual sex between unmarried people is illegal in Morocco. But the law is one thing, actual sex is another. In Morocco, a complex sleight of hand takes place between the state and its people. On one hand, Moroccans seem self-policing, puritanical, absolutist; on the other, they find ways for unmarried men and women to come together despite the law. A woman can have her hymen resewed, but the surgery is expensive. Or, if she’s resourceful and a skilled actress, she might resort to an artificial hymen made in China, a soluble pouch filled with fake blood to be inserted twenty minutes before penetration.

I met Khadija and her friend Ghita at a café inside a circus-style tent on the edge of town. A ten-piece band was playing chaabi music at an absurd volume to a room filled with apple-scented smoke and pubescent boys seated at plastic patio tables with sunflower seeds and soda bottles piled high. Khadija pulled me up to dance with her a couple of times, but I shied away. When she finally succeeded, we danced face-to-face, smiling and ignoring the eyes that fell on us.

After we danced, we sat next to each other in the back of the tent. We didn’t talk because it was impossible to hear, but still there were signs of friendship. She shoved her pack of cigarettes in my direction and I took one; a man came up to her to talk, and after she’d laughed and flirted with him for a while, she sat down and rolled her eyes at me.

Later that night, she sat with me on my sofa, sipping hot tea. We talked about family. Her father had died when she was young, which explained, she said, why she had dropped out of school after third grade and how, at fourteen, she’d been raped by a neighbor. Eventually I learned that, in order to uphold the family’s honor, she had been forced to marry the man who had raped her, a not uncommon practice in poor communities, and one the Moroccan penal code encouraged until recently by exonerating rapists of minors who married their victims.

Khadija asked me, “Is your mother still living?”

It was an odd question. She hadn’t asked about my father, even though we had been talking about hers. “No,” I replied, “she’s not.” My mother, a feminist leader in Iowa, killed herself in 1978. I didn’t say this, and Khadija didn’t ask anything further.

I liked Khadija. She didn’t judge me for being unmarried, or for smoking cigarettes and drinking in public. Nor did she make fun of my Arabic or force me to repeat Maghreb zween (“Morocco is beautiful”) or Islam zween (“Islam is beautiful”). Together we smoked hash, flirted with men, and danced.

I learned from a mutual friend that Khadija was a prostitute. The boys she left with at the end of the night were customers, not casual flings. It was difficult for me to recognize the difference, since she didn’t go home with someone every night, and it all looked so much like casual sex in the United States. I’m still not certain she was paid each time.

Weeks passed. My rental home was burglarized. My computer was stolen and, with it, most of my research. But by then I had already abandoned my original project. Instead I began to write about Khadija and Ghita. I sat in the café where they worked, I listened to their talk, we danced, we smoked, we drank tea — and then I went home and wrote it down.

I told the women I was writing about them, and began recording our conversations. I wasn’t hiding anything, and they weren’t looking for explanations. Still, the complexity of the situation unnerved me. In a country that was a colonial protectorate as recently as 1956, and that was still notably touchy about image and seldom tolerant of critical dialogue, a Western woman writing about prostitutes was bound to encounter suspicion, although Khadija and Ghita didn’t seem to mind. Of course, they were unaware of the kind of power that someone writing about their lives could have. They could barely read Arabic, let alone English. They knew about the Internet, but I’m not sure whether they had ever been online.

During this time, Ghita suggested to Khadija that they give up prostitution for factory work. But Khadija wasn’t interested. She pointed out that they wouldn’t make nearly as much money, and would have to rise at dawn and work ten hours a day. It was clear that Khadija made the decisions for the pair, even though she wasn’t as bright as Ghita, who had a small animal’s keenness (and who, having been gang-raped as a teenager, was always looking over her shoulder).

One night I went to a café to meet the women, but Khadija wasn’t there. Ghita said that she’d been kidnapped by her boyfriend, who lived somewhere near Tangier, and that he had probably locked her up. It’s happened before, she added.

I contacted a visiting American scholar who was studying Moroccan domestic violence to ask what I should do. She said I could call a hotline in Tangier to report the problem, but since no one knew where Khadija was, it was unlikely to do much good. I wondered whether Ghita knew more than she had said — whether she was worried that my involvement would make matters worse, whether she had resigned herself to the belief that nothing could be done.

The police weren’t an option, since they were unlikely to help a prostitute and might even prosecute her. I felt distressed and powerless, so I did the thing I do when faced with dire situations: I slept. I slept for a few days until I could work up the courage to call Ghita and ask whether she had heard anything. “Oh yes,” she said, “Khadija’s back at the café.” When I went, I saw Khadija with a cut lip and yellow bruises circling each eye. She was still smoking, still working, and still alive.

Khadija was a rebellious person, a frustrated person, a person whose life was incredibly unstable. Yet I also saw in her someone who thrived on risk, its highs and lows. I’m not saying she enjoyed working as a prostitute, but she took pride in not letting her spirit be ground down by a factory job. She no longer had a husband to serve; she didn’t live with male relatives who oversaw her life and gave it a veneer of respectability. She didn’t have a pimp either. She was free, to some degree, of society’s expectations, because she had stepped outside that society’s conventional boundaries long ago.

My grant money ran out. Before I left Morocco, I went to Khadija’s house to give her some clothes. The place was more construction site than actual abode: chalky poured concrete and dust everywhere. On the floor of the windowless ten-by-ten room that she shared with Ghita were orange peels, cigarette butts, pots of moldy food, clothes, makeup in shoeboxes, and two skinny mattresses.

Khadija pulled a bottle of liquid medicine from under her djellaba. I asked what it was for and she said that she hadn’t had her period in five weeks. We left it at that. I took my clothes out of various bags. She tugged at the denim of my jeans to test the quality, and stroked the silk of one of my skirts. Then she began to cry. I rubbed her back, feeling bad that I’d brought the clothes, that I’d changed our friendship, making myself into the American with handouts and Khadija into the Moroccan appreciating them.

She asked when I’d be leaving for the United States, and I told her in a few days. Then she asked when I was coming back to Morocco, and I told her I didn’t know.

A day or two later, just before my flight, she called me from a pay phone to ask for money for an abortion. Our mutual friend had told me that Khadija was lying about being pregnant. “She wants your money,” he said. I didn’t have it anyway.

Then came revolution in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya — and, for one shining moment, in Morocco. On February 20, 2011, thousands of young activists around the country rallied for a new constitution, an end to corruption, and a reduction of the monarchy’s power. On March 9, King Mohammed VI responded to the February 20 movement by announcing constitutional reforms and appointing a commission to draft amendments. The protesters, whose numbers included radical youths, Islamists, teachers, doctors, and the educated unemployed, viewed the king’s handpicked commission as insufficiently democratic, and refused to be mollified by the promised reforms.

Lip service or not, the king’s speech opened up the potential for popular dialogue unlike any in Morocco’s history, and feminist groups began angling to include a guarantee of gender equality in the new constitution. Still, it didn’t look like traditional mores would change anytime soon. All over Morocco, lost girls sat in cafés, waiting for clients.

That was when I went back. It had been more than two years since I had spoken with Khadija. The café in the seaside town was still there. On the ground floor were the same tables, facing the same televisions suspended from the ceiling. Solitary men sat sipping espresso and smoking cigarettes, their gazes still trailing lazily over your body when you entered. Still the same mirrored walls and pillars, the same eyes and reflections of eyes.

The second floor was half full. I thought I saw Khadija, but it wasn’t her. Not five minutes passed, however, before I saw a woman emerge from a stewy disk of smoke at the top of one of the two spiral staircases. Her hair was dyed black. She was kissing friends hello. She turned to face me. It was Khadija.

Khadija putting on makeup in her room

Khadija putting on makeup in her room

She had changed. Gone was her floral-print djellaba — in its place was a black one made of clingy rayon and decorated with a dense silver appliqué. She was wearing makeup, and had lost the look of a wild kid who was out to have fun and get paid for it. She was shocked to see me but hugged me immediately. Then she sat down and said she had a daughter now, Noura, and that Ghita had a son. So it had been true that she was pregnant.

I asked whether she had a picture of Noura with her. “No,” she said. She told me that Ghita’s first child had been given to a family in a nearby village, but that Ghita had kept the new baby, a boy, and was living with her grandmother and an uncle just outside town. As for Noura, she was living with a cousin. Khadija looked away when she told me this.

We were deep into catching up when all of the women at the surrounding tables rose to leave. “What’s going on?” I asked. “The police have arrived,” Khadija said. Her cell phone rang, and someone shouted her name from downstairs. “In a minute!” she called out, unfazed.

Khadija didn’t hold my earlier disappearance against me. Within a few weeks, she invited me to her new room, where she and her roommate lived out of suitcases and slept on thin mats. The place was windowless except for a big hole where the ceiling met the wall, which the women had plugged with a cushion. Khadija had to secure the door with a padlock, so the room felt like a kind of container, with its two inhabitants in a state of permanent transience.

“Everything costs money,” she said one evening as I sat with her and Ghita at the café. Rent, food, clothes, children: everything cost money and no one had it. Ghita got up to say goodbye.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I have to go,” she said, and left.

“She doesn’t work from the café anymore,” Khadija said. Ghita now wore a headscarf and had exchanged her djellaba for jeans and a hot-pink shirt with long sleeves. I asked whether the headscarf confused potential customers. “No,” Khadija replied. “Everyone knows who she is, and anyway, some men like that.”

Khadija and Ghita walking at night

Khadija and Ghita walking at night

Later that evening, I saw Ghita from afar, walking down a barren street lined with buildings under construction. Her figure was small against the steel girders and the tarps flapping in the wind. I approached and kissed her hello as if we hadn’t seen each other in a long time.

“Aren’t you afraid?” I asked. I thought of her son at home.

“It’s safe,” she said.

“How many men do you meet like this?”

“Not many. It depends.”

Dusk had fallen, and the swallows had quieted. We could see only the whites of each other’s eyes, and our teeth. I asked where she took her customers, and she said a hotel. Which one? “That one,” she said, pointing to a tall, glowing structure on a hill.

Let’s go,” Khadija said one day at the café. Ghita and I had come to meet her earlier than usual. I thought she was leaving to see a client in Tangier, but she led us silently to the oceanfront promenade. She sat on a concrete ledge and Ghita sat next to her. When Khadija finally spoke, she said that she was pregnant.

“Again?” I said. It just came out like that. “What are you going to do?”

She motioned with her hands, moving them below her belly to pull an invisible something from her groin. “I’ve already got a baby,” she said. Ghita looked down. Clearly she’d known.

Khadija said she knew a girl in Tangier who knew a doctor. If the price was too high, she’d go to another clinic, near Casablanca, but the cheaper clinic didn’t use painkillers. “I’ve already got a baby,” she said again.

I asked whether she knew whose it was. She looked angry that I had asked and said it didn’t matter.

Under Moroccan law, abortions are regarded as an offense against public morality, prohibited unless necessary to protect the mother’s health. But a week later, I went with Khadija to see the doctor in Tangier. Three elderly country women sat on a leather couch in the outer reception area; inside was another waiting room, where a man and a woman sat with their toddler, a boy with big eyes and a serious face.

Before leaving for the clinic, I had looked up the verbs expect and plan in my dictionary. If it came up, I wanted to express my regret that I hadn’t been able to help her during my earlier trip — but also to be able to say that I wouldn’t feel right about paying for this abortion either.

When we went into the examination room, the doctor rubbed gel on a wand, then applied the wand to Khadija’s belly. “Yes, she’s pregnant,” he said, in French. “Beautiful women always get pregnant.” I translated his words into Darija for Khadija, who didn’t seem flattered.

“These are pills for her to take,” the doctor said, writing a prescription. “After seven days, she must come back to see me. We will do another ultrasound to see if she is still pregnant. If she is, we’ll have to do a surgical abortion.” This visit was free, he added, but the next time she would have to pay 200 dirhams (about $25). If she was still pregnant at the next visit, the surgical abortion would cost 2,000 dirhams. For sex, Khadija earned 200 dirhams, sometimes less.

We got into a taxi. “Pharmacy Paris!” Khadija told the driver. She paid 47 dirhams for the pills, and once we returned to the street, I watched how other Moroccans watched her. Boys screamed out to her, women looked at her sideways. Were they looking because she was beautiful? Because she was a stranger? Because they knew she was a prostitute? I wanted to access their thoughts, and then I wanted to protect Khadija against them.

Khadija kept working during her pregnancy, about which she spoke little. When I asked whether she was still taking the pills, she said yes. She was going to the café earlier than usual, because the police had started sweeping the area, picking up girls inside and on the street, but they generally didn’t come by until evening.

One day when I arrived at the café, I saw Khadija sitting at a corner table with a man I had never met. The minute I sat down with them, he got up, taking his newspaper with him. The waiter came, and I ordered a Coke. Khadija said nothing. As always, an American movie was playing on multiple televisions, with Arabic subtitles and the sound muted. This one starred Leonardo DiCaprio. He was someplace tropical and distant, on a vacation gone terribly wrong, running from brown people in a jungle.

Khadija was hoping for a client, but few men were around this early in the day. When the girls were picked up by the police, she said, they were taken to the station, forced to pay some money, then released. No big deal. I asked whether she had ever been picked up, and she said no. I asked whether a woman who was picked up might have to sleep with a policeman in order to be released. “It happens,” she said. “And they still have to pay the fine.”

Khadija had a habit of sighing when there was nothing to be said or done. She would say, “Iwa,” which was like saying “Oh, well” or “So,” to no one in particular. Sometimes she would say this when she had been waiting a long time, which meant she said it often. “Iwa,” she said as the film played. Then she added a Moroccan expression, something to do with Allah, and those you meet, and khiir — goodness. She said the phrase slowly a few times and made me repeat it.

“Like that,” she said. “Very good, Sarah. You understand?” I said I did, though as with most expressions of hope, all I got was the gist.

We watched Leonardo DiCaprio peer at us through binoculars, after which he and a brunette had what looked like a crucial fight. I asked Khadija whether she knew what a Family Booklet was.

The Family Booklet proves a Moroccan’s identity and civil status. With few exceptions, the country restricts ownership of one to married men, and it contains the details of births, marriages, divorces, and deaths for each family member. Being listed in a Family Booklet allows its bearer to obtain a national identity card, a passport, a driver’s license, medical care and social services, legal aid, a vaccination booklet, a birth certificate, a marriage certificate, and a residence certificate. A booklet is also required in order to register for literacy classes, gain employment, start a business, purchase property, open a bank account, receive money transfers, claim an inheritance, and enroll children in school. In short, without a Family Booklet, a Moroccan does not legally exist.

Yes, Khadija told me, she knew what a Family Booklet was. She was looking down at her coffee, stirring it. I sensed that she didn’t like the question.

“Is your daughter listed in a Family Booklet?” I asked.

She said no. Then she turned to face me. “You know, Ghita provides for her whole family. Did you know that?”

Khadija pointed to the coffee in front of her, tugged on her djellaba, then pointed to her cell phone and to the television. She pressed the fingertips of her right hand together and pointed them toward her mouth to indicate food. “All of it,” she said. “Ghita has to provide all of it for her family — for her grandmother, her son, her uncle who won’t get a job.”

“I know,” I said. “I know.”

Khadija got up to use the bathroom. I waited for her to come out, but a long time passed without any sign of her. Leonardo DiCaprio was performing an assisted suicide for a comrade, pinching his nostrils: the man’s head started to convulse and his body went limp. Khadija was still not back. Where was she? Had the police taken her?

Finally, she reappeared. She had been concealed behind a mirrored pillar, and now she stood at a man’s table, talking. I watched his hand cup her ass, travel up to her lower back, then slide back down to her ass and linger there for several minutes. She leaned over and picked up his cigarettes, then walked back to our table, smiling. She filled her own pack with his cigarettes and returned to give him what was left. When she came back again, she said, “Iwa.

I wanted to ask whether she had a Family Booklet for herself, but I chickened out. Instead, we left the café. “If you could do any other work,” I said once we were outside, “what would you do?”

“Like what?” she asked. We walked in silence for a bit. In one hand, she was holding her shiny wallet and a blue pack of Gauloises. She wore sunglasses, a pair with curly silver designs on the sides that went well with the appliqué of her djellaba.

“Like what?” she asked again. “I can’t read, Sarah.”

I didn’t dare suggest she work in a factory. “You could do hair.”

“You have to be able to read to work in a salon,” she said. “To get the license.” We walked a bit further.

“Well, why don’t you learn to read?” I said.

“I know I should.”

“You can,” I said. “You’re young and you can still learn to read.”

“There are places here,” she volunteered, “for people like me.” She tilted her chin toward the town.

I wanted to imagine her sitting in a literacy class, but I couldn’t. I could only see her getting up from her desk to leave.

The protests continued in Marrakesh, in Rabat, in Casablanca. In May, in the coastal city of Temara, the February 20 movement attempted a protest picnic outside the headquarters of the state intelligence agency — where a secret CIA-funded detention center was believed to be located. Many of the protesters were beaten.

I learned that Fadoua Laroui, a single mother of two, had set herself on fire in Souk Sebt, a hundred miles northeast of Marrakesh. It happened just two months after a Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, had set off the Arab Spring by doing the same thing. Laroui died two days after immolating herself. Her death received very little press coverage, but you can watch purported footage of the immolation online. Moroccan officials said that she was crazy. Others said that she killed herself out of desperation — that the shanty where she lived with her children had been destroyed, and that the land she had been promised as part of a public-housing program had been sold to a local businessman. She had appealed six times through the proper channels, and had been told each time that she couldn’t benefit from the program because she was a single mother, and therefore not the head of a household.

A poster of four generations of Moroccan kings on the wall of a café

A poster of four generations of Moroccan kings on the wall of a café

Khadija had never heard of Fadoua Laroui. I asked her whether she knew what was happening with the constitutional reforms. She said she understood that there would be changes, but she didn’t know what they would be. In fact, no one knew what they would be: the king’s commission was still drafting them. Even so, pro-monarchy groups waded through the town’s streets holding up photographs of the king emblazoned with the word nam (“yes”) — propaganda encouraging Moroccans to vote in favor of the reforms, no matter what they were.

Not long after, Ghita spoke to me about Khadija. Her problem, Ghita said, was that she was always looking for love and always giving away her things. “She’ll let men do anything to her,” Ghita said. “It’s shameful for the rest of us.” I was surprised to hear her turn against her friend. “She lets men do anything they want,” she said again. I imagined Khadija inside a hotel room with a man on top of her. I wondered if what Khadija wanted counted for much.

“She should be more secret,” Ghita said. “It’s important to work in secret, so that one day when you want to stop and get married, your man doesn’t know what you did before. Your man is not going to want to marry a prostitute.”

Ghita allowed that some men might be willing to marry a prostitute. “They’ll do it to have a good relationship with God, maybe to make up for bad deeds. They feel like they’re doing a good thing, helping a girl out of a bad situation. The girl will feel like this man saved her life, and she will love him and they’ll be happy. A lot of women have been through this,” she said. “It’s not rare.”

I was about to travel to the south of the country, before returning to the United States. For days, I called Khadija in hopes of arranging a last visit. I had makeup and other things to give her, but each time we planned to meet, she stood me up. I gathered she didn’t want to see me again, or that she had found a new boyfriend. I found Ghita walking the streets as the sun fell and gave her my gifts to pass along.

A week later, Khadija called. I was far from the seaside town by then. “What’s with that makeup you gave to Ghita?” she asked. I told her the makeup had been intended for her. “She kept it for herself,” Khadija said.

There was nothing I could do. We haven’t spoken since. I’ve tried to call, but her number no longer works, and neither does Ghita’s. Our mutual friend told me that Ghita had stopped working as a prostitute, and that Khadija had left town. Where she went, nobody seemed to know.

Between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas mountain ranges, where the earth turns dry, in a city not far from where Fadoua Laroui died, I met a widow named Fatima who was living with her three children. One was a clever five-year-old girl named Marwah, another a three-year-old boy named Youssef. Fatima’s eldest child was a severely handicapped ten-year-old girl who had to lie constantly on her back. Her arms and legs were like twigs, her feet like soft round cushions that were cold to the touch. I spoke to her in a silly Arabic, and she smiled.

I was in the region to conduct writing workshops for sex workers. They were hosted by nongovernmental women’s associations that also provided literacy courses, vocational training, and counseling for victims of rape and domestic violence. Some offered temporary housing for single mothers. The groups couldn’t say outright that they provided services for sex workers, though many of them did. They were secular, and often funded by other countries.

Fatima had sat next to me during one of these workshops, leaning in and whispering, “You’ll come to my house to meet my daughter?” That night she served tea, petit pains, meloui (a spongy pancake), and semolina bread. She told me that she had started doing sex work after her husband died. Then she tried to sell me a rug she had made on a loom in one of the house’s three small rooms.

Moroccan rooftops

Moroccan rooftops

It was exactly the kind of rug I’d always wanted to buy in Morocco, a large, ivory-colored Beni Ourain shag with black crisscrosses. She was asking 200 dirhams, the same amount she would have received from a middleman who would hawk it to tourists at a significant profit. In America, it might have been worth a thousand dollars or more, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. I imagined it under my feet back home. I might like it for a few weeks, but then it would make me sad, and I’d roll it up and shove it under my bed.

Fatima said that sex work scared her. She was afraid of getting sick. She did it strictly to support her children.

Then she told me a story about a man who had hired her for a night. She and a few other women had climbed into his 4×4. It was nighttime and the tinted windows in the truck were so dark that she couldn’t see where they were being taken. They were told only that they were going to a villa. The man had offered the women 1,000 dirhams each, enough to cover Fatima’s expenses for at least two months. When she got to the villa, she said, the man told her to fuck his dog.

“Did you?” I asked.

“Yes,” Fatima said. “I drank a lot of alcohol, then I fucked his dog.”

“Did he pay you the money he promised?”

“Yes, he paid me. He paid us all.”

A boy came into the house as she told the story. “His mother is a prostitute, too,” Fatima explained. He sat in a chair at the far end of the room and looked down. “Does he see his mother often?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Fatima said, and posed the question to the boy. “No,” he said. He was ten years old, and small. A perfectly good boy, but still his mother had disappeared.

It was time to leave. “You will not buy my rug?” Fatima said. No, I explained, it was too big to bring on the plane. “It will roll up small!” she said. I told her I was sorry.

Along with the neighbor boy and her two younger children, she accompanied me down the hill to find a cab. The boy held my hand as we walked.

The next morning I was sitting by myself in a hotel café drinking coffee, and I thought, How does a woman fuck a dog?

Men were seated at the tables around me. I was the only woman in the room. On the TV was news of war. The Americans were in Libya now. There were images of mass protests, then of explosions, bright balls of light, garish clouds ballooning in a black sky.

Within the month, King Mohammed VI would unveil his constitutional reforms and call for a referendum. The proposal stipulated that a prime minister, chosen from the largest party in parliament, would take over as the head of the government, although the king would retain control of the judiciary, the military, and the Islamic faith in Morocco. There was even an article guaranteeing women civic and social equality with men. The February 20 movement argued that the process had been undemocratic — but, according to Moroccan officials, 98 percent of voters approved the new constitution.

World leaders, ignoring allegations of fraud, praised Morocco’s handling of the reforms. The process was hailed as a model for the region. Not long after, a sixteen-year-old Moroccan girl named Amina Filali killed herself with rat poison in order to escape her husband, a man she had been forced to marry after he raped her when she was fifteen.

Once I finished my coffee at the café, I made my final visit to a woman working in prostitution. Her name was Fatima, too. She was a mother, and she had also experienced damage and hurt. She was funny and warm and crass and political. She was not resigned, and I loved her for it.

Sarah Dohrmann is a writer in Brooklyn.

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November 2015

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