|We arrived in Morocco by overnight bus from Granada, Spain. Our bus was full of young Moroccans—male and female—who had just finished a 2-week program in Granada to get certified as Spanish language teachers. They were on their way home. Just before leaving the station at 4am, we were befriended by Adil, who besides Arabic and French, spoke Spanish, a little German and Italian, and very good English. For the rest of our ride to Fès (where he lives and we were going) he offered up lots of interesting tidbits about Morocco and even helped us find a hotel upon arrival.
Fès isn't Morocco's most modern city, nor is it even very big. It is said to be the symbollic heart of the country, best known for its fascinating medina—the ancient city. For the next few days, we wandered from the twisted alleys of the old city to the wide boulevards of the new, getting a good dose of "newness" having just come from Spain. People we interacted with—at the hotel, in cafés/restaurants, shops, ticket offices, on the streets (getting help on directions)—were all generally friendly and helpful. They were also all men.
Our second night in Fès I commented to Gregg how I didn't recall having spoken to a single woman. By comparison to many other Islamic countries, Morocco is considered to be more "liberated" in terms of womens' freedom. On the surface, even just from what we could see from the window of our bus ride to Fès, it seemed true enough. Though I saw plenty of women (and men) in the traditional hooded bernouses, I hadn't seen a single woman completely veiled and wearing a chador. Women do not frequent cafés and teahouses, but they are in the streets, on buses, in shops, and sometimes with men. Judging from the male-female ratio of the Moroccan students we'd ridden the bus with, advanced education is accessible to women and they are expected to work. Ahhh, how deceiving appearances can be, I would later be reminded.
With our festival (Fès festival of World Sacred Music) tickets in hand and a room secured for the following week, we decided to set out for Rabat and begin dealing with the dreaded Mauritanian visa situation. We got on a bus the third day, adding to the chaos of other passengers as we discovered the seat numbers on the tickets were moot since the seats themselves weren't actually marked. Fortunately, Gregg and I scored two places in the back, across the aisle from each other. I sat beside a woman, he a man.
This woman, Fatima,as she would later tell me, was mumbling in Arabic how senseless it was that they sell more tickets than there are places on the bus. We soon got to talking in French as the bus finally pulled away. She asked if this was the first time I had been to Morocco, and didn't I think it was beautiful. She went on talking about how she enjoys traveling, even if it was only for short trips like this one to Fès from Casablanca to visit her parents. It helped take her mind off things.
Fatima was dressed in a long velvet purple robe and looked beautiful in it. Her black hair was pulled back in a neat bun, revealing her fair skin and big dark eyes. She looked to be around 50 or so. She lived in Casablanca, had six kids, and her husband worked "in finance". Appearances would tell you that they did quite well. On her lap was a Chanel purse and designer sunglasses to match. If Rabat were only 20 minutes from Fès, I would have gotten off the bus with these first impressions: a modern woman from Casa, travelling by herself and quite sociable too!
But Rabat is three and a half hours away by bus, and in that time, I learned more about Fatima than perhaps her own children even know. I learned that she had a divorce from an arranged marriage and remarried another man she didn't love, and even sometimes detested. I learned that she travels to escape a life—which if she thinks about it—she often finds intolerable. I learned that despite the strict codes of practice Islamic women must obey, she too had infidelities.