A glance was all it took.
They could violate you with nothing but their eyes. And as we strolled past, the sun turning our pale skin pink, I could feel them peeling off my sweater in their minds.
It felt like peeling off parts of my skin.
I haven’t been able to write about Marrakech, partially because of how much I wanted to love it. With its vibrant energy, succulent oranges, complex history embedded in ancient architecture, handmade scarves and painted tiles, Marrakech offers a complete feast, filled with knowledge, remarkable sights, and delicious food.
If not for the men.
The sexual jeers.
The ever-present threat of assault.
We hear about poverty. I see poverty in downtown Milwaukee. We hear about horrid treatment of women, and by virtue of being a woman in society, I’ve experienced some of that as well.
But in Marrakech, in a shocking unveiling of my own ignorance, some men will unzip their pants in broad daylight on crowded streets and jerk off in front of you.
Some will heckle,
Some will taunt you,
Many will ogle,
And some will attempt to grab your ass as you walk by.
Only some men.
See, most of them are simply trying to make their daily wages and return home, same as the rest of the world. Most of them have people they love and people to take care of. Unfortunately, a very abrasive, loud, abusive population of men exists there as well, and though they may be the minority, they cannot be ignored. Notably, in smaller villages across the country, I experienced very minimal sexual attention. In Marrakech though, you need to constantly be alert.
It began before I even reached my hotel. I did what every traveler should do: I wrote down the name and address of my destination, and opted to take a taxi instead of the bus my first night, trusting that with such precautions, I’d be safe until I learned the layout of the city.
Little did I know.
One of my dad’s favorite saying is, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” How could you possibly know what to expect when you’ve never experienced it?
The taxi driver seemed safe enough. I ensured that I ordered a taxi correlated with the airport to avoid untrustworthy people or scams. Speaking in French rather than English helped, though it would have been helpful to know Arabic. I asked if he could take me to my destination before getting in the car, which I shared with two French expats experienced in traveling between Paris and Marrakech.
After dropping off the expats, the taxi driver turned onto a quiet, dark street, and told me to get out of his car. I had already paid.
“You go now,” he instructed.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I replied, confused. “Where’s my hotel?”
“Oh, that way,” he mumbled with an ambiguous gesture. “I won’t drive there,” he explained.
“Well then can you tell me how to get there?” I asked much too politely.
“These boys, they will show you.” From the shadows of darkened homes and boarded up stores, a group of boys appeared, young enough to seem less threatening than men, yet tall and strong enough to attack me. Based on similar stories from my friends and fellow backpackers, the entire taxi system is organized in this way, particularly if your hotel is in the Medina. The taxi drivers drop you off at an established location, at which point young men approach you with the promise that they’ll show you to your hostel or hotel. Once they do, they demand for payment, and then attempt to rob you.
“We’ll show you where to go,” they spoke in a thick French accent I didn’t recognize.
“No,” I turned back to the taxi driver. “Tell me how to get to my hotel, please.”
He shook his head and removed my backpack from his car and threw it carelessly to the ground. I could either stay in the car with this man or leave and defend my belongings. I immediately jumped out of the car, strapped my backpack to myself, and turned on Google Maps with my phone. Never in my life have I been more grateful for technology. What if my phone had died? Or they had stolen it? All these what-if games dance through your worried thoughts, when really, I should have just brought an actual map. I had planned on finding one the next day, but as it turns out, that wasn’t enough. The taxi drivers are unreliable here, so be very careful.
The young men followed me, claiming they knew the way better than anyone. The streets were dark. Quiet. I could hear my own breath. My footsteps sounded out of place as I stomped alongside their silent skulking. I hoped someone could hear me, would notice the racket I made, and would hear or care if I screamed.
Looking back, I find it astonishing we didn’t see a single person. In a city that felt overcrowded with noise and people every other night, my first walk through Marrakech I encountered nothing but darkness and faded, obscured Arabic street signs.
Finally, miraculously, a nearby flickering lamppost illuminated my hotel. With the young men still stalking me, I nearly tackled the door. One of them leapt in front of me and with a dramatic wave of his arm, offered to ring the doorbell for me.
“Let me do that for you, beautiful,” he smiled hungrily before reaching out and grazing his fingers across my neck. He now stood between me and the doorbell as the four others approached me, their hands in front of them.
“Pay us,” they demanded.
“I don’t have anything,” I replied, overly aware of how tightly I gripped my iPhone. And honestly, I had spent all my cash on the taxi.
“You’ll pay us now or we’ll take it from you,” one of them snarled–the only kid, he looked no older than 12.
“I said I don’t-” I started, then noticed the tall one who had touched me moved an inch. I quickly ducked beneath him and rang the doorbell, and almost immediately a woman opened it, pulled me inside, and slammed it shut, the innocent faces of these young men turning grotesque as they lunged towards the door and began pounding on the wood, spitting curses and threats. The echoes of their screams diminished as the hostess ushered me down a beautiful corridor of mosaic tiles and gardens, towards my sanctuary for the night. Given the exchange rate between the Euro and the Dirham, I paid next to nothing for a hotel room with an enormous marble bath in a building reminiscent of an oasis.
In hindsight, I learned that most hotels offer their own taxi service–a much safer guarantee that you’ll arrive at your destination without a near panic attack.
After that night, I didn’t experience anything nearly as terrifying, but sexual harassment became an expected occurrence, one I experienced minute after minute, hour after hour, all day long. An endless torrent of longing looks, whistles, and attempts to touch my uncovered skin, even if only a hand.
But even without the sexual harassment, Marrakech is an onslaught of smells and sounds.
Moroccan spices, motorcycle exhaust, screeching cats, palm trees, filth, and freshly plucked oranges. It all mingles together, creating an unforgettable, undeniably unique flavor: the flavor of Marrakech.
Strange though it may seem, my most important, pivotal piece of advice is this: don’t eliminate Marrakech from your list of destinations. Despite its negative qualities, that flavor of Marrakech is one I’m glad I savored, and one I could maybe taste again someday (although not anytime soon). Be prepared to feel overwhelmed, but don’t deprive yourself of this fascinating city, for it has its wonders. It is a true, two-faced Gemini.
Once you become accustomed to the constant stimuli, you begin to notice the amusing comments young men make as you wander by. Some favorites include:
“Ahh! English! Better than Irish!”
“Ahhh! English! Fish and chips!”
“You are French?” No response. “English?” Said nothing. “Japanese?” Shared looks of confusion.
“Ahh! English girl! I love you but you do not love me!” Hit the nail right on the head.
Or, my personal favorite. The man who walked up to me and shouted, “Cheese!” I still don’t know if I just smelled really poorly that day.
After five days in the city, I began to adapt, and actually see Marrakech for the gem it could be.
If you’re craving some peace and quiet, stroll along the walkways of the Jardin (Garden) Majorelle, where exotic flowers and trees guide your footsteps. Behind high earthen walls, soak in the vibrant blues and yellows, sit in the sunshine with your book or your thoughts, and allow the bubbling streams and fresh air perfumed with lotus flowers to soothe your aggravated senses.
And of course, everyone must shop in the souks: an intricate maze of shopping stalls. Just beware of greedy shopkeepers. Never settle for the first price they set. If nothing else, you will become a skilled haggler by your trip’s end. From taxi rides to scarves, every price is negotiable. Only restaurants and museums can avoid the daily price debates. One essential trick is to shop in the morning. In the afternoon, sellers will shove their products into your face, and people will reach for your purse. In the morning, though, people mind their own business, and actually prove quite helpful when you ask questions.
One particularly kind elderly man offered “special carpets” as we passed. When we declined, he clarified: “Ahh, you see, these are magic carpets!”
“Magic carpets?” I laughed. “How so?”
“Well they can fly, you see. They’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”
The proceeding five minute conversation proved that he was a warmhearted, generous person, who, in conclusion, warned us to stay away from the young men in the city. Clearly, not all the men of Marrakech should be shamed for the horrendous actions of their fellow citizens.
Be careful here, but don’t deprive yourself of Marrakech out of fear.
Don’t deprive yourself of quiet mornings in the Medina, sipping orange juice under the shade of orange trees as the sun rises, or turning your head to find monkeys scampering across the street.
Even the souks, although sometimes overwhelming, are an array of color and culture, never without a tea set or pendant you may someday love.
Marrakech may shock you, forcing you to confront poverty, gentrification, and sexual abuse.
However, the fascinating culture may also delight you, and it will certainly leave its mark on your thoughts. And If you keep your eyes open, you may find yourself sipping mint tea on terraces, the sounds of hagglers, laughter, mewing cats, and bikes a vibrant hum beneath your feet as you watch the sunlight dance on the bare rock of distant mountaintops.