I’m sitting on the terrace in Rabat. It’s hot. Everyone is smoking and the smoke smells so good. The air congeals around my body. I’m wet with sweat—or is it condensed water vapor? I can’t think because it is one hundred and fifteen degrees. It is too hot to learn the alphabet today.
I write the letters in my notebook. Alif. Alif. Alif. A single downward stroke. The sound I make at the doctor when he presses the wooden stick onto my tongue and I make my uvula dance. Easy.
Baa. Trickier. This one has a dot underneath and is written differently according to the letter’s placement in the word. Now I know two letters and I can write my first word. Baab—door. Easy.
The class is small. Sophie knows the alphabet and can write a list of words. Emir has been sounding out the Koranic verses for a dozen years. I don’t know anything. Neither does Townsend.
Townsend struggles. She must be stupid.
Two days pass. There are so many letters. The sounds become trickier and I cannot make some of them with my mouth and throat. I cannot hear the difference. Was it saad or saed? Kaef or khaaf? I don’t know. I cannot hear the difference.
My body is slimy with sweat and grease. It’s a visceral reminder of my early teenage years spent in the thick humidity of Florida, with the accompanying frizz, grease, and rank body odor. We may take only two or three showers a week, we are told, because water costs more than petrol. I know that I should go to the hamam. I don’t mind communal baths, but I do not go. Curious grandmothers ask me too many questions. I marinate uncomfortably behind my closed bedroom door.
On Fridays, our Arabic teacher is happy and he wears a long white garment. We don’t know the name for it, but it’s like a jellaba without a hood. We call it Sassy Friday. Our Arabic teacher is thin and nervous and we do not like him. We mistake his shyness for conceit.
We’re learning words, now. Sophie and Emir are bored. I struggle. Perhaps Townsend is not stupid.
Townsend wears men’s kakis. She calls them trousers. I tell her that my dad uses that word. Her shoes are the color of her skin, with thick heels, and they look like the shoes worn by women in musical theatre. It is hot, but she wears a tweed jacket. I look like hell.
Sah-hed. The s and the second h are aspirated. Sah-hed. Hot.
We take cabs to escape the boiling streets. If I am alone, the drivers stop and load a second passenger, always women who pepper me with questions. I struggle to answer with my inadequate French. They ask me if I am French, if I am Muslim, if I am married. I am not. Why are you not married, they ask. Anxiety folds their brows. I do not know how to answer. I lie and tell them that I am waiting. I share cabs with my cohort so that I do not have to speak. They speak, instead. There is never silence here.
We go to the Hotel B’Lima because it is open during Ramadan. A café has been built into the base of its tower and we drink mint tea in the traditional way. We like the idea of having a café, of calling a place ours. We think that it makes us members of a historic lineage of artists who frequent a single street café with perfect consistency. We’re young, and each of us thinks that we are Hemingway in Paris, supported by a stimulating collective of young artists. We will learn that our café is a favorite establishment of sex workers and the awkward young men who give them their money and quite often their virginity. But we continue to go.
There are so few cafés that allow women.
“If you see Moroccan women in a café, that means it’s safe,” the director of our language school tells us. “Only trust the Moroccan women. The French women don’t always know.”
We have so much confidence. We don’t notice if we are crossing a line.
Everything changes when the holy month is over.
People are on the streets and they’re no longer dehydrated. In this country, a thick line is drawn between public and private spaces. I carry my American notions of personal and portable boundaries. Usually, I throw open or slam shut the door to my own privacy whenever I choose. Here, it is different.
Here, inside is private. Inside is family space. Windows are shuttered, heads are bared, and brothers and sisters nap head to foot in front of the TV. My adult host sister sits on her uncle’s lap after dinner and laughs at his jokes. Her younger sister skips her prayers, and the family knows that she is menstruating. Inside is private from the world, not from one another. I feel constricted by this openness.
The outside is public space. If we are in it, we are public, too. We’re as public as the stones we tread. We’re public for eyes, and words, and hands.
I stop to buy minutes for my phone, and the clerk asks me why I do not have brothers. I tell him that I do have a brother, in America, and his face falls. Why, he asks me, does my brother let me buy my own phone minutes? Doesn’t my brother respect me? I do not understand.
In the streets, most of the men leave us alone. Most of the men are respectful. Their eyes dart in our direction and away. But some of the men are shameless and without honor and they assume that we are shameless and without honor, too. Because we are in the street, because American movies depict women with bare shoulders kissing in doorways after first dates, because we think we understand Rabat’s customs and social cues, and we do not. The harassment is unlike anything I’ve endured, before or since. I’m not prepared for it. A tough farm woman in our program returns to America because the intensity of the harassment in the streets triggers flashbacks from a past assault.
There’s a bookstore in an alley behind the train station. It’s minute. We have to turn sideways to walk between the stacks of books. There must be a hundred thousand of them. It saves me.
Townsend asks what I am reading. “I like Gabriel García Márquez, too,” she says. “I like magical realism.”
We sit at the Hotel B’Lima, surrounded by sex workers, and we drink our tea and we talk. Emir has a beautiful accent. Sometimes he sounds Australian and sometimes he sounds English. He is self-conscious because he thinks he sounds American. He’s none of these things.
He comes from a densely populated island in the Indian Ocean, but he is not Indian. People on the street see his brown skin and they shout, “India! India!” They love playing this game with foreigners, and they are happiest when they think they are right.
Morocco is layered with centuries of migration and overlapping cultures. Indigenous Amazighs, a small but ancient Jewish community, Arabs from the seventh century conquest, men and women born south of the Sahara, fifteenth century Andalusian refugees, some of whose descendants are rumored to carry keys to their long abandoned Iberian villas, Spanish expatriates in the north, the French. We are constantly told that Morocco was technically never colonized by the French, but the history of French political control is a tense topic. Strangers see my pale freckled skin and they speak to me in French. Not Modern Standard Arabic, and never the Moroccan dialect. I feel guilty, even though this particular shame is not mine to bear.
When I stumble over French words they assume that I am an idiot. Can’t even speak my own language. Daft colonials. But sometimes I get screams of “Germany! Germany!” and the occasional “Denmark!” Still wrong.
When I lived in New York, I learned to watch the sidewalk and to always ignore strangers, no matter how bizarre or virulent their behavior. In Italy, I learned to spot a pickpocket and walk with purpose, my eyes forward. I learned to hold up my walls and carry my private space into the streets. Not in Rabat. In Rabat, strangers shout at me everywhere I go, all the time.
Townsend puffs up when she gets a quizzical, “Japan? China?” because she is a member of a Plains Indian Nation, and the shouting strangers do not believe her. She piles her hair into an old-fashioned bundle of bobby pins, and she smiles glibly at the strangers who speak to her.
Sophie tries to be polite. You can see it in the hunch of her shoulders and the frantic bob of her ponytail: she is trying so hard. Men in the streets shout, “Denmark! Denmark!” and she shakes her head. When grandmothers in taxis ask her questions, she answers as fully as her French allows. She always looks so damn happy. I try to be happy.
Rabat is grimy. I can taste the air. The dust grinds against my teeth. This is city grime, obscenely human and filmy. It is not the clean dirt that blows across the desert, glows gold, and spins into dust devils. City grime is the filth of cars and bodies all packed in together, moving from home to work and back. It is thick, and I can feel it clotting inside me with each breath. Everything I see is faded brown. The streets, the buildings, even the air—all slightly brown. The only variants are the women’s neon jellabas and the hems of bright pants that emerge beneath them. I have to leave this city.
We take a weekend trip the day after the heat breaks. “Is there really a Marrakech Express?” someone asks. “Like a train?” The trip chaperone is our Arabic teacher. The question leaves him baffled.
His name is Aadam, except that in Arabic the first letter of his name is a flat back-of-the-throat sound, pharyngeal. The letter ayin that I cannot pronounce. When I say it for my host sister she presses her palm to her mouth and laughs.
Aadam peels a banana, puts on his new sunglasses, and asks with endearing sincerity what “cool shades” means. We don’t know who could have said it to him, but when we translate the slang he bursts into a grin. He is earnest, and we realize that we love him.
If Rabat is drab and colorless, Marrakech is the reservoir into which all of the unused color from Rabat and from the desert has flowed. The walls are brightly colored, the signs are brightly colored, and the tourists are brightly colored.
The heat has broken, but the French girls, down for a quick foray into the exotic, are dripping sweat in their miniature sundresses. I can see so much of their bodies, and I have to look away. Heat rises in my face. I want to rush over and drape a wide cloth around the French girls’ bare shoulders, bosoms, legs. We are guests here, and we have a duty to adhere to the etiquette. Moroccan women in orange and pink jellabas glance at the foreigners and shake their heads.
In Italy, paper shawls are kept in church atriums to cover tourists’ sundresses and tank-tops. I call them “ponchos of shame,” and I miss them now. The French girls are blithe and oblivious to our lingering stares, judgment, and longing. I feel shame. Shuma. Shame.
I study for my Arabic exam in the dark, because my light went out and my Moroccan family is marking the anniversary of a death with neighbors and cake in the other room. They tell me that I am welcome in their home. They tell me that I am family. Inside the private space of their apartment, there are no longer any boundaries. But I carry my own walls. I decide that I cannot join them. I cannot intrude.
I study. I make lists of words in different colored pens and I scribble them out, again. And again. I will never learn this language. It is impossible. Arabic is elegant and precarious, like math. I am not good at math. I struggle to balance the grammar. I must be stupid.
I find an English translation of One Thousand and One Nights in the tiny bookstore. The tales are full of magic, adventure, and vulgarity. They remind me of The Decameron. They were compiled over centuries and span half the world, from India to the Maghreb. In the stories, our physical world is spotted by djini. Djini aren’t good or bad. They are neither angels nor demons. They do not punish and they cannot be appeased. They live among us, and they act on hapless humans.
“Do you believe in djini?” I ask Emir. His eyebrows dart together and he nods. I put aside my copy of One Thousand and One Nights. There are too many djini in the tales for me to read it today. Too much enchantment and too much chaos.
After the exam, our Arabic language school sends us to the beach for an entire weekend. My host sister tells me she loves the beach, but she doesn’t go anymore. The long dresses that women wear cling when they are wet and reveal the shape of the body. I did not bring my beach clothes to this country.
We travel with the other language students who share our balcony, and we sleep in a vacation rental with white walls and clean lines. This is a beach town.
Four of us go to a tourist bar. We dance and Townsend speculates that dancing is a metonym for sex. Three Belgian boys send us drinks on a tray. I don’t want to accept the drinks, but I give in. A drink is also a metonym.
The Belgian boys follow us into the street. They want us to stay with them. We took their drinks, we gave them conversation, and now we may not leave. They are drunk and they are angry.
We walk fast, we shout at them in English and in French, and we turn corners to get away. They chase us. They chase us until our friend spins around and she punches the nearest one in the face. We run. We are laughing. We pretend it’s
I realize I have stopped caring.
The nights are longer, now, and we are often out in the dark. The English girls who share our terrace are walking back to their host family’s apartment when they’re attacked and cut. Old men sitting in the café across the street watch and sip their tea. There are people around, watching, and it happens anyway. That’s what scares me the most.
After that, I do a very bad thing.
It’s almost Thanksgiving, and I am walking home from a bar with Townsend and Emir. We’re not drunk, but we’ve been drinking. The city feels deserted. It reminds me of hurricane evacuations when I was a child, when the handful of people who stay are shut inside together waiting to see if they will have to endure destruction. The city feels like that, but we’re talking and laughing.
We near a vacant intersection and Townsend says, “I’m going to get a knife tomorrow. I don’t think I’d ever have to use it, but if I was getting mugged and I pulled out a knife, don’t you think that would scare the mugger away?”
We duck under the drooping branches of a tree as she says it and I’m looking at my feet because the red tiles are uneven and I am afraid of tripping.
Two blocks later, Townsend’s street branches off the main one. Her host family’s apartment building is twenty feet from the intersection. We don’t even think about walking her to her door. We wave good-bye.
Emir and I walk for about a minute and then we hear one short horrific scream. In New York City, you hear screams all night long. Each one of them is terrifying and makes you sit up in bed, and each one is nothing. You don’t notice anymore. That’s what I am thinking about when I hear the scream.
There is a walled park across the street from Townsend’s building, and I know that was where the scream came from. I tell myself it was some drunk girl partying or joking with friends. But this isn’t New York. I say, “That was really creepy,” and Emir nods.
I should have gone back when I heard the scream. I should have gone back, I think. I should have gone back.
I don’t say the bad thoughts aloud, and neither does Emir, but I know that he is thinking them. He asks if he can walk me to my street, half a mile out of his way. I say no, because I don’t need anyone’s help. He walks me to my door, anyway.
Townsend is alive. When I see her, my knees wobble and I fall into the chair beside her. I know that I’ll never love another person as much as I love Townsend right now. I love her for being alive, and it is selfish. I love her for being alive so that I do not have to love her for being dead.
Then I hear her story. She was walking up the steps to her building when a young man grabbed her around the neck and held a knife to her throat. She drops her collar and flashes a long red line. She says she screamed and the man disappeared.
Emir and I look at each other. We don’t deserve to be alive right now.
I’m exhausted. I lie under my acrylic comforter and I feel the fabric of reality shimmer around me. A cat jumps onto the bed. I’m angry, because my host family should have told me that they had a cat. I feel icy. When the cat brushes against me the fear swells. I want to scream, but I’m not in control of my body.
The cat leaps onto my throat and starts to dig with its paws. I’m dying, I know. But before I can die, the universe shudders and the colors flicker, and when the world snaps back into place the cat is gone.