MEKNES, Morocco – “So you travel ... only?” asked the woman sitting next to me in halting but intuitive English as we sat in the packed compartment on a train speeding through Moroccan farmland. We were the sole unveiled, unaccompanied women in the car.
Traveling alone in this North African, Muslim country where public spaces are almost exclusively male, I got that question everywhere, from the frequent flyer lounge in the capital’s airport to the kitchen of a riad — a traditional home with a courtyard — deep in Fez’s medina, the ancient walled section of the city.
With sexual harassment and assault making news from Egypt to India to Brazil, I was keenly aware that as a blonde Western tourist, I could not pass unobserved. And observe, glare and leer many Moroccan men do. A journalist told me his sisters living in Casablanca were desperately tired of being “eye-raped.”
In January and June, I spent more than three weeks exploring Morocco, from its imperial cities to the desert oases, mostly alone, but at times accompanying a group of students from a U.S. university where I teach. They were all women but one.
The group, despite modest dress, literally stopped traffic. Alone, I learned to firmly say “la, shukran” — no, thank you — to any invitation or approach, and got to enjoy the country through a woman’s eyes. That meant some pavement-staring to avoid confrontations, but also unexpected glimpses into this mesmerizing land where a wealth of cultures with ancient roots abuts illiteracy and subsistence.
As my seatmate on the train and I shared universal girl talk about kohl eyeliner and marrying the loves of our lives, this hairdresser from Casablanca reminded me of the spunky women portrayed in the stunning Roman mosaics in Volubilis, a few miles (kilometers) north of our train tracks in north-central Morocco.