Chapter 2: Culture
I had never felt heat like this before. If this is Northern
Africa, I wondered, what must it be like closer to the equator? The sweat
poured off me as the temperature soared past 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
As we were herded into the building--which had no air conditioning--hundreds
of people lunged toward the counter at the rear of the building. WIth body
crushed against body, we waited as the uniformed officials behind the windows
leisurely examined each passport. At times like this I wondered what I
was doing in Africa.
When I first arrived in Morrocco, I found the signs that
greeted me exotic--not far removed from my memories of Casablanca, Raiders
of the Lost Ark, and other movies that over the years had become part of
my collective memory. The men, women, and even the children did wear those
white robes that reached down to their feet. What was especially striking
was the fact that the women were almost totally covered. Despite the heat,
they wore not only full-length gowns, but also head coverings that reached
down over their foreheads, and veils that covered their faces from the
nose down. All you could make out were their eyes--and every eye the same
shade of brown.
And how short everyone was! The Arab women to be on average
5 feet and men only about three or four inches taller. As the only blue-eyed
blonde, 6-foot-plus-person around, and the only one wearing jeans and a
pullover shirt, in a world of white-robed short people I stood out like
a sore thumb. Everyone stared. No matte where I went, they stared. Wherever
I looked, I found brown eyes watching me intently. Even staring back at
thise many dark brown eyes had no effect. It was so different from home,
where, if you caught someone staring at you, the person would immediately
look embarrassed and glance away.
And lines? The concept apparently didn't even exist. Buying
a ticket for a bus or train meant pushing and shoving toward the ticket
man (always a man--no women were visible in any public position), who just
took the money from whichever outstretched hand he decided on.
And germs? That notion didn't seem to exist here either.
Flies swarmed over the food in the restuarants and the unwrapped loaves
of bread in the stores. Shopkeepers would considerately shoo the flies
before handing me a loaf. They also offered home delivery. I still remember
watching a bread vendor deliver an unwrapped loaf to a woman who stood
on a second-floor balcony. She first threw her money down to the bread
vendor, and he then threw the unwrapped bread up to her. Only, his throw
was off. The bread bounced off the wrought-iron balcony railing and landed
in the street, which was filled with people, wandering dogs, and the ever-present
burros. The vendor simply picked up the loaf and threw it again. This certainly
wasn't his day, for again he missed. But he made it on his third attempt.
And the woman smiled, satisfied, as she turned back into her apartment,
apparently to prepare the noon meal for her hungry family.
Now, standing in the oppressive heat on the Moroccan-Algerian
border, the crowd once again became unruly. Another fight had broken out.
And once again, the little man in uniform appeared, shouting and knocking
people aside as he forced his way to a little wooden box nailed to the
floor. Climbing onto this makeshift platform, he shouted at the crowd,
his arms flailing about him. The people grew silent. But just as soon
as the man left, the shoving and shouting began again as the people clamored
to get their passports stamped.
The situation had become unbearable. Pressed body to body,
the man behind me had decided that this was a good time to take a nap.
Determining that I made a good support, he placed his arm against my back
and leaned his head against his arm. Sweat streamed down my back at the
point that his arm and head touched me.
Finally, I realized that I had to abandon US customs. I pushed
my way forward, forcing my frame into every square inch of vacant space
that I could create. At the counter, I shouted in English. The official
looked up at the sound of this strange tongue, and I thrust my long arms
over the heads of three people, shoving my passport into his hand.