Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dirt road blues.

The other day I was summoned to see the besha, the official responsible for the local police force. He gave me a little lecture on venturing too far from home on my morning bicycle rides and walk/runs. Apparently I’ve been spotted out on the rugged, open trails that meander around the orange groves and villages linking this region.

Not that I’d be hard to spot; besides my blonde hair and strange Western getups, there’s a clear view from the highway and villages into the bled, or countryside. While it feels blissfully rural, in truth I’m never far from civilization.

Though I felt a little like a 4-year-old chastised for crossing the street alone, I’m not as angry about this infringement on my independence as I’d expect myself to be – mostly because I’m not taking it overly seriously. I nodded my head and left the besha’s office with absolutely no intention of changing my behavior. My morning routine of surrounding myself with nature, of breathing air free of exhaust and incomprehensible noise, of moving and stretching my limbs and testing my limits – all this is critical to my well-being, especially when so little feels familiar.

I am doing nothing wrong, merely going about my daily life – admittedly, a life lived in an independent manner that is unusual for most women here. The police, for their part, are just doing their job; they are held responsible for my safety. (That they would not worry about a local womans safety is a separate frustration; that I am constantly being spied upon is yet another.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not thumbing my nose at personal safety. I make sure I have a clear view of civilization at all times, whether it’s the nearby highway, the next village or the women gathered in a field. I am always fully aware of who and what is around me; my cell phone is always at hand. I am never really out of sight.

The truth is, I feel even safer and more welcome in the country than I do in my town. The few people I meet, men and women alike, greet me enthusiastically – none of the suspicious, sullen stares I often encounter in the urban crowd.

From time to time, I do worry about What Might Happen. Usually my worries center more on flat tires and long walks home (and, indeed, my phenomenally good luck, testing the limits of these thorn-strewn trails, did in fact run out on me last weekend). But sometimes my thoughts to turn to What Might Happen vis a vis Some Strange Man coming upon me, alone, with no one around to see. We all occasionally think these thoughts, whether we’re in a foreign land or in our own comfortable hometowns.

And, just as back home, I am determined not to live in fear but to continue to live the life I wish to lead. I do not behave recklessly, but neither do I succumb to a vague notion that the world is an essentially unsafe place. It is, sometimes, but mostly it is not. (For those of us with the luxury of living in a country untorn by war, that is.)

What frustrates me is the bigger picture of which this incident is just a part – the larger sense, not just here but in most of the world, that women must be kept veiled, secluded, at home, for two reasons: 1) to avoid enticing men (the implication being men can neither control nor bear responsibility for their own behavior) and b) to keep them safe (the implication being, again, that the world is a dangerous place, and also that it is the potential victim’s responsibility to avoid danger rather than the potential perpetrator’s responsibility to avoid committing it.

Women do bear part of the responsibility here, for going along with the charade. As long as society continues to treat women as second-class citizens, and as long as women accept that status.

To that end, read Nicholas Kristof’s blog post this week linking women’s inequality globally with the “greater” problems of poverty, environmental instability and war. It’s all linked. A society in which women are equal participants is, quite simply, more stable. Apparently Kristof and his wife have a new book coming out on this very subject; I’ll be eager for a copy when it comes out. But he was referring to a new book also featured on “Fresh Air” this week. Michelle Goldberg’s “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World” goes straight to the top of my wish list.

The good news.

Eleven days later, the nationwide transit strike is over. Funny how agitated one can be when one knows one can’t go anywhere … even if there’s nowhere one particularly needs to go. For more than a week, all I could think of were the succulent, plump, juicy strawberries waiting for me in Taroudant, a mere half-hour’s drive away. And all the other things I “need” and can’t procure here in the village: a fan for the looming summer heat, lettuce, cashews, avocadoes, a Diet Coke in the zwin cafĂ©.

Not that many of those things would’ve been available to me had I managed to get into the city. Besides freedom of movement, food availability was another casualty of the strike; stores ran out of goods, farmers couldn’t get their produce to market, and prices skyrocketed as a result. A bagful of veggies that usually would’ve cost me about 5 dirhams (about 60 cents) left me 10 dirhams lighter in the pocket today. That’s not a hardship for me, but imagine if the average American family’s food costs suddenly doubled without warning. When you’re already living on the edge of poverty, a jolt like this can mean literally going hungry. Now that the strikes over, will we see prices drop back to normal?

As far as the strike itself, I was luckier than some of my colleagues, who were stuck in Marrakech or some other crossroads for days on end, on their way home from spring camps or to Rabat for mid-service medical exams. I would not have been smart enough to bring enough cash (or credit cards) for such an emergency.

The bad news.

Today my mudhir informed me that the dar chebab will be closed for at least a month while this new building goes up. Where the money came from to tear down a perfectly good building and put an identical one in its place is beyond me, but I can think of about a hundred ways I’d have chosen to use that money to actually benefit the kids we’re supposedly serving. Kids I’m worried will forget the dar chebab is an option for them if it’s never available. Things were slow enough even when it was open.

In the meantime, I’m tutoring a couple of my older female students privately, at my home and theirs. I hope to find a new place for my women’s class to meet three evenings a week. I’ll make the rounds of the schools again to drum up new business. I’ll visit the nedi neswi again with some project ideas, and I’ll finally venture over to the dar taliba, a boardinghouse for rural girls who attend school here in town. And I’m hoping to pull together some people power to do a SIDA (AIDS) awareness event in May.

I’m getting plenty of reading done. And I’ve watched the entire run (two seasons) of “Sports Night,” in which (especially once he dropped the laugh track) Aaron Sorkin foreshadows “The West Wing” with snappy dialogue and fast laps around the office.

Wish the construction workers at the dar chebab were as dedicated as those working right next door to my apartment building. It’s almost midnight, and the persistent pounding of a destruction mallet shows no sign of stopping. It’s a symphony of noises here on Main Street Morocco, that’s for sure.

Just finished reading:Sweetness in the Belly,” Camilla Gibb

Currently reading: “Lake Wobegon Days,” Garrison Keillor

Currently listening to: “Dirt Road Blues,” Bob Dylan; “Sky Blue Sky,” Wilco

Quote of the day: “Anything you lose comes round in another form.” – Rumi

Heroines of the day: Afghan Women Protest New Law on Home Life (subject of a future blog post)

1 comment:

faye cassell said...

I don't know if you prefer the alone time while you are biking/running, but I have turned my biking into outings with my students since my girls won't ride a bike unless I am there and the boys want to show me various parts of my site, but it would be inappropriate for them to take me without other girls present. So we usually go biking every Sunday morning in a small group of 5 or so. That helps cut down on the stares too...