Rabat - I have been trying to avoid talking about director Nabil Ayouch and his latest movie since the clips that rose havoc in Morocco went viral on the net, but the extremely strong loyalty I have for Marrakech, my native and home city, and my deep knowledge of and sensitivity to its culture and traditions have arisen in me an ardent zeal I never thought I could experience for my city and her people.
Rabat – I have been trying to avoid talking about director Nabil Ayouch and his latest movie since the clips that rose havoc in Morocco went viral on the net, but the extremely strong loyalty I have for Marrakech, my native and home city, and my deep knowledge of and sensitivity to its culture and traditions have arisen in me an ardent zeal I never thought I could experience for my city and her people.
This whole issue brought back distinct memories and clear images from a special weekend I spent a few months ago walking through the medina of Marrakech. The traditional markets, the trade places of the old Medina, residential districts, the quarters dedicated to specific industries as well as the historical landmarks that have made the fame of the city and which I have seen so many times unfolded in front of my eyes, ears and flesh as if to remind me that they had not forgotten me although my visits to them had ceased for many years. The call of the city didn’t take me to the customary points of interest advertised in tourist guidebooks, but to those that even many Marrakechi people have been overlooking these last years, such as holy tombs, schools, and institutions from which thousands of both famous and unknown people emerged, and ancient hospitals in which people have received treatment from trained staff for a long time.
Some of the landmarks I found myself rediscovering were the squares where high school students would meet to protest the educational system in Morocco, the injustices of the régime, and where they called upon the Makhzen to release their colleagues and professors who had been arrested, and to account for those who had been forcibly disappeared. I could still hear the squares and the walls and the roads echoing the rebellious slogans of young girls who were beaten by Makhzen order enforcement agents.
Ayouch ignores these details in his film, Much Loved, and I do not blame him; he is free to choose to represent what he wishes.
I took out my smartphone to take pictures; people were surprised and curious about my shots, wondering whether I was seeing things that they did not. They did not ask, but I could sense their astonishment—they could not read my memories. I told the kids who had been drawn very closely to me that I was taking pictures of my female schoolmates while they were running and chanting: “where are they, where are they …?” “Night must dissipate,” and “**** must be shattered.” All of a sudden, I felt how cowardly I had become; I felt shame creeping in my limbs, I did not dare repeat the exact words of the verse. … I feared the girls would fall in the grip of those armed to the teeth highly trained anti-mob agents running after them in the tight and twisting roads of Marrakech. I knew they would get ahold of them first and beat them before they got to their male fellows. I would never forget the words of one of those agents who were set against protesting students who they were told were a bunch of over fed atheist bastards to a girl he was practically torturing: “you’ll be our feast today, you ****, you like your nail polish, don’t you ?! I will take off your nails, ****, you will find out tonight what real men can do.” Most of what the guy said, however, is unprintable. She never stopped chanting at him, as if that revived her energy and maintained her courage.
I saw a male student that I did not recognize trying to rescue the girl from the claws of that armed human monster. As soon as I tried to help him, I felt a heavy electric-like strike on my shoulder; for a second I thought my shoulder and back were falling to pieces and that I would have a permanent impairment. My mind had been straying back in the early seventies of the last century when a man in his late fifties gave me his hand and said, “You’d better go now! This is not a safe place for this kind of talk.”
I returned to myself after this terrifying remembrance of times both present and past, like someone who has awoken from a persistent dream. I resumed my journey. A woman squatting on a tiny stool attracted my attention. Before her stood a bucket tied to a metal brazier and a cardboard box covered with a towel. I gazed at the elderly woman, her face was familiar and I thought it could not be her, could it? I walked closer to her, adjusted my glasses and lo, it was indeed whom I thought. She used to sell boiled potatoes, by the piece, half, or a quarter of a piece. She would wrap the potato in paper and cover it in salt, cumin, and drops of olive oil for her customers—the latter ingredient was for an extra dime for the better to do clients. I remembered her as if it were yesterday because of the lesson she once gave me— a moral stronger than what my late wise father had ever given me.
I had been on my way back home with a friend after an evening indulging in dialectic materialism, how Hegel’s theory of history was developed by Marx, Lorca’s poetry, some other highly esoteric issues as well as other things I do not wish to mention here. Our attention was grabbed by a woman who was waiting for her last customer in that late hour to sell what was left, which turned out to be half a potato.
I felt compelled to help her, so I ordered the half potato that was left. She wrapped it, salted it and powdered it with cumin, and asked if I wanted some olive oil or not. I gave her one dirham (less than the tenth of a U.S. dollar) and told her to keep the change. As if a sudden upsurge of some mysterious lightning had struck her, she got mad at me as if I had aggressed her or violated the grounds of her dignity: “I sell and buy, I do business, I work for my family, I’m not here to beg, I don’t take more than I should and I don’t give up my rights, why do you have to despise us, if you have money to spare go buy a book and read it or an apple for your mother and sister or some peanuts for the miserable monkeys in Jemaa el-Fnaa.” I was so ashamed of what I had just done, I broke into a sweat and I did not know how to apologize. I left with my eyes on the floor feeling smaller than I have ever felt. I will never forget that scene in the real gritty life of Marrakech.
I do not blame Nabil Ayouch or any other artist for not illustrating this side of “real” life in their “realistic” movies; it is perhaps because they have never spent evenings discussing the same issues like those I happened to have discussed that evening nor indulged in what I had indulged in or perhaps they have never bought boiled potato and eaten it coated with salt and cumin and soaked in olive oil in their entire lives and been given such a stern lesson in real life as that noble elderly woman gave me. It was a miracle to see the same woman standing in front of me. It has been quite some time since our paths had crossed. I bought a potato and asked for olive oil on it. Both the amazing price and taste have hardly changed in about four decades.
I continued on my journey, navigating my way through the narrow streets amongst the most swift and skilled bicycle and motorcycle riders I have ever seen. They appeared out of thin air. Most of them were women and young girls dressed in colorful and varied attires ranging from the most unexpected long djellabas with and without hoods and veils, to modern clothes – tight jeans, short skirts, and shorts, all items you would think to find less of in that traditional and conservative setting. They call it tolerance and diversity and respect of difference and personal choice in Marrakech.
If you are a Marrakchi or if you happen to live in Marrakech, you would know that women and girls are a major part of the active population. They work in elementary and high schools, and universities. They are students and researchers engaged in the study of all kinds of disciplines. They are professionals, nurses, general employees, bank counselors, seamstresses, carpet-makers, highly-qualified cooks, athletes with national and international wins to their names, and performers in family celebrations. All of these women work equally hard and with at least as equal commitment and competency as men do, and also look after their families. Perhaps Ayouch does not show the lives of these women in his film because he is not aware of their existence or because they don’t make it a point to share their private lives with anyone they think might make stories of them. In any case, I don’t blame him. He has his own choices and he is entitled to them.
I saw men, women, and children gathered, some screaming and running around. Curious, I headed towards them and heard them saying that the commotion was about a young man who lost consciousness and collapsed in the street. I asked if there was anyone helping him. There was a woman checking him, ordering people to leave some space so that he could breathe. She was handling a stethoscope listening to his heartbeat. She opened his eyes and shined a medical pocket light. As usual, I was too hasty judging people, she shouldn’t be on the phone while tending to a serious case, it was unethical of her, I was thinking. I realized later that she was describing the case to an ambulance doctor who was on the way. The ambulance and the police pulled over, the crowd was questioned, and the man carried away in a hurry. That woman was a doctor who had been stopped by the pedestrians who saw the medical symbol on her car. As the ambulance left, the doctor gave details to the officer who took notes of her statements in a tablet. The officer was a young woman.
I saw all of these instances of Marrakchi women in less than one day, things that Ayouch did not see during the several months he spent there doing research for his movie. Still, he is not to blame. In fact, I learned from some anthropological classes some four decades ago that people can express only what they know and that languages are framed by the realities of their speakers; hence their difference from one another. For what should the man be blamed for, then?
While I was walking, some wooden and copper door signs grabbed my attention. They proved what I already knew correct about women working as medical doctors, in the legal field, architecture, accounting, and in many other fields and excelling in the same jobs as men. The copper boards were the business signs for competent female lawyers, notaries, consultants, coaches and experts in businesses and domestic and international commercial transactions. Those signs reminded me of the highly qualified female doctors and surgeons, researchers in experimental and human sciences, poets, novelists, journalists, social actors in the field of human rights and environment, managers of banks and giant trade institutions, chiefs of sensitive political and economic departments, highly ranking officials in the management of the public sphere, police, gendarmerie, military and Air Force officers as well as talented artists who have contributed and still contribute to making of Marrakech what it is.
I do not blame Ayouch for not including women working in these many other professions in his movie; he doesn’t have to be interested in them nor does he have to be in their roles in reducing poverty, combating social vulnerability, eradicating ignorance, injustice, disease, crime, and prostitution. Surely, he has the right to picture what he knows would satisfy his fans and not to raise with them the issues of those women who face the challenges and difficulties of reconciling between their professional, familial, civil, and national responsibilities, and who are engaged in daily fights against those who envisage them as sexual objects that can be stolen, traded and trafficked at whim.
As I was walking down the Souk, I saw women walking. No one who is not Marrakchi and who does not live there regularly could recognize what I saw. These women were carrying bundles which only the natives of the city know are clothes or scarves they sew or towels or rags they weave in their homes late nights after they finish their daily chores and accomplish their social responsibilities. They were going to sell their precious handicraft on the market or deposit them for sale in shops with whose owners they have long standing partnerships based on strong and mysterious bounds of indefectible trust and unfaltering respect. I stopped to salute an old friend who runs a mercery; while we were sipping mint tea, a woman stopped by, they exchanged a few words of politeness, he handed her fabrics of different types and colors and she left. I did not make sense of the whole scene and I told him this. He explained that she was one of his partners to whom he would give fabric to fashion and sew or thread to weave which he would then sell and divide the returns with them.
What astounded me was that he swore he did not know where she lived, nor did he know anything about her family, only her first name did he know. At my surprise at this type of business he further explained. “She knows I will never cheat her and I know she will never cheat me, she does her best and I pay her exactly what she deserves. Long- lasting business partnerships between women and men have been in existence for centuries in the souk.” More surprising to me was what my friend went on to state, that it occurs rather frequently to him to borrow money from those women partners without any condition, constrain, insurance, or grant, and they, too, borrow money from him; and still—he does not know where they live. “This is how business is conducted in the Marrakech medina.” I knew the gentleman well and thought for a while that his business relationship with these women was an anomaly. It turned out, however, that that’s actually how all business is conducted in the souk. Some true partnership, I thought. “There is no room for cheating or manipulation in these commercial relations between partners and customers. If, by any chance, a person happens to disappear, his or her partners would simply say that they should have a good reason for that and pray that it is a happy one” my friend concluded hastily so that he could ask whether I preferred lunch or dinner in his place.
Director Nabil Ayouch ignores the fact that our women are the engine of economic growth, and that they contribute to the development of the tourism sector through the traditional products they market, including pants, caftans, scarves, woolen woven material, and homemade sweets and pastries which make the market look magnificent when exposed in the shops. Ayouch ignores the women who produce these masterpieces. But I don’t blame him for not being concerned about the lives of these honorable and hardworking women who do not sell their stories: he simply does not see them like I do.
I walked by some women who were making colorful local caps of different forms and designs; others were making Kasbah baskets and rush dishes designed to satisfy your needs, as well as ones which you buy because of a magic attraction rather than for any particular need. I walked by another woman who sells decorated traditional instruments, taarija, of all colors imaginable and dazzling designs that will surprise you when you see the humble origins of these women. I asked one of them about the price of one taarija, and she replied with several questions about why I wanted to buy one, the age of who is going to own it, for which occasion, etc. These questions deepened my knowledge of the uses, forms, and everything about taarej (plural of taarija) and increased my appreciation of and respect for these women. I found out that my naming of taarija was wrong, as it differed depending on the form, type, and shape; further, the clay, the leather, and dyes differ from one another as well. Once more, my ignorance proved more prevalent than I cared to admit during all my life. It seems that we tend to ignore the simple things closest to us. How could I, then, blame Ayouch for his selective blindness to these things if I, a Marrakchi, had no knowledge of them? Vanity…
I saw women sell all types of bread, baghrir (Moroccan pancakes), and rghifa (Moroccan stuffed bread) for some dirhams. They know that there is hardly a significant profit margin in their activity, but you could tell they were happy. They even pray for your family, both living and deceased. You look at them and you know they must have woken up very early to fix breakfast and lunch for their families before they prepared their products and brought them to the souk. They are hard working women who always keep their dignity and a smile on their faces. Ayouch did not get the chance to meet these ladies and if he did so, they would not play a role in his movies. He has other interests—it is his right.
I decided to end my journey in Jemaa el-Fnaa. I did not want to see the little monkeys I knew had been taken away from their mothers and deprived of their lives in the forest and from their siblings only to be trained violently for the spectator, who enjoys their tricks thinking that their jumping around is a sign of their happiness while it is actually part of their daily suffering. I hated to see endangered or defunct species of snakes exposed in a square that they do not belong in. Their owners ignore the fact that withdrawing them form their milieu is likely to cause permanent damage to other animals and to the environment in which they play a pivotal role. I hated to see the smart jackal and the keen fox chained in cages, waiting for their ends. I hated to see turtles being sold to people who ignore how to treat them, until they die.
I stopped as I saw people, both Moroccans and foreigners, gathering around some young men and women who were telling stories in fluent foreign languages; I was really surprised and I tried as much to analyze and understand this phenomenon. These young boys and girls supported one another, while an older, handsome and respect inspiring much older man was sitting there, carefully following their moves. I found out that this man was their mentor in the career of storytelling they had chosen to practice in Jemaa El Fna – a career that requires them to speak various languages. They seemed to be taking their work seriously and enjoying it. I was confused at first, and even debating asking the old man about it, decided against it. I have never asked an entertainer about his work. Starting now would be an act of discrimination, which I try to avoid. Those young boys and girls satisfied my curiosity with their work and with their enjoyment while performing. . I left the circle intrigued, wanting to find out more about these young performers, but I did not. Why would I blame Ayouch for not noticing these young people and making a film about them? Had Tayeb Seddiki been in full health; maybe he would have done it, maybe they will do it themselves someday, or maybe, why not, I will!
In the afternoon, I had to attend some presentations and discussions in a conference hall in one of the faculties in Marrakech on traditional music in Morocco. The hall was full of stakeholders who made valuable comments during the lectures; the city abounded in highly ranked, educated people—more than I have ever thought of—who have brilliant ideas and thoughts, and who expressed them in elegant classical Arabic. After this literary meeting, we were convened by the organizers to an evening concert held under the auspices of an educational organization, a concert featuring musicians and performers from prestigious local educational institutes and colleges who performed Andalusian music skillfully and beautifully. I was informed afterwards that Mr. Bajdoub, a great Moroccan artist, had heard them rehearse and was so impressed by the quality of their work that he volunteered to set up training workshops for them and to support them. Young students were properly and respectfully arguing with their professors … others who were studying at the most prestigious institutes, formed bands for traditional music and found a great artist to support their work … No difference in any of this among male and female … All cooperating and working in harmony.
Ayouch did not have the chance to meet these inspiring students, nor did he have the chance to meet their mothers, aunts, professors, and doctors. Again, I cannot blame him for this: maybe he was not raised in such an environment or simply does not have any interest in such real-life stories.
Anyone has the right to make a movie on prostitution in Marrakech; I cannot judge him or her. What I can do, however, is wonder why no one has ever thought of making a movie about the characters that I encountered, nor on their social and cultural situations and activities in Marrakech. Behind these inspiring women I saw on my journey, I saw owners of both happy and sad stories reflecting patience and violence; weakness and doubt; success and failure, others reflecting platonic love and violent passions, hope, despair and disappointment, satisfaction and frustration, and unheralded hard work. These are all true life stories of women in which prostitution has no part.
They all deserve to be reflected in a movie so that all may see what true Marrakchis see all around them.
This article was first published on MWN Arabic and translated into English By Hajar Jannad
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