Thursday, February 03, 2005

Not Your Summer Vacation

I didn't bring my Chanel to Morocco. How little I knew of the ways of the world. In the compound where I lived -- surrounded by concertina wire and protected by armed guards at the front gate -- wealthy Moroccan girls sat around brushing one another's long hair, dressed for a Spanish discotecque. I was dressed for a Middle Atlas goat-herder's village, pop. 10,000. There was the sad fact: I underscored the number one cliche of the American woman. No doubt my barrenness and medium-length brown bob were of a piece.

When the Dean of Humanities tapped me to run their new Writing Center, I agreed, but only for a large salary. He understood completely. Later I found out some male students wouldn't seek out my help because it was losing face before a woman -- but many girls did their boyfriends' schoolwork. Not necessarily because they were smarter than their boyfriends, but because work itself was a sign of inferior status. That the country suffered from upwards of 30% unemployment; that the ostensible mission of the university was to make its young people "competitive in a global market"; these did not impinge on the sensibilities of the truly wealthy. Real prestige means you don't have to work. Ultimately that meant that the university professors were servants to the students. Women who worked were servants, period. The wealthy girls, brushing each other's hair for long hours in idle chitchat, understood their world very well. Feminism could help me negotiate larger increments of a small piece of pie, but they had something grander in mind.

I wanted very desperately to be well-dressed the day one of my students invited me to her home, a beachside villa outside of Casablanca. The Atlantic pounded on the western shore as we sat out on the back veranda, and more and more guests came pouring in. The former ambassador to Japan, his stunning Danish wife beside him. A Lebanese newspaper publisher. A translator for King Hassan II. Alia, 18, didn't tell me I was being invited to a salon. She finally arrived, some time after the mistress left. Alia and her father lived a comedy of manners, each trying to hide their paramours from each other -- hers an older man, his a younger woman. Anyway, Alia arrived and I don't quite remember what she wore, but I can safely say my husband and I looked like a couple of bumpkins in this elite company, though we were treated graciously and with great curiosity, since America was not something to be hated but something to put to one's advantage when possible. Alia's father, an Iraqi dissident with pied-a-terres in several corners of the globe, thought that the US simply didn't finish the job during the first Gulf War.

Alia's mother, a Moroccan feminist activist and friend of Fatima Mernissi, had divorced Alia's father "though they still love each other!" the inveterately romantic Alia claimed. I always wanted to hear more about her mother, but Alia scoffed at politics. I had been specifically "assigned" to Alia by the Dean, because she "liked to write," but when I hauled out my trusted anthology of 20th C French poetry, ed. Paul Auster, and gave her some suggested reading, I learned quickly that my real job was otherwise.

That day by the ocean has acquired a 19th century haze in my mind, as if I had stepped into a Tagore story. Late in the afternoon, after the banquet, we sat in a drawing room where Alia gave a piano recital, singing Andrew Lloyd Webber numbers. "Alia," her father said warmly, clapping with ultra fatherly indulgence, "if your grandfather could see you now, singing in a room of men, he would have murdered you."

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