The Border of Brown and Girl

Morocco. Until I stood on the edge of a ring road in the UK, holding a sign saying, ‘Hitchiking to Morocco’, I could not have told you that it was in Africa.

In the afternoon before we took the midnight crossing to Gibraltar, we hitch partners sat on the balcony of our youth hostel in Algeciras and gazed out over the water at Africa. We planned the next leg of our journey by rumour: crossing at the Spanish territory of Ceuta was easier to get to but it was reported that queues were long and the border guards aggressive. The crossing at Tangiers was more straightforward but the city was dangerous to foreigners. Students like us had been threatened with throat slitting to cough up inflated gratuities from multi-lingual hustlers who materialised out of nowhere to ‘help’ negotiate hotel fees.

We crossed on rough seas to Tangiers. Filthy, exhausted, underfed and exhilarated, we huddled on the deck of the boat – on the adventure of our lives.

Tangiers was everything we were told it would be to foreigners: confusing, dangerous,and terrifying. I emptied Spanish pesetas out of my purse into demanding hands and pleaded with my travel partners to do the same. We ate mouldy naan bread and pot noodle from our rucksacks that night and the following morning and then got the first bus to Chefchaoen.

Chefchaoen looked and felt like heaven by comparison.

<<. Excerpt from diary 4 April 1999

For fear of the camel man, I’d missed the early rise of the moon.  Early this morning I struggled up the sand dune.  Walking along its steep side instead of the rim which might shift and give beneath me, sending me tumbling down to the bottom.  It was so hard and it seemed certain that I would fall.  A few feet ahead of me, I saw W’s footprints.  If I could just reach those…

Near the top, too tired to catch J and W and my feet so full of sand they scarcely fit my feet, I settled down.>>

The travel dust began to settle from my mind and looking around me, I realised that I was I a country of people who all looked like me. With my afro curly hair bunched under a baseball cap, I was regularly mistaken for a local girl. Well, local-ish. Where was I from? America, I answered. But your parents? They’re Arabs, no? You’re South American?

I was thrilled. This was true travel: to slip incognito into a foreign space on the other side of the world. To blend in – observe from the inside. Only, I lacked language. At this time, I spoke neither French nor Arabic. As a tourist, I consistently occupied public spaces where the women were segregated by absolute colour lines: the brown ones sold goods, did henna art, swept doorways. The coffee drinkers, the orange juice buyers, were foreign- and white. I was both and neither. I alternately blended in and alarmingly conspicuous.

It made sense that my time and place there was to be on the cusp of a tragic love affair: the English language student in Chefchaoen, home from university for Eid. We had met for several cups of coffee to discuss idioms. He ran after the bus when I left. There was the Berber boy in Tondra Gorge who showed me how to wash my clothes in the river. He showed me around the village, showed me how to treat my eyes and nose with water for the hayfever I suffered, and wove me a camel from Palm fronds. He took me home for lunch with his parents. He joked with the village girls that I was his new wife. Married themselves,they joked over their washing whether the sex was any good. We were all so young.

Then there was the truly terrifying night in the Sahara Desert in the dunes of Mezrouga. They called themselves camel men and tried their luck with the Western Girls. I was adviced by a couple of Spanish girls to bed down in my sleeping bag early. I followed the advice with good reason. He came in anyway uninvited. I spoke Spanish, and so did he. I implored that I was religious. I had kept my hair covered. I’m religious I said again. He backed out and I went to bed in the clothes I’d worn on the long journey to that tourist oasis in the desert. I’d ridden by camel and sleeping in a camel’s wool tent, my Western senses, accustomed to heavily perfumed soap sensed nothing as I slipped into a heavy, dreamless sleep.

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