...you come into Fez by train and someone talks to you saying he is coming to visit his relatives, and is actually a respectable outsider (e.g. an owner of a hotel). He will then ask you to come eat with his relatives and when you get there they will spend most of the time trying to suggest accommodation, offering you tours where they gain commission from all the (especially Carpet) shops, and even organize expensive desert excursions that are actually just you driving in circles just outside the city for three days.
- Fez Travel Guide on Wikitravel
Such is what happened to me upon my arrival in Fez.
Well, almost. I was on my way to the family's house when a protective male staff member from my hostel chased me down the street and begged me to go back inside. Matching his gaze, I caved under his sense of urgency and did as I was told. The last thing I saw before I turned my back was the staff member and the boy from the train having a heated discussion in Arabic. The staff member returned ten minutes later in a huff; I never saw train boy again.
It seems pathetic, even to me, as I write this. Going in I had only his first name. A pinky promise. No phone number. Nothing traceable. Usually I'm more careful. But hindsight is 20/20 so here is what I knew before I boarded that train to Fez. Within 48 hours of me setting foot on Moroccan soil I had already had two iftars (which is two more than some of the expats I met in Rabat, not to trivialize personal safety by turning it into a pissing contest). Oriental exoticism aside, I knew that locals were generally friendly and that Ramadan is a time when family and togetherness is especially important. Besides, the internet agreed - Googling "Moroccan hospitality" turns up a myriad of anecdotes involving invitations to someone's home. And I never thought I would ever use these words in reference to myself, but after a few days of being stared at and cat-called, I was used to attracting attention - in fact I came to expect it when I went out in public, armed as I often am with the coldest bitch face I can muster (although looking pissed off still doesn't stop people from approaching).
So imagine my bemused surprise when, during check-in, number six on the list of house rules was a curfew for female guests. (Okay, Morocco is by no means an ideal place for girls - especially single ladies - but, c'mon, it's not that bad!) And when I attempted to go off in search of dinner, the female proprietor told me, point blank, that it wasn't "safe" within an hour of iftar. I think her concern arose from the fact that, just before sunset, everyone is out buying last-minute things for dinner and heading home. But, again, it's Morocco. The pervasiveness of the male presence in this country is comparable to, I don't know, a bed bug infestation in a college dormitory, a lice outbreak in a kindergarten classroom, etc.
The following day I decided to play by the hostel's rules and had them arrange a walking tour of the medina. It was a walking tour in the sense that I had a guide, and that we walked around, but I'm fairly certain that the few historical tidbits he managed to spit out were complete fabrications. Instead, most of the tour went something like this: we entered a specialized artisanal shop (weaver, leather co-op, apothecary, silversmith - in that order), the owner would show me around and explain the process, during which my guide conveniently disappeared, and after, as a captive audience without my guide, I was subject to a high-pressure sales pitch. Once I had blown all the cash I had on hand (I don't trust my credit card with individuals who seem overzealous about swiping it), I began to notice other suspicious things, like how the guide was constantly taking calls (i.e. coordinating arrival) and generally staying several paces ahead of me (i.e. avoiding plain-clothed cops as fake guides are wont to do). I'm happy with my purchases (even though the bargaining was undoubtedly rigged by the commissions for the guide), and I love supporting the local economy as much as the next Seattlite, but still...I prefer to do it on my own terms.
As an anthropologist I can't help but analyze each encounter for some hidden meaning. How is trust established between two individuals without prior knowledge of each other? How does one signal trustworthiness to others? Is money ever an honest signal? I have a few ideas, but I guess I'll have to put myself out there more to test my hypotheses. For now all I have to go on is my gut feeling, because if I can't trust myself than I'm even worse off than just being alone.
Below, some photos from that cringeworthy scam of a walking tour paired with questions I often ask myself when engaging with strangers. Check out the rest on Flickr.
(Also, sorry about the lame Game of Thrones reference, but coming up with punchy titles was always more my editor's domain than mine).