The perils of the harem

Beguiled by beauties in negligees, a Peace Corps volunteer stumbles into a romantic misadventure in Marrakech.

By Jeffrey Tayler
July 9, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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All I wanted to do that October morn in Marrakech was mail a letter at the post office and go home.

Envelope in hand, I fell in with the djellaba-clad crowds and followed them out through the portals of Bab Agnaou in the kasbah walls. At the Square of Djemaa El Fna I made my way among turbaned dentists waving rusty pliers and squatting over miniature pyramids of blood-caked teeth -- remnants of sidewalk appointments during which molars were torn out of gums and the sandals of villager-patients thrashed the ground in pain. At the minaret of Koutoubia mosque I left the Arab and Berber medina behind and turned up Mohammed Cinq Avenue into the former French quarter of Gueliz. The air was warm and orange with early light. It was at that hour of the day that hope was still possible. Maybe, for a change, there would be a cloud or a shower, a respite from the sun that would mount the sky and sear the city, driving people into the shade until dusk arrived to wash cool and dark over the earthen alleys of the medina and the asphalt lanes of Gueliz.

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The post office was cavernous and empty. Light flooded down in pillars from high windows. At the counter marked "Timbres" I bought stamps and stepped over to a table to affix them to my letter.

There was a tapping on my shoulder. "Wesh 'indik qalam?" Do you have a pen?

I turned around and found myself facing a young woman. Hair like spun ebony, shimmering with tints of henna, washed in feathery waves around a pert, well-formed face the color of honey. She was dressed in a trim black pantsuit and wore a white blouse; her nails were long and red. She appeared to be a Woman of Gueliz, a frank and modern Marrakechiyya. I handed her my pen. She paused.

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"Actually, we have to address a letter in English. Can you help us?"

"Of course."

She dictated the address, and as I began writing, I sensed perfume. Next to her, in a green lami djellaba, stood a taller girl with a broad forehead and pulled-back hair; her features were blunt but kind. She had lacquered fingernails, her feet were sheathed in yellow babouches, or pointy-toed slippers. Her dress was traditional, but she, too, was a Woman of Gueliz. The perfume and lacquer attested to that.

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"Thanks for helping us," the one in black said. She made as if to turn away, but then hesitated. "You speak Arabic. Not many tourists speak Arabic."

I told her I had studied the language in the United States and was in the Peace Corps working at a school for the blind. I had moved to Marrakech only a month before.

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"Oh, is that so! Well, my name is Halima and this is my sister."

We chatted and I feigned composure, feeling vaguely that this conversation shouldn't be taking place. As far as I knew, talking with a strange man, not to mention a strange Christian man, was inappropriate for a Marrakechiyya, even one from Gueliz, where dress might be modern but where morals could be traditional. Moroccans in both parts of the city called Westerners "Nasara" (the singular is "Nasrani"), or Christians. The word conveyed a distinct and penetrating message of exclusion. Nasara were tolerated as People of the Book, but they had to know their place, which didn't include socializing with Muslim women. But something else disquieted me. In the kasbah, where I lived, no woman looked as assertively attractive as Halima. She spurred my imagination with the subtlety of a thousand-volt cattle prod.

Still, I searched for words that indicated my respect for the cultural differences between us; I hemmed and hawed and spoke of the beauty of the minarets and the --

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"Right," Halima cut me off. She leaned toward me with an impish twinkle in her chestnut eyes. "Ever been to a harem?"

"To a har -- to a what?"

"Come with us!" They grabbed my arms and led me toward the door. We dropped our letters into the box and set out onto Mohammed Cinq. We hadn't taken more than 10 steps when it began.

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"Pteew!"

"Qhab!"

"Aa l'qhab!"

"Aa n-Nasrani!"

Hey, whores! Hey, Christian! We were now trailing a wake of teenage boys. They spat at our feet, they dug matchsticks into the crevices of their algae-mottled teeth, they slit their eyes and hissed.

"Aa l'qhab!"

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"Ignore them," Halima said. "Our men are donkeys and don't like seeing Muslim girls walking with a Christian." A stone sailed over my shoulder and cracked against the wall.

We left the avenue behind and entered a quiet neighborhood of walled-off modern homes. Halima opened a gate and we stepped into a garden of orange trees, in the midst of which was their house, a veritable palace of peach-pink stucco and glass.

"Father isn't home, so come in and meet the girls," Halima said. I let myself be led inside, thinking, Every step I take is a mistake and I should stop right here. But I went on.

We walked down cool marble floors, through one well-appointed room into another and another. Each was lined with low divans, strewn with pillows and carpets, scattered with inlaid tables on short legs. Whoever father was, he had money. Finally, we reached the back of the house and the sisters flung open the last door.

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An outburst of titters and tee-hees. Eight or nine girls were lounging in negligees around the edges of a sun-gilt chamber spread with silken blue kilims. A couple were braiding each other's hair; one was painting her toenails; another was leafing through a fashion magazine. The youngest was about 17, the oldest, maybe 23. Cousins and sisters, Halima said, pointing to each in turn and pronouncing a name: Su'ad, Iman, Jamila, Sa'ida. "Sit here on the divan with the girls," she said. "I'll go make you tea."

When Halima walked out, the titters resumed. Light showered into the room, pouring through the gauze of the negligees, illuminating a sea of pale supple curves and islets of dark, bouncing off alabaster necks and almond eyes, sending radiant hues of henna through manes of black hair. I worked in the Peace Corps, I said, yes, the Peace Corps. "Ahh, you're an ustadh!" -- a professor -- "so you read Arabic!" Su'ad and Jamila, or was it Sa'ida and Iman, jumped up, assumed positions at my knees, and clumsily thrust a magazine into my lap and commanded me to read, running their fingers over the words. My heart tumbled into tachycardia. I read. They caressed further sentences. And I read further, torturously keeping my eyes on the sinuous letters as their fingers fondled the page.

But a red light was blinking in my brain: In Marrakech, females of marriageable age (14 and above) weren't supposed to show themselves this way to males outside the family, let alone to random Christians dragged out of post offices. Even if Halima was speaking tongue-in-cheek when she used the word harem (hareem -- the forbidden place, the part of a house that in the past was reserved for women), by tradition unmarried men and women were still kept apart in most of Morocco.

But they had me surrounded. A sloe-eyed girl arose from a cushion, tossed her sable tresses over her shoulder and strode over to me, brandishing a brush. "I want to brush your hair," she purred, mounting the divan and coming around behind me. She dropped to her knees, her thighs settling warm against my back. She stroked and stroked, a languor started to steal over me, the magazine slid from my hands. But the others allowed me no rest. They asked about my marital status, my father's occupation, the health of my family; I fumbled forth answers as my hair began to crackle and spark with static electricity from the brush. Every time I looked down out of modesty, not wanting to stare, one or another of them would raise her arms above her head and shake herself, or purse her lips, or simply call my name and smile. Yet if propriety wasn't on their minds, neither was lust. They were trying out their charms in an innocent way, seeing what reaction they could provoke in me.

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Halima returned with mint tea and cookies and poured glasses for us all. She kept her eyes locked on mine as she asked me the same questions that I had just answered, brooking no giggles from the girls. She told me about herself. She was getting her degree at the university; she was forthright and articulate in a way that commanded respect. Suddenly, there seemed to be nothing at all wrong with sitting in the harem and being caressed by young beauties.

Then the front door slammed. A gritty male voice ricocheted down the walls like a shotgun blast. "Halima, where are you? Halimaaa!"

I jumped to my feet, my hair banshee-wild and sparking. Halima shoved me back onto the divan and thrust a copy of the Koran into my hands. "Sit still!" she said. A thunder of doors opening and slamming was rumbling through the rooms leading from the entrance to the harem.

"Halimaaa!"

"Nudhu! Siru l'ilbeyt!" urged Halima, herding the twittering girls out of the room.

"As-salam 'aleykum!"

Into the chamber strode a tall middle-aged man with craggy, monumental features that made up a sort of Moroccan Mount Rushmore face. Father. He was dressed in a voluminous white djellaba and white babouches and the tassel on his fez bounced with his powerful gait. Without the slightest hint of surprise, let alone paternal ire, he kissed me on the cheeks and seated me on the divan.

"Read!" He pointed to the Koran I was holding.

"Read?" I opened it to the Sura of the Opening and cleared my throat.

An hour later, after numerous orations from the holy book, a sonorous lecture on the merits of Islam, and three servings of mint tea, with the girls peeking in now and then from around the doorjamb, Father stood up and led me out. He bid me return the next day, kissed both my cheeks, and shut the gate.

I headed straight for home in the kasbah, my shirt sticky with sweat, my throat dry from reading and my head filled with a couscous of tussling notions and discombobulated desires.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I lived in a two-story house that consisted of five tiled rooms surrounding a narrow courtyard open to the sky. I had a maid, Fatima, a loyal, diminutive woman in her 50s. Fatima couldn't read, but she could calculate the price of produce on market scales to within an nth of a dirham, and she could swing a mean babouche: Woe be it to any saffron seller or tomato trader who tried to cheat her. Once a week she came to my house, doffed her veil, swabbed the floors, washed my clothes and cooked me a meal.

That noon when I arrived home Fatima took a hard look at me and my spiked hair. "Has something happened?"

"Nothing's happened," I said, matting down my hair with water from the sink. "What's for lunch?"

Her eyes examined mine. Then she turned away and tended a frying pan of meatballs. "Eywa! Kefta and rice. Eywa!" She shook her head and scooped the meat onto a plate. "Eywa! Be careful!"

"I don't know what you're talking about," I said, avidly turning to the kefta. She sank down on her haunches in the corner -- it was not her custom to sit at table with a man -- and watched me eat, shaking her head and smiling at the floor.

But her admonition prodded me to reflect on the harem. The mere word had carried me away into an oriental fantasy that was just that -- fantasy. Harems had existed, but they were never designed to pleasure men -- rather, they served to provide privacy for women. In this light, Halima's use of the word was deceitful and seemed intended to beguile me -- and it had. Then and there I resolved that I should not take up her father's invitation to return.

But soon after I began to waver. The flesh is weak.

My Moroccan teacher-partner at the school for the blind was Si (Mister) Sa'id. Si Sa'id was thick through the shoulders and bullish about the neck. He swaggered down the halls, sucking his bicuspids and striking the walls with his cane -- he was as blind as his students. I don't believe he particularly liked me or any of the Peace Corps people who worked with him. He always looked like he had something much more important to do than teach class.

The next day my students, teenage boys, filed into the classroom, 20 minutes late as usual. The crack of Si Sa'id's cane resounded; he entered last and slammed the door.

I addressed the students. "As-salam 'aleykum!"

"Wa 'aleykum as-salam!"

The students rocked in their seats. Si Sa'id sucked his left bicuspid and leaned back against the wall like a hoodlum ready to idle away the hours on a street corner. He cocked his head toward me. "So, Si Jeff, what do you have to tell us today?"

"Well, maybe the students have some questions."

A boy named Omar raised his hand and rocked back and forth. "I have a question!" he declared, lurching to a halt, a smile creeping over his face. "What do you think of the American president?" He paused, then went back to his rocking.

"Well ..." I started in on an answer.

Leaving his cane standing in the corner, Si Sa'id pushed off from the wall and fumbled his way through the obstacle course of desks in front of him. "Omar, was that you?'

"Yes, Si Sa'id. What does Si Jeff think of his president?"

Sa'id stubbed his foot, grabbed at a chair, tripped, caught himself again, but plodded on, using the heads of the students as landmarks, muffing up their hair as he progressed. "Where are you, Omar?"

Omar continued rocking back and forth. "Why I'm right here, Si Sa'id!"

Si Sa'id made it to Omar's desk. He placed his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Omar?"

"Yes, Si Sa'id." He stopped rocking. "Si Sa'id?"

Standing over Omar, Si Sa'id gripped his shoulders with both hands and turned him until he was facing his belly.

"Si Sa'id?"

As if his spine were contracting into spasms, Omar began arching away from him, his features contorting first into a simpering mien, then into a mask of terror, his eyes rolling white in their sockets. Sa'id's meaty open hand slammed into his face once, twice, thrice. At the last blow, Omar sailed out of his chair, his sandals flying off, his cane clanking hollowly on the stone floor. Sa'id swung amiss and tripped on a desk. Omar curled himself up into a fetus position; Sa'id lashed out with his foot but struck his shin on a desk and howled like a wolf to the moon. Seizing the opportunity, Omar stumbled to his feet and, making radar sweeps of the air with his arms, lunged cane-lessly across the room and hurled himself out into the courtyard.

Sa'id, knocking over chairs, tearing students out of his way right and left, caught up with him and grabbed his djellaba by the hood. "Never, never, never ask a question like that in this school again! You know what will happen if you do!"

"Si Sa'id, what are you doing?" I shouted.

"Today this boy asks about your president. Tomorrow he will ask about our king. No politics are allowed in school!"

"Si Jeff!"

The gatekeeper was calling me. "Come to the director's office. Immediately."

I left Omar a blubbering mess and Si Sa'id shaking the crook out of his fist. The director, a 6-foot Marrakechi who carried himself like one of the crueler sultans, was seated behind his desk. A piece of paper was folded in front of him.

"Take your note," he commanded.

I picked it up and walked back out. In the hall the gatekeeper was glaring at me as if I were Satan himself. The note read, in Arabic: "Dear Jeff! You are my love! After our encounter the other day -- oh, how sweet it was! -- I think only of you and await our next meeting. May God keep you safe. Laila."

I folded the note. Laila must have been one of the girls in the harem -- the address at the bottom was Halima's -- but which one? My scalp tingled as I thought of the hair-brusher; my blood rushed to suddenly resurgent visions of sun-saturated nightgowns. I asked the gatekeeper what the bearer of the note looked like, but he scowled as though I had inquired about thongs and pasties. I shrugged it off; in any case, I would not return to Halima's.

My titillation turned into apprehension when, later that week, I was handed another note with a similar declaration of love. More glowering from the director, more glaring from the gatekeeper. Rumors were now flying around school that I was having relations with a Moroccan girl, and that was understood to be against the rules; I could lose my assignment over it. "Sadiqa! Sadiqa! 'Indu sadiqa!" He has a girlfriend! A girlfriend! the students snickered.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Days passed without further notes, and life at school slipped back into its previous routine of beatings and late starts.

But then the gatekeeper called me again. This time his voice was hoarse. He shoved a note and a box into my hands and spat out the word "cookies," his lips curling with rage. The note read.

"Jeff, My Dearest Love: Why do you not come to me? I am yours forever. I close my eyes at sunset and see you. I open my eyes at sunrise and see you. I long to touch you again. Please enjoy these tasty cookies -- they're not as tasty as you! Come to me. Your love, Laila."

Holding the note, I walked into the courtyard to find the teachers convening like a hanging jury. There were murmured warnings of a phone call to Peace Corps headquarters in Rabat, there was a condemnatory clicking of tongues. And the words "Sadiqa, sadiqa" followed me back to class.

I stopped and realized that I would have to settle this fast. I canceled my lesson, walked out to the main road and hailed a taxi.

At home I found Fatima muttering imprecations and mincing about the floor, shaking a fist at the heavens and flourishing a mop at an imaginary foe. She froze and fixed me with doleful eyes. "A note came for you!" She threw her arm across her forehead. "Eywa! This is very bad! Eywa!"

"Fatima, you can't read. How do you know the note is bad? Let me see it."

"I threw it away! And it wasn't just a note. She sent ... cookies!"

"Would someone please explain what the big deal is with cookies?" I sat down on the steps. There was no point in hiding anything anymore. "How could she have found out where I live?"

"That's easy! She just asked for the Nasrani in the kasbah. I told you to be careful. The neighbors, the police, her father -- I smell a trap. Eywa!"

I took the other cookie box out of my rucksack. Her eyes widened. "Ah ha! And you think there's no problem?"

I was hungry. I started opening the box, but Fatima dashed for it. "Give it to me! These are not just plain cookies!" She tore the box out of my hand. "They are filled with potion. If you eat one you will be mad with love!"

"Oh, that's absurd! Look, I'm going over to her house right now and straighten this out."

"No!" She flew in my face. "She will cast a spell on you! She only wants to trap you -- like a canary in a cage. She needs a husband, after all!"

I pulled myself out of her grip, swung open the front door and walked out into the alley.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

My taxi lurched through a melee of wobbly bicycles, dung-dropping donkeys and darting pedestrians. As much as I quivered with anticipation at the thought of revisiting the harem, I was seething with frustration. My only transgression was to visit a woman's house and sit properly amid her scantily attired cousins and sisters. Their nightgown follies had to have been performed on the assumption that I, an apparently well-mannered Nasrani, would behave myself. But why should they have assumed this? Had that hairbrush swept the locks of other, equally docile Christians? Could I have been set up as far back as the post office?

Maybe Fatima was right and it was all a trap. Certainly Halima, a university student, should have needed no help in writing a letter in English. And, I wondered, why hadn't her father expressed surprise or indignation at finding me in the women's quarters? Maybe Halima had invited me into the harem because she -- they, perhaps, Father included -- knew I couldn't help but want to return. I would be hooked and might fall for any one of them.

I rang the bell at Halima's. Straightaway the door opened and a girl in a green lamé djellaba came out and set off toward me down the walkway, taking urgent steps in yellow babouches, her hands clutched, her head tilted to one side, her breast heaving. Halima's sister. Laila. It had been Laila all along.

"Habibi!" -- my love -- "at last you have come to me!" She swung open the gate and seized my hand and glissaded to my side. She pulled me along, away from the house.

"Pteew!"

"L'qahba!"

"Aa l'qahba!"

"Aa n-Nasrani!"

Picking up a fresh coterie of delinquents, we set off down the road running the length of the Medina wall.

"Laila, look, I --"

"Habibi! You have bewitched me!"

"Ah l'qahba!"

"I've bewitched you?"

"Aa l'qahba!"

"Whatever spell you put on me has worked. I see only you! I dream of only you! You are my, my --" tears spouted out of her eyes and her breathing quickened. Spits and hisses from the youths behind.

We arrived at the portals of Bab er Robb at the medina's edge, where the tawny desert emptiness of the plain of Al-Hawz begins. A cameleer wandered over, his beast plodding in tow, his polyester slacks and Nikes showing under store-bought robes.

"I love you!" Laila shouted. "I cannot live without you!"

"Laila, please, you don't even know me! Let's try and take things a bit more slowly!"

The cameleer fiddled with the label on his turban. "Hey, Monsieur! Twenty dirhams a ride!"

Laila's eyes were reddening. "But I don't need to know you! I love you! And you love me! What about ... what about my cookies!"

"I never ate them."

"But you accepted them, you accepted my notes. And you have come to see me. You must love me!"

"I wanted ... to settle things."

"Settle what, if you don't love me! You must love me!"

Under the looming medina wall, outside Bab er Robb, before the dustbowl barrens of Al Hawz, there we stood, two unwitting lovers speaking one tongue but two different languages. Moped riders slowed as they passed, then put-putted back to listen in. The cameleer was intoning his nasal spiel; the youths were tightening in a circle around us. Even veiled women were stopping to ogle. Soon expressions of disgust and cries of rancor were being hurled at us -- or at me -- like stones at a sinner. And was not Laila playing to this impromptu assembly? Indeed she was. Was I not being prosecuted before a jury of her countrymen?

I felt I was. I ended up tearing myself away from her, leaving her pleading and in tears, ducking the camel's maw and pushing my way through the crowd to a taxi. I had begun to shake, half out of pity, half out of anger. Talking wasn't about to resolve anything. I knew nothing for sure except that I knew nothing for sure.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Fatima was waiting for me at home. She laughed off the notion that Laila's tears could be real. Finding a mate was rough sport in Morocco and feelings would never cloud a true huntress's judgment -- the meeting in the post office, the harem, the notes and the cookies were all elements in a stratagem of entrapment. She donned her djellaba and veil, uttered a soft pitying chorus of eywas and took her leave of me.

That night autumn arrived. The air turned cool and clear, the moon rose full over the kasbah and sent its stark silvering light through my window. I lay in bed, doubting myself and my judgment as much as Laila's tears. Only at sunrise, when the ancient rubbish collector led his limping donkey and lopsided cart down my alley, did I finally fall asleep.


Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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