Under the veils in Casablanca

Public life may be dominated by men, but the worlds of house and hammam belong to women.

Published April 21, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Casablanca, to those who haven't been there, is a place of intrigue and romance, where ceiling fans spin slowly over steamy bars, elegant former lovers toss off heartbreaking remarks and sex and danger smolder just beneath the surface.

But the real Casablanca, I'd heard, the place you have to fly into from New York before you take off for more truly mysterious parts of Morocco -- like Fez or Marrakech -- isn't so charming. It's a chaotic town, full of messy traffic and hastily constructed concrete buildings. Casablanca is the no-nonsense economic center of Morocco, where the only thing called "Rick's Cafe" is a drink at the Hyatt.

I didn't want to spend time alone in Casablanca, but a canceled flight left me with a couple of days there before I was supposed to meet up with a male friend. I was anxious about being alone in an Arab city. Years ago, the one time I spent a few hours walking alone in Egypt, I was nearly raped, saved by the fact that I hit my assailant surprisingly hard and fast and then, praying he couldn't swim, escaped into the ocean. That's another story, and while I rationally knew it could have as easily happened in Miami or St. Tropez, I was still scared to be alone in an Arab country. But there I was, and since I didn't want to simply hole up in a hotel while I waited for my friend, ordering room service, I decided to try to seek out the company of women in Casablanca.

In Morocco, as in many Arab countries, there is a strict division between the public and private -- male and female -- worlds. The private world, largely unseen and unavailable to travelers, is in the home and the inviolable space each woman carries around with her in the long, shapeless robe she wears, the djellaba. The public world is the world of men. They drive the cabs, greet you in hotels and run the souks, offering you the opportunity to just come in and look, lady, it's not expensive. As a woman traveler, visiting the public world, you interact only with men. That creates some tension, because while everyone in Morocco seems happy to see a free-spending American tourist, they don't seem to understand women who walk around, heads uncovered, without the company of their husband or a male relative. Nor do they comprehend women who would wear shorts on the streets in their country -- and neither do I.

That isn't to say that you feel threatened as a woman traveling in Morocco -- just a little exposed, no matter how much you cover up. Men will approach you to sell things, to guide you through the labyrinthine medinas, but they are usually put off by a good-humored refusal. Sometimes, on buses or in the street -- as happened to me a couple of times on my trip -- they will pull hairs out of your head. It wasn't until I read anthropologist Elizabeth Fernea's book "A Street in Marrakesh" that I understood that this was not an aggressive act. Blond hair, she explains, is so unusual in Northern Africa that Moroccans think it's full of "baraka," or good karma. Pulling a piece of baraka from a stranger's head is just a good-luck charm, like plucking a four-leaf clover. It isn't hostile, but it's a little hard to get used to.

I started planning my days in Casablanca on the flight over. I chatted with the Moroccan flight attendants, asking them where to eat and what to visit in the city, and by the time we were midway through the Atlantic and the movie, we were asking one another about our marriages. They were amazed, in my case, that a marriage of love could end in divorce. One of the women was in an arranged marriage, and quite openly said she hated her husband. Another had refused to comply with her family's wishes that she have an arranged marriage and, at 32, expected to remain single. A third was waiting, living at home under the protective eye of her father.

By the time we were over the Azores, I made the mistake of inviting these three friendly women to have dinner with me one night in Casa. They exchanged some rapid Arabic among themselves, and finally said that they must invite me. I hadn't realized that women in Morocco, even in their 30s, don't just pick up and go out to dinner unaccompanied by men, and that for a Westerner to ask Moroccans to dinner in their hometown is like inviting herself to their house for a meal.

I tried again, explaining that I was a journalist and that in America the custom is for the magazines to always pay to take people out to dinner in other countries. This, of course, wasn't true, but I was doing my best not to impose on them. Another conversation ensued, apparently with some disagreement. Finally they reached a conclusion: I was in their country, and I would be their guest. Arab hospitality makes no exceptions for expense accounts.

In the morning, I arrived in Casablanca and made my way to the hotel where I had a reservation. The manager seemed surprised to see me. I hung around the lobby long enough to realize I'd been booked into a bordello. Businessmen kept arriving with heavily made-up women, and no one had any bags. Interesting as this scene was, I didn't like the way I was being eyed. So I consulted my guidebook and hailed a taxi to drive me what turned out to be four blocks, for which the driver tried to charge me 100 dirhams, the equivalent of $10 (never pay more than 15 dirhams for a ride in town). I checked into the four-star hotel (still only $60 a night), no hookers in sight, slept off my jet lag and called my new friends.

When I phoned Aisha's house, the father and I communicated only well enough to determine "no Aisha." Khadija wasn't home, either. I finally connected with Halima, who made plans for me to come to lunch the next day.

I spent the afternoon visiting the spectacular new Hassan II Mosque, built with the best traditional Moroccan craftsmanship that $800 million can buy. I walked to the medina, exploring the narrow ancient streets lined with souks, where cheap Western clothing and household goods were for sale -- but not the brass lanterns, kilim carpets, Ali Baba slippers and hookah pipes I expected in Morocco. This was practical Casablanca. I walked around town fairly easily, giving prospective guides a friendly "Non, merci," and changing directions when I was hassled.

I crossed the street from the medina and entered a cybercafe, traversing from one century to another, so I could leave a message with my friend in Paris, telling him not to meet me at that bordello. I ran into a couple of Americans there, who seemed distraught. When one went out for a cigarette, the other told me that he'd just been in a car accident in which he'd tried to pass a car and was hit; his mother died, his aunt was in the ICU in Casablanca and his wife's face was disfigured. You always travel to exotic countries in search of the edge, in search of an experience that heightens the preciousness, the temporality, of life, and then you are surprised and dismayed to find it.

That night, too timid to go out to a restaurant alone, I ate at the hotel. Traveler's tip: If your hotel is called Al-Mounia, and one of the best restaurants in town is called Al-Mounia, don't assume it's the restaurant at your hotel.

The next day, I took a taxi to a residential neighborhood, where Halima's brother met me to accompany me to her house. We entered a bunkerlike apartment building, and Halima greeted me in a light and spare room with long, low couches, a patio-style dining room set and a bedroom filled with stuffed animals. Her friend, another flight attendant, was there, drinking a beer. Halima shot a glance at her, worried that her brother would see the taboo alcohol and she'd get in trouble. Naima hid the beer, and after the brother left, we agreed that if he happened into the room again, we'd say that I'd drunk all the alcohol myself.

Halima and Naima were modern-looking gals; Naima wore a leather jacket and jeans, and Halima had leggings and a long blouse. They said they didn't usually wear djellabas, although it was a constant fight with their mothers, who covered their heads with veils. They said they wore djellabas only during Ramadan or outside of Casablanca in more traditional towns. We chatted about Naima's boyfriend, who sounded like a real cretin, and they solicited my advice. I wanted to tell her to ditch him and move to Paris, but settled on saying that she was young and beautiful and shouldn't have to marry someone she didn't like just because she was worried, at 28, that she was getting old.

Eventually the maid (in Casablanca, flight attendants have maids) told us the couscous was ready. Usually a treat prepared only on Fridays, Halima had had her make a special one for me. Naima ran over to her apartment and brought back little airplane bottles of wine, warning me again to say I'd drunk them all myself. Luckily for them, I was perfectly capable of saying I'd had six drinks before lunch. We sat at the table and the heavily veiled maid brought in a great round platter piled with couscous and vegetables. Halima asked me if I minded eating Moroccan style, with one big plate in the middle and no forks. Delighted, we all started eating, tunneling our way into the center of the big plate, pouring sauce over the next portion we would eat. The couscous, it turned out, was the best I would eat in Morocco, even at the best restaurants. At the heart of the mound of couscous, under carrots, turnips and pumpkin, was a chicken, which we tore apart with our hands. At the end of the meal, Halima showed me how to make real Moroccan tea, with fresh mint, green tea and boiling water: You steep the leaves and add lots of sugar, then pour it from high into little gilt-edged glasses.

Before I left, I asked Halima for advice on how to spend the rest of my day. "The hammam," she said, without hesitating. Would I be welcome at the women's baths? I asked. "Sure," she said, writing down the name of the place. "Just bring extra panties."

With that strange advice, I parted, leaving her my address in case she should ever make it to San Francisco. "Inshallah," she said. "If God wills it."

Back at my hotel, I asked the man at the reception desk for directions to the hammam. "Hammam?" he asked, bewildered. Why on earth would a woman staying in a luxurious room with hot water gushing from the shower and a tub to fill want to go to the communal baths?

"Hammam," I insisted, and he shrugged. I gave him the name Ziani, the one Halima had recommended.

"Taxi," he said.

The taxi driver drove me all over Casablanca before finally stopping at a bar to ask directions. Eventually we pulled into a side street in a residential neighborhood with narrow, whitewashed concrete buildings. I walked up a flight of stairs to where a man in a djellaba looked at me questioningly. I told him, in very bad French, that I would like to visit the hammam. He asked several questions, apparently about treatments, and I shrugged. "Everything," I finally said. He smiled, wrote out a slip and showed me to the stairs next door.

There, young women in pink lab coats greeted me at the front, and I paid about $18 for "everything," whatever that was. The attendant handed me a scratchy glove, some black goo wrapped in plastic and an apron, and pointed me to a dressing room. "Leave the pants on," she said sternly, and repeated it, just in case I didn't understand and broke decorum.

Wrapped in an apron and wearing my underwear (thinking maybe black lace was a little outri for an Arab bath), I entered the large tiled baths. The attendant motioned me into the steam room, and told me to cover myself with the black goo. Inside, women were sitting on stools in front of marble faucets and cisterns, pouring basins of water over their heads and bodies. Others were rubbing themselves with the black soap or leaning on the tile benches, relaxing. I was happy to see that my underwear wasn't out of place; some of the women wore much racier G-strings and thongs. They were all pretty immodest anyway, careless about touching themselves in front of other people, nonchalantly lifting up a breast to soap underneath or spreading their legs to soap their inner thighs. It was unlike the little bubble of privacy -- and body shame -- that surrounds women in Western baths.

One woman pointed at my back, and I understood that she wanted to soap it for me. There was an easy familiarity in the way the women touched one another. They were friendly and tried to speak to me, but I just told them one of the few French phrases I know, which means basically "I'm sorry, I don't speak any French." I added that I spoke Italian and Spanish, and their world opened up to me. One woman told me, in Italian, how the black soap was going to make my skin look younger. We talked about how she lives in Italy, but comes to visit her family in Casablanca, and how she must cover up and act like a different person here. After she was called in for her treatment, another woman told me, in Spanish, about her trips to Spain, and we compared places we'd visited while we scrubbed our toes.

The attendant called me into the outer room, and I was motioned to lie down on a big marble slab. A fearsome-looking woman took my scratchy mitt from me and put it on her hand. She motioned me to lie flat and began scraping off several layers of skin with a kind of sadistic fervor. She paid no attention to the way I jumped and squealed when she sandpapered the bottom of my feet, and just motioned me to lie on my side so she could scrape my skin from pinkie to underarm. She applied more of the black soap, scrubbing my whole body pink and nearly raw. I found myself wondering why, if these women are always so covered up, they bother to undergo this pain to make their bare skin look better. But as I rinsed off the soap and recuperated, I realized my skin felt incredibly soft and clean.

I lingered in that room, luxuriously shampooing my hair, offering the Italian-speaking girl some American shampoo, comparing smells, comparing hair, hers thick and heavy, mine lank and fine. We chatted and soaped and made minute ministrations to our bodies. I was curious to see the women's bodies -- one older woman with a tattoo on her chin had a complicated henna tattoo running up and down her legs. Some were fat, and all were soft; no one had the kind of muscular, toned body you see in an American gym. No one seemed to be comparing bodies, as they do in an American bath, where women anxiously glance at one another, checking out who has bigger thighs or tummies. There was something easy, womanly and accepting in that room that you would never find in America.

The attendant led me to another room, where two more meaty women presided over massage tables. The masseuse, fingers pruned from water, gave me a wonderfully competent massage with oil, done not for my pleasure or relaxation but to invigorate the muscles deeply. After the oil, she soaped me entirely, handling me with the kind of intimacy a mother has when she bathes a child. She rinsed me off with the same professional familiarity, touching my breasts and genitals as if they were my knees and toes. Finally, as I sat upright, she pushed me off the table, saying something to me with a toothless grin.

I was directed to the dressing room. The attendant clucked disapprovingly at me for the fact that my hotel towel didn't entirely cover my body. I went into the relaxation room, where the same women who had just been naked in the baths registered disapproval at my skimpy towel. I went back for my things and put on my long knit travel dress (it doubles as a bathrobe) and lay down with them. They all had the intensity of relaxation that comes only when someone has to go back to the demands of children and husbands they may not like. This was clearly their sanctum, their place of peace.

These baths were rather sophisticated for Morocco. In smaller towns, the baths are at the center of the medina, where one fire serves to heat the bakery and the hammam. They are simpler affairs, a room full of tiles with faucets and buckets and an attendant. I thought that the women at these baths -- who spoke so many languages, who seemed so sophisticated -- probably were not the women I'd seen on the streets covered from head to toe. But one by one they began dressing, leaving carefully knotted towels on their heads and putting on djellabas.

And under the djellabas? Anything goes. One woman wore matching print pajamas. Another wore colorful leggings and a T-shirt. They were casual and comfortable, wearing whatever the hell they wanted and tossing a djellaba over it. As one woman wrapped a scarf around her head, I admired it, told her it was very beautiful; the scarf had changed, for me, from being a symbol of oppression to being just a lovely piece of fabric. They all walked out of the baths, anonymous. In my long dress and light hair, I was once again exposed. I wished, for a moment, for a djellaba of my own.

By Laura Fraser

Laura Fraser is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. Her most recent book is An Italian Affair (Vintage).

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