It can be ‘tough’ to be a female in Morocco

Two years ago, I was invited to give a reading from my novel at a university in Ifrane, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. One of my cousins immediately suggested I hire a driver to get there, but I laughed off his suggestion. I can drive myself! I’m not some helpless princess!

In the end, however, I had to admit I lacked the robust constitution it takes to drive on Morocco’s roads and highways, so I did hire someone. His name was Younes, and he was a slight, short man with an easy smile and friendly eyes. Ordinarily, he drove a shuttle to the airport, but occasionally he took longer trips, especially in the tourist months of spring and summer.

My husband accompanied me, as did two American friends on a short detour from their European holiday. We stuffed our bags in the trunk of a dark green Peugeot 305 and headed out. I sat in the back, and was nervous until we left the suburbs of Casablanca behind us and began to see the expansive countryside, with the ubiquitous orange and tangerine trees and, as we approached Meknès, grapevines and olive trees.

On the highway, it was impossible not to notice the gendarmes in their uniforms -- gray polyester suits, red epaulets, black boots and white gloves. They looked like little Lego men, ready to take action. Arms akimbo, they stood in the middle divider and watched for infractions, real or imagined: speeding, failing to wear a seatbelt, an unsafe lane change, an expired registration or a large load that could be contraband. This last breach was the most likely to result in a large contribution to their private retirement funds.

I worried we would get stopped.

“I doubt if we will,” Younes said, giving me an amused smile through the rearview mirror. “They usually don’t stop cars with tourists. You remember how these things work, don’t you?”

“Good thing Ken is in the front seat, then,” I said. Given his red beard, blue eyes and six-foot-one, 200-pound frame, it would have been hard to mistake my friend Ken, a software engineer from Seattle, for a local. “Do you get stopped a lot when you don’t drive tourists?” I asked.

“I was stopped last month. I had run a red light, and so the bulisia whistled and stopped me. You know they have women cops now, don’t you? This one was tough.”

Tough was an adjective I had heard often in the past few months, applied not just to policewomen but also to female customs officers, female judges or female chief residents. The common wisdom was that women were not as likely to take pay-offs, a discordant note in a country where people routinely use bribes for everything, from getting a home phone line installed to obtaining a spot on the quota-limited list of pilgrims to Mecca.

“What happened?” I asked.

“She wanted to write me up, and the ticket was 400 dirhams. I tried to reason with her. I’m a shuttle driver and people like me, we spend so much time in cars, there are certain courtesies we should be able to have. We’re like cab drivers, you understand.”

Having lived in Casablanca for much of that year, I understood that there was indeed an unspoken agreement between police officers and cab drivers who routinely made illegal U-turns, gamely ignored red lights and cut across lanes of traffic to pick up a fare. What remained fuzzy in my mind was why this agreement seemed to extend to drivers of buses, trucks, mopeds, vegetable carts or government cars. No wonder I never wanted to drive.

“I asked her to let me go,” Younes continued, “and I added, ‘May God have mercy on your parents.’ I was just being polite, you understand. But then she said, ‘Leave my parents out of this.’ I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘What are you, an orphan? You don’t have parents? You don’t want mercy for them?’ So she got mad, and she said that my prayers wouldn’t stop her from writing me a ticket.”

Now he pointed his thumb at his chest. “So then I got mad. I told her that she had no business being a cop and that her place was in the kitchen.”

“Uh-oh,” I said. Then I realized I had sounded terribly American, which meant Younes’ questions about what I understood or remembered were not likely to stop any time soon. I thought of my mother, who had tried for years to teach me how to cook, until, faced with my complete lack of interest and culinary talent, she had eventually given up. Now she passed her recipes directly to my husband, without whom I would probably subsist on a diet of frozen pizza. She, too, had often called me tough.

“What did the policewoman do?”

“She picked up her walkie-talkie and called the police station and they sent a car to pick me up.” Younes laughed heartily now.

“And did you get the ticket?” I asked.

“Well, sort of. At the station, I talked to the men officers and explained that I was a professional driver and she was a strange woman, being insulted by having someone pray for her parents. So in the end we settled on 200 dirhams.”

“For the ticket?”

“No, no. Not for the ticket,” he said, giving me a bewildered look. “For them, of course. They took the money. You remember how these things work, don’t you?”

Perhaps I had forgotten exactly how to negotiate a bribe, but I still remembered how women who didn’t fit typical gender roles were undermined by men -- and by other women.

Lalami is the author, most recently, of the novel “Secret Son.”