Three women wearing hijabs were taking pictures of each other close to the big square. In French, I offered to take a picture of all three of them. It took a moment for them to adjust to the fact that I had addressed them, and then to understand what I was offering. An iPhone was duly handed over and I took pictures of the group– two women about my age and another, who may have been their mother. The women thanked me with smiles and nods and then gestured that they would each like pictures with me, Marrakech’s only red head. They wore long felted black robes while I, as usual, was a jumble sale of colour, and dressed for sunshine. We posed with our arms round each other, smiling broadly. It was curiously heartening, I think for all of us.
I came back to my Riad before dark today and spoke to little girls playing in the street. Even small children speak French. As I lay on my bed, I could still hear the girls shouting and laughing. I remark upon it because these were the first girls I had seen out having fun. There are always groups of boys playing soccer with duct tape balls and goal posts chalked on walls. There are boys on bikes. Everywhere, boys from 3 to 13 say Bonjour. Older ones, speaking Franglais, offer to take you to anywhere you want to go. The only girls I have seen on the street are carrying trays of bread to be baked, or small siblings, or bags of groceries. They have been sent on errands. They do not speak unless they are spoken to. Unlike the boys and men, girls and women here do not try to catch your eye, nor do they nod when they pass in the street. When I smile and say Bonjour, they return the greeting but it is only males who seem to initiate contact.
In the souks, most of the shops and stalls are, well, manned. The men talk to every passerby loudly and in a number of languages. Some of the patter is very funny. “For you I make Asda price” Some sellers take your hand or touch your back or arm. It isn’t threatening, but it does feel unusually intimate– there’d be uproar if it happened in Macy’s or at a London Christmas market. (For women younger and prettier than me, the level of attention they receive may well be intrusive, but to me it simply feels kindly). The stallholders can sell anything to anyone, or die trying. The once or twice I have seen women minding the shop they have looked bored and disconnected. They don’t speak. In one shop I was looking at scarves and feeling grateful to be ignored, when, out of the corner of my eye ,I saw the woman behind the counter moving towards me. I needn’t have worried. She was headed for the mirror by the door, intent on squeezing a pimple. No sale.
In the hammans it is different. I’ve now been to two, and in each case a young woman led me by the hand from treatment room to tea room and back again. The bathing and anointing is both thorough and intimate. The women move softly and speak tenderly, although some of the scrubbing and stretching is bracing to say the least. It feels like being nursed, or possibly embalmed. All that hot water and steam is ruinous for the hair and so, for the last couple of days I have been looking for somewhere to get a blow dry. I kept seeing signs for Coiffeur but the establishments clearly catered only to male customers. Barber’s chairs and cut throat razors abounded. I finally worked it out: women cannot be seen with their heads uncovered and so their hairdressers need to be upstairs or in alley ways or hidden behind dark curtains. As with the women themselves, you have to develop a special vision to actually see them. In the end I got my blow dry at an upscale hamman, paying western prices. The hairdresser was male, which was a surprise, although all the customers are of course European or American there. My stylist dried each section of hair and then put it in a pin curl. The end result can only be described as frothy. I’m thrilled.