The Ugly Side of Foreign Travel

A Meditation on Prejudice

It was 9 p.m., another hot summer night in Mohammédia, a rough town just north of Casablanca, perched at the edge of the sea, hotels strung like pearls along the shore, perfect for the hordes of sweating tourists who sprawled during the day like hermit crabs on the rough grit that passed for sand.

Melanie and I hurried through a narrow passageway, our heels clacking loudly on the cobblestones, sunlight fading in the west over the ocean. Here and there, women in rainbow-colored kaftans poked their heads out through tall windows, closing the wooden shutters, watching us furtively, turning away quickly when our eyes met.

Like all young people, we were very hungry that night. The small sandwiches and mint tea served at the conference couldn’t fill that deep hole in us, longing for the food of home, pork chops smothered in cream gravy and green beans drenched in bacon fat.

I felt uncomfortable, knowing that lone women could be asking for trouble. But Melanie — in spite of her degree in Arab culture and language, her grassroots Peace Corps experience — seemed eerily oblivious to any possible danger. So, like a puppy eager to explore the forbidden cupboard, I tagged along.

We emerged from the claustrophobic passageway into a small plaza ringed with cafés, with dozens of small tables almost hidden by the haze given off by charcoal braziers and countless men, all smoking the dung-tinged cigarettes so popular. Melanie chose one café and plopped down at a table covered with yellow linoleum, framed with chipped chrome and sticky to the touch. Facing the plaza, we waited quietly, not speaking, not making eye contact with anyone, our backs to the large number of men men seated under the portico. A black-clad waiter hurried over to us, gesturing frantically with his hands that we must not sit there, pointing to the inside of the restaurant.

Where the women sat, or where they were supposed to, when there were any. Segregated, like untouchables or African-Americans in the days of Jim Crow.

Melanie shook her head. And ordered for us, fruit juice and harira for her, brochettes and Coca-cola for me. When our food came, we each took a few bites. At that moment, two men, their fat bellies jiggling, ambled over to our table, grabbed the two empty chairs across from us, and started pounding hard on the table with them, glaring at us. One grabbed my left arm, jerking me to my feet. Melanie bolted from her chair, yelling at him in Arabic, and ran to pay the bill.

We fled, the sound of raucous laughter following us. Cold sweat trickled from my armpits, the bruise on my arm blooming into a coal-black rose that would stay with me for weeks. I stumbled over a stone as we stopped in front of another frowzy café. This time Melanie meekly followed the waiter to the “garden,” where women were allowed to sit. Not really anything more than the restaurant’s laundry area, with the fetid odor of a latrine marring every breath of air, and certainly no garden, the space reminded me of prison scenes from old movies.

We reordered the same food as we had in the other café. I ate in silence, fat salty tears welling up under my eye lids. Not for the first time did I regret being born a woman. Every incident like the one I’d just experienced only reminded me again that many people consider women to be inherently inferior. Each time, something shriveled in me.

Walking out of that café, we heard catcalls and obscene grunting behind us as we turned into that narrow passageway. No women looked out at us this time.

I’d like to think that if everyone experienced the kind of treatment Melanie and I did that night then perhaps they wouldn’t be so quick to hurt others with prejudicial attitudes.

Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Written by

Author of “A Hastiness of Cooks,” Mushroom: A Global History, In the Shadow of Ravens, and Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil. More at

Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Written by

Author of “A Hastiness of Cooks,” Mushroom: A Global History, In the Shadow of Ravens, and Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil. More at

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