When I was a child, it was the watchful and omniscient eyes of God and Santa Claus that kept me on my best behavior. Now, living in my own apartment for the first time in my life, I have my neighbors who know when I am sleeping, who know when I’m awake, who know (it seems) when I’ve been bad or good … but there are no extra presents under the tree if I’m good – for goodness sake! There is, however, less yelling in the staircase and less worry that I’ll get kicked out before my rent is up or beaten by a Moroccan woman twice my size, with a family, a reputation and a “nice, quiet neighborhood” (as the savvy salesman of a landlord put it) to protect.
Due to this rather delicate living situation that I have advance-rented my way into, I have turned into something between a conscientious but sneaky 15-year-old and a scandalous but ashamed housewife from 1950’s suburban America. If I come in late, I lift the door a little when I close it, to ease pressure on its squeaky hinges and increase my chances of “not waking Mom and Dad”. If friends stay over late, I whisper “Skoooot!” (shut up) when they laugh too loudly at the paranoia that you are supposed to entertain as 16-year-old, drinking in the basement while your parents slept upstairs, and not as a 24-year-old, quietly reading in the apartment on which you are paying rent.
I bet that when you were 16, you didn’t do housework – especially not at 8 AM, when the neighbors would be sure to hear the clinking of dishes in the sink or the squeak of a squeegee (I can’t believe spell-check just approved that word) on the bathroom floor – just to prove that I am a good, upstanding woman. Sometimes I even squeegee out of contempt, because I know they’re still sleeping – and if they awake to the creak of the front door at midnight, certainly vigorous squeegeeing should have a similar effect (f.y.i. spell-check doesn’t approve of ‘squeegee’ as a verb). But I’m not that vengeful, really, so mostly I play “Betty”, the tactful 1950’s housewife. I close the windows when Si Mohammed or Mohsin wants to smoke, so as to prevent any smoke from wafting into upstairs apartments and the astute noses of nosey neighbors. And the bottle of wine that I’ve been “saving for the right occasion”? Hidden among the recyclables next to the trashcan, just in case a neighbor knocks and I have to invite them in. And last week, after hanging most of my clothes to dry in the sun on the roof, I hung a laundry line in the living room. For black underwear.
But I’m not living in Pleasantville. I am in Fes, a 1,200-year-old, Muslim city, in the 21st century. And to be honest, I don’t really blame my neighbors for being upset (though I don’t pity them enough to come home every evening at 9). Here they are, single women with children, getting up at 7:30 (yes I know when they get up because remember how 3-years-olds actually start running and screaming as soon as their eyes open?) to take kids to school and go to work themselves. And they have to deal with a first floor apartment that hosts a nearly constant flow of foreigners – I’m here until July, someone else will move in for the summer, people will rent by the week or even by the night at peak tourist season in August … My landlord gets all the profit, while these women get insomnia (allegedly) and suspicion about the questionable activities of their cute little American neighbor.
This is a Muslim country and alcohol is Haram, forbidden in Islam. Smoking is certainly not acceptable, nor are most things that one could be doing outside of her house after 9 PM. But I am not hanging out with sketchy people on the street, doing drugs or selling my body. I am usually eating dinner with friends. But how would they know that unless they got really crazy and started following me around, which I would really prefer not to happen. So you can’t blame them. But this is Arabia, baby – so you also can’t let them win …
“You know,” Si Mohammed leans over his coffee to tell me, “If I were you, I would go to the police. I would go and say, ‘You know, I am an American and I am renting this place and these people they are harassing me and blah blah blah.’” He looks at me, sipping my cup of more-milk-than-coffee with more-sugar-than-milk. He laughs, ruffles my hair like I’m his kid sister, “But you won’t do that.”
Instead, I strategically avoid all contact with the residents of the two other apartments with whom I share a front door. I listen to the stairwell before leaving the house and then scurry between out my door when the hall is quiet. I told Aziz the story, and he asked an old friend, who lives next door, to look out for me and talk to the neighbors. The friend said that house is full of jealous women and he tries to avoid them too. So I remind myself, between spats of paranoia, of the Arabic saying that Mohsin repeats to me whenever I complain: “Leave those who will look to look and leave those who will talk to talk”. It’s just not that easy to leave who will think you are a hooker to think …
“But, Shemia, you can’t be nice to everyone,” Julia warns me, “When they knock on the door to yell at you, open it, tell them to go away, and shut it again. Don’t apologize or explain yourself or smile.” I look to the floor, embarrassed, “ms keena, Dryffa. Poor thing. She’s too nice.” Passive aggressively loud cleaning just doesn’t cut it, I guess.
Move to the Ville Nouvelle, everyone urges me, you won’t have any problems there. But I don’t want to live in the Ville Nouvelle, I tell them. I like the medina. If I wanted to live in a high rise on the busroute between the suburbs and the grocery store, I would move back to the US. Instead, I will stay in the medina, because I like the “foreignness” of it. And of course, I’ll try to have my cake and eat it too, by living in the foreignness without living by the foreign rules (completely). Plus, if I moved to the Ville Nouvelle, when would I wear my djellabas and learn things like how to fight with neighbors and not be nice to everyone?
“But we want you to have a good experience in Morocco,” Khedija tells me, “We don’t want you to learn all these negative things.” I like learning them, I tell her, glancing to the window and wondering if Fatima can see us playing cards on the floor.