I recently made a new piece, SideShow. It’s inspired by my memory of a photo of REM’s Michael Stipe. In my memory he has his pants down around his ankles, ass out, hitchhiking, looking back at us, the viewer. I know the implication is that his cock is also out, facing his potential rides. But that didn’t register in my mind in the 90’s. What did register is how men can do things women can’t. The idea of a woman with her pants cheekily around her ankles – ass exposed – felt…what? Dangerous, transgressive, empowering?
I decided to find out.
I performed SideShow in Finland. “An instant classic,” someone said. “It should be in galleries.”
Then I got to Marrakech in Morocco.
I performed SideShow for a women-only audience.
It’s hard to describe how impossible pulling down one’s pants in front of men in this country would be.
While it isn’t nothing, nudity in contemporary performance is expected and respected in a western context. Pulling one’s pants down is totally okay to do on the streets of New York City most nights, and in art contexts in most ‘western’ cities. Most of the time when I take my clothes off onstage, there is this tantalizing moment where I can feel the audience silently gasp and I feel totally exposed and hope everything is in place. Then I sink into the deliciousness of it, the freedom and power. Eventually it isn’t a big deal. In Mexico I said, “Leave the lights down long enough for me to pull my costume back on before I bow.” but in the moment, I decided to bow nude.
In Morocco, if I had performed this piece for men and women I would not have been safe afterwards. Just existing as a white woman with blonde hair wearing a hat, sunglasses and a scarf on the streets of Marrakech is an ordeal. There is a constant hassle. Some of it is just the usual invitation to look into the shops, invariably followed by “Do you need a husband?” That’s on a good day.
The worst day was at night walking home without a hat on. A young man, maybe 20 years old, was walking too close to me on an empty stretch of the maze that is the medina. It was New Year’s Eve, now morning. I had walked home on my own in the middle of the night many times. There are no cars in the medina (old city), so the taxi drops me at the square and I walk the kilometre of winding, narrow, cobbled pathways to the riad (house/hotel) where I’m a resident artist. My friend lives on the edge of the medina and continues in the taxi to her flat, further away. She always asks if I’ll be okay walking on my own in the middle of the night. “Punch and Run, baby” I always say. “I got this.”
I have lived in the crack alleys of Vancouver’s east side, Toronto’s west side, walked home by myself in the middle of many nights in New York, San Francisco, Dublin, Edinburgh, Olso, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, Venice, Rome, Zagreb. Mexico City is the only place I have not. But even then, by the end of my time there I was walking through my neighbourhood alone at night. By all accounts Mexico City is much more dangerous than Marrakech.
So I am ready to swing my arms and throw my weight to wreak havoc and make noise if anyone tries to touch me. I walk fast, keys between my fingers, knowing where I’m going. I am ready to “Punch and Run” and no one bothers me. Maybe a catcall from across the way as I make my way, but no one comes close.
Not tonight. Tonight is New Years Eve. I am walking with purpose. I feel powerful as I hear the clack clack of my heeled boots on the cobblestones. I am ready to “Punch and Run” but it’s a clear walk. Then as I turn the corner to the last stretch on my way home this guy pushes himself off the wall and starts walking, nearing, and keeping pace with me.
I realize that speeding up isn’t the thing to do. He is keeping pace and as I get closer to home, he’ll know where I live. So instead I decide to slow, let him pass me. I pull out my phone to ‘do something’.
In most places the guy would pass me and keep going, because unless he intends to cause harm, he won’t want to make me uncomfortable. The assumption here is the opposite. The goal is to make me uncomfortable, or these men don’t seem to care about the effect of their actions on me. It seems to be about them.
This guy sidles up too close and asks if I need help to find my riad. In French I say “No thank you.” He says something else. In Darija I say “Stop, Go.” He hits me on the ass and runs. I spin around and lunge forward and with all the anger in my soul howl “FUCK YOU. FUUUUUUCK YOOOUUUU,” the wrath of all women forever flowing through me.
There is no Punch and Run to be done. He has Hit and Run. We are at a triangle in the streets. There is no one around. There are always people around. I am not going to chase him. What would I do if I caught him? If I did catch him and punched him, he might kill me. The purpose of Punch and Run is to delay the him and get away. It is not to fight or confront. It’s 3:30 in the morning and no one is out.
So I book it home. No one is up when I get home. There is a hand mark on my ass, through my leather coat and my jeans. There is nothing to be done but climb up to the roof and have a last drink and a cigarette before going to bed. I never thought I’d be so dispassionate about anything like this. I didn’t think I’d get this kind of hassle at 44. On my 44th birthday.
Two days later at the airport I am buying a coffee and the barista is flirting with me.
“I want your number.”
“What about a kiss?”
“I want to taste those lips.”
“Endac (caution). Too much. If we were in the medina I’d scream.”
He nods, a bit ashamed. Maybe.
Maybe this is a better way to have a conversation. In a situation where I am not vulnerable I can point out that this behaviour is inappropriate. In the medina when the teenagers and young men say and ask things, after two months there and with the watchful daytime eyes of the local vendors (all men) who now know me, I say “*Careful”, “That’s Enough**”, “Stop”, “Shame on you”. This plus “Hello, How are you, Good, Thank you, No problem, If God wills,” is the only Darija I know. This is how one gets through the day. These phrases, this fending off, doing it lightly because de-escalating and getting by is the goal. Always the goal. Do not escalate. There isn’t really the luxury of pushing the point.
I love a challenge. If I am told no, I usually look for the soft yes, the loophole, the slipping through the crack. This sometimes gets me into trouble, but never danger.
When I first arrived at the artist residency and showed my work on video to the other artists they had the idea to show one of my short pieces at the beginning of cinema night. In it I take my clothes off and do math out loud. The public who come to cinema night to watch alternative, art, queer and feminist films are progressive, artistic locals, visiting and local internationals. Without knowing otherwise, I proposed it to our the woman hosting the residency. “No way,” was the very strong response. I had a conversation with a local male artist who had been a resident there. We talked about pushing boundaries and how he thought it was time and the problem wasn’t the pushing of the boundaries, but the pushback. I didn’t understand what pushback would feel like.
One day a guy followed me to the door.
“I just want to ask, are you a lesbian?”
I am fiddling with the key in the lock.
“Or are you into men?”
“I am not having this conversation with you.”
I get the door open, step inside and push it closed.
I scream like a raging dinosaur.
Does this do any good?
It prompts me to learn the words that usually quiet them. Endac. Safi. Marracachia. If they realize I am not a tourist it is better. In fact, I could probably get into conversations with them. I can joke with them. I only speak in French to them; this lessens the assaults. They say whatever they say, usually “Do you need a husband?” and I say, “Endac. **Safi as I wave and continue on. One night there were young teenagers at the door asking for whisky. They’d been hanging around the door for a while and the others at home didn’t speak French. I stepped into the alley and they asked me for whisky.
“No. We are not giving you whisky. And you need to leave.”
Said one and wanted to get his friend to go. His friend looked at me, pointed two fingers to his eyes and then mine.
“Tomorrow, I’ll be looking for you.”
I lost it.
“What do you mean, you’ll be looking for me? This is our home. You cannot be hanging around knocking at our door. You will not be looking for me tomorrow. Go. Now.”
Later that night, someone, maybe his older brother, hit me. I don’t feel in danger in Marrakech, I feel put upon. But I’m a white westerner, completely privileged in their eyes. Maybe I’m British, maybe American, maybe French. When I do talk to the men and say I’m Canadian they are thrilled, they all have a brother in Canada, usually Montreal. Or they were going to go, but it’s too cold. And they also have a brother who can drive me to the desert. They are generally less aggressive when speaking French. My Irish friend Ruth has a totally different experience. She is here with her African American boyfriend. And as I overheard her say to her dad on the phone “It’s not so bad. I wouldn’t want to be a blonde here though.”
I speak with a Scottish couple in their 50’s who are travelling with their 21-year-old daughter. The daughter should be hassled like crazy by all accounts. But she isn’t, the people are so kind to the family. They have a wonderful time here, people are just so welcoming and polite. I hear the same from women who look older than me.
This lack of agency as a young* single woman makes me furious on principal. But here I don’t know how to challenge it. Someone suggested that I wear a wedding ring, a wig, never go out alone. But live must be lived. Be as you as you can be.
This is my Marrakech.
photo by Ishmael Claxton