Losing Control in Marrakech
Claustrophobia clutched at my heart as my eyes darted to the exit. A hand grabbed my shoulder, making my skin prickle. Turning around, Hamza’s eyes were a shade darker than they had been previously as they bore into mine.
“Where are you going?”
“Home,” was Anna’s terse reply.
As we fumbled our way to the exit, loud footsteps could be heard from behind. In a blur of movement, they pulled us into a taxi, and as our hands reached out, the doors were shut in front of us. There was no escape.
Morocco felt like stepping into a story book. It’s a country in the grip of a feverish imagination, with ancient cities that have remained untouched for centuries. The city of Marrakech is filled with labyrinthine alleyways that lead you to colourful souks alive with magicians, musicians, storytellers and stalls selling everything from brightly-coloured shawls and cushion covers to intoxicating perfumes.
As Anna and I were driven through the streets of the main city, our eyes were captivated by the dusty orange buildings and horse-drawn carts that made us feel like we were on a movie set; they were nothing like the skyscrapers and buses back home. We made our way through the hustle and bustle of the main Medina, Jemaa-El-Fna, with its loud stall owners, heady scents and rich colours, trying to get our bearings. I looked around in childlike wonderment, bright eyed and bushy tailed and keen to explore.
We followed our noses one night to one of the eateries a fellow traveller had recommended. The smells of sugar and spice filled our nostrils as we made our way inside and took our seats, both ordering steamy, fluffy bowls of couscous. Before long we were cast into conversation with two men who sat at the table beside us as their friend served the other patrons in the restaurant. They had kind eyes and pleasant smiles and seemed unfussed by our barrage of questions about the Moroccan lifestyle, education system and social values.
“Tomorrow night you should come out with us!” Hamza suggested as he leaned nonchalantly in his chair. “You can see the fun modern part of Marrakech and not only the Old Town!”
Excitement brimmed in me; I love meeting locals and being shown where they like to go and what they like to do – it always feels like a more authentic travel experience.
Anna and I were caught up in the glamour of it all as the men paid for our cab rides and showed us hidden gems that we wouldn’t have found without them. The sweet Moroccan wine was flowing and we were taken to a ritzy club where the rich and elite rubbed shoulders. After Ahmed and Hamza opened the doors for us, we were met by draping velvet curtains, spurting fountains and belly dancers on tables.
Each club we went to, Hamza would shake someone’s hand behind the bar and drinks would follow, a sense of importance swelling in my chest.
The booze acted as a social lubricant, making us want to socialise and meet new people. Anna and I began chatting to a group of English guys, who had looks of worry playing out on their faces.
“Are you safe with these men?” they questioned.
Anna and I answered in a chorus of “Of course we are” and “Don’t be silly”, giggling at what we deemed an absurd inquiry. We felt safe, but as we continued to flirt with these men, Hamza and Ahmed would send goosebump-inducing scowls in our direction and pull us away.
First warning sign.
“Let’s go to another bar; we don’t like the men here,” Hamza whispered to me as he piled us in another taxi.
Second warning sign.
As we walked into our fourth club of the evening, the alcohol was definitely taking effect as I took in the loud bass and the confetti falling from the ceiling. Hamza continued to buy me drinks from the men he seemed to know behind the bar, allowing us to cut through to the front of the line.
“Wait, where’s Anna?” I asked as I sucked my vodka lime soda through the straw.
“Ahmed is with her.”
“Can we find her?”
“We will find her in a minute,” he replied as he put his hand on my waist and lead me through the crowd.
Third warning sign.
We made our way to a podium, and as I danced I kept my eyes peeled, even though the booze was dulling my thoughts and my movements. I could feel Hamza starting to move up against me, making my skin crawl from the proximity, but the music was taking over my senses and I was keen to boogie. Within a matter of seconds his tongue was in my mouth, and as I tried to push him away, he held my wrists, restricting my movements. A sense of panic began to set in. His once trustworthy smile had suddenly turned leery and sinister, showing the face of a man I did not know.
Relief swam through me when I saw Anna’s red hair, a beacon of hope, making its way through the crowd. A look of concern was etched into her features. She grabbed me with one arm and spoke quickly with Hamza, flashing him a smile that even drunk me could read as insincere.
With her hand holding me firmly, we swerved in and out of the thrumming bodies, feeling the bass in our chests. We moved quickly as she lead me down the stairs and took me to the bathroom.
They wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom alone. Ahmed tried to kiss me even though I have a boyfriend… he started to get rough. They were talking about you before Hamza whisked you away. They didn’t want me near you; I had no idea where you were.
These were the flurry of sentences that came out of her mouth as she tried to force drunk me to understand the situation that we had found ourselves in. I was slowly beginning to comprehend the severity of it all. The familiar feeling of being a woman and having to put my guard up while out at night, of being constantly aware of hungry men, was rearing its ugly head – a feeling that I thought I had escaped while I was in my ‘travel bubble’.
Sweat seemed to bead off our skin as our bodies were crammed into the taxi, my heart playing an uneven rhythm I couldn’t contain. How had our night turned so sour? Some may say Anna and I were naïve, but we momentarily believed that we could travel without having to worry about how our gender may take effect. We didn’t think that spending time with two seemingly lovely men would result in a fear-filled cab ride, with their hands reaching for ours as they tried to get the driver to take us back to their place.
As they followed us to our hostel trying to grab at our bodies and ignoring our pleas to leave us alone, plans and ideas of how to protect ourselves if things got violent whirled through our heads. So often you hear stories of men travelling with reckless abandon, and for one night, we thought we could do the same.
A wash of victory and respite flooded our bodies when we were finally able to slam the heavy hostel door in their face, telling the desk not to let anyone in who didn’t have a key.
“Fuck, that was intense,” Anna sighed as we steadied our breaths and dragged our bodies to our hostel beds, the adrenaline seeping out of us.
That night we nodded off with the heavy thought that although it’s great to travel, sometimes you have to keep your guard up travelling as a woman.
Cover by Margot Gable