(Updated March 2015)
This story is dedicated to the memory of my friend George Waldo (right) who contributed much to the making of this report. An educator, writer, film and theatre critic who divided his time between London, El Jadida in Morocco and California, George was a gentleman of learning, compassion and a playful wit. Anyone he befriended became better for it out of his wisdom and guidance. He lovingly mentored and helped educate several young Moroccan friends over the course of his dozen years in El Jadida. George was murdered in December 2003 in his home by a young assailant who knew him. More details can be read in the Moroccan News and Reports page of this site.
A commentary about George, Moroccan sexuality and betrayal can be read at: http://archive.globalgayz.com/africa/morocco/gay-morocco-news-and-reports/#article2
Realities in the Streets
Real Morocco begins on the beehive streets of such cities as Meknes and Rabat with cafes brewing espresso or mint tea next to souks (markets) spilling out handcrafts and plastic bowls. At every turn are hawkers pushing cheap carpets, costumed water sellers rattling tin cups, crowded commuter buses and school kids skipping off to school in their blue and white uniforms.
Here, young men and women mix casually and easily in public. Many women wear robes and veils, and many more go about their business in western skirts, jeans and pants. A breezy public freedom for both genders is found here more than in other stricter Muslim countries. Morocco, to a casual outsider, appears a cheerful place to wake up in the morning. It appears both familiar and exotic.
These relative freedoms, however, don’t alter the masculine tenor of this culture. There are no women driving cars or steering those infamous Mercedes taxis that pack in eight people. No women are to be seen in the countless coffee bars along the crooked streets of Meknes. Only leathery males sitting with their muddy coffee or tea staring at TV soccer match. Men also attend to the pint-sized shops packed closely together in the souks, whether it’s a barber shop, tobacco shop or butcher shop. Men are the merchants and women (married with kids) are busy at home with food and shelter.
Note: In the Spring of 2010, ‘gay Morocco’ edged a bit further out of the closet (see report) with a new hard copy magazine titled ‘Mithry‘, a bold venture in this homophobic society where homosexual behavior is illegal. An online gay association called Kif Kif has been present for a couple of years, based in distant Madrid.
Men also have the prerogative of sex in this Arab culture, especially younger unmarried men. Even though denied intimate contact with women for religious and cultural reasons, few men are virgins on their wedding night–and virtually all men get married here.
Among premarital men, male-to-male intimacy is a common, temporary, convenient and secretive form of sexual contact. This bonding is a sort of masculine rite of passage from puberty to manhood. However such intimacy does not identify them, to themselves or each other, as ‘homosexual’. This ambiguity wrapped in paradox is an informal matter for Moroccans and an enigma for uninformed western visitors. The best way to understand it, as an outsider, is to see visit the streets of Morocco and let the experience happen. And then do some thoughful reading.
Past and Present–Moulay Idriss and Eros
Our first encounter with Moroccan eros took the form of a young man no more than 15 who spotted us we drove into Moulay Idriss, a hilltop town on the way to ancient Volubilis in north central Morocco. At first this aggressive sprite offered to be our guide to Moulay but we declined. We parked and walked through the narrow alleys up to the peak where we could see across the entire valley considered sacred by native Muslims. As we finished, the kid reappeared insisting he could show us a ‘special’ view of the city. We again declined and got into the car.
I was seated with my elbow out of the window when he pressed his crotch against my arm, not slightly but deliberately and more than once as he insistently continued to bargain with us–and in clear view of his peers hanging around the parking lot. It happened quite quickly as we were pulling out of our place. We were caught off guard as to how to respond in this public situation. We took these antics lightheartedly yet not without a little surprise. This was hardly the time to talk, and about what? He was no doubt a straight adolescent using his sexuality to come on to two male tourists; we were easy obvious targets. After a few more seconds of ‘pressing’ his case we drove away, humorously startled by our first encounter with straight male sexuality in Morocco. (It wasn’t the last.)
North of Moulay Idriss, set in rolling fields of wheat, Volubilis was once a beautiful Roman town. Masterful mosaic floors and Corinthian columns still attest to the prosperity and elegance of this most westerly of all Roman cities. Once this was a thriving town of thousands making their daily way along smooth walkways to public baths, granaries, gardens, public forum and the basilica.
Now the town is dust and silent stones. Only the phantoms remain of the ancient people who lived here two millennia ago. There were virtually no other visitors here that day, no chattering guides or shuffling of Japanese or German shoes on the rocky pavements. The major sound was the wind as it gently swept and sang among the remnant mossy walls, the reassembled high columns (now capped with the nests of huge cranes) and graceful archways.
There is perhaps no more poignant impact for a sentient visitor than the silence that prevails over history with its once-noisy commerce, political drama and bloody wars.
The day was a lesson in contrasts: past and present, history and the living moment stone carved memorials and youthful eros. It was a good introduction to the real and the mythic Morocco.
Reflecting on the kid, it was easily evident that he was coming on to us and using his adolescent sexuality to manipulate us. But as strangers in a strange land we weren’t sure what was real or what was pretended. From what we had read and heard, we doubted he was gay or that he intended to have a ‘homosexual’ experience. In this culture he certainly wouldn’t have shown that in public since homosexual acts are a punishable crime (6 months to 3 years imprisonment).
He was probably indifferent to the sexual behavior itself. Rather, to this impoverished and unemployed guy, we were foreign objects of desire with endowed wallets in our trousers. We would find out more in El Jadida a week later when we visited an American friend who lived in Morocco.
The Old City of Fez
This country is visual delight and it’s easy drive around in a rented car. There are good roads, plenty of gas stations, stone villages, lush valleys, aromatic restaurants and the great Atlas Mountains are snow-peaked year round. The exotic old city of Fez (photo left) is packed with a thousand souk stalls along narrow crooked alleys. Getting lost in there is the best reason for coming here.
Later that evening, I checked e-mail at the shiny Sheraton Hotel in the new town. A swarthy dark haired staff member was pleased to help me get online while gently pressing his leg against mine as we focused (sort of) on the monitor. Gaydar wanted to signal contact, but this was more likely his usual manner of camaraderie with other guys. Men touching each other in public here doesn’t carry the same suspicious overtones that condition us in the west.
Returning to our hotel room after an hour of (non-sexual) e-mail sorting, which overlooked the town of Fez, the key to our room would not work so we asked one of the bellboys for help. As it happened the handsome man named Jose spoke Spanish and some French so we chatted for a few minutes before he left. Twenty minutes later there was a knock on the door. It was Jose, quite friendly, easy going and eager to continue with our multilingual chat. It didn’t take long to read his face and body language to understand that he was sizing us up for a possible ‘interlude’.
After a week in Morocco, talking, reading (see link for books), and listening to the pulse of the culture, we were now more attuned to the motives and behavior of young men even before we met Jose. As in other unprosperous cultures, Arab guys (often more straight than gay) in need of a job will play ‘gay for pay’ with willing foreigners, with varying degrees of discretion, as long as the game doesn’t infringe on their masculinity. Jose was probably no more gay than the kid in Moulay, but rather had his mind more on his tip than on our bodies. (photo right, fisherman in Essaouira)
George in El Jadida
All of this came together a few days later when we arrived to take in the coastal sights of the ancient and modern port of El Jadida. For ten years this charming and bustling town has been home for our friend George Waldo , an expat gay Californian.
Educated at Columbia University and USC, he is a sprightly, intelligent gay man not appearing to be in his early sixties. He delights in his penchant for swarthy younger men, happily admitting that such attractions led him to north Africa (first Algeria, now Morocco) where he has been a teacher, writer and drama critic (frequently flying to major European cities to see plays and concerts).
We checked into our hotel at his suggestion since a gay friend of his owned the place. That evening we were surrounded by the soft ambience of the hotel’s dining room and well satisfied by the menu du jour (fish filet with vegetables and rice). Dinner conversation wrapped around his experiences and insights about ‘gay’ life in Morocco, which helped clarify our own impressions and experiences of Moroccan sexuality so far.
George explained that unmarried Moroccan men form tight friendships with one another, which may or may not include sexual activity. Commonly, the younger man of the two assumes the female role for anal or interfemoral contact. When the older friend eventually marries, the younger boy becomes the older one and takes his turn in the dominant role both as leader and sexual partner.
It’s an unspoken and furtive tradition, and hardly any of these men would ever identify their activity as ‘homosexual’. It is doubtful they seek a ‘romantic’ experience with each other, but rather genuinely love each other as mates. Between natives it is not unusual to see two men in close physical contact in public (arms around shoulders, hand holding) although any noticeable sexual contact is quite invisible.
George explained that many foreign gay men do visit or live in Morocco because of the relative ease in procuring men for paid sex. For most short-term visitors, that’s often the purpose of the trip–which results in a distorted understanding of Moroccan male sexuality.
We told George about our encounter with the boys in Moulay and Fez. He agreed that these seductive gestures were not based on attraction but rather the cash payoff. “It’s likely the kid in Moulay was schooled (and probably screwed) by the older boys and learned to use his immature prowess to seduce westerners–especially a pair of guys.” He went on to say, “at 13 or 15, these kids already know how to cock-tease, how to bait foreigners and do sex in return for dollars. It’s sad, and it’s only because they’re so poor!” We agreed, as we came to see in Morocco, that poverty speaks louder than propriety, discretion or self-respect.
Mentors and Lovers
But sex is not always the prominent force between natives and foreign gays. Tender and caring relationships form aswell. George has known first hand about the role of ‘mentor’ as a valued and accepted tradition. It is a delicate role that has to be cultivated over time.
As a foreigner seeking more enduring contact, he has learned to be gentle and patient in order to develop the trust that’s necessary between him and a native apprentice. It’s not unusual for a young Moroccan to be playful but it’s quite another matter to become seriously involved with an older foreigner who wants more than sex, even if the native guy is really gay.
George has also learned well to protect his gay heart since romantic relationships with often-skittish younger men are susceptible to breakage. He has felt more than one heart ache when a paramour left to get married or decided to pull out of such an alien relationship. Often it’s due to fear or anxiety that others might discover the truth. Young Moroccan men are, first, members of a bonded family whose honor must be upheld; being gay is a distant second or third.
The matrix of Moroccan sexuality is such that George cannot ever be sure what the future of any relationship will bring, but not just because a younger ‘partner’ may be heterosexual. There is risk even with falling in love with a self-acknowledged homosexual young man: “most of these guys get married in order not to disobey or offend their parents and families. You see, matrimony is the most important tradition in the life of any young Moroccan. Families love weddings; for many, they are the highlights of a dreary working class life.”
In past generations, to shun this norm has carried a social stigma. Increasingly however, modern urban men (and fewer women) feel more freedom to live a lifestyle that pleases them without feeling forced to please others.
Ali and the Hotel
Still, most gay Moroccans never have an ongoing gay relationship. Mostly, they are married with kids and find only an occasional assignation for their secret needs. There are exceptions to this, of course, as we found out, since one such man was standing nearby–our hotel owner, Ali, a quietly charming man of about 50. His current ownership of the hotel was the result of a relationship with his late partner who passed away a couple of years ago. They had been lovers for thirty years even though Ali was married for twenty of those thirty years and the father of two children.
Ali was a self-acknowledged gay man who took his roles as husband/father/lover seriously even though he and his partner never lived full time under the same roof. Originally from Scotland, the partner bought the hotel many years ago and when he met Ali they became business partners. This conveniently masked the more intimate aspects of their affairs. It was a love story in which George felt privileged to have been closely involved as a friend and confidante.
Ali told us that he cared very much for his family, but when George asked if he loved his wife, Ali looked away for a second before he replied: ” I love her as I am suppose to. (Pause) As long as I do my duty to her, financially and sexually, I am free to have my life outside the home. She does not ask questions.” I could see from this bifurcated answer that even after all these years, this middle-aged gay Moroccan had not fully reconciled his inner nature with the social demands on him. I appreciated, however, the sincerity and devotion he had divided, as fairly as he could, among his significant others.
On the Beach
The next day we went with George to his beach house on the coast. Safi Bouzid is a resort town south of El Jadida with long flat stretches of white sand along the Atlantic. A tiled promenade runs for about a kilometer along the beach dotted with cafes and snack shops for viewing the sea. It’s informal and relaxing.
Our calm and restful afternoon was pleasantly interrupted by the antics of an adolescent boy horsing around on the water’s edge with his companion. As they laughed and splashed, I noticed he frequently looked in our direction. Eventually the friend wandered off leaving this guy on his own to show off with jogging in place, push ups and knee squats, working his way closer to our cafe as he bounced around. It became evident that he had gotten himself excited from these exercises and he was intent on letting us see the expansion under his shorts.
I pointed him out to George who was busy with his newspaper. He looked up and laughed as if to say ‘of course, what did you expect?’
He told us about a recent walk with some visiting gay friends along the ancient waterfront ramparts in town. They came upon a young man standing alone on the sea wall. As they passed him he lightly stroked his crotch which of course evoked a glance from them as they continued on.
With that signal, the guy repositioned himself twenty yards ahead behind a partially open wooden gate. “As we approached him again he boldly displayed his unzipped souvenir he was offering. We were embarrassed–and delighted–but kept on walking. It was so inappropriate, but three western guys walking alone had encouraged him. It doesn’t take much for them to pick up a signal, whether it’s accurate or not. They want money, and this was no risk for him.”
A minute later, realizing he had lost them as customers for that service, the guy came up and started chatting, asking them to let him show them around the city. George said it was both laughable and poignant. “What a bizarre hierarchy of offerings: sex, city guide, and finally begging for cigarette money. When we refused all his suggestions, he disappeared.” It was a sad and awkward occasion, George said. For the guy, success with any of these offers would have resulted in some badly needed income. Poverty vexes both askers and refusers.
As for our little beach acrobat, after a while of antics and strutting his best stuff, he realized his western adudience was not responding. So he packed up his towel and walked into the distant sand and sun. Turning for a last glimpse he waved, and I waved back. The gesture reminded me of Tadzio’s final wave to Aschenbach in the film ‘Death in Venice’–just before Aschenbach succumbed to the deadly strawberries. We went home to a fine meal prepared by George.
Being an Object, Not a Person
By now, after a couple of weeks in Morocco, we had come to expect cruisy behavior from street guys who used the slightest opportunity to hit on us. We were walking targets and these swarthy kids were not stupid. It was easy to see we were foreign men together without women. We were green flags that sent out vibes that we had money, and sex was a way to snare us.
Once we were aware of this frame, the titillation and playfulness became dulled. Being viewed as an object for sex and money is alienating and irritating. I imagined this is how many of them feel toward leering western queens.
George understood what I was talking about and said he had learned to see past that attitude and look for sincere people. “They all start by looking, so you look back but you don’t play their game. You just keep walking. Or sometimes, if I have time, I walk up to one of them and start talking. They don’t expect this. You call their bluff and often they skitter away or lose interest; a lot of them have nothing to say or can’t speak English so the encounter is dead in the water. I just walk off and forget it. Otherwise you get sucked into their commercial posturing. It’s not real and I have more important things to do.”
Mentors and Fathers
“But,” George added, “once in a while I make a friend that way. I had a warm friendship with a very nice man. We saw each other for three years and I helped him get some college education and a job.” Eventually the guy got married and George was invited to the wedding. Now the wife and kids feel George is part of their family. He laughed as he finished with the story: “I trained him and she got him!” He also said that he could see ahead of time that the kid was moving in that direction, so George was mentally ready when it happened. But he still felt the loss.
Another piece of this psychosexual matrix is that many young men here crave admiration. They are alone in their private sorrow for their fathers who take the advantage of the culture and don’t spend a lot of time with them. Teaching their sons about affection and intimacy at home is not common.
Indeed, along the boulevards of Moroccan towns are countless evening cafes full of middle-aged men hovering or arguing over coffee or tea while bracing a cigarette between two fingers. In this emotional vacuum, the attentions of older western men, especially sincere and generous ones like George, are welcomed and are reciprocated with a certain amount of loyalty. Over his years in Morocco, George has had long term affairs in which he fostered the affections and welfare of several Moroccans.
Into the Desert
But Morocco is not all about hormones and ambiguous romance. There is much history and beauty to this northwest corner of Africa. A week later we arrived at the Auberge Merzouga in the Sahara Desert. There are rooms as well as tents for rent. We opted for one of the black wool Berber tents only fifty yards from dunes. From a short distance, the hostel looked like a medieval fort with small turrets and foot-thick walls of white plaster. The tent was $3.50 and dinner was $5– tagine lamb and vegetable stew and harine soup–delicious and savory.
At sunset, the sand hills turned from soft taupe through a color chart of amber, sienna and gold accompanied by long deep shadows. As the last rays of direct light lingered on the land, a row of camel riders came walking across one of the dunes as if on cue to fill my camera lens.
The night passed under a billion crystal stars spread out across the sky like scattered fairy dust. There are not more stars here, just less human produce to murk up the sky.
We were the only guests that night. Absolute silence and darkness prevailed on the edge of the great timeless desert. In places like this, it’s best to go out, look up at infinity, say nothing and think less for a while.
At 5 AM, from the earthen village of Merzouga half a mile away the muezzin called out his chant in the blackness, “Allaho-akbar…”, to those who might come and pray for the first of six times daily. The chant was too sweet to call an interruption. Mostly, at that hour, only the roosters responded to the muezzin’s cry.
Then the most startling of all the wonders in this place. In the crystalline blackness of the sky a gigantic bright glowing orb appeared with a million-mile vapor trail. It didn’t seem to move and the enormous tail did not diminish. I thought perhaps it was a dying star in its last gasp of supernova burn. There was no possible means of finding out what it was–no TV, no radio, certainly nothing published in English, not even other tourists to ask.
It was not until days later that I found out this stunning astronomical prize was the “heavenly show of the decade”: the Hale-Bapp comet. I had never seen the equal to this wonder. As I settled into bed, I could well imagine how the ancient mind invented spiritual meanings around such appearances. It was indeed ‘supernatural’.
In the morning, the urge to climb the dunes was too seductive and we submitted. The powdery surface was difficult to walk on so I settled for a lesser mound that presented me with an impressive photogenic view of the rising light and falling shadows.
I sat for a while on this warm soft mustard hill running my hands in the sand and lifting up a handful to watch the fine grains running through my fingers. I imagined this is what infinity must feel like as I watch the earth slip away from my grasp back into the countless other grains surrounding me. Footprints left today are gone in an hour.
The desert is a good place to contemplate immortality and the passing of time. Thoughts or beliefs make not one grain of difference among the sand mountains that have drifted here for a million years. It’s not sad or joyous, just quiet and endless.
For two wondrous weeks, we had found in Morocco a land of history, sublime night skies, moderate Muslim life and a few hormones.
No gay American should visit Morocco without some knowledge of the expat writer and composer Paul Bowles who lived most of his life in Morocco. This quintessential outsider died in 1999 at the age of 88. He was one of the central figures in what was called the ‘pre-lost Generation’ who befriended such icons of 20th century art as Aaron Copeland, Christopher Isherwood, Gertrude and Alice, Orson Welles, and Tennessee Williams among others including such iconoclastic figures as Alan Ginsberg. His most famous work was the novel ‘Sheltering Sky’, which was eventually made into a movie.
A bisexual man, he married the lesbian writer Jane Auer in 1938. Through several affairs on both sides, they continued their marriage and remained emotionally loyal to one another. In a final interview he stated about his life: “I regret nothing.”
In tribute to his life, a full-page obituary appeared in the New York Times of November 19, 1999. The reporter wrote: “In his strange, exotic life, Mr. Bowles apparently did exactly what he wanted to do, writing fiction and music and continually searching for that magic place where he would find his twined goals of wisdom and ecstasy.”
PS: A reader recently sent this comments to GlobalGayz.com:
When I was there a few weeks ago I was travelling with my boyfriend and 75 year-old dad we took a week long tour with a group around Morocco. Well, after a few days everyone knew that we were gay so when I had a chance to speak alone to our guide who was with us for the entire week, I asked about the King (Mohammed VI) and what kind of family he had. I didn’t want to risk offending him by being too direct. He told me that the King is married, has produced an heir, but is in fact gay. He said everyone knows, but it’s not discussed. End of discussion!
By Richard Ammon