White in the Desert


As you walk through the medina men call out to you, trying to guess from your appearance where you’re from, hoping to stumble on the right language with which to coax you inside their stalls of spice and leather. España is the most common shout, followed closely by English. But then there are the bolder guesses, Turkish say a few. A couple smatterings of Armenian. One ambitious man opens with Lebanese. We casually skip over Israeli but I suppose some things are better left unsaid.

I used to joke that I was white enough to be from anywhere. That the extremity of my paleness bought me an extra piece of privilege: the abuse of prior generations fashioning from oppression a global standard of beauty of which I am the beneficiary. A strange inverted passing takes place.

My friend and travel companion doesn’t see the issue. She laughs at these misplaced guesses. They’re just trying to get your attention, she tells me. But like the uneasy thrill I feel when a man tells me I’m not like other girls, the superficial pleasure of this can’t mask the constriction in my gut.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I too can be lured by the fetishization of exoticism. I like the idea that I have a face and a complexion that can slip in and out of cultures, chameleoning my way through countries. But these cultures, these countries shouted out at me, they don’t come down to the color of a person’s skin, the texture of their hair, or the shape of their nose. They’re a shared experience, a heritage. Someone else’s heritage.

Lawrence of Arabia, the infamous alias of the author T.E Lawrence, was the Englishman who thought he was an Arab. But he wasn’t. Being Middle Eastern, being Moroccan, they’re not clothes we can take on and off on the whim of a vacation. It doesn’t matter if I can tell you how a camel’s teeth grow or that the best way to have Moroccan tea is to pour it in and out of the pot at least three times. Those are anecdotes, cultural baubles. Lawrence was a white man who thought he was an Arab. He wasn’t. He couldn’t be.

I don’t want to follow in the footsteps of my predecessors, a cohort of colonists that subsumed the bits and pieces of a culture as it suited them. I’m not interested in honoring that legacy. But how do I move through this place? How do I, very much a white woman, move through the vast swaths of the world where I am the face of the oppressor: when we waltz into other countries for our holidays and our gap years, when we find ourselves, for once in the midst of our very privileged lives, the racial minority in the metropolises of black and brown bodies, how do we conduct ourselves with care, with respect? Do we put on Turbans and Saris? Do we greet people in their mother tongue, mangling a language we’ve never cared to learn, while their English is more skillfully strung together than most natives I know. How do I move respectfully through this great glorious wondrous world while also doing my damnedest to recognize and check my privilege?

It springs forth in unexpected ways as I move through the unfamiliar parts of this microcosm. I find the presence of men here overwhelming. It’s not my first time venturing to a nation where men maintain a much more public presence than women; between the islands of the Diplomatic zone and the rural villages, I very rarely saw a woman in Bangladesh. In Dhaka, the land without tourists, there was no thought of passing. The single woman on a plane full of men, the single woman on the street, I learned that head turns and looks were just a part of my life there. But something is different here in Marrakech. It’s the insistency for my attention. In Dhaka people stared but no one ever called out. I knew I was being looked at but we had a mutual understanding: they would look, I would ignore it, and we would both go about our lives. But here the men want me to know they’re looking.

One night my friend and I find ourselves crossing the medina. We’re on our way back to our hostel after a day of grand adventuring: we’ve hiked across the low lying curves of the Atlas Mountains, been clambered on by monkeys, and opened our mouths wide for the taste of a waterfall’s mist. There’s a crowd in the center of the square; they’re watching a group of Berber dancers. We stop for a moment; laughing, delirious off the majesty we’ve just been privy too. Then I feel it. There’s a hand on my ass. I move a bit, perhaps it’s just a mistake—we’ve all been on a crowded train and had an accidental awkward touch. I move. The hand disappears. For a moment. I move and move again but no matter where I go in this thicket of bodies it takes mere seconds for a foreign hand to appear on my skin. I turn to yell, to tell someone to get off of me, but behind me it’s just a sea of men, none of them even looking at me. And I panic. I feel it ebbing like witchcraft, my voice dissipating, that slow numbing fear releasing its memory into my veins, the memory of a thousand other unwanted touches, the memory of silence. I grab my friend and pull her laughing from the crowd.

I feel what I have not felt for a long time—the wish for a man to be there to protect me. Not a lover or a friend but a protector, an idea I have cast off with a feverish religiosity. I need no man. But thick in a crowd of fingers that search for the curves of your flesh, you want to reduce yourself to nothing. Sometimes I feel that to be a woman is to suffer through a lifetime of unwanted hands reaching out for your body.

Marrakech breaks my heart. Or perhaps I’m breaking hers. I feel my ideals failing. How quickly my liberal dogma reduces itself to rubble. I don’t want to be living a stereotype. I don’t want to tell this story of African men, of black and brown men. Us white ladies, we’ve got a lot of blood on our hands. We killed a little boy for a whistling. I know my inheritance. I know what my fear can do.

But my throat is thick with anger and guilt. And I ask my self a question that sits uneasily in my belly: Am I angry because they are men or because they are brown men?

I’m white and I’m privileged. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, rather they are necessarily accompanying. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to be critical about this. I don’t know how to sift through the fear and discomfort inside me, trying to pick through the grime to understand my internalized racism. Because it is. But why didn’t I shout? Why didn’t I cause a scene? And what should I have done instead? I don’t know how to be safe here. Do I know how to do it anywhere else?

When someone asks me about my time here, when they ask me what I thought—how do I let fall from my lips advice I never thought I’d give: Go but don’t go alone.

Don’t go alone. How can I say this to anyone? Me—empress of solitude, of private adventures, of glorious singularity, of unbothered thought and uninterrupted time. I’ve never let anyone condition my travels, limiting me to the schedule, to the bravery, to the audacity of another human. How can I impose that burden on anyone else? How can I speak of the world and tell you to fear it?

I think as a white person who seeks to be a good and useful ally it’s essential to constantly assess my motivations and my relationship to my own privilege. Of the many advantages the world has given me, I cannot indulge in the laziness and yes, the privilege, of abstaining from a lifestyle free from self examination. I was afraid. Why? What does it mean to be afraid for the wrong or the right reasons? What is the morality of fear?

My country is falling apart at the seams because of fear. Fear is primal, it’s powerful. But fear isn’t supposed to be a weapon of destruction, it’s supposed to be an aid in survival. Yet somewhere along the course of evolutionary development fear moved from eat or be eaten to something more sinister and complex. Now we’re afraid of intangibles.

Unless you’re a person of color. Then you’re still afraid all the time. Because for POC fear is still about survival.

My friend who travels with me doesn’t feel the same way. She throws it off, thinks of it as just cheek. Play the game she says. I can’t. I don’t have it in me. I don’t want to play with my life. I want to cover up to, to obscure my body more. This from a touch in the crowd. But this isn’t Marrakech, it’s Miami, it’s Milan, it’s the world we live in. There are always wolves along the path, no matter the wood or desert it may wander through.

All of this sifts through my mind as I wander the streets and gardens of the city. We decide to take an adventure through the desert and for eight hours I find myself in the middle of a car trying to discern meaning in the mirages of my mind. It’s hard to think of the worst aspects of ourselves, the rotted unweeded gardens that spread amongst even the most well tended of hearts, it’s hard to think of any of that when confronted with the world outside my window.

Old women in obscured road side villages sit like old men in broken down road side bars, grinding nuts that’ll allow a shampoo company to charge twice as much for a product that doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. The view of the Atlas Mountains rising up from the plain; I see the torso of that great titan ripping up through the earth, the weight of the universe carpeting his shoulders. Great veins of desert cut through the land, sand snakes protecting their burrow. Then—there she is, the misted clouds of the Sahara beckoning you into her limitlessness.

The drive has taken too long. Selene’s chariot will be here soon. We don’t have much time to explore; we have to get to camp. We move from our four-wheeled transport to a different kind carrier. I exit the car. There they sit, the beasts I have spent the better part of my adult life avoiding: camels.

Years and years ago I came to Morocco as a little girl—a family day trip from the South of Spain to Tangiers. I remember the smell of tea permeating the rugs my mother haggled over, the bursts of hot color from the cool stoned lined stalls. But most of all I remember riding a camel. And hating it. Over a decade later the distaste and distrust still sits in my mouth: I rode a camel once, I tell anyone who will listen. It was awful. What terrible creatures. I’d never, ever do that again.

And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s so simple it’s diabolical. One memory, one moment, one time and you’re set for life. You think you know the truth of a thing.

This is a silly story about a little girl riding a camel in a tourist trap on a family vacation a long time ago. But it’s also the world we live because ain’t that the way? I was angry at that moment, at the crowd because I felt something taken from me. But a subset does not represent the whole. Anecdotes are not demonstrative of a culture, a nation, a people. A man who should not have put his hands on me put his hands on me. I don’t care who a person is, where they’re from or what they had for breakfast, no one gets to touch you without your expressed permission. Being afraid, being angry, being uncomfortable with that, that in and of itself is not racist. The racism is in the response. The racism is in continuing my journey and spreading the word of “dangerous Moroccan men.” Men walk through the world with privilege. In every country in the world. The tendrils of prejudice feed on the learned behaviors of anger; the hanging trees nourishes itself on the inbreeding of our fear and ignorance. So what comes next?

The Berber guides that will take us into the Sahara lead me towards my camel. The great pale behemoth sits at the front of the line. Stolen from Mali, Amallale is the jewel of the heard, he’s fast, he strong, and, for this crossing, he’s mine. I climb into the groove between the white mountains of his back. It’s been a long time. Foreboding fills my belly and unease constricts my heart. Then he unbuckles those spindled legs and we rise to our full height.

Sat astride Amallale you have to surrender to the rhythm of your hips, hips that birth worlds and generations, hips that herald the gates upon which men and women are offered the most intimate gaze, hips they tell you to accentuate, hips they tell you to hide, hips that win their affection and their scorn, hips that are too wide and not wide enough, bones that hold you, supporting that calcified shield around your heart, sit firmly on your hips, inside your hips, and you’ll stand with you spine straight and your head held high.

The camels bellow across the night. I’m a dessert nymph, riding a piece of starlight into the moon cooled sands of the infinite yonder before me. I don’t know where this power has come from: am I drunk off the magic of the desert? Or have the gods of some forgotten myths sent this carrier to guide me. Or perhaps, just perhaps, when you put yourself in the way of beauty, it’s impossible not to feel deliriously alive.

We arrive at camp. I dismount only with the extracted promise of a further day’s ride tomorrow. We move into the tents for music, food, and conversation. Mid meal I notice a spark between one of the guides and my friend. Even on the desert, or especially on the desert, roses find a way to bloom.

After the meal our guide invites my friend and I to look for shooting stars. Their flirtation carries past the camels to the dunes that guard the edge of the sea of sands. But another guide appears. I’ve seen this move before. I refuse to move to the far side of those desert heaps; I want to be where others can see us. Neither of them objects. The two men lay a pair of blankets on the floor and the fumbling, adolescent efforts of it all are not lost on me. Very quickly my friend and her flirt snuggle into their blanket, to gaze at the stars in each other’s eyes rather than those that carpet Gaia’s plump belly.

I refuse the warmth and cover I am offered. Over the sound of nearby giggling, Mohammed and I talk about his family, he points constellations out to me, and gives me a crash course in camel rearing. He never touches me. At one point he offers me his hand, because I look cold. When I refuse, he shrugs. For a few precious seconds all four of us are silent. I never knew before how…how cacophonous the quiet could be.

Then I hear it. I hear a sound I’ve not heard since college—the wet slurps of two people making out less than five feet from you. I suppose this is the desert equivalent of parking. I can’t help but laugh. Mohammed looks from them to me forlornly. He gives it his last best shot. And on a blanket in the desert a man with a turban uses the same dull dumb pick up lines as the men in English pubs and the bros in American frat houses: “Sometimes it’s nice to be nice.”

Back to the shadows outside the fire of my heart, back to the darkness you wolves on two legs. I am the desert you think you know: I am vast and ruinous and beyond the scope of your understanding. And if you don’t respect my power, I’ll swallow you whole. I have climbed to the tops of snow covered mountains, ridden through the scorches of the desert into moonlight, I am woman and I will not suffer the advances of lesser men. “Well then,” I say. “It’s a good thing I’m not nice.”

I leave Mohammed and his blanket, I leave my friend and her night of adventure, crisscrossing my way back to camp across a bed of camels. “Over here,” I hear a voice call. For a moment, in the delirium of a place we cannot fathom, I look to Amallale, thinking in between his snorts and snores he’s called my name. Instead Luz, one of my instant trek friends pops her head up.

“Come over here,” she calls to me again. At the foot of the camel’s kingdom Luz and her brother have set up their own little star watching station. Their Berber guide is loading them down with blankets. “He said if we wait, we’ll be able to see Mars.” The guide laughs. “You’ll have to wait a long time. You won’t be able to see Mars for hours. Maybe four or five AM. Just before sunrise.” Luz and her brother look between themselves. “If we go inside, do you think we’ll wake up to see it?” Amallale bellows.

Where does it come from? What is the birthplace of impetus? Orgasmic in nature, it originates in different points of your body, until it reaches its height, and just before the words tumble from my lips I feel electricity shooting from my fingertips like moonbeams. “Let’s stay. Let’s stay out here and wait for Mars. Let’s stay out here and wait for the sun.”

Why not watch the sunrise? It’s coldest night of my life. Pressed up against strangers for warmth, I find the pillow that has slipped away from my head covered in a delicate layer of frost. I don’t sleep more than thirty minutes at a time. The cold on my bones is cold. The moon rays look different on our skin. The light dapples differently. But we sit there ecstatic for adventure. Two kids from Mexico by way of Budapest and an American girl by way of London are sat on a blanket on the border of the Sahara desert waiting to catch the burn of a distant planet.

For those brief snatches of sleep I am able to steal, every time they are snatched back I wake to see Amallale moving a little bit closer. Eventually I wake to find him at my feet, the strangest dog I’ve ever seen. It means something, the creatures, the friends, the lovers we choose to wake up to. I wake up to find Amallale and Mars at my feet.

The first sign of the sun isn’t a blazing rouge or a glowing orange or even a soft yellow; a black turn to blue as the water of the day floods the desert. It does not storm or blaze, it ascends.

In the morning, Mohammed helps wrap my scarf around my head. “It’ll protect your face from the sand and your eyes from the sun.” There’s no anger or bitterness or fear. It simply is. Maybe men are like camels. You can’t let the memory of one bad ride, one bad man, set the precedent for all the men after him, the men who share his religion or his language or his culture or his skin color; commonalities do not equate to sameness.

There is no question which camel I will ride for the journey back to the edge of the world. Yesterday we walked straight into the beaming white curve of the moon’s throat, and now the sun coaxes us back to us, greeting us like a reunion with your first lover, inviting you in with a familiar smile and the slightest hint of an exposed shoulder. Why not? Why not go in the door? After all, it’s just a moment in the woods. Or the desert.

We return to the road, the edge of civilization. There’s a car waiting to take us back. The rest of the group dismounts and settles in for the long ride ahead. I don’t want to go. I place my hand on him and he bends his head and nuzzles into me. How can I leave him? Because that’s where he belongs, crossing sand dunes, crossing time, a little sliver of moonlight even on the brightest of days.

There are parts of the world, both familiar and foreign, where you will feel afraid. Some danger is real and some is imagined. So what is the answer? I know what the answer is not. I know the answer is not to stop traveling to the regions of the world where you are different, where you are at a loss for customs and understanding, where you stand out.

At the end of this trip a friend will write me, asking for advice on traveling to Marrakech in a few weeks time. Alone. And this is what I will say to her: Go. Be smart. My God be smart but don’t be afraid. Don’t be quiet. Hunt for mountains and bury yourself in the desert. Breathe in the smell of fire and sugar as the secret messages of your heart are revealed and you find yourself unlearning things you thought you knew. If a man you don’t want to touch you touches you, tell him to fuck off in the language of your choice. But don’t be afraid that because a man helps you with a headscarf that he’ll hurt you with something else. Trust in the Earth, trust in that first woman from which all your strength and power and magic and majesty arise. Because when men fail, women do not.

Marrakech is: the smell of oranges cascading from the mists of waterfalls, red brick roads of dust, cacti with engravings like tree trunks, the scent of fresh popcorn, houses perched on the edges of cliffs, roads that stretch like arrows across the surface of the land, prayer traffic, hidden messages of saffron and indigo, falling asleep to the call to prayer, spoonfuls of argan oil, mountains dipped in snow, deserts like spice racks spilled out across the kitchen floor, tagines that burst of warmth, neighborhoods divided by their mosques, prayers even in the desert. Marrakech is mistakes and memories, the best and worst bits of who we are. In Marrakech if the question is go, the answer is always yes.




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  1. Madelaine Sayko October 13, 2017 5:38 pm

    Powerful, thoughtful, provocative. More people should

    a. Travel
    b. Think hard about these things.
    c. Read this blog.

    Why? Because to understand the tough issues we face nationally and globally we NEED to have this kind of dialogue – with ourselves and with each other. This is so well done, shows such awareness and insight – bravo Ms. Cano for your bravery, your fierce determination and your incredible voice.

  2. Madelaine Sayko October 16, 2017 1:23 am

    This is powerful, brutally honest and insightful. Most do not have the courage or the strength of spirit to examine themselves, to reflect and to try and derive a value system from this. People should read this –
    1. To understand how bias works, on its deepest levels
    2. To appreciate that honest self-inquiry is critical if we want real change
    3. Because when you travel, when you see the world as you do, the barriers fall away even as the cultural differences remain. This allows us to appreciate others for who they are without a value judgement.
    You are brave and very wise Ms. Cano.

  3. vincent cano October 16, 2017 12:23 pm

    Daughter I always look forward to reading your blogs but I also always dread them. Although I don’t voice it much I’m always filled with unease with your solo travels I know the world is filled with wonder and magic and this past summer I got to witness first hand how comfortable and in your element you are traveling but as a Father of a Daughter all I ever see are the dangers that surround you I know it takes only one moment one second for all that magic to turn horribly wrong I wish I can always be there to protect you but I can’t and the truth is there are situations where a single shield would not be enough to protect either one of us There is Beauty in this world Daughter but there is also great danger even more so for woman and children there are predators s out there there always have been I wish I could tell you that it wasn’t so but good and evil have always co-exist in this world that is just the reality of it. I wont ever ask you to stop traveling that would be like asking you to stop living or breathing all I can ever ask is be vigilant be smart be aware.I love you and am very proud of the woman you are especially the part of you that refuse to be just nice 🙂 Pop