Elena Keamy '12 was halfway across the Strait of Gibraltar when the supervisor of her group of students from Granada, Spain, noticed that one of the girls was wearing a miniskirt.
They were embarking on a weeklong excursion to Morocco, where they would stay with host families in Rabat's medieval old city, ride ornery camels in the Atlas Mountains, get catcalled by dozens of undersexed Moroccan men, and in general, have a wonderful time. But as the cliffs of Tangier were just coming into view on the horizon, the group's supervisor was not amused by her student's legs. They were, after all, going to a country where in less liberal circles, a loose lock of hair is a scandal and an exposed ankle an abomination. But the student was indignant. It wasn't cold, and besides, isn't Morocco, like, a desert, or something?
"If you're not in pants by the time we get there, you're not going," said the supervisor.
The Strait of Gibraltar is eight miles wide at its narrowest point, but to underdressed travelers from Spain, the distance to Morocco is equal to exactly one pair of jeans. For others, like Elena, Katie Stewart '12, and Megan Kelly '12, all of whom made the ferry crossing to Tangier, it is the distance between West and East, Europe and the Middle East, Christianity and Islam.
Back at Bowdoin, Katie and Elena were effusive about their week in Morocco. The country was beautiful, they said: the blue and white walls of the coast town of Assilah, the forested peaks of the Atlas mountains, the sound of the call to prayer, which echoes over Moroccan cities in sliding half- and quarter-tones from spindly minarets. Katie remembered how chilling it was the first time she saw a woman wearing a burqa, the woman covered in deep black from the soles of her feet to the top of her head, the slit for her eyes like the slot in a prison door.
Elena and Katie received a lot of attention from hopeful men, who called to them in the streets: "Spice girls!" and "Barack Obama!" and "Hello beautiful!" Both politely declining marriage proposals. "I think his name was Mohamed," said Katie. "We're Facebook friends now." Elena's suitor proposed after an hour-long tour of Rabat's modern sector. "He wanted me to be his wife. He bought me acorns. I think he just wanted a friend," she said. "Like a wife-friend."
On the second evening after Katie and Megan arrived in Rabat, I was walking home from the public baths. The old city's narrow little alleys were growing quiet as the last vendors on my street packed up their tomatoes and potatoes, carrots, parsley, and fresh fish, and the butchers had already put away their large slabs of red beef and ushered their clucking chickens into their cage. I was turning a corner when I heard someone call my name.
"Yo Sam Frizell!"
At first I thought some Bashir or Yussef was trying to get the attention of their Moroccan friend, "Yossam." It wasn't until I saw the silhouettes of three girls wearing college apparel carefully skirting around a band of prowling street cats that I recognized Katie and Megan, and my two worlds collided.
I had been in Rabat for two months, and I had never seen a white person who was not in my study abroad program in that part of Rabat's old city. Chancing upon two Bowdoin students then seemed less likely than finding out how in the world "Diablo"—a melodramatic, sexy Mexican soap opera mostly set in an unnamed prison in New York—became the most popular TV series in Morocco. Less likely than walking into one of the hundreds of Rabat's mosques, forbidden to non-Muslims, or finding out where in the medina the sound of crickets comes from each night. I was speechless, but I managed to get through the formalities, like, What are you doing here? and What are the chances?
Looking back, I probably escaped more quickly than was polite. I think I may have tried to speed away because I was afraid to interact with anyone outside my adopted corner of the world who might remind me that I, too, was an outsider.
Maybe it was the time I convinced a shopkeeper I was Mr. Bean, or laughed with my host brother at our impressions of "crazy American girls" on spring break that convinced me that I belonged. But my chance encounter with two Bowdoin students reminded me that like them, I was an incurable foreigner. We are all united only by tenuous bonds—like knowing that lifting your shirt and saying "woo!" is universally understood sign language for "spring break Daytona Beach." But if we are all equally strangers, that makes us alike, and that's a start.
"People are people, no matter where you go," said Katie. Which is true, if you change clothes before you get there.