Almost as soon as I stepped out of the Rabat airport on a pleasantly warm Thursday evening two weeks ago, I entered into a bit of banter with a cab driver that frequently repeated itself in the following days.
“Where are you going?” he said in French.
I responded with my hotel’s name and address in my rusty, formal Arabic.
“Tahkee arabee?” he replied in amusement, while offering a price for the taxi service that was easily twice the normal fare.
“Yes, I speak a little Arabic,” adding that I wasn’t willing to pay that much, though I knew I wasn’t going to be able to bargain too much on this one. I was a woman traveling alone at night in Rabat, a city I mainly understood from Lonely Planet guides and Google Maps. I desperately needed this taxi driver, and he knew it.
We brought the price down to a slightly more reasonable figure and were off. I explained that I wasn’t married (again, a question that came up pretty frequently during this trip), that I hadn’t been to Rabat before, and gave a sanitized description of my research project (religious questions well excluded). We were cruising toward the highway when all the sudden he pulled off — without asking — into a gas station. As he chatted, joked, and laughed with the attendant for several minutes, I started to get a bit annoyed. I couldn’t believe I was over-paying for my taxi driver to shoot the breeze with a stranger, but I didn’t know what to say. I was being taken advantage of, and I knew it, but I didn’t feel like I had the cultural know-how or language skills to respond.
A few minutes later, we were moving once again in the direction of the city center, and should have been able to reach my hotel within 5 minutes or so (again, I’d done some pretty serious Google maps consulting before I arrived). But he didn’t remember where my hotel was and instead pulled up to the train station to ask some of his colleagues. I repeated the street address endlessly and asked if we could just find it that way (it was late, I’d been travelling, and I was getting pretty fed up with this impromptu tour of the city), but my pleas didn’t go anywhere. The entire group was completely unwilling to take my ideas into account, and only after a half-hour and three phone calls later did I make it to my new home.
In the days since then, I’ve tried to make sense of the scenario using the templates that my other social interactions have provided.
First, I’ve found that very few of the Moroccan men I’ve met are willing to admit that they don’t know things. Whenever I ask strangers for directions to a place they don’t recognize, they are quite likely to ask someone else on the street, whip out a smart phone to search Google, or make something up that usually leaves me wandering in the wrong direction for 20 minutes. My taxi driver probably wasn’t free from that cultural pressure to never admit ignorance, especially since he was talking to a young female who was clearly foreign. It probably would have been demeaning and emasculating to tell me upfront (at the airport) that he didn’t know how to get me to my destination.
I’ve also started to see how painfully ubiquitous illiteracy is in Morocco; in a country where only about 50% of the population knows how to read, there’s a pretty decent chance that my taxi driver just wasn’t comfortable enough glancing through letters and numbers to find his way to my unfamiliar hotel if he could only depend on posted signs. In yet another way, I might have made him feel ignorant and inadequate.
Lastly, I really didn’t have the droit to expect a transportation system to move as quickly and efficiently as possible. Despite modernization efforts and significant investments to infrastructure, that’s not really the Moroccan way. Most everyone I’ve met here describes Rabat’s frequently late trains, delayed busses, and ridiculously bad traffic as facts of life — with a fatalistic sigh, they make it seem like these sorts of daily annoyances can never change. It’s better to plan around them and leave a bit more buffer time (or — even better — not to get so upset about deviating from a pre-ordained schedule), than to expect systems to work perfectly. I shouldn’t really have expected to take the most direct route out.
I’m getting in another airport taxi just 24 hours from now when I’ll begin a long trek back towards Boston. I’ll probably still overpay and offend someone, but I like to think that I’ll be just a bit more confident and comfortable in my surroundings when I get into the car. Even if I still have a lot to learn about Moroccan culture, I’ve managed to pick up some very helpful tidbits about life here.