BOOK REVIEW: Stealing Fatima’s Hand succeeds in undoing for Morocco everything that Peter Mayle has done for Provence, the book’s back cover blurb says. Carolyn Theriault’s literary travel memoir is a densely-woven collection of amusing anecdotes and sharply-drawn observations. She is occasionally verbose but pulls no punches. Morocco is not for the faint-hearted and it tests her patience.
The Hand of Fatima, or hamsa, with five extending digits, is believed to guard people and buildings from bad luck. It’s commonly used as a door knocker in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. Carolyn refers to her native Canada as the country of round door knobs.
She addresses sensitive subjects with alacrity, writing that sexual double standards are rife, even though Moroccan women have more rights and opportunities than others in the Middle East.
“A woman’s chastity remains a prerequisite for marriage… The reality is that Moroccan women are under just as much pressure to engage in premarital sex as women everywhere else in the world. If they don’t put out, their boyfriends will seek more willing fields to plow, procure the services of a prostitute or engage in temporary homosexual activities.” Another reality is that Mr Double Standard will seek a virgin to marry, even if it’s a doctored one, not the girlfriend he’s banging now.
Carolyn is also quite candid about herself. A series of seven-year-itches leads Carolyn and husband Chris to plan time out in Morocco where they had backpacked through some years earlier. She secures a job teaching English in Rabat and is the first to go. She cries a lot at the airport when saying goodbye to her husband and her suitcases weigh 79kg. “I leaned over the counter and told her (the check-in wench) I was off to Africa to teach little children. Which was true, if not in spirit, then in letter. She waived the fine. I am shameless.”
Carolyn spends her first few days in Rabat on a toilet in a cockroach-infested bathroom, felled by a vegetarian pizza. When she isn’t swatting away flies and cockies, she is fending off the unwanted, leery, tooth-sucking attention of Moroccan men young enough to be her son and old enough to be her grandfather. She has badly underestimated the cultural adjustment process.
Her supervisor at the institution, where she’s to teach English, advises her to stock up on gin ahead of Ramadan, “before all god-fearing liquor outlets closed down in an effort to show how god-fearing they are”.
A vegetarian, Carolyn’s nerves are on edge in a land of devout meat eaters. “Can’t one’s piety reach Allah without the slicing of millions of ovine throats?” she wonders at one point. In the days leading up to Eid El Kebir “those with the means or the willpower scooped up sheep all week, keeping them in parking garages, on balconies, on rooftops, and even in their bathrooms….. the sound of frenzied bleating haunted my nights for weeks…. it is not unusual for some of these wretched creatures to leap from the heights of their confinement in an effort to escape”.
But Carolyn has no such qualms about acquiring entertainment. “…it’s easy to retain your scruples when you not only have viable (i.e. legal) options but you’re totally clueless as how to acquire pirated merchandise in the first place. But drop Miss High and Mighty into the Land of Virtually No Licensed Reproductions (approximately 75% of the total CDs available here are pirated) and wham! – off to the medina she goes on a treasure hunt for pirated music, movies and television programs.”
Also to be found in the medina are western cosmetics and skincare products. The Olay Exfoliating Gel Carolyn buys is multi-purpose: it could also “Clean Out Horniness”.
Well into her second year there, the pale-skinned, auburn-haired woman observes “the leers and comments and smacking of lips and the deep inhaling sucking sounds of the Not Very Nice Men still infuriate and sicken me”. Some of Carolyn’s adventures and misadventures reminded me of less savoury aspects of living in Greece. She develops a yes-no system of dealing with Moroccan beggars, and it bears close resemblance to the one I applied in Athens. My rule of thumb: give nothing to the gypsy woman toting a comatose (drugged) baby at the traffic lights and another gypsy woman in a nearby doorway with a comatose (also drugged) toddler on her lap.
This memoir deals vividly with the huge complexities of contemporary Moroccan life, where tradition is challenged by social change, and where modern demands for efficiency are met with creaking and antiquated methodologies. At times there appears to be little about Morocco that Carolyn does like except for French pastries and coffee. And as she admits herself, she is occasionally snarky.
Stealing Fatima’s Hand is published by a small indie,Vox Humana Books, and you can buy direct from www.carolyntheriault.com or on Amazon for $US15.99