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I have a photo of my younger sister I took on a trip to Morocco with our mom. It’s late afternoon, the low sun flooding the tableau in golden light. She sits at an outdoor café where the small round table in front of her is laid with a silver tea set. A moment earlier, our server had poured steaming mint tea into each tiny cup, stretching the tea’s journey from pot to cup to well above our heads, theater for the ladies. In the photo, my sister’s face is partially hidden in the shade of her wide-brimmed hat, but the sunlight catches her freckles and green eyes. She’s twenty-two but looks fourteen, just graduated from Columbia University and newly broken up with her boyfriend.
You may have noticed her in the stone lobby of the Hôtel Meliá Tichka, or at the buffet breakfast around the pool. She’s stunningly beautiful: blond, Slavic. My mom, also, was beautiful. Or maybe you noticed me; the night before we flew to Marrakesh from the States, I cut my forehead on the corner of a desk and had a large bandage on my face to keep the stitches clean from germs and grime. At breakfast at the Meliá Tichka, my mom and I tried every cheese, the eggs, slices of melon and the warm fried bread. My sister nibbled at the fruit and drank her coffee with milk. You were off our radar, a businessman in a polo and khakis, your briefcase and jacket waiting back in your hotel room, which turned out to be right next to ours.
This is how we spent those first few days: counting scrawny cats nursing piles of kittens on rooftops or wedged behind blue plastic water bins; finding shade among the cactuses and gurgling fountains in Yves St.-Laurent’s funky Jardin Majorelle; watching street performers breathe fire while the sun set at the Djemaa el-Fna and eating sticks of grilled meats from the open-air food stalls, smoke and sweet rose and orange swirling around us as the buildings turned a deep red.
We were accosted by a man at the entrance to the souks who hung close, insulting our characters and pushing us into storefronts, his breath hot in our ears as we pulled our headscarves tighter. When we took refuge in a bank and the man followed us in, the tellers waved hello to him and the manager came over to shake his hand. Helpless, we returned to the maze of narrow streets empty of women; I yelled at the man to leave us the fuck alone, and eventually, he did, but I’m not exaggerating when I tell you he threatened us for half an hour, and there was nowhere we could go to escape him.
Do you know what my sister and I bought from a merchant when we were finally left in peace to make our way? A ceramic serving bowl for our mom, a gift to remember the trip.
Back at the Hôtel Meliá Tichka at night, we showered off the day’s dust, took notes in our guidebook, planned what would follow breakfast the next day. The hotel room’s ceramic tiles were cool on our bare feet, our wet hair similarly cool against the pillows. Recently married and already dreaming of one day having children, I tried baby names out loud in our room so my mom and sister could share their preferences. My favorite at the time was Halina, for my grandmother’s sister who died as a teenager in Warsaw during the war, hit by shrapnel while waiting in line for potatoes.
And then we heard you.
“I will kill you,” you said, in unrestrained American English. “You fucking bitch. You whore.”
Something large crashed to the floor in your room, as if you’d pushed over the standing armoire twinned with ours, where my mom had hung her linen blouses and we stored our passports in the tiny, attached safe.
“Bitch!” you said, and I stood from the cot next to the shared wall. My mom leaned in close to hear you. Another crash. Furniture scraping against the floor. We listened to someone’s heavy breathing.
“I’ll knock on their door,” my mom said, tying a bathrobe around her nightgown.
“Don’t,” I said.
You were loud. Your voice was deep, seething anger. I told my mom that if she went next door she’d make you angrier, but she didn’t see it that way. She wasn’t going to stand by while you hurt your wife or girlfriend.
I had never heard anyone speak with such hatred as you through our wall. Another object crashed in your room. I called the front desk and spoke in strained, scared French.
“We are frightened. A man is hurting someone next to us.”
On the other end of the phone, the hotel manager soothed, his voice smooth and calm.
“Madame, there is no problem, trust me.”
My sister had the sheets around her in bed. My mom held a hand to the door, but she waited.
“Please. He is very angry. We are frightened.”
“There is no problem, I assure you,” the manager said. “This man is a businessman. He stays with us, always, when he travels to Morocco.”
“He’s hurting someone,” I pleaded, just as your voice stormed through the wall, “I swear, I will kill you!”
“It’s impossible.” You were on the phone, the manager told me. Alone. You were likely talking to your wife, who was back in the U.S.
That was how you talked to your wife?
“He’s on the phone,” I said to my mom. She took a step away from the door. “We can’t sleep like this,” I told the manager. “You must tell him he’s too loud.”
The manager demurred, said he wouldn’t disturb the man but was happy to move us to a different room. He would send someone to carry our luggage.
We packed quickly. My mom kept her blouses on their hangers; I took our passports from the safe. A young bellhop with a cart knocked quietly on our door and we left, quickly unpacked in our new room on the second floor. In the morning, we could see a different view of the gardens and the pool from our windows.
On our last day at the hotel, I asked for a doctor to remove the stitches above my eye. The front desk sent him to our room while my mom and sister sunbathed by the pool. The doctor told me to lie down on the bed, and I realized I hadn’t thought things through in terms of my safety. He leaned over, his heavy, solid body inches from mine. It took less than thirty seconds for him to pull out the stitches that another doctor sewed together in an emergency room under bright hospital lights, a nurse by his side to provide him tools and me comfort. The hotel doctor stepped away, said to pay at the front desk, and left me, the wide bandage replaced with a smaller Band-Aid.
When I joined my mom and sister at the pool, I felt violated. You probably won’t understand what I mean, but I want to tell you anyway. The doctor said nothing to me, except to lie down; what he took from me—those stitches, simple medical floss—he took in silence. You can say he was doing his job, yes. But I was at the mercy of his physical strength, his big medical degree and unquestioned social status, the closed hotel door. My screams, my making a disturbance, would have meant nothing if he’d tried to assault me. He controlled the situation, and it left me shaking, even outside in the hot north African sun.
What a difference it would have made if he’d asked me how I’d be most comfortable. If he’d told me the procedure would be painless and quick. If he’d introduced himself or acknowledged me at all.
Can you understand that?
There were men upset to see my mom, sister and me traveling unescorted. There were men we knew from home who worried about our safety. This visit to Morocco was one of my sister’s first and only trips abroad; my mom and I had to teach her how to use a squat toilet, and we’d laughed so hard. I love the deliberateness of her freckled face in that photo drinking mint tea. Now she has her own daughter with freckles across the nose. If it’s up to me, my niece will travel the world free of caution and fear, free of men enraged by her independence, her personhood. I imagine her sharing a hotel wall with you and the hotel staff telling you to get off your phone, and taking it down a peg. And you will shamefacedly pack up your belongings and move to another room while my niece sleeps, undisturbed.