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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Lessons of Hip Shaking in Morocco

Written by Ashley E. Williams
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The ridiculously loud bump ba bump ba bump of Arab techno music pounds in my head. I’m lined up with twenty middle-aged Moroccan women wearing spandex and colorful sweatbands as we follow an instructor on a podium gyrating her hips and winding her hands seductively. She lets an ecstatic ululation out into the crowd, which the women enthusiastically echo amidst double-time kicks and hip thrusts and crossovers. The human energy is absolutely electric, but I'm panting and tripping over my own feet.

How did I get into this strange situation, you might wonder? Let’s go back several weeks, when I decided it was time for me to start exercising again. My amazing life abroad seemed to be stagnating, and I needed an injection of zest. As an expat, developing routines that remind you of home can be helpful. And while recreational exercise is unheard of in many parts of Morocco, I managed to find a place to 'work my bod'  in the traditional Moroccan method: why, through the friend of a friend's taxi driver's sister's manicurist's cousin, of course.

The gym is a small, square two-story cube downtown. It’s gender segregated by time, and the female clientele are all mostly older Moroccan women who come for the belly dancing aerobics classes. When I timidly walk in for the first time, the frenetic thunder of dance music is making the walls tremble. In the locker room, colorful djellaba robes are shrugged off and folded, revealing hot pants and tank tops underneath.

Club Sportline Ashley E

A gym assistant greets me on the floor. She is toned and petite, with crazy spunky dark brown curls bursting out of the ponytail at the crest of her head. She shoves me on the treadmill, turns it on and orders me to walk for twenty minutes. When I turn my head to look at her while she explains how to hold onto the rails, she yells above the music, "Look forward or you'll fall off!" She keeps her hand on my back and turns up the speed cautiously from CRAWL to AMBLE, and after four curious minutes of her steadying me, I convince her that she can let go. She cracks a vibrant smile, "Ok, ok! Meet me at the weights after and we'll make you less fat," she says in French, pinching my hips with a smirk.

This is how I met Rachida.

The gym quickly became my favorite woman haunt. As any female expat in Morocco learns, Moroccan men dominate public spaces with a mixture of trying stares and catcalls. Just walking outside can be a real test of patience and sanity. I was living alone in Kenitra, a conservative city off the beaten path, in which I saw only two other foreigners during my entire ten month stay. Needless to say, my light skin, hair, and eyes attracted an abundance of unwanted attention. But inside the gym I was in the company of dozens of funny, loving, supportive Moroccan women who made me feel like one of the gang. 

And where there are Moroccan women, there is food. And lots of it. 


These spirited women came and left in groups, chatting and laughing with markedly more gusto than they applied to their high kicks, convening in the corner, sharing stories and eating gateaux looz.  One morning I was pounding away at the stationary bicycle, rivulets of sweat dripping off my nose. A regular fluttered over and offered me a muffin. I tried to wheeze a polite refusal, but she pried my hand off the handle bar and stuffed the muffin into it, crying in Arabic, "You've become too skinny! Eat! Eat!" 

Snacking and pumping your cardio rate to 160 turned out to go hand in hand. And as time went on I was offered (read: forced fed) cookies, dates from the King's palace, and even glasses of mint tea mid-work out.

That first day, I discovered that an unexpected perk of my gym experience was having Rachida as my pseudo-personal trainer. She made her rounds, encouraging each of us and commanding, "More reps! More crunches! Faster! Go!" And as we became friends, she pushed me harder. She even convinced me to join in the belly dancing aerobics classes despite my emphatic protestations. I have never been a good a dancer, but in the end I let her push me out onto the floor, which is how I ended up in the opening scene flailing around in a spandex-clad herd of estrogen.

What the gym gave me, more than my fitness, was a community of women that grounded and inspired me. Women like Rachida, who always welcomed me with a friendly smile and a good story. And as I became physically stronger, I felt less vulnerable out on the street. I, after all, had been doing my high kicks with enthusiasm, imagining my target as the faces of the men that bothered me on my way to work in the mornings. I walked with confidence, focusing less on their comments, and more on the beautifully crimson cherries for sale, the brilliant rainbow of bougainvillea spilling over someone's courtyard wall.

In the end, the hours spent sweating left me joyful and ready for anything the hot Moroccan sun could toss my way. And let's not forget, I also learned to how to shake my hips.


© Ashley E. Williams





Last modified on Friday, 01 March 2013