For the most part, life in Marrakech is good. The sun shines brightly throughout the winter. Our diet consists of mostly fresh fruit, warm bread and olive oil, and, as someone who appreciates Islamic architecture, I’m happy to trade London’s office blocks for mezzanines and madrasas.
Marrakech itself has a cosmopolitan air. Famed for its permissive atmosphere, Tangier to the north was where gay beatniks would spend their summers and fall in love in the 1950s. Just like any place, Morocco has its frustrations – haggling is a particular pet hate. But being ripped off in one of the city’s souks is the least of my worries.
That’s because as an out gay man, who I am – who I love, more precisely – puts me at risk of imprisonment.
Strictly speaking, our homosexual relationship is not unlawful. However, gay sex is – with article 489 of the penal code punishing ‘lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex’. The sentence? Six months to three years in prison, and a fine of 200 to 1,000 dirhams (£42 to £210).
Knowing what I do about how gay men can be treated in Morocco, I don’t feel any complacency about how the authorities would treat us were my partner and I found in a ‘compromising’ position. What you get up to in the bedroom is not private business. In its most recent report, the Office of the General Prosecutor stated 170 adults were prosecuted for same-sex relations in 2018. Many of the defendants in trials are said to be at the mercy of conservative judges.
“While we don’t exactly flaunt our relationship, after three years it’s hard to unlearn the gestures that are natural in any new partnership.”
Good friends of ours’ – a gay couple visiting from London – recently had a shock when they were questioned at the airport about intimate details of their personal lives. We couldn’t find any justification why, after revealing they were homosexual, one of our friends was asked to pose for additional, non-essential photos, to clear security.
A few weeks’ ago, we walked down the street to do a basic food shop and, call me paranoid, but a male motorist pulled up alongside, wound down his window, looked at us and spat in our direction on the street. While we don’t exactly flaunt our relationship, after three years it’s hard to unlearn the gestures that are natural in any new partnership; holding one another’s hands, or greeting one another affectionately at a bar or restaurant after we have spent a few days apart.
So, we operate carefully, returning to the proverbial ‘closet’ we locked ourselves in for most of our teenage years. We have learnt a code, to share which cues we will rely on in case we find ourselves in a strange situation. If I meet my partner’s family friends, I make sure to have a story constructed about who I am, and why at 38, I don’t wear a wedding ring. If we stay at hotels, it’s easier to book twin beds. When we return from a visit abroad, we learn the lesson our friends were taught at the airport and never enter the same queue at customs. We even make sure to crease the sheets in the guest bedroom at home, in case the occasional workman comes round and ponders our living arrangements. There are times when I question what they do with information that a Brit and a Moroccan man live at the same address.
Living like this can, of course, be tiring. But surprisingly, we’ve found it has enhanced our relationship. Living as a gay couple in a country where to be ‘out’ is to inherently take risks. Feeling something significant is at stake deepens our relationship, even if it’s a negative force we’re protecting ourselves against.
“We are more than our sexual orientation – but ending each night in the same bed, we know both how precious and fragile that can be.”
But we have our limitations. When my partner’s family friend recently asked how we know one another, I nearly stumbled. In the end, I cast myself in the role of a fellow researcher. I doubted myself for days, wondering whether they took it to be a euphemism and saw right through us.
To be fair, living as a mixed, gay couple in London also had its downsides. I’m a British Jew, and I moved here with my Moroccan, Muslim partner after finding myself stuck on the proverbial ‘hamster wheel’. These are admittedly ‘first world problems’ but if we ordered a taxi and my partner’s common Arabic name flashed up on the driver’s phone, it wasn’t at all rare to experience hostility when they saw us climbing in. Some drivers, like him, were North African, and on realising we were gay couldn’t drive fast enough to get rid of us. My partner loves learning about my Jewish faith, but at an otherwise cosy family tea, he once had to hear a distant relative of mine spouting Islamophobic junk.
It’s easy to be deceived by how permissive everything in Morocco first appears. Sadly, young LGBT Moroccans still talk about the inevitable pressure they’ll feel one day to marry; that despite Morocco’s many attractions for gay tourists, they daren’t come out.
I’d encourage gay tourists who come to immerse themselves in the culture, but also take sensible precautions. As a gay man who now lives here, I can’t always be so relaxed. We are more than our sexual orientation – but ending each night in the same bed, we know both how precious and fragile that can be in the country we call our home.
J. Kaufmann is a freelance writer, teacher and coach, living in Marrakech, Morocco.
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