Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Crosswalks and Catalyzing Change

Most every chronicle of an American’s adventures in the Middle East undoubtedly includes a mention of the traffic situation. Learning to cross the street in Morocco – or any other Arab country, I’m told – is an art form, and one that may save your life. There are crosswalks in which pedestrians have the legal right of way. But they mean nothing.

In the months that I’ve been here Arabic TV stations have aired a series of horribly graphic commercials. They depict gruesome traffic accidents and one even shows the dead bodies of school children hit in a crosswalk. They end with a plea: “We need to change our behavior.”

I don’t drive here, and Mom, you’ll be glad to know I recently turned down an offer for a motorbike. Deep down I REALLY want to be that American girl who rides a motorcycle (certain cause for speculation – my specialty), but the thought of driving on the streets of Fez fills me with such fear it could only end in disaster.

But I’m a passenger often. I’m pretty picky about my drivers, but taxis are the luck of the draw. Very often riding in someone’s car prompts a discussion about the rule of law, corruption, and civil responsibility. They all think I’m an up-tight American and I think they’re all insane Arabs. Inter-cultural dialogue is a such a beautiful thing.

The truth is, if you follow traffic laws in Morocco you’ll never survive, because everyone else drives like a maniac. It’s like an Olympic wrestler taking on the EFC champ: if he tries to fight clean he won’t stand a chance. In order to get from Point A to Point B you invariably have to concede that a two-lane road can actually accommodate the width of four cars, and you have to tailgate because if someone sees half a car’s length in front of you they’ll cut you off to get 5 meters closer to the red light. Not to mention young men (and old men...and women) feel the need for speed, and in Morocco the concept of the queue (as in waiting your turn for ANYTHING) is entirely foreign and counter-intuitive. The only way to survive on the streets of the Maghreb is to get with the system...the unwritten code that Americans will never understand, but taxi drivers seem to have down to an art.

But still...a little order couldn’t hurt.

Among my acquaintances is a guy named SIMO. He loves to tell me about his narrow escapes from the law. (I’ll admit it before I get scores of comments decrying my hypocrisy...The high school version of myself wasn’t known for following the letter of the law when it came to driving. And I saw every evaded ticket as a testament to my powers of persuasion. But shame on me.) Instead of flashing a smile and charming his way out of a citation, Simo simply halves the amount of the ticket and slips it to the police officer in cash.

“A 400dh ticket? Oh no! I can’t possibly afford that...how about I’ll give you 200dh and we’ll call it a day?” Or in the unfortunate circumstance that he doesn’t have 200dh cash with him... “How about 100dh and 3 cigarettes?”

At least once a week Simo would regale me with tales of his bribery and they would never sit well with me. I’ve heard all the arguments:
-The police don’t get paid very much...they’re EXPECTED to take bribes
-It’s the same as a tip for good service.
-The police double the amount of the real fine so they’d be taking a cut anyway.
-I can’t afford the ticket, and I don’t want them to take my license away.
-Everyone else does it, why not me? You gotta get with the system.

But what it all comes down to is that Simo pays off a police officer time after time after time and has never learned...until about a week ago when he had a big and dangerous accident. Car totaled, two people in the hospital. Idiot.

So what’s my point?

The laws are there. Police need to start enforcing them. And drivers need to start obeying them.

Back to crossing the street...

Last month I was walking with some Moroccan university students. They insisted that we cross the street in the crosswalk (wait...we have those in Morocco???). Their reasoning was a lovely brand of academic idealism, much forgotten in the US:

“Social change begins with individual action.”