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I am with my new Moroccan friend and we go into an Apple store. She wants to buy an iPhone to take back to Morocco with her. Donn and I saw them for sale when we lived in Morocco, in the medina, but they were expensive and we never really looked into them. It makes sense that if you want one, you get it here if you have the chance.

My friend speaks English well, but with an accent. She is dressed in what I describe as modern Arab woman—modest, but Western clothing, in a certain specific style. I think you can tell she is foreign, but maybe my eyes are sharper to this than most.

A young man comes up to ask if he can help us. She tells him she is interested in a phone and asks what she will need to do to use it when she gets back. “You change the code, yes?” she says.

“What?” he says.
“The code? Is that the right word? You change it?” she explains. She is obviously sincere, honestly seeking information.

The man’s face flushes right up to the roots of his short, messy blonde hair. “If you are talking about jailbreaking and codebreaking, we don’t do that of course!” he says loudly. “If you are talking about BREAKING THE LAW we don’t do that!”

I notice my friend’s face flushing as well. She looks distressed. I step in. “She lives overseas,” I explain. “She can’t buy a plan.”

“She HAS to buy a plan,” the young man practically shouts as us. He is obviously very offended. “The only way for her to use the phone is to buy a plan. But you’ll pay HUNDREDS in roaming charges,” he tells her, turning to her again with a withering glare.

After that, she just wants to leave the store. She is humiliated. She has been shouted at for asking an innocent question. Later, in Best Buy, I talk to the guy selling phones and he explains to me the Apple salesman’s reaction. Apparently it is illegal to buy/sell/use iPhones overseas. (Never mind that Apple has an excessively overpriced store in downtown Rabat, which I wish I’d remembered before now. I would have brought it up to that guy). “You can break the code though; I’ve done it on mine,” he offers, pulling the phone out of his pocket. “It’s not illegal anymore.” “Jailbreaking” isn’t either, I learn from Wikipedia later (after first learning what it is), although it voids Apple’s warranty, and understandably they’re not too thrilled about it.

My friend is too traumatized to look at cell phones anymore though. I do my best to cheer and comfort her, and I hope she ends up forgetting it.

As humans, we assume that other humans have basically the same code of right and wrong as we do. Oh sure, they may choose to live by different standards, but they know in their heart that they’re making bad choices. Right? When we see them breaking what we KNOW is right, we get angry.

I had this explained to me by someone during our first years in Mauritania. It helped me understand why I got angry when I saw men peeing by the roadside, not even really hiding it. I was angry because it offended something I saw as absolute, basic. You don’t openly urinate where innocent passersby might see what should be hidden. I have the right to walk to my children’s school without seeing this. I didn’t though. And the guys I kept walking past obviously subscribed to a different point of view, like, it’s better than wetting your pants. After all, this wasn’t a place with public toilets.

I understood why the young salesman was offended. He assumed that it is illegal in Morocco to break the code, that my friend knew that and wanted to do it anyway, and was asking openly, blatantly, shamelessly, for his help.

But I also knew my friend had no idea. I don’t know if it’s even illegal in Morocco to break the code and use an iPhone; I suspect it is not. This is a place where pirated DVDs are sold openly, and indeed there is no place that sells non-pirated DVDs. You can’t just buy them on Amazon either, as Amazon detects you are in Morocco and refuses to complete your order, just in case you’re not who you say you are.

He made an assumption about her, that she had been exposed to the same standards as he had, that she had been taught as he had. He was wrong. I don’t even fault him. I think we all do this, in daily life. I know I’ve done it plenty of times. But as someone who has crossed cultures and now works to help others cross into my own home culture, it made me a little sad. It’s easy to assume. It’s harder to really look and listen, especially when you think you see just another customer, just another foreigner wanting to cheat you.



(note: In case it’s not clear, this happened the night that they all came for dinner. It needed its own post though)

March 2011

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