She is quick to take customers’ requests, her smile never leaves her face. The sense of humor that dominates her character does not distinguish between the customers who would accept such banter, and those who may start trouble that could lead to verbal violence while under the influence of alcohol.
She chose to speak under a pseudonym before telling us of the suffering she hides behind this fake glee since the start of the Covid-19 crisis. Salma, a 34 year-old mother and wife, works as a “Barmitah”, or a waitress in the late night bars of Rabat. There, she has spent more than six years out of the 13 serving in the bars of the capital city.
Covid-19 Changed Many Things
The bar does not seem to be teeming with customers the way it used to be before Covid-19, but the situation is still somewhat reassuring for Salma and her colleagues, “At least the door to our livelihood hasn’t shut. Being allowed to welcome half the customers is far better than completely closing. We are satisfied with this.”
The Coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly changed people’s perspectives on life. And those who aspired for more began to see and appreciate what they already have. This is the case for Salma, who, according to her story, suffered greatly throughout the year of lockdown imposed by the Moroccan government as a precautionary measure against the virus. She says, “My husband, who works as a painter, and I suffered from constant anxiety. We had both stopped working, since most businesses and activities were prohibited by law. Who would have wanted him to paint their house, with the virus at its peak?”
“I was not happy with my job at the bar, and I am not happy with the idea of quitting. I'd rather be unhappy.” Morocco’s barmaids suffer in silence
The young woman not only provides for her small family, but is the only provider for her elderly parents. Their need for different medicines burdens her, and has become near-fatal during these exceptional days. But she did not give up, and applied for the government support her husband and other Moroccans receive. She combined it with some of her savings from previous years, and because she was aware of the fact that this situation may last for many months, she decided to invest her experience and knowledge in the homemade food business. She started out by handing them out to her relatives and acquaintances, until she formed a circle of loyal customers. But even after the pandemic, the harsh reality of Morocco’s bars remains.
In the past her husband used to repeatedly urge her to change her work into something easier and less dangerous, but today he commends her day and night for not taking his advice. She says, “My husband’s only wish was that I would quit my job at the bar. But when we stopped working, he finally realized the value of the money I was making. If it wasn’t for it, we would have starved.”
Half a Loaf of Bread is Better Than Starving
Working long late night hours in the service of men who aren’t fully lucid is a profession that Salma had grown accustomed to, but she now feels that the world of bars was much more merciful than the pandemic and its impact.
Not far from Salma’s workplace, where many nightclubs line an area considered to be the center of the administrative capital, we arranged a meeting with Layla. If we exclude the year of total lockdown, Layla will soon complete her third year as a bar waitress, after she gave up waitressing in cafes, since it could not meet her needs when it came to food and rent.
Layla, who is almost thirty years old, comes from Fes. She lives in a small apartment she rented in the neighboring city of Salé with her sister, who had joined her two years ago to study at university. She is the only breadwinner in the house after their father began his retirement, and now receives a meager monthly pension that barely covers rent. She’s forced to put aside some money from her salary every month to help him pay the bills. She says, “I was hoping to complete my studies, but our circumstances made things difficult. So now I try my best to ensure a good path for my sister’s studies, so that she won’t end up somewhere among people with unknown intentions.”
Her lack of appreciation for her line of work is evident in her tone, even though she does not openly express it. Layla left work at the café, and chose a rougher path, because, in her words, life left her no choice, “Regardless of the disgusting situations and the harassment I was subjected to while working in cafés, I felt a kind of safety and security. I do not know where it came from. Perhaps it was the daylight, and the actions of a customer cannot exceed words in broad daylight and in full view of everyone.”
“My earnings as a barmaid decrease 30% with an entire year off work. But that’s alright, I'll find some way to pay my debts.”
She has never felt safe during nighttime, telling us that ever since she started working in this environment, her heart has not been beating regularly. And whenever she tries to steady her nerves, she remembers that she is in a closed place surrounded by men with male chauvinist mentalities who have authority over her, money to expand on this authority, and justify every action they may take. Previously, Layla’s salary ranged between 170 and 230 dollars. She now makes double that, aside from the tips she receives from customers. From this money, she pays the rent, buys household necessities, sends an amount to her family in Fes, and, if there’s anything left, saves up for difficult times. She says, “I was raised in an environment that believes that misfortunes come one after the other, so one must save up money for them. But I never expected that we would be forced to stay home for nearly a year without work or income, as a result of a pandemic that we do not know when it’ll end.”
In May, two months after the total lockdown, Layla realized that she would not be able to pay the rent, and with the date of the bar reopening still unclear, she decided to pack up and go back to Fes. She recounts, “I was never happy with my job, and I'm not happy with the idea of quitting. I’d rather be unhappy, but with money in my pocket. How I feel does not matter anymore, especially when I think that there are five mouths waiting to be fed for a year, or two years, or more. I didn’t know how long I would stay without work.”
This year has been the most difficult for Layla. The debts she accumulated prompted her to knock on the doors of several families to work as a house cleaner, but to no avail. Everyone is terrified of the risk of a Coronavirus infection. Things stayed the same, until the news of bars reopening in half capacity was announced. That day, the joy Layla felt made her feel like when she was a young child celebrating Eid. She did not wait for her boss to call her, and took the initiative to call him out of fear that she would be dismissed as a consequence of the financial crisis and the lockdown. But luck was on her side this time, and she went back to Rabat. She says, “My income has decreased by 30%. But that’s alright, I’ll find some way to manage my expenses and pay my debts. I only hope that God will lift this pandemic, because I will not be able to deal with another lockdown.”
The profession of bar waitresses is not regulated by any law, despite the dangers they face, with their “moral codes” at the mercy and whims of their employers. This time, Covid-19 was the only excuse for nightclub owners to play with the fate of many servers, take advantage of their vulnerabilities, and drain their mental health, in order to compensate for their lost money during the lockdown.
Will Morocco ever witness the passing of a law that recognizes the specific nature of this profession and protects its practices as well as its practitioners, on every level?