I wrote down these events about four years ago when my daughter was just a baby. I was staying in Casablanca, Morocco. I am reminded of it every time our home runs out of toilet paper.
I went to Metro this afternoon after putting on my daughter’s last diaper. Most products for daily living are sold off of donkey carts, and in small neighborhood shops, called hanouts, but I discovered that all the brands they sell give my girl diaper rash. Metro is akin to Sam’s Club or Cosco, where stuff is sold in bulk, and you have to pay for the privilege of shopping there.
Morocco caught onto this good ole’ fashioned, American pass-time. If pretentious country clubs are not up your alley, these big boxes have the solution. For the cost of filling up your minivan with a tank of gas, you can treat yourself to walking up and down twenty-five air conditioned aisles, while tasting the free hors d’oeuvre all year long. For only spare change, you can top it off with a giant cup of Coca Cola, a hot dog, and then savor one of their tall, soft-serve ice cream cones.
So, I took off on foot, with my daughter in a stroller, to walk to the Metro because I haven’t got a car in this city. I went strictly to buy one package of diapers. However, being the un-corrupted card-carrying member that I am, and self-appointed ambassador of the American consumer, I picked up a slew of other unrelated items: a bottle of ketchup, some floss, a pair of house shoes and a chrome kitchen gadget…oh, and a 12-roll package of toilet paper (on sale of course!).
At the check-out it dawned on me that since it’s a privilege to be a member of this fine establishment, no one was going to bag my purchases; in fact, there are no bags. Crap! I felt ashamed for turning out to be such a sorry ambassador. I ought to have a shiny minivan to open its hatch and load my new possessions. All I had was the basket of my daughter’s stroller. The twelve rolls of toilet paper had nowhere but to balance a-top its canopy. I exited, and then headed for the main stretch of road. Then, I realized I looked plain stupid walking around with twelve rolls of toilet paper, and still feeling the sting of representing my culture so poorly – having showed up at the big-box with no minivan- I flipped course to take a back-road with fewer on-lookers.
In my awkward haste, I turned down an unfamiliar road and got myself completely lost. I ended up in an upscale villa-neighborhood that gave the appearance of new construction with its fresh paint, clean curbs, and desolate presence. My eyes caught disheveled wreaths of roses spilling over the concrete walled-barriers which separated the vintage dust of Casablanca from whoever lives inside. Only the tops of the villas were clearly visible from the street, like a blonde angel on a Christmas tree. I could make out some face details of the fortresses, which shined through the iron gates.
Outside of the walls, were human faces –those of gardeners and construction workers, giving me long stares marked by confusion. I wondered what would be an appropriate response: “Me and my toilet paper are pleased to meet you. How do you do?” There were no other pedestrians and I was feeling lonesome. I decided to straighten my posture and look straight ahead as if to say – I am proud to be sporting a product as essential and hygienic as toilet paper!
My thoughts, thankfully, were interrupted by the call to prayer from the mosque nearby. I cleared my cramped mind and continued on my way reciting the well-known and oft-repeated affirmation, La Illaha Ilala (There is only one God). As I neared a wide corner to turn left, I spotted a gardener turning his direction toward Mecca- the location where Muslims believe Abraham, and his son Ishmael, rebuilt the first house of worship, originally constructed by Adam (peace be upon them). By the time I rounded the corner, the gardener was prostrating on the grass before God, thereby performing one of his five daily prayers. I was starting to break a sweat and the tranquil sight of his still prostration reminded me of God’s mercy. I said to myself, eventually we will make it home, God willing, so why not enjoy the journey, twelve rolls of toilet paper and all.
Just then, my baby girl decided to do the opposite– she stirred in her seat and let out a siren-cry. After a few more strides she was in an all-out uproar. I hoisted the stroller up the steep curb, took refuge under a canopy of green leaves, billowing over a high gate, and set her free. She was hiccupping-mad at me, and my decision to relax turned into a stabbing pang of guilt for having gotten us so lost. I stashed the toilet paper into her seat, traded baby to hip, and started re-tracing my steps in a hideous-looking gait. I remembered the Turkish proverb – Whenever you travel down a wrong road, don’t be afraid to turn around and go back.
I could finally spot Metro’s sign in the distance. I made silent prayers for a taxi — hard to come by wherever expensive homes and cars are the norm. Then, a small, red taxi approached. “He’ll never stop,” I murmured as I waved him down. He already had a passenger and stopping for me would have required letting me take the time to unload my groceries and fold up my stroller, then find a place for it, my baby girl, and myself. In Morocco, as in the world over, time is money.
He stopped and my first words where: “Shoukran, Shoukran Beezef!” (Thank you, thank you very much!). I thought that this taxi driver is either a Good Samaritan or desperate for a buck. He offered a warm smile, set against a heavy five o’ clock shadow and drooping eyes with dark circles. He told me to take my time. A Good Samaritan, it turned out.
My daughter stopped whimpering as soon as I took a seat and looked up at me in what I imagined was a sigh of relief. After a few blocks he let the passenger out and turned his attention to the baby.
“Zweena,” he remarked, which means that I have a sweet-looking daughter.
“Shoukran,” I said.
We continued our conversation in Darija, which is the dialect of Arabic spoken in Morocco.
“I have two children,” he said, “a son, fifteen and a daughter, ten… and you know, my wife is pregnant!” He had a genuine, contagious smile.
“Al-hamd-dulilah,” (all praise is due to God), I replied.
“Can you believe? I have a son, fifteen, and a daughter, ten, and now my wife is pregnant?!”
“Al-hamd-dulilah,” I repeated. At this point he had not caught on or at least did not make a point to catch on to the fact that Darija is not my native tongue.
“Would you like to see the sonogram? She just went to have the sonogram taken. Do you know that they said the baby is a boy?! Now I have two sons!”
“Al-hamd-dulilah,” again, as I bounced my baby on my lap.
“Would you like to see the sonogram? I have the images with me?”
I nodded my head.
He started driving the red Fiat with his knee, and then lifted the prayer rug on his dashboard, to produce the beloved images from a cloth bag, as if delivering the baby boy, himself. The car swerved in and around traffic, horns translating their driver’s grievances, into a monotonous, hypnotic blur.
Ya Rabb! (O Lord!) I gripped the seat in front. It is a serious task to drive in Casablanca, with its lack of traffic signals and drivers un-willing to yield to the distinction of painted-on lanes. Indeed, solid lines are regarded as a suggestion in Morocco and easily passed over like a hideous comment. I hoped the proud father could multi-task. Finally he produced the images and returned his left hand to the wheel, while holding up the images with his right hand to the sun.
“See! My son! He’s there!,” he pointed to a view of the baby’s head. He rattled the image and I could feel the excitement liberating back. My daughter caught on – waving her arms and legs in unison.
“Really?! Can you believe that my son is fifteen and my daughter is ten and I am going to be a father again?!,” he reiterated and then paused before continuing. “But after this, BARAKA! (enough). BARAKA!,” he repeated, and swiped his arm across the empty passenger seat at his side, as if an umpire calling time-out.
“And you? How old are your children?”
At this point I had to admit that I am an ijnabe – that is, I am a foreigner, to explain the stuttered Darija and heavy accent I was about to unleash.
“Ah! Good, Good! Al-HAMD-ulilah,” he replied.
“I have one son, who is five and my daughter, here, seven months.” I informed him, and then told him their names.
He responded, in kind: “My son’s name is Anas and my daughter’s name is Assiya.”
“Ah! very nice,” I returned. “So, you are Abu-Anas (father of Anas).”
“Yes, I am,” he perked up, clearly delighted by the honorarium.
By this time he maneuvered us safely onto Route Barree which leads directly to my apartment.
“What is the name of this new son?” I asked.
“I do not have one yet. What do you think? What is a good name?” In the rear-view mirror I saw his expression turn discriminating as he waited for my response.
“Sami,” I offered, thinking of my adorable nephew with blondish curls who lives in another city.
He was not convinced.
“Yussuf,” I spat out.
Still, he was not convinced. We were almost to my apartment and our departure. I was desperate for a contender.
“How about Yunus?!,” thinking of one of my husband’s favorite names.
He re-adjusted ceremoniously in his seat, and his heavy eyelids tightened.
“Yunus! excellent! That will be his name. It rhymes. Anas, Assiya, Yunus – ssssss, sssssss, ssssssss, you see?!”
“Shoukran!,” he replied, and I understood it was not for the business, but for the name.
After I paid him the customary rate on the meter, he idled the car and helped me extract all of my belongings, including my daughter.
We exchanged hearty waves as he rolled off to his next customer. I hesitated a minute at my door until I could no longer follow the tail-pipe of his red Fiat in the distance. I hoped the name would stick, and at the same time thought how silly it is to hope such a thing.
Still, it is a tender thought – two strangers meet by circumstance and a name is born.