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Love of Memory

18 Dec

It was a rare shot.mother-and-sonIf photos could sing, this one would drop down into a soulful tune. If they could morph, it would flutter into a worn-out quilt on a lazy afternoon. If they could speak, it would whisper, hold that baby a little bit longer, while you can still do it with one fell swoop. My sister, her feet also emerged behind me, captured the moment. That was the first and last trip to Morocco we ever took together.

I became miserably ill by night fall. We’d ventured into a shady grove of figs, and by the owner’s permission, I had a fateful bite. All night, my sister held my head up over a bowl and remained vigilant, letting my son tangle her hair in knots, as he cried to be nursed. Near an open window, I laid on a thin mattress in the summer night’s heat, boiling with fever, trying to catch a breeze. As dawn approached I was retching and hollow.

When daylight burst, armed with my sister-in-law, she dove deep into the dusty, sun-latticed souk, looking for vegetables, herbs, and a fresh chicken {which she found, literally}, while trying to explain the absolute necessity of this American thing called chicken soup. The miracle broth gave me strength to move around and nurse my son without falling back. Big sisters are very essential people. I wish my daughter had one.

Eventually, we headed off to Marrakesh to do all the touristy things. Having pumped some milk, I was nervous to leave my son behind with my in-laws, even if for one night, but I was determined to show my sister other parts of Morocco besides the live chickens for sale. It started with a wobbling train ride moving south, wherein we sparred with a sweaty French man, then enjoyed a chat with a group of young, Moroccan graduate students, close to our age. They reminded me of every other graduate student of late- completely not like me, completely not mothers.

Not long after settling into Marakesh, my sister and I had a fight. She stormed one way, I stood there, then traipsed off to our hotel room, where I fell on the floor crying in woeful snots. It was a heated, ideological battle – the most useless sort. We’d made up within three hours and then headed out to a fancy dinner. Sister bonds are very sacred, and equally as complex.

Marakesh-with-Sister

She got a kick out of putting our water bottle into the wine chiller of the pretentious couple next to us after they left. We still giggle about it to this day, in one of those: ‘Remember that moments?!,’ not because anything spectacular happened, but precisely because nothing spectacular happened, yet we still managed to have more fun than anyone else in the room, a decidedly Collard Green trait.

The next day, we all headed to a resort pool where my in-laws met up with us. My sister and sister-in-law wore bikinis; in fact, I think my sister even borrowed one from my in-laws assuming that she wouldn’t need a bikini in a Muslim-majority country. Meanwhile, I wore pants and a long shirt, prepared only to keep an eye on my son in the one foot deep kiddie-pool. Soon, the lifeguard was rabidly blowing his important whistle, motioning for me to get out; I stood there, playing possum.

Coming down off his courtly, high stand, leaving all the children in the deep end to fend for themselves, he marched over to strongly impress upon me the importance of removing my feet and ankles from the pool since women in hijab (the Islamic headcovering) were not allowed. My sister got up and demanded to know what was going on. When I explained, she stood close to my ear and declared: “If you get out of this pool, I’ll never respect you again for the rest of my life.”

A double dawg big sister dare- what’s a Muslim girl to do?

I persisted, meanwhile the hotel director arrived to strike a compromise. He said I could come back after dark and stand there, but under no circumstances should I be permitted in the day light hours to stand covered with my feet in the water,  not for safety reasons, but because the hotel had an image to maintain and I was apparently holding up bunny ears. Then, they threatened to call the cops, despite my sister-in-law’s protests. This was getting serious; I was at a cross roads. Between losing the respect of my sister for life and sitting my Collard Green fanny in a Moroccan prison, I knew what I had to do…I skittered away from that pool faster than a crawdaddy can hustle.

A few days later we arrived in the suburbs of Casablanca, where I took her to a mosque – plucky and delighted to usher her into a house of worship in Morocco. We sat side by side with the other women (all elderly) along the perimeter of the sauna-hot walls, waiting for the call to prayer. One of the women asked us where we were from.

“Alwelayet Almoota7eda (The United States),” I replied, loving the sonorous texture of Arabic rolling off my tongue. The woman inquired: “Where’s that?,” after which her friend tried to explain. “Ah! France!,” she brightened, “I know some people who live there.”

Along with her friend, we tried again and again to place the United States on some reference point on her mental map. Then, knowing the final call to prayer was about to cut us off, I gave up. So many fellow Americans I’d encountered back home had no clue where Morocco was, so why should I be flabbergasted that this frail woman couldn’t pin me? The thinness of her wrinkled, weary skin, reminded me of my great-grandmother who hailed from North Carolina. “Yes, we’re French,” I reassured her. Enchantee! Le temps est plus belle au printemps, oui? She was so pleased to meet us.

The devotees were not about to give up on my sister – suddenly the spiritual tourist. Instead of focusing on her own prayers, the woman to my sister’s left, physically choreographed all her devotional movements, as the sweat dripped from our chins. She pressed down on her back when it was time to prostrate, and moved her right index finger to the call of la illaha illallah (there is no God but God), the way Muslims pray. My sister was gracious, and obliged their enthusiasm like a good Collard Green daughter, but secretly couldn’t wait to get out of there. So,when one of the women followed me out and insisted that we come to her house for dinner, my sister said she would kill me if I accepted; and the thought of her rendering bodily damage seemed plausible by the look on her face.

The woman insisted in the way that Arabs are known to persist in offering hospitality. At length I explained that I could not oblige her request; I could feel my sister’s pulse quickening beneath my own skin. Finally, feeling backed into a corner with no way out, I said: “Someone in my husband’s family has just died, and we have obligations back home.” She bid us farewell and promised to make du’a for the deceased, calling out prayers for all to hear. I felt wretched for having concocted two false stories in just under an hour, and frightened by my performance.

I left my sister at the airport, with seven days more clinging to my own itinerary, and no affordable way to change my ticket date. I’d already been there two weeks before she arrived, and I was homesick in that lonesome, collard green way- when you want to stick your nose into the warm neck of your birthplace, and exhale. As eager as I am to go to Morocco, in the end, I always claw my way back. My Collard Green daddy, chided me once: “You don’t leave the country very well.”

Transporting myself back in time to all of these moments brings me abiding, almost mystical pleasure. Memory is such a miraculous thing; again and again, we go back to past lives, basking in both subtle and bold, emotional shades. The colors swirl, within them voices arching high and low….sniffles and wailing, giggles and guffaws. Sometimes when I am lying in bed at night, I comb through these stories as if running broadly through a meadow of colorful spring flowers – weeds actually; the ones that rise up in the fields without any planning or forethought.

Then, exhausted, I lay down in them and drift further away from the clear colors and voices, deeper into the murky underworld, which drags me more rapidly until it lifts me back up to the place where I left off, only more crystalline than before, to a place where I can see and touch the whole periphery of my memory. Yet, we are in the most bizarre fashion, often out of costume and context – not entirely as I remembered. My feelings flicker in images and emotions, much stronger than the currents that sent me to this familiar, yet foreign place.

The love of memory is the backbone of life, for even when men and women deteriorate in old age, when they can scarcely recognize their own children and spouses, they can remember their lives.

Memory is the conduit that, by God’s grace, delivers us beyond worldly confines…the friend of the prisoner and slave. Our bodies will become fertilizer for the earth, then one day the mountains will blow away like dust. Yet, our memories will live on, delivering us to our final reawakening, when we will startle for the last time, and swear that this, all of this, was certainly a dream.

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The Occasional Wedding Ring

9 Feb

I knew my husband for thirty long days before we married. He had a hard time dealing with commitment, but I was patient. He owned $230 in his bank account and a ten-year old Honda on the afternoon we exchanged vows. I am high maintenance, so I held out for a man with money. I was nineteen and no fool; I wasn’t going to be a bridesmaid forever.

Three years after taking the plunge, I picked out my wedding band at a mountain-side souk in Morocco. I posed as a stoic Berber fiancé to get a good price from an Arab jeweler, flanked by my mother in-law on one side, her sister-in-law on the other, and my husband behind me.

It was the best performance of my life — I didn’t say a word.

The ring has one row of platinum between two rows of 24 ct. gold, but it has a tiny wreath of fake diamonds along one of the grooves. I tried to buy a band without glitter, but every shop I visited, doing my best silent impersonation, was stocked with fake diamonds.

It was too big for my finger and I was about to have it sized down in Morocco, when a round Arab woman with plump, tawny lips, punctuated by a luring indent on the top crest, pulled me aside. She pinched my upper arm and said that “Insha’Allah,” (God willing) I would have babies soon and fatten up. If I sized the ring down I would have to wear it around my neck forever. She delivered her wide-eyed warning, without flinching- all the while holding onto my arm in a tight grip, in the same place that she pinched.

Four seasons later my son was born and required two surgeries before the age of one; I was also a law student and stayed so busy that I forgot to eat. I lost weight and the ring started flying off my finger every time I made a flamboyant gesture, which was often.

I had to take the band off and wear it around my neck on a gold chain, which years before held a crucifix in its place. A non-Muslim friend once told me I ought to take that cross and get it melted down for money. I wouldn’t wear it, but I’d as soon as given away my possessions than melt it for money. My mother had given it to me one year for my birthday.

Not long after, one of the sparkles on my wedding band plunked right out of its socket. It was revolting when a few months later a similar sparkle followed. I started to despise that ring. It was an eye-sore, and reminded me of one of the ugliest signs in my hometown, which belonged to a gas station.

I loved that store as much as I eventually loathed its sign. It doubled as a video-rental store. If we wanted to see the Karate Kid, our parents rented it from the gas station. I remember the thrill of watching a movie on our very own television with microwave popcorn from Jimmy’s Thriftway. At some point, that gas station erected a rectangular sign, smack dab on its forehead, outlined by a dozen or more balloon-sized fluorescent lights. It looked like a lighted make-up mirror for a grizzly giant in pursuit of an apocalyptic eyebrow waxing. Whenever a few of the lights fizzled, the sign went partially blind – just like my wedding ring.

On a return trip to Morocco, I tried to rehabilitate my ring by carrying it to a jeweler who only smashed another sparkle in the bare socket, and consequentially, made pockmarks in the gold. It was pitiful, but I continued to swing it around my neck. Occasionally, I would harangue myself over sporting a disfigured wedding band and swear it off for good. If ever I argued with my husband that band became symbolic for whatever that was the matter.

On another occasion I might be out and admire another woman’s sharply etched, glittering wedding or engagement ring, tailored to her delicate manicured finger. Then, my memories came back of our afternoon rummaging gold shops in Morocco, my acting stint, and the intense presence of the woman wishing me a full life, literally, surrounded by lots of babies. I’d go dig up the disfigured ring, put it on and feel happy. It looked on my finger as flotsam as it always had, or even worse because more of the sparkles went missing.

Lately I’ve been keeping it in a jewelry box between the beaded necklace my son made for me in kindergarten and my North Carolinian great grandmother’s wedding band, which I want to have restored. I don’t remember the last time I wore my disfigured ring.

A few days ago, I was driving down a one-lane road, thinking of what was in my refrigerator that I could improvise for dinner. My three kids were lost in some imaginings; I caught each of their gazes at the previous stop light, looking out at the dirt-tinged snow, on the margin of the asphalt, dissolving into puddles of running streams.

My four year old daughter’s small voice perked up.

“Mama, where is your ring?” she asked.

“What ring?”

“The one for marrying. The one you used to wear,” she said.

“It’s put away. God willing, I’ll go home and dig it up again.”

Twelve Rolls of Toilet Paper

6 Feb

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.

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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?!”    

“I 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.

“Jihaaaaad!”

29 Jan

“Jihaaaaad!”

That is how I woke up, on the morning of my first visit, after arriving in my husband’s home town of Oued-Zem, Morocco.

The voice grew more intense, then furious, and downright shrill.

“Jihaaaaad!”

And then again…

“Jihaaaaad!”

Not exactly a  melodic call to prayer; the third time got me out of bed.  Because I was in my very early twenties, and college educated to boot, I was knowledgeable on a range of subjects.  I knew, therefore, that jihad meant ‘violent holy war.’  I looked out the screen-less open window from the second floor bedroom, onto the alley below. There weren’t any blood-thirsty, shouting men or American flags on fire, just a grown woman in flip-flops.  Her hair was tied up in a bandanna and she was holding a bucket of shallow, murky water. My husband, who was half asleep, mumbled from his side of the bed, that Jihad was her eight-year-old daughter’s name. By the sound of her mama’s voice, I thought that wherever Jihad was headed to, she ought to keep on going. In the south that kind of hollering means a butt-whipping is on the horizon. 

I put my head back down on the sheep-fur pillow and thought to myself, what kind of a mama would name her daughter, Jihad?  A southern mama would never name her little girl, Violent Holy War.   Then, I tried to go back to sleep, but laying in beads of my own salty sweat, I gave up.

Many mornings I woke up, sweating, to this mama’s pleading for “Jihaaaad!”  That girl was always running off when she ought to be doing something helpful around the house. I imagined her at a creek somewhere, like Lulu creek where I grew up. 

Come to find out, Jihad’s mama did not name her Violent Holy War. In the Arabic language, jihad, means struggle.  However, not the kind of struggle you endure when you are determined to open a can of baked beans without a can opener, and end up in the crowded ER, smelling like brown crud, with a three inch bloody slice in the palm of your hand. 

Jihad is the kind of struggle against one’s lower desires. These lower desires stem from nurturing the ego (nafs), as opposed to a relationship with God (Allah), built on the firm understanding and experience of God as One, without partners (tawhid).   To wage jihad, as it is traditionally understood, is a commitment to achieving one’s personal goals; so, it is a sweet struggle toward contentment on earth and everlasting peace. Jihad, I came to understand, is a wise choice for a baby girl, whose mother wants her to mature into a young lady desiring of self-sacrifice, over the fleeting pleasure of running off to some God-forsaken place- that only leads to a butt-whipping in the end. 

When the marginalized and outnumbered Muslim nation of the Prophet Muhammed’s time (peace be upon him) returned from an early battle, after fighting off a siege, launched by the pagan Arabs of Mecca, there is a statement, some attribute to him, wherein he cautioned the believers:

“We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad,” meaning, the struggle against the ego which leads to disequilibrium and eventual ruin. A good article on this subject is by Seyyed Hossein Nassr and is found here.

Last spring when I was in Oued-Zem, a woman stood in the same alley at dusk, where that mama in flip-flops woke me up with the sound of her daughter’s name every morning.  The woman smiled at me, and a quick dimple appeared just above her full, smooth cheek and below the corner of her mahogany-colored eye, where a teardrop might otherwise be.  She looked at me as if she knew me from a dream I once lived.  

“This is Jihad,” my sister-in-law said. 

She was carrying her baby brother on her high, bony hip, and she was on the way to the corner store to pick up some things for her mother.  Jihad had just graduated from high school and was planning to attend the University. I struggled to find words to complete all the niceties a southern girl is bred to afford, when she meets someone again, especially a young woman all grown up. 

The streets were full of  chatter that evening, but their voices sounded in my ear as a low-pitched muffle. The alley was still. I longed to have the silence interrupted by the endless call of “Jihaaaad!,” ringing in my ears.