Tag Archives: Morocco

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.


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.


The Principal Died

25 Nov

Recently, I spoke on the phone to a dear friend, an expat living in Morocco, whose children’s’ school principal died suddenly after complaining of chest pains. Earlier the same day, her daughter spoke to the principal about a problem with another classmate. After lunch, he never returned.

One moment here, the next moment…..

How do we speak to children about death? How do they do it in Morocco? I wondered.

Matter of factly, my friend, a former school nurse in the States explained. This isn’t America, she chuckled as if to let off some of the pressure. There isn’t a grievance counselor or special team to talk to the kids. Her children found out when fellow students came running up at school yelling, l’moodeer maat!!! {The principal died}.

Everyone went home. The next day the children filed down stairs to wait for the school bus. The driver came by on his rounds, reporting to the children {not their parents} that school was closed  – the principal died.

There were no notes sent home to parents, or phone calls made, or condolence messages posted on the website {what website?!}, or candle lighting ceremonies, news crews, or crisis hotlines. Within 24 hours He was buried, swiftly, without embalming, in the Islamic manner.

She spent time talking with her kids about their feelings. Then, they curled up under blankets on a grey, misty, Casablanca morning, and watched a movie to pass the time. She’s agonizing. Her third grade son, especially, loved the principal. They had built a deep attachment to one another over the past few years. What will happen now?

I prayed for my friend’s son and for her. I prayed for the principal’s family as well. He left a widow and minor children behind. I shivered, ruminating selfishly, what if that tragedy reigned down upon this house?  Another thought: Would this Moroccan principal have known that a Collard Green mama of three would be praying for his family upon his death? Would I have ever known? It’s strange how strangers connect after life.

Then, in the aftermath of the latest bombardment of Gaza, scanning the news, my eyes caught a photograph of a classroom – the young students sat in desks, two by twos.  A child looks up into the lens, a diluted smile on her face, eyes defiant and ruminating. The seat next to her is empty, in its place is a wide placard. In Arabic it reads: “The Student Martyr, Sarah Al-Dalou.”  The photo’s caption explains: Sarah and 10 of her family members were murdered …during the Israeli assault on Gaza strip. Out of 160 Palestinians killed and 1,000 injured, about one-third were children.”  I looked back at the classmate again. This child must feel her companion’s absence as heavily as she feels her own survival. I could not make out the expression of the girl before, but now I saw it clearly.

The news somehow made me flash-back to the ninth grade when a fellow classmate drowned over Labor Day weekend at the beach. For a week, our guidance counselor followed the boy’s schedule – he sat in all of his seats to fill the otherwise vacant space. I don’t remember exactly what he said, just that it seemed dainty and somber. He sounded like the preacher on the pulpit – only irreverent, because he didn’t mention grown-up Jesus, or even baby Jesus- not once.

What do you say when a child dies? He lived a good life? I do remember that the guidance counselor assured us that we should feel comfortable to come to him at any time to talk things out. The boy sat behind and to the left of me; he was soft-spoken and pale, sporting square glasses that dipped below his cheekbone, overshadowing his small features. I can’t remember ever exchanging a single word with him, yet when I found out he was erased from our world forever, I could remember the exact tincture of his sandy-blonde hair. The absence of his presence hung heavily for many days. In his desk, the guidance counselor looked over-grown and I thought, goofy, towering with his bulky forearms and clasped hands extending over its perch. The ceremony only punctuated the boy’s absence more, yet the absurd sight of that balding, middle-aged man, with the concerned eyes, sitting in the lost boy’s seat, made me feel like the earth might not be trembling after all.

I asked my very Arab husband who is from a small town in Morocco, how adults spoke to him about death. He told me that growing up when folks died, the funeral procession would have to take its course on foot over the hard-packed dirt paved alley in front of his home. As children, they’d peer from the second floor window perch, say a litany, and acknowledge, within themselves, that humans die, just as their farm animals do. They understood that one day they would die as well, along with their mothers, fathers and all their loved ones. Everyone is born and dies.

“Did anyone ever talk to you about this…topic?” I asked.

“Death?” He said effortlessly.

“Yes, death?” I repeated.

“What would they have said?” He asked earnestly.

{What would they have said?!} I could think of a dozen things! As a natural talker of all trades, I can always think of at least a dozen things. No one said any of them?!!

That didn’t cut it for me. I’d have to say at least three of these dozen things. I’d have to solicit my children’s’ responses and surgically analyze them in my private moments. It’s a heavy subject; it seemed that his people dealt with it…errrr….callously.

And, yet, I pondered it’s not a callous people by any stretch. People from my husband’s town, Oued-Zem, are some of the most sincere, hug you by the neck and never let go people. They are so affectionate with each other, you find two people walking in pairs engaged arm and arm, or attached to one another even if only by the thread of intertwined pinky fingers. Even alpha males will hold onto one another when they walk. Their display of outward affection, when compared to even Collard Green folks, known for their gregariousness, is more apparent and uninhibited. Children are less often seen fidgeting in strollers and more often slung on their mother’s backs or hoisted over their father’s shoulders, or that of their uncles, or maybe just the neighbor five doors down. If a child howls for as much as a piece of candy, it is not uncommon for a perfect stranger to assuage the wailing boy or girl.

Upon further reflection, I surmised that it’s not a matter of dealing with death unceremoniously or without deep reflection; rather, it is  because on the whole my husband’s people have a shared understanding of what happens upon death; they’ve conveyed that understanding from generation to generation, through recitation of the Qur’an. Muslims believe that the children of Adam and Eve die, and then they are questioned about whether they were obstinate disbelievers. They are shown their final end -whether heaven or hell. In preparation, they pray for the deceased feverishly during this time and repeat after his/her name- Allah yurhamuhoo(a) { Allah, have mercy on him (her)}.

The sorting out is not for the living who still have the opportunity to repent and seek the Mercy of God; the intense focus, rather, is concentrated on the deceased who cannot return to shed any remaining traces of what separated them from God – their ego’s excruciating pull, and with it, their ambivalence about the finite substance of life.

Muslims believe that the deceased are aware of everything happening around them until they are buried. So, they speak soft, loving words, and facilitate recitation of the Qur’an in beautiful, soothing voices. Not to prolong the deceased experience of this mourning period, and in accordance with Islamic law, they bury the body within 24-hours. They do not delay the proceedings for make-up sessions or to make flights for eulogizers.

Days after talking to my friend, I was at the mosque for Friday prayers with my children. My eldest son was on the men’s side alone because his father was attending prayers at a mosque closer to his office. After the sermon and prayer, the imaam announced that a member of the community had died the night before. “Please stand up,” he instructed us to pray the janaza (funeral) prayer. And so, it was…my son alone. He watched them bring the closed coffin out and set it down, and with the rest of the congregation he prayed.

Afterward we met in the atrium of the mosque before heading out into the parking lot. Of course, the first thing my son asked was: “Why did that man die? Who was it? How old was he?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?! Can you ask someone?,” he pleaded with me.

I looked around; it was a large congregation, people were flying by us left and right trying to make it back to work as they’d likely used their lunch break to attend Friday prayers. I didn’t see any familiar faces. By this time we were well into the path of swerving cars in the crammed parking lot. I clutched both of my smaller children by the hand.

“I can’t ask anyone, we have to go,” I said, as my son trailed beside us trying to keep up.

“Pray for him,” I said making my voice audible over the traffic and strepent voices. “Pray to Allah to forgive his sins!” I called out, weaving my way between two parked cars, into an opening to pass into another lane. “He’s dead. That was the appointed time for him and now his life is over.” My son heeled on my footsteps, while I pressed on. “He can’t go back. No one can be at peace but by Allah’s mercy and His name is All-Merciful.”

We snaked our foot-path between more cars, until finally emptying into the outer-bound hilly, grassy area where I parked. My son spotted two friends from his homeschool co-op. “Hey!,he called out smiling. Are you done with school for the day?!”

“Yeah,” his friend bragged. “I’m always done at 1:00. “But not him,” he chided, nudging his little brother, “He’ll drag it out until 5:00.”  The younger brother looked down and smiled sheepishly as if to convey that he was half annoyed and half pleased with himself.

Alright, see ya’ later,” the older brother tipped his hand

O.K. bro, bye,” my son replied, which is the pre-teen boy version of stately.

I haven’t made up my mind about how best to talk to our children about death when they face it head on. Like most things ‘child-rearing’ – I sigh and grovel at the thought that I’ll figure it all out in retrospect. At least the grandchildren will profit, if our brood ever warm up to the idea of me as sagely; and then, I’d also have to reckon with that notion myself.

All I know now is that the principal died.

Sara Al-Dalou, and 10 of her family members died.

The unknown man at the Friday prayer died.

One day I will die, my husband will die, and our children as well.

Knowing that scathes, and yet, mercifully refreshes the entire outlook for today.

All I Want for Ramadan

10 Aug

Ramadan, the special month of fasting, prayer, and contemplation, has already come and is almost gone. This year it was preceded by a series of unordinary encounters in my life – events that put me in touch with people I would otherwise never chance to meet.

In early June, while riding with my kids in the car on a two lane country road, my serpentine belt popped off, which I quickly discovered shuts down every important function in a car. All at once, the power steering quit, the engine light turned on and the car came within seconds of overheating. To make matters worse I was already straining to see the road because of a heavy downpour. With my husband many, many miles away, my first instinct was to freak out, but since my brood was watching, I had to act like a sane human being- not a freak-out mom. Slowly, over the period of an hour, I managed to inch the car into a gas station. My first question was to ask the attendant where I was and the next move was to call a mechanic. I knew I was in the middle of nowhere, I just didn’t know which nowhere. It was a farming town in north Maryland- a place of rolling hills, rich soil and old stone facades. Richly idyllic, unless your serpentine belt pops off, leaving you stranded with kids.

The rain stopped abruptly, mimicking the kind of weather I’m used to back in Florida -a quick flash of lightening and sharp rain, then poof, like it never happened. Even more spectacular, the sun was receding, revealing a horizon swathed in blushing hues, lending the imagery of a seamless, silk blanket rolled out above the earth.

I was disappointed to discover that the mechanic was miles away and not likely to be lulled from his pub on a Friday night to rescue the likes of me. A couple of men stood around and scratched their heads trying to figure out why my belt suddenly popped off yet remained in tact. If I could just find a mechanic to loop it back on, I’d be on my way. These swarming Yankee-Doodle-Dandies, however thoughtful, were proving themselves completely useless in the rescuing a damsel in distress category. A Collard Green man would have called me honey and popped that belt back on by now.

There were clearly no rent-a-husbands here. My own husband was scheduled to head out on a business trip early the next morning, so I held off calling him to drive several hours back and forth to come get us. Plus, that would have required leaving the car in the middle of nowhere. AAA was no help; we’d used up the service calls on a mechanical issue weeks ago. Surely, I could find a way to solve this problem. Then, poof, a petite woman, carrying a half gallon milk jug, came by and informed me that a mechanic lived behind the gas station. Really?! Perfect! Why didn’t anyone else mention this, I wondered.

After knocking on the fiberglass door of the trailer, a woman peeked out. We looked at each other for an awkward moment, but she didn’t say a word, just smiled. Realizing that there was a communication barrier I attempted to dust off the mental file containing all the Spanish I learned in college – it hurled from my tongue in a gnarled, grating  pattern like the hinge of an old screen door which hadn’t been oiled, and flew open in the wind. Despite the awkwardness, I managed to communicate my predicament, only to discover that the mechanic, her husband, was out working his dishwasher job until the wee hours. His two older sons, however, were available; they’d only been in the U.S. a couple of weeks- badly homesick and completely shell-shocked, they seemed eager to plunge into some project.

Fortunately, although my spoken Spanish is very bad, my comprehension is decent, so I was able to understand when the boys told me they had just crossed the border illegally on the famed La Bestia – a ghastly train service which by default carries many a eager man and woman, non gratis, for free a top its boxed cars from Central America. They managed to stay awake to avoid falling off and permanently maiming or losing a limb. Men, women and children fail prey to it regularly. If they are fortunate enough to ride all the way, then walk through the scorching heat undetected, with only a few drops of water, and a square meal a day – they have the pleasure of working a back breaking job in landscaping or at a greasy fast food joint, completely off the grid of health benefits and 401Ks.

While the brothers set off to work, and with the night sky fast approaching, my son and I had to perform the fourth prayer of the day known as the Maghrib prayer. I settled our straw mat on the grassy margin bordering a farm next to the gas station. The men followed me with their eyes, perplexed.

Not knowing the word for prayer in Spanish, I tried to announce my plans as best as I could.

“Yo voy a Dios”, meaning literally, “I go to God.”

“Si, Si,” they smiled, and motioned me with nods of their heads, like ushers, making shooing gestures with their palms down, “You go to God,” they affirmed. “We understand.”

And so I did and felt all the better for it – very relieved and soothed to be praying near my son under a blushing night sky, with fire flies twittering about and the murmur of cicadas beginning to erupt. After the prayer, I bought the gas station out of its crispy fried chicken, as an initial offering, and was invited to sit with the boys’ mother in her tiny cubicle of a kitchen- its floor of brittle, pale linoleum peeling up in the corners, showing its underbelly of plywood. She made homemade tortillas while my kids happily depleted their attention spans on a slew of cartoons via their bulky, tubular television set. At this point they weren’t sure if they could fix the problem without their father’s tools, so they invited us to spend the night, as eagerly as if they were inviting a member of the family. I called my husband and he said something to the effect of: “Woman, have you lost your mind!? Where are you? I’m coming!!” Where am I?  Err….in a very nice lady’s kitchen on a hill top, eating warm tortillas. Kids are watching Tom n’ Jerry re-runs and have red juice-staches. I’m not sure exactly where I am but I’ll call you very soon. Don’t worry! Love you. Bye now. Click.

While the brothers continued to work, the mother told me her story of immigration – how she escaped to the U.S. from the bandidas (bandits) who had gashed and broken her leg because she couldn’t pony up the cash to pay them protection dues for the hardware store she owned with her husband. “You see here,” she pointed to a thick mass of lightly pigmented scare tissue splayed out and contrasted against the rest of her thin, olive colored shin. Before her husband fled, the bandidas kidnapped and tortured him for a week for refusing to pay. The police, either in concert with the bandidas, or out of plain fear did nothing. The trouble was her husband simply had nothing left to give. They had already closed up the store, but the bandidas were unrelenting. They fortunately paid no mind to the four penniless children; after all, it was nothing personal, just business.

In progression, after the father arrived in the U.S., he got down to working odd jobs to earn the transport money for a coyote to bring them “safely” across the border. The mother followed on the illicit Bestia. She fell into the clutches of drunken co-passengers, who at knife point ordered her and all the women huddled to strip naked while they humiliated and molested them. After the ordeal, other riders threw them clothes from their own bags- merciful gestures, trying to restore them as if it never happened, but their kindness never erased it from her mind. Every time she hears the train whistle just beyond the perimeter of her trailer she twitches and wrings her hands – she’s haunted, she says, she can feel them touching her even though there is no one there. She was later captured by U.S. Border Patrol and spent several months in an Arizona prison before she managed to get out and make her way up North. She is currently working to be able to bring her two other children to the U.S.. They fend for themselves now, she sends them money enough to survive, and they wait.

Her American dream is to have all of her children in one home, and make a sky-high pile of homemade tortillas for them – to sit and talk with them and laugh, for no other silly reason than that it feels good. She wants to watch them breathing at night as they sleep unaware and kiss them on their foreheads, and never worry about another bandida at her door.

Within a few hours the brothers emerged and announced that they managed to loop the belt back on. I felt like hugging someone in a sigh of relief. I gratefully paid for the service, though they looked away, seeming shy to acknowledge a rightful wage. The next morning the mother called to ask if I had made it home safely.

I couldn’t stop thinking about them all day long, and the next day… and then the next. I hugged my children a little more, lingered longer at the breakfast table, and gazed at them with a deeper sense of gratitude in my heart, but tethered to an anchor of melancholy plunged into my stomach. It somehow doesn’t feel as good when you know that someone else is aching for the same morning, but can’t have it. The sun’s rays don’t illuminate with that particular lightness of being.

Two weeks later, I drove to Assateague Island to go camping with my kids among the wild horses.

My husband, again, could not come along because of work obligations, but I was determined to make the best and even better of it. Within less than an hour of arriving, while setting up camp, we met some campers about to have an all out Moroccan feast. I was pitching our tent when they came off of the beach. Seeing me alone with my children, and Muslim like them, it sparked their curiosity. The day was waning and high winds made the task of simultaneously holding down all four corners of my tent nearly impossible.  Every time my son and I would lay it down to figure out which side was which it would completely fold over and whip sand everywhere. One of the Moroccans enthusiastically jumped in to help. When I thanked him, he averted eye contact, and with that distinctly Arab gesture of hand on heart, simply replied: “bent bledi”, which means ‘daughter of my land.’

We gladly accepted their dinner invitation and sat down to this gorgeous tagine.

The spread was spectacular. I thought who else but a Moroccan would turn a camping trip into a foodie experience?! It was awesome down to the petite pot of mint tea brewing on the grill. Conversation dawdled on what each person did. The benefactor of the whole feast, co-operated a deli in downtown Washington D.C. with his brother. Another Moroccan in the group, originally from Rabat, was middle aged; she had settled into life as a nanny after the economy withered. The money isn’t bad, she explained; she genuinely loves the kids, but the parents are complete brats who never thank her beyond writing her pay check every two weeks. She wished she could get a little more recognition for kissing boo-boos, making oatmeal, reading books, and all the other things a stand-in mother must do. She never expresses these feelings to her employer. She needs the job. She wasn’t looking forward to rubbing elbows with upper class white women and their nannies during one of the hottest summers on record. I sympathized. She had tried to move back to Morocco at one point, but having been gone for so long, first in France and then in the U.S., she didn’t feel her place there anymore. Trouble is, she doesn’t feel her place anywhere; she has no partner or children of her own…she feels un-rooted and solemn most of the time.

The deli operator, when asked about Morocco, looked up to the sky, and smacked his lips over his right hand as if sending a greeting across the Atlantic.

“My country,” he says, “I miss my country,” he cries. “I never should have left,” he laments, looking about as one adrift, with deep set cavernous eyes, like a man who had heedlessly cheated on his one love, and can never return to hold her again.

I asked the obvious question: “Why don’t you return?”

“If it were that easy,” he shook his head.

“Why isn’t it?,” I ask bearing my plucky, American grin, with its over the rainbow all things are possible glitter.  He explained that he was an accountant with a solid job, enough money to spend and enough to save, but his big brother, aching for companionship of his own, had put visions in his head of streets lined in gold. He was itching for change because such is the condition of man – always convinced that just over the next bend, the next tier, is a whole new world, a better place waiting, and if he can just get there he will be happy ever after. Truly, man was created, very impatient (Qur’an, Al Ma’arij, 19).

Instead, of utopia he found a tasteless existence, with heaps of meat waiting to be sliced and served to the next lucky patron. He’s lonelier than he’s ever been in his life.  He sits in his deli serving lines of busy customers, all of them strangely eager to grab a swath of food and eat on the go -never stopping like back home to savor the sights and the smells; to sit, for no better reason than to eat, digest, and listen to their bones. He misses his home country but he can’t survive there anymore. His old job is gone, the economy has tanked, and frankly he’s scared to return with meager savings and no job prospects. There was a space of silence after he explained the reason. What more could I say?

Quixotically and impressively, he shook off his fermented sadness, breathed in the salt water air, and dug into his cooler to produce an elaborate, chilled fruit tray to share.

The next morning I brought breakfast to their camp and bid them farewell as they packed up for the day. I sat on the beach under an umbrella, digging my toes further and deeper into the sand until they reached the hard-packed, cool underbelly of the shore. The kids ran back and forth for sandwiches and juice. They spent several hours catching hermit crabs with their buckets, only to return them back to the ocean again and again- never tiring of the monotony. I thought of our hosts the night before. If only it were so easy to go back home.

The next day my camp stove malfunctioned and set fire – a big hazy fount of flames sprung up from the device while I said something to effect of: “Umm…someone…please HELP!” Fortunately, the father in the campsite next “door” sauntered over with a fire extinguisher and nonchalantly put the whole drama to rest. His profession had something to do with the fire department so he wasn’t too hyped up by our little emergency; his cool demeanor was contagious so that I was able to blow the whole thing off myself. Yeah, I almost burned down a national treasure, no biggie. That is not my modus operandi. I’m more likely to be seen jerking my body like I’m twirling an imaginary hoola hoop if ever a drama is in the works.

In my haste I’d forgotten a bag of Twizzlers by my car. One of the wild horses gratefully clip-clopped over, tore the bag open with his mouth and glutinously devoured its contents to the tune of my three year old howling in the background and pleading with me to call the cops to have the horse arrested. Fortunately, we didn’t go hungry. The family who put out the fire also generously offered their camp grill so that we could cook our dinner. Meanwhile, we shared a nice long talk about the primitive thrill of camping in the Adirondacks with bears- something I’ve determined from that conversation never to do. When the family left to take an evening drive, the horses came to their site and attempted to gobble up all of their left out groceries. My son and I swatted at them from a distance with long towels which herded them back toward the beach. I felt grateful for at least a small opportunity to repay their kindness.

The next morning just before dawn a storm blew in – a really, really big storm. I didn’t have have enough warning to break down my tent, so I had to throw my kids in the car and back it up against all of our camp gear to keep it from flying away. It worked, but the force of the wind snapped our tent poles in half. Our good Samaritan neighbors had their entire pop up canopy wrecked, which seemed entirely unfair given how downright nice they were. We spent the whole next day levitating like slothly castaways on the beach, weathered and grateful to have made it out relatively unscathed. I thought about all the kind people I’d met recently- contemplated on their generosity and also their personal tragedies. I felt grateful to carry their memories with me and made prayers for them along with myself and my family.

Now the month of Ramadan is upon us. Long days and nights of fasting, reading Qur’an and praying are this month’s focus- not getting myself into predicaments. I was feeling a bit depleted before Ramadan, plagued by the thought of so many people who want but have not. I could not reconcile the seemingly topsy turvy distribution of hardship and ease. My center was off, the place where you momentarily fail to glean the whole purpose of life. It is hard to grasp that notion, much less hold onto it indefinitely. I find I am always catching it and letting it go, berating myself, and catching it again.

Ramadan is here and all I want to do is be alone with it. This is the one time in the year, when honestly, I could detach from everyone for a month. That is completely impractical and impossible, of course. The days must go on and I must go with them, stretching to find that rhythm of spiritual balance, that place where you are in the world but the world is not in you. Life is full of tailspins and ending up for miles on other roads- some good, some bad, and what we at once perceived as lost, is in fact, exactly where we were meant to be.

Life is not always a happy ending- not always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That is about the most honest, Big Girl thing I can say at this moment. It’s hard to admit. It almost feels unpatriotic. The truth is, needs and wants are so relative and sometimes hardship endures. One woman wants a swimming pool in her backyard and another woman just wants her children. One man wants to take that New Zealand trip to go skydiving this year, and another man just wants to go home. Life is certainly not “fair,” and it isn’t meant to be. There is no enduring happiness attached to any momentary pleasure in this world.

Is it not through the remembrance of God that hearts find tranquility? Quran 13:28.

God asks me this question and I’m intent on answering it for myself. Sometimes the answer is beyond my reach because I am not still enough to ponder the question. Now Ramadan is here and I’m very still, and very alert. I can discern now what was woolly.

Rememberance, tranquilty – the later is completely dependent on the former. The only one who truly loses in this world is the one who never discerns his true purpose; the one who continually forgets.

Indeed, life is full of tailspins and ending up for miles on other roads- some good, some bad.

Nothing in it endures. Everything passes as it should. Life is a bridge. I’m walking on it right now, but I cannot always perceive it – my senses are so often dulled. The only abiding peace is in the redeeming act of rememberance. If I remember God, Al-Wahid (The One), I remember eternity, and if I remember eternity I perceive my own mortality and the mortality of everyone around me. I perceive the temporal space around me and the mechanics of my body as a holding place, as something that was never designed to remain. The only part of me that will remain is the part of me that is capable of remembering, with deep attraction and longing, my Creator.

Ramadan is a month in which our purpose is to learn self-control, and in order to gain that control, as a prerequisite, we must know the purpose of the self. In Ramadan we feel that purpose acutely – we sober to reality, which we are enabled to do because we give up the trivialities of excess food, speech and sleep.

All I want for Ramadan is to deepen to the remembrance of God, then to let it hold me the rest of the year, like a torch lighting each step through the sunken passages and sudden turns on my journey. Through each encounter, with each new experience, I want to discern the reality of the inescapable passage of time and purpose of life.

Imaam ibn Al-Jawzee a scholar from Baghdad in the twelfth century, said: “Beware of every hour and how it passes, and only spend it in the best possible way, do not neglect yourself, but render it accustomed to the noblest and best of actions, and send to your grave that which will please you when you arrive to it.”

May we spend the rest of this month ‘in the best possible way.’ May we discern ourselves, remember God, and be at peace.

Mountain Climbing in Dollar Store Flip-Flops

9 Feb

 Mamahood can feel like climbing an icy mountain wearing dollar store flip-flops. On a recent weekday during a trip to a big box store, with two of my young’uns, I felt like I was wearing those flip-flops. I planned to buy just one simple rug. Before leaving the house, I went through the rigmarole: lunches, check, clean change of clothes, check, bathroom break (even for the one who claims he doesn’t need to go), check, money and cell phone, check, hairbow, check, matching socks, never mind!

Next comes the difficult part – the eternity it takes to get both of my kids strapped down into carseats. My daughter insists that I take off down the road with her door open, and let her shut it when we get to full-speed because, “Mama, I know what I’m doing,” and “Why don’t you ever trust me!” Meanwhile, I’m cold. It’s February. I just want to slip behind the wheel, and thaw out behind the heater vents, on my way to buy this rug. Why so complicated?!

We arrive at the store and I can’t find the rugs anywhere, which I’m sure is a scheme. I have to pass by every Euro-trashy trinket in primary colors, made in China. This store feels like a destination for the self-righteous consumer who balks at a Wal-Mart shopping experience- which is by the way, much closer to where I live. My kids are loving it. Suddenly, they need everything in the store and the prefix to my name becomes: oooooooohhhhhh, as in: “Oooooooohhhhhh Mama, can I have this?!”

Soon, they are bored with sitting in the cart. It is more fun to drive it into objects…and people! My youngest son gets a sharp jab after backing into one of the corner displays and begins to scream loudly. I have to somehow translate my inner-freak out into a sympathetic hug and medicinal kiss. Where are the rugs!? Thank God for my health-nut makeover; otherwise my low blood sugar would have driven me to the cafe for a sugary, refined, Euro- inspired pastry and coffee to go.  

I turn a corner and instead of arriving at a polyester blend, Persian knock-off, I run into something else. There is a box spring on a red-tag sale, it’s down from $100 to $50.00. I actually need two box springs for my kids. Heck ya! However, one problem- I don’t have a large enough vehicle to make the trip back home. I drove our four door sedan with room for five only. No problem, the store clerk assures me. That’s what “the man” is for downstairs. She explains that it is his job to load the merchandise (which can be placed on the top of my car) and rope it down for easy passage. Sweet! I was starting to like this store. They even have Rent-A-Daddies! She congratulates me on getting a good deal, because, “At these prices, they won’t last long.”

Not long before the inventory warehouse and exit, I spot the rugs and pick up not just one simple rug for my daughter, but two more….on sale, of course! Then, giddy, I make our way to the aisle where my box springs wait. An intercom recording informs shoppers that in order to keep the prices low, the company has the customer do their own work. Huh, I thought to myself, I thought it was because it outsourced all of its manufacturing labor overseas to countries without labor attorneys and lax safety standerds. On a flat bed cart I manage to load the beds and then steer both carts and kids to the check out line. Behind me are two strapping, store employees, talking up a storm; neither man offers to help with my loot. Never mind, I just have to make it past the check-out line, and there will be my Rent-A-Daddy, ready for the rescue. Maybe he’d even take the young’uns out for ice cream and give me a chance to catch my breath.

All check-out lanes are self-service, so after man-handling the scanner-gun from my kids I contort my body around the merchandise to find the bar codes. I am dutifully playing my part in this big-box scheme like a good customer. I had to call my kids back from every direction. They are like frantic bees in the late fall, knowing that soon they will be strapped back into car seats. Keeping an eye on them, as they peak to spend the last ounce of energy, makes it difficult for me to multi-task both scanning and entering my payment information. Finally, I yank my receipt from the feeder and head off to Rent-A-Daddy. In the distance I can see him, clad in a neon, sleeveless smock. Now, I’m picking up my pace, trailing the kids behind me. As I come closer I can see his form better. Huh? Is that him?! A scrawny, teenager (early twenties at best), and pale to boot. This isn’t Rent-A-Daddy! This is Baby’s Daddy. He comes, however, with an endearing Collard Green accent and explains that it is the store’s policy to only assist in loading merchandise, not to rope it down, “for liability reasons.”

“But, the lady upstairs told me ya’ll would rope the beds down,” I explain.

“What lady?,” he asks.

“I don’t remember,” I say, flustered, “One of the sale’s clerks.”

“I know,” he shrugs, “It happens all the time.”

In that case, I say, I’d like to put the merchandise on hold until my husband can arrange for it to be picked up. He lets me in on another one of the store’s policies which is that it does not hold paid-for merchandise, which makes me, in effect, stranded unless I want to pay the hefty transportation fee. Heck no! There’s a reason I just bought all these items on clearance in the first place. The fee for the transportation costs more than the total sales amount of my purchase.

Sensing my alarm and frustration, baby’s daddy drops his voice down low, while scanning the horizon, “I’ll tell you how to rope it, then I’ll come back and pull a rope from the hood of the car to the trunk of the car to keep it steady,” he assures me. “This never happened,” he warns. Turns out Baby’s Daddy is even better than Rent-A-Daddy, who would have been too frightened over the prospect of losing job benefits to plot an escape. I was a bit intimidated by doing the first part of the roping myself, but got my Big Girl courage up and set to work. It turns out to be very difficult because every time I make another loop my daughter opens that door just to say: “Hi mama!,” thereby loosening the loops I’m making. There’s a real able-boddied daddy parked next to my car. He never offers to help. I’m thinking that I need to move out of the North and head back to Collard Green country, where a real man would feel awkward just to idle there without offering assistance.

It was awhile before Baby’s Daddy comes back. Again, he scans the surroundings carefully then quickly sets down to work, sliding rope, like a master weaver, in and out of my front grill. He’s amused all the while: “My sister had a car just like this,” he recalls and smiles. I like this kid and think he’d do well in the real world where a cool head under pressure and a sure-footed gait, takes the cake. He obviously enjoyed the thrill of rule-breaking; meanwhile, I stood on the look-out – as scared as a schizophrenic squirrel.

Suddenly, a voice calls out from inside the car. “Mama, he’s voooooomiting! You better hurry up!” It’s my daughter’s voice. I rush to the rear passenger seat, and sure enough, my youngest is vomiting up his afternoon snack, in heaping chunks.

“Oh sweetie,” I start, “It’s o.k., calm down, you’re alright. Take a deep breath. Mama’s here. Drink some water.” You know the routine. I reach in to hold his head, clean him up, and ease off his top-layer sweater. Within ten minutes he’s fast asleep and reeking of stomach acids. In my quest to buy just one simple rug, I’d left his spare clothes at home.

Baby’s daddy was still fast at work- he doesn’t let the panic and putrid smells from the car deter him from this 007 task. Before long he’s done and standing near the hood to examine his handy work.

“Do you think this will hold?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says as he tests it by jerking the beds every which way to see if they will give, “It ain’t goin’ no where.”

I look around, and not seeing any other store employees in sight, reach into my purse and grab the wad of cash on hand, and hold it out. He hesitates, but I stay steady. After another quick scan of the premises, he says: “Well, I can take that.” Baby’s Daddy winks and swipes it without another word, then takes off like Spiderman. I imagine him springing to assist another stranded, jilted mom from the bedding section.

I set down in my car, relieved, tap down on the hazard lights and set off. Just before turning onto the highway a State Trooper pulls up behind me. My grip strains over the steering wheel. Then, apparently, slowed down by my speed, the officer jerks around and takes off. Whew!

On the highway I stay in the far right lane and try to keep my speed slow enough to be safe, but fast enough to beat the angry onslaught of rush hour traffic. My GPS takes me through a long underwater tunnel. At some point in the middle of the dark tunnel, the top box spring starts to slump forward over my front window. I start to panic for lack of a smarty-pants solution. This is not the way I’d come at all. My GPS was going off script, as if it had a personality to enjoy a good laugh at my expense. Finally out of the tunnel, I drive off on the margin of the highway, and look back at the kids. They are still asleep – at least I’ve got that going for me. I slip out of my car, pull myself onto the hood (no easy trick in a long skirt) and proceed to shove and shift the top box spring back in place. Here I am in a hijab and long skirt wrestling with box springs on the top of my car. That must have been a sight. I made du’a (prayer) and coaxed my inner soldier-girl the whole time.

After that, I decide to slow down which indeed brings me into rush hour traffic and under the wrath of all those drivers, who I sympathize with more than myself. I feel like that guy in Morocco, trolling on his mo-ped with a sheep carcass saddled over the ride- holding up all the smokier engines behind him. People are peering in and likely thinking, what is THAT?! 

Just as I turn the corner to my street, I tally the days humiliating events. I glance my sons’ sleeping face in the rear-view mirror. Hopefully, I’ll be able to inch into my driveway without getting heckled by any of the neighborhood kids. I say this because during the last mile the top bed had started to lung forward, again, making my loot look pathetically flotsam as if I’d just robbed the Bed Barn.

As I turn the corner, my elderly neighbors inch from the opposite direction. Just as my bed lunges, they lunge forward to see my car’s freakish top-hat. I want to slide down under my steering wheel, but instead I manage a hearty wave as if I was steering the premiere float in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Once parked, I abandon the box springs on my car to wake my son up and ease him into a warm bath. All was well in the world. If anyone looked out from their window, they now question my sanity, and maybe wonder if I really did rob a Bed Barn. I certainly climbed to the icy peak in my flip-flops that day, and I either earned another resiliency badge or killed a few brain cells. Whichever, my box springs are not just any box springs. They tell a story and they make me laugh, whenever I want to- for no particular reason.