I made another trip to visit Nezha yesterday. Nezha lives deep in the Mellah, which used to be the old Jewish quarter, but now is just what you’d call a slum. I’m usually pretty confident wherever I go in Marrakesh, having grown up here, and speaking the language, I can navigate this urban jungle fairly wel. But the Mellah, well that’s a different story.
In the Mellah I see young men with scarred faces smoking kif pipes at 10 in the morning; I hear 4 year old kids swearing like sailors; I get whiffs of strong alcohol as someone stumbles past me in the alleyways, thederbs. I’m aware that I stick out, that people here stare more than elsewhere, and although I’m not exactly afraid, I am way out of my comfort zone.
There have been rumors that the city wants bulldoze the Mellah, relocate everyone. For one the buildings aren’t safe. On this trip, I saw a building that looked like a public bathroom, that had crumbled just recently. Every year there a few cases like that, sometime there are casualties, other times not. Another reason why the city threatens to raze the place is that it’s a hotbed for petty crime and illicit behavior. Most of the houses are what are called fundouqs, which are riad-style houses meaning individual rooms which all open onto an interior courtyard. Usually, there’s a different family or individual renting each room. It’s crowded, poor and relatively anonymous, and there are more problems concentrated here than in other parts of Marrakesh. Drinking, drugs and low level gambling are more common here, although living among all this are also traditional families, good, clean living people, who have not been stricken with these diseases.
In Nezha’s house, there are about 6 different families. But she likes it because she says they are quiet people who keep to themselves, something close to respectable. She’s lived in rooms before where drunks kept her and her kids up all night, loud, throwing bottles at her door.
I am dropping off some more donations. In this assortment there are: a bulk carton of about 100 packets of cookies, a big pack of diapers, some iron pills I found in my medicine stash (she suffers from anemia but usually can’t afford the pills), some odds and ends of clothing, and jackpot: a small, used baby bottle, which she is delighted to have. She picks it up and admires it, it’s brightly colored and just the right size for a little 3 month old. She rushes off to wash it and fill it with some water. Nezha doesn’t have running water in her room, but she has some kind of system with different buckets. It is both gratifying and heartbreaking to see her so ecstatic about someone’s used, discarded baby bottle. Nezha’s baby has not had anything new. She does not even have formula. At this moment, Nezha can not afford it, nor is she strong and healthy enough to breastfeed her baby. So baby Khadija drinks regular milk, distilled with some water. And although she is growing bigger, I am sure that she is not getting enough brain nutrients from regular milk. This, too, worries me.
I look at Nezha and I see a woman who has not been treated kindly by time. When I first met her, she looked young and strong, she was beautiful. But the strain of repeated pregnancies, and of spending her days outdoors in sunny, polluted Jema el Fna have weakened her. She is younger than I am, I think she’s 28, but has already lost many of her front teeth. Moroccan tea is not easy on the teeth.
And yet, for all her outer wear, Nezha has a steely resilience that has not been corroded by time. She is one of the toughest women I know. Every day she hoists her baby on her back, and takes her two boys to school. At home, she makes them sit and do “homework”, and at 4 and 5 years old, they are already reading and writing Arabic and French letters. She wants them to be off the streets, because she knows firsthand how the streets destroy lives, so quickly. She earns the food money, buys the food, carries it home, cooks it, serves it, and cleans up. Every day. She handwashes all their clothes. All this with a baby on her back.
And in the midst of all this, she celebrates her children every day. Their growth, the cute things they say, the wise things they say, the cute girl clothes that baby Khadija wears, the way Si Mohamed the 5 year old, loves and adores his sister, while Mehdi, who is 4, is passionately jealous of her. “He has his father’s personality, and looks”, she tells me, “not Si Mohamed though, he’s all me”.
I highly believe in the saving grace of education. That is why I show up at the boys’ school every months with the 40 dollar tuition fee. I know that this is not something Nezha can afford. Although sometimes Nezha’s case seems so overwhelming, there is hope for her children. And I so admire the fact that she can see that. Many times the police have approached her and encouraged her to give her kids to the orphanage. “They’ll be fed and cared for much better than they are now”. But she refuses, adamantly. Even with baby Khadija, Nezha and I had discussed giving her up for adoption once she was born. I was ready to help, in whatever way, and Nezha thought it would be better for the boys. But once she was born, and I saw Nezha, with that fierce new mother look in her eye, I didn’t even have to ask. I knew she was once more prepared to do the impossible for her baby.