Hope is alive in Morocco

She’d be sitting there every Friday, appealing to the generosity of the people headed for mid-day prayers.

Almost every mosque-goer would press a dirham into her palm.  Even in a country where beggars are so ever-present that you become numb to them, she stood out.

Maybe it was her two little girls, Shayma, a polite and spunky 3 year old, and Khadija, a 4 month old baby permanently strapped to her mother’s back.

I think it was something more though, a shiny aura about her, a calm serenity on her face that made you trust her and moved you to help.

I’d pass her with my own daughter, also a 3 year old, on our way to her private school.  Hard to keep tears at bay, like so many other places, faces, stories of hardship.

I’d gather up all my daughter’s clothes.  The cute dress someone sent her from the states, from land’s end, too small now.  The clothes my daughter refused to wear, too tight, too formal, too scratchy, etc.  When i’d hand over the bag, it became treasure in their hands.

We’d talk.  Our kids playing together on the sidewalk, as people continued to drop coins on the cloth she’d laid out.

“I thought he’d marry me, but when I got pregnant, he told me to leave.  I didn’t have any sense.”

She may not have had any sense…she certainly did not have an education…she did not have what we westerners would call “self esteem”…or she would have demanded so much more…a marriage contract to protect her and her kids, for one.

But women make poor choices every day, and pay the consequences.  Single moms raising babies all over the world, God bless them all.

What she does have is patience, and strength, more of these virtues than I can even fathom.

I wanted to help.  She said she was managing, surviving.  How about school?  I asked.  That would be nice, she said.  So we made an agreement, she would find a school for Shayma, I would pay for it (technically, my hubby would pay, since he’s the one with the job around here, but you know, what’s mine is yours, and all that).

Shayma was ecstatic about her new school (which cost 100 dhs, or about 15 dollars a month).  She treasured her pens and notebooks.  She learned her alphabet, in Arabic and French.  I didn’t see much of her anymore, she no longer accompanied her mom and baby sister on all day begging rounds.  Her mom was happy, she did not want Shayma to grow up learning to beg.  She wanted more for her girls.

Eventually, Shayma started 1st grade in public school.  It was free so I no longer paid the monthly school fees.

One day, Shayma’s mom and her little sister came by.  Shayma’s mom (ok, I honestly don’t know her name, since she always refers to herself as Shayma’s mom, and we don’t exactly have much need to call each other by our first names), so, Shayma’s mom was dressed “normally” in a nice jellaba.  Her outward appearance was strikingly different, in fact the whole way she carried herself was different.  She was not hunched and diminutive, trying to disappear.  She stood up straight, with a beaming smile on her face.

“What happened?”  I asked.

“I got a job,” she said,  “at a cafe, I make msemen”.  (msemen is a type of fried bread served in many cafes)

“Bessehha!” I gushed.  Then I pressed her for details, how many hours did she work, how much did she make, and how did the girls manage.

She obliged me with replies to all my nosy queries.  She worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and she made 50 dirhams a day (about 6 dollars a day).  She left her youngest daughter, now about 4 years old, with a babysitter, whom she paid 300 dirhams a month (36 dollars), out of which the babysitter paid for a school, and would take her and bring her back, and basically keep her until her mom came home.

She was so happy and proud of herself.  I was so surprised and excited.  And I do believe her girls will fair better through EDUCATION.  It’s such a life-changer.  Oh it’s such a key to understanding the world.  I believe in it so strongly.  I am all for empowering girls and women with an education.  Knowing how to read and write, knowing enough about their bodies to make good choices, these things we take for granted can have such a profound and empowering impact on their lives. Yes, hope is alive in Morocco, and it’s called education.

Before we parted I snapped this photo of her and Khadija:

Moroccan etiquette: 7 do’s and don’ts

Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve had every meal for the last two months at the Chawarma Snack on the corner.

Maybe you are starting to look like neglect, like a kitten begging for food at a cafe.

Whatever the reason, you’ve been invited by your Moroccan friend over for a meal.  Moroccans love to host and feed people.  It’s something they do so well, with so much grace.  You never feel like they’ve put themselves to any trouble, and that is something only a gracious host can do.

And here you are, the American, maybe a little overwhelmed by the kindness you are being shown.  Maybe you’ve never sat down for a 3 hour lunch with your family, on a normal weekday.

Then maybe you are wondering, how, oh how can I be just a little less awkward?  You walk in with your shoes on, only to discover that everyone else has left theirs by the door.  You offer compliments to your host, only to notice that it makes them extremely uncomfortable.

No need to fear, morocco mama is here.  With some heads up advice that will grant you a modicum of social acceptability.

And of course, you always have your “I’m an American and I don’t know how things work” free pass, which you will invoke often and freely, as you should.

1. Do bring something.  Some soda, juice or fruit are acceptable.  In more old fashioned households, bring milk or cones of sugar.  If there are kids in the house, bring some yogurts.

Don’t bring a hot dish or salad.  Moroccan hospitality is not “pot luck style”.

2. Don’t walk all over the carpet with your shoes on.

Do wear clean socks. Don’t wage biological warfare with your sweaty foot odor once those sneakers come off.

3. Don’t say wow! Don’t gush effusively about everything and everyone in your host’s home, as in “this house is the most amazing house I’ve ever seen!”, or “wow, that’s such a cute baby!”.  Chances are you are being honest and/or polite.  But you are making your Moroccan hosts squirm and sweat.  Moroccans do not like to receive direct praise.

Do say tbarkellah! When Moroccans like something, they praise the Creator, and not the creation.  Tbarkellah means “Blessed is God”.  It can be used interspersed with the compliments you want to give, e.g. “You’re a good cook, tbarkellah”.  (I will do a longer post on the concept of “tbarkellah” at a later date, inshallah).

4. Do learn everyone’s name. And remember it.  Ask about everyone’s parents, health, children, etc.  What you are saying is “I care about you and yours”.  Next time you see your friend, ask about all the people you met.

Don’t let the conversation get one-sided. Chances are your host will be very gracious and ask you lots of questions.  Show them that you value them as much as they value you, by asking similar questions.

5. Do say bismillah. This is the blessing that Muslims say when starting anything, be it eating or any other activity.  It means “in God’s name”, and it’s a way of saying that one is doing the thing “for God, by God’s will, and, hopefully, with God’s blessing”.  And when you’re done eating, say “alhamdulillah”.  That means “all praise is God’s”, and that marks the end of whatever it is you’re doing.

Don’t wander. You will be eating from one plate, however, stick to your territory, don’t go exploring.

6. Don’t hog the meat.  Your host will honor you by serving you as much meat as she can afford to.  This can range from a few bites to a whole sheep, depending on her budget.  Look around and see how many people are at the table, then check out the meat, and do the math.  Start in slow, for the first few bites, just dip little bits of bread in the sauce.  If there are veggies, move on to those.  After a good 5 minutes, then you can make your move on the meat.  Your host will make sure you do.  If you refuse the meat, then you are saying “I think you’re so poor that I don’t want to eat your family’s meat” and that’s insulting.  However, you don’t want to consume meat so fast that your host feels obliged to keep pushing more and more over to your side of the dish.  Did I mention you are all eating out of the same dish?

Do pace yourself.  You might stuff yourself with the traditional first course, Chicken Tajine with lemon.  You finally stop eating, and your host removes the dish.  Only to bring in the traditional second course, Beef with Prunes.  Uh-oh.  You’ve pulled an American, and now you’ll have to just keep eating.  Which is not such a bad thing.  But try to ask the person who you’re most familiar with early on in the meal if this is all there is.  They won’t mind.

7.  Do stop when you’re full. Of course your host will keep saying “kool, kool”, eat, eat.  That is just what good hosts do.  Believe me you are not offending anyone if you stop eating when you’re full.  If your host says “kool” and you hesitate for just one second, then she will think that you are just stopping to be polite.  Once you make the call, make it final.  I usually say “I’m not being shy, I swear I’m full, alhamdulillah”.  And that works for me.

Don’t be lazy.  When the meal’s over, at least offer to help clear the table.  Of course they won’t let you, but don’t let them train you to be lazy.  Learn from what they do, not what they say.  When I am invited, my Moroccan hosts are usually so competent that I just watch in amazement how they pull the whole thing off.  Usually, it’s because there is a strong team of people working together.  It’s rarely just one person doing all the work.

That’s my list.  Did I miss any?

By the way, I had to google “do’s and don’ts” spelling.  I went for the easier to read version, whereas the more grammatical form is “dos and don’ts”.  No apostrophe “s” for plural.  I never knew.

Dear Son

Baby boy, you are 5 today.

When you were in my womb, I prayed for you in the dark of night.  I prayed that you would be a light in this world.

When you were born, I thanked God for an easy labor and a beautiful son.

When you were a baby, you loved music and animals.  You still do.

When you were a toddler, I called you my sunshine boy.  You were a little sun in our house.

When you were 3, you got a guitar.  You played it all the time.  You still do (I’m re-stringing it this morning, I promise).  You love to put on shows.

You are the best dancer in the family.  Your Michael Jackson routines are awesome.

You are a great cook.  You made muffins for us all by yourself (I only added baking powder).  You spend hours peeling vegetables for me.  You love to do stuff in the kitchen.

You have an easy and forgiving nature.  A good thing to have when you have a baby brother.

You always say that school was “awesome”.  You say that school is your favorite place.

Yesterday when you washed your own hair in the bath and you said “I tried putting my head back and it worked!”.  Son, I told you so.

You come to love people quickly.

You love kung fu and China.

Your heart is golden.  Always know that.

On this day, and on every day, I thank God for the gifts he has blessed you with.  All of what we have is merely by His grace.  May God protect you dear son.

Happy Birthday.

Love,

mama.

Scarlet drops of blood…

…fall on the counter near me, and are hastily mopped up by a blue and white checkered rag.  I look up as the man brings the rag back to the gash above his eye.

“I need stitches,” he says quietly, almost apologetically.

We are filling out admittance paperwork at Hopital Ibn Tofail, the public hospital of Marrakesh.  It is 1 pm.

Be assertive, but not too pushy or they won’t deal with you, I remind myself.  I stand up as tall as I can, try to give off an air of competence, of someone who is educated, of someone who is upper-middle class.  Someone who deserves, not special treatment, but treatment.

I am not here for myself, but for Aisha, a 70 year old berber woman.  Aisha has been having intense abdominal pain, fever and a sever headache.  She has barely eaten anything for the last 20 days.  Now she is moaning quietly in pain.

“All I can say is that she must absolutely be seen by a surgeon.  A surgeon must observe her over a period of 24 hours to see if she needs to operated on.  Go to the Hopital ibn Tofail, don’t let them send you away.  She must stay there!”  These were the directives given to us earlier by the private Dutch doctor.  So we are here, Aisha, her two grown children, and myself, at the Emergency Room.

Now I am looking for a wheel chair, because Aisha is too weak to walk unassisted.  A guy in blue scrubs offers me this: “Just look around and grab the first chair you see”.  So that’s what we do.

We walk past a row of 5 tiny rooms, each one with 2 patients, they are labeled, oddly enough, in English, Box 1 through Box 5.  We are admitted to the Salle de consultation.  The young doctor and I manage to hoist Aisha up on to a worn looking bed.  There are reddish drops on the floor.  The doctor starts to push on Aisha’s stomach, everywhere he touches, she yells with pain.

“Where did the pain start?” He asks.

“Everywhere hurts,” is all she can reply.  The pain seems to be stronger in the lower right quadrant, but it’s hard to tell.

I speak to the doctor quickly, in French medical terminology.  I suppose I’m trying to get him to one-up me, to impress me by showing me that he knows what he’s doing.  Please do your job.

Now another doctor is examining her, again he is pressing on her stomach, “How about here?” he asks.  “Kulshi kai darni” she says, everything hurts.

The doctors whisper to each other, does she have a temperature? …I don’t know, we don’t have a thermometer…send her for an ultrasound, we need a diagnosis. It’s now 2 p.m., I leave for work, with the promise that I will be back at 5.  As I’m leaving, a young man walks in, clutching his ribs as blood trickles down, a dazed smirk on his face.  Through his open shirt, 2 old scars, each over a foot long, slash across his torso .  Thanks drunk guy who got in a fight, for using up what little resources we have.

(a photo of the hospital that I got from their website.  I was not in photography mode for sure)

When I return at 5 Aisha still has not had the ultrasound.  She also has not eaten anything since 6 a.m., since she left her bled in Tamellalt, an hour outside of town.  She has no appetite and will only eat semolina porridge, which we don’t happen to have.  Yet she is so incredibly patient.  She continues to  moan quietly as the spasms of pain come and go.

The man who needed stitches got them, but without anesthetic.  The hospital does not provide it, and he could not afford to buy it.

The doctors wander around aimlessly, they don’t seem to have a very clear procedure, I try to catch their eye again, by looking somewhat important.  The skinny foreign doctor who is now with us calls in a female doctor.  “We can’t keep seeing the same patients twice!” she snaps at him, “Take her to get the ultrasound”. Thank you, you’re competent!

Finally one of the top doctors addresses me.

“What do you need?”

“We need an ultrasound.”

He barks some orders to some of the brancardiers, the guys in pale blue scrubs who seem to disappear for hours on end, and things get moving.

I go back to Box 1, where Aisha is.  There is a little girl on the other bed, her eyes are closed as if asleep, but her hands flutter up every now and then.  She is the same age as my own baby, about 2 and a half.

“What happened?” I ask her mom.  They are from the country too.

“She fell”.  I feel tears welling up and an immense sadness hits me.  I notice the scrapes on her face.  Thoughts fly through my mind, brain damage…please God no.

But I stoically say “She’ll be ok, kids fall, that’s what they do.  Insha Allah la bas.”   No harm.  I wish that by saying it, it could be true.

I never find out what happened to her.

Aisha is in the ultrasound room for an hour.  We are told that the ultrasound shows nothing abnormal.

So they decide to do a blood test.  Which sounds simple enough, but actually involves running across town to the Military Hospital to get the tubes, running back with them, taking the blood samples and returning them to the Military Hospital to be analyzed.  They also give no indication towards a diagnosis.

In the end,  Aisha and her family return home, exhausted from another fruitless day of trying to find relief from the constant pain.  I am once again left with a feeling of utter helplessness.  She is after all, poor, old and uneducated, unimposing, undemanding and patient.  She has neither money, nor is she connected to people in high places.  She is at the mercy of this dinosaur of a medical system.  For all my good intentions and efforts, I’ve done nothing to alleviate her pain.

A few days later, Aisha’s family take her to a doctor who is known to diagnose using only two methods, x-ray, and his intuitive touch.  Apparently, he can feel the sickness by placing his hands on the patient’s body.   He looks at the big stack of prescriptions and procedures that Aisha has had done.  He feels her stomach.  Right away he says “These doctors have gone looking for complicated answers and left the most obvious.  She has Typhoid fever.  I wish you would have not let her get this bad”.

He prescribes some medicine.  Aisha takes them and has a much-needed pain-free night’s sleep for the first time in 3 weeks! Alhamdulillah, all praise is God’s!

Anyone who’s been in pain knows what a miracle the right medicine can be.  I pray that Aisha and all those who are poor and forgotten…whose lives we seem to think are worth less than our own…who bear pain with silent, beautiful patience…I pray that they be granted those spiritual states that can only be attained through suffering… and I pray that they find merciful relief and healing.