Sa’eeda had her baby! Those words were not uttered in celebration. No, it was a frantic phone call, tinged with panic, defeat and heaviness. This was not a joyous occasion. There would be no forty days of pampering for the new mother, no naming party for the baby. You see, Sa’eeda was not married and no one in her family knew of the baby.
There’s a problem, she can’t stay with the family she’s living with anymore. Sa’eeda was someone I knew only peripherally, but our lives were about to converge. (This post is long, read it when you have a little space carved out for yourself).
Okay, she can stay with us for a few days, was my reply. So Sa’eeda came and brought with her the most beautiful baby boy, 5 days old. My daughter moved in with her brothers, so that the new mother and her son could have a space of their own. Seeing her took me back to my own post-partum days, the shock, the euphoria, the pain of recovery, the shattered sleep, the steep learning curve. The immediate and natural way that a new mother rises to the occasion 24 hours a day.
She stayed with us and kept herself very scarce. Hardly a whimper was heard from the baby. Every time I would go in with food, she’d have the biggest smile on her face. She kept her sense of humor, didn’t take the baby too seriously. Smiled in his face and laughingly told him to stop making such a fuss. She had raised so many babies. And now at 41 years old she finally had her own. Not born under the best circumstances, to be sure. But, nonetheless, a soul delivered to her safekeeping, a companion, someone to love for always.
She recovered well. The color came back to her cheeks. One day she came into the kitchen, got out the big clay bowl and started making mesemn. Her expert hands had done this hundreds of times, when she worked at a cafe (making 35 dirhams or 4 dollars a day). My children demanded to help, and she obliged, giving each of them their own lumps of dough to work with, always with her big smile and laugh. She did not take them too seriously, she did not get stressed out. I was beginning to sense she had a high thresh hold for stress.
And when she told me her story, I understood why. When I was 12, I went to work in Rabat for a family. They had a baby that I raised for seven years. When he was small I had him on my back. He wouldn’t let me get any work done, I just had to take care of him all day. At that time, people didn’t have washing machines like they do now. When he’d go to sleep, I’d start on the laundry. I really had a rough time (she says with the biggest smile on her face and no grudge that I can sense). But that’s when I got asthma, from the damp air in Rabat. I went to the ER many times because I couldn’t breathe.
(how much were you paid? I ask). I got paid 300 dirhams a month (40 USD, 30 euros). But I always sent it home to my family. I ate and slept with the family I worked for, they gave me clothes, so I didn’t need the money for myself. We were all working, all us girls went to work for families. You know we were so poor and my father only had a small piece of land. At that time, it wasn’t accepted by the people of my village for a girl to go to school. They were simple people. It’s not like now. We always say to mother, why didn’t you send us to school? Even for a year? Just to learn how to read and write! Mother says she wished she had, she wished she hadn’t cared what people would say, but she didn’t know any better.
When I was 19 I came back to Marrakesh. I worked for another family. I didn’t know Marrakesh very well. They live out there near the military base. One night, they sent me out to get something from another family’s house. That’s when something really bad happened to me. They were two men, drunk. They grabbed me and held me down and each one raped me. I ran back to the family’s house and told them what happened. I begged the woman to come with me to the police, to tell them what happened, to get a certificate from a doctor, so that I could always have it as proof of what happened to me. But the woman said that she wouldn’t take that responsibility, that the police would blame her for sending me out at that time of night. I wish I had known how to do those things myself. I will never forget that and I will never forgive her.
Sa’eeda is wistful but not sad…she has that quality of someone who is not broken, who can’t be broken, who doesn’t have the luxury to break. My own words and projections for sure, but this is what I sensed.
After that I had different jobs. Sometimes I worked in cafes, sometimes I found good jobs working as a maid.
As the story comes closer to the present, Sa’eeda gets quieter. It is easier to talk about things that time has numbed. Not so easy to speak of how this baby came into the world. Conceived in secret, carried in secret and born in secret.
Here is a woman who has never, ever been supported. She has been giving to others since she was 12. At the time when she needed her mother the most, she was off in a strange city, already raising a child, still a child herself. She was supporting her family financially. She was living as a servant, at the mercy of her own illiteracy, of the low expectations everyone–including herself–had of her. So I do not blame Sa’eeda for getting pregnant. Who ever told her how the human body works? Who ever gave her a sense that she was valuable, that she was worth marrying? Who ever gave her any religious instruction or spiritual guidance? Who ever gave her a chance to marry, to start her own family?
After 15 days with us (we’d gotten quite used to her and the baby) a room was found. It was 1,000 dirhams a month (about 120 USD) to be split with another girl. So expensive, but a good situation for mother and baby. The family that rented out the rooms was warm and kind. The aging patriarch was loving and protective, he exuded a sense of stability and security, while the woman of the house seemed glad for the companionship, happy to have a baby to help raise. The room mate was also happy to share the space and overnight turned into a helpful and loving aunty. This is one of the qualities I love most about Moroccans, this effortless connection with others and ability to see what needs to be done and just do it. From what I’ve seen, it’s especially true among the poorer people. It’s “it takes a village” working in real life, not just a slogan.
When I think of Sa’eeda’s baby, he’s gonna need all the loving aunties he can get. How will his future unfold? We don’t know. His mother is taking it as it comes. When he is a little older, no doubt a story will be invented to explain his existence. Her family and village people will prefer a “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of explanation, rather than be confronted with the truth. In a traditional society where marriage is still a sacred rite and something that everyone across the board works for, hopes for and dreams about…it is very difficult for people to accept in their hearts when a baby comes into the world without that sacred container of a family. Not judgement as one might expect, but a sadness that this baby is deprived of a father…not to mention that financially it’s a nearly impossible equation.
One thing I discovered via this experience, was that when I told people about Sa’eeda (the truth that is) they were immediately sympathetic. There was not a moment of judgement or hesitation as donations came flooding in. A few people gave large sums of zakat, the charity-tax that Muslims must pay on their accrued wealth. Soon Sa’eeda had enough money to live for a few months before being confronted with the harsher possibilities of existence. She bought a mattress, the first she’s ever owned, a few blankets, a gas bottle and a few pots and pans to cook with. The minimum necessities of existence (there will be no Boppy pillows, no Graco swings or bassinets for this baby). And I think what a difference a few thousand dirhams (a couple hundred dollars) has made in her life at this critical time. At the time when she and the baby are most vulnerable. And I think of all the orphanages in Marrakesh full of abandoned babies, not orphans! And how much support their is for those babies, which I’m totally thankful for. But there should be even more support for mothers to keep their babies! Mothers should be supported at that critical time, given a place of respite to transition into this new life. It can be done!
But even more so, whenever I see a single mother like this, I wish I could have gotten to her BEFORE this mistake was made. We have to start educating our girls! 12 years old is the critical age. That’s when they need the most teaching. Girls need to know everything about how babies are made, and everything about birth control, aids and all that. A girl needs to be told that she, and only she, is in control of her body. A girl needs to hear that she is valuable, so precious, and that she should demand her full worth. A girl needs a space where she can ask questions. A girl needs to know that she is the mother of creation, that this is God’s gift to her, and with it comes great power, and also great responsibility.
I have a daughter, she is only eight, and we speak of these things. Because I want her to hear them from me first. Keep talking to your girls. Don’t expect that they will learn these things through osmosis.
As for Sa’eeda, her life will not be easy. But then again, it has never been easy. Whenever I see her, she says alhamdulillah, praise and thanks be to God! Her full trust is in God’s care. Her trust and God’s subtle mercies, those are the wealth that never runs out.