Baraka is the Arabic word for blessing (of course, it’s so much more, but you know…semantics). I feel blessed to speak darija (Moroccan dialect of Arabic) because that means that I can participate in the daily Moroccan baraka exchange.
Each and every thing or action can either have baraka or not. For example, food that is purchased on an honest income, prepared with love and prayers, shared among as many people as possible is said to have baraka. Food that is bought with questionable money, or processed in an unnatural way, or consumed greedily without praise of the Creator, without sharing with or offering to those around us, is said to be devoid of baraka. The first kind of food makes you healthy, physically and spiritually, will never make you ill, will strengthen your body for doing good things, will strengthen bonds of friendship and unite hearts. The second kind will weaken you, make you anxious and leave you wanting.
Our daily exchanges can have baraka. Take, for example, this exchange I had with a man who is a car guardian. This is when I get in the car to drive away. I am giving him 20 cents for his car guarding, and he’s helping me navigate out of my parking space into traffic.
Me: Salam alaykom akhoya. Peace be with you my brother.
Guardian: wa alaykom salam. And with you peace.
Me: bismillah. In God’s name. (hand him the money)
Guardian: Allah ya3teek el khair. God give you good things. (another way of saying “thank you”)
Me: Allah y3awnek. God assist you.
Guardian: Seeri fid Allah. Go in God’s care.
And that’s it. As I type it in English it sounds so contrived, but you have to understand that in Arabic, this is actually completely natural speech. This is just how people say “hello”, “thanks a lot”, “good luck” and “have a nice day”. Every utterance is a prayer, returning the speaker to the divine, time and time again. As I drive away from the guardian I feel so incredibly thankful that this is the case, I feel a little more alive, more humbled, more compassionate.
Most times when I have an exchange like this, I walk away feeling a little more light. Then there are those exchanges that feel like the person reached in, took out my heart, plain cracked it open, washed it in light, and placed it back in my chest. A heart unexpectedly broken in the best way possible. Tears flowing at the most importune of moments.
And it can come from the most unlikely sources. I’d like to tell you about someone who dazzles me with light. She’s a woman who sells candy outside my son’s school. Her name is Naima (not Naima from the baking project, it’s a common name) and she is one of the more joyful, exuberant people I know. She’s got this cart that she had made, and it’s a child’s delight, full of every kind of candy and trinket. She pushes this cart to the school in the morning, noontime and afternoon school, as many as four times a day. My son is a regular customer, both because he likes candy, and because I really, really want to support her. I often stop by after dropping him off at school, just to get a little dose of Naima to start my day off right. I never know what the topic will be. So I might ask her a question, like, “how did you get started with this cart?” She’ll animatedly tell me all about how she got it made and how she started out, and then she will offer the spiritual wisdom behind it. “Honey, I’d rather make one dirham the right way than a million dirhams the wrong way!”. Or if she had a day off, she’d say “Our body has a right over us! These hands, these feet, they have their rights! They’re going to bear witness against us if we aren’t good to them”. She is smiling and animated, and has this amazing faith in God. I doubt she can read or write, but she has a deep, strong wisdom about life, the human soul and our journey.
About 2 months ago, I came to the school, and I saw Naima dressed head to toe in white. I was in total shock, because this is the color of mourning in Islam. Even though I knew exactly what had happened, I couldn’t think of any other way of approaching her than to ask her “Naima, why are you wearing white?”. She answered, “the man of the house died”. This is a way of referring to her husband. I stood there in total shock, and she told me about it. She said “he wasn’t sick, so it was a total surprise. He died a wonderful death, he didn’t suffer, his body was completely at peace.” Her face is glistening with tears and at the same time she is smiling and there is that joy and light in her face. “And you know, he died during the best times”. (the first ten days of the Islamic pilgrimage month, considered to be the holiest days of the year). Then, as usual, she shares spiritual insight, “we’re all just renting space on this earth, and once the rental contract is up, we’ve got to leave.” But the words that stick with me the most are “a wonderful death”. I’m amazed that anyone would use that particular combination of words, and I love it. This woman endured the ultimate loss, the person that was closest to her, and she was completely accepting of it, and could see that it happened in best way possible. These are the fruits of a spiritual life.
Since then, it’s been so strange to see Naima every day, with her white jellaba, scarf, socks and shoes, busily selling candy to a 100 screaming kids or cheerfully chatting with the mothers after morning drop-off. She’ll wear white for 4 months and 10 days, the traditional mourning period. It’s a constant reminder of death. We talk about it often, revisiting the story of her husband’s death. And every time I am awed by how real her strength and faith are. More often than not, we both end up in tears, and laughing for no other reason than that we enjoy each other’s company. Exchanges of baraka are possible anywhere, anytime, if we are open to them. If you’re not getting any love then you just have to be the one that gives it. A kind word, a smile, a sincere prayer are what soften and open hearts.
The sufis say that a saint is one who reminds you of God. With him or her you experience a higher level of reality, in an instant, effortlessly. If anyone ever wonders where the women saints of Morocco are, have no doubt that they are there, making bread, raising children, pushing a candy cart around.