How you can help

poor single mother in Morocco

Chaima, Khadija and mom pose for their first family picture ever.

So now what?  Thank you all for your overwhelming responses to Sa’eedah’s story, both by email and in the comments section.  I am blessed to have this little community of blog readers who take the time to really read and feel the stories.  And care!   It makes blogging a worthy use of my time.

A number of you out there asked how you could help.  As I see it, single mothers like Sa’eeda and Nezha need both a short-term relief plan as well as a long-term life-transformative plan. The short-term plan is about survival.  It’s about all the little things we take for granted.  Nezha calls me about once or twice a month.  Several times she’s mentioned that her feet get so cracked that she has a hard time walking.  Now, I get the same problem in summer, it’s a small thing that can become very painful.  I advised Nezha to rub olive oil on her feet and wear socks all the time.  Her response? I’ll save up for some socks. She did not own any.  You can be sure that the next time I saw her I took her three pairs of socks.

For Nezha and her kids, being poor means a diet that consists mainly of bread, olive oil and tea.  My family’s morning omelets would seem an extravagant indulgence in protein to Nezha, who uses eggs as a rotation in her main meals, along with beans and the occasional bite of meat.  Nezha buys food on a daily basis, just the amount needed for the day’s meals, a dirham(10 cents) of flour, 2 dirhams (20 cents) of sugar, a potato or two.  Hot water is poured over used tea leaves to squeeze another pot out of them.  There are no leftovers (nor any fridge to store them in).

Every now and then, donations will come in for Nezha.  It is such a pleasure to deliver the treasures to her: 10 kg bags of flour and pasta.  20 cans of tuna.  Yes, most American cats and dogs eat a much richer diet than this family.  What would Nezha think of the cat food section at Costco?  In my mind, it’s hard for me to accept that both realities exist at once.  That what Nezha and her children need in a day (for everything, not just food) is the same as what an average American might spend on a latte and blueberry muffin (and maybe not even finish the whole thing).  Ok, I know, it’s easy to pick on US consumer habits…so let me just look at my own life for a minute, because I’m as guilty as they come.  There are enough inconsistencies and hypocrisies in my own spending habits, outings with the kids where we pay to eat, pay to play, pay for cheapy plastic stuff that I hate.  Yes, it is only due to my amazing levels of cognitive dissonance that I am able to do this.  (I can only hope that as I become more aware of others, I can eliminate more and more frivolous spending).  It’s not about beating ourselves up for every cent we spend, but yeah, it’s about our shared responsibility on this earth.

We must never underestimate the power of giving, even if it is 10 cents, a dollar, 20 dollars.  Of course there is always the debate over “aid versus trade” and does welfare make people lazy and are they going to buy drugs with it.  The short answer, in the case of these single mothers, is no.  As my father always says “if you err on the side of kindness and generosity, you won’t be wrong”.  In fact we must see each opportunity to give as a blessing for ourselves…that is one less dollar that we might have wasted and now we’re relieved of the burden of spending it.  Islamic teachings say that a good deed is rewarded tenfold, and sometimes it’s uncanny to give something away, only to receive a totally unexpected gift a few days later.  Wealth does not decrease through charity.  Giving away a portion of ones wealth only blesses and purifies the rest of it.  Give freely, give from what you love, there is enough for us all.

More concretely, here are some of my ideas:

1-Short-term help for three single mothers (Nezha, Chaima’s mom and Sa’eeda).  I believe there are a lot of people out there who would like to help with the immediate needs of these mothers.  What an honor for me to be the medium that connects between you and these women.  If you live in the US, please email me at and we can discuss how to make a bank transfer.  I have a US account which facilitates things a lot, because I can withdraw the money from an ATM here.  Even 5 dollars helps a lot.  What would be great would be monthly pledges of 5, 10 or more dollars.  Some amount that won’t really affect you, but WILL affect them in a huge way.  If you live in Europe, I think it’s also fairly easy to transfer to a US account, but I’ll  have to research this.  I’d love to be able to offer something to these mothers similar to those “sponsor a child” programs, where the mother can count on a monthly contribution of 30-50 dollars for each child.

2-I will research what resources are currently available for women and girls in Marrakesh.  I will be your eyes and ears on the ground and compile the information necessary to assess what is needed in terms of infrastructure.

3-For the long term, I am reaching out to all of you for your ideas, resources, connections, experience, dreams, prayers…anything that comes to you for our common vision.  This is the MOST IMPORTANT PART.  In this whole process, my motto is “start small, THINK BIG”.  Even as we help someone survive day to day, we have to use these super-educated brains of ours to think creatively about poverty.  Vision.  Then planning and execution.  Don’t be paralyzed by your fear of imperfection.  So let our vision quest begin.

Morocco blog baby


Birth, Sa’eeda’s story

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.

El gardien.

Meet one of my local heroes.

Let me give you some perspective.

He is a parking assistant, as we call them in Morocco, el gardien.

He spends all day helping people park at one of the busiest bakeries in town.

His job is to keep a lookout for traffic, tell you when to turn the steering wheel… left… right… now all the way around.  Although he himself cannot drive, he can coach you through the arduous task of parallel parking.

He also keeps your car safe, from petty vandalism I suppose, while you are loading up on petit pains and baguettes at the bakery.

He works the street up and down all day, receiving 2 dirhams (25 cents) per car.  Which is something, except that he has to pay the city “rent” for guarding that street.

I’ve never seen him without a huge smile on his face (except for when he solemnly posed for this photo).  Everything he says is punctuated with ecstatic prayers.

God help you!  Go in God’s hands! he says to me as I hand him 2 dirhams.

Every time I see him, I am grateful for my good health and sound body.  I hope to one day have grace and utter contentment, like him.

He could have been a beggar, no questions asked.  But instead he’s chosen a lively profession; instead of being burden, he lives a life of service.  I so admire him for that.

What is it like to go from having two legs to having just one?

One day I will ask him to tell me his story.

A tooth puller, literally!

I had a wisdom tooth out yesterday.

Here are the stages of mental preparation I went through.

1-Realization: when I connected all the dots and realized that the intense migraines I had been having the last few weeks were caused by wisdom teeth that looked like this:

2-Denial: the dentist set the date for the surgery, but I still didn’t fully internalize what was going to happen.  Denial is bliss!

3-Sheer terror: I decided to learn a little more about the procedure.  A certain youtube video showed me a little more than I needed to know.  After a few seconds of watching it, I was in shock, tears rolling down my eyes, and scared out of my mind.  So much cutting with the scalpel, the SCALPEL!  In my mouth!  I am not prone to swearing, but in this case, it was appropriate.

4-Getting my zen back together: as the day and the hour drew near, I needed to build my mental fortress.  I explored all the things I was afraid of: being cut, possible long lasting nerve damage, the trauma of a medical procedure to the body, those first few seconds in the chair as the dentist is laying out all manners of needles, knives and drills…I needed to go through each of these things in my mind, fully accepting each fear, accepting the reality of what I was going to go through.  Only then could I get to the stage of mental fortitude that I knew I needed.

5-Focus: as the hour drew near, I settled into a deeper level of being.  More quiet, more serene.  Ready for battle.

6-Surrender, and patience: in the chair, all I had to do was open my mouth and surrender.  I focused on breathing and relaxing.  After all, I have given birth to a few babies, and that required a bit more courage than dental surgery.

45 minutes of work by two amazing Moroccan dentists.  They did an awesome job.  I felt more sorry for them than for me, they had the really tough job.  I managed to open my eyes after a while and watch what they were doing.  But thankfully I couldn’t see into my own mouth.

The best part of all is that I was able to come home to an empty house, the kids were over at my mom’s.  If that’s what it takes for me to get some alone time, then so be it!  I have not been home alone for a day in years!  Well, maybe a day here and there.  Hubby is also planning to take the kids to the beach this weekend, so I can rest some more.  Thank you honey!

Now I just need to rest, which is always the part I am worst at.  The pain is manageable.  I can’t open my mouth or chew much.  There are stitches in there!  The medication helps.   It’s a strange irony that now that I have some actual TIME to blog, I am kind of loopy and so this will not be my best writing.  However, I am well versed in the art of compromise, so please indulge me in my medicated mediocrity!

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.

6th day of the hunger strike

I post this in solidarity with 5 Moroccan political prisoners.  Two years ago, they were arrested by Moroccan authorities, held without bail, put through a farce of a trial, and now are going through another charade called an appeal.  The history of the case is too much for me to go into right now.  Officially they are being accused of a kind of guilt by association to a man named Belliraj, who may or may not have been a double agent working for both Moroccan and Belgian security.  The true reality?  It’s hard to know, the case is complex.  I think they are being punished not for any alleged crimes, but for pointing out certain flagrant flaws in the electoral system in Morocco, among other things.

The political prisoners are desperate, they have not been given a fair trial, and no one is listening.  As a last resort, they have started an open hunger strike, as of Monday March 22nd.  That means that they have been without food for six days, as of this posting.  They need to the world to hear them, to pay attention, to give their case some consideration.

The following was sent to me by someone dear to my heart, who is very close to prisoners’ plight.  She has attended much of the first trial, and now is attending the appeals trial.  What she recounts to me is nothing but a joke.  She tells me stories of interpreters not actually interpreting correctly, of an unruly courtroom where the judge has little power, of documents being falsified and everyone just turning a blind eye to them, and so much more.

I shudder to think of ever being a position where I was at the mercy of this legal system.

Here is her testimony:

“17 of the 34 detainees in the Belliraj case, including the 5 remaining political detainees* have been on an open hunger strike since last Monday.  Their demands are not that they be released or declared innocent.  What they’re asking for is a chance at a fair trial.  The appeals process thus far has been an even bigger joke than the trial.  Every single one of the defense’s requests is turned down.  We’re not talking about big things like providing evidence or witnesses, we’re not even there yet.  We’re still at the stage of requestion translations, little things.

I don’t know if you heard the bombshell that was dropped a few weeks into the appeal.  Apparently the people who drafted up the official document with the sentences were so distraught they forgot to put “In the Name of His Majesty…. ” in the header, therebye, legally speaking, rendering the whole thing invalid. This could have slid unnoticed. But then, the document (now the defense all has copies of the original) was later falsified, ok let’s say rectified, with the King’s name on it. The defense now has both copies, proving flagrant falsification of documents.

The judge decided to disregard the whole thing.

This is one of the very small example of the violations of the right to a fair trial.

This is in addition to everything that preceded, including arrest and search without identification or warrants, torture, falsification of signed “confessions” (the detainees were made to sign 20 to 30 of what was supposed to be copies of the original, a 20 page document itself , without being given the chance to read through them.  The contect was later changed and attached to the signed page).

Last Thursday, the defense team for the political detainees withdrew as a protest, and with it several other lawyers for the other prisoners.  Yesterday Belliraj’s lawyer announced his withdrawal too.

With all this, the judge is continuing the trial as though nothing out of the ordinary is going on.  The trial was postponed form last Wednesday till Monday. The prisoners will be on their 8th day without food, one of them has already been taken to the hospital, there’s no defense team… but the trial goes on.

Check out yesterday’s Al Massae for the story on Belliraj’s lawyer, and for a poignant interview with one of the detainees’ daughter, Soumya Moatassim.

Right now there’s urgency because these people are on a hunger strike, open, ongoing until something happens. I don’t know what will happen first.  Will one of them die before something changes? I feel that no one’s paying attention.  The world has to know.  It’s crucial right now for Morocco to be seen as a model in terms of human rights. It needs to live up to what it wants as an image.

(*Mohamed Najibi, the 6th of the political detainees was released after he finished his 2 year sentence, but he’s still attending the appeals hearings, terrified that the judge will reverse the sentence and send him back to jail.)”

Redistributing wealth

One of the 5 pillars of Islam is called zakat.  It means purification, and what it refers to is purifying one’s excess wealth by giving away a portion of it.  How it works is that if someone has money (or another asset) that they haven’t used in a year, then that person gives away 2.5% of the unused money.  It doesn’t apply to money that you spend and make back over the year, only to savings that are untouched.

The idea is that is you haven’t used it in a year, then you probably don’t need it, so why not pass a little of it on to someone who might be desperate for it.  This purifying the remaining wealth, and it also helps to purify the heart from greed.  Instead of hoarding money and earning interest on it, you let go.  Zakat and interest are polar opposites.  From the outside, it might look like zakat penalizes people for saving, while interest rewards.  However, in the spiritual sense, it’s quite the opposite.   Giving is the real treasure, the lasting joy, while wealth that is accrued through interest is seen as  stagnant and lifeless, devoid of blessing since it is acquired off of someone else’s labor.

Zakat is similar to the Christian principle of tithing.  Although in Islam, the money is not given to a central religious institution, but rather it is donated directly to those who need it the most.  And since Morocco doesn’t have a government welfare system, this kind of private aid is the only assistance most poor people get.  Zakat is not considered charity, but an obligation.  Anything given above and beyond that is then considered charity.

Now, 2.5% doesn’t sound like a lot.  But sometimes, it doesn’t take a lot to drastically change someone’s life.

For the past few years, I’ve been an occasional conduit for the distribution of zakat, from a group of Swiss muslims who I’m sure prefer to remain anonymous.  So I’ve gotten to see how this money has a life-changing impact on some people.

These are some of the cases:

Malika, 40 years old, had been quietly suffering from uterine cysts for about a year and a half.  She would bleed about 1 week out of 2.  When she finally told me, we immediately scheduled a doctor’s visit.  It turned out that one of the cysts was embedded in her uterus, and that she would need a partial hysterectomy.  It was a major thing, her first surgery, very scary.  But thanks to the zakat money, she was able to get have it at the best clinic in Marrakesh.  It probably saved her life, I think that if she hadn’t of had that operation, she was literally going to slowly bleed to death.  After she recovered from the operation, she looked so healthy, much younger and more radiant.  It only took 11,000 dirhams to give her a new life.

Or the case of Nezha, who I wrote about before.  This year, she moved into her new room.  She needed to pay her rent for the year up front.  It’s a kind of lease here in Morocco, where you pay a deposit, plus a year’s rent, and in exchange, the rent is much lower than usual.  Her rent for that room was going to be 375 dirhams a month, which is 45 USD or about 35 Euros (or 4,500 dirhams = 550 USD = 400 Euros for the year).  Now there is just no way that Nezha would ever be able to save that much money, since she lives on around 30-50 dirhams a day.  Just impossible.  So, what a relief that this money just materialized from somewhere!  Nezha just cried and cried when I told her it would be taken care of.  Rent was the hardest thing for her, the biggest challenge.  And now, she has just a little more breathing space.  She can manage the rest, I don’t know how, but in some miraculous way, she can provide for her 3 children.

Another case that is still in progress is Fatiha.  She’s a 38 year old young woman, who works as a maid.  When she was a toddler, she had an accident where she was kicked by a cow.  The result: one of her eyes was permanently damaged.  She can see very poorly out of it, and it’s not in the right place, you see mostly the white of her eye.  Now I don’t know what it’s like to be a poor, disfigured, woman in Morocco, but I can imagine that it’s a huge burden to carry.  Fatiha though, amazingly, always has a smile on her face.  I know that her appearance deeply troubles her, that she has to deal with constant stares and pity and all kinds of reactions.  With her disfigurement, she’s never been anyone’s marriage prospect.  And now as her youth is fading, she may never know what it’s like to simply be normal, to be looked at as just another young woman.  Finally I decided to help her pursue it.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of everyone getting coordinated. For Fatiha, who is illiterate, going to the doctor and understanding medical talk are very intimidating.  So we went together.  We were told it could be fixed, two operations would be needed.  Each of them would cost 7,000 dirhams (1,000 USD, 600 Euros).  I think for Fatiha that even reaching this stage of dealing with it is extremely exciting.  Finally, a few months ago, she had the first operation.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a huge success.  Although the eye is definitely more centered, it’s still far from normal.  The wonderfully relieving thing is that, the money is there to pursue this further, to fix it, by God’s will.  It’s such a small amount of money to fix the problem that has defined her for her whole life.

There have been other cases too, but you get the idea.  I say to anyone in the West or even in Morocco who has a little extra money, you CAN make a HUGE difference.  You can save a life, you can change a life, and you can make someone so incredibly happy.  People here in Morocco, and in so much of the world, are living day to day with unspeakable pain, in a horrifying state of need.  In my daily life, I see so many of them, infirmity is everywhere, hunger is everywhere.  Marrakesh, yes it’s beautiful playground for the rich, but if you can see through the smoke and mirrors, it’s an open wound.  I turn my head because I just can’t bear it.  It wearies me.  I want to just keep dealing with my own life and lists of things to do.   But then I look again, because every life is worth considering, and we are all the same.

The Chronicles of Nezha

In the Red City, there lived a young woman.  She had many blessings; she enjoyed good health, had received instruction from learned teachers, had married a good and true man, and together they had had 3 children who lit up their hearts with love, like stars in the firmament.

And yet this young woman had one problem: whenever she received a blessing, she would soon grow accustomed to it, as if it had always been there, and as if it were her right.  She grew complacent in offering prayers of thanks to the Giver of blessings.  And so her heart grew numb.

One night she had a dream, in it there appeared a wise woman, clad in a cloak of light.  She spoke to the young woman “What do you wish for?”

“I wish to break down in tears over the blessings I have been given, but I can no sooner do that than granite stone can spring forth with water” said the young woman.

The wise woman clad in light said to her “Then you must go, enter the Ancient Labyrinth of Sorrows.  At its heart, you will find She Who Has Nothing.  She will give you what you seek”.

The Chronicles of Nezha, Part I:

Where you’re from, what does poor mean?  Does it mean wellfare checks from the government?  Food stamps?  Soup kitchens?

Then imagine that are poor in Morocco, and that none of that exists.  Imagine that if you fall, there is no net, so you will just free fall, on and on.  I once followed a beggar woman home.  She had a 4 month old baby boy on her back, and 18 month old baby boy walking beside her.  She was proud to show me the room where they lived.  It was the size of my bathroom.  They prepared food, ate and slept there.  The rest of the time she spent begging for money, for their next meal.

Her name is Nezha.  She can’t read or write.  She can’t tell her mother that she has 2 children and no husband.  She has no skills, except domestic ones.  She has no hope that her circumstances will change much.  You’d think she’d be totally depressed, right?  But it’s the opposite.  Nezha works hard, doing the basics of life, of survival.  She has a quiet strength, the ability to endure blow after blow of bad fortune.  I’ve rarely heard her complain, instead she has a kind of cheerfulness, of steadiness, of substance.

I’ve been “working with” Nezha for the past 4 years.  I’m not quite sure what I’m doing, except that I’d like to think I was there for her at her darkest hour.  The winter when both her boys were babies, when she did not have enough blankets both to serve as beds and to cover with.  When she did not have enough money to change their diapers more than once a day.  When she had no money for formula, so would give them regular milk.  When an electricity bill of 125 dirhams would mean her out, begging with the two of them, as many hours as it took to get that much.  When her rent of 350 dirhams (35 euros) a month was breaking her back.

A lot has happened in the last 4 years.  Some of it good, Nezha eventually learned a skill, and became a henna artist in Jemma el Fna.  She’s proud of it.  But I know that if there is no business there she is forced to beg.  Nezha’s two boys, ages 4 and 5, are now in a pre-school, and know the alphabet in Arabic and French, more than their mother.

The boys’ father has been in and out of their lives.  That’s a whole other story.  I met him a few times.  He’s a drinker, so he has his ups and downs.  At one point they were all living together, and he was supporting them.

Then Nezha called me one day and said “I’m pregnant”.  She was already 6 months along when I found out.  We’d been out of touch for a while, since she’d been somewhat stable.  And just like that, another baby came.  And even though she delivered her baby alone, with no doctor attending at the state hospital, even though she almost bled to death after that, even though it was the hospital maid who helped her dress her baby…There she was, a few days later, with her baby girl, so proud, so happy, so in love with this new soul.  Although she never planned to have three children, they give her life a purpose.  There is no existential angst when you have children, their needs are too physical, to immediate for that.

And every time I visit Nezha, I remember how to be grateful.

Here are some photos I took last time I saw Nezha, as I was making a delivery of some donations: food and sheets and towels.  Remember that this isn’t the room the Nezha lived in when I first met her, this is a much bigger room that she’s totally happy about.

The entrance:

Nezha and baby Khadija, now 2 months old.

That’s the kitchen end of the room (no fridge or running water).  Nezha’s preparing tea for me:

That’s the sleeping and living end of the room:

The entertainment center:

Nezha’s finally a little relaxed with me taking her picture, I love this one:

She’s insanely happy as she goes through the donations.  Some lovely sheet and towels, boy’s clothing, food staples.  She can’t stop thanking those who donated.  I want to be as thankful as she is.