It’s been so long since I last posted that wordpress has totally changed their interface…have not even “checked my stats” in about 3 months, which if you’re a fellow blogger, you know how obsessive that can get. I feel both flattered and kind of guilty that an average of 250 people visit my blog daily to find…nothing but a 3 month old post about the Amal center. Well, you can all blame the Amal center for the complete lack of novelty on this blog.
Where should I even begin? A few updates are in order. The thing I am most thankful for in the span of the last 3 months is that, after a gruelling 5 month stint on crutches (bone cyst surgery), my daughter Karima finally got to walk unassisted, just a few weeks before her 11th birthday. She journeyed very deeply into the world of disability, and just as she was starting to identify with that world, by God’s loving grace she came back again, The layers are still falling off, as she adjusts to her body, which she has been afraid to harm, as she adjusts to being part bionic girl…as she receives permission from her doctor to do anything she likes. Can I kneel in prayer? She asks him. Yes, by all means. Welcome back baby girl.
And there is the Amal Center. Such a rich theater to observe the human character. Every day some new dynamic to learn and be aware of. The women there, although they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have a very rich and complex culture and belief system. It’s an intricate weaving of spiritual and cultural threads, sometimes hard to pick out one from another. One thing is certain, their belief in God and His infinite mercy, and their complete acceptance of His decree is where everything they do emanates from. Everything starts from that belief and returns to it.
Other times their beliefs border on superstition, for example, if someone comes to work in the kitchen, and right after that the Amal center receives a lot of customers, the ladies say that that person has “hot heels” meaning that a lot of people where hot on her heels. The opposite is true as well, if a person comes to the kitchen and all of a sudden, there’s no sign of customers, that person has “cold heels”. Everything is measured in terms of this increase or decrease of “baraka”, the blessing that emanates from the Divine.
And the ladies are fun to be with. There is one lady there who would like very much to get married, and is getting to that age where no one asks your age anymore for fear of offending you. She’s not shy about the fact that she’s getting into old maid territory, she’s boisterous and loud and jokes about it all the time. At the beginning of Ramadan, she looks around at us and says:
“Here’s my prayer for this Ramadan, she lifts up her hands in supplication and tells us, everyone, put your hands up with me. Oh Lord, I’m asking You, please, this Ramadan, send me someone who needs a woman to cook him harira soup every night.”
And everyone says “Amen! Dear Lord please don’t let her down”. So if you all out there are making any prayers this month, remember that in Marrakesh, in the Amal Center, one lady would really love to marry a good man and what’s more she will cook him some great soup.
Once we started getting customers at the Amal center, a lot of the customers turned into regulars. It’s been really interesting to watch that community take root. A few of the regulars would come almost every day, alone, but hoping to strike up some friendly conversation, and they would find the other regulars and sit there together for hours over a chicken tajine. One lady we called “vegetarian briouate” because that’s what she ordered every single time. Other people always came in small groups, so we have the “bankers”, the “call center folks”, the “university professors” and for some reason, lots and lots of doctors and medical professionals. My husband said, “It sounds like Cheers over there”.
One day a couple of eye doctors came in, and after their meal, one of them generously offered free eye exams to any of the ladies working at the Amal center. I said, joking, “That’s great because there’s just one blind girl after the other in that kitchen”. And then the other eye doctor said,”May there be many, many blind people cause they are our bread and butter”. I always suspected that that’s how doctors thought, just never heard it stated so bluntly. Then one day a dentist starts to come to have lunch at the Amal center, and those ladies, if there’s anything worse than their eyes it’s their teeth. They were obviously excited that the dentist might offer them some care at a reduced rate, since dentist work is not affordable to them. When the waitress came back to the kitchen after serving him, they asked her “So? Did you smile at him a bunch so he can see how bad your teeth are?” and she said “I smiled til I scared the daylights out of him, My teeth are so bad he couldn’t even look at them”. Unfortunately they did not get any offers for dental care yet.
There was one moment that wasy very significant to me. We needed business cards, and so I’d gone to get some made at the printers. I tried to come up with a few words that would sum up the two “wings” if you will, of the Amal Center. One being great home-cooked Moroccan food, and the other being the social aspect of helping women. So I chose the words “Amal Center for Culinary Arts in benefit of Marginalized Women” (in French and Arabic). I felt pretty pleased with myself, showing up with 1000 business cards printed up and ready to hand out to customers. I gave some to the women…then about half an hour later, they came to me and said “Nora we have to say something but please don’t be offended. We read the cards and we don’t like the word “marginalized”. We feel like people will think that we are ladies coming off the streets, that we had gone astray or something. None of us want to be referred to that way”. I was stunned. And embarassed. Because for once the two worlds that I was operating in finally overlapped…on the one hand, I am working with these women every day, I know who they are very well. On the other hand, I’ve taken it upon myself to be a spokesperson for them to a world that they don’t have access to, in languages they don’t speak. And I realized how careful I need to be in checking with them how they want to be represented.
I’m sorry to say that in the end, because it was convenient, we used those cards anyway, then got another batch that says “women in need” instead of “marginalized women”. That’s the wording that they all approved. The word marginalized sparked A LOT of debate. Customers came to us with suggestions for other wording. One woman, upon hearing about the women’s resistance to the term, asked them :
“Did you have an education?”
“Do you have health care?”
“Do you have any social security?”
“Do you have enough money to meet your basic needs?”
“Well, let me just say that you ARE marginalized. You are not enjoying your full rights as a citizen, and that is the point of you being here, to change that!”
The reason I am speaking about all this in the past tense is that since Ramadan started, obviously the whole lunch scene died down. Then the Amal center will close for August.
With Ramadan coming 11 days earlier every year, this year we started fasting on July 9th. Started out in Marrakesh with some 110 degree weather (45 C). That means we are dealing with two things, the fast, which is physically challenging but not as challenging as people who aren’t fasting perceive it to be. Then there is the heat, which, even without fasting, is incredibly exhausting and makes normal activity really slow and difficult. So what do people do? They settle in to survive the long haul. They alter their schedules in whatever way possible to make the fast doable. Obviously the builders across the street aren’t going to work their usual shift of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. They defer to common sense and have two possible shifts: from 4 a.m. to about 11 a.m. or they start right after the sunset meal and go until the crack of dawn. It’s busy all night around here. Not to mention the various calls to prayer in the early morning…one to gently awaken people, remind them to eat a little something…one to announce the first thread of light, stop eating and go to prayers…the different readings of quran reaching us from neighborhood mosques at all hours of the night. That’s the real Marrakesh night life.
I read a few teaching stories about the benefit of fasting in the extreme heat. One of them was about Aisha, the prophet Muhammad’s wife, who would choose to fast voluntarily on some of the hottest days. When she was asked why, she said “When the price is cheap, there are a lot of buyers”. I love that. I have to admit that I have always “bought when the price is cheap”, i.e. when the days are short and cool, I will fast any days that I missed from Ramadan or any voluntary days. But experiencing this fast in the long, hot days and knowing its worth is amazing. There’s no breezing through this. There is only surrender to it and the hope that this is door to God.
One realization came to me during the first few days, when I was both hungry and thirsty and kind of weak, not much energy and it was playing on my mood and making me feel kind of down…then I thought, there are people for whom this state is everyday reality, there is no feast at the end of the day. At that point all I could do was weep.
This difficult fast, it breaks me appart from the cocoon of comfort that I surround myself with and never question. The cocoon where every small whisper of hunger is immediately shushed, every pull and taughtness of thirst is immediately eased. Where the illusion of MY strength, MY doing in this world remains unchallenged. It’s such a welcome upheaval. There’s no more wonderful thing I’d rather do in the company of a whole country and a whole portion of the world right now than partake in this collective subduing of the ego.
And I’m thrilled that this is the third or fourth year in a row that I can share of little of Ramadan on this blog. Each year a little different, and I am blessed that this blog allows me to reflect on the flavor of each Ramadan (so to speak).