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.
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.