Saturday, June 5, 2010

On Being Contextualized

I sat in my neighbor’s salon, sweating. Partly from the heat and partly from the social anxiety that attacks me every time I visit a new family for the first time. My hostesses pressured me to continue eating: “Kuli! Kuli! Zidi! Zidi!” (Eat! Eat! More! More!) I tried to refuse, but my protests were no match for four Moroccan women, plus one vivacious little girl, all determined to further extend their hospitality. Defeated, I took another cookie.

Last night was the first time I’ve had tea with my neighbors. We’ve been sharing a front door for the past five months.

“You know,” said MALIKA, my 20-something neighbor that I often exchange greetings with as I come and go, “when you moved in we all just assumed you were MASKHOTA (a ‘bad girl’ of ill repute), but now we know you’re nice.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I dipped a larger-than-usual piece of bread in some olive oil and shoved it in my mouth. I figured having food in my mouth would excuse my speechlessness, but it couldn’t hide the strong flush that came over my face. They don’t call me MATICHA – Tomato – for nothing.

Malika continued, “We see now that even though you live by yourself, you’re still BINT AL-A’ILA – a girl belonging to a family.”

I still felt awkward, so I fidgeted with my teacup. Because I didn’t say anything, the women talked amongst themselves...about me, of course:

“She’s so sweet! Look, she’s shy! See? I told you she’s nice! She came over to check on the baby! She came to Morocco to study...MESKINA! (Poor Thing!) So far from her family! I met her parents a couple months ago. She’s like a photocopy of her mother. And her dad...did you see him? What a nice family!”

As they talked about my family it dawned on me that the turning point in my relationship with my neighbors was when my parents visited in March. Because of work schedules my parents came separately – within one week of each other – but both got a taste of my life. And both had a significant impact on how my neighbors in Fes Jdid see me - especially the ones who share a door with me. Since then what used to be a relationship of suspicion and restrained hostility has gradually developed into cordiality, and finally even warmth.

First, my dad blew peoples’ minds. That American girl who’s always flying solo was suddenly accompanied by a chaperone. (But let’s be honest – with me acting as tour guide and translator, who was chaperoning who?)

The week he came was a stressful one for me. I was having some issues in my house and my neighborhood. But because of that he got great insight into my emotional and physical support systems. He was able to spend time with the Khatabis, who love me and treat me like one of their own. And he got to meet my friend HASSAN AL-FARHAN. This nickname means “Hassan the Joyful” because this man is absolutely oozing with Joy. Also, it rhymes. On top of this, he lives nearby and would drop anything to help me out.

During that particular week Hassan came over a lot – to help with some repairs on my house and to team up with my dad to intimidate some neighborhood shebab who were hassling me. But for propriety’s sake, Hassan and I stopped by to speak to my neighbors about it. We wanted to be absolutely clear about the nature of his visits, lest imagination and gossip run wild. The gesture surprised the neighbors and they clearly appreciated it. They also offered their brothers and sons as reinforcement against any shebab who might give me a hard time. This was the first conversation I’d had with my neighbors aside from “Salaam/Salaam” – Hello/Goodbye.

People really enjoyed meeting my dad. Some young men and fathers of young men saw his visit as a golden opportunity. A couple individuals invited me and Dad to dine with their families – invitations that I was fairly certain would include some talk of dowry. I didn’t even bother translating their requests before flatly refusing.

A week later my mom came, and her experience was quite different. Things had settled down in my world and Mom got to experience something closer to my normalcy. We spent time with Khattabis, of course, visited Dounia’s new house, toured the Medina (Tour Guide: Yours Truly), went shopping for pottery and other goods, and of course spent an entire day at CAFE CLOCK – talking, reading, seeing whatever friends passed by, and catching up on mother/daughter time.

At one point, Mom watched as I wielded my bargaining skills for a pair of sunglasses. Unbeknownst to me, as the price decreased, my audience increased. Malika’s sister Fatima Zahra (FZ JARA) had crept up. It was the first time I’d seen her out of the house, and for the longest time I thought she and Malika were the same person. She complimented me on my bargaining (a high compliment coming from a Moroccan) and we proceeded to have a lovely conversation – our first since I realized she wasn’t her sister.

Everyone loved meeting my mom. The neighbors quoted a Moroccan saying to me last night: “Qlab l-qula ala fumha, Tatlaa l-bint li umha” It’s not worth translating literally into English because it makes no sense, but the meaning is that if you want to see what a girl will be like, just look at her mom. Also, it rhymes.

Overall, my parents’ visit made great strides in my once forsaken attempts to forge peaceable relations with the neighbors. Generally in Fez, and particularly in my neighborhood, if a young woman lives by herself it’s assumed that she did something wrong – had some breach with her family and was sent out on her own. But for me, that’s just not the case.

It seems that the most important thing that my neighbors saw while my parents visited is that I have parents. I belong to someone. I come from somewhere. On top of that, they saw that my parents know where I am and what I’m doing. And they support it. In other words, my parents put me in context.

Perhaps equally important, the neighbors also saw that my dad couldn’t trade me in for 10,000 camels, even if he wanted to.