The Women in the Sitting Room
The Women in the Sitting Room
Abstract and Keywords
The chapter focuses on the lives of the factory girls through citations of the lives of three factory girls, namely, Nadia, Jamila, and Rashida. The chapter emphasizes how Moroccans accept sickness like they accept sadness. The Fqi acted as a sort of a doctor for these factory girls, whom they like and trust.
One afternoon I went to visit Nadia and found her ill. It was cold outside, and she was lying on the banquette in the chill of the sitting room, covered in a blanket, in pain. “There is something wrong with my uterus,” she told me, and almost immediately Jamila rushed into the room, carrying two large X-rays which, she said, were pictures of Nadia's uterus.
“Nadia,” Jamila excitedly began to explain, “is getting her period two times a month.” And with that Jamila left the room, returning with her hands full of small bottles. These were the drugs that Nadia had recently purchased.
“We took Nadia to my specialist last week—the same doctor who treated me,” said Jamila. Just last week, Nadia had taken the day off from work to seek medical help. She and Jamila left the house early in the morning and walked from Ben Souda to the doctor's office in the center of the medina. “We waited in the office from 8:00 that morning until it was time for lunch. The office was filled with people. And around noon, they sent us out—they told us to return in the afternoon. And so we came home.”
“Why didn't you just wait in the medina and have lunch there?” I asked. The walk from Ben Souda to the center of the old city was long, I knew.
“We can't afford to eat in restaurants,” Jamila answered quickly. “It's too expensive. So we just walked home, ate, and then walked back to the office in the afternoon. And then finally, at 4:00, they let her in to see the doctor.”
The doctor had advised Nadia to get the X-rays that I was now being shown. This had forced her to stay home from the factory on yet another day—more loss of pay. Ultimately, Nadia was told to purchase the selection of prescription drugs that Jamila had brought out for my review. Nobody knew what the problem was, only that it concerned her uterus, which was now supposedly visible in the X-rays, which Jamila was displaying to me as proof of something conclusive and yet bewildering. Somehow buoyed by these developments and this (p.163) contact with the medical profession, Jamila began to urge me to go visit this doctor. “Really, you should go,” she said in a hushed voice. “You are married. You were married last summer. And you have no children yet.” I expressed polite interest and waited for the conversation to change.
And soon Jamila returned to the discussion of her own lost children. “I have already had two,” she reminded me, “but they both died. The second one was completely smashed up, as if it had been ground through a wheat mill. They did not know if it was a boy or a girl.” And again I murmured words of sympathy, stunned by the matter-offact way in which Jamila kept telling me of this.
Nadia rested on the banquette throughout our visit, a blanket over her legs. Her mother, Rashida, sat next to her. At one point, Rashida leaned over her daughter and the two quickly kissed, saying nothing. When it was time for me to go, Rashida hit Nadia on the legs and told her to get up and walk me to the taxi stand. “You need to get up, you need to walk, it's enough now. You have been sick long enough.”
More and more I could see that sickness seemed to surround us. But Moroccans accept sickness like they accept sadness. There can only be so much of it, and then it must be left behind.
Nadia went back to work at the Couture factory. She had not taken much time off for her illness—only the two days needed to visit the doctor and take the X-rays. The next time I saw her, she told me the girls at the factory were up in arms. There were only nine workers left now and very little work to be done. The factory owner left town for three days, leaving the floor manager in charge, and this had produced near chaos. “This man treats us like dogs,” Nadia said. “He turns the lights off on us. He makes us work till nine at night without even letting us stop for food.” The girls decided to take action.
“We planned to speak with the owner. We figured we'd get to him as soon as he got back. But, when he returned, he stood in front of us, in front of the line of machines, and told us to stop working, and he said, ‘Shame on you,’ and he began to lecture us. It seems that the floor manager had got to him first.” “That's too bad,” I said.
“Well, when he finished, all the girls stopped and got up and walked into his office and complained to him. He listened to us. He said to us, ‘Speak one by one,’ and so one by one we all told him about the horrible things the floor manager does to us. And the floor manager was standing there, with his head hanging.”
(p.164) In the end, Nadia asked the owner for her paperwork, telling him she planned to leave the job. He begged her to be patient, to stay with him. He told her that the floor manager had asked him to fire all the workers, but he had refused—he would never do this—he would never fire them. So Nadia stayed on at Couture for a while longer and nothing changed. The floor manager continued to berate and insult the workers.
I remembered how one factory owner had told me, in an interview, that he was always kind to his workers. He allowed the floor managers to be “strict” and “harsh” with the workers, in order to frighten them and compel them to work. He told me he stayed off the factory floor so as not to come into daily contact with the workers. But when he did confront a worker, he always treated her with kindness and respect, he said. In this way, he thought, he would make his workers feel loyal to him and to the factory. This seemed to be what the owner of Couture was doing. But I remembered this interview and what this owner had told me only after Nadia and I had separated that afternoon. I never bothered to tell her this owner had said that. I don't know if it would have mattered.
Ramadan had begun and I went to celebrate the break-fast meal with Nadia's family. Nadia had continued feeling ill and complained of getting her period every seven or fourteen days, despite the purchase of all the prescriptions the doctor had ordered. “I have spent close to 1,000 dirham, [which is more than the pay of even a good month in the factory] and have not even bought the renewal of these prescriptions. This doctor has done nothing for me. He is no good,” she said. Rashida was certain that her daughter's illness was caused by the stress of her factory work.
“My daughter is a good girl, isn't she?” she asked me, to make a point.
“Of course she is.”
“She works hard. She makes no trouble. My daughter is straight. So why do they cause problems for her?”
Rashida, too, had been ill. For two days she had been unable to stand up, so weak were her legs. She made a visit to the fqi, who wrote a verse from the Qur'an on a piece of paper for her. She soaked the paper with the holy phrase in water, although she was unable herself to read the words, and drank the water down. “I am healing now,” she told me, “thanks to this cure.” As soon as we finished dinner, Rashida disappeared from the house. She had hurried off to get more healing from the fqi. I thought of Abdul-Haq. He would not approve.
(p.165) Then there is the fqi. Women go to the fqi a lot. They spend a lot of money at the fqi. Why? The reason is psychological. Again, women spend their time at home. They cannot go out. They are forced to stay home and think of their problems. If they do speak, they speak to other women, perhaps in their apartment building, who tell them to go to a fqi. For example, if a woman is jealous of her husband, or if she has some deformity and looks in the mirror and sees this deformity, she is afraid he will marry someone else. So she tells her neighbor and her neighbor eggs her on, saying, “Yes, I am sure your husband has another woman. I have seen him with another woman.” And the neighbor encourages her to go to the fqi. She says, “I know a fqi who freezes water—that is how powerful this fqi is.” So the woman goes to visit the fqi.
A fqi is completely different from a doctor. Why? The doctor is dressed in city clothes, he has a clean office with a telephone, and he writes things down. He is completely different from the woman herself and what she knows. But the fqi is exactly like her. He wears clothes like the people she knows wear. The doctor has a pen, but the fqi does not even use a pen. He uses an instrument fashioned out of wood, and he does not even use real ink. The fqi is completely and totally different from the doctor, and people like him for this reason.
The big problem with the fqi: He gets women to waste their money. Women waste tons of money at the fqi. Once they begin to go to a fqi, it is like a drug they cannot stop. So the woman becomes a slave to that fqi. She will do anything he tells her to do. He will say come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow. He will keep telling her to come back, and she will keep coming back. She puts all her faith in the fqi and has no faith in God. For her the fqi is like a god.
And the fqi helps women poison their husbands. The fqi writes spells with that special pen; three times he must write something. The first time he will write something with that pen and then tell the woman to soak the paper with the writing on it in water and give the husband the water to drink. In this way he will ingest the words and ingest the spell. And then perhaps the fqi will tell the woman to feed her husband the tongue of a donkey. The fqi will get her the donkey tongue at an exorbitant rate. Ultimately after three or four years of ingesting these poisons the man will become extremely ill. His hair will all fall out and his skin will turn yellow. So the problem with the fqi is that he helps women poison their husbands.
So, not all people like the fqi. Except for women.
(p.166) Encouraged by her mother, and her mother's apparent cure, Nadia also made a visit to the fqi. He wrote godly words for her as well, which she began to wear under her shirt, words on a small piece of paper tied with a scarf to her waist. She had quickly noticed an improvement. “A fqi,” she told me, “is better than a doctor. The medicines the doctors give never work and are far too expensive.”
Jamila, too, complained of her health problems. Although it was now February, she said she was still suffering from the miscarriage she had in November. “I know,” she said, “that my uterus is not in the right place. My nose bleeds at night, and my head gives me horrible pain. When I was pregnant, I could barely walk. Even after only two months of pregnancy, I found it hard to move.” She went on to ponder why she suffered so from her childbearing. “Quickly after marriage,” she said, “my sister had three children. My mother had eight children. No one in my family has had children who have died. Except me. I am the only one with this trouble.” She shook her head as if bewildered, sounding almost annoyed.
And then she told me of a plan she had devised: she would take the birth control pill prescribed to her every other day, rather than every day, during Ramadan. This way, she believed, she would put off her menstruation through most of the month, and would be able to fast nearly every day. “Last year,” she told me, “I was able to fast only about five days during Ramadan. Because of the miscarriage and the illness it caused me, I had to eat all the rest of the days of that month. And so, over this past year, I had to make up 25 days—25 days I had to fast alone, all by myself. This is too difficult.”
I listened to Jamila, and I said nothing. I thought to tell her that this was a bad idea. I worried as she spoke that maybe she would become pregnant again, so soon after the last disaster. I started to tell her that she should not risk another pregnancy now. But I stopped myself. Almost as I started to speak I realized that she would not listen to me. Jamila would have children at any cost. And at the moment, I felt I was surrounded by people who were overcome with inexplicable, incurable ailments, illnesses I knew nothing of and could not make better. Just the day before, I had gone to visit another factory friend, and in her home I had been introduced to her niece, a 6-year-old girl whose face was blue. “There is something wrong with her heart,” my friend had explained. “She had one operation already, but it did not work. She needs a second operation.” As Jamila spoke, my mind was on this child. I had no remedy for Jamila or for any of them.
I just sat and talked of other things with Jamila. She seemed always to want (p.167) to sit next to me. Whenever I entered the room, she moved over slightly on the banquette and gestured for me to sit close to her. And then in a soft voice, as people moved in and out of the room, she would tell me things. Perhaps it was because I was from the outside—I was not her in-law—Jamila felt safe with me. Or perhaps Jamila liked me simply because she knew I wanted to hear what she said. This time, just to move the subject away from her dead children, I asked her whether she had ever worked.
“Oh, yes, I worked. I worked for six months in a garment factory in Casablanca.”
“What did you do there?”
“I wrote things down. I worked in the administration. I had been to high school, you know, so I could write. I was there for six months and then left.”
“Why did you leave?”
“There were constant problems there, constant fighting among the girls. I couldn't bear it, so I left. And after that, I married.”
No one was in the room. Nadia and her mother were in the kitchen, making preparations for the break-fast meal. I wanted to ask Jamila how she could stand it—how could she stand her marriage—sitting in this room, day after day, preparing meals, washing clothing, never leaving these rooms. But I was afraid to be so rude, so direct. I tried my way around the question. “Do you like Fes?” I asked her. “Is it hard to be here, away from your family?”
“No, it is not hard to be away from the family so much. But it is hard to come to a new house.” But that is all she would say. And then she repeated the story of her wedding, a story she had already told me. “When they brought me into this house, I cried and screamed hard, so hard that Yousef had to hit me, and only then did I stop. It is hard, marriage—a new house. I am still shy here. I am still shy in front of Yousef.”
“Do you go out?” I asked. Thus far, I had never seen Jamila leave the house. She never accompanied us to visit Aisha. I had to know if she ever got out. Perhaps, when I was not there, she was outside dancing in the streets.
“Yousef does not want me to go out. Sometimes he takes me to the medina.” Jamila said this with no feeling. This was not voiced as a complaint. The sitting room was getting darker as the sun sank in the sky. The call to prayer sounded, and the three brothers walked into the room and assembled around the table, which had already been set for the break-fast meal. Nadia and Rashida came in quickly with the hrira. The soup was passed around quickly, and the room became silent except for the sounds of slurping.
We ate what was on the table, and as soon as it was cleared, the brothers (p.168) abruptly stood and went outside to smoke cigarettes. They returned, and we ate a second meal—dinner. When this was complete, the three men left the room and did not reappear that evening. We women sat in front of the television, watching Egyptian soap operas interrupted by loud commercials. And then Nadia and I stepped outside into the dirt square in front of the house.
Children were dashing about, waving sparklers made of ignited steel wool on sticks, running, calling to each other. A girl appeared with a long rope and suddenly a large gathering of girls, women, even old ladies, emerged from nowhere. Nadia knew all these girls—they were neighbors living in the houses surrounding her own. I had never before seen any of them, although I had walked the neighborhood streets many times. In the safety of the darkness they began to jump rope, and Nadia and I joined in. We jumped and talked, the girls laughing, shameless in the dark. And while we played, Jamila stood in the shadows of the doorway of the house watching. I went to stand with her. “Why don't you join us, Jamila?” I asked.
“I cannot jump rope. I don't know how to play outside,” she said, matter-of-factly.
I looked at her quizzically. “Really, though,” she said, laughing, “when I was a child, I was afraid of the little girls in our neighborhood and never went outside. I stayed inside always, near my mother.” Jamila's tone suggested to me that she was proud of this fear and of her proclivity to remain inside. This idea—that the street is unclean and unfit for nice girl children—was a theme I had heard voiced by Moroccans, so it did not surprise me. “Anyway,” Jamila continued, “Yousef does not want me to go outside. He doesn't want anyone to see me.”
“But don't you want to go out?” I asked.
“No, I really don't like it out there. I'd rather stay inside.”
And so I left Jamila in the shadows of the doorway where she stood and joined the girls jumping rope.
Sometime in the middle of Ramadan, the workers at Nadia's factory received their pay for the month. The pay was short by 100 dirham. Without reason, without warning, the workers had received 100 dirham less than usual. “The factory just took 100 dirham from our pay,” Nadia told me, outraged. “Now we are angry. This time we are really going to walk out. But we're waiting for the owner to return from France. He went there to meet with a client. But this Monday—or maybe Tuesday—whenever he returns, we're walking. We've had (p.169) enough. We work into the night, you know. It's Ramadan, and we work into the night. And this is what we get.”
The workers waited a few days, and then finally the owner returned. They were ready to confront him with their problems, but again the floor manager got to him first. And again the owner told them they should be ashamed of themselves for their improper behavior. This time, though, they did not get the opportunity to speak with him directly. “We just collected our advances—we are being given a small advance on the next month's pay—and we left. We're not going back—but we haven't told the owner that.” The way Nadia spoke, I thought that she was describing a worker action. I thought there had been some kind of revolt; that amongst themselves the workers had decided that they would refuse to return when they were called.
However, as Nadia continued to explain, there was no work available at the moment anyway. When the workers walked out they were told not to return the next day. They would be called back as soon as a new shipment of cloth from France arrived. When I heard that the factory was shutting down, I realized that this was not a worker action at all. I could not label this a wildcat strike or a work slowdown. It was simply a factory closing. The closing was supposed to be temporary, but this was a closing nonetheless. The agreement the workers had made among themselves, the agreement to refuse to return when the owner called them back, was an attempt, it seemed to me, to stand up to the cruel floor manager and the manipulative owner. It was the workers' attempt to grasp some control, some retribution for the injustices they had been dealt. But really, it meant nothing, because the factory had shut down.
Ramadan was nearing the end. The next time I visited Nadia, nearly all the furniture had been removed from the inside of the house and stacked up in the courtyard. The rooms were being painted. Rashida took the opportunity to give me a tour of the house—I had never seen the upstairs. We crept up a narrow cement staircase to a second floor, where Jamila and Yousef's room was located. The walls of their room were unpainted cement, but the room was filled with massive faux mahogany furniture—a dresser, a wooden headpiece on the bed, a wardrobe—furniture that looked anomalous against the unfinished cement walls. From the second floor we climbed to the roof, where a chicken pen housed chickens.
“This part of the house is not finished—we have never completed building—because of my husband,” Rashida said. “We planned to build another room (p.170) here, on the roof, but now, since he took that other woman, this won't be possible. Or it will take a long time. We have no money.”
I couldn't stand the bitterness, somehow. I was growing weary. I had been working in a factory for weeks now and had heard worse stories. “Well, thank God, you do have the house. You have no rent to pay.”
“Thank God,” Rashida nodded, and she quickly returned to her usual attitude. “We have no rent. Thank God for that.”
We broke the fast together and then ate dinner. But this time we were not going to sit. Nadia was eager to go to Macro, a giant, newly constructed superstore on the outskirts of Fes. We were heading to Macro to see what products they might have to help in Nadia's restoration project.
“I am desperate to get this house fixed up,” Nadia told me. “It is my idea to get this painting done. I've wanted to do it for a long time. But Yousef just doesn't care.”
“Can you come with us?” I asked Jamila as we prepared to go. She did not budge from her place on the banquette.
“No,” she said. “I did not tell Yousef. He has already gone back to the shop. People like to buy food in the evenings in Ramadan.” And so we left. We left without Jamila.
On the way to Macro we stopped at Aisha's. We had gotten the word that Aisha wanted to see me. “Aisha wants to see you” was something I would hear over and over in my visits to Nadia's house. Aisha, I knew, liked the entertainment my presence provided. When we arrived that early evening, perhaps because the subject of Nadia's recent renovation was in the air, Aisha gave me a tour of the finest room in her own home: the bedroom of her firstborn child and her only son, Si Muhammad.
I had already met Si Muhammad, a tall and handsome young man of 21, who stopped in often to see Rashida and his cousins. Si Muhammad had not completed much schooling and had just recently been brought into the family's shopkeeping business. Si Muhammad was a dandy, always dressed in the best European style—leather jackets, white track sneakers, and bright, silky shirts. When he stopped for a visit, Nadia would admire him, flirt with him, and tease him about his fashionable clothes and his many girlfriends. The last time I had seen Si Muhammad, he told me that he had had an offer of marriage from a European girl—“a European like yourself,” he had told me. He claimed that a girl from Spain was interested in marriage, but his mother had forbidden him to entertain this idea. I liked Si Muhammad for his verve and his sense of style. Si Muhammad behaved as if he owned the world.
(p.171) Now Aisha was proudly leading me into his bedroom, which was located off the empty tiled foyer in Aisha's house. I had glanced into this room before, in passing while moving through the foyer into the sitting room. I had always assumed that this room was the master bedroom, where Aisha and her husband slept. But it was not. This was the room of Si Muhammad. It was a large room, at the center of which was a giant bed, covered with a satiny white cloth. Over the bedstead hung a large framed picture of Si Muhammad himself, a portrait of just his face, in which he looked strikingly like the eldest son of the Moroccan king, the heir to the throne. Opposite the bed, on a dark wooden dresser sat a large television, and next to this television hung a giant framed mirror. All of this for Si Muhammad.
Such an elaborate private bedroom for one person was a strange phenomenon in Ben Souda. Moroccans in the lower classes do not usually strive to provide their children with fancy, individualized bedrooms. But even stranger was the room next to Si Muhammad's. Next to his bedroom was the bedroom of Aisha's five daughters, girls ranging in age from 6 to 20. This bedroom was a tight, dingy sitting room, lined with banquettes that the girls slept on each night. It housed no dresser, no television, no mirror, no photograph. Nothing but banquettes.
Sons, I knew, are dearly valued in Morocco. But daughters are dearly valued, too. Everyone knows that daughters love their parents until the end. One day when a factory girl and I passed an old man begging in the market, the girl told me, “It's likely that old man has no daughters. That is why he's forced to beg.”
So when Nadia and I left Aisha's house, I said, “Nadia, Si Muhammad's room is so beautiful. And the girls have nothing. How can this be so?”
“You know, Titia,” she said, “here in Morocco we say that the girl is not important. The boy is important because he will stay at home after he marries. But the girl will leave.”
“Yes, I know, but—”
“Aisha really wanted more sons. Each time she was pregnant, she would say, ‘It's a boy, it's a boy,’ and every time, after the birth of Si Muhammad, it was a girl. Five girls after Si Muhammad.” I thought about Aisha and all those daughters as we tripped in the dark on the dirt path alongside the highway to the superstore.
Nadia was happy. The trip was exciting. “You know, Titia,” she said, “I saw my father here once, buying beer.” She looked, I think, for my reaction. I had none. “I once tasted beer. I like it. I really do. I think it's okay to drink a little beer—with some food.”
(p.172) We entered Macro, where the entry doors are automatic and the fluorescent light casts a gray tone on the products lined up on shelves in the massive building. We walked up and down the aisles. Nadia touched the products on display. Soda glasses, china tea pots, glazed figurines, little spice containers. She turned things over, looking at the tags, which I knew she could not read. She talked about her goal to make her house beautiful. “Whenever I come to Macro, I just die to have money. I want lots and lots of money. I need money when I come here. I like everything here.” And we laughed.1
“You know,” she said, “if I had been working for myself—if my father had not left us—I would have gold up my arm. I would have been able to buy an armful of gold, if I had just been working for myself all these years. But everything I earn is for the house. So I have nothing. No gold. It's because of my father.” And we continued to look at the treasures in Macro. We walked down the aisle where china dishes sat displayed on shelves, and the aisle where clean boxes of crackers were stacked on the shelves, and the refrigerated sections where hundreds of tiny containers of yogurt were on display. And then we went back out into the darkness.
But the trip to Macro had moved our minds to other places. “You know,” Nadia said, “I have a cousin who has gone to France. He told me he would marry me and take me there, as soon as he gets a house.”
“Would you want to go there?” I asked. “Wouldn't it be hard for you to leave your mother?”
“Its true, you're right. My mother and I are tied to each other. When my mother goes to visit people, and they tell her to stay, she says, ‘No, I can't stay. I have Nadia at home.’ And she always says, ‘Nadia, when you get married, bring your husband to live here with us.’”
“She's right,” I said. “When you marry, you should try to stay near her.”
“Yes. But still, if I could go to France, if I could get away from this life, the troubles in my house, I'd do it. I'd do anything.”
Some weeks passed. Late one afternoon I arrived at Nadia's to find Rashida resting on the banquette with Aisha's youngest daughter curled in her arms. Hassan, Rashida's second son, sat near them. The three were watching a blackand-white American movie dubbed in French. No one could understand the words, but with great interest they were discussing the clothing the actresses wore. I noticed that Hassan seemed particularly interested. When the movie ended, Hassan announced that he was going to the hammam, and he left.
(p.173) On my previous visit, I had arrived to find Hassan in the kitchen, washing all the utensils in a large bowl of soapy water. Another time, I found Hassan helping Rashida with laundry. Once when we were eating in the sitting room, we heard a knock at the door and Rashida instructed Hassan to get up and see who was there. All of these were tasks for women, but Hassan happily carried them out. Most Moroccans say that it is inappropriate for a man to do women's work. Surely, if a man finds himself with no female assistance, he might prepare tea or cook something light. But it is shameful for a man—surrounded by women—to do laundry or heavy housecleaning. Nadia's other brothers were rarely even at home. Her eldest brother, when not working at the shop, spent his time and wasted his money in cafés and restaurants, Nadia said. Although Yousef sometimes sat at home with Jamila, he too limited his time spent in the sitting room. But Hassan was often at home. Hassan did women's work.
Hassan was the only one of Nadia's three brothers who did not work in the shop. He caused too much trouble, I was told, when he was there. It seemed to me that Hassan did not work at all. He remained comfortably at home. From time to time he sat with us and contributed to conversations, even conversations about such things as wedding clothing. He was thin and kind and sweet. He had a strange way of speaking. I could not figure out what was going on with Hassan. Nobody would tell me.
Almost as soon as Hassan left the room, Nadia returned. She had been out visiting her friend with whom she was planning to start a new job the following week. Couture had called Nadia back to work.
“I told them I'd be back. But I'm not going,” she told me. “I'm not going back there. I will only work for a good factory—a really good factory this time.” She had begun to hunt for a new job. In the early morning hours she would walk to Sidi Brahim with her friend Amina, a veteran worker. Amina had a contact in a new factory that would open next week. Nadia was fairly certain they would start work there the coming Monday—or maybe Tuesday—when this new factory was set to open its doors. She would not return to Couture.
I had been absent for over a week. The agency funding my research had organized a conference in Yemen, which I had been invited to attend, and I had now returned with gifts of cloth which the family had asked me to bring. With some embarrassment, I presented the gifts of cloth and scarves that I had brought, feeling it was not enough. Throughout the afternoon, Nadia studied with delight the heavily brocaded fabrics, saying how she would use them to make beautiful gowns. One piece of cloth in particular would be perfect for her wedding day. Again and again she modeled the scarves I had (p.174) brought. And then she left the room and came back with a djellaba with an elaborate machine embroidered design. “This djellaba was sewn by my father's second wife. It is too small for her, and she is trying to sell it now,” she said. And then she left the room again and came back with a pile of small towels that the second wife had embroidered. “This is what I am going to do, as soon as I get back to work. I am going to buy towels and embroider them, and buy napkins and a tablecloth, and embroider all of them, in preparation for my wedding.” I knew that Moroccan girls traditionally put together a trousseau of finely embroidered linens for their wedding. “I have not yet done anything like this because I always thought that I would wait until a man came and asked for me. But now I'm going to just start—I'll do the work, so that if a man comes, I will be ready. And then I'll use the money he gives me to buy a washing machine instead of buying this kind of stuff.”
“Good idea. But why a washing machine?” I had never been inside a house in the factory districts with a washing machine.
“Because I hate to do laundry. When I do laundry, I get dizzy and I feel like I am going to fall down, and when I raise my head, it hurts and I feel sure I'm going to fall. I do all kinds of housework—I can do everything—but not laundry. So I'll buy a washing machine with the money he gives me. And I'll already have embroidered all these other things I need. Because if a girl does not have these things at her wedding, people will say she has nothing.”
The family—or at least the women in the family—had recently been to visit a saint at a nearby shrine. They assured me that they had wanted to bring me with them. They had telephoned me, but I was not home. I knew that this was a lie, but I thanked them for thinking of me. I felt that this little lie marked a kind of transition in our relationship. Now, maybe because of the cloth from Yemen, they were going to let me know about their shrine visitations. In Morocco, many women, especially poor and uneducated women, visit the shrines to ask saints to intercede with God on their behalf. The educated and the modern classes scorn such behavior and consider it forbidden by Islam. Many men consider it an expression of women's folly. For this reason my friends would not readily admit that they persisted in such outmoded and demeaned practices. Abdul-Haq had strong opinions on the visitation of saints:
The thing that is important about saints is that they have baraka. They have baraka which is a grace, a holiness that comes from God. Moroccans say, for example, that there is baraka in sharing food on one plate. That is, if (p.175) there is only a little bit of food in a plate, and many people share that small amount of food, they will feel satisfied, they will feel full. That is because there is baraka in sharing the plate of food. And if a man works and has to give his salary to his family if he only earns a little bit of money but must divide it many ways to feed his wife and children, the money will suffice because there is baraka.
Now saints have baraka. It is often women who go to visit saints. They go there, meet their friends, visit, talk. Women particularly go to saint shrines because whereas men have a lot of work to do and are extremely busy, women must stay inside the house all day, left alone with their thoughts. They cannot talk to other women, they have no one to share their thoughts with, so they go to visit the saint.
A man works all day, and on Sunday, his only day off, he gets up, goes to the hammam, does the shopping and in the afternoon, he wants to go to a café. If he is single he will go to the movies, but if he is married, he will just go to a café, as this is the only cheap alternative. A man has no time in his active and busy life to go to a saint shrine. He has no time for thoughts like women have.
Why do women visit saints? They go when they fear their husband is going to marry someone else. They look in the mirror and the mirror tells them they are old and ugly but the saint tells them they are young and beautiful so they go and tell their problems to the saint. Or, they go when they cannot bear children. First, they try herbal treatments. Then, they eat seven mice fried in oil. When these things do not work, they go to the saint and ask him to give them children. They swear by the saint, in the name of God, that if he gives them children they will sacrifice something to him—a chicken, or a cow, perhaps.
They might go to a saint for something as simple as having their son pass an exam or get a driving permit. Or if they are jealous of another woman with their husband. This is why women go to visit saint shrines.
I knew that they had visited a shrine at least once before that year. One day, shortly after I had first met the family, I dropped by in the morning for a visit. I found the women gathering up bags, putting items together, preparing to go out. I heard the word chicken, but this was before I knew that there were chickens living on the roof, and I was sure I heard the word blood. But the women were behaving secretively, as if I had caught them at something. They very politely offered to make tea and made some gestures toward greeting me as a guest, but I knew I had interrupted them, and I lied about being on my way to (p.176) somewhere else. They did not insist that I stay. I left. I was sure they were going somewhere with a chicken, somewhere they did not wish me to know about. I assumed that they were headed for a saint's shrine, where the chicken would be sacrificed. Where else would they be taking the chicken?
Now, some months later, they would tell me about their most recent visit to the shrine. “Originally,” they said, “we thought we would stay there, at the shrine for five days. But in the end, we only passed the afternoon there, and then came home.”
“Why did you come home so quickly if you had planned to stay so long?” I asked. This made no sense to me.
“People often go to this shrine for an indefinite amount of time. They go, and they plan to stay there. They stay until they are healed or until they get the message to leave. Usually they just cannot leave until they are healed. People go to this saint to have children, to get cured, for many reasons,” Nadia said. “For example, there was a man there who just cannot stop speaking. It is as if he has no mind, as if he is crazy. He has been there for months. He cannot leave the shrine, he just stays there.” They had seen many awful sights at this shrine, and Nadia seemed eager to tell me all about them.
“And there was an older woman there, a grandmother, who was a Berber, but who spoke Arabic. And she had with her a little baby girl. This girl was her granddaughter. The girl already had her teeth, but she could not walk. The girl's hands were all curled up, and her feet were straight and stiff, and she couldn't move. Her mother had already had a second baby, a boy, and he was already walking. But this baby girl could not move. The father had spent two million on her at doctors, with no results. They were very wealthy; this was obvious from the way they were dressed. The old woman was very clean. The baby girl spoke Berber to her. She had a beautiful face, but she just couldn't move. It was terrible.” Rashida kept nodding as Nadia spoke. This sight bothered her.
“And there was a girl who had a spell placed upon her. She had been engaged to a man, and she had already received many wedding gifts. Everything was prepared for the marriage. Everything was purchased, the furniture for the couple, everything. But then a spell was placed on her, and the wedding plans came unhinged. The man refused to marry her. And now, every time a man comes to marry her, to ask for her, he comes to her house and then discovers that he prefers one of her sisters, and he takes a sister instead. So far, two of her younger sisters have been married, and she has been left behind. That is why she was at the shrine. She was weeping pitifully there.”
“Why did you go there?” I asked, although I already knew.
“But she is still taking the birth control pills,” I said, “How will she get pregnant?” I knew she had changed the dosage over Ramadan, but assumed she had returned to the prescribed method after the month of fasting.
“Oh, no,” Nadia answered. “She is no longer on the pills.”
“But the doctor told her to stay with the pills for now,” I said.
“Yes, he did, but she is no longer going to that doctor. We brought her to the fqi, to find out why she can't have children. And do you know what we learned? The problem is her aunt—her father's brother's wife.”
“What about her aunt?”
“The fqi determined that she cannot have children because her aunt has put a spell on her. This woman is known to do magic, and she placed a spell on Jamila.”
“Why would she do such a thing?”
“Because this woman's son wanted to marry Jamila. It would have been a perfect marriage, you know. They are the children of brothers. But Jamila went outside the family and married Yousef, and so now this woman has put a spell on Jamila. This is why Jamila's children are dying.”
The fqi, I was told, divined this using numbers. “First, he asked Jamila her father's name, and then her mother's name, and then he put numbers to these words, looked the numbers up in a book, and divined that the person causing this trouble was the father's brother's wife.” I was working hard to follow this, and Nadia was speaking quickly. For her this was almost obvious. “Then he asked Jamila if there was any trouble in the family, any fighting with this woman. ‘Yes,’ Jamila told him. ‘Yes, there has been trouble with her.’ ‘So she is the problem, then,’ the fqi said. ‘She is the reason your children are dying. She is why you are unable to become pregnant again.’”
As soon as they had received this information from the fqi, they had organized the trip to the saint's shrine, to beg the saint for assistance.
But now Jamila was upstairs, sleeping. It was clear to me that she was not receiving the sympathy I thought might be due her as a result of this unsettling discovery. It was clear that, instead, Rashida and Nadia were angry at Jamila.
“She has been in bed for two days now, since we returned from the shrine. Now it is her toe that is hurt—she cannot walk.” Nadia's voice was thick with sarcasm. “She is sickly, you know. She denies it. She claims that she was never sick before coming to this house, but that's a lie. Even her own sister says that she was always sickly, even before, in her own parents' house.” And with this comment, Nadia's bitterness only seemed to increase and a torrent of venom (p.178) spewed from her. She began with her opinion of Casablanca, the city of Jamila's birth, the city where her sister-in-law's family still remained.
“She is from Casablanca, you know, and Casablanca is a bad place. Once, when I was there, I had a watch stolen right off my wrist. Yes, it was taken from my wrist. That city is evil, and everyone in Casablanca does witchcraft. They are crazy for witchcraft in Casablanca. They do it constantly. Nothing like this exists in Fes. Compared to Casa, hardly anyone in Fes does witchcraft.”
Nadia looked at me to be certain I had taken her point. I put a look of surprise and interest on my face. I had known that Jamila was from Casablanca and that Nadia's family had traveled there to be hosted by the bride's family at the time of the wedding. But such vitriol I had never heard. And then, when she was certain I was paying attention, Nadia went on. “This is how Jamila got Yousef. She got him using witchcraft, plain and simple.” Rashida had been sitting with us, quietly, letting her daughter defame Casablanca, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. But as Nadia uttered this statement, the mother nodded slowly and definitively. This was certain. Nadia continued. “Yousef and Aisha's son—Si Muhammad—went to Khenifra once to visit the son of our father's third brother—the boy who was married to Jamila's sister. Together the three traveled to Casablanca, and that is when Jamila first saw Yousef. She saw him and immediately wanted him. She even told Yousef that she wanted him. To his face she told him this.” A look of disbelief crossed my face, for I knew that such a thing was shameful, and I doubted, strongly, that Jamila, so meek and compliant in this household, would dare make such a move. Nadia responded, “This is shocking, but it is true.” And Rashida continued to nod. I had heard another version of this story already: I had heard about the love letters that began with “habibi, habibi.” But I had not yet heard this.
“From that day on,” Nadia continued, “from the moment Yousef saw Jamila, Yousef began to cry. He cried all the time, and he said that he would marry Jamila or he would die. And so we all went to Casablanca to visit her family.” Nadia lifted a clay mug from the table to drink. This story was going to take a long time. “We saw her, and immediately we did not want her. We didn't want her because she did not know how to do housework well at all. She still can't do the housework well. My mother here has to do everything.” And again Rashida nodded. “When I am out at work my mother has to get up and lift all the furniture out of the room to put it in the sun, because Jamila cannot do it. She doesn't know how to clean the room properly. I myself do the work on (p.179) Sundays, because I cannot bear to sit in a dirty room, to have people come over to a dirty room.”
“We went to Casablanca, and we were not at all impressed. And so we came back to Fes, saying we would think about it. And then one week later, Jamila's father came to our house. We were terribly embarrassed. We had wanted time to think, and he had given us only one week—he came right away. And he said, ‘If you want her, let's talk about the money.’ Well, we did not want her, but we were so embarrassed. Plus, Yousef was still crying, still saying that he would marry her or die. What could we do? We talked to her father.”
“They were married very quickly. That is how Casablanca girls do it: they marry when they can. As soon as Jamila came into our house, after the wedding ceremony in Casablanca, when we brought her back here, we noticed that there was a rock under the table. When her family left, leaving her with us, a rock was left behind. That is how we knew it was witchcraft. She had used witchcraft to get Yousef. That is why Yousef was crying so much after he met her, and that is why he took her so quickly. Now Yousef often says, ‘Why did I marry?’ He doesn't understand why he married at such a young age. He is only 26.”
And as she spoke, it seemed that Nadia's bitterness increased. She said that Yousef had not passed his high school exam but that she had been prepared to work, to pay for him to complete his schooling at a private school. “Then,” she said, “Jamila stepped in, and she put an end to that plan.”
In my own calculations, it seemed to me that Jamila had appeared long after Yousef had left high school, but I did not argue.
“I myself would never want to do magic to get a man. This is never a good idea, because once you get the man, the magic begins to wear off, and he will soon start to hit you and dislike you.” And Nadia began to repeat what she had said before—that Jamila was sickly and had always been sickly, that she was lazy and did not know how to do housework. “Yousef is so kind and gentle and nice to people that he tries to deal with her. He has patience for her.”
And my mind flashed to the image of Jamila standing in the doorway of the house on that Ramadan night, saying that she never really liked to go outside, and the memory of Jamila sitting in the dark little room when Nadia and I had taken that stroll to Macro, saying that Yousef had already returned to the shop and it was too late for her to ask him if she could go. I wondered if Jamila was really asleep upstairs and whether she could hear us talking down here. And now I really felt sorry for Jamila.
(p.180) We were eating harsha, flat cornbread that Rashida cooked on a gas burner that had been carried into the sitting room so she could cook as she sat with us. It was about 5 p.m. The phone rang in the narrow hallway, and Nadia jumped up to answer it. She spoke curtly for a few minutes and then returned to the sitting room. She did not sit back down. “Titia, do you want to go to Macro now?”
“Sure,” I said. Nadia put on a new and colorful djellaba and wrapped a silken scarf around her neck. She stood in front of the small mirror hanging in the dark hallway and applied eye makeup and lipstick, which she urged me to share. I declined and she told me I should use more makeup and dress more fashionably, and then we left the house.
As soon as we stepped outside, Nadia told me the plan. “Titia, there is a teacher I met. He called me, and we are going to meet him at Macro.” I was stunned. I had not expected Nadia to be secretly courting, given the rather conservative perspective she held on Jamila's life and the fact that it seemed to me that as far as I could tell, when she was not working, she was at home with her mother or sitting in Aisha's house. I was also worried. It would be considered shameful for an unmarried girl to be meeting a man, and the neighborhood was full of Nadia's relatives and family friends. We were sneaking out to meet a man for Nadia now, and if found out, I would be implicated in the scheme.
We moved quickly through the dirt roads of Ben Souda, toward the Meknes highway, and then headed out on the path along the side of the road to the supermarket. I was moving along, thinking I could not abandon Nadia now. She could not be seen walking alone. I was her cover. Within minutes a car driving past us pulled to the side of the road.
“I think that is him. That looks like his car,” Nadia said.
“But it can't be him. Two men are in that car.” And then the driver emerged from the car, and so did his companion, and we stood, all four of us, at the side of the Meknes highway, politely greeting each other in the long and drawn-out series of gestures and greetings Moroccans make when saying hello.
The young men suggested we all go to a café, and Nadia quickly agreed. I nodded my consent, but a creeping disquiet was coming over me. This girl, I thought, has three brothers, a father, and an uncle who own a business in the neighborhood. Everyone knows them. I do not want them to see me with their sister, riding around in a strange car with unfamiliar men. Word of such an event would spread quickly, and while there was surely no real risk here for me, I would find this situation embarrassing. Nadia's reputation would suffer and her family would be angry. Moreover, I was not interested in what seemed (p.181) to be looking more and more like a double date. “Nadia,” I said, grabbing at an excuse she could not refuse. “I am married. If someone told my husband I was in a café with these men, it would be very bad for me.” Nadia agreed quickly—relieved, I thought—to avoid the café. She explained the situation to the men, who were graciously apologetic. They made a plan for us all to meet at the supermarket instead.
Nadia and I walked on and the men drove ahead of us. When we arrived at Macro, the men were standing right inside the electric doors, awaiting our arrival. Nadia and her date started off, strolling up and down the aisles of the giant store, a museum of imported goods rarely seen in Ben Souda. Nadia's date leaned in close to her as they walked, grasping her arm. The two immediately became engrossed in secretive conversation. I strolled behind them, accompanied by her date's friend. He informed me that he and his companion were both training to be high school math teachers. They were renting an apartment in Ben Souda until the end of July, when their training would end and when the government would assign them a teaching position somewhere in Morocco. They had no idea where in Morocco they would be posted.
After some time, Nadia and her friend separated, and she announced that it was time for us to leave. We set out back down the highway's side in the dark. “It is so obvious that this man is educated,” Nadia began. “Titia, did you notice that he did not force me to go to a café with him? He never pushed me. He let me do what I wanted to do. This is because he is educated. An arubi [a person from the countryside, an uneducated person] would have forced me to go to the café. He would have been so crude, so uncivilized. I really cannot bear uneducated people. I can barely even speak to them.” And thus Nadia praised her new friend, although Nadia herself had had little more than a year of formal schooling.
“I am surprised, Nadia, that you have a boyfriend,” I told her, curious and still somewhat surprised by this incident. “I didn't think you had boyfriends. You never told me you had boyfriends.”
“I don't. I have never met with a man before—and I told him that,” she replied. “I told him that you were shocked because I never meet with men.” I was certain Nadia had taken care to mention this to her date to ensure that he did not think of her as a loose sort of girl, a characterization she would avoid at all costs. “I'm ugly,” she went on. “I know that. But still men follow me. They follow me on the streets, but I never speak to them. I do nothing when they follow me. I ignore them. But this man—I would like a man like this. He is a teacher, he has a car, and he is nice. He did not try to force me into anything.”
(p.182) And Nadia turned to musing about the opportunities for marriage that have never materialized. She reminded me of Aisha's brother, who had secretly promised that he would marry her, but then had died. She reminded me of her cousin in France who promised to marry her once he purchases a house. She said that, in fact, Jamila's brother wanted her. But there is no way she would accept an offer from him, she said, because he lived in Casablanca. Yes, he had a great job—he was the assistant to the manager of a factory somewhere in Casablanca. Yes, he was very nice—the nicest one in that whole family. Yes, he earned lots of money. But all these things were nothing to her, because she could not bear the way people speak in Casablanca. “For example,” she said, “in Casablanca, when they want to say ‘sit,’ they say ‘brki' instead of ‘gilsi.’ If I married him, before long I would be talking like him, and then my children would talk that way, and I could not bear it.” I thought perhaps it was not entirely true that Jamila's brother wished to marry her. But I did not say this. Quickly Nadia returned to the object of her current marriage prospect.
“He told me that he could not wait to see me again. He said that Monday was too far away.” It was Friday. The boyfriend was going to Meknes to spend the weekend with his family. He would call her when he returned to Fes on Monday. Nadia was speaking excitedly. This man drove a car, which he claimed was his own. He would soon have a teaching post. If she could marry this man, she could buy those things we had seen in Macro, and life, I think she thought, would be better.
As Nadia went on speaking about the teacher and the various hindrances she had thus far encountered on the road to marriage, I wondered what Rashida and Jamila thought when she received that phone call. Hadn't they been suspicious when Nadia returned to the sitting room but did not bother to sit down? When she got dressed in her finest djellaba, put on makeup, and raced me out the door? Perhaps Rashida simply turned her head, realizing that Nadia was out to meet a man, but choosing not to question this, hoping only that her daughter, long past the traditional marriage age and with no real prospects, would somehow manage to find her own mate. Another worker whom I had befriended, who at the age of 28 found herself free of nearly all family constraints, told me that her brothers no longer concerned themselves with her and her wandering because of her late age. At 28, she said, they believed she had her own mind. This girl, and Nadia, and many others are part of the first generation of Moroccan women entering their late 20s still single, a kind of disaster for them and their families. Perhaps it is simply that no one really knows what to do with them.2
After this initial meeting, Nadia met with her boyfriend several more times over a few weeks. They met in the streets, strolling and talking. She always brought along her friend, a neighborhood girl she had known a long time. Finally, one day the boyfriend telephoned and told her he needed to see her urgently. There was something he had to tell her. She hurried out of the house that day, stopped several streets away to pick up her friend, and went to the other side of Ben Souda, where she met up with him. And then the boyfriend told her that he was married and that he had a 2-year-old child. This was the family that lived in Meknes, and this was why he traveled there every weekend.
“After he told me this, he started to try to explain, and I just started laughing. I laughed out loud.” And when Nadia said this to me, she mimicked the laugh, which was a sort of high pitched peal that did not sound at all like a response to something funny. “And he asked me, ‘Why are you laughing?’ and I told him, ‘I am laughing at you.’” Nadia said she was shocked by this news; she had never suspected him. I knew her hopes had been dashed. She had liked this teacher. She had liked his job and his car and his lack of aggression. But that short shrill laugh, I think, was meant to show him she had not even cared that he tricked her.
“He told me he had to tell me the truth because he just could not lie to me anymore. He thought that once he told me the truth, I would be willing to continue seeing him.” And here again Nadia laughed, again that strange, unfunny sound. Then she swore that she would not see him anymore. “Another girl would most likely continue to see him, but not me. He keeps calling me and asking me to meet him, but each time I tell him no. I am not like other girls.” So although she would break the rules and stroll in secret with an unfamiliar man through the city streets, she would not dally with a married man. “I tell him no each time he calls, but I am always very polite,” she said, “because I do not want to anger him.”
I nodded my agreement, but I thought this strange—that she was afraid to anger him—because one of the qualities Nadia liked so much about this teacher was that he was not forceful. She continued, “He told me he no longer likes his wife, that they have a lot of trouble between them. They were students together, and she got pregnant, and that is why he married her. But he says that she spends all his money—she is always sick and wastes all his money on doctors. She constantly gives him problems and that is why he likes me. He even said he would marry me, now.”
“Of course not.”
I felt sorry for Nadia and her terrible struggle, the hopelessness of her prospects for marriage. “Would it be possible,” I asked her, “for you to let your family know that you have spoken with this man—that you have met with him outside the house? Could you tell them about what has happened?”
“Never. There is no in-between for us. Until there is an engagement, I cannot speak to a man. If a man wants to speak with me he must engage me first. Then my family will allow conversation. Girls like me can meet with men, but we cannot let our parents know. If they find out, they will say, ‘We are not Christians. We do not behave in this way.’”
“But, Nadia, doesn't your mother know he has called?” I still wondered how Nadia's mysterious disappearances could have remained a secret.
“No,” she insisted. “One time he called and my mother answered. And he said, ‘Is Nadia there?’ and my mother said, ‘Who wants her?’ He told my mother that his own sister, who he said was named Nadia, was coming to visit her daughter Nadia, and that he was looking for his sister.”
“And your mother believed that?”
“She thought nothing of it.”
The teacher continued to call Nadia for a few weeks, and she continued to speak about him. She said that the problems with his wife were terrible. But she always insisted these problems existed before she met him. She was not the cause of their marital strife. Her own father had left his wife—her mother—which meant he had also left her, and she would not be involved with such a crime. Even if this teacher were to leave his wife and child, she said, she would refuse to marry him, knowing what he had done to them.
But always, in discussing the teacher's marital difficulties, Nadia blamed his wife. Her pregnancy had led to the ill-fated marriage, and according to Nadia, “She is the one at fault. She knew what she was doing when she got pregnant.”
Eventually the teacher stopped calling, and some time after that Nadia ran into his roommate in the street. The teacher's family, he said, had come to pick him up and return him permanently to Meknes. That was the last we heard of him.
Spring had set in, and the heat was becoming powerful. One afternoon when I arrived at Nadia's house, Rashida was sleeping on the banquette, her head (p.185) thrown back and her mouth open, snoring loudly. Soon after I entered the sitting room, she woke with a start and righted herself on the banquette. She stood up, donned a scarf, and readied herself for the afternoon prayer. Nadia, too, put on a scarf to pray. Although I had seen Rashida pray, I had never before seen Nadia make a motion to pray. Although I knew Nadia saw herself as a moral and upright Muslim, she did not pursue the more formal Islamic practices. She did not (could not) read the Qur'an, she did not pray five times a day, she had not adopted the veil. Nadia and I had never discussed religion in the months I had known her.
As she was knotting the scarf under her chin, Nadia began to harangue Jamila. “You need to pray, you know. Why are you not praying?” she asked in a high-pitched tone that had an edge to it. And then mother and daughter left to make their supplications in the other room.
Left alone with me, Jamila defended herself in a low voice. “I cannot pray, you know. It's just too difficult for me to pray. When you are married and your husband touches you, you become dirty. I need to go to the hammam before I pray in order to get clean. It is just impossible for me to stay clean. So I cannot pray.” I nodded emphatically so that Jamila would believe that I was on her side. Muslims, I knew, must go to prayer in a state of ritual purity. For women, this can be time-consuming. Jamila, like most young married women in traditional Morocco, felt unable to keep up with the purification requirements and thus did not pursue regular daily prayer. Nadia knew why her sister-in-law did not pray. But the tension was growing in the household, as if the family were heating up with the season.
Nadia and Rashida returned to the room only briefly and then left the house to visit an ailing neighbor, a woman who had developed a tumor on her shoulder from compulsive sweeping. (They had spoken before about this woman's proclivity to sweep, and they talked about it again now, laughing.) Quickly Jamila returned to her earlier conspiratorial tone, in a hurry to convey information to me that she would not be free to discuss in front of her in-laws. They had taken her to yet another shrine to resolve her problems. She had a painful sore on the heel of her foot, which had developed from her shoe rubbing there, on the walk to the shrine. She was planning her next visit to a fqi in Sefrou, well known for his ability to cure fertility problems.
“This is all because I don't have children,” she said, and then corrected herself. “I do have children, actually—me and Yousef—we have children, but they die.” She said this almost as a point of pride, as if at least she could claim to accomplish this. And she repeated part of the story, saying this time that the (p.186) second child was taken from her in the seventh month. She said she had gone to the doctor several times once she realized she was pregnant, and she did not know the baby was dead until the seventh month. “I went in the seventh month, and only then did they tell me the baby was dead.” I expressed my sorrow again. “And so now I have gone off the pill. I'm not going back to the doctor at all.”
I had already heard this from the others. “But why not?” I asked.
“Because he has done nothing good for me. I have had those two surgeries. Two times they have taken the babies. And the doctor has already told me that if that happens again, it is likely my uterus will rip, and then I'll never have any children. So I'm not going back.”
“Are you sure you won't try another doctor?” I asked, hoping she would stay with the advice of a medical professional. But Jamila only launched into a long story about the uselessness of doctors and their drugs. Hadn't I seen what had happened with Nadia? After spending 1,000 dirham on medications, she found a cure only from the fqi. And Nadia's most recent illness had been preceded by another illness, a skin ailment she had contracted in the months before I had arrived, that had cost her 1,000 dirham and that had gone uncured by the drugs prescribed.
“What does Yousef think of this?” I asked. “Does he want the children as much as you do?”
“Yes, of course he does, but he is worried about me, about my health. He says that he can wait awhile.” This comforted me. “But I don't care. I need children now. It is better to have them when you are young. I am so bored in this house. I sit here all day. I sit here with no children.” Jamila paused, and then voiced another thought. “It was better in the old days.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at my mother, for example. She got married when she was 11 years old. She lived in my father's house for three years, until she was old enough, and then they consummated the marriage. So she had her children young. She was young when she had my brother. This was better.” I could not argue. At that moment, I could see that for Jamila, anyone's life seemed better than her own.
And then Nadia came back into the room. Nadia and Jamila took out a photo album and showed me a picture of them in Casablanca. Nadia, Jamila, and Jamila's sisters stood close together on a city street. Jamila's head was uncovered, her hair tied back loosely in a ponytail. She wore a skirt and shirt, unremarkable western attire that one might see on any street in Morocco, and yet this startled me. I had never seen Jamila wearing anything but the loose (p.187) caftans and housedresses Moroccan women wear inside their homes. Her head was always covered tightly with a scarf.
“You are wearing western clothing,” I said to her.
“Oh, yes, I always dressed like that. But now I only wear traditional clothes.” Jamila laughed and pointed at the housedress she was wearing. “I used to get dressed up all the time before I was married. But that is usual. Young girls always get fancied up and wear makeup while they are living in their parents' house. They are concerned with nothing but themselves, that is why. But when you marry, all that stops. I never get dressed up or wear makeup anymore.”
Wearing western clothing, I thought, means you are moving freely. Nadia, I knew, often wore skirts and sweaters when she left the house. The other factory workers I knew often wore western dress—not so much inside the factory, where they labored, but when they went outside to stroll, visit friends, shop in the medina. Jamila stopped wearing the western style of dress when she married because, with marriage, she was confined to her home. Wearing western dress in your own sitting room makes little sense. Unlike Nadia and the other factory workers, who must go out, Jamila could not go out. Jamila could barely step outside her door.
I asked her, “Did you go out when you lived at home with your parents?”
“No,” she said. “Rarely.”
“My younger brother did not want me to go out. My mother and father never said anything. They never told me or my sisters not to go out. But my younger brother didn't want me to go out. He is the one who wanted me to stop working in the factory. So I didn't go out.”
“In my culture this is just not possible,” I said. “Perhaps a father or mother might be able to put limits on a daughter. But not her brother. Never her brother.” I was unable to stop myself from implying that this was not acceptable to me.
“Listen, Titia,” said Nadia, “here your brother, or your father's brother, or your mother's brother, or your father's brother's son, or a boy of the neighborhood—all of them have the right to control you.” And she laughed, and Jamila laughed, and I laughed, too. “Everyone is in your business. Everyone feels they have the right to stick their nose in on you.”
“But Yousef does not tell Nadia to stay home at all. She is allowed out,” I said.
“Yousef tells Nadia to go out,” Jamila agreed. But she seemed to have no explanation. She seemed not to question this.
(p.188) I loved Morocco. I loved the dry smell of the heat. I loved the feeling that there was enough time to sit still. I loved the way people would speak with me as if they had always known me, even when we had met just moments earlier. The list of things I loved about Morocco was endless, but this I could not stand. The house was small and there weren't many windows, but at that moment it seemed to me that poverty was not the most troubling issue: it was the idea that Jamila could not go outside if she wanted to. Even though there was nothing out there but dusty roads and carts loaded with fruit for sale, the fact that Jamila could not, on a whim, step out there to look was something I could not accept. I asked Jamila the question I usually asked the factory workers that I interviewed. “Jamila, what do you think? Should a girl have freedom to move around?”
“Yes, of course. A girl should be given freedom. That is, parents should give a girl the opportunity to go out so she will know how to go out, how to get around on her own. If she is kept in too tightly, if she is too controlled, then she will not know at all how to behave when she does go out, and she will have a lot of problems. It's likely she'll do something stupid.” Almost to the word, this was what the workers I interviewed always told me. “For example,” Jamila continued, “if parents allow their daughter out, to go to the hammam, let's say, she should not be on the clock. They should not be watching the clock and after one hour say, ‘Where has she gone?’ A girl who is treated this way will never learn how to behave outside.”
And to illustrate her point, Jamila told me a story. “Let me tell you about a girl who lived near us in Casablanca. She was kept in the house constantly. She was watched and kept at home, strictly controlled. And one day, she went into the kitchen and gave birth to a baby. No one in her family knew how this could have happened, since they watched her at all times. But then, when they asked her who the father of the baby was, she said she did not know. She had been with four men. Four men! This girl who was so carefully guarded.”
“Where could she have met them?”
“Probably she found them in the street when she ran out for an errand. But this just shows you that it does no good to try to control a girl so tightly, like her parents did. There is no point to that.”
“And what about a wife?” If Jamila thought girls should go out, at least a little, how did she reconcile her own position?
“A wife should not be given much freedom at all. She should have much less freedom.”
(p.189) “Because when a woman is married, she has no fear. A girl fears her parents and this keeps her on the straight path. But a woman does not have that kind of fear—she doesn't have the same kind of fear a girl has—the fear of her parents and brothers. A woman doesn't fear her husband in the same way. Therefore, a husband needs to keep her tightly under control.”
Rashida had returned to the house sometime during this conversation. And now she nodded heavily, agreeing with this point.
“So do you ever go out?” I had not really seen Jamila leave the house. She had been to the clinic with Nadia, I knew, and she had recently been to the saints' shrines. She went out to the hammam once a week and twice a year she went to Casablanca to stay with her family.
“I do not go out. I never go out alone,” she said, sounding certain and pleased. “If someone is sick, I might go out with them. I go to the hammam with Mama, but only if I tell Yousef I am planning to go.” Rashida agreed with this point. Both of them seemed proud to hear Jamila say this.
“I went out when I was a girl,” she continued, “because I went to school for a long time. I left in the second year of high school.”
“Why did you leave?”
“My brother didn't think I should go to school anymore. That's when I started to work in the sewing factory, in the administration. Remember, I told you I worked there for six months. That was fun.” And she laughed. Before, she had told me she hated work in the factory.
“What did you like about it?” I asked.
“You get up in the morning, and you leave the house. You don't have to do any housework.”
“I told you she was lazy,” Nadia interjected. Jamila looked at her and laughed. “I ate lunch at the factory every day. I bought my lunch there. I talked to the girls. At the end of the month, I had hardly any money left, since I spent it all buying lunch. And then my family said, ‘Why should we let her work? She is working for nothing.’ So they decided one day that I shouldn't go back,” Jamila ended nonchalantly, as if none of it had really mattered.
Nadia and Rashida got up to put on tea, and Jamila remained sitting close to me. She returned to the conspiratorial tone. “I have been crying all morning,” she whispered. “I have been crying my heart out.”
“Why, what is the matter?”
“This is no good sitting in this house all day like this. There is nothing for me to do.”
“You are bored,” I said. And she started to mumble words that sounded like (p.190) what she had said before, “…without having children, just sitting here with no children,” and then Nadia came back into the room and Jamila stopped talking. And I realized that Jamila had no one at all to speak with. She had no ally. She was surrounded by in-laws—enemies. She needed her own children to counter them. It was worth risking her life for children.
We drank hot sweet tea, and they put on the television, and a photograph of the king and his sons appeared. “When the son comes to power, things will change,” Nadia announced.
“How?” I asked.
“The son is much straighter than the father, and he will enact a law ordering all girls to stay in the house,” Nadia said with satisfaction. “All the girls will be sent home. They will no longer be allowed to work, and the boys will take their jobs. Only the girls who are truly needy—who have no one to support them—will be allowed to remain in their jobs. The men will take the jobs the girls have now, and then the girls will be able to marry, because the men will have work.”
“But,” I said, “the garment factories will surely be empty. The men will refuse to work in those factories.”
“It's true,” said Nadia. “Men smoke, they demand money, they cause nothing but problems. They would never work like I do. They would go on strike.”
“Anyway,” I said, desperate to make a point about the seclusion of females, “it would be terribly difficult to live like that—to be told you can't keep your job, to not be allowed to go out.”
“We are not like you, Titia,” Nadia said.
I said nothing. What could I say? The choice here, clearly, was between marriage, being trapped inside the house hoping for children who could ensure your future, or a job, being trapped in a factory that paid little, hoping for marriage. Nadia was right. Those were never my choices. And then we just sat quietly for a while, breathing in the heat.3
Some weeks later, we were visiting Aisha. Nadia still had not returned to work. The new factory where she and Amina had been hired was ready to open, but there was a new glitch: in France, the workers who manufactured the cloth the Moroccan girls would sew had gone on strike. There would be no work until after the holiday of the Great Feast. After the feast they were to report to the factory. Until then, Nadia remained at home, spending more time sitting at Aisha's.
(p.191) Nearly two months had passed since she had left Couture, and now she was becoming tired of her unemployment. She needed money, she said, to pay the phone bill and to buy sunglasses and new shoes for the summer months. “Who will give me money to buy things?” she asked me. Nadia did not worry about purchasing wheat or cooking oil, like other factory girls I knew. She lived in a house owned by her father and had two brothers working full-time. Although she liked to browse the aisles at Macro, it seemed to me that even if she had no job, Nadia and her family would eat.
More and more I had noticed she had lost all patience with her sister-in-law, Jamila. She nagged Jamila when we sat together in the sitting room at their home and gossiped about Jamila when we were out. As we sat in Aisha's sitting room late one afternoon, drinking tea, Nadia turned to the topic of Jamila, whom we had left behind. Nadia recounted for me the story of Jamila's early days. “Do you know, Titia,” she began, “that shortly after Jamila and Yousef married, I came here, to live in Aisha's house for three months?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because Jamila is full of poison. She is so full of poison that out of nowhere, she began to fight with me, to criticize me constantly. Suddenly she started to say that she wanted to leave our household. That she would go with Yousef to live in a rented place, those two alone—without us. For no reason, she stopped speaking to me. She would not even come down the steps. She just stayed upstairs, alone. She refused to be with us.”
“But what did Yousef do? What did he want to do—about living alone?” I really wanted to know if Yousef had considered the possibility of leaving the household. He had a job, I knew. There were so many people in that small house, and clearly they did not always get along. But Nadia would not address this question.
“I did not want to tell Yousef what Jamila was saying. I didn't want to tell him how nasty she was being.” Nadia tended to portray herself as a saint. But even if she bore her suffering quietly, wouldn't Yousef have noticed that she had moved out? I couldn't pursue these thoughts because Aisha cut in.
“It was during this time that Jamila was tuwaheming. This all occurred at the beginning of the first pregnancy.”
“It is certain that Jamila's actions could be attributed to this,” I said. I felt sorry for Jamila. I liked her, and I felt like she was trapped. But Nadia said no.
“She took the opportunity to act badly when she could blame it on the tuwahem, that is all.”
“This is true,” Aisha agreed. “Titia, you will never really know how evil Jamila (p.192) is, because you are always a guest. She really is a bad person.” And then, as further evidence, they launched into the story of the betrothal of Jamila and Yousef. “Jamila,” Aisha said, “is the one who told Yousef she loved him. This is shameful.”
“But how do you know this for sure?” I asked.
“Jamila and Yousef exchanged letters during this time, and Jamila wrote this in a letter.” I had already heard about the “habibi” letters.
“But how did you find the letters?”
“A letter was left just here, on a table, in their sitting room,” and Aisha gestured to show me how a piece of paper was left lying about, on a table, and how she picked it up and read it. It was written in Arabic and Aisha can read Arabic, although Nadia cannot. And so this was the source, I realized, of the story I had heard from the beginning, the story of how Jamila had written of love to Yousef.
And in a mocking tone Aisha added, “She has had all those miscarriages, but she does not even want to tell people what is wrong with her.”
I said nothing. I could not speak. What had Jamila done to them? Nadia and I had left her that afternoon, sitting alone in the sitting room, the television on. When we walked out, she kept asking us, “When will you be back?” But Nadia would not be tied down. “Should I make tea?” she had asked. “What time should I start the tea?” But Nadia wanted to go out and sit somewhere else. Jamila, we all knew, was not allowed to come along. There was nothing I could do for her.
And my mind wandered to the other factory girls I knew and their desperate desire for marriage as a solution to their dull work life and their economic woes. It is crucial, I thought, that they take caution. A girl must marry into a family she knows and trusts. At this economic level, she may well be forced to live with them, in a small set of rooms from which she will likely not be permitted to venture out. It is not so much the man and his whims that she will have to tolerate—it is his family. One factory girl, telling me she had so far refused three offers of marriage, because she did not think she would like the men's mothers, pointed out: “I will have to eat that woman's food—for a long time.” For the teachers, the professors, engineers, and doctors, the young couple quickly moves to a separate space. This is not the case for the people in Ben Souda and the other factory districts. Jamila is stuck—not so much with Yousef—but with his sister and his mother.
And then, as I let my mind wander, in part because I could no longer bear this conversation which I thought was borne, at least in part, out of frustration (p.193) and boredom, I began to think that perhaps part of the problem is that Jamila wanted Yousef. Nadia had no say in choosing her sister-in-law, nor did her mother. “We did not want her,” she had told me. “She cannot cook well.” Traditionally mothers in Morocco were able to influence the choice of a wife for their sons, and among the factory workers, I had noticed that the girls play a role: factory girls often choose friends and set about arranging the marriage of their brothers. But neither Nadia nor Rashida had a hand in selecting Jamila. And this, I thought, is making them mad.
And so I rejoined the conversation. “Jamila is beautiful,” I said, “and I think she is very nice.”
“It's true,” Aisha agreed, but only, perhaps, because people in Morocco do not like to disagree with a guest. “She is a beauty.”
It was the middle of April. Nadia had not found a new job and we spent more and more time sitting in Aisha's sitting room. Aisha was happy to have the diversion. She liked me, the foreigner. She liked me because my presence sparked conversations that people might not otherwise have bothered with. With me there, people were forced to articulate the rules of the culture. People spoke comparatively, contrasting Morocco with what they knew—or thought they knew—of other places. Aisha had a sharp mind and she was curious. I was someone she could teach, and so she instructed me. Lecturing me was interesting—for me, of course, but also, I felt, for her. In the end, of everyone I met from Nadia's family, I felt that I knew Aisha the best. Perhaps it was because she was so open and articulate. Aisha felt she had nothing to hide.
Aisha was a big woman, not just fat but tall and imposing. Rashida said that she weighed 90 kilos. She ate with gusto. Her features were even and her skin smooth. It is certain that she was beautiful as a girl. At this time she was 38 years old and had six children, one boy followed by five girls. Aisha always said she liked having children. One day, in the sitting room, her daughter announced that she herself would have only two children. “When I have one baby, I'll wait five years before having the next,” the girl announced.4
Aisha looked at the girl and said, “Five years with no baby? That is terrible.”
Aisha was one of ten children, “somewhere in the middle of four boys and six girls,” she had told me. When she was a girl, her father sent her to school until she reached the fifth grade and earned the primary school certificate. That is why she could read Arabic, a skill she used handily to read Jamila's (p.194) love letters to Yousef. Although he allowed her to go to school, her father was otherwise extremely strict. He let her out of the house for school only. He did not allow her to go visit friends or to attend weddings. She went “from school to the house from the house to school. Nowhere else.”
Aisha married at the age of 16. She knew her husband before the marriage because he came from her family—he was not a blood relative, but the in-law of a blood relative. When Aisha was a child, the man who would become her husband frequently visited her family's home with his first wife. Ultimately, he divorced this wife because she was barren. And then one day, with his wife gone, the man came to ask for Aisha. Her father agreed, and the wedding was held one month later. Once I asked Aisha if she had spoken to her husband before the ceremony. “Never. I was a girl. He would be visiting with his wife. Was I going to speak to him?” After the wedding, she had five babies in quick succession, her sixth baby coming after a few years' reprieve.
When Aisha was young, few girls were working. There were none of the factory districts that surround Fes today. Very rarely did girls work. She herself never worked outside her home.
“So what do you think?” I asked Aisha one long afternoon as we sat in the heat. “Do you think the girls should be working, like they are these days?”
“It's okay for girls to work if they need to. Girls can work outside the house; they can go to school. But they must not dally in the streets, stroll around, and speak with boys. They should not even be in the streets. They should go directly from house to school—school to house, or from house to work—work to house.” House and school, house and work, for Aisha these were binary pairs—opposing concepts. “Men are for the street, women for the house. This is the division.”
I knew that Aisha's own daughters had attended school, with varying success. The two eldest, ages 19 and 20, had dropped out long before fifth grade. The eldest was now attending a sewing school, and the second eldest, an obese young woman who the others mocked, remained at home. The three younger girls were still in school, although no one knew how far they would go.
“So you let your own daughters go out?” I asked.
“Yes, they go out ‘with the law’—with limits. They must tell me where they are going and why, and they must return on time. I watch them.”
“And Si Muhammad?” I asked.
“Well, of course, he comes and goes as he pleases. He does not need to tell me where he is or when he will be coming back. Of course, you know why this is so?” And with this Aisha gestured toward her stomach, reaching her (p.195) hand around in a gesture to demonstrate an enlarged belly, a pregnancy. I nodded.
“And you—do you go out?”
“Well, for myself, I too go out only ‘with the law’ as well. My husband must tell me if I can go out or not.” And Aisha explained that she does not go out without asking him first. She does not go out until she tells him where she is going and when she will return. If he is not home, she cannot ask for permission, so then she does not go out at all. “Unless it is something small—something really close by,” then she might go without asking him.
“Where could you go?”
“When I go out, I go to the hammam or to my mother's house, maybe.”
“Can you think of anywhere else you might go?” But she could think of nowhere else.
“Let me tell you, when I was first married, I never went out. I didn't even know the road back from here to my mother's house. I had never been to Ben Souda when he brought me here.” And Aisha continued, now in her storytelling mode. “At first I lived with him in his parents' house, with his parents and his older brother, his older brother's wife, and their two children. Once, when I was first married, there was a wedding in the house, and everyone was in one room, men and women mixed, and he would not allow me to come into the room. I was young and very beautiful then, and he did not want anyone to see me. I stayed alone that night, in a room on the side of the house. And I cried. I cried all night. Even though I was accustomed to not being allowed out—since my father had been so strict and I had never been allowed to go to weddings or friends' houses as a girl—still I cried that night.”
“That's so sad,” I said, and Aisha just shrugged. “At the beginning, when I was first married, I wore a face veil whenever I did leave the house. But after I had had many children, he let me take it off.”
“He saw that the customs were changing, and women were no longer wearing face veils. But also he could see that when I went out, I came straight back to the house, and so he began to trust me, and he let me take off the face veil.”
“And so now that he trusts you, you can go out more?” Aisha did not really answer this.
“One day, just a few weeks ago, I went to visit my friend, and when I returned, he hit me.”
(p.196) “I had left some bit of housework undone that he wanted done. So he hit me. Mostly he does not like to go out and not find me here when he gets in at night. From time to time he lets me go to my mother's and sleep there, but when I do he tells me, ‘Tomorrow, when I get home from work, I want to find you here.’” Aisha waved her hand at this, brushing it off. “I have to be here anyway. There is too much work in the house, the children are here, they're fighting. How can I go out with all this?”
And then Aisha said how much she would like to come to my house—to see the apartment I lived in. She dearly liked seeing where and how people lived, and she had never been to the home of a foreigner. I urged her to come and tried to arrange for a day when Nadia could lead her there. But she would not set a date and kept repeating, “Enshallah, enshallah” (God willing, God willing). So I stopped urging her.
Later, as the dark was falling, I got up to leave and again I reminded Aisha that she would be most welcome at my house, and softly, almost under her breath but so that I could just barely hear her, she said, “He doesn't let me out.”
And then I remembered that at the start of the afternoon we had left Jamila alone in Nadia's sitting room. When we walked out, nobody but Jamila was left there. Jamila had not wanted us to leave. When we got up to go, she had asked, “You're coming back, aren't you? You're coming back here after Aisha's?”
“I think so,” I had told her. I was officially Nadia's guest.
She had asked Nadia, “What time will you be back? Should I get the tea started?”
“Not yet, wait a while,” Nadia had said. And we had walked out, leaving Jamila there, in the dim light.
Of Aisha's six children, the three eldest have completed what they will of their education, and the three youngest are still in school. Si Muhammad was being brought into the family business, although, it appeared to me, he had plenty of free time on his hands. The eldest daughter was sent to a sewing school and the family purchased a knitting machine for the second eldest, so that she could remain at home and practice this craft. There would be no reason for these girls to pursue factory work—the only work for which they might be qualified, given their low level of education—since they had a father who could support them. Even if they had wished to work in a factory, their parents would not permit it.
“No, I won't marry my daughters until they are a little older—24, maybe, or 25.”
“But you married so much younger than that,” I said, curious.
“Yes,” she said. “But it's not good to marry so young. You are not wise then; you're not awake yet. You don't know anything; you cannot do the housework, even.” And so Aisha is now working to teach her daughters the proper way to cook and to do the housework, so they will be prepared for marriage. She has put the second eldest in charge of all the cooking for the household. This is the hugely fat girl, who it is said cried one day when she weighed herself on a scale Si Muhammad brought home.
“How will they marry, since you protect them so and don't let them out? Your second-born girl stays home all day. How will someone even know to marry her?”
“A man will hear of her and come to the house to find out about her. And my husband and I will talk with him.”
“Will the girls be able to talk to the man, too?”
“Not until we sign the marriage act,” Aisha said with certainty. “The man can look at her, and she can look at him. That is all. What do they need to discuss? There is nothing for them to talk about. My husband and I will discuss things with him. That is all. It is the parents' job to do the talking.”
And this idea set Aisha into a long diatribe about the many problems with marriage and children these days. “The problem with marriage today is that there are no good girls left. For example, if I marry Si Muhammad to a girl, after a while she will be fighting with my daughters. This is what is happening today—the new wife will fight with her husband's sisters. She will not necessarily fight with me. although she may do that, too. But she will surely fight with his sisters. And then, very soon, she will tell Si Muhammad, ‘We need to go away from this house. We need to rent our own place.’ This is extremely common today. All the girls are doing this.” Now Aisha was leaning forward. She was impassioned. These problems were real.
“This really is the problem with marriage today. Now, for example, when I was married, I moved right into the house with my husband's parents, his brother, his brother's wife, and their two children—a boy and a girl. My husband's brother and his wife traveled all the time. They were never home, and I was left to care for these children. I never said a word to my husband about wanting to leave that house, to move out alone with him. Did I tell him I didn't (p.198) want to care for his brother's children? No, I did not. I raised those children, took care of them until they were both married. I never said a word. I never asked to move out. But there are no girls left like this anymore.” Aisha was shouting now. These thoughts made her angry.5 But Aisha's opinions were widely held among people of Fes, as Abdul-Haq had once assured me.
Why aren't men marrying today in Morocco? The biggest problem is that of the feminist. The feminist woman wants to take the place of the man. In the house there used to be only the woman. The woman alone stayed in the house, cared for the house. The woman alone decided what she would cook, what the family would eat. A man would work and give all his money to the woman who would, by herself, work out the family budget, shop for the food, and decide what the family would eat. Perhaps the man would make tea. This is the only household duty that he would perform.
Actually the budgeting and purchasing really did not appear until the time of the French—because before the French, the woman did not go out…. Today, though, you will see women everywhere. Women are the ones who are in the souks making purchases. Men sell, and women buy. And on the buses, a greater number of passengers are women. And in jobs, even, women are holding the majority of jobs today. Every time you walk into an office you will see a woman who is sitting at a desk. She is sitting there, although she is never ever working; she is just sitting and knitting or talking on the telephone. She knits or talks. That is all she does, although she holds a job.
So why don't men want to marry? Because women want to take men's place.
“What would you do,” I asked, “if Si Muhammad married a girl who wanted to leave this house, who wanted to live on her own with him?”
“What could I do?” she said, sounding tired. “The son chooses between the mother and the wife. The wife tries to pull the son away from the mother, and the son has to choose.” For Aisha, the correct choice was clear: the mother should be chosen over the wife.
“Yousef always chooses his mother. He has told our mother that he will not leave,” Nadia said.
Aisha nodded. She had heard this. “Yousef is a good man. This is the correct thing to do. But there is another problem that we have here today. You should know about this, Titia. Listen. I might take someone's daughter and give my (p.199) daughter to them. Then, if there is any problem—for example, if I divorce their daughter, they will turn around and divorce my daughter. Whatever I do to their daughter, they will do to my daughter. This is very bad. If I divorce their daughter, does that mean they should divorce my daughter?” She looked at me for an answer, but I could not think of what to say. She did not wait long, though. “No, of course not. This is not how it should be with these kinds of exchanges. But this is what people are doing nowadays. This is a big problem with marriage.”
Now Aisha had gotten herself going, and she needed to cover other, tangentially related problems with marriage. “Men are bad. Some men are so bad that they will say to their wife, ‘If this is not a girl baby, I will divorce you'—that is, if the wife has had many boys. Or they will say, ‘If this baby is not a boy, I will divorce you.’ This is a terrible thing that men do. Is such a thing in the hands of the woman?”
“No,” I answered, shaking my head emphatically.
“No,” she said. “This is in the hands of God, but men will threaten women like that.” And I remembered what Nadia had told me, how each time after the birth of Si Muhammad, Aisha had been certain the next baby would be a boy, and how each time, five times in all, the next baby had been a girl.
Nadia's prospects for work in the factory that was soon to open were looking increasingly dim. Her relationship with the teacher was definitively over, but she still mentioned him from time to time, now claiming that she had always suspected he was a liar. Nadia believed that she was wasting away and complained of how thin and weak she had become from just sitting around, inside the house, unemployed. Rashida believed, too, that her daughter was becoming weaker from the loss of her work. I could see that Nadia was becoming more and more frustrated, bored, and angry. But I myself had not noticed a physical change.
The Great Feast was soon to arrive, when people would celebrate Abraham's reprieve from the slaughter of his son and his covenant with the one God. Work would stop for days, and people would eat and visit. When I arrived at Nadia's one afternoon, the family put a film in the VCR for me to enjoy—a home movie of their celebration of the Great Feast two years earlier, before the arrival of Jamila.
“This was just before Jamila came,” Nadia told me. “Before Yousef went away and saw her and wanted her.” And so I sat and watched, thinking it was surreal (p.200) —me, sitting on a banquette in the heat, watching them on the television, in this very house, slaughter the ram and slice up the carcass, Rashida squatting in the courtyard in front of the open fire in the mishmar, piercing the meat onto skewers, roasting it, the sons sitting on the very banquettes where I sat now, stuffing their mouths with meat—all of this playing out on the television screen. In the video the women were talking to the men, calling in from the courtyard to the sons seated in the sitting room, being feasted with meat. And then suddenly Rashida's face figured large on the screen, Rashida pressing the cheeks of a young man close to her own, hugging him, and telling the camera that he was her son. But he was not blood. He was just a young man who was a dear friend of the boys, whom they had known since childhood—like blood.
We watched the video until it ran blank, and then Nadia turned to me and asked, “Titia, why is it that you can get a visa to come here—to Morocco—but we can't get a visa to go to America?”
I sat, thinking. I was to depart in August and now it was May. Nadia had been asking me more and more frequently about visa requirements. Her questions were becoming pointed, and I was beginning to see where they were headed: Nadia was thinking that I could take her with me to America. She would no longer need to struggle for a job or a husband. Instead, she would go to America. The Promised Land. With me.
Over the year I had explained many times, to many people, that I could not secure visas to take them home with me. I told people that the United States had made it nearly impossible for Moroccans to secure visas unless they were already employed by an American factory or firm. And I explained that I did not own a factory or firm, and I could not hire them. I was not as rich as the Americans they saw on television. I could not find anyone a husband (or a wife), because Americans did not like to marry people they did not know. At every turn Moroccans had offered me countless kindnesses, and throughout the year I had tried to repay these with small gifts or with whatever inconsequential favor I might be able to provide at the moment. But a visa was something I could not provide.
From Nadia's point of view, I owed her something. Nadia had not just been a friend—she had helped me with my research. She had introduced me to other factory girls to interview. She had allowed me to sit with her family and listen to them speak of their lives. She had talked to me, giving me information, patiently, openly. I did owe her something.
But I could not take her with me to America. I was certain that Nadia would not be able to secure a visa. She spoke no language other than Moroccan Arabic. (p.201) She had been to school for a little over two years. She could not even read numbers, from what I could tell. Nadia had never been away from her family. She had rarely left Ben Souda. She had no money at all. Even if she could have secured a visa, as remote as that possibility might be, I knew I was not able to financially support her through what it would have required for her to live independently, and alone, in the United States.
“Nadia, it is impossible nowadays for people to get visas to America. They will not give them. There are just too many people trying to get in. But even if I could get you one—and I don't think I can—I don't know what you could do in America. I cannot get you a job there.” These excuses, for her, were weak. And again she began to argue, saying she could sew, she could clean houses. I gave in. “Okay, listen. I'll go to Casablanca. I'll go ask about a visa for you. I'll go next month. Or maybe the month after that.” I knew I would be traveling to the coast within the next few months, before my own departure. And I decided then that I would, in fact, research the visa requirements. And then, perhaps, I would have some official reason why I could not take her with me. As I settled this idea in my mind, my thoughts wandered back to my first few encounters with Nadia, when she had so warmly insisted that I visit her family. Abdul-Haq had been eager to explain Nadia's hospitality:
There are three reasons why Nadia might want you to come to her home, to visit her and to do interviews. [Here Abdul-Haq began his counting, pinky first.] The three possibilities are that:
1. Nadia likes you.
2. Nadia is a police agent.
3. Nadia wants something from you.
[Abdul-Haq went straight to point number two, which is one of many reasons why I suspected he himself never liked me.]
Nadia could be a police agent. Agents are everywhere in Morocco. It is very likely that when you leave, the police will come after the people you have spoken with and harass them, continually interrogate them, and possibly put them in jail…. Even people who simply buy a newspaper every day have been taken by the police. [This thought terrified me. I had Moroccan government permission to conduct research and had no evidence that what Abdul-Haq said was true. And yet his words haunted me all year.]
Point three: Nadia wants something from you. Moroccans believe that foreigners can help. They believe this because when the French were here, many fantastic things happened to people, fantastic things that people cannot (p.202) forget. For example [and here Abdul-Haq switched into a storytelling mode]:
It rains a lot in the winter in Morocco, and in the past it used to rain much, much more. In the past, the winters were full of rain. And one winter there was a Frenchman walking through Fes El Djedid, and it was raining and dark, and his clothing was soaked through, completely soaked through to his skin. And a boy, who worked in the public oven, the boy who lifts the bread in and out of the fire, saw this Frenchman soaked through to the skin. This boy did not know any French; he could speak no French at all. But somehow the boy was able to speak with the man, and he invited him back to his home. And he took him inside his own house and gave the Frenchman the clothes of his elder brother, which were clean and dry, to put on. And he lit a fire in the small brazier, so the Frenchman could stand over it and warm himself.
And the Frenchman stayed in the boy's house. He slept there for a few days, perhaps two or three days. And when he left, he went back to France, and not long after, he sent back to Fes El Djedid, he sent for the oven boy's older brother. He sent for him to come to France. And the boy went to France and worked with the Frenchman, and eventually he sent for the entire family. The entire family slowly moved to France, and they bought land, and now they all live in France, owning land.
My mind was on this story of Abdul-Haq's and the deliverance of the poor boy, and then Nadia interrupted my thoughts. She started talking about the king again, about his son, and how in the future things would be so much better because the new king would force all the girls and women to stay in the house. This, she said, was the only solution to the problem.
“This will be difficult, too, though,” I said, because I could not keep listening to this talk without saying something.
“We are not like you.” Nadia said.
“Oh,” I said, because Nadia had already said this to me before, and what could I say? Nadia was angry. I sensed that now she felt she had wasted all these months sitting with me, a foreigner with a bad accent. And for what?
“There is no solution to our problems,” Nadia said. I was quiet and then I got up to leave, and as I was leaving she said, “Titia, come back. Come back and celebrate the Great Feast with us.” And I told her I would.
(p.203) I returned for the Great Feast and spent the day in the sitting room with the brothers, being encouraged to eat pieces of roasted ram while Nadia, Jamila, and Rashida dashed in and out of the courtyard where they were grilling the meat Yousef had slaughtered. Nadia told me she had gone back to work two days earlier and then quit that very same day. She had taken a job in Sidi Brahim, worked one full day, and left the factory, intending never to return. The factory was near the train station and she had found it with her friend Amina. They needed workers, so she got up in the morning and arrived early. She sat at her machine and sewed all day long and at 7:00 p.m., she just got up from her seat and told the owner she would work no longer. The girls in that factory work until 8:30 every night, she had discovered, and the factory provides no transportation home. Sidi Brahim is far from Ben Souda, and she will not make that trek every night, so late in the evening. The pay was good at that factory, but it was so hot in there, and she wants to work in a factory where they start work at 8:00 a.m. and shut down by 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. She does not want to work all night. In any case, she has a friend who knows the floor manager there, and the friend says he is bad, very bad. So after a day's work, she walked out. She got no pay for the day. I knew she would never be able to retrieve her pay for those hours worked.
The next time I stopped in, late one afternoon, Nadia was not at home. She was visiting a friend, Rashida said, in the medina. “She has become weak, very weak,” Rashida told me. “She is getting tired of not working. She is bored.”
Jamila and Yousef were still in Casablanca, where they had gone to stay for almost two weeks, visiting Jamila's family for the holiday. The two oldest brothers, Brahim and Hassan, were in the sitting room. Brahim was showing his mother pictures of a weeklong vacation he had taken with Aisha's son, Si Muhammad, in Si Muhammad's car, over the holiday. The two had driven throughout Morocco, visiting the cities of Casablanca, Marrakech, and Agadir. Brahim had taken hundreds of pictures—or perhaps Si Muhammad had taken them—for there were pictures of Brahim posing all across Morocco. “Fes is nothing, Mother,” Brahim was telling Rashida. “Compared to Marrakech, Fes has nothing. There is nothing here. Marrakech is far better.” Rashida listened and studied each picture with great care, perhaps because he was her son, or perhaps because she herself had never been to these places. And I thought that this was certainly a trip that Nadia would never take; even if she could put together the money, Nadia would never be allowed to drive around the (p.204) country, in a car, with just one friend, stopping where she pleased, posing for photographs.
And while we sat, Yousef called from Casablanca. He called to tell his mother he would be home the following day, and his brothers in turn took the phone to speak with him. Rashida began to weep, saying how she missed her son and how she wanted him to return. And then Rashida got up to make tea, and Nadia returned, and we drank the tea and then walked together, Rashida, Nadia and I, to Aisha's house, because Aisha had sent for us.
As soon as we arrived, Aisha blurted out a piece of information. “Did you know, Titia,” Aisha said quickly and loudly, “Hassan is planning to marry?” Nadia and Rashida stopped short and looked blankly at Aisha. I could see that this bit of information was not supposed to have been revealed, at least not to me. I was embarrassed and sat, silently. Immediately my mind went to images of Hassan, Rashida's second son, washing dishes in soapy water, helping Rashida with laundry, jumping up to answer the door while we females sat still. Hassan, from what I could see, did not work. How would he marry? But I could not ask this question.
“The woman Hassan has found to marry has a daughter already—a child older than my youngest girl,” Aisha continued. Still I didn't say anything. Nadia and Rashida just stared at Aisha. Was Aisha laughing at them? Was she taunting them? “She comes with a guarantee, that is what Hassan says,” Aisha went on. “At least we know she can have children, better than the one who sleeps upstairs in Rashida's house.” Nadia and Rashida remained silent. I knew that Aisha should not be speaking, that she was touching a sore spot that was supposed to go unmentioned.
And then Aisha started imitating Jamila, announcing, “I am going to the clinic,” mocking Jamila's barren state. Rashida remained silent. I was uncomfortable with the cruelty of laughing at Jamila's tragedy, and I sensed that Aisha was not supposed to be mocking Jamila in front of Rashida. Jamila's barren state was a real problem for Rashida's beloved son. And then, with none of these conversation starters very fruitful, Aisha started to mock the wedding festivities hosted by Jamila's family in Casablanca. “The family served plain rice. They placed tiny bowls in front of us, filled with nothing but plain rice. No sugar, no milk on it. We refused to eat this.”
And finally Rashida joined in. “This was truly shameful. Shameful to give us plain rice at the wedding when they should serve chicken or meat.”
But I could not let the discussion of Hassan's impending marriage go. It was too curious. I had never understood Hassan's role in the household. He was so (p.205) often in the house—the other brothers did not dally in the sitting room where the women sat—and he carried out chores appropriate only for females. “Will Hassan move his new wife into the house with you?” I asked Rashida, unable to think of where this new pair could possibly fit.
“Of course, where else would they live?” she responded. She sounded angry, but I knew she was not angry with me. There was something else going on, but I would not be told what.
As we walked home from Aisha's house, we passed an old woman heavily carrying her girth down the dirt road, her hand wrapped in cloth. Rashida grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop so I could look at the woman. “Do you see her—her arm? Her daughter-in-law hit her and broke her hand.” My face showed disbelief. “It's true,” she said. “If my daughter-in-law did that to me, I would strangle her.” I looked at Rashida. She was dead serious. I had never heard her speak so viciously. She was always so measured and reassuring and kind. She was so often leaning over a Bunsen burner, cooking flat breads or heating water for tea. And now this.
“Imagine,” she continued, “that woman's own son feeds the wife. He clothes her and he shelters her. Her own son buys everything for that wife, and that is what the wife does to his mother. If my daughter-in-law did that to me, I would kill her.” Nadia knew of the story and agreed with her mother.
“And now,” Rashida muttered, “Hassan will bring in another one, another one who will do that to me.”
Nadia had despised her job at Couture when she left it, and now she had come to despise her own inactivity. One afternoon she told me about the job she held before she worked for Couture, a job in a factory in the medina. “Things were good when I worked in the medina. Every day I got up at five in the morning, I drank my tea, and I went to meet my friend at the bus station. We took a bus to the medina, and as soon as we arrived, we'd buy some yogurt and cornbread at a small shop near the bus depot. We'd start work and then at ten, the bell would sound for the break, and we'd share a long loaf of bread and some cheese. We'd split the cost. And then, at one o'clock, the lunch bell would ring and we'd eat lunch together, and then we'd eat again at four—we'd stop working for a snack. And then when we left the factory, we'd stop and buy a treat for the way home. And when I arrived here, I'd eat dinner. I was fat then. The work made me fat, and this was good. And now I am weak and thin—from not working at all.”
(p.206) Shortly after she told me this, Nadia did find a job. For a few days she worked for the wife of Couture's owner. There are a few families in Fes who are said to own everything, and one family in particular, the Benhay family, is known to own and operate many of the garment factories in town. The owner of Couture is a Benhay. He is married to a woman who is also a Benhay. She and her friend (yet another Benhay) had decided to open a fashion boutique in the Ville Nouvelle. The women, Nadia told me, had placed two sewing machines on the ground floor of a villa in which one of them lived, a lovely villa with a swimming pool, surrounded by a fabulous garden. And they had hired Nadia and another former Couture worker to sew for them. The girls would sew clothing using the fabrics and patterns from Benhay factories, and this clothing would be sold in the rich women's boutique.
Everything was good about this position, although Nadia's manner showed little enthusiasm. “We can be late for work, and the women do not scream at us. We can take as long as we like for lunch. In fact, they told us not to bring our lunch, because they will have lunch served to us. And we will get paid by the week instead of at the end of the month. This is good, because if I decide to quit, I can wait and get my pay first. And the pay is good. But what's most important is that these women do not scream at us.” And here Nadia demonstrated to me how these women spoke with her and her friend. “They ask us things. They want our opinion because they know nothing at all about sewing. We have to advise them on how to sew the things.” This Nadia repeated several times, and several times again she mentioned that these women do not scream and yell.
“Why are these women starting their own factory?” I asked.
“These people are rich. They have everything they need. But still these women cannot sit alone all day doing nothing. And they work separately from their husbands so that they do not fight with them, and the husbands then cannot enter into their affairs and boss them around.” Nadia said this with a kind of admiration. “All of these rich women are opening boutiques. It's what they're doing now. Have you seen Abdou's wife? She has short hair and smokes cigarettes. She is a foreigner.”
“No, she's not really foreign. She's Moroccan. But she owns so much, she has everything, she lives the good life—like a foreigner.” Nadia continued, “They're not like us. Look at us. We can't do anything. I'd like to start something, but we can't start anything. It's all about money. They have the money to get things started.”
There are three classes of people in Morocco:
1. The first class is the popular class, also called the poor people. These are the people who live with other people: if you go to their house, they will have you eat with them, they help each other on the street, they know each other and speak with each other…. At this level people earn about one thousand dirham a month. You will find these people in the popular districts, the industrial districts.
2. Then there are the people in the middle…. They are the kind of people who live in apartment buildings like the one you live in, in the Ville Nouvelle. These are the teachers, the bureaucrats.
3. Then there are the “heads of money,” the rich. These are what we call the bourgeoisie. They are alone in their own class…. They have no tradition, no respect. A girl from the bourgeoisie is likely to sit in front of her father and smoke a cigarette, wearing a short skirt. This is very bad. The bourgeoisie do terrible things. For example, they do not eat the middle of the bread. They pull out the inside part of bread and eat only the crusts. They then use the insides of the bread to wash or dry off their hands after dinner. This is extremely upsetting to the popular people. For the Moroccan people, bread is thought of as something holy. If they see a piece of bread on the ground, they will pick it up and kiss it and then put it high up, put it off the ground, perhaps on the branch of a tree…. But not the Bourgeoisie.
It was early June. From noon until four or five in the afternoon, the streets were quiet. People left their houses to do what business they had in the cool of the early morning and returned home for the noon meal. Then, if they could, they stayed inside until the sun began to set. The heat was a dry heat like the heat that shoots out of a hair dryer. Except this heat surrounded your body, and there was no escape from it.
Late one afternoon I arrived at Nadia's house. The family had removed the furniture from the sitting room and piled it in the courtyard, where it would remain until September. The furniture, they said, holds the heat, and without it the room would be cooler. But still the room was stifling. We sat on a rug on the bare floor, trying to feel the cool of the cement walls and floor. Nadia and (p.208) I sat alone. Rashida and Jamila had been to the hammam and, depleted from the heat, were sleeping upstairs.
Nadia and I went to see Aisha, who we had heard was sitting alone, too. Aisha's closest companions, her eldest daughters, had traveled for the day to Sefrou. Si Muhammad, accompanied by Nadia's eldest brother, Brahim, had driven them there. This trip had been arranged because Aisha's second eldest daughter had been crying bitterly the day before. She was complaining, Nadia said, that she was never allowed to leave the house. “She gets up in the morning, and she makes the bread. She prepares breakfast for everyone and then she cleans and organizes the house. Then she prepares the lunch. After lunch she washes the clothing and prepares dinner. The little girls go to school, the eldest girl goes to sewing school, Si Muhammad goes out all day in his car, and her father, of course, leaves for the shop. And she cannot go out,” Nadia reported.
As we walked, Nadia told me that she thought them all ridiculous. “Si Muhammad,” she says, “actually yells at his sisters for peeking out the window. He tells them not to peer from the windows because he is afraid that people will see them. They beg him to take them out in his car, but he claims always to be busy and never takes them anywhere. He just does not want them to go out.”
“This is a bit unpleasant,” I said, feeling disgust but not wanting to express the extent of my own distaste.
“It isn't a bit unpleasant. It is very unpleasant,” Nadia replied forcefully. “If a girl is kept so strictly controlled, she will go wild if she goes out just once. She will lose control. She won't know how to behave in the street.”
“It would be far better for them to work in a factory,” I suggested.
“But why would they? They do not need the money. I know plenty of girls who don't work, who are allowed to go out to the medina once a week. Aisha's girls cannot even do that. Si Muhammad won't let them. Their father won't let them.”
“But why doesn't Aisha intercede for them?” I asked. “Why doesn't she ask her husband to let them out?”
“‘They are on their own with their father,’ that's what Aisha says,” Nadia said. “Aisha refuses to intercede for them.”
“I think she is afraid of her husband.”
“No, that's not it.”
“Well, is she just so traditional herself?”
“Aisha thinks that if a girl goes outside, she will simply talk to boys and get into trouble. Remember I told you Aisha does nothing? She does no housework (p.209) at all. The girls do it all. So why should she let them go out? Then she'll have to do the housework herself.”
“Well, you're lucky you at least can go out.”
“Oh yes, I go out,” Nadia said proudly. “But it's not because I am lucky. I'm straight, and my brothers know it. I am so straight, and so honest, they know they can trust me. I never do stupid things. I don't do anything crooked. I don't do the zigzag.” I did not want to remind her of her secret boyfriend.
We sat with Aisha and waited for the girls. They returned from the festival at 7 p.m., dashing up the cement steps. The day was a hot one, and the daughter who had so desperately wanted to be taken out appeared in a black velvet djellaba that encased her obese body. I could see how the curly hair near her ears was wet with sweat. Her skinny sister, dressed in dark blue jeans covered by a baggy long-sleeve shirt, was sweating, too.
We did not visit long with these girls, though. The moment they entered the room, Nadia raced down the cement steps to speak with Si Muhammad before he drove away in his car. Aisha's husband, it seemed, had arranged for Si Muhammad to take Nadia to the home of a man who was heavily indebted to him. This man's wife was the floor manager of a large sewing factory in Sidi Brahim, and she would be obligated to offer Nadia a job. The position with the Benhay women was not as lucrative as it had first appeared, and Nadia felt that this opportunity might be an improvement. Nadia came running back up the steps: Si Muhammad and Brahim would be willing to take us. Aisha grabbed her head scarf. She had been given permission to go. And we three jumped into the back seat of Si Muhammad's four-door sedan and went out into the night. It was very exciting.
Si Muhammad drove, and Brahim sat in front next to him. We traveled to a new section of the city, a section not more than ten years old. As we drove, everyone talked about how recently the buildings had been planted there, how they remembered when this part of the city was nothing but empty space. We arrived in front of one of the countless cement block apartment buildings that lined the road. Si Muhammad parked the car in the dust. We all got out, and Si Muhammad knocked loudly on a metal door.
We were welcomed into a small apartment and brought through a hallway into a sitting room. This apartment had all the elements of the houses I had visited in the factory districts of Fes, and yet it was different. The apartment was tiny but immaculate and purposefully decorated. But what was so different was that this building—this apartment—was completely finished. None of the walls were uncovered cinder blocks. There was no cement left to pour. Portions (p.210) of the interior walls were covered with tile—not the hand-painted ceramic tile found in the Medina but shiny new, factory-produced tiles printed in bright blue geometric patterns. The fabric on the banquettes in the sitting room was shiny and new. The low serving table in this room was covered with a carefully embroidered tablecloth and stacked with embroidered napkins. Knickknack shelves hung on the walls, lined with tiny decorative ceramic figurines—the kind that could be purchased in Macro. This was the apartment of a family who had nearly reached the middle class, a family that could purchase novelties and baubles that had no real use. This was the apartment Nadia wanted.
It was the indebted man who greeted us, the floor manager's husband. He assured us his wife would return shortly and graciously treated us as guests. As he moved back and forth between the sitting room and kitchen, preparing coffee, Aisha mimicked and mocked him, saying his hospitality was due only to the fact that he owed her husband millions, and she laughed at the figurines on display.
We sat and drank the coffee we were offered until finally the floor manager returned home, trailed by her two finely dressed young sons and a tiny girl whose filthy clothing signaled her position as the family's child maid. Unpleasantly surprised to find us awaiting her, the floor manager went immediately into a back room to change and emerged after some time in a shiny polyester Chinese gown tied around her large stomach with a wide belt. Harshly she began to interrogate Nadia, asking her where she had worked before and what she had previously earned. Nadia became shy and incoherent. She mumbled her answers and looked at the ground. Finally, though, it was agreed that Nadia would report to the woman's factory the next morning. The woman would instruct the guard to admit her.
So it was decided and the deal was closed. Then there was a hitch: Nadia mentioned, almost as we were leaving, that she would be unable to start so quickly. She wanted to be certain to collect her earnings from the Benhay women before beginning this new job. She would need to finish the week with them. “This is not a problem,” the floor manager said. “Just go and tell those women that you are ill and that you need to go away, to stay with your sister—in Casablanca perhaps. They'll have to pay you. They won't be able to compel you to continue working with them—not under this situation.” We were, at this point, standing together in a group near the door, and everyone agreed that this was the best way to go about things. So the plans were set for Nadia to take the new job. Nadia would be at the factory gate at 8:00 a.m.
We left and climbed back in the car. And as soon as the doors were shut, (p.211) Nadia said, “I have worked with that woman before. She does nothing but scream. She is full of screaming. I worked with that woman for one full day once, and she would come right up to my machine and scream, ‘Hurry, hurry!’ Why do people scream like this? What is the point of that screaming? I'm not going to that factory. I have no wish to work with her.” And then Nadia started to talk about the intermittent work she had found with the Benhay women. “This is better work. And if I stay with them, and these women ever manage to open a factory, I would probably become a manager, since I was the first one there.”
“It's true, there's no reason you should leave what you have now,” Brahim advised his sister from the front seat. And it was agreed that Nadia, in fact, would not be appearing at that woman's factory the next morning.
Si Muhammad headed the car into the Ville Nouvelle, where he would drop me off. He stopped in front of my building, and I got out. Before I could shut the car door, Aisha had dashed out of the back seat and was on the sidewalk behind me. She was coming in to see my apartment. There was no stopping her now; she was out of the car. The men in the front seat said nothing, and Nadia followed along. I unlocked the door to the building and led them up the cement steps and into the apartment.
The apartment was dark and empty. Aisha walked directly into my bedroom and opened the doors of my closet. She started looking through the clothing hanging there, commenting on what I owned. She pulled out a sleeveless dress I never wore, because I knew that no respectable woman flaunted her arms on the streets of Fes.
“This is beautiful. Why don't you wear it?”
“I don't like to wear it here. I'm embarrassed.”
“Really, you shouldn't be embarrassed. It is good. You should wear this to make yourself look more beautiful.”
Once, when she had become impassioned discussing the behavior of Moroccan girls, Aisha had said that the girls who stroll around Fes in miniskirts, baring their legs for all to see, were shameless. “Girls like that,” Aisha had said, “should have their legs cut off.” But now she was exempting me from this indictment. It was as if she were saying, “I wouldn't criticize you if you wore this dress with no sleeves. I recognize that you are different, and I accept your foreign ways.”
And then she moved into my sitting room, where there was a large window that looked out onto the street. The room was still dark because we had not switched on the lights. We sat down on the banquette in front of the window. (p.212) The glow from a street light illuminated the pattern on the cushion where we sat.
“Titia, this is good,” said Aisha. “You have the light from the street coming in here. You can make use of this light at night, and then you won't be forced to pay so much for electricity.” Then Si Muhammad started to honk the horn, and Aisha and Nadia left my apartment.
The next time we arrived at Aisha's house, we found Aisha had visitors: Nadia's aunt and her newly married daughter were in the sitting room. I had previously seen the wedding pictures of this young woman. Her skin is black and she is hugely obese. Sitting next to her was her mother, who was light-skinned and very thin and frail. I was struck immediately by the contrast between the two. I had met many of Nadia's “aunts” before and had long ago accepted that I would never fully comprehend the genealogical connections between these people. But this young woman's skin was dark—as dark as a glass of Coca-Cola—a phrase Nadia herself had once used. How could she be this fair-skinned woman's daughter? But skin color was not the most noticeable trait for Nadia.
“This one is fat, isn't she, Titia?” Nadia joked after we had all carried out our greetings. I smiled, not wishing to agree too readily.
The girl smiled with little sign of dismay. “My mother, as thin as she is now, was fat when she was young. She weakened and grew thin from bearing children. This is what will happen to me, I think.”
The fat girl told me that she, like me, had married last year. She was 28 and had married at the end of Ramadan. “I married an old man,” she said bluntly, “a very old man. He is so old that his children are my age, and they are all married.”
“And how do you like it then—this marriage?” I asked.
“It is good,” she said. “We live alone in the house, and the house is quiet. I can leave every afternoon to go and visit my mother.” She seemed pleased with the arrangement. At the age of 28, I thought, she was too old to have found a younger, more desirable man. And she was far too fat, even in Morocco, where women do not strive for skeletal figures. He was too old, and she was too fat. But in Morocco, “marriage—like death—is necessary.” That is what people say.
Her problem, as I might have expected, was that although she had been married for a year, she had not yet become pregnant. She wanted children, and the conversation very quickly turned to her medical history and her most (p.213) recent doctor visits. And as we talked, Nadia unrolled a plastic bag that she had brought along with her to the house. I had noticed the bag, but had not asked what she was carrying. On the table in front of us, Nadia carefully pulled from the bag a huge pair of white pantaloons, the baggy cotton pants that women wear underneath their robes. The pantaloons were giant and stained with a reddish brown mark—the stain of dried blood. These were the wedding pants of the fat black girl. Nadia, it seemed, had been walking around with these pants on for the last three days.
As it turned out, the family was quite certain that a spell had been placed on Nadia. Nadia was getting old—she was 26—and she had had many opportunities for offers of marriage, but no offers had been made. This clearly was an ongoing problem. But recent events had convinced the family that there was some sort of foul play. In the space of several days Nadia had thrown up repeatedly, even though she was not ill. The vomiting always followed upon her drinking buttermilk. There was a large jar of buttermilk in the house and each time Nadia drank from it, she threw up. The women decided that they should start to take some action on Nadia's behalf, and so they began with the pantaloons of this recent bride. The hope was that by wearing these pantaloons, Nadia might remove the spell and improve her chances of finding a mate. But this was just the first step. The women were making plans to go and visit a shuwafa, a fortune-teller who might provide them more insight.
Nobody mentioned the pants again, and I could learn nothing of a visit to a shuwafa. Nadia never appeared at the factory of the screaming floor manager, and the wealthy factory wives seemed to have halted in their efforts to stock their boutique. Nadia was angry. As we walked to Aisha's house, she told me of the troubles of her good friend Amina, who was also still unemployed. But for Amina, things were far worse. Amina was married. “Her husband is forcing her to find a job,” Nadia told me with outrage. “She tries to act like he is not forcing her, but I can see that he is. Whenever I am there, he says, ‘Why don't you two go out together now, to look for work?’” Amina's husband, I knew, was employed at a factory as well.
“Why is he so desperate for her to work?” I asked. “Doesn't he have a pretty good job?”
“He has a job,” Nadia said, “but he gets about 1,500 dirham a month, which is just not enough. Their rent is 800, and after paying for electricity and water what good will 1,500 do? And the baby is sick. Amina needs to bring her to (p.214) Rabat, to the hospital, but they don't have the money. And so he keeps telling her to get a job.”
But the point of this conversation was not Amina. It was Nadia and her own life. “I cannot stand these conditions,” she said, gesturing around her. “This house, this way of living, I can't stand it. I don't want to have to work. Okay, I'd work to help my husband. We could help each other. But I don't want to work by force. He can't force me to work. I don't want him to be depending on me for money. He shouldn't need money. He shouldn't have to ask me for my wages.
“You know Amina sold her gold. She sold all her gold because her husband needed the money. This is not what I want. I don't want to be selling my gold for my husband. You sell your gold if you need to, but then you should be able to get it back later. In marriage you should be able to increase the amount of gold you have, not lose gold. This is what you should be able to do in marriage.”
We arrived at Aisha's house only to hear more bad news, news that Nadia had already known. Aisha was pregnant and in a state of despair. She had been suffering health problems ever since the birth of her last daughter. Her doctor had told her this pregnancy would be difficult. Aisha did not want any more pregnancies.
Nadia, already in a rage with her own life, had no patience for Aisha's dilemma. She knew with certainty what Aisha must do. “Listen to me, Aisha,” she began loudly, with little of the tenderness I would have expected in this situation. “You have had too many children already. Si Muhammad and Fatima [Aisha's firstborn] are the only ones who should be alive anyway—the rest of them should not even exist. I admit it. I should not even exist. I am the fifth born, and there are just too many people. Think about it. Every child should be clean and well dressed. This takes money. People should not be having all these children. We all know that. Get rid of it, Aisha. Take it out. That's what you should do.”
Abortion is legal in Morocco, although a woman would need the signature of her husband in order for the doctor to perform the procedure. Still, I was surprised by Nadia's behavior. She had no patience for Aisha's low mood and her indecision.
“What did the doctor tell you, Aisha?” I asked. Aisha was usually the loud and brusque one, the joker. But today she was sitting quietly, chewing her bottom lip.
“He just said it will cause me problems,” Aisha said.
But Nadia had no time for anyone's reaction to this pregnancy but her own. (p.215) “You people might say I am crazy, that my opinion is no good, but you are the stupid ones. One or two children are enough. Look at the woman who lives next door to us. She and her husband live on the bottom floor of the house, in two rooms only, two rooms that her mother gave her to live in. First she had two children, a boy and a girl. Perfect. And her husband was working at a company, and it was good. But then he lost his job and had to get a cart and started selling bananas and apples. Then she had twins and then twins again. Two times she had twins. Even her father came and told her to stop having children. It is ridiculous.”
“Why does she keep having children?” I had to ask.
“I have no idea why. She is stupid. There are no jobs. Everyone is living with terrible difficulties, in terrible conditions, and she keeps having twins.” Nadia stopped to take a breath. Her point was made.
Nadia's feelings were not lifting. The unemployment was making her hopeless, I felt. She worked a day here and there for the wealthy wives, and then finally they sent her home, saying they wouldn't need her for a while. They had stocked the boutique. At Aisha's one afternoon Nadia was telling us how bored she was with her life, how she felt she couldn't bear her situation.
“Look, my friend,” Aisha said, leaning forward to get closer to Nadia, who sat on the banquette opposite her. “Life is like that. The moments of happiness are short; they pass quickly. But the moments of sadness and boredom pass quickly, too. Look at me. A few weeks ago, I was strangled. I felt I was being strangled,” and she made the gesture of being choked, wrapping her fingers around her neck. “And now I feel better. I was going crazy because I was so bored. I was insane. And look at me now. I'm okay.”
“When was this, Aisha? When were you feeling this way?” I asked, not remembering Aisha expressing these thoughts.
“When I knew I was pregnant. Before I had the abortion. That was how I felt.” I was taken aback by Aisha's announcement. No one had mentioned the abortion again, and I had assumed that Aisha had not pursued this option, that she was, in fact, still pregnant. Then I felt a deep admiration for Aisha, for what she was telling Nadia. Aisha was trapped in that sitting room. I wondered how she—or any of them—could bear that. And now I knew that she did in fact sometimes feel like she was suffocating, but still she kept on joking, holding court on her banquette.
(p.216) Late one afternoon, I invited Nadia to come with me to “stroll the medina,” to help relieve the boredom. When I arrived at the bus station where we had planned to meet, I found Aisha with her. Both were dressed in their finest clothing. Nadia was wearing a new black pantsuit with a long white polyester shirt whose front was lined with yellow gold buttons. On her feet were the high-heeled plastic sandals that all the factory girls had purchased this spring and that, I imagined, would surely produce painful blisters. Aisha was wearing the black velvet djellaba which I had seen on her daughter. It made her look glamorous, but in the heat of early June, it was surely the cause of the thin stream of sweat running down her face. Aisha's black hair was pulled back tightly and today it was uncovered. I sensed that her hair had just moments earlier been hidden by a head scarf, which Nadia had instructed her to remove. Both wore matching lipstick—which was Nadia's. They were dressed for an afternoon out of the house.
We went through our greetings and looked carefully at each other in this new setting. And then Nadia suggested that instead of touring the medina we take a bus to visit Aisha's mother, who was, of course, also Nadia's aunt.
Aisha was tempted. She liked this idea. “But he'll be mad,” she said. “My husband will be very angry. He has let me out to go to the medina, and he thinks that is where I'm going. He'll be mad if he hears I went to my mother's.” Aisha was nervous, unable to decide. She bit her lower lip.
“How could he be mad at you for visiting your mother? Going to your mother's can't be a bad thing, can it?” This seemed to push her into a decision.
“I'll go,” she said. “But I'll lie to him. I'll lie.” I could sense a fear in Aisha. She kept chewing her lip as if she were thinking hard, contemplating this decision and its consequences, and I regretted having said anything. I tried to backtrack and suggest we stay with our original plan, but now Aisha was determined to go see her mother. We boarded a bus to take us south of Fes, down the road toward Sefrou. And I watched Aisha's face as we traveled.
Aisha's mother lives out on Route Immouzer where it intersects with Route Sefrou. As we moved further from Fes, the concentration of houses thinned. Large, ornately decorated villas began to appear, new structures where the wealthy were settling far from the noise of the town. Occasional blocks of two-story apartments dotted the landscape. As these signs of the city began to disappear and the dry hills, looking untouched, rose up before us, we arrived at a small settlement of dirt treks and squat, cement houses. We prepared to get off the bus, and Aisha announced that she had decided what she would tell her husband.
(p.217) “I'll tell him that the American needed to go down Route Sefrou, to get something for her husband from a teacher's house. I'll say that Nadia decided to go with the American and that I was afraid to go to the medina by myself, that I did not want to separate from Nadia. I'll tell him that is why I went with you two on the bus to Route Sefrou.”
“Will you tell him you visited your mother at all?” I asked.
“No, I won't tell him that.”
“Well, what if your mother mistakenly mentions that you were at her house?”
“That will never happen,” she said quite confidently. She asked Nadia for a handkerchief and began to wipe the lipstick from her lips, saying she would be ashamed to appear like that in front of her father. Nadia removed her lipstick as well.
We started off down a dusty trail of dirt. The air was noticeably quiet, absent of the constant sounds of the city. Aisha pointed here and there. “We used to play in the irrigation canal right here,” she said. “And there, where those houses are, it was nothing but olive trees. We'd play in the trees. It was beautiful here.” Aisha's elderly parents lived in a house that her brother had financed with the earnings from his thirty years of labor in France—despite his greedy wife's desperate attempts to keep the money for herself. “She wants all his money for her own family.”
When we arrived at Aisha's parents' house, we were warmly welcomed and immediately—upon seeing her daughter—Aisha's mother began to cry. There had been an assassination attempt on the Egyptian president, and his near-death reminded her of the death of her youngest son, the son whose funeral I had heard about. We settled in a small room on old banquettes, and the women began to speak, quickly turning to the discussion of Jamila and the recent discoveries about her inability to become pregnant. Nadia eagerly delivered the news of the witchcraft that had been uncovered. “Someone,” she told Aisha's mother, “is killing the children before they are born, in the womb. It is most certainly witchcraft.” Aisha's mother was very visibly horrified. Her daughter, however, showed less interest in this side of the story. Aisha was focused on her most recent criticism of Jamila: Jamila was wasting all her time and too much money on doctors.
Finally, the subject of my own childbearing, or lack thereof, was introduced. I had married just before coming to Morocco, they knew, and as time passed, more and more they spoke about my lack of children. “She has been married almost a year now,” said Nadia. “And nothing.” Aisha's mother looked at me. (p.218) She said she was unconcerned, that in fact some people do not have children until three, even five years after marriage.
“But,” Aisha tuned in, “she is 30 already.” And with this, the old woman looked at me again, this time with alarm in her eyes. But it was growing late, and we had to get back to the city before dark, so the conversation was cut short. We nearly had to run from the house to be certain to get the next bus home. After racing through the still hot and dusty road, Aisha sat down heavily on the seat of the bus. She was tired, she said, tired from running. Tired from being out. The bus ride from the Ville Nouvelle to Aisha's mother's house had taken us over an hour, although I suspected the distance was not more than fifteen miles. The bus ride from Ben Souda to the Ville Nouvelle would take at least another forty-five minutes. The buses were hot and crowded. For them it would take almost two hours to get home.
“That is because you do not go out enough,” Nadia told her. “You never get out, so you are tired when you go anywhere.” Aisha said nothing.
(1.) Nearly every account written on female workers in the global factory notes that the new factory girls become participants in the market for new kinds of commodities, whose purchase defines these girls as modern and urban.
(2.) In many regions, participation in industry has allowed girls greater control over their own life decisions—choice of a spouse, control of sexuality, control over fertility. The factory girls of Fes carry out courtship rituals that generally involve strolling in the streets and souks with a chosen man. Although families never officially cede authority to an unmarried daughter, I noticed that families seemed to significantly loosen control over daughters who remained unmarried well into their 20s and whose economic contributions to the household had been crucial. These workers seemed to come and go as they pleased, in an almost unspoken arrangement.
(3.) In other regions of the world, factory girls enter industry amid national debates about modernity and questions of how industrialization—and the girls participating in it—can affect the nation's progress. See Pun, Mills 1999, Lynch. In Morocco, the issue of factory work gets steeped in questions about whether employment in the factory fits into Islamic tradition. This question would not come to the fore, perhaps, in a better economic context. Few in Morocco question whether the work of female engineers, or college professors, or primary school teachers fits into the Muslim tradition. Educated people—men and women alike—are respected in Morocco. These discussions may also have reflected growing interest in conservative forms of Islam around the globe for this period.
(4.) I found that young women in the age category of factory girls (13–25 years old) consistently reported that they would bear only one or two children, with the goal of educating these children well. Demographic studies reveal that between the 1970s and the 1990s, fertility declined by 44 percent in Morocco. By 1995, the total fertility rate in Morocco was 3.3 children (p.253) per woman, low when compared with the past. By 2007, the total fertility rate in Morocco had declined even further, to 2.4 children per woman. See Althaus, Eltigani, and UNICEF.
(5.) Aisha, and the workers who so often complained about the difficulties of finding husbands, were in fact reflecting a significant shift in marriage trends in Morocco. In 1995 the female age of first marriage in Morocco was 26.3 years, a significant drop from 1980, when the age at first marriage was 21.3 years, itself at variance with traditional notions that girls are best married at puberty. Rates of marriage had declined as well. In 1995, 52 percent of Moroccan women of reproductive age were married, and 42 percent were single. As indicated before, the convention is that all females must marry, and traditionally all persons have married young. See Althaus, Eltigani, and UNICEF.