Back to Blogging

After almost a year, I have decided to continue posting on my blog.  Here is a short story I wrote.  If you read it, please tell me if it makes sense!

 

She could feel her stomach rumbling as she smiled at her patient, a young woman with a pretty face, smooth black hair, and carefully applied wings of black eyeliner extending her eyes. A lovely face, but not meant for smiling. Her unfortunately crooked front teeth distracted anyone who looked at her as soon as she opened her mouth.

“It’s quite a simple procedure,” Amina assured her. “We’ll just straighten those two teeth and give you a quick whitening treatment.” Amina smiled, showing her own perfectly groomed teeth, and held up a pair of invisible braces. Her stomach gave a rumble of agreement.

Ramadan was Amina’s least favorite month. The month in the Muslim calendar when eating and drinking during the daytime were forbidden had never appealed to her. Her mother, a Hungarian, had always insisted that Amina and her brother have the choice not to participate in the tradition. Growing up in Syria made this challenging, but Amina’s father, although a practicing Muslim himself, was careful to let his wife bring her own culture and traditions to the household. Now that Amina was grown, she tried to do the same. Her husband, born and raised in Casablanca, Morocco, where they now lived, taught his culture to their two children, and she taught her own mix of Hungarian and Syrian traditions, underlined by a freedom to choose. And her choice was that she couldn’t function all day at the dental clinic without at least a morning cup of coffee.

The clinic was quiet in the afternoon; most Moroccans preferred to stay home and rest or prepare the meal for breaking the fast. Amina sat at her desk and gazed out the window at the cars speeding by on street below. Didn’t Casablanca ever get tired of moving so quickly? She thought, watching a motorcycle dash around several cars, one of which was puffing out little gray clouds of exhaust. The cars bunched up at the stoplight, then spread out again, only to bunch up all over again a minute later. Just watching it was exhausting. Amina’s thoughts wandered to the house she and her husband were having built outside of the city, in a new subdivision known for its beautiful wooded areas. It should have been ready months ago, but the completion date had been postponed several times. A car on the street below let out a long honk, and a car alarm somewhere nearby started shrieking. Amina let out a sigh. Casablanca could never just relax.

That evening, as Amina was preparing the meal for her husband to break the fast, the street noises outside invaded her thoughts more than usual. There must have been a local football match; young men were streaming down the street, all dressed in red, chanting and shouting. Amina dreaded these nights, when the football fans would come back from the stadium, yelling and chanting either the victory or defeat, both equally emotional. She wondered if they even really cared about the results, or if the fans just had some sort of desire to let out all of their emotions at once and used the football results as an excuse. Amina was always woken up by them, and her five-year-old son often woke up crying if the fans got too loud.   She prayed every day that he would not grow up to be a fan of football.

Amina put the last touches on the meal, setting everything on the table. Even though she hadn’t been fasting, she hadn’t eaten anything all day at work, not wanting her patients to know that she wasn’t a practicing Muslim. This is what it must have been like for my mother, she pondered, thinking about her Hungarian mother falling in love with her Syrian father and going to live with him in Damascus. Always a little bit of an outsider. She plucked a juicy date off the platter she had just set on the table and put it in her mouth, savoring the sweet fruit.

After dinner with her family, Amina and her husband and children headed to bed, stomachs finally full. “I can’t wait to move into our new house when it’s ready,” Amina told her husband when they were sitting in the bed in the tiny master bedroom.

“I’m tired of living in this city,” she added.

“I’m sure the house will be ready soon,” he replied. “And then we won’t bump into our furniture all the time!” He laughed, reaching over Amina to put his glasses down on their one bedside table; his side of the bed was too close to the wall to fit another one. Amina closed her eyes, picturing a house in the forest, chirping birds dancing above the trees.

***

Amina woke abruptly to the sound of a series of loud bangs and her son crying. Has a war started in Morocco? Amina wondered as the sounds of explosions got louder. She jumped up and ran to her son’s room to find him standing on the threshold with his teddy bear, sobbing. From the window of his room behind him she noticed a burst of color; the bangs were only fireworks, set off by the overly excited football fans.

“Is the noise scaring you? It’s only some colorful fireworks, see?” Amina said, trying to exhibit calm and poise.

Tears kept pouring down her son’s face. Amina sighed and scooped him up in her arms. “You can sleep with Mommy and Daddy, okay?” Her son nodded, tears still flowing. Amina carred him back to her room, her own eyelids drooping.

***

The next morning, Amina prepared herself coffee while the rest of the family was still fast asleep, her son and husband cuddled in bed. She certainly was not going to skip her coffee and observe the fast today. Both the fireworks and her son’s sobs had lasted what seemed like hours.

While she was sipping her coffee, the phone rang. She picked it up, wondering who would call her so early, especially during Ramadan.

“Hello?” she answered. The voice on the other end came through what seemed like a long distance.

“Amina, is that you?” Amina couldn’t miss her father’s voice, even through a bad connection.

“Baba! How are you?”

“We’ve left,” he called through the phone. “We’ve gone to Budapest to stay with your mother’s cousins.” She couldn’t tell if the connection was breaking or if his voice was faltering.

“To Budapest!” Amina exclaimed. “I didn’t know you were leaving Syria. Are you safe? What happened?”

“We’re fine now. But the terrorists went too far. We thought we couldn’t keep ourselves safe from them anymore, so we decided it was best to leave. Amina, it took so long just to find our way out of the country…we didn’t even know that millions of other Syrians were already on the same route. Thankfully we have our family here in Budapest. Everyone we met while traveling here was passing through Hungary just to go further west to seek asylum. At least your mother and I are safe here with her family for now.”

“Oh, Baba, I’m so glad you both are okay!” Amina’s hand trembled, and she set her coffee down on the counter. She had been imagining the worst as she listened: terrorists kidnapping her mother, her parents getting trapped in crowded trains, or being chased by border police, just for trying to find a safe place to sleep.

Amina talked to her father for several minutes more, letting him assure her that everything was okay. Finally it was time to go to work, so she reluctantly hung up the phone. Her husband had come in while she was on the phone, and she recounted the whole story to him before leaving, her head a jumble of thoughts and she left her apartment.

She drove to work and parked her car in the underground garage before getting in the elevator. Her thoughts kept circling around her elderly parents, sitting in a train packed full of refugees, desperate for any other life. She reached the second floor and went to unlock the door.

Someone must have been smoking, she thought. The whole corridor reeked of it. She had never smelled such a strong smell of stale smoke. She opened the door, only to find the clinic blackened with ashes. Where there had once been six chairs in a semi-circle, there were only stumps of blackened wood. The stacks of magazines waiting for clients were only piles of ash, and the formerly beige carpet was just a few tufts of black fuzz. The waiting room, which had once been clean and welcoming, now looked like it had been in a war zone. Amina didn’t know what to think. She stepped over some debris to reach the window. There was a hole in the middle windowpane, blackened around the edges, like everything else. She looked at the ground next to the window. There were the remains of a firecracker, still steaming slightly. That small toy must have been what caused all the damage.

Amina thought back to the previous night’s fireworks. It had to have been the football fans, who were so notorious for their destructive post-match behavior. There was no purpose to their violent actions, yet they had just destroyed her business. This must be what it is like to live in Syria, she thought. Your life’s work ruined by senseless people, who give no thought to the hopes and desires of others. To have everything you’ve worked for reduced to a pile of rubble just because of someone else’s uncontrolled emotions.

As she glanced over the damage, cars continued to whiz by on the street below, as always. Horns honked, and a motorcycle sped noisily down the boulevard. Casablanca will never quiet down, Amina thought, but yet it’s home. She turned around and stepped back over the rubble, exiting the office. She would call the other employees and inform them of what had happened, and tell them to just take the day off. She would go back home and spend the day with her son. She could leave the repairs to the clinic for another day.

It’s not my Party

On my way to the bathroom after the Sunday church service, the woman who had agreed to take care of decorating the church for my wedding day stopped me to talk.

“Do you have a minute? I just want to discuss your preferences for the table decoration for the wedding party.”

I told her yes, I did have time to talk, but that my fiancé wasn’t there. I had already discussed the decoration with the woman once, so I figured I should confirm what we had said with my future husband before making any big decisions.

“But it’s not his party,” she said. “You’re the bride; it’s your decoration for your party. Just tell me your ideas; it will only take five minutes.”

She wasn’t the first person to tell me that it was my party, my wedding, and my big day. I didn’t quite understand why people kept saying that; the wedding day is a time for my fiancé and I, our families, and our closest friends to celebrate our decision to build a life together. Yes, I would like to look like a princess, and yes, my veil does attach to my head by a crown, but I don’t think the day is for me any more than it is for anyone else.

If I were to imagine my ideal wedding, I would change a few things. I would like my dress to be a little fluffier in the skirt, to not have bridesmaids because I don’t like telling people what to wear, to have fewer guests, and to be able to give my vows in English, my native language. But I’m wearing the dress my mother made for me, which is the greatest gift she could give me. And I know that the three pre-teen girls I asked to be my bridesmaids danced around with joy when their parents told them that I wanted them to take part in the wedding. And even though speaking French in front of over a hundred people gives me butterflies in my stomach, it’s the native language of 90% of my guests, and I want them to understand clearly why I love my fiancé so much.

It would be nice if the decoration for my wedding looked nice and matched the colors and themes I picked out. But even if the decoration team decides to overturn all of my ideas and cover the whole church in orange streamers, I hope to remember my wedding day not as the best, worst, biggest, or most important day of my life, but as the day I shared what matters most to me with the people I love the most.

There are Chatty Women in French Classes all over the World

When I entered the classroom, there was one Moroccan woman sitting ready in her seat, new course books in front of her. She looked to be about ten years younger than my mother, and was wearing a beige and blue veil that almost matched the blue of our course book. I whispered “bonjour” to the woman before sitting in my own seat and arranging my own books on the desk, two blue paperback books for French as a foreign language. More students filed in, mostly Moroccan women. About half were the same age as the first woman, and about half around my age. We were all students in the high intermediate class at the French Institute in Casablanca, Morocco, although were all there for different reasons. Once the class was nearly full, everyone started quietly flipping through the course book, waiting for the class to start. The teacher came in about 5 minutes late, bringing an abrupt end to the silence in the room.

“Bonjour les enfants!” She waltzed into the room, not pausing for a second to check if anyone had been offended that she had referred to them as children. “Vous allez bien? Vous n’avez pas froid? Il fait vraiment froid aujourd’hui, je l’ai dit ce matin, et je continue à le dire. C’est vraiment l’hiver!” The other students smiled and nodded, still a little shy. The teacher set down her bag and arranged her coat and scarf on the chair before beginning to walk around the circle of desks to ask for introductions. The first student to speak was a Moroccan university student, still living with his parents, but thinking about studying in France. As soon as he finished his introduction, all shyness seemed to have dissipated from the room, at least from the Moroccans. One of the older women began a story about a Moroccan girl she had known who left her family at 18 years to study in France and who became an alcoholic. “But that’s not typical,” she explained. “My daughter is 20 years old, and she is studying in Belgium. She’s a good student, very sure of her values, knows where she comes from.” The teacher stopped the introductions to give a quick description of the French language exams we could take and what would be required for university studies. Her description was punctuated by frequent comments from the students, who already knew a few things about the exams. The next woman then introduced herself; a 30-year-old housewife, married to a doctor, and four months pregnant. Everyone congratulated her, and another one of the older women gave a quick and unsolicited warning about not consuming too much sugar during the pregnancy.

The next student was a student of medicine. She said she had already been accepted to do the preparatory years in France, but her parents wouldn’t let her go. She had therefore lost one year of study, and had been obliged to do the program in Morocco, but wanted to reapply the next year to go abroad. The three older women were next; all three were housewives, and all three had grown children. I was last, since I had sat at the far end of the circle, furthest from the door but close to the board. I knew I had a soft voice, so I figured I would be more likely to be heard if I sat near the teacher. I gave my name, described a bit about my job, explained where I am from in the U.S., and how long I had lived in Morocco. “C’est tout,” I said, and shrugged my shoulders.

As soon as I finished, one of the older women called out, “Are you married?” I smiled and said no, not married, but engaged. The woman next to her shouted out, “to a Moroccan?”

“No,” I said, “not to a Moroccan.”

“All the better for her!” Called the student of medicine. The teacher jumped back into the conversation at that point, shushing the building commotion.

“Les enfants! Calmez-vous! We are going to speak one by one. Why do you say better for her? What is wrong with marrying a Moroccan?”

Five hands shot up. One by one, the other students explained that the Moroccan Man is lazy, does not know how to wash dishes, and sits watching TV while his wife works in the home. The two male students in the class objected briefly, but after some prodding, revealed that neither of them had ever washed a dish. “My mother doesn’t even let me wash dishes at home! She knows I would just break them.” One of the older women admitted to being ashamed for having to ask her husband for money for the French classes, but said that he preferred that she not work. The medicine student said that Moroccan men are spoiled by their mothers and expect the same from their wives. The pregnant woman finished by telling me that it’s really much better for me to marry an American anyway.

The teacher, noticing that everyone in the French class had spoken a lot except me, asked me if I could say how I met my fiancé. In giving the story of how we met at our church in another city in Morocco, I mentioned that he is not in fact American, but Central African. The teacher moved closer to me and asked if I could say what country he was from. “La Centrafrique,” I repeated.

“Il est noir?” the medical student asked. The teacher said, “ah ok, le centre d’Afrique. Il n’est pas Americain alors.” I wanted to jump in again and clarify that he is in fact from “La Centrafrique,” or “La Republique Centrafricaine,” a country that is in the center of Africa, but I didn’t because I always have difficultly pronouncing all the syllables the name of the country and didn’t want to trip over my words on the very first day. The class was no longer erupting with new comments; it was totally quiet for a few seconds. Then the pregnant woman chimed in again to give the last word. “My husband is a doctor, and he once worked in Senegal. He said that his coworkers were very kind. Well-educated, gentle, respectful; yes, they are really nice people.”

I wanted to answer her by saying that I have never known anyone from Senegal, and that I have no idea whether that’s true or not. But I decided to hold my tongue; that was enough excitement for one session of French class.

Short Story

My fiancé’s brother dished up one cube of melon on to his plate and looked around the table to see if we had noticed how little he took.

“Do you know why I took just one?” He cocked his head for dramatic effect.

“To try it out first?” I asked.

“Yes. Why? Because I sometimes have a bad reaction to melons. It first happened in France when I tried a green melon, and it really was not good. If this doesn’t go down well, we’ll know right away.” He smiled knowingly, then gingerly placed the cube of light green melon in his mouth and chewed slowly. We waited in silence on the edge of our seats.

“Is it okay? It looks like you don’t like it,” I asked.

“No, no, it’s fine. I think there’s no problem. It’s maybe just the fruit in France that I have a problem with. Those pesticides they use are bad for the stomach. Bad for the health. I have to be careful.”

I was relieved that he had no problem with my melon; it was the appetizer to the meal I had carefully planned out for my mom, my fiancé, and his brother, who was the first member of his family I had met. With my fiancé’s mother unable to travel outside of her country, Central Africa, his father deceased, and his siblings dispersed throughout Europe and Africa, a brother was all my fiancé could muster for meeting-the-family. And the sweet, round, bright yellow melons that had just come in season in Morocco were the best things I could think of as an appetizer.

We sat around the long table together, and started eating my meal of stir-fried carrots and peas, peanut chicken, and rice. I had tried to mix foods I thought we would all like, yet play to my strengths as a cook. Peanut chicken is an African dish, but I had made this particular meal using American peanut butter. I mentioned that to our guest, saying that my fiancé had taught me how to make peanut chicken, but my mother, who was visiting me in Morocco for two weeks, had brought the peanut butter from the U.S. because it is my favorite food. My fiancé’s brother’s comment was just what I had been hoping for; “What a gift God has given us with the incredible diversity of cultures in our world!”

The carrots, however, did not elicit any mention of God nor His gifts.

“Normally, I don’t eat carrots. I’ve had the same problem with them as with melons. They don’t pass through, so I try to avoid them.” He gave his pile of carrots a menacing look.

I wondered if I should have asked my fiancé about his brother’s eating habits beforehand. I had bought more carrots than I needed, so there were also thin slices of carrot in the peanut sauce, and round boiled carrots in the rice. A meal unified by carrots.

His brother looked up at me. “But maybe it’s just in France. In Morocco the food just looks fresher…not like those French grocery stores. I’ll give the carrots a try and see what happens.”

I was eager to get the conversation off of the foods he couldn’t eat, especially the ones I had just served him. I racked my brain for other topics to shift to. I breathed a sigh of relief when my mom jumped in.

“So what is it like to live in France? I know you’ve been there for thirteen years, but how does it compare to your country?”

“It’s a very nice country to live in; very organized and clean, and the university system is excellent. But unemployment is increasing every year. Unfortunately that comes along with racism, and is getting to the point of being quite dangerous, especially for foreigners.”

Our heads nodded at this assessment of what it is like to live in France, or more accurately, what it is like to live in France as an African immigrant. We all knew about how the French are stereotyped as being proud, and had read news of political conflicts surrounding growing discomfort with immigration to France from North and sub-Saharan Africa.

“Even after thirteen years and going through the visa process, I still can feel like an outsider. My name gives me away, my skin color, the way I talk…just having a French passport doesn’t make me French in their eyes.”

“I experienced the same thing,” said my mom, “when I was studying in France as an exchange student. I was always treated as an outsider. Even though I’m white, my name is French, and I even had a French boyfriend. That’s why I didn’t stay; it felt too hostile to me.”

My fiancé’s brother nodded knowingly. “Do you know what? I don’t even have any French friends. Why? Because they aren’t interested in mixing with people like me.   Sometimes I don’t even bother to greet my neighbors. I know they don’t want to be associated with me.”

I thought about my neighbors in my apartment building there in Morocco. I usually greeted them, but we weren’t even really acquaintances. I kept thinking that some day I would try to have a conversation with one of them, when the time was right, but that moment hadn’t come yet. I assumed they were friendly people, but I had never really put that to the test.

The dessert I had decided on was Moroccan-made yogurt with chocolate chunks mixed in, also a product of Morocco, which was a country he had come to for the first time only two days ago. That, I hoped, would be something he could digest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My English Class is like Casablanca at Rush Hour

Last night when I was being driven home from my church, our car got stuck in the middle of a traffic jam caused by five cars driving the wrong way through an intersection.  Everybody was honking and making wild gestures.  At one point a man got out of his car to yell at the driver in front of him, which only slowed everyone down because no one behind him could move.  Everybody was honking, swerving, and yelling all at the same time.  The stop light nearby changed to red and back to green again, totally irrelevant to what was actually happening on the street.

Everybody's going somewhere.

Everybody’s going somewhere.

This morning I taught my English class for young adults.  Since it was the last class of the week, I thought it would be fun to play a game.  I introduced a guessing game where one person would think of a food and the other students would ask a yes/no question to figure out what the food was.  My students’ desks were arranged in a circle, so I told them to ask the questions one by one in a circle.  It worked fine for the first round, but once all of the students understood the game, they stopped waiting their turns.  I would ask one student for a yes/no question, and three people across the room would be shouting out,

“Is it eggs?!”

“Rice!”

“It’s a fruit? A vegetable!”

The game quickly became chaos because before one student could answer the questions, someone else would have already shouted out the answer.  I stopped the game after a few rounds because it was just too much of everyone talking all at once to continue to manage.  I tried to slow them down and get them to go one by one, but even when I achieved calm moments, they didn’t last.  I felt like the stop light that no one was following.  Which makes me wonder; if we changed the way teachers and Moroccan schools manage their classes, would Moroccans be better drivers?

The Residency Battle

A few weeks ago, Obama made a huge step in immigration policy in the U.S.  He allowed some of those who have been “living in the shadows” to gain proper documentation, and plans to do so for 5 million immigrants.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I don’t think that the U.S. is necessarily the land of opportunity.  But for those who are trying to make a life there, proper documentation is the first step to moving toward their dreams.

After having worked with refugees in the U.S., I am so thankful to to have certain privileges.  I have a strong passport that allows me to travel easily, I am a native English speaker and can find work teaching English despite not necessarily having all of the qualifications, and I come from a supportive and loving family who is there for me if I am in need.  I am lucky enough not to understand how challenging it is to not have these privileges.

This month, I’ve been struggling to apply for my Moroccan work visa.  First, my employers didn’t give me my work attestation, then when they gave it to me it was in the wrong language and took longer to legalize.  I spent weeks reminding my employers that I need those forms, that my old visa was about to expire, and that if I got any closer to the deadline, I’d have to leave the country.  When I finally did get all the forms I needed, it took me hours to turn them in because I needed an extra form from the police station to pardon how late I was.  They did not care at all that it was not my fault!  I finally managed to leave my documents and am now waiting three weeks to pick up the receipt that allows me to travel in and out of Morocco.  Thankfully, I had no immediate plans to leave the country, because I can’t until I get that paper.

Despite all the worry this caused me, I had the option of leaving the country to renew my visa, and I have a fiancé and a family ready to help me when I’m in need.  Despite how negligent Amideast was, I always had a safety net.  So even though Thanksgiving is over, I’m thankful for everything I have that allows me to remain safe, both physically and emotionally.  I’m also (sort of) thankful to have a better understanding of what it is like to be a migrant in Morocco (meaning, a migrant who is not taken care of by an American school), because I hope to make some difference in the lives of those who struggle the most in this country.  But really Amideast, get it together!

At least the weather here is beautiful!

At least the weather here is beautiful!

Happy Thanksgiving

Yesterday was my third Thanksgiving in Morocco.  I didn’t eat turkey, and spent most of the day trying to legalize the legalized copies of my work documents so that I can get residency, but it was still quite a good day.

In my morning class, I asked each student to say what they were thankful for.  The third student I asked said that she was thankful for her family, her friends, and for Teacher (that’s my name, apparently), because I am nice.  I thought it was really sweet and thanked her for saying that.  I continued on to the rest of my students, and every single one after her also claimed to be thankful for me…but I’m pretty sure it was just because they didn’t know how to say anything else.  Well, I’m thankful for their thankfulness, regardless of how genuine it might have been.

I invited a couple people over at the last minute for a (turkey-less) Thanksgiving dinner, and of course also made them say what they are thankful for.  Since I’ve been making so many people answer that question, here is my list:

-I am thankful for technology that lets us communicate with those near and far

-I am thankful for my church and for all of the support it provides; the aid it gives to migrants, the volunteer opportunities, and for the pastor who agreed to do the work of organizing our wedding

-I am of course thankful for my family, friends, and all of the opportunities and support I have in both my professional and personal life

-I am thankful for the fact that I can now start listening to Christmas music!

This is the only Christmas decoration I've got.

This is the only Christmas decoration I’ve got.