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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

The American Dream

“Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.”

-James Truslow Adams’s definition of the American Dream

For the past month and a half, I have been working at an internship with an NGO that helps African immigrants in Chicago.  Refugees and asylum seekers are given help with attaining legal status, improving their level of English, understanding the American social service system, and with the task of restarting their lives, safe from whatever may have threatened them in their countries of origin.  Many are given the chance to live what is considered the American Dream; to start with nothing but a green card, and then to work their way toward financial stability and a comfortable home for themselves, their families, and their children.  As I mentioned in my last post, the process of feeling at home in a new place takes a long time, and it certainly must take longer for those who had no choice but to leave home.  After dreaming for years of a better life in America, the life here for immigrants is not all spacious green lawns, smiling kids, and sleek cars.  Usually, it involves living in small apartments, making frequent trips on public transportation to wait in lines for social services, and to struggle to find city schools that offer quality education.
One of my projects at work has been to research where in Chicago the majority of African immigrants live.  The North side is often thought of as the immigrant neighborhood, and has many African, Arab, and South Asian restaurants that are well-known throughout the city.  However, I found that only a fraction of Africans live in this area.  The majority actually live much further south, in the African-American neighborhoods that are rarely (if ever) seen by tourists and even by most Chicago residents.  These neighborhoods are known for their empty lots, lack of fresh food, gangs, and high crime rates.  Africans are supposedly the most educated immigrant group in the U.S., yet in Chicago, they often live in neighborhoods where they fit in based on skin color, but not at all by education level or by culture.
Living on the South side of Chicago is probably better than living somewhere where one could be killed just for his or her religious or political beliefs.  But is really the American Dream?   Can life really be richer and fuller for immigrants who become implicated in the worst of America’s social problems?

The Land of Opportunities

When I was about to land in Chicago, the TV screens on the airplane showed a video welcoming passengers to the U.S.  It showed green lawns, kids chasing golden retrievers, and people of every skin color.  Despite having lived the majority of my life in America and already knowing exactly what it looks like, the video made me pretty excited about arriving in the land of opportunity.

The photos in this post are of bread I've made.  This is yogurt bread and date-sesame bread.

The photos in this post are of bread I’ve made. This is yogurt bread and date-sesame bread.

America isn’t really as perfect as it looks on that video, although that’s not much of a surprise.  However, after being away for a year, there are several things that have surprised me.  First would be the no guns allowed sign all over Chicago (thanks to the conceal and carry law being passed), which is on a lot of public buildings; it’s odd to think that people need to be told that weapons do not belong in public buildings.  Not that I wanted to take a gun into the library, anyway.  Men wearing their pants so low that their butts hang out is not new, but it is still kind of surprising to see after not seeing it for so long (maybe some of them could use a djellaba).  Occasionally getting catcalls when I’m walking to my internship on the South Side is also not new, but is pretty disappointing – I thought I was going to have a break from that!  It is much easier to go for runs or walks here without worrying about what I’m wearing, but it’s not as different from Morocco as I was imagining it to be all of last year.

IMG_4680

Oatmeal bread

Another surprise came to me at Walmart.  I made my first ever trip to the all-American store last weekend, and only now do I really understand the purpose of giving up sugar.  Walmart is full of packaged foods, nearly all of which have sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup.  It’s in cereals, peanut butter, bread, yogurt, and pre-prepared meals.  Someone shopping only at Walmart would truly be challenged to totally give up sugar.  And what’s more, the food doesn’t taste the same here, even if bought at fancier stores than Walmart.  The carrots aren’t as sweet, the eggs aren’t as rich, the olive oil doesn’t taste like olives, and the Philadelphia cream cheese has ten ingredients instead of the four in Morocco’s (or Spain’s) version of the exact same brand.  These were difficult discoveries for me when I arrived; I love cooking and baking so much, so I want the ingredients to taste good!

Challah (egg bread)

Challah (egg bread)

I know from working with refugees that new immigrants (and even those who have been abroad for quite a while) have trouble adjusting, unfavorably comparing everything to equivalents in their home country.  It takes a long time to get used to little differences and to both appreciate what is better in the new country and to stop comparing it to the old.  It’s oddly not that much easier when the new country is also where you are from.  I guess I’ve got six more weeks to work on it.  Well, at least my bread loaves are pretty!

This isn't bread!  It's South African Bobotie, a dish made with lentils (or meat), bread crumbs, and egg/milk/banana topping.

This isn’t bread! It’s South African Bobotie, a dish made with lentils (or meat), bread crumbs, and egg/milk/banana topping.

The Honeymoon

I was a student when I first went abroad, and my school gave me a little handout describing the ailment commonly referred to as culture shock.  First, it explained, you arrive in a new place and everything is perfect.  The people are wonderful, the food is delicious, the water tastes slightly better in this country than in your own, and you are making plans for how to relocate here permanently.  This is called the Honeymoon Period.  But next, and this is often drawn in a graph showing a line curving up and then plunging down, comes the Crash.  This is where the sparkles wear off and you realize that you are homesick, dissatisfied, and hate the weather in your new country.  The final period is where everything evens out and you discover that there are pros and cons to every situation, so you just have to make the most of your experience.  This is the stage where you settle in, see things critically, and start to feel at home again.

IMG_1416Asilah would be a lovely place for a honeymoon

When I first went to Morocco, I had a pretty long and intense honeymoon.  I’m still pretty in to North Africa, so I think our relationship will last long term.  However, there are some things that I have totally changed my mind about.  First would probably be the idea of “taking things slow,” or living on “Moroccan Time,” which is fine if you’re on vacation, but pretty frustrating if you’re depending on someone to help you meet basic needs.  The second would be the role of women.  Before going to a Muslim country, I had read plenty about repression of Arab women but was hesitant to believe them, wanting to see for myself.  It is undeniably true that the Western stereotypes are exaggerations; Moroccan and Tunisian women work in highly skilled jobs, own businesses, and have freedom of movement and opportunities for education along with men.  But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any problems.  When I went to Morocco, I was so in love that I didn’t want to believe that it had any faults, but I do think that there is still a lot to be done in terms of women’s rights.  As I learned from my coworkers, many of them have had semi-arranged marriages and can’t get divorced even if they don’t work out.  Instead, they must just adapt to a new life with a new family on their husband’s terms.

Morocco does have a very progressive family code, but women often do not get quite enough voice once they are married.  There is no such thing as marital rape because it is assumed that if a women marries a man, she is willing to have sex with him.  My coworker got pregnant three months ago even though she doesn’t want another child; she is working and building a house for her family and does not have the time or resources to fully support another child.  Birth control is totally legal here, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will use it.  My coworker was using the counting method to prevent pregnancy, but as another coworker explained, “her husband wanted it during her dangerous time.”  Unplanned pregnancies irreversibly alter the course of your life in only a moment.  I do not know what the solution to this issue is; maybe education about birth control, maybe changes in family codes, or maybe changes in the expectations of gender roles.  All of these seem challenging to bring about, but it’s certainly important to do something to have positive marriages even past the honeymoon.

Revolution!

This weekend I have been lucky enough to receive some invitations from my coworkers.  On Friday, I joined a Standard Arabic class, which was one of the best Arabic courses I’ve taken, particularly since the teacher spoke no English.  My main complaint about my university’s Arabic class was that the teacher was always telling us, in English, about silly things like how many Cinnabun stores there are in Cairo.  Even if I ever go to Cairo, I really do not have any interest in going to Cinnabun.  In Friday’s class, we talked about the Tunisian revolution of 1864, and then briefly discussed the 2011 revolution.  I learned how to say important words in Arabic and French, such as corruption, taxes, and unemployment, all of which seem as though they will come in handy here!

On Saturday, I tried some Tunisian food at a restaurant with a coworker after looking at perhaps hundreds of photos of her two-year-old daughter.  She told me a little bit about the ban on hijabs before the revolution, when Ben Ali was still in power.  She said that she had often been brought to the police station and sometimes even beaten up a little just for wearing hijab, because as she said, “some don’t fear God, they fear only Ben Ali.”

In the evening, I was invited to another English teacher’s home for the evening.  The teacher reminded me of a University of Chicago professor; he liked to talk!   He did say several very interesting things though.  I told him a little bit about how I find Tunisia compared to Morocco, and he commented disdainfully on the fact the Moroccans are still happy with the monarchy.  In Morocco, people are very defensive of the king, often claiming that he is like family.  However, it is illegal in Morocco to criticize the Moroccan government and royal family, and breaking these rules can result in very serious consequences.  In Tunisia on the other hand, Ben Ali and the current temporary president Merzougi are both heavily criticized.  Before the 2011 revolution, even YouTube was banned, but now people have more freedom to express their opinions even if there are still some limitations.

Another thing that the teacher talked about that I found very interesting was his disdain for all things French.  He said that he teaches English in order to break the bonds of colonization, because young Tunisians who learn French often go to France for study or work, where they are treated with hostility.  I have never been to France, but I have heard many people say this same thing, and the bans on headscarves in France certainly reflect this problem.  The tension between France and its former colonies and protectorates still exists and perhaps creates a lot of problems, here and in France.

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Mmm, charcuterie.

I definitely wasn’t thinking of my job as an English teacher as a way of helping North Africa resist the lasting influences of colonization, but English definitely is the most global language.  Well, I’ve got at least two years to change the world, one English student at a time!