We first met on the roof that faced the beach and the Atlantic beyond. Fatima lived in the apartment building below, just across the hallway from our friend, Earl. She had been watching me suspiciously since we’d arrived a few days before. What was a girl, younger than herself, doing living with two men in Morocco? She longed to ask me questions. Was I married? If so, where are the children? But I spoke no Arabic, she spoke no English.
I had gone up to the roof to hang washing. Fatima was leaning against a low wall in the feeble winter sunshine. As I began to hang clothes, I could feel her behind me, her eyes boring into my back, critically surveying my actions. Being British and awkwardly shy, I did not acknowledge her and continued with my task. Finally, she moved across the roof and faced me through the washing line, disapproving look – the kind I later saw her give her children when they were playing up. Rehanging the washing, she gestured, in a way that provided no room for further discussion, “this is the right way to hang clothes.”
This action defined my relationship with Fatima. Taking me under her wing, she was my older sister – or perhaps my mother reincarnated. My meager memory of a mother who had died when I was eight years old made Fatima familiar – a stern disciplinarian, firm in her belief of what was right and wrong. Born in different places and at different times, both Fatima and my mother lived in societies with limited options for women, but they knew how to maneuver themselves within that constraint.
On market day, she’d dress me in one of her caftans and linking her arm in mine, we’d ventured out. Fatima’s face was almost entirely obscured save for two penetrating black eyes, peering out beneath the hood of her caftan; a white handkerchief doubling as a veil. I watched in awe as Fatima shopped. With a sharp eye, she inspected the produce and then the bargaining began. Like most Moroccan women she was adept at the art of not being bullied by the merchant and his inflated price. Once a suitable compromise was reached everybody walked away with smiles. Tangerines picked from a tall orange pyramid, a bunch of mint for tea, a block of sugar, black shiny olives wrapped in an envelope of paper – they all found their way into her large straw basket.
In the afternoons, when the housework was done, Fatima went visiting. She packed up the children, and took me in tow, down the twisting lanes of the medina. Sometimes it was family, sometimes friends, most often a combination of both. Women and children would gather from the street to hang out with the visitors. Tea and coffee flowed like water; we gorged ourselves on cakes and sweets. Women talking over each, cuffing their crying children, dogs wandering in – and yelping when they were kicked back out on to the street. I was unaccustomed to such conviviality – it was no Sunday afternoon tea with the vicar! Fatima painstakingly tried to teach me to speak and understand a few words of Arabic. She would say the word over and over, making me repeat it back to her until my pronunciation was acceptable. One word was “kawa” (coffee). At her command I proudly repeated it when a hostess brought out coffee – black and sweet and served in small glasses. The room of women and children disrupted into laughter! Fatima had failed to tell me that “kawa” was very close – especially with my pronunciation – to the word for testicles. I had provided them with a good laugh and even though I was a white infidel, for that moment I was accepted.
Despite their poverty, Moroccan women like Fatima, are impeccable in their hygiene. They work hard at keeping their houses, their children and themselves squeaky clean. Our apartment building had no bath or shower, but it didn’t matter. Once a week we took the bus to Tangiers and showered there. This was not acceptable for Fatima. Even an infidel, shouldn’t go a week without bathing! There was no alternative but to go to the hammam , the public town bath in Asilah. One complication, the hammam is only for Moslem women. But Fatima was not deterred. It was a grey clammy day typical for the North African coast in winter. Once again, she dressed me in her caftan, the hood covering my blond hair. But my blue eyes gave the game away. “She’s not Moslem,” screeched the stout proprietor, a towel tied around her ample waist to keep her rolling fat in place. “She can’t enter this hammam! She will defile it!” Fatima refused to accept this; she was never one to lose a fight. “She must bathe! She is dirty!” she yelled. I hung my head, unable to muster enough Arabic to defend myself. I was awestruck by the fire of this Arab woman.
Each firm in their conviction, the two women argued vehemently with each other, while I – the focus of the controversy, but ignored – tried to fade into the background. Meanwhile a continual flow of women walked into the hammam, gaping. Children clinging to the caftans of their mothers, babies wrapped in towels on the backs of older sisters, all disappeared into the steamy darkness.
The arguing continued without resolution. Each woman stood her ground, refusing to give in. I was hoping for a graceful exit from this uncomfortable situation, but no such luck! “Take off your clothes here!” Fatima ordered. If I couldn’t enter the hammam, then she was going to wash me right there in the foyer. Oh no! Further mortification… Entering a state of total denial, I removed my clothes and stood shivering on the woven straw mat, while Fatima entered the hammam and came staggering back with two large buckets – one of steaming hot water, the other cold. Doubting my ability to properly wash myself, she managed the whole operation. (She probably believed that all infidels don’t wash thoroughly.) She mixed rhassoul, a Moroccan clay, with water and worked it into my hair. Then she picked up a large piece of pumice and rubbed my skin with all the force I’d seen her scrub clothes, knead bread dough, beat her children…there was no mercy. She even scraped away at my tender breasts. I dug my feet into the straw mat, stifling pain, and visualized my raw bleeding skin. And if that wasn’t enough, even my crotch was subjected to the pumice! Like going to the gynecologist, I removed myself completely from my environment in order to maintain some semblance of British dignity. Finally it was all over. Throwing a couple of dirham at the speechless proprietor, we took off into the night, my clothes clinging to my still wet but thoroughly exfoliated skin!
“You’re coming to a wedding celebration with me tonight!” Fatima announced via our friend, Earl, who knew enough Arabic to be our interpreter. Prior to a Moroccan wedding, the women celebrate with the bride. Over my jeans and sweater, Fatima dressed me in an elaborately embroidered copper colored caftan, several sizes too large for me, and then wrapped everything around my middle with a wide metal belt. Disappointed, I had to accept my bulky appearance. This was not the mysterious glamour I had wanted for my entrée.
We hurried through the cold night in our Moroccan slippers and arrived at an ornately carved wooden door in the medina wall. A series of rooms opened from one into another, all filled with women. As a “married woman” I had to sit with Fatima and the other matrons in a side room. We could only peek out into the livelier large arena where an orchestra of all female musicians was playing Moroccan folk music. A number of beautiful young women, still single, dressed like concubines were dancing together. I envied their freedom and regretted the hoax of being married. The young bride sat stone faced in their midst on a throne. By tradition, she was not allowed to show any signs of happiness. This bride looked downright miserable!
I continued to sit uncomfortably wedged in beside the staid married contingent. I sensed an air of hostility. Why had Fatima brought me here? What right did I have to gatecrash their party? Trays and trays of sweets were brought around. Fatima showed me off proudly. I refused to say “Kawa” for her. I’d learnt that lesson. But then, she told me to stand, tied her scarf around my hips and ordered, “Sta!” meaning, Dance! Not on the main floor but in this side room for the entertainment of her married friends. How could I dance in front of Moroccan women without making a fool of myself? But this is exactly what Fatima was conspiring. Awkwardly, I began to move my hips, a cumbersome bundle of clothing with the feet of an elephant trying to imitate the gyrations of a sinuous belly dancer. The laughter ran free; I was the comedy act of the evening. But then I began to enjoy it…even gyrated toward the main room, looking for a larger audience. I saw the bride notice – had I managed to force the glimmer of a smile from her? Whether or not, it broke the ice among the married women.
We returned to Asilah at intervals over the next ten years – the family grew and the western world seeped in. She continued to be curious of me. Why did I still have no children? Did I take a pill? “If so, give it to me,” she demanded. Each visit we were able to pick up where we left off despite the passage of time and even though Earl was no longer there to serve as translator.
Then we stopped going to Morocco and it was more than ten years before we finally returned. Would Fatima still be living in the house? With no difficulty we found the apartment building and knocked on her familiar wooden door under the staircase leading to the roof … no answer. But a neighbor peering out from her doorway confirmed, yes indeed, Fatima still lived there. The word was out! Before we got back to our hotel, young boys were running after us on the street, calling out, “Fatima is waiting for you! You must go to the house for tea…” We turned around and retraced our steps to the apartment. Fatima had aged. She looked pale and gaunt; a white scarf was wrapped tightly around her head – to hide evidence of hair loss? She talked about a hospital stay and surgery. Was it cancer? Had she lost her hair from radiation? She no longer wanted birth control pills. But she demanded we get her other pills. For what? We couldn’t get the details clear. Fatima still spoke no English – a son-in-law we did not know served as translator but inadequately. We never found out the full story.
Fatima never demonstrated real discontent with her life or envy of mine. She wanted birth control and she wanted better access to medicine and treatment. But she wasn’t ambitious; she didn’t seem to want to go out to work or travel. She found it fun to wear western clothes at home, but when we went back years later she was still wearing a caftan on the street. I have met Moroccan women since who try to establish a relationship and use it as a passport to the US. If you get me a visa I will come and stay and work for you – even if it meant leaving children behind with the family. Fatima would never have abandoned her children, nor did she want to. I did not feel that she was oppressed or suppressed – in her own world she behaved and said what she wanted. She lived on the edge of a time of colossal change; she witnessed the invasion of the west but she was not seduced by it. Perhaps she was too set in her ways…too old…or perhaps she just didn’t care enough.