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April 18, 2002


If people were made of paper, this just might work

By Scott Harrison




Trust (Part 1)

My problem was that I was in love with the person who was hurting me.

My wife’s problem was that she was married to a person she did not choose.

Our problem was that she was afraid to tell me.

From the beginning, we had a recipe for disaster.

Khadija’s mother, Selma, came from a small city near the sea in southern Morocco. When Selma was fifteen years old, she visited relatives in the big, crowded, chaotic Moroccan city of Casablanca. One day a man spotted her while she was outside on an errand and began following her. He came up and asked her name. She told him not to bother her but he kept following her, trying to talk. He was twenty-four. His name was Abdul. Selma went into her relatives’ house but Abdul, discovering where she lived, soon approached them and asked permission to marry her. Selma said “no.” But, Khadija told me later, her mother’s family was poor and Abdul came from a family with money. As Khadija put it: “When you’re a poor girl, you don’t have the choice.” So the marriage was arranged. Her husband-to-be was a pure stranger who had seen her and made his decision. Her decision didn’t count.

Khadija was born within a year of their meeting, when her mother, Selma, was sixteen. They first lived at her aunt’s house in Casablanca. Eventually they moved to a single room in the old family house in Fez. Soon Khadija’s sister Laila was born.

Fez is an ancient Arab city; it was the first Islamic town built in Morocco, in 798. Morocco was inhabited by the Berber people, but Muslim Arabs swept in from the east and drove them into the hills and deserts. They represent a majority of the population even today, but they have been silenced and given second-class status. It is illegal for instance for a Berber to give his child a non-Muslim Berber name. Khadija's family is Arab.

The ancient city of Fez is mostly Arab. It is a web of thousands of narrow streets protected by a large fortified wall. For centuries it has been a center of culture, Islamic schools, crafts, and art. It is famous for its pottery and tannery (the tannery is one of the stinkiest places on earth).

In the 1970s the United Nations declared Fez one of the world’s cultural treasures. When the French occupied and controlled Southern Morocco in 1912, rather than disturb the ancient city they built a brand-new European-style city a few kilometers away. While the French occupied Morocco, there developed a double standard, an apartheid system, with French and Europeans being first-class citizens, and Arabs and the indigenous Berbers second-class. The French were forced to give Morocco its independence in 1955. I think it’s fair to say that a profound distrust was imbedded in Moroccans for Christians, French, and indeed all Europeans and Westerners. How can a people easily forget those who treated them as servants, slaves, and second-class for so many years?

One of the many reforms the new leader, King Mohammed V, instituted was to give houses to the poor. Khadija’s great grandfather was given a house in Fez but with the condition that it could not be sold. It had to be handed down to family members, generation after generation. The trouble was that, after the family got bigger, disputes over the house heated up. Family members living in one part were often not on speaking terms with family members living in another part. When Khadija and her parents moved in, they occupied one cold, dark downstairs room.

Houses in Fez are built as the city is: with extreme distrust of outsiders. The city has an enormous wall. Its houses face an inner courtyard but no have windows to the street where prying eyes might sneak a view. Until modern times women were veiled and escorted. Women were shadows, phantoms in the public places. To this day you will see the coffee shops filled with men and men only. In fact there is a great divide between the sexes everywhere in Morocco. Parents are conditioned to greatly favor boys over girls.

Khadija, her sister, and her parents lived in the one room of the old family house. It took years before other family members died or left the house so they (now with another daughter, Fatimazahara, and a son, Mohammed) could move to two larger rooms on the second floor.

Over the years the family grew bigger and harder for Abdul to support. He worked as a merchant, selling all sorts of things to locals and tourists. Conditions were brutal. For a time he had his own shop filled with goods for tourists: textiles, intricately designed brass, ceramics, carpets, leather goods, jewelry, and boxes. Actually I don’t know exactly what he sold, but that’s how I picture it. Khadija said he had a whole shop filled with things to sell. His brother rented him the space but times went bad; he couldn’t pay his brother and he was kicked out. Bitter feelings still linger.

He set up a couple of tables in the roadway beside their house and hung his wares on boards suspended from the wall, but even this was difficult because the police constantly gave him problems. Whenever the king was in the neighborhood, the street had to be cleared. He couldn’t sell if the weather was bad. He was sometimes so broke that he had few things to sell and no money to buy fresh things. One time he had troubles with some banned merchandise that had come from the north. There always seemed to be problems. The police put him in jail once and took away his identification card. They told him that, to get it back, he would have to pay some fines that he could not afford. It was a big struggle supporting his family.

As Khadija grew up, she was constantly with her father, helping him. When times were good, he was generous. He bought her a bicycle, but then he later needed to sell it. He bought her a motorbike, but later that had to be sold as well. One year he had money to take the family on a trip to the coast, but it was years before he could afford it again. He scraped and struggled and sent Khadija to school in the French-built city to study English. He paid for her to engage in sports and learn taekwando.

But there came the time when she was too old and too attractive to help him sell out front without harassment.

[To be continued.]