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April 28, 2002


If people were made of paper, this just might work

By Scott Harrison




Trust (Part 2)

But there came the time when she was too old and too attractive to help her father sell out front without harassment. It also wasn’t proper. Neighbors would watch and start talking. Jobs for women are few and limited. When Khadija was about fifteen, men began to get too aggressive. It had come full circle: this was the age at which her mother married. One day Khadija was standing in front of one of her father’s tables out on the street. A stranger came up beside her and asked her name and if she would go with him. She told him to leave her alone. He didn’t know that her father was sitting nearby. The man mistook Khadija for a customer. She was bold with the strange man because she knew her father would protect her. The man didn’t leave her alone. He grew more insistent and made rude comments. Abdul told the man to walk away, but the man told Khadija’s father to mind his own business. He must have thought that a pretty girl, all alone and snagged by the attractive goods at a merchant’s table, was fair game. Seeing his chance, he became a wolf.

Abdul stood up and smashed the man’s head with his own head. Blood flowed. He struck him and shouted. The strange man fled, wounded and banged up.

Khadija told me the reason Arab women use the veil is because there are 999 things that will tempt a man. She said she would like to wear a veil and she would if her husband asked her. But in Morocco, as in all the Arab world (maybe the entire world), young women are most fiercely protected. In Morocco it is against the law for a young unmarried woman to be alone with a man who is not a relative. Khadija told me once, “If my father ever saw me alone with a boy, he would kill me.”

In recent years conditions got so bad for Khadija’s father that he had to travel alone to Casablanca (five hours by bus) and stay for weeks at a time with a briefcase filled with knives and wander the streets from morning to night in search of buyers. At this time Khadija managed to get a job in a copy store and telephone boutique. She earned $50 a month, and she helped with the family.

By now Yousera had been born, so there were four girls and a boy. If Jane Austen says that a man with a fortune must be in search of a wife, then it certainly can be said that a poor man with four daughters in a Muslim country must be in search of husbands. And if husbands are not found? In Morocco the daughters would then live permanently with the parents. Khadija pointed out an older woman next to their house who was unmarried and living at home at 35.

When I arrived in Fez, Khadija’s father was selling knickknacks and keychains on which he would write people’s names and inscriptions from the Quran. He had spread over his table other items like small wooden boxes, fossils, mufflers, and small purses... well a whole assortment of inexpensive, “dime store” things. Abdul had also been known for many years for his cooked snails. On the day I stopped to bargain over some wooden boxes, Khadija was three floors up, on the roof, doing the family’s laundry. He called for her to come down to help with a customer who only spoke English. If women have 999 things that captivate men, when Khadija stepped before me I was hooked by 975 of them. But I felt in no danger because she was some twenty years younger than me.

After we agreed on a price (in Moroccan dirham) for the boxes and fossils, I told Khadija I owned a bookstore in San Francisco. I said I would be happy to mail her some books in English. I was invited upstairs for hot sweet Moroccan tea with green mint leaves. Then Khadija's family insisted I stay for a meal. Khadija sat beside me and treated me like I was somebody really wonderful and special. She quizzed me about what I thought of Moroccan women. She told me a Moroccan wife would be the very best and she tapped my knee as she smiled and laughed. She said I needed a wife because I was alone. It was never too late. She said my age didn’t matter; what mattered was that I be a good man. She said I was. While she signed my journal, she looked at me mischievously and said, “What if I write: Khadija Harrison?”

It has taken me years to reconstruct what was happening because I certainly didn’t know back then. But from what Khadija told me much later, her father saw that day how she acted with me. He saw that she looked happy and made the decision to marry her to me.

On the morning before I departed, Khadija and her father took me aside for a serious talk. First they asked if I could help Khadija go abroad. I said I didn’t know of any way to do that. Then they suggested (Khadija did all the talking to me because she knew English) that I marry Khadija so she could get papers. I said I could not do that. I said I wanted to be really married someday so I couldn’t. Then Khadija asked if I would consider marrying her if it was a real marriage. I said I was very honored but I couldn’t agree to that. I would go back to San Francisco and think more about it but, well, I felt my age would make it impossible and it was so sudden and really it wasn’t the way marriages were done, after only a few days.

Later Khadija took me alone up to the roof, and she told me her father wanted her to marry but she wasn’t ready. She liked me and wanted to be friends, but not husband and wife. She cried and said to please not let her father force her. I gave her my word that no forced marriage was going to take place. And paradoxically, from that point I believe I started to win her trust. It was respect for her that I think touched her. Or maybe I’m just imagining this. But I do know that on the last day, when I returned one final time, Khadija told me to forget what she said up on the roof, that she did wish to marry me. I could not accept this because her father was standing right beside her.

I returned to San Francisco and wrote a letter thanking Khadija for the offer of marriage but telling her my answer was “no.”

I started getting love letters from Khadija. She vowed that she loved me and wanted to spend her life with me. She laid the butter on very thick. What I didn’t know was that these letters were only partly from Khadija. Her father, Abdul, had gathered together a letter-writing committee. He worked with two others, and Khadija was only a partially willing participant. That first New Year’s they sent me a tape with greetings, music, and good wishes for my family and me. Khadija sounded cardboard on the tape. I missed the warmth I had experienced in person.

The sad thing is that the letters worked. I even showed one of them to my friend Anna and she was fooled too. Anna said, “I think she really cares about you, Scott, but my goodness, her English is so bad! It actually has a charm to it. I like this girl.” I said, “Yes I like her, too.” The letters fooled me, because I didn’t know who really was writing them.