Travel Journal: July 2008. Home is where the forgiveness is
My mother in law is a helpful person, which is to say that she isn’t very good with people. She full of information on the right way of doing things; the right way to eat, the right way to clean, the right way to pray. She is there to remind you to turn off the light, air the bed linens, and say “Bismillah” before eating and “Hamdullah” after burping. Her knowledge of Islamic practices and Moroccan superstitions is vast, which is to say that she doesn’t know or care much about what people want to hear. She is the harbinger of “hashuma.”
Hashuma in Morocco means “shame.” Shame, it seems to me, can come from saying or doing almost anything; whistling inside the house, sitting with the sole of your foot pointed at someone, throwing away left-over food instead of laying it out in the garden for cats or ants. There is an endless supply of hashuma, which makes me thank God that I am an American and can’t be expected to understand it all. But, now that I am a mother, it seems hashuma has become more of my responsibility. My mother-in-law tells me “Your daughter rolls her eyes. Her eyes can get stuck and she will be cross-eyed from doing that. Perhaps you should take her to a doctor.” She doesn’t seem to know that the lessons she learned in childhood were lies used to coerce behavior. Neither does her mother seem to know, for she tells me excitedly that my daughter is blinking again.
“They used to tell us monsters would get us if we walked too far ahead. So, we’d follow closely, about to piss our pants” a Moroccan friend confesses. My father-in-law tells my girl “Don’t spit, or spiders may crawl into your mouth. I’m horrified by the way he tries to help me deal with her problematic behavior. Let’s not terrify the child. But, I must admit, it can be a very empowering to know/nurture your child’s fears and practice your ability to turn on/off. Not my style of parenting *at all* but a style many Moroccan parents identify, nurture, and manipulate.
My mother-in-law lives in a self-imposed state of isolation. Her mother, my grandmother-in-law, is much more extroverted, having raised three children with the help of a network of extended family/friends. One day, my grandmother-in-law asks me (somehow her and I always communicate despite a lack of common language), if I will take her back to her apartment. “Sarah, this house is making me crazy! I need to be back home. I need to see people walking around; at cafes; in the streets. I need to live!” She is speaking in Arabic. I agree to drive her back to her apartment, but want to check with my mother-in-law before taking her own mother off somewhere else. What if I don’t understand correctly (although I know I did)? I wait for her to wake up (this is afternoon, she woke early to pray and break fast). When I say I am going to take her mother home, she replies “I am so sorry Sarah. This isn’t your problem” and she keeps repeating the words “this isn’t your problem” in a way that makes me feel very uncomfortable. She is embarrassed that her husband isn’t on hand to do the driving. I understand her feelings about her husband’s behavior. I don’t understand her offense at my ability to help her.
My mother-in-law grew up in Algeria. Her Dad died when she was young was raised in the home of her maternal uncle. Her cousins became like sisters to her. He was wealthy, but lost everything trying to leave Algeria during the civil war. He was going to relocate the family to Oujda, on the Morocco side of the border. He sold all the family possessions in preparation. My mother-in-law left earlier than the rest of the family since her mother was already in Morocco. The night the rest of the family tried the crossing, they were stopped by a false police check-point and robbed. He died destitute, unable to reach the other half of his family; unable for them to reach back to him. My mother-in-law cried when remembering she couldn’t attend his funeral.
Why did I think I could live with her for two months? One, because I lived with her for nearly two years at the beginning of my marriage. I did my best to stay out of her way, in the basement, out of the kitchen. I respected that she had her own way of doing things, even if that way involved leaving sponges used for dishes soaking in dirty tepid water; leaving leftover food outside of the fridge for a day or two; leaving milk and black seeds in dishes by the sink as offerings to jinns. I learned not to question her by my sister-in-law’s example. Sister once threw away an old sponge and brought extra silverware to the house when my mother-in-law was on travel. There was a dramatic backlash for that overstepping of feminine boundaries, sponges, silverware, and all that could imply. I learned from that and thought I knew how to keep the peace with her.
But this time was different. This time I was in her house without my husband. This time I took up two rooms in her house, one for my petulant child and one for me. I tried to stay out of her way. I tried to obey rules about not opening the door for anyone, not answering the phone, not turning on and off the lights, not playing with the garden hose, not doing a number of things that came natural to a woman of 33 and, much more importantly, natural to a three-year-old girl. “The gardener can use the hose, but not me, right? Mima doesn’t yell at him, but she yells at me if I do it, right?” my daughter was sincere in trying to understand the rules, but there was no lesson for her. The expectations didn’t make sense. The demands conflicted. During our visit, my mother-in-law slept in the basement; my daughter and I had taken over her space. Her husband refused to sleep in the same room for her because of her snoring. But I suspect his refusal also had to do with her tendency to watch religious television and wake up at odd hours to pray or break fast. On TV, the men who all wore white clothing and headdresses that contrasted with long dark beards, appeared in slow motion, their mouths half smiling and oddly gapping as they slowly spoke silently repeated words. Orchestrated music played as the credits rolled. I felt I knew what they were saying, but I didn’t want to know. I wanted to keep the peace.
I thought I could stay with her because I loved and respected her. I always defended her. When my sister-in-laws complained about food poisoning at her house because of her unsanitary cleaning practices, I acknowledged that I had food poisoning from eating her food before too. But, what can you expect? She is an old woman. Those are the ways she understands. She has her own rituals. She makes an effort based on her understanding. When my brother-in-laws complained about her inability to throw anything away, about how she hordes useless things, like empty margarine containers and lightly used paper towels, I said she must find use in those things if she keeps them and she keeps them in her own house.
Had she changed since the early days of my marriage? Beyond wearing the hijab, had she herself really changed?
Even though she lived in self-imposed isolation remaining mainly inside her house, she kept her hair hidden. “Oh, the gardener’s here!” She said excitedly, “I must go cover my hair.” She fell-out with the friend who did the pilgrimage with her. I suspect the issue was style. “The Quran tells you to dress modestly. I had this shirt made for me” her friend had explained to me years before as she pointed out the breast pocket and tab details on her lose fitting button-up shirt. “You don’t have to wear a jellaba to dress modestly. You can still be stylish” My mother-in-law only wore jellabas outside the house. Her hijab was either black or white. No colorful scarf around her hair, but a fixed thing with lace detailing around the edges. No possibility of it being more than a head covering.
An intellectual man who liked talking about books, my father-in-law worked in Washington, DC, on topics of international development for nearly twenty years, a time during which he enjoyed dinners with colleagues and walks around the city smoking cigars. Now, back in Morocco, he had no friends with which he could debate intellectually. My mother in law would only talk from the perspective of religion, feeling, and personality. She tried to appear rational. She thought she was being witty. As my father-in-law discussed real estate prices in Morocco and the United States, she interrupted our conversation “What do you want, Sarah?!” I had heard this question, always presented as an accusation, several times in the past few weeks. I knew that I could not answer it correctly. But I miscalculated the response and went with honest instead of correct/proper, a bad habit that has plagued me all my life and caused much suffering for me and those around me. I should have said something like “I don’t want anything. I am happy here with you.” or “May God help me to know that.” or “I have everything I want already. Hamdullah.” But instead I said with deadly honestly “I don’t want to talk about what I want.”
Still, I was shocked to find her angry and pointing at me “You are the problem. You!” she screamed red faced with her finger assaulting the air between us as she jabbed it towards me. I had laundry in both the wash and the dryer. My child was watching TV upstairs and I came down to put olives in the fridge. I packed our bags helter-skelter and went to a friend’s house, which is where I sat wondering how I will pay for this…how I will pay for honesty this time.
“Why did you tell your husband that I didn’t want you here!” She yelled.
“Because you did.”
“I never said that! How can you say that to my son…MY son!” she yelled and turned her assaulting finger toward herself.
“You’re a liar.” Why back down now? “You said it to me in the kitchen, by the sink. And if you say you didn’t, then you are a liar.” I was calm.
“I don’t remember exactly. I don’t know if it was a Monday or Tuesday; since I’ve been here. I was talking to you about the girl, and you said ‘You know, this is a real problem for me. I don’t feel comfortable in my own house.’ You said it to me in English.”
My daughter had begun to scream when she saw her grandmother coming, no doubt because she didn’t want to eat the hashuma that was about to be dished out.
“You are the problem! You! You have problem with everybody. Why are you here and not Fatima? I have a problem with YOU! Not your daughter. Just YOU! YOU are the problem!”
“OK. I need my bags.”
And so, I packed them – all four oversized suitcases, all the toys, the wet laundry, all. And I packed my girl into the car I borrowed from my father-in-law. I smashed my sunglasses in the trunk door trying to get it to shut. I can’t believe this is happening. So against the rules. He helps me load the car sanely.
“Why are you going?” he asks dumbly.
“For the same reason you disappear for days at a time.” I replied
I would hear him start his car in the morning and then no one would see or hear from him for a few days later. When confronted with this behavior, he said nothing. His facial expressions had grown hard to read. He always looked slightly numb. Now and since I had arrived.
Car loaded, girl clipped in place, I found my way to alternate accommodations for the second time in four days.
We arrived at 11pm. Reda met us downstairs and walk along side our car as we navigated to the guarded parking lot. It was once we stopped that he realized we carried with us four full suitcases, one carry-on bag, two baskets – one of which was filled with plush toys, the other with beach toys – a back pack, a camera bag, and a tote bag. Of course, no one could expect him to know the inventory in the detail described. I had packed in a hurried and confused state of mind. I couldn’t find my daughter’s shoes. I didn’t know where I put her pull-ups. She peed on their couch a few weeks before, so I was particularly anxious about this last point. But, as any observer could have done, he noticed the chaos. “Wow, you packed everything!”
We went upstairs, figured out the shoes and pull-up situation with another escorted run to the car. We, my daughter and I, settled upstairs and were watching our laundry dry in the front-load machine. We rested on the couch that had been moved to the terrace in anticipation of coming guests. Fatimazohra had prepped the bed for us with only a few moments notice. Mr. Reda, as my daughter calls him, came to check on us. “Don’t leave your clothes too long, they are already close to dry.” His remark made me wince with reminder of my mother-in-law. My daughter chatted lightly with him, which put me at a welcome ease. She was wearing only a pull-up and t-shirt. I wondered when someone would ask me why she had no pants on. No one did. She had nestled under a soft blanket and murmured there-year-old thoughts . He paused to survey the situation. “Wait, you need the right light. This light is too bright.” He walked away and returned with a leather and wrought-iron lamp shade decorated with henna and blue dye. He put it over an exposed light bulb that had been shining in our eyes.
“Why did you do that Mr. Reada?”
“Because the light was shining in your eyes. It’s better this way.”
“Yeah its better.”
He reassessed the situation.
“Wait. I made a mistake. I put it on wrong. Sorry. Let me fix it. There. That’s better.”
“Why did you do it wrong?”
“I made a mistake.”
“Why did you make a mistake?”
“Because I did put it on here wrong. It should go this way.”
“Yeah, Mr. Reda, you did it wrong! You did it wrong, Mr. Reda.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Well, that’s OK, Mr. Reda. That’s OK.”
This gesture, Mr. Reda, perfecting the lighting for a few lost birds, meant worlds to me. And what a beautiful lesson for a 33/3 year-old girl to learn: it’s OK to make mistakes.