Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Latest Adventures of a Displaced Muslim

In Morocco, nobody believes me. I often insist on various facts diverse in content, and in response to my admissions, I am met with skepticism and often, blatant disbelief closely followed by ridicule. If I am at fault in the way I relate pertinent personal facts, I am willing to adopt more trustworthy tactics. Evolving at a rapid pace, I am charging towards a more serious lifestyle in which people do not question statements regarding my nationality, religion, languages spoken, and first name (and last name, particularly at border-crossings). I believe there are ways to appear convincing, and I intend to study them.

I am not afraid to admit that I have made mistakes. My first innocent blunder was to casually throw on my headscarf and full-length skirt while balancing on one lone running shoe beside the door of the mosque at my first Friday Juma prayer. At home, it is commonplace to see secular young ruffians whip on a portable hijab in the parking lot of the mosque, and slide it off as they head for the car on the way out. It is worn as a sign of respect for being in God’s House, in the same way that one might wear pearls or perfume in the house of a God with less rules about modesty. But weather conditions on this sun-filled January morning left me illuminated to the curious eyes of passers-by as I hunched over, struggling to pass my rubber soles through the lonely-and-clingy fabric of the skirt I was pulling over my pants. The fashion of the day was a brightly colored djelleba and sparkly babouches, with a small subset of mosque-goers in all black. I saw them see me. I smiled and re-zipped the backpack that had housed my disguise, continuing on my way to the inconspicuous women’s entrance, only to find it chained up. There was still over an hour before the official prayer window started at 12:32, but I had been hoping for some time to myself before the bum-rush to the front line. I felt my shoulders sink and the closed door stared back at me, as if to shrug. I looked around in dismay, as if to say, “way in?”

I have a habit of stopping strangers that I do not want to talk to and asking them questions that I already know the answer to. Upon eye contact with the first woman within two feet of me, I put on my best “confused!” face and opened my mouth (I use this vague phrase because the pidgin mess I revert to for communication cannot technically be described as speaking, exactly).

“’Scuzez moi?” She looked up with a frightened look.
“Uuh, bonjour! Est-ce que la mosquee c’est ferme?” [Uuh, hi! Is the mosque is closed?]
“La mosquee?” [The mosque?]
“Oui.” [Yes]
“Juma, Juma. Lyoam. Sulli.” [Friday. Today. Prayer]
“Oui je veux aller au Juma! Oui. Moi. Oui.” I continued to spew with my linguistic concoction until the perplexed pain in her expression subsided. [Yes I want to go to Friday prayer! Yes. Me. Yes] “Ana Muslima!” [I am muslim!]
“Nti Muslima?” [You are Muslim?]
“Ana Muslima.” [I am Muslim]
“La la la. Ashaduallailaha ilaAllah…?” She waited for me to finish. It was the Shahada she had whipped out like a sword that would show no mercy- the attestation of being Muslim, which she apparently thought would be proof that I was lying - but the joke was on her. Of course, I too could recite the Shahada, and so I did.

She cried.

I waited for her to finish.

“Ok, well I’ll just wait at the door, I think.” I began to walk away, but I felt a ghoulish icicle grip on my wrist.

“La, aji aendi, aju aendi.” [No, come with me, come with me]

No-more-tears, she was fully recovered and clearly not going to leave me alone no matter where I tried to hide. She took my arm in her arm. We were friends now, Fatima and I. Like a team. I hoped that our team was on its way to tackle some sugary delicacies – the mosque was in the center of a seemingly affluent neighborhood with a breathtaking view of the Atlantic, perfect for some afternoon tea to get over hump hour with no blood-sugar crisis. To my delight, she insisted that I follow her, motioning towards a beautiful residential area and rubbing my arm in the type of nurturing gesture that generally makes me uncomfortable. I let it slide. She would learn soon enough that I was cold enough to make this motherly act awkward for us both. But for now, we walked like sisters, arm in arm. After a few minutes she began to quiz me on my religious devotion by reciting the first line of common Arabic prayers and then nodding her head with expectant eyes, waiting for me to finish them aloud. Each time I was successful she would cheer like my Sunday school group partners did twelve years earlier, and hold my arm a little tighter.

We had been walking on the Boulevard for a while, far from the beautiful homes I had fantasized about. In front of a green, hut-like building we stopped, and she led me to the back of a twenty-person line, where we found our place. The small window at the line’s head was closed, and I tried in as many ways as I could think of to ask why we had stopped. She insisted in a vague French-Arabic brew that we would be here only until the mosque opened for prayer, insinuating that we had to wait anyway. My dreams of coconut cake and steaming beverages were no more. The waiting began.

There were only women in our line, and on the opposite side of the window was an equally long and much more boisterous men’s line. Several men on the street were walking back and forth past the line, apparently trying to tempt us all with something they had to offer. The women discussed the men in a gossipy tone as they yelled and started fights. One British man arrived with a Moroccan guide and was inserted towards the front of the men’s line, which caused a commotion, handled adequately by the guide, and ignored by the British man. I busied myself by inspecting the women around me, looking for something to pique my interest, but there was no diversion. I always carry several forms of personal entertainment for situation like this, with a back-issue of the New Yorker and my ipod in my bag, but both seemed inappropriate. I was, after all, with my new friend. But even she had given up trying to entertain me. I asked her the few personal questions I knew in Arabic:
What is your name? What is your last name? Where are we? How is your family? How are your children? Do you have children? How many children? Where are we? Are you Moroccan? Is everything ok? What’s up? Where are we?

Her name was Fatima. I had no clear idea of where we were, except that it appeared to be some sort of ticket window. We had been standing for forty-five minutes when my stomach took his shift as king of the hill and threatened to cease my bodily functions unless I fed him biscuits. This happens from time to time, and I’ve discovered that it is best to comply ASAP. I used my well-developed miming skills to explain this to the woman beside me, pointing to the nearby hanout as the potential solution to my dilemma.

At first, she actually said no. A few seconds later, she looked between me and the looming hanout as though debating deeply within herself on a very serious question. I assumed she would soon consider that I was not a prisoner, but a girl on her way to the mosque, and would let me buy my biscuits. After a few minutes of “Tsnai, Tsnaini,” [wait, wait for me] she reluctantly complied with the symbolic gesture of releasing my hand slowly while staring at it longingly, and watched me walk away like a mother leaving her child on the first day of school. I tried not to appear too eager.

Once I turned a corner and was safely inside the hanout and out of Fatima’s view, I realized I had been holding my breath. I also discovered that what had appeared to be a harmless house of cookies and chocolate bars was actually a massive liquor store. I have since convinced myself that Fatima did not know this interesting fact, and that even the idea of cookies was enough to prompt her hesitation. Luckily, the man stocked Bimo Biscuits beside the contraband whisky.
As I searched for the four dirhams, I gazed longingly at the street outside. There was nothing exceptional about it, except that Fatima was not in my field of vision. It felt like freedom.

I had a thought: I could run. There were mosques at every corner of the city, I did not need to go back to Fatima or her mysterious line or her local place of worship. Nibbling in the doorway, I mentally prepared to bolt. But her face was everywhere. The teary-eyed, motherly visage reminded me of my own mother’s classic disappointed look, which I had grown up with, and had come to regard as a fifth sibling.

It was nearing noon, and we would have to leave for prayer soon- I knew I could tough it out. It felt more right than wrong, and that was as much assurance that I could hope for. As I turned the corner back to where I came from, I saw her apprehensive look from afar, and when she saw me she waved and smiled uncertainly. I waved the biscuits back and made some gestures universally indicative of food appreciation. Her small figure grew a little bit larger with each step, and she squeezed my hand as soon as she could reach it - I was past the point of no return. To my delight, the ticket window was open. The sugar set in like a pleasant jolt of vitality, and things were looking up. Fatima had struck a conversation with another woman in line about a paper she had been clutching since we arrived, and I took the opportunity to peek around to get some idea of what was being sold.

To my surprise and horror, a small poster confided to me that we were waiting in line for Spanish Visas.

I returned to Fatima and declared that I did not need a visa, I am American, and could we please go to the mosque. She flustered with her papers and spoke quickly, threw in some numbers and lost me. But it was clear that this mission had no purpose for me except that I was with Fatima and this is what she had to do today. I pulled my New Yorker from my bag and gave up. After two minutes of creepy over-the-shoulder reading and blatant, constant staring from the women in line, I tucked it away and wished for more Bimo biscuits.

Forty minutes later, after several line fights, a visit to Ahmed across the street, who sent us to Mohamed on the bench, who sent us to Hassan with the envelope and the big hat, who declared we did not have the right papers, Fatima took a personal moment to frown at the ground. Once she was mentally ready to move on, we headed for the mosque in silence. I wished that I could ask her what was wrong, or what was missing, or her plans for the upcoming holiday, but the words escaped me. The long uphill walk worked like a vacuum to her once-inspiring fervor, slowly deflating her features of all spunk and pizzazz. I wondered if I was becoming a burden on her dejected spirit. I also felt badly that she did not get her visa to Spain, and decided that the past two hours had not been so bad, and I was glad I had a mosque-partner.

By the time we reached the modestly decorate house of worship, it was overflowing with women in their finest. The steps ascending to the small room that was to house us all was spilling over with shoes, and I was positive I would be walking home in another woman’s babouches. We fought our way up the second set of stairs and I took Fatima’s hand, pulling her up behind me using my keen climbing skills. We found ourselves on the roof, where only a few women were sitting, calmly rocking back and forth with the steady beat of the recitation resounding over the loud speakers. Nestled in one corner of the small room, for the first time in hours, I was able to sit peacefully and acknowledge what I had initially came for. Fatima was somewhat obsessed with adjusting my headscarf so that my bangs did not peek out, and running a quick tutorial of how to pray, which I kindly declined several times, and which she gave anyway, after each time I insisted it was unnecessary.

The room steadily filled with women until any sort of movement was soon impossible. Just when it seemed we could not possibly house even one more, a set of women would arrive with jovial salaams and smiles that practically forced our bodies to shove over just a little bit more onto another woman’s feet. Somewhere between the initial sermon and the final dua, Fatima had cuddled up against me like I used to do with my mother, and laid her head on my shoulder. I have always taken this sort of affectionate gesture as a selfish request that I remain completely still, and ordinarily offered a blow to the cuddler’s hip, but something in me had softened, and for Fatima, I was tenaciously immobile. I hoped she wouldn’t fall asleep, lest I also fall asleep and we topple over.

The recitation was gripping and kept me from my usual retreat into a daydream about baked goods. The women around me were transfixed by the emotional delivery of the Imam’s words, and one by one, they all began to weep. I had never before cried in a public place of worship, and I was not at all moved because I couldn’t understand any of it. But then, as though God, surveying my green sweatshirt and wrinkled skirt with pity, wanted me so badly to fit in, a small piece of dust breached its way over to my miniscule plot of personal breathing air. Sensitive to infringement in general, I immediately broke into a spontaneous sneezing fit, and spent the remaining hour of the prayer buried in a tissue along with the rest of the congregation, like it was part of a uniform. And when I discovered that my pack of tissues had been reduced to an empty wrapper, Fatima patted my back, rubbed my arm, and offered me one of hers. She tucked my bangs into my scarf and readjusted the ends of my skirt. She pulled my sleeves down so as to cover my wrist more fully, and the physical force of her dedication to my modesty caused a naked left shoulder to almost triumphantly pop out of hiding. I laughed, but she did not think it was funny.

People were mulling around, vaguely moving towards the staircase. After we found our way down and I secured both of my newly flattened shoes, we spilled out onto the street outside, bustling with mosque-goers greeting one another. I naively hoped to slip away unnoticed.

But Fatima landed at my side like a sly fox, and took my arm as if to say, “no-such-luck.” She was searching the crowd, propelling herself upwards on the tips of her toes to see above the hijabed and hooded masses. I waited for someone to acknowledge her as family, friend or acquaintance, but as we pushed through the crowd we seemed to be heading deeper into male territory. I wondered if perhaps I was meeting Fatima’s husband, or a son. She approached the guardian of the mosque, motioning towards me, to the mosque, and speaking quickly. Of the entire exchange, I caught “American,” “She said she is Muslim,” “please,” and “thank you, may God bless your mother.” The man disappeared behind the cagey barriers to the men’s entrance and was inside for only an instant. When he returned he greeted me directly and said in perfect English, “He will be with you in a moment.”

I looked at Fatima with my best look of betrayal plus confusion. “Shkoon?” [Who?]
She pretended not to hear me, and stared off into the sunlight, squinting, and sighing loudly out of either impatience or excitement.
“SHKOON? SHKOON!” Luckily, “shkoon” is such a fun word to say that I allowed my meager acting abilities to shine, yelling the word as I shook my fists and tossed my head in each direction. I was starting to attract a crowd. But nobody would respond.
“Excuse me? Excuse me?” It was a middle-aged man in a wool djelleba, hood-on. “You speak English?”

I sighed in exasperation. I generally try to deny that I was American so that I could practice speaking, which resulted in being understood, but not understanding the response. At this particular juncture, I needed some answers.
“Fine. I speak English, I’m American, and I need a taxi.” I confessed it like a sin.
The man smiled gleefully. “I work at El Minzah Hotel. The big one. You know it?”
“Yes, I do. But daba, I just need to go find a taxi.”
“Taxi?” He looked around. “No taxi.”
“Ok, well, I have to go.” I pulled myself from Fatima, who tightened her grip and spewed out something she knew I would never understand, peeking into the mosque for her lost hero. There was a herd of men surrounding the sight of my plight, and while it was unlikely that I was capable of overpowering Fatima’s potentially bestial strength, I was mostly concerned with avoiding a scene, and remained hooked.

The Imam, the Islamic leader of the community and in this case, of the mosque, began his exit with a few men trailing behind him, presumably his lackeys. Fatima pushed me towards him and explained the story of me according to her. He listened tranquilly and surveyed the way my sneakers jutted awkwardly from under my skirt and the jarring turquoise sweater I chose to wear that day, and smiled, waiting for me to speak.
“Asalamalaikum. Uum, I am not sure what is going on here, but I just need a taxi. I came here to pray, and now I need to go to work. I don’t know if you organize that, or what-“
“You want to become Muslim, no? He will explain to you” The El Minzah guy stepped in.
I froze as the reality of the situation conquered me like an army.
“I am Muslim. I came here to pray. I don’t need to convert.”
They smelled my fear.
“Aji, aji,” The imam beckoned me back into the mosque, apparently to convert me to a religion I had belonged to my entire life.

Fatima grabbed my hand with fervent hope. “AshaduAllah illaha illaAllah…” she waited for me to join in, just like old times, but I refused. I was too old for that game now. But her words struck me like a wayward treebranch in the night - when she heard me say the Shahada that first time, hours earlier, she had clearly misinterpreted my attestation that I was already Muslim as a conversion, taking place at that very moment, making her the only witness to my attempt to set myself on the right path after a life of promenading in tight corduroy pants and turquoise sweatshirts.

Her almost frightening desire for something spiritual to take place seemed strong enough to develop steam-like physical properties. I couldn’t blame her. I was wandering, and she found me. I resolved to let her down gently, and try not to offend the Imam by already being Muslim.
I recruited El Minzah guy.
“Can you explain to him that I am already Muslim. I have always been Muslim.”
“But you have no djelleba.”
“Right, I have no djelleba because I am American. But I will definitely get one soon.” My voice multiplied in volume, the way it always did when I tried to speak foreign languages.
“Ana ghadi nmshrii ldjelleba! daba…dabadaba!” [I am going to buy a djelebba. Now. Now-now!]
I hoped my Arabic would please the crowd and loosen some of the inter-faith tension that was impeding my departure.
“Where are your parents from?”
“Pakistan. They are from Pakistan.” There were murmurs of both approval and disapproval.

He relayed my story plus some additional mysterious details to the Imam, who nodded and looked at Fatima with a subtle shrug. Fatima fumed. She argued her case frantically in Arabic, but I understood the universal language of betrayal. She explained how I had stealthily pulled my skirt and hijab from my backpack minutes before I entered the sacred site. I felt the words like a knife. Tongues clicked. Clearly, this was proof enough that I was not a Muslim. I felt public opinion turning against me. It was time to escape.

“Okay, I am very very bzaaf d’late for work, I have to go.”
“Cinema Rif?” El Minzah asked. I had stupidly betrayed my place of employment back when Fatima still looked like she was merely going to feed me.
“Oui, le cinema.”
The Imam’s face changed from no-expression to indeterminable-expression. I waited for him to rebuke me for working at a cinema, or for Fatima to insist that I could not be Muslim because I watched movies. These were the sorts of things I heard from my mother every day, and it would probably even serve to make me feel a little bit at home.
Instead, the Imam’s face broke into a jovial smile.
“Cinema Rif? I work at El-Minzah hotel! You want to go?”
He gestured towards what appeared to be his Range Rover.
And was apparently, not the Imam at all, but just a guy in a really nice djelleba with a lot of friends who liked to walk behind him.
I politely refused.
“You will come back, next week?”
I took a moment to survey the wide-eyed faces of my new friends and chose my words carefully.
The crowd cheered.
There was hope for me yet.
And then I fled. Like a frightened wildebeest towards the center city, faster than a taxi, on foot.

1 comment:

scarlettscion said...

Awwww! That definitely tops my "wierdest Moroccan experiance" list, excepting maybe the 4AM arrival in Rissani...