Wednesday, January 30, 2013

You had me at Smehli Ukhtee

 I met an enchantress today. A real siren. She gave me directions when I lost my way home from the tailor after I promised him I knew how to get back home. The neighborhood boys tried to help me and I tried to shoo them away, and then the seas parted and there she was. She looked like Tinkerbell. Her hijab was up in a bun and tied in the back the way the local girls do but something about it made her look dangerous. The crowd of boys clearly had respect for her. When she smiled she had four silver fillings on the right side. Or maybe they were teeth. Both possibilities seem unlikely for a Moroccan girl from the medina, so it could have been something else. Maybe she ate glitter.
Whatever it was, it was magical. 
I can't stop thinking about her and wishing I had asked if I could take her picture. I think about going back to find her tomorrow but I know I won't, and that is how I know I am not a photographer at heart. Not really. I saw her, you didn't - finders keepers.

I have not used any of the instant film I went to great lengths (and several fake-crying incidents at customs) to bring without passing through a security scanner.
It's not that I am no longer enchanted by Tangier, but that I have already taken all of the pictures, and now it is just the same pictures with a different camera.

I believe Allah inspired me with this sentiment as a blessing. The Islamic permissibility of photographs of people is disputed territory, and I am better off safe than sorry.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


I keep mistaking strangers for my few remaining friends in Tangier and it keeps me feeling safe on the street. I realized that the reason I can never get a realistic perspective on modern-day Tangier is because I have only only befriended crazy people. People off their meds or damaged by years of drug use, or just senile. 

I complained to my favorite pizza man about still being single. He just got married five months ago and told me I "missed my chance." He reminded me that he asked me years ago and I denied remembering.

In my broken derija/fus'ha: "It must have been a long time ago, when I still had my beauty. Now, there is no man in the world that wants to marry me. Poor girl."

Another boy chimed in: "Any man would want to marry you. Anyone. Ask anyone."

It was inappropriate and heartwarming. I took my pizza and fled to the sanctuary that is Cafe Paris. Where no one bothers me and the waiters seem genuinely relieved that I am still alive. I successfully got all of them to call me Hajja Shifa. I announce it to anyone who remembers me because it's the best thing I've ever done, and like to follow it up with "I have a new heart!" in desperation.

I suspect this may have been the driving force behind "Tangier: Case Closed." To claim that I have a new heart and I don't need the old one, wherever she is, lying in a gutter somewhere. Probably in Beni Mekada.

Incidentally, I also learned a new way to spell my name.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

She's at it again

Back to the land of wakha, shkoon, khssni, and bzzef! Those words that lie in concrete in my brain, sharing bunks with all of my fossilized errors. Maybe I can bring them back to life so I can kill them. And then fossilize them dead.

In Amman there are no old guys sitting on haystacks looking out into the distance. On the train through Morocco heading north, there are tons of them. It’s useless to keep score. Morocco will always win. For “Tangier Take 5: Case Closed” I’m throwing projects out the window, and all I intend to do is sit and stare at the sea and try to understand the conversations happening around me.

O, how the tables have turned!

I once yearned for a space where no one knew me or knew my last name and where I could sit and write about the funny things around me like chickens wandering around cemeteries and cats climbing ladders.

But it is a new era and I should just be thankful that I am not “lost in a gutter somewhere” as my mother so lovingly puts it. But Mom, I find some of my best things in gutters!
Scribbled notes.
Little baggies.
Doll heads.

I didn’t expect the hijab to make such a marked difference in my public presence but it is truly a whole new world out there. I have not been harassed at all with one exception, and even his delivery was so sincere it was more like he felt bad for me. In fact, most strangers have been overly nice to me and I suspect it is because they think I am a Syrian refugee. Sometimes they ask me if I am and I don’t deny it.

And Tangier is taking good care of me.
Swaddled in 30 Dirham wool pajamas, I wake up to pancakes every morning, which I buy from the shop before the sunset prayer each night and put them in my purse for safe keeping.

Monday, January 7, 2013


I'm mostly by-the-book, except for those in between times when I forget to bring my book, or the book ends. Then it's my job as a teacher to figure out a way to make the complexities of the world a little easier to understand, all on my own and often using the gift of mime. Because honestly, sometimes I have no idea if the kids actually understand English or are just pretending and following along with the lesson by looking at the pictures.

Reminiscent of that time I tried to teach my third grade African-American students the meaning of "prejudice" (did not go well), today I got to teach about slavery. The reading lesson in Ahmed's book was about Harriet Tubman. It took a while for him to understand what I meant by "people who worked all day but got no money and just a tiny bit of food and if they didn't listen- bam!" (It's really easy to mime "beating," which was one of his vocabulary words.) 

He asked the usual questions- 

1."How come they didn't escape?" Then he reenacted three scenes from Home Alone to show what the slaves should have done to trick their masters.

2. "How come people thought black people were different from white people? Allah just made them that way!" A few minutes later he looked at me in horror and asked "Am I black?"

3. "Why do we pay our servant? She has black skin. I'm going to tell my mom to stop paying her..."

That last one was his idea of a joke to lighten the mood. I think he could tell that I was trying to teach him something "important" because I looked so uncomfortable. It is just so strange to teach kids about the very concepts of racism and prejudice through a historically rooted context as "truth", y3anni, "this happened" - even while these ideas would never occur to them on their own.

Ahmed got really sad that Harriet's husband John didn't want to go North with her and cheered himself up by making up his own tune and dance to "Go Down, Moses." I am worried he might try to teach it to the housemaid.

When I asked him to retell the story, he looked at the pictures and as kids will, tried to conjure something up that could resemble a narrative. In the last illustration, Harriet was basking in the sunlight with her arms up in triumph. 

"So, at the end, she lived in the North, alone, without John, and no kids. But she was making money, so it was okay..."

I asked if she was happy. "Yes, of course, look at her." He then began to more closely inspect the spots on her face where her skin was glistening from the sunlight, tracing them with his finger. His eyes grew wide and he looked as if he had cracked an impossible code. 

"Oh my God! At the end then she became white!"

It's times like this that I wonder how much it affects my students to be getting my version of things, filled with hope that somewhere in the pile of my American English, facial expressions, miming, illustrations and stifled laughter, they are gleaning some gems of truth and isn't-that-amazing's and that's-just-the-way-it-is's. Because sometimes the pictures work against me.

For today, I successfully stopped a kid from thinking that the slaves of the American South went North so they could become white. I've done my job.