Djellaba shopping

We were supposed to be going djellaba shopping. Aisha had volunteered to help me when she found out I wanted to buy a traditional dress. I had agreed to meet her at her house, knowing well what would happen.

I was right. After an hour or so, when lunch was cleaned up and everyone was dressed, we moseyed out to a shop that happened to be closed. So we spent another half hour sitting on her mother’s couch and chatting over cups of thick coffee as someone dozed under a wool blanket across the room.

We entered a tiny shop that sold mostly pajamas. They did have a few djellabas, however. The tailor made me try them on and was disheartened when they all ended before my wrists and above my ankles.

So he took my measurements and told me to pick out a fabric. Aisha negotiated the price alone. When we walked away, she squealed. “That is the local price. You would not get a price like that. If I wasn’t with you, people would take advantage of you.” I didn’t doubt it.

She still had my money in her pocket and waving the scrap of fabric the tailor had snipped off for us, she insisted that we find a headscarf and traditional shoes to match my new outfit.

In that neighborhood there was such a camaraderie of poverty- a people that hovered just above the grime of life, but hovered together. Still, admonitions came to “hold your sack in front of you, not behind you!” Indeed, a lady in front of us paused when she realized that she no longer had her wallet.

But I was so watched that I couldn’t imagine how anyone could have stolen anything from me without someone else noticing. People swarmed around us, bumped into us, gawked at us.

A shopkeeper motioned to me while addressing Aisha. “Is she a Muslim?”
“No.”
“Not yet.” He eyed me. “Why aren’t you a Muslim?”
Taken off-guard, I straightened. “Why do I need to be?”
“She prays!” Aisha inserted, intent on protecting my religious freedom.
“Who is she?”
“My sister.”
“You’re short and she’s tall. How can you be sisters?”
I cleared my throat. “She is like our mother and I am like our father.”
Then Aisha and I giggled together, and the shopkeeper gave an irritated but irrepressible grin.

Another lady stopped us and Aisha proudly told her that I was getting a djellaba made by a local tailor.
“Is she a Muslim?”
“No.”
“Does she pray?”
“Yes.”
“Does she fast?”
“Yes, she fasts.”
“Well then, what does it matter what she is?”
I spoke up then, but the lady was more interested in the fact that I was speaking her dialect than in what I had to say. And she walked away, still convinced that my good deeds gave me a good shot at paradise.

The sundown prayer call sounded. Aisha kissed me goodbye and tucked me into a taxi, even while insisting that I stay for tea.

I stared out the window at the sunset on the way home, pensive and full. It was one of those days that I would like to store in my pocket and pull out when I get lonesome for these people.IMG_9308

Living memories

People
Are living memories of all you’ve
Seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt
With them.
You wake up one morning
And find you married
The reality you love.
And before you go
You must have that
Last walk to school
Last taxi ride
Last cup of tea.
Then you close the door behind you,
Taking only lifeless photos
And stale words in worn journals.dsc00379

It’s okay to be a foreigner

Sometimes it’s okay not to fit into every aspect of the local culture.

In a culture so linked to religion, I would make a lot of compromises and outright denials of my faith if I were to fully acclimate. So where do I draw the line between foreigner and local? I have faced a lot of cultural quirks that have made me uncomfortable. Sometimes I bit my tongue before I blurted out my opinion. Other times I didn’t bite my tongue fast enough.

Understanding the drive behind a behavior helps me determine whether or not I want to conform. I often ask questions, especially when I’m with friends and teachers:

“Why do you act like that people group is dirty?”
“Why don’t you throw your bread in the trash?”
“Why don’t North Africans trust each other?”
“Why do men sit in coffee shops so long?”

Some things I obviously don’t want to take part in. Other things have etched question marks in my conscience. Sometimes I make a judgment and confront a North African only to discover that I have interpreted the matter through my Western worldview. I also find many cultural aspects that are a beautiful representation of God’s character.

Every culture has its ups and downs. And every foreigner should determine how to accept the good in a culture without the bad. Ideally, our right choices will set us apart from mainstream culture. That’s why I say it’s okay to be a foreigner.

Stratified society

Dear Journal,

What makes the difference between the crippled man stumbling down the street in search of someone who will take pity on him and the man who steps around him, well-dressed and on his way somewhere?

Is it just the result of personal choices and generations of personal choices? Or is it something bigger, out of human control? Can it be chance? A lottery of God’s blessing? Is there really even a difference, or is it our fallen human perception? As in, is the difference merely physical or also in our spirits?

What makes me a choice immigrant and my sub-Saharan neighbors a “nuisance” to society? What have I done to deserve my status? Nothing.

We, the bright layers of a stratified society, see each other every day, but do we feel each other? Wouldn’t the world look different if we felt each other? What would happen if we stopped coexisting and started to love?

Not so glamorous

I asked my roommate for ideas for my blog. She suggested that I write about how life abroad isn’t necessarily glamorous. The common misconception is that life at home is mundane, but those who live abroad are enveloped in a never-ending adventure. Yet, those who have live out of the country soon realize that there is a difference between traveling abroad and living abroad.

I dug around in my old emails to find my initial impressions of my “exotic” life. It turns out that despite the initial culture shock, I soon settled into a routine, much like life at home.

From February 2016: “It was hard to decide what to write about this month. If I only mention the highlights, you assume that my life is one big, adrenaline-laden adventure. It’s not. Each day is unique, but I have developed a pattern and am beginning to plod down the same cowpath day after day. Even the grass is wearing out beneath my hooves. Moo… In spite of these very normal circumstances, occasionally I do experience variation from normal life. It’s like happening on an untasted meadow (to continue the bovine analogy). Sometimes the meadow is sweet grass, other times it’s mostly thistles.”

From April 2016: “Perhaps my life sounds glamorous to you. I suppose it is in theory, but it’s been hard to give up close interaction with family, church, and friends while what used to be my everyday life changes without me. And looking like an ignorant tourist isn’t particularly glamorous or comfortable..”

What’s new quickly becomes normal when you experience it enough. Flagging down taxis, crossing the street amidst moving traffic, watching things shatter when dropped on hard tile, eating piles of bread and drinking liters of syrupy tea is all commonplace.

See, the glamorous part happens in the initial stages. A North African immigrant in America might be startled at the wealth of personal space, how difficult it is to make friends, traffic that is relatively decent and in order, prices that are non-negotiable, and everything running on time. That is something to write home about…initially. Until the glamour of the foreign adventure becomes everyday life.

Also from an email from April 2016: “A recent sermon has given me a few thoughts to ponder. Using John 21, the speaker proclaimed that our duty is to follow Him, not to compare ourselves to others and decide that our personal callings are unjust. No matter where we are, whether glamorous or not glamorous at all, our duty is to follow, day by day and hour by hour.”IMG_4217

Aisha- part 4

She lost her job. Just when things had been going well. Just when little by little she had been saving up to furnish the tiny salon. She had talked of buying an oven. She had talked of the circumcision party she wanted to hold for her son in April. Now that was gone. There were no more dreams because there was no more money.

Her husband was working a little, she explained, but she never saw the money.

“It goes for cigarettes and coffee with his friends at the coffee shop.”
“Praise God he doesn’t use your money for that!” I reminded her. But I still hurt for her.

Eventually she found work two days a week. Enough to survive, but not enough to live.

It seemed that every time I entered her home, there was a storm brewing between mother and daughter. Today was no exception.

When I had reached Aisha’s house, things were calm. We sat in the salon, talking and watching Bollywood. God’s grace bridged the language deficit. We talked about life, about marriage, about her children, about her job hunt.

Her daughter, Soukaina, disappeared to be with her friends. A long time later, Aisha hollered across the rooftops of that tiny, sunken neighborhood: “Soukaina! Soukaidsc00383na!” Soukaina emerged from her friend’s house and soon thereafter two young men followed.

To a mother with no education, a girl’s purity and family honor are the only things worth living for. There is no other option. And with her husband generally absent, Aisha is the guardian of her daughter and, essentially, the family honor.

I just wanted to hide. I had already had an encounter on the street with a man who left my blood boiling in his wake. And upon arrival to Aisha’s neighborhood, I had an argument with the taxi driver whether or not it was safe for me to walk the ½ block from the taxi stand to Aisha’s house. I didn’t want to get involved in anything else, for goodness’ sake!

Aisha offered me a way out: to go with her to buy sweets for the afternoon tea.

But God said, “Stay here with Soukaina.”

So I stayed and listened to the 16-year-old, heart-broken side of the story. Then I touched her hot and teary face and wondered what kind of life lay ahead of this girl. What opportunities did she have? What opportunities would she have?

My own heart felt achy for the women of the family, even as we sipped syrupy tea and I made boats, airplanes, and trains out of each bite of cookie for Aisha’s 2-year-old son.

Aisha walked me to the taxis, telling me again and again how “dear” I am to the family.

I responded with the appropriate reciprocal response, but I really meant it. Aisha will always be dear to me. As we turned out of the neighborhood, the evening sky came into view with bright pinks and oranges. It was so breathtaking I started to cry from the bittersweet mingling of Aisha’s pain and God’s faithfulness.