Isolated. That was the flavor of the air as we walked down streets that were merely variations of the same. I was the only foreigner in the neighborhood, strange considering that just over the hill, tourists were thick within the shadowy walls of the old city.
But here, crumbling buildings full of tiny apartments stretched toward the overcast sky. Cobblestone streets cupped leftover puddles and floating litter. Laundry was strung everywhere: on wires, through window grates, on rooftop clotheslines. Curious faces darkened whitewashed doorways and window ledges. Children danced along the streets in endless game.
Much of the world was happening outside. Together. As if the culture didn’t realize that people didn’t have enough room to live.
Our first stop was a relative’s home. We entered a low doorway and were enveloped in a world of chattering woman. It was a noise that trailed up several flights of uneven concrete steps. There Aisha picked up her 1 1/2 year-old son. And there, we were offered coffee so sweet it made my teeth cringe. My coffee cup smelled like the residue of someone else’s saliva. I smiled and drank the coffee anyway. Our hostess was a dainty woman. Her face was young, but her smile revealed only a few teeth scattered along her gums.
I met in-laws, nephews, sisters, and other connections I no longer remember. It didn’t help that I was struggling to remember my family vocabulary! After a few more stops, we wound our way to Aisha’s apartment. She insisted on carrying the juices I had brought with me even though she was also carrying her little boy.
The apartment building was cold and concrete. With every floor that we climbed, I would turn and ask Aisha, “Here?” She would shake her head, “Still!” She said that all of the way to the sixth floor after dozens and dozens of uneven concrete steps.
In each woman, there is a certain amount of pride for her home. Aisha was no exception, although her home consisted of a closet-sized wash room and kitchen, one salon, and one bedroom. That was all.
Aisha’s 16-year-old daughter Soukaina and I walked out on the roof to stare at the world six stories below. Heads walked by–heads without faces from my point of view. A woman dumped a bucket of water over the cobblestones in front of her home and scrubbed vigorously. Two little girls played school. A man propped himself in the doorway and watched the world. A woman two doors down did the same. But it wasn’t just the street that was alive; all throughout the apartment towers, people were moving: appearing in windows, hollering to someone below, gathering laundry on the rooftop, smoking a cigarette, or talking across the street with someone in the opposite building.
Once Aisha ascertained that I liked couscous, the lunch preparations began. I offered to help once, but only once. I was a guest. When the food was ready around 4 p.m., the family pulled down the table for my sake. (I heard the father say, “She’s American.”) There were some other random family members around the table, and I couldn’t remember exactly how they fit in the family. But it didn’t really matter.
We all dug into the center plate. Aisha kept tossing potatoes and carrots onto my side of the platter. Whenever I tried to stop eating, they demanded I eat more. No amount of “I’m full, praise God!”s could satisfy their vicious desire to watch me glut myself.
For me, mealtime was tense because in their attempt to honor me, they set my presumed needs so far above their own comforts that I felt the separation deeply. I was given two cushions to sit on at the table and the older woman present was given none. When I tried to share, I only succeeded in raising a chorus of protests. I was incapable of experiencing their everyday life because I had the prestige of a guest.
After an hour of TV and conversation over the TV, the preparation for the afternoon tea began. I offered to go with Soukaina to buy doughnuts, but the father turned down my offer on account of my being American. “This is not like the new city!” he declared. My presence would attract attention and a 16-year-old companion didn’t provide the necessary protection.
More female relatives joined us for tea and the conversation livened. We laughed, ate, and took pictures. And then it was time to go. We descended–down down down–until the precarious stairwell spewed us onto the narrow cobblestone street again.
We sloshed through the evening drizzle to the taxis. Aisha and Soukaina tried to accompany me home in the taxi, but when I put up a protest that rivaled their insistence, they relented. But Aisha gave the driver precise instructions where I needed to be deposited and made sure that I had enough money with me. I kissed them both goodbye.