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! Soukaina!” 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.

Khadija

When we sat down on that bench along the boulevard, weary from hauling our backpacks around all day, my roommate and I didn’t imagine that the elderly lady who sat down next to us would become anything more than the elderly lady who sat down next to us.

But I smiled and said, “Peace be upon you.”

“And upon you.”

“Are you from here?”

It didn’t take long to find out that she was proud of her Berber heritage. Her opinionated brusqueness appealed to me. There were no fluffy, flattering words. No acting like we were movie stars. Just an invitation to tea the next day.

At tea, she spoke clearly and explained the words I didn’t understand. She understood that I was from a different culture and a different religion without treating me as if I were ignorant. And the way that she told stories inspired me to one day be like her.

In the months that followed, she told more stories, including part of her own story… a disappointing trail of heartache with oases of happiness. Whether I visited her with my roommate or alone, I always felt at rest. She didn’t pressure me to stay when I needed to go, or pressure me to eat when I was full. It was like she welcomed the relationship with no expectations. And she liked me for being me and not what I could do for her or who I might one day become.

One day, we went to visit her when she was ill. But she didn’t answer her door. After knocking and calling, I was concerned. Was she in the hospital? Was she too ill to come to the door?

We knocked on the neighbor’s door and were welcomed into the life of the next door family. They fed us, helped me with my homework, and chatted with that same element of acceptance. They were, in short, delightful. And Khadija was fine after all; just late with running errands.

She invited my family for tea when they visited North Africa. She admired pictures of my nephew and showed me her grandchildren. Her broken family had broken her heart. But after quickly wiping away her tears, she seemed content with the good people in her life. And her yearly pilgrimage to Mecca gave her an element of peace that she was doing what was right.

During one of my visits, I was sipping tea with her and the lady next door when Khadija switched the TV channel to sumo wrestling. I was repulsed until I realized I was living one of those moments that I would never be able to relive. How many times would I recline on the sofa, sipping sweet mint tea, and watching sumo wrestling with two 70-year-old ladies?

That was the same visit that she brought me a traditional robe to put on over my clothes. When she left to start the coffee, the neighbor lady patted my arm, “Now you are really her daughter. She is treating you like a daughter.”

Oh, the people you meet

A short two-day trip to a land not so far away yielded a wealth of interactions and acquaintances that made it hard to leave. Oh, the people you meet!

  • A fellow passenger in a grand taxi, who spoke to me only a few minutes before inviting my roommate and me to her niece’s evening wedding.
  • A lady passing by on the street who helped us pound on the locked riad door and stuck with us until the owner and his maid came back from the market.
  • The riad owner with a surprisingly Western perspective and his maid who loved engaging in deep conversation about cross-cultural marriage and religion. But just when I thought I was making an excellent point, the owner leaned back in his chair, grinned, and said that if he had met me 24 years ago, he would have married me. The maid, an adorable but hopeless romantic, kept returning to the cross-cultural marriage part of the conversation.
  • A young lady who seemed to know everyone in town and was delighted to take us around to her favorite places…and even fish out a party invitation for us (which we turned down). But before we parted, she took us to a crumbling café for evening tea above the sea. There, she told us about her life. At the end of her story she shrugged away any traces of self-pity, smiled, and said, “Well, what are we going to do? Praise God.”
  • An old gentleman who led me to a store to buy water, waited for me, and led me back. He escaped before I could thank him.
  • A taxi driver who took us to an ancient ruins sight and then meekly offered his phone number in case we couldn’t find a taxi back into town.
  • Our guide at the ruins who led us through the layers of sights on the hillside. But he stayed far ahead of us to not disturb our sight-seeing. And he topped off his hospitality by calling the taxi driver to return for us (thus saving me a phone call in Arabic).
  • Our guide at the music conservatory who didn’t seem to mind that class was in session as he banged around on a piano in the courtyard… and then tried to get us to show off as well. He made my heart swell in hollow pride when he mistook me for a local.
  • The owner of a souvenir shop who seemed sincere in his beliefs, but wanting to listen as much as explain.
  • A family on the train who knew how to enjoy each other and the people around them. What fun to be a part of their lives for that ride. And before they got off at their stop, the father found us seats with other women so we wouldn’t have to travel alone in our cabin.

Holidays in the desert

Spending Christmas and New Years in disputed territory sounds exotic. And it was. Not in a dangerous sort of way, but in a different sort of way.

aerial view of snow-capped mountains and desert

Flying in from the north gave us a view of breathtaking scenery. First there was green, then snow-capped mountains, and last of all desert: vast stretches of orange that melted into the sky without a horizon. Later, we discovered the reason for that: wind.

aerial view of expanse of desert and blue sky
dry desert floor with sand dune in the background
man's hands pouring tea
desert flower blooming between cracks in desert floor

Who could turn down a cup of tea in the middle of the desert? But even in the driest parts of the desert, there was life… signs that deserts will bloom. We also visited an oasis. It was a beautiful and forsaken piece of green property on the way to nowhere.

date palms

We stayed in a small town where few foreigners roam, everything is everyone’s business, and camel meat is cheaper than beef. We stopped at lots of checkpoints,  visited a nearby fishing village, ate ourselves sick of fresh fish, stuck our toes in the chilly ocean, watched fishermen bring in the day’s catch, rolled down a sand dune (getting sand in our eyes, ears, noses and carrying it home in our pockets),  met a few camels and tasted them too.

fried fish and french fries with coke on restaurant table
two women in saharan wraps walking along coastline while little boy plays in sand
silhouettes of fishermen on peninsula with sunset in the background
small octopus on hook
camel sign along highway
young camels looking at camera
camel tagine
shoes next to carpet in light coming from doorway

But best of all, we got to meet people with years and years of rich nomadic history.

My November guests

In November, three guests traversed the Atlantic to visit me: my mom, my brother, and my friend. Some of our adventures included:

  • Finding each other at the airport… and managing to convince security that I was not a risk
  • Traipsing around the city as each phone place we had been directed to directed us to someone else
  • Arguing with taxi drivers who were even more stubborn than I
  • Tasting the old medina, literally and figuratively
  • Posing for awkward pictures
  • Sampling camel burgers and a salad that tasted “like donkeys”
  • Wiggling cooked snails out of their shells with wooden toothpicks…and sampling them too
  • Long talks
  • Laughing until we cried
  • Visiting my friends for tea, dinner, or just to say “hi”
  • Tasting uncured olives that pickled our mouths
  • Eating most of our meals standing around in the kitchen
  • Souvenir shopping in the rain
  • Souvenir shopping in the rain again
  • A long train ride in the rain
  • Walking along the bay in the rain
  • Two nights of cold showers
  • Spending a night snuggled in the musty hotel blankets
  • Staying in a concrete hotel room which reverberated with the early morning call to prayer and reading of the Qur’an
  • Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry only to find that the rain in Spain does not stay mainly on the plain!
  • A long bus ride around many many roundabouts…in the rain
  • A bus break-down which seemed to temporarily mend itself
  • A few days in Spain with friends, church, a birthday party,  an open air market, olives, churros, pastries, cocido, and tapas
  • Goodbyes

Redeemed opportunities

Where do missed opportunities go? Are they gone forever or does God redeem them by giving us new opportunities?

Here in North Africa, where living intentionally should be as easy as breathing, I still miss opportunities. Why? Well, I’m busy; there is always language to study, classes to teach, emails to write, friends to visit, etc.

But those excuses aren’t good enough. Try telling a little boy that preparing lunch is more important than his soul. Maybe that’s not exactly what I said, but it is most likely what I communicated.

I was in the middle of a bad day when he followed me home from the store. People had been raining expectations down on me and I was exhausted although the day was only half finished. So when he jumped up and followed me, I rolled my eyes.

He only wanted one coin, he said. But to me, he was just one more beggar with just one more fabulous fable to accompany the outstretched palm. I tried to be pleasant, but my smile faded with his persistence. “Enough!” I said as he fell in step with me. “Be quiet!” I said. He didn’t. He followed me to my doorstep and only stopped when I closed the door behind me.

I had just started putting groceries away when my conscience awakened. What if I was the only person in that boy’s life who could have shared truth with him?

It took an hour or so before I was ready to face him again and apologize for my heartlessness. But when I went outside, he wasn’t there. Nor was he in front of the store. He had vanished.

So had my opportunity.

But my question is this: Has God redeemed my mistake by giving me another opportunity? Could it be having tea with that lonely widow? Or maybe taking time for a girl whose insecurity manifests itself in bullying?

God is a God of redemption. Because He has redeemed me, I know He is capable of redeeming my missed opportunities.


This post was first published on https://lucindajmiller.com

A day of successful tourism

These are some of my favorite pictures from yesterday. A friend took me down into the dark depths of the Old City and out the other side, through a people-less village of makeshift houses, and up a hill. It was quiet up there. No hollering. No one trying to be our tour guide or pull us into their shop to buy merchandise. And the scenery was lovely: the city, the sky, the ruins.

On our way back, we even visited a tannery (one that I had missed the other week) where we happened upon our very own tour guide.

After our smelly visit to the tannery, our guide took us to a friend’s shop to buy something. We weren’t very good tourists. After tolerantly sniffing the bottles of spices and perfumes that were thrust in our faces, we smiled and said, “Thank you! Good bye!”

Then we were off to the guide’s friend’s café where we were directed up a ladder-like staircase to the upper room: the room where women were allowed to sip their tea and coffee. “Watch your head.” My head almost brushed the ceiling. The owner followed us up the stairs and wiped off the dusty table and chairs. Our guide plucked some trash off the floor and tossed it into a nearby bucket. The owner crept back down the ladder to start our tea. “Half sugar, please.” Our guide parked himself at our table. Conversation was lethargic until the delicious, syrupy tea arrived. It was then that our guide gave a parting handshake and left us alone.

street of shacks
aerial view of north african city
house top overflowing with plants and flowers
stacked sacks lined against crumbling wall
bird's eye view of ancient tanneries
drying skins