Fatima appeared one morning in early fall, 1970.
Finding a job in Tangiers wasn’t easy for women folk. Lack of education held many back from well paid positions and tradition kept most from working at all. Those few possibilities for young women were often limited to menial labor. Custom did not allow women to go out by themselves, so several would band together to scour apartment buildings in the western quarter of town to look for work.
Getting past the djellaba clad man perched all day long on a wooden box at the front door to my apartment building was easy; a little bakshish, and entrance was granted.
My second story apartment doorbell rang. A group of three young women were walking up the stairs in high spirits, the fourth one stopped at my door while the rest moved on up the stairs. Although all were dressed alike in long robes with the ubiquitous veil, when Fatima removed her head gear, she revealed herself to be an energetic young women with a mass of dark brown hair and lively eyes. And split earlobes. Fatima proudly announced in our interview that she got into a knock down and drag out with her sister-in-law - during which Fatima’s earrings were ripped out and her ears left to heal untreated. She assured me with a wide smile that her sister-in-law fared similarly.
I’d already spent a while living in a small hotel on a narrow cobblestoned street close to the Medina. Owned by an English expat, it was quiet and clean. If I parked in front of the hotel, I had to lock up completely, even if I just walked the few steps to the front door to put down packages. I neglected once, and as soon as my back was turned, a nice set of chopping knives disappeared from the back seat.
Hotels do have their limitations. I walked into my room unexpectedly to find the houseboy standing in front of the chest of drawers going through my things. Hence, an apartment.
Up the hill and a few blocks further from the main drag cresting the incline above my hotel was an area of european styled architecture. I found an apartment in a boxy four story building with a short term lease, that came with a cockroach infested kitchen and a gas-leaking water heater which meant for quick showers if I didn’t want to fall unconscious. This I learned the hard way.
I’d lived in and around D.C.; I knew cockroaches. Though, as much as I detested them, the condition was common in Tangiers and I had had contact with vermin enough in a variety of scenarios while roaming the Rif.
My apartment held a small kitchen, a good sized bathroom and a living/dining area with two alcoves set apart behind slatted sliding doors. Roomy enough to comfortably hold a queen sized bed or two cots, one alcove did well as a bedroom. I’d been collecting household articles in small souks and larger medinas my first year in Morocco, und endlich, could outfit the second alcove with woolen red berber rugs spread over the floor and mattresses lying against the walls in a U shape. A large round hand-carved brass tray sat atop a frame made of turned wooden legs in the middle of the U formed by the mattresses. We didn’t often lean on upholstered pillows lined up against the walls as was local custom. That, we could do when visiting the Dancing Boy Cafe. Here, at home, we would sit on the edge of the mattresses at the low brass table, sip on tea or hot chocolate and smoke.
Not anticipating hiring a maid, I so enjoyed Fatima’s outspoken ways that a decision to embark on a domestic adventure with her was soon made. Going wages were five Dirhams a day, the equivalent of $1. One cup of tea at the Cafe’ de Paris cost five Dirhams. Hoards of young americans were abroad with Europe on Five Dollars a Day in their hands. The dollar was strong back then.
There was one fly in the ointment: I didn’t exactly fit Fatima’s vision of how her mistress should act.
When I offered to help her do the laundry, Fatima protested “But Madame, one does not do the wash together with the maid. It just isn’t done.” Having to watch her scrub the laundry by hand while doing my nails was going to be more than boring, so I made her an offer: if she let me wash clothes with her, I would sit still while she painted my feet with henna. Done deal.
Freshly mixed henna feels and looks like cow pies. Fatima smeared me up and wrapped my feet in plastic bags, then tied everything down well with strips of cloth.... and then insisted that I keep off my feet until the next morning. Fine! What was I supposed to do when I needed to cross the apartment to the bathroom? Crawl on my hands and knees? The dilemma didn’t last longer than the amount of suffering I was willing to put up with. It wasn’t my bladder that finally got to me; the cloth strips were too tight which soon turned the experience into agony. Though I was willing to hold out for the sake of vanity, in the end I made the trip to the bathroom on my hands and knees to blissfully untie the bindings and wash off the gunk in the bathtub.
Shopping was Fatima’s passion. Hitting the markets, armed with a woven basket, she was in her element. She would hold on tightly to my left arm as we navigated the souk, ever watching out for pickpockets and bashers. Eagle eyed, she’d glare at vendors to make sure I wasn’t being cheated or given stale wares. The varieties of vegetables sold weren’t particularly exotic; tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, cauliflower and the like. Fruits weren’t available in a wide selection either; all produce arrived on donkey back from local truck gardens or was delivered from larger farms in the outlying countryside. Especially appealing were olives displayed in huge pyramids to be perused by shoppers. Not the artificially colored and pitted versions we’ve become so used to on our grocery shelves, but simple freshly brined olives, in all sizes and colors from green to lilac. I usually allowed myself a paper come of green olives, big as chicken eggs, as a snack. Chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemons, yum. A feast for the eyes and nose as well as the palate. Which reminds me that it’s time to start lemons pickling for this fall’s tagines. It’ll take a month to be ready, hopefully before the first snow flurries.
Fatima dreamed of spending an afternoon at the Cafe’ de Paris. Over our afternoon tea, she would roll her eyes and sigh as she described how the fashionable ladies held their cups and nibbled on french pastries. Ok, I’ll admit that I was a sucker for the idea. An hour sipping tea and intense conversation brought us to the Plan. First of all, Fatima needed the right clothing. We spent the rest of the afternoon going through my wardrobe to find the perfect outfit for her. Maxi-skirts were the rage, and my boots fit her, so she was soon outfitted. I got myself up in an ankle length powder blue patent leather rain coat and some bling, which pleased Fatima no end.
The next day we were off, arm in arm, walking the five blocks to the Cafe’ de Paris on the main drag. We strolled, no, languished, as we peeped in every shop window on the way to admire how fashionable we were. How daring. How her sister-in-law would suffer if she could see Fatima right now.
Enter, the Cafe’ de Paris.
Note, no one ever, ever, takes her maid out for tea. In Tangiers? Scandalous to the nth degree. This fact, of course, whetted our appetites and sharpened our thirst. First, we chose a prominent table in the middle of the room, visible to all. Then, I ordered tea for us both and asked to see the selection of french pastries displayed prettily on a trolly rolled from table to table. (Personally, I prefer Bavarian and Austrian pastries.) We chose carefully, enjoying every sip and bite. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we got carried away, but we occasionally needed to control our giggles, though we did manage to avoid actual outbursts of cackling. After an hour of pure pleasure, we departed back home, satiated both body and soul.
Tea, at any time, was more than popular; it was life style. The Dancing Boy Cafe was a favorite, deep in the medina. My little tea room, warmed by a terra cotta brazier, was far more comfortable in the cooler months.
Mornings, breakfast was cafe au lait, croissants and apricot jam in a little cafe, not too early mind you. Around ten was adequate. Then a stop at a certain truck stop style cafe’ for a ribida and then back to our own four walls for the ritual of cleaning and preparation. Note: ribida does not mean the Rhode Island Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. At least an hour was needed to prepare an afternoon and evening’s smoke. The small leaf of black tabac in the ribida was most interesting; while called black, it was more a dark beige in color on the surface, and showed itself taupe when cut into and chopped. Looked innocuous enough, but could put goose bumps on an elephant when inhaled.
Often, friends would gather for an afternoon and evening of tea, tokes, and talk.
Music was our gospel.
Before I left the east coast, we gathered reverently, cushioned and comfortable around a long coffee table, Led Zepplin II made us believers.
In Tangiers, the luxury of music in our own walls was a lifeline to our own culture in the third world. Ok, the Sony tape deck was alive with creepy crawlies, but you kinda get used to it.
I prepared tea and food, Fatima served it. She thrilled at the opportunity to flirt, especially with a friend newly arrived in Tangiers, blonde haired, blue eyed, and freshly separated from his wife.
In those pre-internet days, real life information was hard to come by. In the sixties many had a particularly romantic and unpractical view of Europe, not to speak of daily life in a third world country like Morocco. I struggled with simple things like the dinner hour in southern Europe. Try driving along the southern coast of France north of the Spanish border and starving for dinner at six p.m. when restaurants open at nine or ten. A small town near the coast was my goal as I turned off the main road, where perhaps a thousand years or more of sanding stranded the then village kilometers inland with a channel dug to the sea for their fishing boats to reach the Mediterranean, when my inner clock rang dinner time. Wandering the streets to find a restaurant that would open to an American with a scattering of French was a definite challenge. One corner location, it’s huge glass windows framed by delicate white sheer curtains opened it’s door. All was silent, tables were set up in crisp white linens for guests expected at nine p.m. At this impossible hour we were fortunate to hear that we could have what was already prepared, would that suffice? The first whiff of garlic soup whipped up my hunger to gale force. Warm, golden, soothing, savory. A dream of a simple soup. Then quenelles covered with mussels in a creamy sauce. A country dish that blew me away, never to be equalled. I’ve learned how to make quenelles, true, but the warmth of those windows glowing in the fall twilight of that little fishing town still keeps me warm at night. And hungry for a dish that lives on in my memories. I was not prepared for many aspects of life abroad, starting with dinner time.
Now, here in my little salon, something was brewing. Fresh from living in a trendy highrise on the east coast, was a friend visiting with scant understanding of the social background of young arab women of scarce means. Everything was novel, and to be sure, he was amused by the attention given him. In the absolutely patriarchal society of Morocco, he wasn’t going to suffer after separation from an intelligent, independent woman. He set out to enjoy himself, relaxing in an atmosphere redolent with newness in all aspects; colors, tastes, sights, and a new culture that included the attentions of a warm hearted young serving woman.
Several afternoons spent in close contact to the newcomer made my Fatima bold. She noticed that he often played with his rather heavy gold wedding band, turning it round and round on his finger. Expressing the necessary concern upon learning from him that he was separated, she begged to try on his ring, which he willingly allowed. He was amused, finding it somehow a karmic twist to his marital status. Giggles, then blushes, a demure dropping of her eyes and peeking through lashes, she kept the ring on her finger as she left that evening, promising him to return the ring when she came back to work the next day.
In a way I don’t blame Fatima. On one hand, a thick 18k gold ring weighs out more than a dollar a day and a cup of tea at the Cafe’ de Paris. On the other, I missed her greatly and still resent Bruce for slipping it to her.
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