Friday, November 7, 2008

To Go Or Not To Go?

A weekly dilemma has become a part of my routine: To go or not to go to Salé for the weekend.

Alma spends most of her time at Fatima’s house in Salé these days, only sleeping here in Rabat about two nights a week at most. I still think this has something to do with a search for a bit of liberty, but I am also beginning to think that there is some enmity between her and Manal. After this thought came to me about two weeks ago I began to observe their interaction more closely, and realized there is none. They simply do not talk to each other. Manal talks to Fatima but never to Alma, and Alma will speak to her mother but never to Manal. This leads to some strange and roundabout behavior sometimes. Today in Salé, for instance, Alma decided to call her mother in Rabat (Fatima’s house, the family’s second headquarters, is in constant contact with the epicenter). She dialed the number and put the phone to her ear, but as soon as someone answered she handed the phone to Mustafa. It became clear he was talking to his “tatta Manal;”* but when Khadija came to the phone, Alma took it back from him and talked to her mother. I’m taking this as a fairly strong sign that something is indeed going on between them, and I wonder what it is. And is the issue new, or was I simply unaware of it before?

In any case, Alma knows I don’t have class on Fridays, and when she comes by the house in Rabat on Thursday afternoons, she routinely asks me if I feel like coming to Salé. The incentives are laundry and a shower – two very essential things – as well as “gateaux”, because Fatima likes to bake. But the price they come at is a complete lack of privacy and a total sensory overload, and I find my tolerance for these two things decreasing every week.

In Salé, the lack of privacy means that my time is not my own. There is not a single moment in the day that I actually decide for myself what I want to do or not do. There is simply no room; we spend the day (and night) together in the little informal sitting room in the middle of the house. I eat when and what the family eats, sleep when the family sleeps, and watch on TV whatever the family watches. Anyone walking into the sitting room will not think twice about grabbing the remote control and changing the channel, even if someone was already watching something. I am encouraged to do my work if I want to, but this will invariably mean being watched by Mustafa, who wants to know what I am writing on my computer, interrupts me because he wants me to watch a cartoon with him or because he wants to see pictures of my family, or offers his help with my Arabic. I have tried to make use of his homework time by trying to create a sort of communal study-atmosphere, but Mustafa does not have the concentration for this. He simply cannot be quiet when there are other people to have fun with (and this is always the case – how does he ever get any work done, I wonder?).**

Then there is a complete sensory overload. Because it is in the middle of the house this sitting room has no windows to the outside, and so the light is always on, from early morning to late night. Si Mahmoud likes to smoke, so there is always the smell of cigarettes, mixed in with whatever is being cooked in the kitchen (and something is always cooking). But mostly, this sensory overload is auditory. First of all, the television is always on. And when I say always, I mean always. It wakes me up every morning because Alma turns it on as soon as she wakes up, at 5 or 6 in the morning. And it is still on when I fall asleep, because Alma puts it on a timer as she dozes off – which is past midnight, usually. In addition to the television, there is the radio in the kitchen, which is also always on and either plays a tape of Qur’an recitation, or a very staticky radio station. On top of that, someone is always on the phone. These three sources of noise constantly compete with one another, each trying to top the other one. The person on the phone will begin to speak louder in order to be heard over the television, upon which whoever is watching TV will turn up the sound to hear what’s being said – and so on. Then there are random other sources of sound: the television in the boys’ bedroom, Fatima yelling at them about their homework, about taking a shower, about going to bed. The rhythmic thumping of the washing machine in the kitchen. The noise from the street that drifts in through the windows that are always open.

And finally, there is a clock. A religious-looking clock, with lots of Qur’anic calligraphy on it, but every hour on the hour it plays a little Western tune with one of those primitive cell-phone tones. It is a different tune every hour, but always something well-known: the happy birthday melody, “row, row, row your boat,” and a few others that stick in your mind like none other. During the day, I don’t hear it – it would be hard to, with the television, radio, and conversation going all at once. But at night, this clock keeps me awake. Whenever I finally doze off, there it is again, at 2 AM, 3 AM, 4, 5… Even my earplugs don’t keep out that intrusive, haunting, monotonous sound. When Alma mentions going to Salé, this clock is the first thing I think of. I don’t sleep in Salé because of this clock, and in combination with all the other sensory input, a weekend at Fatima’s house never fails to give me a serious headache.

There is a lack of privacy and a sensory overload in Rabat, too – but the big difference is that at the latter location, I can retreat to that room upstairs that I share with Amma. It is not my own, but it is quiet(er), and it is a refuge from observation, attention, questions, interaction. All my things are there, and I can do my work in peace. I am finding more and more, as the weeks pass, that I need to have that option. I need to be able to excuse myself, even if it’s only an hour a day, to be alone and escape for a bit; to close my eyes, to be alone with my computer, to listen to the silence, or my iPod – my own choice of sound. And I cannot do this in Salé. There is nowhere to go.

I am developing a sense of guilt about this. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, I don’t want to just send off my laundry and have them do it all for me, and I don’t want the family to think that I don’t like it in Salé – even if that is the truth. I love Mustafa and Yunus, I very much like Si Mahmoud and Fatima, and there are things I do like about their house – the shower, the fact that they often have Duo Penotti at breakfast, for instance. But it is simply too exhausting, and it becomes more difficult to bear each weekend. I dread the headache I know I’ll get, and I dread the intolerance the lack of space brings out in me. I have decided that the only good excuse is that I have places to be during the weekend. Meetings with friends, appointments. Saying I have to go to an internet café won’t work, because those exist in Salé, too; saying I have work to do doesn’t register either, because they do not understand why I’d need peace and quiet for that. This time I told them I had to go back to the “markez hollandi,” the Dutch center.

It will be difficult, however, to turn down the offer every weekend. I will just have to deal, I think.

* I am not sure where this word ‘tatta’ comes from. The Moroccan word for maternal aunt is ‘khalti’. Perhaps tatta comes from the French, ‘tante’? I have never heard it used before by anyone else.
** My time is not my own, and neither is my body; the family overrules any indications on my part that I’ve eaten enough, for instance. I am told that cold feet and hot showers are the cause of my headache, I am told to put on more clothes when they decide it is cold, and Mustafa even runs over to help me button up my cardigan when it takes me more than a second to do it myself.

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