To find the limits of your own tolerance, try having a child. I found mine after giving birth to my daughter in Morocco, in the thousand-year-old city of Fes. I was finishing my time of wanderlust, of living and traveling in India, Mexico, Fiji, Spain, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. During my travels, I had sat for meals in tiny clay huts, eaten with un-sanitized hands the meat of animals recently alive; I had walked through forests to find ancient monasteries, boated across choppy seas to visit the beehive huts of crazed ascetics; I had filled my mind with the religions of Jains and Muslims, Catholics and Christians, pagans and the most devout; I learned bits of Czech, Arabic, Spanish, and French; made myself the laughingstock of all as I spoke my broken words, somehow effectually communicating my need for food, housing, friendship; I had eaten late night Spanish dinners, drunk late morning beers in Prague, sucked on cane sugar while stuck on a train in the Indian desert; and I had endured groping men, racist statements, patriarchy in forms outright and tacit, and many other tests.
But one day, in the home of a woman who was first a friend, then an employee – our housekeeper, shopper, and cook after our baby was born – I realized that my time of open-mindedness was ending. Once or twice a year, we would visit Radia’s home in a low-income neighborhood near the edge of the small town where we lived. Our apartment was nearby, in faculty housing provided by the tiny, elite liberal arts college where we were professors. Everything about our lives in Morocco was an anomaly: the beautiful students in designer sunglasses; the English-speaking environment; the remote mountain town that had once been a French resort and now housed a palace for the young king; and us, an international mix of professors presiding over the privileged lives of a select group of Moroccan youth.
Radia had many friends among the expats and had groups over for a Ftour every Ramadan. We would sit in her small salon with assorted colleagues, her sister and her mother, and be served the delicate meal that marked the end of a fast that most of us had not partaken of. We were served orange juice and dates, hard-boiled eggs, a tomato and chickpea soup, and too many sticky sweets. There would be mint tea served on pretty china cups, part of the surprisingly lovely collection of dishes that Radia and her sister had accumulated, as unmarried, working women who strove for refinements. Some of their things had been gifts of other professors: trinkets from Paris and New York, shiny cheap things that sat alongside sturdier objects in their glass-doored cupboard. The salon was furnished with low couches and a round, carved table, the couches upholstered in rich, heavy brocade.
The year my daughter was born, we were relying heavily on Radia for our survival. Hubris had told us that we could have a child in a foreign country, with neither close friends nor family nearby, keep our jobs and our studies, and be happy. We kept our jobs, but our happiness suffered. My daughter was beautiful and lively, but voracious: always eating, always eager for stimulation, always in need of motion. Things began to disintegrate.
One of our only comforts was Radia’s food: she would prepare hot meals in the morning while we worked or slept, constructed in the moments between shaking out our carpets, mopping the floors, and emptying our garbage. She made pureed fava beans, drizzled with olive oil and cumin, tagines of chicken and fruit, eggplants covered in a spicy charmoula of her own making. She also prepared simpler things in response to our request for less fat: salads of cooked beans, carrots, and potatoes, and crude rounds of plain bread. On Fridays she made a couscous, enormous and satisfying enough to feed us for days, topped with caramelized onions and raisons, with extra broth on the side. I ate and ate, starved from breastfeeding, and sometimes it seemed like this sustenance was the only thing that kept me alive. I could not imagine life without Radia.
But I balked at taking one thing that she offered: childcare. The other faculty with children had live-in nannies who minded children, cooked and cleaned, all for the equivalent of perhaps $200 a month. We, too, could have this. In fact, one of the arguments we made to ourselves in favor of having a child then, while abroad, was our relative wealth and the capacity to pay for help. Back home, in New York City, how would we pay for babysitters, day care, or preschool?
After our daughter was born, however, I became different: jealous and guarded and judgmental. I read about childrearing and talked to my friends in the U.S.; I developed ideas about O’s development. And so, I watched those nannies, and I doubted. I saw the babies spend their days with bottles of formula in their mouths, strapped to the backs of overworked maids. I noticed the continuum of depressed childhood, from coddled baby to fearful toddler to overprotected adolescent, all the way to the timid and conventional college student, the very students from whom we struggled daily to elicit an original response or question. I listened to rationales for spanking and slapping, for other outré punishments.
We kept our daughter to ourselves. We traded shifts, exhausted, going from baby care to class to baby care to meeting, stuffing ourselves with Radia’s hot food in between, snatching bits of sleep between essay grading and diaper changing. We refused help.
Our refusal broke Radia’s heart. Single, in her late forties, she was a trim, plain woman, said to have refused the one marriage offer she received as a teenager because she could not bear the thought of leaving her parents. She was devoted to them, but equally devoted to her employers, the men and women of the expatriate community, temporary connections to a larger world. We joked that she was the Martha Stewart of Morocco, prone to redecorating your apartment without your permission or expectation, moving bookshelves to odd angles, relocating shoes to bureau drawers. She wrapped gifts in cunning parcels, hand-made home decorations for every occasion, coveted silks and shawls and everything shiny. She also loved children, and though she claimed to not regret her life independent of a husband, it was clear that she wished deeply for a child.
Her excitement over ours nearly rivaled our own. When my daughter was born she gave her two precious gifts. The first was a tiny black stone fist on a gold chain. It is for luck and to protect against the evil eye. And this was something else about Radia: it was believed she practiced magic. Once, I visited a friend, a date farmer in the Ziz valley, and he sent back with me the fertile frond of a date palm, whole and fresh and forcefully phallic, to give to Radia for some unknown purpose. It was speculated that she was creating a potion to address the infertility of a female friend.
The second gift, coming closer to our departure, was a child-sized gold jellabayah, fit for a princess. When she was born, my daughter looked like me: brown skin and black hair, oversized black eyes. As the months passed, though, she was beginning to change, to resemble exclusively her father. Her skin had turned the color of almonds and her hair had shifted to brown curls. Only her dark eyes remained. But when she was born she looked like me and she looked like Radia: a dark child, a brown girl, a baby who could have belonged to either of us, just as I had once felt I might belong in Morocco, or Spain, or India; just as I had once felt that all possibilities were open to me.
Our last year in Morocco, and our last Ramadan, we accepted the customary f’tour invitation to Radia’s family home. We were at our most stressed: I back at work full time, still breast-feeding, J working and taking online classes. We traded O back and forth, with little overlap. It was serial parenting, not co-parenting, and our marriage was in pieces. Yet though Radia offered and offered, we could not bring ourselves to leave our daughter with her.
Ramadan itself appealed to me. Raised without religion or tradition beyond Santa Claus, I loved this month of sacrifice and partying, its extremes appealing to my own dualities. I left the religious part out, compartmentalizing it away from my interest in the cultural. But I was also fascinated by the turn to religion, the prostration, that episodically came out of my Moroccan colleagues and friends. Every year, I watched as thoroughly modern people starved themselves every day for a month, zealously making up any errors with extra days of fasting.
Once, in Paris at Christmas time, I entered an old church at the start of Christmas Eve services. It was in the same cobblestoned square where there was an outdoor food market during the day, filled with every decadence: mollusks and figs and luscious jams and baroque braids of bread. In Paris, I loved to wander the streets and simply look at the evidence of hedonism in every storefront: layers of silk scarves in every pattern, chocolate sculptures, cakes in impossible architecture, paper imprinted with a multitude of colors, clothing too exquisite to wear in the U.S. or the mountains of Morocco. And yet that night, in the dark, candlelit church, I watched as beautifully dressed French men and women entered and knelt down to cross themselves in the central atrium. All that refinement, that culture, that exquisite taste, in my mind was associated with irreligious things: and here were these beautiful people on the floor with heads bent before idols. I was astonished.
In Morocco, religion’s importance was more obvious, often inseparable from the culture. In many ways, this made the country more opaque to outsiders. Though my father’s Indian family was Muslim, I had no practice and no desire to practice Islam. But Ramadan was accessible in ways that many holidays were not: f’tour, the breaking of the fast every night, was an inclusive event. The university held one in the faculty dining room, the clubby restaurant at the faculty residences had one, and invitations to Moroccan homes were more forthcoming than usual. Every year I looked forward to it.
I had also grown to appreciate the foods of f’tour. I had fallen in love with the Moroccan date-palm valleys and learned about the many grades of dates, from the small, harder type available at stores and restaurants everywhere, to the luscious, banana-y high-end dates found at the best markets. I loved dipping my hard-boiled eggs in earthy cumin, and getting that first jolt of sugar from fresh-squeezed orange juice. This was one of the cases where tradition felt coherent, enjoyable, and comprehensible. But the more time I spent in Morocco, the fewer cases of this there were.
In my twenties, I studied cultural anthropology, first as an undergrad and then as a graduate student. I was steeped in cultural relativism and comparative thinking, and though I learned to question everything, including relativism, I still felt that these reflexive habits had helped me to be a good traveler, a canny expat, a pliable foreigner in a wide range of cultures. I was patient and not too inquisitive, easy-going but tougher than most women. I earned trust easily, and I talked myself out of knee-jerk reactions, predictable sensitivities, and easy prejudice. I was tolerant because I was curious. I was fascinated by the world, I loved its endless iterations, the treasure trove of cultures stashed around the globe – this was why I chose writing and travel and living abroad over a life of scholarship. And for a long time my tolerance and my passion coexisted, doing a dance that let others welcome me into their lives, that opened up the world to me. I was genuinely interested in how others’ lives worked, and I let things happen around me that might have alarmed or frightened other people.
Morocco had begun to erode this. When I asked why things were the way that they were, the answer was always “Because that’s how it is done.” It’s the Moroccan way. I grew tired of these words, tired of what started to seem – in our ridiculous little jewel-box world of privilege – like laziness. I had started to express indignation rather than acceptance, frustration over peace.
Having a baby exposed rifts where I had pretended none existed. Everything we did was called into question: the baby sitting up, the baby going outside, the baby not swathed in blankets, the baby without a bottle of formula. I listened to my Darija (Moroccan Arabic) tutor describe how he used corporal punishment to manage in what was undoubtedly a school of chaos and squalor, and watched the nannies do laundry and shake out rugs and sweep floors with babies tied to their backs. I waited with bated breath for hours for an ambulance to come when a child was hurt on the play structure behind the faculty apartments. I experienced the confusion over my own choices: to breastfeed exclusively, to work, to live apart from my family and my country.
And I wondered: was my draw to toleration a form of childishness, an idealism that would inevitably be eroded? I had told myself that my tolerance was a virtue, but perhaps it was a weakness, a form of passivity that allowed willed, convenient miscommunication rather than real understanding. Were those who guarded their own way of life, their own beliefs and behaviors the ones who were right? I began to wonder what it would be like to say with certainty: “this is the way it is because this is the way we do it.”
But this time gave me Radia and a bond with my students. Tolerance had extended back to me the care and kindness of many on my travels. Tolerance had allowed me to sit in on meetings with men who did not expect to take me seriously, giving me the opportunity to surprise them and even sometimes influence them. Tolerance helped me to be heard, and it had made me generous in turn.
I knew that Radia – and many others in Morocco and around the world – were practicing tolerance with me. Even with my could-be-from-anywhere looks, so much of what I did and said must have seemed incomprehensible to people I met, befriended, and worked with. The very best kinds of intercultural communication came out of a mutual willingness to overlook, to abdicate judgment, to withhold.
My time of wanderlust was a necessary time of searching. Unlike most people, this time extended beyond my twenties, it lasted long enough to be a part of my time as a wife and as a mother. There is no doubt that having a child also expanded my world, grew me up and made me able to live fully and completely, to conceptualize and actualize the meaning of home. When I began to choose a life for my daughter, many possibilities came to a close, and my true priorities, my most realistic and honest self, took over from the tolerant traveler. I needed real things for my girl – shared values and friends that would stay put and opportunities to realize every talent and hope she had.
During Ramadan, nights at the residences were lively and loud – our neighbors stayed up most of the night, eating and talking; to many it was one of the most enjoyable and festive times of the year. I had tried fasting previous years, but that last year there was no question of going without food. Radia cooked for us as usual, though she was fasting, and we ate all of our daytime meals at home to avoid rudely tantalizing anyone; still, I felt guilty for the smell of our home-cooked meals, wafting into the hallways and into the apartments of our fasting colleagues.
For us, that year, the one f’tour with Radia would have to do. We had few invitations from friends after O was born – we quickly discovered that a couple with a child had no place in the excursions, indeed in the imaginations, of the childless expats, while the all-in, often religious family construction of the expats with children felt alienating to us. We had spent uncomfortable amounts of time alone, listening to friends chat in the hallway about parties and travel plans, suddenly excluded. By having a child, we had managed to be expatriated from the expatriates.
And so, I was looking, actively, even desperately, for role models. And who could be more admirable than Radia’s tough mother? She had birthed ten children and never taken a break from working for her family. She was tiny and formidable and wise, just as I hoped I would be in my old age, with a clear, knowing gaze and a subtle way of expressing that she was in charge. Her husband was weak, ill, and faded; he stayed in his bedroom and rarely joined us at meals. She was like an old tree, firm and gnarled and deeply rooted, polished rather than worn by life. I was interested in her regard, eager that she see our affinity. She was a strong Berber woman, and I imagined that her forthrightness was in and of itself a common land for us to share.
We arrived with our gear, and brought O in in her car seat. The seat had caused great alarm among some, Radia and her family among them, because it caused O to sit up rather than lie flat. Swaddling had recently come back into fashion in the U.S., as part of the attachment parenting movement, so I had at first been little concerned at the way that children were kept tied up in neat, flat bundles. I knew that the car seat was safe, because I knew that babies in the U.S. used them without effect, but it was hard to defend against the certainty of ingrained opinion.
I brought O out of the seat quickly, though she would have been content to sit in her snug seat and observe the bright world of Radia’s living room and be cooed over and mouth her toys. I was proud of her, proud to be a mother of such an active, aware child. I had assumed that all people would admire these same qualities in children, that her kinetic energy and communicativeness would reflect well on me. Instead, when she began fussing, as she did now, her vivaciousness seemed to correlate to a kind of wildness, to bad parenting and indulgence.
The table was laid with Radia and her sister’s fancy dishes, and some food was already out, waiting for the call of the muezzin from the mosque very nearby. The first bites to end the fast would be dates, egg dipped in salt and cumin, the chickpea soup, and orange juice. The sisters would bring out additional delicacies – the teapot stuffed with fresh mint leaves, tiny crispy fish, small rounds of bread, and sweets. F’tour was sugar-laden, and usually followed by a large dinner hours later, close to midnight. But as we were tired and working and the parents of an infant, we would have the first meal as our dinner and then go to bed.
When my daughter began to fuss and cry, not excessively, but enough to distract me, Radia’s mother stepped forward. With Radia’s help, she communicated to me that she had the secret to quieting babies: she would show me how to swaddle O. I nodded, grateful, and watched as she took O’s small blanket and began to wrap her. At first it seemed familiar and I congratulated myself on this opportunity to watch a master at work. But then she became quite firm with O, pressing her body flat, clearly against O’s wishes, turning her into a board. I stepped forward, knowing she wasn’t really hurt, but not liking it. Radia’s mother had her swaddled up in another second, and she turned to me with a smile.
I hesitated, and took O, who started to cry, every muscle in her body attempting and failing to writhe, to move, within the tight blanket. She had been pressed flat, my daughter who had never stopped moving from the time she was born, who had moved incessantly in the womb, and, try as she might, she could not move her arms or legs. She cried, and I moved to unwrap her.
Radia’s mother put out her arm to stop me. “Wait,” she said. It would just take a minute for the child to give up. I watched as she struggled to break free, as her face grew red with distress; and then suddenly she stopped fussing, as though a switch had been flipped. She gave up, and her face went blank, and her eyes went flat, and she was quiet. Radia’s mother smiled at me in triumph. This was how she did it, she explained.
The anthropologist in me said a-ha: here is a truly effective childrearing practice. But another voice, that voice that had been growing louder and louder, said: here is a practice that enabled a mother to work hard and also absolved a child of any efforts at growth or expression. At that moment, I knew that I wouldn’t allow my daughter to be bound any more than I had ever allowed myself to be.
When we moved back to the U.S., Radia took all of the possessions that we didn’t want or couldn’t sell. She bought the first tier of things, her highest priority, long before we left, calculating how much she could afford and negotiating the costs out of her paycheck. Then, at the end, as we scrambled to pack and rid ourselves of the accoutrement of three years of life, we started to give her things in bulk: bags of clothes and shoes, boxes of food and spices. Sometimes I think of what her home might be like now: my living room rug on her concrete floor, my corduroy pants on her svelte sister, my winter coat protecting Radia from the wind during her walk to work at the residences. This is different than the things that some others gave her: the snow globes and plastic Statues of Liberty in her cupboards. My things became a part of her life, just as the food that she cooked for us and the things she gave to O became a part of the story of my daughter’s life, became a sliver of her inheritance.
That night, when the muezzin’s nasal call came through the loudspeaker at the nearby mosque, and everyone’s feigned patience was replaced with real joy and gratitude, I said my blessings and bit into an earthy, toothsome date, but I already knew: I was going home.
Photo credit: Pixabay via Luckyknitter