- ANOUAR MAJID
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Many years ago, while sitting with a friend in a café in the Moroccan city of Tangier, I expressed my unfailing admiration for Mohamed Choukri, author of the acclaimed memoir For Bread Alone ( al-khubz al-hafi) and its sequel Streetwise (the somewhat inexplicable translation of what should have been The Time of Error, or zamanu al-akhta’). I told my friend, a Ministry of Justice official on his way up to a judgeship, that what I liked most about Choukri was his literary courage (al jur’a al-adabiya).
My friend, a conservative man with a classical education in Islamic Studies, dismissed such courage as mere silliness, the ranting of a down-and-out man seeking attention and literary fame. Our society, my friend pronounced, was light years away from appreciating such openness and candor. We trade in appearances, not in existential truths. We reward conformity and punish daring acts of individualism.
Things have changed since then, and Choukri is now universally acclaimed across Morocco and much of the Arab world. The die-hard Tangerian is long gone, too, as is my friend, who, one day, collapsed in Fez and never got up. Yet I now find myself asking the same question about the mesmerizing memoir of a Moroccan woman that kept me engrossed for two days straight. The more I read into Wafa Faith Hallam’s The Road from Morocco, the more I realized I was holding a book that—if all literary lights are not dimmed by convention—should become an instant classic.
I honestly cannot recall a time when an autobiographical account has spoken to me as forcefully as Hallam’s memoir. In fact, I never ever read anything remotely comparable to it. Hallam’s trailblazing book shatters literary and social conventions with such force that it is bound to provoke strong reactions. The book contains precious lessons about why freedom and equal rights matter, why the male oppression of women in Arab and Muslim societies is a sad farce, why rich life experiences are still the only reliable ingredient for a soaring story, and why identity is a complex construct that is nearly impossible to tease apart. There is more—way more—in this fast-moving and intense account, but I’ll return to some of these issues after I provide a sense of the plot.
The life of Wafa, now a vivacious fifty-four year old woman living in the state of New York, begins in the sedate Moroccan city of Meknes, where her mother, thirteen-year old Saadia, is given to a thirty-three year old man in marriage against her will. The union is doomed from the start. Although she loathes her husband, Saadia gets pregnant and, in short order, gives birth to four children—two girls (Wafa and Nezha) and two boys (Abdu and Larbi, the surviving half of twins). Because some of these pregnancies are so traumatic, and because she has no meaningful relationship with her husband, Saadia undergoes an abortion every time she gets pregnant. (The contraceptive pill was not yet available in Morocco.) Meanwhile, the oblivious husband and father, a government employee without ambition, continues to spend his time with friends in cafés, bars, and mosques, doing very little to help his growing family.
Saadia’s brothers take it upon themselves to help her family and employ her husband. Thus, the family moves to Sidi Kacem (a well-kept small town then and home to a few French families) where Wafa enrolls in a French school. Saadia, a beautiful woman in her twenties, enjoys the freedoms her new lifestyle affords. She helps her husband in the store and learns how to play tennis. When she travels with her brother to Madrid in 1965, she finds the social milieu in the Spanish capital liberating, not like the culture of shame (h’shouma) that permeates Moroccan society. To be sure, her brothers in Rabat throw parties as if they were in any European city; but, as with Saadia and her children, they do so in their privileged enclaves, against prevailing trends and mores.
Ever seeking self-improvement and independence, Saadia takes hairstyling lessons in Casablanca and, in the process, exposes her children to the big Moroccan metropolis. There, she briefly allows herself to be kissed by a lifeguard and schoolteacher and gets a taste of what real passion and love could be. Dependent on the patronage of her brothers, the family moves to Rabat, returns to the outskirts of Sidi Kacem to run a citrus farm, and eventually moves back to a two-bedroom apartment in the capital. By this time, Saadia has managed to get rid of her husband, leaving the children without their father for the rest of their lives. The father, rejected by his wife and family, seeks solace in the mystical traditions of Islam, known as Sufism, and marries the delicate daughter of a Sufi lodge master who is even younger than Saadia. Such marriage, also doomed to misery, engenders no children, so the couple eventually adopts a daughter (whom the father ends up mistreating as well).
Newly divorced at age thirty-four, Saadia starts dating and “living on the edge of appropriate behavior.” Meanwhile, in the summer of 1972, Wafa, worrying about her family’s precarious financial situation, succumbs to severe depression and is committed to a psychiatric hospital in Rabat overnight. This is not the first time that Wafa exhibits self-destructive tendencies. She is held back in second grade and, at the age of fourteen, attempts suicide following an argument with, and a slap from, her mother. Her sister Nezha is also affected: she flunks out of school and takes up smoking and partying, although she avoids drugs and sex.
Casual sex, however, would become the main outlet for Wafa. Already on the pill to regulate her menstruation cycles, she gives herself freely to her neighbor, the painter Kamil, to be deflowered. Some time later, it is Kamil and his French wife who team up on her, the wife sending her to heights of ecstasy with her hands, and giving her the first orgasm of her life. She may have been a bit embarrassed, but with this sexual encounter, she gets “initiated to a new wonderful world of self-gratification.” The experience with her French literature teacher would, on the other hand, be disappointing, as the teacher turns out to be gay. (Later, in Paris, he hooks up with Said, Wafa's schoolmate, who eventually dies of AIDS.) Sexual escapades with a married Jewish businessman in his thirties go nowhere, and sex with a “very tall and athletic, sexy young black man,” the son of an African diplomat, is all heat. Saadia, meanwhile, falls for Berto, a married but separated Jewish gym owner. Because of social conventions, however, it would be another impossible love.
At about age eighteen, Wafa grows into a self-confident young woman and becomes the lover of a balding, thirty-four-year old Paul, a divorced man with a young son, and, like her mother, discovers the freedom of being in Europe and not having to endure a Muslim society’s public censure. French-educated and moving in Western-educated circles in Morocco, Wafa knows full well that she is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a typical traditional girl, and is all too aware of the risks of embracing her lifestyle. But there is no going back for her. No sooner does Paul leave for a trip to Paris than she succumbs to the seductions of Michel, a thirty-two-year old “gypsy-half-blood” from Toulouse, in Morocco to sell leather-bound books to well-to-do readers. She tries to keep Paul and visits him on a first-class round trip ticket she wins at a Miss Morocco pageant contest. But Paul, with his hair prosthesis, is no match for the hot-blooded Michel. And so after much heartache, she joins Michel’s rolling caravan, starting in Toulouse and its environs, then Geneva, Canada, and huge portions of Europe, Asia, and Africa, making good money in the process.
In 1978, Wafa returns to Morocco to take care of her brother Abdu, badly injured in a car accident. Her bookselling income allows her to send him to a reputable French hospital. She resumes her high school studies in the Economics track that she abandoned to work in book sales and travel the world. By this time, she drives her own car, a Renault 5 given to her by Michel. It is in this car that Saadia, Nezha and Wafa make the trip to Paris to visit Abdu in the hospital. One would have thought that a scene of three women pushing their out-of-gas car in Spain could only come from the imagination of a Spanish filmmaker like Pedro Almodovar, but that is exactly what happens. The women do make it to Paris, though, after they visit with Larbi in Toulouse.
In June 1979, short of her twenty-third birthday, Wafa passes the baccalauréat--orbac, for short—exam. She discharges her brother out of the hospital and with Nezha and her boyfriend visits Italy. Around this time, Moulay, a family friend and businessman, invites her to accompany him on a business trip to New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong. She accepts and they have a fabulous month together without, however, any sexual entanglements. It is during this time that she discovers the seductive powers of New York City. “I was thunderstruck,” writes Wafa, “transported by the heightened pace, boundless energy, baffling diversity, infinite ambition, fearless vision, and voracious material appetite, and couldn’t help feeling small, foreign, awkward, and totally awed.” Awed? Maybe, but one could tell that she has found her natural habitat and would one day end at the very heart of this frenzied island.
The lure of Manhattan is enough to convince Wafa to pursue her college education in the United States. The only problem is she is Francophone and knows little English, if at all. Never one to give in to such limitations, she spends six months in London learning English and Arabic, and, to top it off, taking classes in jazz-dance. She uses the opportunity to see Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, at the National Theatre. During this time, her sister Nezha discovers Florida and comes back with more enchanting tales of America. This is enough to send Wafa and her three siblings packing to Gainseville, home to the University of Florida. Within a year, she completes her associate’s degree at a community college and, before she knows it, is smitten by Robbie O’ Brien, an irresistibly handsome twenty-two-year old pot smoker, at a Halloween party. Her life is about to enter yet another boom and bust cycle.
Her married friend Cynthia wants Robbie for herself, but Wafa prevails and loses no time orchestrating a rendez-vous. The couple end up making passionate love in his trailer and soon move in together. Passion quickly degenerates into violence and abuse, but the go-getting Wafa somehow can’t extricate herself from this relationship in time. Talented and hardworking, she graduates from the University of Florida with honors and is elected to the prestigious honor society, Phi Beta Kappa. Soon major universities like Harvard, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins come knocking at her door. She accepts New York University’s fellowship for financial reasons. Before moving to New York, she visits Robbie at his parents’ house in Houston, Texas and, once again, is subjected to abuse and violence by an immature man who never manages to get his degree.
In late August 1983, Wafa arrives in New York with Robbie and about $3000 to embark on her graduate studies. She struggles to study and keep the couple financially afloat. Although Robbie spends his days lounging around and contributes nothing to the household, she marries him within two months. Eventually, Robbie, Wafa, and her mother find jobs in various restaurants. Wafa starts waitressing at the well-known Café des Artistes to take care of her ever growing financial responsibilities. Exhausted from study and work, she manages to make a down payment on an apartment and soon, at the age of thirty-one, allows herself to get pregnant. Just like she had abandoned her bac school year in Morocco to travel with Michel, she drops from her Ph.D. program (with, however, a Master’s degree securely in hand) to manage her growing needs and dependencies. She gives birth to Sophia, a colicky baby who only adds to the stress of a failing marriage. Robbie turns out to be an affectionate father. However, his laziness and episodic outbursts of violence, followed by incoherent introspective missives for truce and love, are not enough to save the relationship.
Wafa manages to get a real estate broker’s license and gather all her family, including her mother Saadia, who is also in love with the American Dream, at the Versailles, an apartment building in New Jersey, on the other side of the Hudson River. Still supported by her brothers back in Morocco, and still looking for love, Saadia marries Chester, a fifty-two-year old Vietnam veteran. She is shocked and deeply affected by the sudden death of two brothers. Chester, meanwhile, mistreats her, and before long, Saadia breaks down into a psychotic attack. She turns out to be bipolar, convinced that she is a prophet. Answering questions at the hospital, Wafa realizes that mental illness may run in her mother’s family. Without health insurance and little money, Wafa and Nezha hesitate to have her institutionalized. Wafa knows from experience (in Rabat) what this means, but worsening symptoms give her no choice. She is taking care of too many people at this point and simply has no options left.
While Wafa is wrestling with endless challenges and responsibilities, Robbie, now a butler in Manhattan, starts having affairs with women, including in distant Tunisia, when he visits Nezha and her Tunisian husband Sami. By the time he proposes to bring a woman he meets in Manhattan to their bed, Wafa has had enough. She ends the relationship and obtains a restraining order against him. After one final episode of passionate lovemaking with his estranged wife, Robbie follows his parents to Costa Rica. With Sophia’s father gone and Saadia’s health condition worsening, Wafa reaches the limit of her endurance. “My income was dwindling,” she writes, “and I was inundated with hostile calls from creditors. Robbie had left me with two mortgages, two co-op maintenances, and a mountain of credit card debts. He had exiled himself and relinquished all responsibility leaving me to care for a young daughter and an ailing mother, with no steady income, no child support or alimony, and no health care.”
In 1993, Wafa changes her legal name from Ouafae BenHallam to Wafa Faith O’Brien and applies with such name for a competitive sales training program at Merrill Lynch the following year. That year, she declares bankruptcy and loses the apartments, although her co-op sponsor allows her to stay in hers rent-free. To make matters worse, Robbie’s well-to-do parents refuse to help support their granddaughter. Not only that, Robbie later calls Wafa for a loan to divorce a Costa Rican woman with whom he has two children. At this point, Wafa manages to pause and wonder whether she is too harsh on the guy or if she has anything to do with the failure of their marriage, one with “a fairytale beginning and nightmarish end.” But the force of her convictions is such—which is what, ultimately, keeps her alive—that she simply can’t see past it.
With her irrepressible life force, Wafa takes on the macho culture of Wall Street and lands big accounts. She rises quickly to the post of “senior financial consultant and vice president” and makes a quarter of a million dollars a year. Her temporarily recovered mother is obviously proud when she visits her at the corner office with a view of the East River at the Citicorp Tower: “It was not hard to guess what was going through her head,” Wafa comments. “The sacrificed teenager, married against her will at a tender age in a medieval time and place, was witnessing something she could not, in her wildest dreams, have ever imagined. The frightened little girl whose hand she once held to school, some three-and-a-half decades earlier had turned into a successful Wall Street advisor managing million-dollar portfolios and reaching the pinnacle of American society in a transformation that baffled her mind.”
Wafa buys back her apartment and the one adjacent to it for herself at the Versailles and buys another one for her mother. She co-signs a loan for her sister Nezha. In the high times of speculation and financial bubbles of the 1990s, everyone, it seems, is carried away in the euphoria of easy riches. Lonely, Wafa answers a personal ad at New York magazine, only to find herself, weeks later, dating an obsessive compulsive and impotent Hungarian-born conservative bigot. During a summer trip to Morocco in 1997, she seduces Najib, a distant relative. But when he follows her to New York, she knows she wants nothing more to do with him. She meets Carlos, an Argentine diplomat, at a nightclub, and enjoys the passion of lovemaking for a while. The younger man, however, turns out to be too needy for the forty-four year old Wafa. By 2000, they call it quits.
Saadia’s health continues to deteriorate. At the age of sixty-four, she becomes practically disabled. Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 hit. Stress mounts. Wafa starts getting back pains and anxiety attacks. She loses clients; in fact, she startsfiring the obnoxious ones. She takes a leave of absence and starts going to talk therapy. She remembers her father and confronts her identity issues now that war has been declared on Iraq. In the process, she sends her mother with Nezha to Morocco, decides to resign from her lucrative job, sell all her apartments at the Versailles, and return with Sophia to live in Morocco.
By early 2004, Saadia, her live-in maid, Nezha and her husband Sami, Wafa and Sophia, as well as a general helper, all move into a big villa by the ocean in Harhoura, just south of Rabat. She learns that her father, the eighty-two old man she has supported all these decades, including sending him on pilgrimage to Mecca, has not changed much, and so decides not to have him join them, as he requests. She also undergoes a hysterectomy following painful episodes of hemorrhaging. In March, her sixty-five-year-old mother finally gives up and dies. More than three hundred people attend her funeral, leaving the reader to wonder what might have happened had she died in a New Jersey hospital.
Wafa tries to start businesses with Nezha in Morocco and enrolls Sophia at the Rabat American School. But money keeps running low, what with the apartments at the Versailles not selling and the un-American work habits of Moroccans and rampant corruption throughout the system. Wafa quickly realizes that the limited freedom she enjoyed in Morocco as a teenager in the 1960s and '70s has been further curtailed by the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. She can’t stand social inequalities and the poverty. Thus, in June 2005, she and her daughter make the trip back to the United States. With no jobs lined up, she tries to finish her doctoral work and trade stock options to no avail.
In March 2008, Wafa gets a phone call that would change her life. Naziha, a Moroccan friend who once lived in Saadia’s apartment at the Versailles, recommends Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, a book that would ignite Wafa’s “voracious appetite” for all matters of the spirit. Soon, through her daughter’s friend Elisa, she discovers a group of women known as the “Sisters of Light” who help her slow down and unplug from the source of the stresses that have bedeviled her all her life. Being in the nowbecomes the optimal state, and Wafa could only do that through overcoming fear.
For the first time in her life, in the midst of a collapsing economy, Wafa comes to terms with her financial insecurities and places a higher premium on the intangibles of mere being. The process of healing starts and she awakens to a new self. She vacates her place at the Versailles, puts her daughter in a small apartment in Manhattan, and moves to the village of Sag Harbor in Long Island, to work for Annette, an old friend of Nezha’s, in an upscale retail store with a social mission called Urban Zen.
At long last, Wafa feels free from the anxieties that have bedeviled her since childhood and opens up to the joys of life. This is, one recalls, the path her father takes when Saadia forces him out of the marriage, but one gets the feeling that Wafa will avoid the pitfalls of habit and keep seeking newer heights. She is unlikely to turn into a Willy Loman, the salesman in Arthur Miller’s play she sees while learning English in London. Wafa remains an irrepressible saleswoman, to be sure, but one who is advocating a new philosophy, not selling books or apartments, desperately waitressing in New York restaurants, advising pampered rich men, or trying to peddle stock options. She may still go back to any of those professions, but she won’t be the same person doing it.
Wafa’s journey provides valuable lessons on a number of topics. It upends the notion that women from Arab and Muslim backgrounds are helplessly trapped in male-dominated structures. Inspired by French and European traditions of openness, Wafa roams across the globe seemingly unimpeded, traveling from country to country, not on her daddy’s largesse (although her maternal uncles help a great deal), but selling books to make a living. Sure, there were few visa restrictions in the decades preceding the mid-to-late 1980s, but Wafa’s peregrinations are unusual in any time period. It’s almost as if she and her family on her mother’s side were genetically engineered to rebel against restrictive social traditions. Like a true Horatio Alger, Wafa has always made a living and reached for more, and like a typical Moroccan or Arab woman, she never ceases to look after her mother and relatives. She insists on being free, but she is not callous or indifferent, even though a few of the men she lets go might think differently.
Wafa forges her own destiny and is amply rewarded for it. She takes risks every step of her journey. She abandons herself to passion unapologetically. When she finds a man attractive, she tries to get him in bed—and then, if she really likes him after that, fall in love with him. When she needs money she goes to work, whether such work entails waitressing, selling homes, managing people’s fortunes, or working at a store in a village. When a family member needs help, she often comes through, and provides real, tangible assistance. She works out regularly to stay fit and doesn’t hesitate to seek medical or psychological help in times of need. She knows she is prone to wild mood swings and depression, but she never feels sorry for herself or complains about her condition. Wafa, in case there is still any doubt about it, is a natural-born leader.
Like many immigrants, she fudges her identity because of potential discrimination against Arabs in the United States. It would be a tragic misfortune for a woman who has never been bound by any Islamic tradition to be unfairly treated because of her father’s Muslim background. Following 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, she reconsiders her stance and reflects on the ways she has erased her Arab and Muslim identity. But, to be honest, she never really had one. She is a universal woman and citizen of the wide-open world from the get-go. She sends her father on pilgrimage to Mecca and leaves all the praying to him—a man who is incapable of helping himself, let alone others. Wafa is beyond narrow national categories. She is what we like to call a “free spirit”--the genuine article. She falls in love and has the courage to admit romantic failures. That so many relationships grow stale is a well-known fact, but Wafa is not one to stay in them. She expects only truth—of the moment, maybe—but truth, nonetheless. She is a gypsy of sorts, allergic to pretence and dissimulation.
Yet Wafa is also vulnerable when out of sight. She cries when she lets her lovers go or when she is mean to her sister. She worries to death about her mother and drives herself insane fretting about money. Yet these are indispensable traits for a full, wholesome portrait of the woman. These are not, as Wafa might think, flaws to be remedied or weakness to be straightened out. What would she do if she were to discover that mental illness is, indeed, a genetic trait in the family? Eliminating it though mood-adjusting drugs would simply turn her into an empty shell, as Saadia, her mother, well knows.
Wafa, like any human being who is alive, has her own moods and quirks, but overcoming them through medicine or Zen meditation is not going to help. At best, she could pretend to be a middle-aged American woman seeking spiritual elevation. No one at the “Sisters of Light” group, I am ready to bet, has had her life experiences. When it comes to family, Wafa is anything but typically American. She takes care of a whole family, across continents, because that is what people do. Wafa is not a suburban type, either. She is more like the pioneers who made the United States, the daring men and women who opened the country to new possibilities. To think of Wafa at her meditation sessions in Sag Harbor is to imagine America’s robber barons checking into a monastery and walking away from the world-changing events they have unleashed. Manic people make history and civilization with their larger-than-life appetites and visions. We, readers, are mere passive consumers of their gifts.
There are few people, Wafa, who have the golden opportunity—call it dharma, if you will—to have a full life like the one that has brought you to the brink of despair and even holy madness. Seek spiritual self-fulfillment to recover and recoup, but honor the spirit of your rebellious teenage years. Without that spirit, I wouldn’t be writing this, and the world would know little about you.
I am, of course, glad you took the time to attend writing workshops—the style does justice to the message. But please protect the voice that has guided you until now with all your might. This is your ultimate gift to us and to your mother (whose voice survives in yours, even though it may have been erased from the voice recorder).
Seek newer heights, apply for jobs, fall in love again, and again, and let yourself be bruised a little. Your unquenchable faith in a better future will guide you. Let the dead rest in peace and the younger ones shape their destinies. Your smitten readers don’t want you to retire and abandon your gypsy ways. Don’t let the temptation of preaching get the better of you. You—your being—is a work of the spirit. Just live—and that, dear Wafa, is grace enough.
Author: Anouar Majid is Director of the Center for Global Humanities and Associate Provost for Global Initiatives at the University of New England. He is the author of We Are All Moors, A Call for Heresy, Freedom and Orthodoxy, Unveiling Traditions, and the novel Si Yussef. He founded TingisRedux, a magazine of ideas and culture. Professor Majid has lectured and given keynote addresses at major universities and cultural institutions in the United States and around the world; he also contributed opinion pieces to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, and other publications. He maintains the blog Tingitana.