I am sat in a little hire car next to my new husband, and we appear to be driving through a field. It’s dark, and we left the city hours ago. We’ve passed through towns and villages, which have been getting smaller and smaller. In the last village there were horses, not cars, parked outside the houses. My husband assures me that this is in fact a road, and he knows it well. We bump slowly along the rocky path. It feels like the middle of nowhere, but I can make out the occasional low white building. A line of streets lights snakes up the Atlas mountains in the distance.
Eventually we turn into a drive, distinguishable only by the fact that it is even more rocky than the road we have turned off. We get out of the car and I stumble over rocks in the midst of greetings from my new Moroccan family. This is my first visit to their home, though I met some of them previously at our small wedding.
That’s the last I see of my husband, who is ushered away to sit with the men, while I am taken into a room full of women. The floor is concrete and the walls are stone, roughly whitewashed. A bare bulb casts a dim light, but the floor is covered with bright rugs and cushions. I sit among a sea of smiling curious faces and try not to cry. Other than ‘asalam u alikum’ I don’t know a single word of the language they speak. There is every age of woman in this room. Fat smiling babies, beautiful young women, old women with no teeth and tattooed chins.
When they realise I can’t communicate with them, they gradually resume their chatter, casting furtive glances at me. Even though I am overwhelmed and emotional, I can see there is no animosity in their gaze. From my place on the floor I can see out of the door of the room into the courtyard, where food is being prepared. A tall skinny young woman dashes about busily, but flashes me a huge grin every time she passes the door. She wears a long flowered cotton abaya, a bright scarf and a checked apron tied around her waist. Eventually she enters the room, sits down next to me, puts her arm around me and declares ‘Ukhti!’ (my sister!) before kissing my cheek.
This was my husband’s only unmarried sister, and her unhesitating welcome was a beacon of light and continues to be to this day. Following this party in honour of our marriage, we stayed a few days in my in-laws farm in rural Middle Atlas. Before this, I considered myself to be well-travelled, open minded and unconcerned about material wealth and comfort. But Allah sometimes holds up a mirror for us to truly see ourselves, and this experience challenged these beliefs I had about myself.
My husband had told me prior to our marriage that his family were from rural Morocco and not wealthy. I had no issue with this, but the description didn’t prepare me for the disparity in standard of living, between my family and his. While I was worldly enough to understand that some people lived without electricity, running water, kitchens and bathrooms, this wasn’t a situation that I expected would touch my life so closely. That’s not to say I felt I was better than this, or had any negative feelings towards his family because of this, just that I was naïve. So that first night, when I managed to express to my sister-in-law my need to use a bathroom, she filled a small bucket with water, got a torch, and led me behind a rock. She was actually willing to stand there with the torch while I went about my business, but I managed to communicate that I needed privacy!
This was the beginning of many years of my struggle with personal hygiene and privacy on our regular visits. I’m sorry to say that I never did get used to either of those things, and the blessing of being able to build a small house of our own on the farm, into which my husband managed to install a basic kitchen and bathroom and pump water from a well into a tank atop the house, has been the solution. Being able to use the bathroom and sit quietly alone with my morning coffee before joining the rest of the family has given me the sanity I have needed to face the rest of the challenge – building relationships with my Moroccan family and adapting to the culture.
This has been a journey of highs and lows and many rocky ravines! I am truly blessed to have married into such a supportive family, who have accepted me, and do not expect more of me than I am able to give. Over the last 10 years, on our extended twice yearly visits, I have learnt so much from them, and I have also learnt about myself, and what is important to me.
If I was to pinpoint the main things I have learnt from these visits, I would say patience, and trust in Allah.
‘Umar said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, ‘If you were to rely on Allah as He should be relied on, He would provide for you as He provides for the birds. They go out early in the morning hungry and return in the evening full.’ (Tirmidhi hadith).
There is a Moroccan saying which roughly translates into “death is the only thing that happens quickly, everything else takes time”. In Morocco, I’ve really learnt that nothing happens to schedule. Plans are made, and changed, at last minute, and promises often don’t materialise. On a deeper level, I have seen the incredible patience shown by my mother-in-law and sister-in-laws, in their daily tasks such as washing all of their family’s clothes by hand in water collected from a well, and in other, bigger matters. This ties in closely with trust in Allah. As Muslims we all know we should have this, but for women like me in the West, we are used to having a great degree of perceived control over our own and our families lives – from choosing the tiles we like in our bathroom, to choosing the best school for our children. My sister-in-laws do their best, and have faith that Allah will provide the opportunities their children need. They rely on Allah first and foremost, and accept without question when things don’t go the way they want, and this is something I have tried to learn from.
The other side of the coin is learning to appreciate the opportunities that I have had in my life.
“Read in the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by means of the pen; taught man what he did not know.” (Quran 96:1-5)
My mother-in-law has not been educated and is illiterate. She believes if she had been, she could have made better decisions for her family. The opportunity I have had to be educated has helped me not only to be financially secure in my own right if needed, but also to learn about Islam in more detail, an opportunity which many of my sister-in-laws would have valued.
I feel truly blessed to have had an opportunity to experience a completely different culture at close hand. It has turned many of my previous assumptions upside down, and opened my eyes to what it really means to be human – for all the apparent differences between us, we are not so different after all.
“O mankind! Reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single soul, created, of like nature, the mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women” (Quran 4:1).
About the author:
Fatima-Minna lives and works in the UK. She has two lively little boys who keep her very busy, and strives to increase in nearness to Allah.