In the middle of the first snow storm of the winter, with the temperature near or below 0° F and wind chills 20 or 30 degrees lower, every reason to stay indoors is a good one, though I did walk to the road to get the Sunday morning newspaper. Niagara County has issued a traffic advisory, counseling drivers to stay off the roads unless it is absolutely essential. Even Lucky, our male cat, who normally demands to be let out early so he can pad around, sniffing out the intruders of the night before and marking his territory, only went out once. The snow was deep and very cold, and when Lucky ran back in after five minutes, he never asked to go out again. As storms go, this was a good one, but we have certainly seen much worse. Our driveway has been plowed for us, so we are not housebound except by choice. These few days of winter are ones that one enjoys best inside. Winter has settled in for awhile, so why shouldn’t we?

We subscribe to a number of magazines, and often they go unread, piling up in unvisited corners of the house. I try to keep them as long as I can, imaging that I will find some time to read them, but I often end up only skimming them or tossing them unread.

Settling in with the storm, I picked up the latest issue of the New York Review of Books,which had just arrived. The first article was a review, by a Mexican writer, of Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie, Roma. If you are a fan of the movies, you will probably have noted that this autobiographical film about the life of a nanny in a middle class Mexican household has garnered critical acclaim, and is an Oscar contender. The reviewer related her own life directly to the movie: she had grown up in a similar situation. Indeed, it was common for those who could afford it to take on nannies and cooks from impoverished rural areas. These women ended up as primary caregivers to children of others, while sometimes their own children lived far away in their native villages. This was the best they could do. They traded abject poverty for meager positions where loneliness and mistreatment and neglect were common. Any love they gave and received was often only from the children for whom they cared. This is one of the themes of Roma.

For Americans, the live-in nanny is an unusual profession, and only wealthy Americans can afford one. I grew up in a generation of stay-at-home moms, but today two-wage earner families are the norm, and childcare is a common problem. With mobility often a requirement for employment, Americans change residences frequently, and often live far from their own parents and other relatives. Day care and more makeshift arrangements are expensive, and many parents look forward to the time when their children finally begin school, when the need for day care is reduced to a few after-school hours. In Europe au pair girls often fulfill the role of the nanny, trading pay for a chance to learn a foreign language and culture, but, like nannies, au pairs in America are expensive and rather exotic.

In poor societies, lack of employment means that women will often take jobs as domestic servants. This was the case in Morocco, even though there was a strong bias against work outside the home, and women who did it were looked down upon. Rules of modesty were necessarily abandoned by a woman working outside in another’s home Sometimes a poor country relative was taken in, and often treated much as a Cinderella. Many of the French coopérants hired bonnes, maids, to help them. Working for foreign non-Muslims didn’t help a woman’s status, but it was better than nothing. In France, having a bonne was perhaps more common than for an American woman to have hired help, and the word maid, in American English, certainly has strong associations with upper-class living.

Khadija pouring tea. Photo by Don Brown, 1969.

When I began my work at a primary school chicken cooperative in the Habouna neighborhood of Sefrou, I replaced two volunteers who had employed a young woman to clean for them. Her name was Khadija, and she came daily. At the end of the summer of that same year, another Morocco X volunteer, Gaylord Barr, proposed that we rent a house in the medina, the old walled part of town. He moved out of a small European style house high above the ville nouvelle, the French-built new town. It was a long, steep walk to his house, and the house was far from everything. I moved out of the little block building in the yard of the school garden, a dwelling that I can easily say had the least privacy imaginable outside of a bidonville or a medina tenement. It was coveted by the chaoush (a kind of page or messenger), and, in the end, he got it. In addition to better housing, both of us looked forward to living within the medina walls. At the time, we naively thought of that as being in the authentic Morocco. In fact, it was the Morocco of the poor. Today, the medina of Sefrou is degenerating into a slum, and there have been calls to preserve it.

The Sefrou house was the last door on the left. Khadija is standing in the street. The gate pierces the city wall.

With the two of us in a substantial house, we needed help, and, with two Peace Corps allowances, modest as they were, paying for it was not difficult. So Khadija came to work for the two of us. Hiring help was not an uncommon practice among volunteers, but not every volunteer had a maid to clean and cook, nor did everyone want one.

Gaylord, Samira the cat, on his shoulder, Khadija. Looking toward the street side.

I never asked Khadija how old she was, and though she had an identity card with a birthdate, it might have been wrong. I think she was about my age, or possibly slightly older.

Poor Moroccan women tended to age quickly. She was not an old woman in any case. Her surname was Demnati, which suggests that her family was from the place of that name. I remember her husband, Ali, talking about the famine in Marrakesh, and Demnat is not far from Marrakesh.

Khadija and Ali

She did not speak Berber, as far as I know, though she would not have had any occasion to do so in our house. Ali had served in the French army in Vietnam, and sympathized with American soldiers at the time. Indochina was not a fond memory. He lived on his military pension, and it was not much, so Khadija’s wages contributed substantially to the family income. He had been married before, because he had a son, Mohammed, who lived with them. The three of them shared a house in the medina, with two or three other families. Khadija had no children of her own.

Khadija and Mohammed

Khadija had no formal education, and could not read or write, which was not unusual considering her generation and social class. She had no trouble with arithmetic or handling money, however. Since Khadija spoke no French, her employment was limited further, but the volunteers of Morocco X were trained in dialectical Arabic, so Khadija’s daily language was fine for us, and speaking with her gave us constant practice as well as information about what was going on in the world. We never attempted to teach her English.

Khadija’s duties were limited, though it might not seem so as I list them. She would shop, bake bread, cook, do laundry and clean house.

Lunch on the roof

She made lunch, and there was usually enough for dinner in the evening. She usually arrived about 8:00 in the morning. Once I began working in Fes, I would only see her on weekends or on holidays, but I knew there would be food waiting when I arrived home, often at seven or eight in the evening.

If we had guests, she would work extra time. When Khadija needed time for something personal, she was always able to take it.

From the point of view of a Moroccan domestic, she had a good job. I think we paid more than the going rate, about $20.00 per month, and we were not demanding. When she made bread for us in the morning, she made her own bread, often I suspect, with our flour, but that was okay with us. When there was extra food, she could take it home for her family, and we gave her things we did not need and took her to Fes to the dentist and doctor when needed.

In a new dress.

She in return did us favors. When we had women visit, she would take them to the hammam (the public baths) or to fortune tellers or whatever women’s activity they were interested in.

With Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary, and Carpenter’s daughter

She also took care of the numerous pets: cats, doves, canaries, tortoises, hamsters. Changing the cat litter, which was straw, was a nasty job, although the cats eventually helped out by using the roof of the room on the terrace, to which there was no easy access, as a giant cat box!

Washing dishes on the roof.

Khadija did laundry (and rugs) in a large galvanized tub on the roof where the laundry was also hung to dry. Gaylord and I sometimes used this tub to take baths, when we couldn’t get to the neighborhood hammam.

The neighborhood hammam. The left side was reserved for women.

It was just large enough to sit in, if you crossed your legs. I’d put a couple of kettles on the stove, drag the tub to the bathroom, which was the only room on the ground floor, and mix the hot and cold waters. The house had no hot water, and I don’t recall anything in the bathroom except a Turkish toilet, though there was probably a tiny wash basin. After a bath, you just dumped the bath water into the toilet hole. You were warm as long as the water in your tub stayed warm, and until the kettles ran out of fresh rinse water.

Khadija cooked from the room we called a kitchen, though it had no running water. The water was on the landing, at the main level of the house, that marked the division between the stairs that led to the roof and those that went down to the bathroom and front door. This was where dishes were washed though I think there were sunny days when pots and pans were done on the roof.

Washing clothes on the roof.

Since the stove sat on a cupboard, the food was cooked standing, but much of the preparation was done as Khadija sat on the floor. As a poor woman, her cooking repertoire was probably limited, but I have never eaten as well since, and she could make all the standard Moroccan fare.

Preparing couscous. It didn’t come out of boxes.

On Aid es-Seghir we would visit her house to break the fast. One year we joined in buying a sheep with her for Aid el-Kbir, and it was kept on the roof. We called it Messaoud, an ironic name, and for the several months it lived above us, I could hear the the patter of its hooves.

With Messaoud.

It was playful too, and would chase you if you encouraged it. After keeping it a couple of months, it was almost like a pet. If it were possible to later describe your pet as delicious.

A sad end, but Messaoud was sacrificed in remembrance of the sacrifice of Ibrahim.

Khadija was really a kind of nanny. She took care of us in good health and in sickness, and did her best giving advice about dealing with the life about us as well as the supernatural. Moroccans, often superstitious, worried about the evil eye and malicious spirits. Khadija warned us about pouring hot water down the drain (it would anger the jinn that lived there) and leaving our clothes in disarray when we went to sleep (jinn would wear them and bring illness to the owners.)

She was an intermediary with our neighbors and shopkeepers too, and I am sure she helped us develop relationships with some of them. I don’t know if Khadija loved us with the love the nanny in Roma had for her employer’s children, but the affection she showed was real, and we often treated her more as a friend or a parent than as a servant. I sure she was often exasperated too, by the stupid things we did.

With me in 1970, at the Fes airport.

I left Morocco in the late summer of 1971. Gaylord had reenlisted for another year of teaching at the Lycée Sidi Lahcen Lyoussi. Returning from Tunisia, he contracted typhoid, and had to be evacuated to a U.S. military hospital in Spain where he spent a couple of months. During that time, Khadija watched the house and took care of the pets. Before Gaylord left in July 1972, he used some of the money he had saved to invest in a business in which Khadija would be co-owner, but, according to Khadija, her partner absconded with the stock and she ended up with nothing. It was tough for a woman to enforce her rights.

In 1973 I returned to Sefrou for a few months, and rented a place to live. I hired Khadija again. Gaylord visited Sefrou in the late 1990s, and saw her again too. She was working for a French national in the ville nouvelle, and hoping Gaylord, on his way home from Saudi Arabia, would give her money. He was put off by her behavior and complained bitterly about it to me in his description of his visit. I was frankly surprised.

Looking back, I wish I had got to know Khadija better. She might have had it easy working for us, but she had a hard life, as most of the people of her social status did. I felt for her then as I do for her now. If I had planned to be an anthropologist, I would have had four years to document her life. In retrospect, I marvel at how little I knew about her. I never learned how she married, who her friends and relatives were, and how she practiced her religion. Gaylord knew her far better than I, but he has sadly gone. I also would have liked to help her more than I did, but when I left Sefrou that chapter of my life ended. There was no easy way to stay in touch with someone who could not read or write, and the computer era had yet to dawn.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

3 thoughts on “Khadija”

  1. What a great post. It brings up the debate about whether we expats were exploiting domestic helpers or at least offering them a wage which otherwise they would not have had. In my experience if we treated these people far more reasonably than they would have been treated working for locals rather than expats then it was sort of OK. But only sort of. It is complicated. Conscience versus redistribution of wealth. But why did you, nor I, not get to know these workers better? Would it have worked or upset the established balance of hierarchies of employer-domestics relationships. I really don’t know. But I did get on really well with the people I paid and who cleaned my apartment, child-minded, washed my lovely old Merc of desert sand (without ever being asked to) or whatever it was they did, treated them with respect, paid them fairly and actually used to tidy up and clean before the cleaner was due, just out of embarrassment and not wanting to seem like a slob. I just wasn’t cut out to be an employer really…


  2. PS Loved the pictures here, especially “Lunch on the roof” and that proud lady Khadija in her new dress. Very evocative of the times and the humans around then. I hope they’re not slides (transparencies) stashed somewhere in the attic.


    1. Thanks, Pete. They are transparencies, but stored fairly well. The Kodachrome is terrific. If kept well, it doesn’t fade much, at least I haven’t noticed much fading. One picture was from an old digitized photo my cousin sent. I wonder if I have a good copy somewhere?

      I liked your first comment. You put your finger on something that must bother a lot of people. Yes, we treat them better than locals would, by far, but it’s just for a time, and then we leave them to their own devices once again.

      And then there is the sad case of military or diplomatic corps or overseas volunteers who get involved with local women, only to leave them when their tour is up. I never observed an Peace Corps people doing it, though a few of my group married local women, but some of the diplomatic corps people took up with Moroccan women in Rabat and were pretty callous. That could only happen in a big city, since the woman’s reputation is ruined, and, in a smaller place, there is no way to get away from the shame.

      The situation for those who have aided American troops in any capacity in laces such as Iraq or Syria is especially dire, and I think the application of immigration laws under the current American administration is not only cruel, but counterproductive. People such as interpreters, along with their families, should be given asylum quickly.
      In many cases, they were promised protection. I think we incur a moral debt, and one we should honor and repay.


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