Author Archive

Atay bi Nana

October 2, 2017

By Jessinia Ruff

A silver teapot with floral engravings sits on the counter in my Seattle apartment overlooking Lake Union. Picking up themetal teapot evokes memories of my time in Morocco. My thoughts smile at the memory of haggling the price from 600 dirhams down to 70 dirhams at a little shop in the marketplace. The medina’s bright colored rugs and the smell of the spices linger as I set the teapot on my electric stove. I reach for my green tea leaves bought from a Berber woman in Meknes. Heaping a couple spoons of sugar into the teapot, I recall her instructions on how to make the Moroccan tea: “Place mint leaves along with the tea and sugar in the pot then let sit for three minutes on the stovetop.” Steam thrusts out of the neck of the kettle dissolving into the weighted air as the Moroccan and American cultures mix and brew.

In a pot of tea, the cultures mix. I sit on the couch and stare at the skyscrapers framing Mount Rainer as the rain pounds on the windows. Three minutes pass and my mind has wandered to unknown, complex depths. I take the teapot and pour two glasses of tea from shoulder height to make bubbles appear around the rims of the steaming glass. I call to my roommate if she wants to try a cup of Aytay bi Nana. “It’s the Moroccan tea; we drank it everywhere,” I tell her. She enjoys a sip, tells me it’s different than other teas.

Different. A word rings true to my anxious soul. Anxiety – like a camel sitting on my chest. I have trouble breathing. There are layers of thoughts in my head like the swirling sand on the beaches in Asilah. I crave a macuda potato sandwich. I want to hear Arabic ring in my ears – it’s foreign tongue tickling my intrigue. I sip the tea with my roommate and savor the warmth that travels inside my body. I am momentarily comforted. Salam.

I can’t change everything. I can let this experience impact me; change within to change what surrounds. So I take to writing, making words travel from my apartment across nations. I’m still left resistant to everything around me. The normal balance I had so carefully curated dissipated in an instant of stepping off that fourteen-hour plane ride back to the States. In my steps to achieve a normalcy in my daily living, do I have to let go of my memories abroad? I sip tea.

I believe my calling is to communicate the injustices in the world. As I write, a turquoise sticker on my laptop stares back at me and reads “people matter”. A simple statement reminding me why I am here. Like the swirling of the tea leaves in hot water, the cultures I feel tied to spin in my heart. The twisting of anxieties can propel me into learning more about more culture, their history, the inequalities. By doing so, I may be able to be a small drop of change in an ocean of people who matter.

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Hamam Child

October 2, 2017

By Jessinia Ruff

The nervous laughter echoed down the streets of Meknes as we walked to our unknown fate at the hamam. The baths of Morocco, a common practice for women and men here, and a challenge for Americans. In the West, women are taught that our bodies are weird. Our boobs not big enough or not Barbie-perky. Our waist too small or too large – and stretch marks only happen to pregnant women. Our curves too much, or our lack too boyish. The list of not enough goes on in our minds, in this laughter.

When we arrive at the Hamam it seemed oddly normal in its similar appearance to a locker room at a gym. We undress and quickly wrap our towels around our torsos. Taking a breath, I walk into the back room with my plastic basin. After removing her hijab, our Moroccan guide leads us inside. There are women laying on the floor being scrubbed by another. Their stares pierce my anxieties.

I pick a faucet and fill the bucket with warm water. Sitting on the tile floor, I feel childish in my unknowing of the practice. We all look similar, the Americans balled up in a steamy room with our buckets. Beauty. I pour water over my tangled body, the hot water slowly unraveling the tension of discomfort. A woman comes behind me and throws henna and black soap on my back. I reach for the mud-like mixture and coat my body, quietly observing the curves of my legs and the rounds of my shoulders.

I’m told to wait on a mat for a woman to scrub me. Holding my legs across my chest, I wait. I feel like a zoo animal being stared at – maybe my blonde hair, light skin, or tattooed arms stand out. Or maybe my discomfort is more revealing than my nakedness. A woman in her underwear sits behind me. She starts scrubbing my back. It’s rough, back and forth, peeling my skin off. She flips me over, my head rests on a strangers inner thigh. I try to relax as I watch the rolls of dead cells fall to the tile. Skin piles float in streams of water flowing in the moats that cross between the rooms.

After being scrubbed and slid around on the floor, I walk back to the faucet. While still raw, this time my posture is a little straighter. Sitting again in front of my bucket, my body unfolds into a cross-legged seat, a posture of meditation. Playing with the water I remark how I feel like a child in the bath. When did bathing become a task? A way to just clean and wipe the dirt of the day away. Here, the practice of pouring water over and over is nearly spiritual. Not rushed, our beautiful bodies are clean.

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Amplified Nervousness

October 2, 2017

By Jessinia Ruff

A voice lilts with each phrase of the Qu’ran, pausing on certain words and then suddenly dropping off at the end of a verse. Silent pauses give way to a foreign tongue of Arabic words knit together by a scribe who has spent his life memorizing the book. Bismillahi rahmani rahimi. The unusual sounds taking me back to the chants I heard while sitting in the wooden pews at the Lutheran church of my childhood. The merging of two religions: Christianity and Islam. Each faith with a song attempting to share the words of God.

The Islamic center with its complicated tile mosaics on the walls, floors, and columns echo the melodic chants. I arch my head to gaze at the golden chandelier above the waterless fountain and stand in awe of the stalagmite-like carvings dripping from the white ceiling. Blue light stream from the stain glass windows on the white marble floors. My classmates and I circle around the entrance of this education center. Women in djellaba robes and men wearing babouche slippers walk this ostentatious lobby to study Islamic teachings in Meknes. On Friday, the holiest day in Islam, our feet take the same steps to ask the Imam, the scholar at the mosque, any question about Islam.

Entering the conference room, the importance of this meeting weighs on me as the large leather chairs swallow me. I imagine a United Nations official in a seat such as this, discussing political issues. Yet here we are fourteen curious Americans fidgeting with our personal microphones. A woman in a hijab pours us mint tea and offers us ornate pastries; she is the only Moroccan woman in the room. Our guide and translator sits next to the Imam, who wears a white robe and cap. His two male colleagues on either side of him write on the notepads in front of them. After the reciting of the Qu’ran, they welcome us. “We feel that all should follow a religion; it’s in our nature,” begins the Imam.

We take turns asking our questions. Moments of reflection pass while we wait for the translations of the Imam’s answer. I attempt to interpret his hand movements into ideas. With deep reverence for his religion, he carefully explains the rules of Islam. His face remains pensive with wrinkles barely moving with his words. I press the button to speak into the microphone, my heart racing a little as I speak: “How are women viewed in the Qu’ran and Islam versus men, and can a woman ever become an Imam?” My trepidation arises with reminders of the stereotypes perpetuated in the West; it’s thought that Muslim women do not have rights in Islam.

“Men and women come from the same source of the Sprit. They are created equally. But there are different roles for males and females, so that they may complete each other,” the Imam responds. It’s a respectful answer, maybe even more progressive than some Christians’ view of the creation of men and women. Still, my Western feminist’s gut twists in hearing the next remarks: “A woman cannot be an Imam, but she’s welcome to study. A woman cannot enter the mosque during the time of her period, and she cannot teach men. But women can pray and discuss teachings with other women,” the Imam completes his answer. My blood curdles as the word period is dropped like the dirty rags that fill during that time. Women can’t lead because of a God-given beautiful curse of childbearing miracles.

With a bitter taste in my mouth, I listen to the others’ inquiries: types of religious practices, the complexity of the soul and spirit, and whether there’s space for doubt in Islam. My inner dialogue bounces between a woman who wants equality in all aspects to a woman trying to respect a foreign culture’s ideas. While continuing to mull over the complexities of gender roles, the Imam interrupts my thoughts. “There’s room to ask questions and we encourage it.” In that statement, I felt more respected by him than by some people I’ve encountered in the Church. There’s room for me and my doubt. As I walk out of the daunting room, I cross through tall wooden doors onto a patio lined with stone columns. The mountains caress a purple sky that fades to orange, the sounds of the chants lingering in the cool air. Breathing deeply, my thoughts settle in gratitude for the bridge we created with our words in harmony.
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