#MoreThanALabel: my story as an Arab American Immigrant

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I am participating in #MoreThanALabel: Immigrant Stories, Simmons College’s online MSW Program’s campaign to promote transcending labels. By participating in this campaign, I will be sharing my story and how I believe we can shatter the stigmas often attributed to immigrant communities.

I sat at the doctor’s office and watched her scream at the receptionist. A woman of a certain age, dressed in designer clothes from head to toe, her shouting was so out of place. 

“But I asked for the other doctor. I don’t want to see this one. He is foreign!”

She finished yelling at the red-faced receptionist, who promised to see what she can do, and came and sat next to me. With my confusing facial features, she probably didn’t know what I was. She addressed me, hoping to find a sympathetic ear.

“I just don’t understand them, those foreign doctors, and if I don’t understand them, how could they understand me?”

I smiled and buried my nose in my book. That Richard Castle sure knows how to write a story!

“I mean, would you see that foreign doctor?”

Putting my book down, I faced her. “As a matter of fact, I would. He’s great. He’s Harvard educated, trained at a top US hospital, and he has been in America longer than I have.”

My declaration took her by surprise. Suddenly, I wasn’t her audience.

“You’re foreign too?”

I have always loved this question. It gives me the chance to play a little game.

“No, I am an American.”

“But you just said—”

“Right. I wasn’t born here.”

“What’s your nationality?”

“American.”

She rolled her eyes. “I mean what’s your—”

“Heritage?”

She smiled and lowered her gaze. I was having fun. “Moroccan,” I said with a grin.

“Sorry if I offended you,” she muttered. She dug into her purse. “Chocolate?” she said remorsefully.

“Thank you.” I chewed on the offered Dove piece. It was delicious. The rest of the conversation flowed easily. She confessed to have always wanted to go to Casablanca and I encouraged her to do that. I also told her that I had known the “foreign” doctor for a while and that his wife, also “foreign,” taught me a class in college. By the time I was done, she got up and spoke to the receptionist, a lot more calmly, and was seen, I am guessing, by the same doctor she snubbed ten minutes earlier.

Such occurrences are rare, at least in my experience.

Most natural-born Americans that I have encountered welcome the opportunity to learn about other cultures, either directly by traveling or vicariously by hearing all about them from natives. The recent shift in sentiment, due to discriminating comments made by GOP presidential candidates and the spotlight directed at the migrant crisis in Europe, will shift again, in my opinion. America was built by immigrants, for immigrants, and we will never forget our roots. We pride ourselves in being a mosaic of different cultures, a Heinz 57 of ingredients, if you will. 

When I was approached by Ms. Megan Dottermusch from Simmons College to participate in this blog carnival, based on a piece I wrote on this same website in July of 2013 titled An Immigrant in America, I went through a phase where I didn’t know what to write about. I was humbled to be asked, absolutely, but my experience as a former foreigner has been pleasant, in comparison to most. Born and raised in Morocco, my family had the means to take care of me and my home country had no wars to drive me away, so deciding to live in America after visiting and falling in love with an American was all a matter of serendipity. 

From stories told to me throughout the years, the biggest obstacle that makes life harder for most immigrants is not mastering the English language, and it’s through no fault of their own. Most, if not all, try very hard, everyday, to improve their English, and therefore afford themselves a better life, but tell me this: have you tried learning a second language after a certain age? how hard was it? were you able to speak it flawlessly and without an accent? This is what foreigners face when immigrating, and it is my belief that most of the discrimination they face comes from their language skills, as hard as they may try. Whether they’re treated differently as soon as they open their mouth or they themselves end up being self conscious about their accent or mistakes, their experience ends up being dictated by their mastery of English. A self fulfilling prophecy, for certain.

That being said, I do believe that the best way to fight labels is a life well lived. I believe in assimilation. I believe in respecting the law of the land you live in. I believe in participating in activities in your community, in celebrating holidays, and in trying and trying some more, as hard as life might be in the beginning. If some discriminate against someone with a foreign accent, most will find it lovely, maybe even sexy. I believe that any immigrant who ends up in the US is very fortunate indeed and should make the most out of his or her experience, without having to sacrifice who they are or deny where they came from. It is in our differences that we find our strength, in our disagreements that we find our commonalities. Let us not lose sight of who we are as Americans.

I am proud to wave my red, white and blue flag, proud to live in a land where I can be spiritual without practicing a religion that confines me, and proud to pursue my dreams, which have included going to college, traveling, and writing a novel … in English!

My name is Meena McBride. I am an Arab American, an engineer, a fashionista, an author, a blogger, a world traveler, and a proud immigrant.

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Quiet No More: Muslims in America should speak up.

Ben Carson finally showed his truly colors. On Meet The Press today, he made the following statement: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

This comes soon after Donald Trump’s refusal to take issue with a man during a campaign event who called President Obama a Muslim and said Muslims are “a problem in this country.” For the record, President Obama is a Christian. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, were swift to criticize Carson’s comments, stating that he was no qualified to be a president.

Now, to be honest with you, as a die-hard Hillary fan, I want these two to keep opening their months and spewing this kind of ignorance, because the more they do, the less likely they are to get elected. Why? Simple. I have faith in the American people. I do not think that we would elect someone who stands against the principles of our Founding Fathers; someone who would spread hate and division among us.

While we’re on the subject of hate against Muslims: here is a critique that I have heard and read often enough: American Muslims, the “good” ones, the moderate ones, do not do enough to condemn the actions of the few bad extremists.

I happen to agree!

We, as a small population, don’t do enough to condemn the responsible parties when something bad happens. I can’t speak for the entire American Muslim population, but I would like to, at least, speculate as to why.

First of all, and this is important, most of us come from a country / culture where criticizing Islam or voicing a political opinion was frowned up, at best, and a way to land you in prison, or killed, at worse. Second and third generation Muslims are taught to be quiet about such issues at an early age, even when they’re born and raised right here in the US, where the First Amendement is alive and well. So, we are hard wired not to “rock the boat.” Even when crimes are committed by extremists, there is perhaps a hesitation to say something that could be misconstrued as a critique against Islam itself, so it’s best to just … shut up. We assume that, as Americans, it is obvious to everyone that we love our country and that our loyalty to the flag of the United States is not up for debate: if something happens that harms our fellow Americans, then we’re just as pissed off about it as all other citizens.

Furthermore, I think that being a minority, and a very small one at that, puts added pressure to stay silent in the face of controversy. It almost feels like, no matter what we say, people’s opinions wouldn’t change anyway: if someone hates Muslims, that won’t change, and if someone doesn’t, that won’t change either. 

Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to feel that way; if anything, I think that other Americans are ready to hear from the Muslim American population. Perhaps for reassurance that our loyalty to the US is intact. Perhaps to feel a sense of solidarity in the face of tragedy. Whatever the reason, I think that the outcry against our collective silence is justified, and that it is time to speak up, not only against extremists, but also against politicians who use us as pawns in their political schemes. 

I know I will.

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36 lessons learned by my 36th birthday

I recently celebrated my 36th birthday, so I thought I would share 36 lessons I learned so far in the years I have spent on this earth. I am feeling particularly wise today, so here we go:

1- Regret is a waste of time and energy.

2- A good bra makes all the difference.

3- You don’t need a ton of friends. It is not a competition. All you need are a few good friends.

4- Don’t let life experience change you for the worse. Learn from it, but hold on to your qualities.

5- You can never have enough shoes …

6- … or clothes, or purses, or accessories … until it’s time to move. Just, don’t ever move.

7- Love will cross your path, but if your heart is not receptive to it, it won’t find you.

8- Selfish is not a dirty word. It’s healthy to take care of yourself.

9- Spend as much time with your parents as you can. You never know …

10- … same goes for your loves ones.

11- Own up to your mistakes. Then don’t look back; move on.

12- Embrace what you don’t like about yourself, whether it’s curly hair, freckles, or curves. You do have admirers, no matter what.

13- Spend time outside, as much as possible.

14- Laugh to your heart’s content.

15- Tell people you love that you love them. Often.

16- Go ahead, enjoy that piece of cake already …

17- … but don’t forgo the gym. You only get one body.

18- Learn new skills, whether it’s life skills (swimming, riding a bicycle) or ones just for fun (painting, playing the guitar)

19- Listen to your teachers. Respect them. Thank them. Teaching is not limited to the classroom either.

20- Laugh before you sleep. Every night.

21- Take your vitamins. Wear SPF. Allow daily time for self care.

22- Make major life decisions early on, but be open and flexible. You never know.

23- It is never too late to start over.

24- Don’t be so hard on yourself. You have far more qualities than you give yourself credit for.

25- Nothing happens on your terms, so learn to be patient.

26- Be authentic. Be genuine. You don’t have to please anyone but yourself.

27- Allow yourself to fall. Get up, dust yourself off, and know that the broken bones will heal stronger than before.

28- Don’t ever apologize for crying. You are one of the fortunate ones who are able to feel emotion.

29- Not everyday is going to be exciting. Routine days are when things get done, so embrace them.

30- Good friends are like diamonds: valuable, forever.

31- Find something to be spiritual about, whether it’s a religion or a way of thinking. Your soul needs nurturing just as much as your body.

32- Read. Get lost in a good book.

33- Travel. See the world. Shake hands with people who are nothing like you, then buy them a cup of tea and have a memorable conversation.

34- Lipstick is as necessary as air. It just is.

35- Let go of three things: Judging. Controlling. Being right.

36- Love like there is no tomorrow.

Feel free to add your own life lesson.

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I hate my job

How you ever felt like you were in the wrong profession?

Have you ever woken up and, for the millionth time, dreaded going to work, wondering if you were justified in your feeling, or if you were just a lazy bum?

I feel like that everyday. Every second of everyday.

I am an engineer. A female engineer, to be exact.

One day I woke up and decided to go to college. I was nineteen years old, and married. By the way, don’t get married that young … but that’s for another blog post. I had no idea what I wanted to be “when I grew up,” so I asked the people that I trusted the most to help me decide: my then-husband, and my father. The choice was unanimous: engineering. “You’re good at math and science; you can work anywhere in the world with an engineering degree; the money isn’t half bad.” My then-husband even joked with our friends that he will be able to retire early with the “boat-load” of money I would be making.

That’s still funny, after all of these years. Boy was he wrong!

I spent nine years working full time and going to school part time. College was brutal. Seven years after graduation, I still resent the one professor who had made my college experience even more miserable than it was supposed to be. An ex-military, he treated us all as if we were in some military camp, yelling, screaming, belittling our efforts, no matter how big. One time, he walked into class, tossed our graded exams in the garbage can and walked back out. We had to fish for ours in between discarded coffee cups.

He was particularly hard on me. Being the only female student in most of my classes, he singled me out often and gave me an extra big slice of his mean pie. Trust me, it was not just my impression. On graduation day, he put his arm around me as we walked toward the stage and confessed having been especially hard on me and that it was for “my own good.” I wanted to strangle him, then I remembered that I wasn’t violent and walked on stage to accept my hard-earned college degree instead.

Graduating in 2008 was a matter of bad timing. The economy was terrible and only getting worse, and it took me five months to land my first job. Well, the salary was certainly not what I expected or was told I would get, and the sexism was even worse in the workforce. The fact that I had a vagina was not lost on anyone. The fact that I was a plus-size woman made me invisible at best, a subject of bullying at worst. Every project I worked on was reviewed with scrutiny. Every outing between coworkers was planned and executed behind my back; I was never invited anywhere. Even the few female coworkers chose to avoid me like the plague. I know what you’re thinking: you’re complaining too much, Meena. I know. I am, and at first, I thought it was all in my head. I thought that once I proved myself to be a hard worker and gain experience as an engineer, they will all give me a chance. I put in extra hours (at no extra pay.) I pulled all-nighters in order to meet deadlines. I brought trays of homemade cookies and consoled coworkers when they were going through a difficult time. I thought I was well on my way to carving a place for myself within the company.

One year after landing that job, I was laid off.

OK, I was one of ten people to be laid off, and by then, the industry I was working in at the time – construction – was more than just suffering. In the meantime, I fell back in love with something I hadn’t given thought to in a while: writing. I started writing my first novel.

It took me a long time to find another job, and I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say that the same thing happened again.

Fool me once … you know how it goes.

I didn’t think it was a coincidence the second time around. I wanted to zero in on my share of the blame. I had to sit down and give it some thought: OK, so I am a female in a man’s world, but I have met successful female engineers so I knew that it wasn’t impossible to be successful in that profession. Was there something more to the story?

The truth that I was faced with was sobering: I never studied engineering for the love of the profession. Sure, I made it through college. Sure, I was able to learn a few things and meet deadlines. But what was missing, all along, was love, passion, a desire to be the best engineer that I can be. I am an alpha female, a hard worker, someone who holds herself to very high standards, so, economy aside, why was it so hard for me to identify with being an engineer?

Simple. I am not an engineer at heart.

I never took things apart and put them back together, as did 99.9% of all engineers that I know, when they were growing up.

I never dreamed of building things and seeing them operate.

I just wanted to … write.

It’s taking me six years to finish my first novel, which I am now having edited before I pursue publication – finally! It took that long, mostly because I have always had to prioritize working (poor me, I have to earn a living), but also because I wanted to fall in love my profession so badly. But make no mistake: there isn’t a day when I wake up and I don’t wish I could just write. I just want to wake up, write, have a little lunch, take a little walk, write, have a little dinner, take a little walk, write some more. Simple life. Simple dreams. I just want to tell stories. When would-be engineers were growing up, taking things apart and putting them back together, I was writing: short stories, poems, you name it. To this day, I am constantly coming up with ideas for new novels, constantly watching people interact and imagining my own version of what their lives must be like. Sure, engineers are creative and have a good imagination, but that’s where the similarities end.

I did get back on my feet, work wise. I am still working as an engineer, pretending that sexist jokes don’t bother me, or that not including me on a golf outing is not a big deal, or that my work is not more scrutinized than that of my male coworkers. But I still dream, of the day when my office will be a few feet away from my bed; the day when I will be pulling all-nighters, not because of some company’s deadline, but because I have an idea that is hammering in my head so loudly I just have to stay up and write; the day when bad guys die and good people fall in love and happy endings are not just a figment of my imagination, but a novel, written and printed, with my name on it.

What are your dreams, my friends? Tell me, because I will understand.

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Living with Anxiety

My name is Meena McBride and I live with anxiety.

No, this is not another blog to sensationalize an issue, nor is it a cry for help. This is simply a first person account of what it’s like to live with severe anxiety every day, to the point where it has become, for me anyway, debilitating.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that my anxiety started when I was a child. I am not a psychologist, so I will not psychoanalyze myself, but I do know that having traumatic experiences in one’s childhood can cause a myriad of issues, immediately and later in life. I will not share the details of my childhood, not now anyway, but I will describe it in one word: chaotic.

My family is full of anxious people, especially the females. I am not blaming any of them, but as a child, I emulated their behavior until it became my identity.

I basically fear … everything. Here is a typical day for me: I wake up and I am immediately afraid that I will be late for work, regardless of how early I wake up. I go about my morning routine with a knot in my stomach, thinking about how late I will be for work and how bad of an employee that makes me. I drive to work with that same knot, which doesn’t untie itself until I get to my destination. A different knot forms in my stomach as soon as I am at work, remembering that I am a scientist, a female in a male dominated field. I begin to think of how badly I will do at my projects that day, how disappointed my boss will be with me (he never is), and how many deadlines I will miss (I never do), because, well, I am a terrible employee (see morning routine). That knot remains in my stomach my entire work day. Other knots join in; my worries about everything else in life, including war, hunger, and the rising price of milk. I worry about losing my job (again, bad employee), my eating habits (don’t all women fret about that?), my friends (bad employees are bad friends, naturally), my family (don’t even get me started on how bad of a daughter and sister I am), and everything else under the sun. On the drive home, I worry that I will eat too much for dinner, that I probably left the stove on and the house caught on fire (I double check it every morning), that I left the door unlocked and my not-so-valuable possessions will all be gone by the time I got home (I triple check it before leaving in the morning), and how it’s probably not a good idea to go to bed and fall into a deep sleep in case my phone rings, with someone on the other end telling me that my elderly parents have died.

Yes, this is honestly my life.

For a long time, I didn’t have a name for my condition. I just labeled myself a “worrier”; someone who was exceedingly aware of everything around her and wanted to have solutions set in place for problems before they happen; a planner of sorts, if you would. I thought it was a part of my personality, a quirk, something to joke about with friends and have a good laugh. It wasn’t until I read an article about anxiety and took a test at the end of it that I realized what a HUGE problem this has been all of my life. I always knew that not enjoying, well, anything, is no way to live, but I thought I was doomed, that I had to live with it, kind of like having to live with my dark hair and brown eyes. It’s just me, I thought to myself.

Not knowing that I had an actual condition, even with intensive therapy, I tried to contain the problem, contain my own fears. I planned my days meticulously, my planner never leaving my sight. I thought that if I could only control my life, that everything will be o.k. I even planned time to just “veg” so that I can have sometime where I don’t have to worry about anything, I limited my activities so that unforeseen circumstances had a lesser chance of happening (that’s the scientist in me). Nothing worked. Instead, I created a whole host of new fears, fears that I will not stick to my to-do list, that I will not enjoy anything including my downtime, that I am basically doomed to live this life forever. My fear of failure became my identity. If I didn’t fail at something, it was probably thanks to someone else. I never gave myself credit for anything, the voice of low self-esteem yelling in my head that there was no way I could succeed at anything, even in the face of occasional successes, which I could never explain to myself. I would start personal projects with the optimism of a toddler about to build a Lego castle, only to see that enthusiasm falter as I got overwhelmed yet again by my own fears. Life became unbearable.

Until I had a wakeup call.

Recently, I was given a task at work that I had never done before. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that the entire time I was meeting with my boss about that task, I was in full panic mode. I felt jittery, my hands were sweaty and my heart was thumping in my chest so loudly I could hear it. I barely focused on what my boss was saying to me because the self-sabotaging voice inside of me was so very loud, reminding me that I will fail at that task, no doubt about it. My boss noticed and gently reassured me that I was up to the challenge. I thanked him and ran to the bathroom, and actually cried. I am not sure what the tears were for; fear, relief, gratitude that someone actually believed in me more than I believed in myself. I washed my face and went back to my office, and the task went very well.

It was the wakeup call that I needed. I knew at that point, with absolute certainty, that my condition was not a quirk, that my life was not normal. I started researching different mental health issues, until I came across the one article that answered all of my questions. Yes, I live with anxiety. My body-mate finally had a name.

I firmly believe that half the solution is in isolating the problem, but where do I go from here?

I could resort to pharmaceuticals, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I could end up seeing immediate results if I go that route. However, when digging a little deeper, it turns out that exercise (that dirty little word) does wonders for people living with anxiety. The solution to decades of anxiety lied in breaking a sweat. Who knew?

This story does not have a happy ending … yet. My condition, as is my life, is a work-in-progress.

The jury is still out for now, but my promise to you, my dear reader, on this somewhat calm day, is that I will get a hold of my anxiety, no matter how long it takes me.

Don’t believe me? I am happy to surrender my planner to you … Well, give me some time.

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The Bicycle and The Muslim Girl

The film Wadjda, directed by the Saudi female director Haifaa Al-Mansour, had a simple premise: it’s the story of an eleven year old Saudi girl who wants a green bicycle. It couldn’t get any simpler than that. Yet, this film moved me like no other ever had, and the reason was simple: I could relate.

I, too, grew up in a Muslim country. I, too, wanted a bicycle my entire life. Now in my thirties, I am deeply ashamed of the fact that I don’t know how to ride a bicycle, and wonder how many other adults in America can relate. I had a tricycle when I was a small child, the kind that you ride with your feet touching the ground. Once ready to upgrade into a big-girl two-wheel version, I was given excuses instead of answers: what do you need it for? Walking is better for you anyway. Here is a girly doll instead, as tall as you, look how pretty! I was never given the reason as to why I couldn’t have a bicycle.

One day, when I was in high school, I did an informal survey among my classmates to see how many of them knew how to ride a bicycle: out of thirty three girls, only two knew how! One who had lost her dad (read: no male authority figure) at a young age, and one whose mother was European (read: open minded). The rest of us would have been clueless had we found ourselves in a dangerous situation and our only means of getting away was a bicycle. Granted, I am referring to a scene from a movie I have seen, but still, what if?

I think riding a bike – an adult size one – is a skill that everyone should have by the time they’re an adult, not only because of the possibility of the scenario above actually happening, but for the freedom that I imagine only a bicycle could offer, and of course for the health benefits. I get so jealous when I see someone riding a bike. I see it as a privilege that most people take for granted, while billions of Muslim girls around the world have to fight – and lose for the most part – to get a bike.

You’re probably wondering why. Why are these Muslim girls not allowed to ride bicycles? Here is the story that I was told later by female friends: the myth in some Muslim countries is that riding a bike will break the hymen. The precious virginity would be lost. The girl would be labeled impure. If you know anything about Muslim cultures, then you know how precious virginity is to these girls’ male relatives.

It is true? Does riding a bicycle break the hymen? No, of course not! Some of the men in these Muslim countries just don’t want us to have any freedom. Riding a bicycle would mean freedom; it would mean girl meets world. It would mean that her innocent eyes would get to see what’s happening beyond the walls of her golden cage. It would mean mixing with men. And who knows what else the girl will ask for when she grows up: cigarettes, alcohol, birth control pills? The risks are simply too high for some of these men to take.

I am being sarcastic. Well, sort of.

In recent years, I have asked my father about not having a bicycle growing up. I wanted to know his reasons for denying me something that’s so basic when he gave me so much. He promised that he doesn’t remember anything about it. My father had to raise a lot of children and was the sole bread winner, so I do believe that he didn’t mean to deprive me of that privilege. He was also into cycling; we’re talking high tech bikes, proper gear and many competitions, and he was an orphan who was raised by an open-minded European Catholic man, so I chose to believe that it was an unfortunate oversight. I did forgive him. He’s an amazing father, but I do tease him about it every chance I get.

Recently, a friend of mine visited me at home and saw that I have a bicycle. She also saw a helmet and some elbow and knee pads sitting right by it. A couple of days later, she offered to teach me how to ride, stating that her daughter would love to learn with someone else.

Her daughter is ten years old.

I politely declined.

But make no mistake: I will learn how to ride a bicycle if it’s the last thing I do. I have tried the cigarettes, alcohol and birth control pills already.

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Fleeing the Casbah

      Blisters were forming on her heels from the tight shoes. Droplets of sweat covered her forehead as she ran faster and faster through the narrow streets of her neighborhood. It was after midnight when she left home, and as she made it farther and farther away, a sense of calm settled over her.

      Meriem was free. At last.

      It was one of those starry nights that could only be witnessed in Casablanca. The Atlantic Ocean roared with pride and its balmy June breeze caressed Meriem’s cheeks as she made her way through the dirty pavement of the slum, her small body moving gracefully, her long dark hair flowing carelessly.

     The teenager continued running until she reached an abandoned shack and decided to rest a bit. He hadn’t woken up when she opened the old door to leave, and chances are he wouldn’t figure out she was missing until morning. I’ll be far away by then, she reasoned cautiously.

      In her coat pocket rested a crumpled candy bar, Mars, her favorite. Happy Birthday, thought the sixteen year old to herself. She opened the treat and chewed on it, slowly, fully aware of the beating her face had taken earlier that evening.  He came home drunk and put his full force behind a punch that her cheeks succumbed to. Where is dinner, you whore? He questioned before throwing the second punch. She spit a tooth out and got up to make dinner. Beans and rice, again.

      Meriem’s life was a series of nightmares that she could never wake up from.

      She could have made dinner to avoid the commotion. She could have done her best to avoid rattling him, to avoid getting what was left of her body beaten. She could have gone with the flow and done what he expected of her as usual.

      But not today. She’d finally had enough.

      She got up after finishing her candy bar and looked cautiously outside the abandoned shack. Not a sound. Not a soul. An old light flickered at the corner of the dilapidated street, where one old shack after another lined up in a semblance of an order, housing large families who had more will to live than an actual life.

      Poverty reigned in her neighborhood.

      As she left her hiding place, the zing from the chocolate bar kicked in. She removed her tight shoes and continued running in the opposite direction from her home, never-mind the dirt and shards of broken glass that dug into her flesh. Pain? What’s pain? How can you know pain if you don’t know joy? she often wondered. He was supposed to be my joy, my escape from the pain. Her mind wandered as she continued her brave escape.

     They had met at a movie theater. She was fourteen and he was thirty, an entrepreneur, he gave her to believe. He took her out to dinner at a restaurant she’d only heard about, in an actual building with running water and working electricity, on the other side of town. Her long hair was braided and as she chewed her food, he played with her braid. He told her about his many travels and expanding wealth and how all he needed was a good girl to marry. She didn’t mind the age difference; everyone is doing it, she reasoned. She didn’t mind the idea of marrying a rich man and getting out of Shackville.

      It’s what happened after dinner that she minded. Very much.

      Meriem’s heart sank as she remembered the scene. His yanking her braid. A car door opening. His genitals violating her innocent body. Blood and semen and tears tainting the beautiful pale rose dress she’d borrowed for the occasion. Screams. Moans. More tears. Slaps and punches and kicks. A mix of feelings she didn’t know what to make of.

      She stopped to catch her breath. The evil bastard, she thought.

      And as if being victimized by him wasn’t enough, it wasn’t even the worst of it.

      The police caught up with him and arrested him. Her family, full of shame but too proud to let him get away with it, pressed charges. A court date was set a year later, and people gathered to watch the drama unfold. She sat quietly as she expected the monster to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, until his lawyer opened his mouth and raped her. One more time.

      The legal lingo was a blur this much time later. The headlines danced vaguely in her memory. Moroccan penal code. Rapist marries victim to avoid prison. A judge who went along with it all. No, this can’t be happening to me, she thought in court as she shook her head, her hand covering her mouth, suppressing a scream. No, throw him in prison, don’t ask him to marry me, he is evil. The decision was made for her. The judge was convinced by the slick attorney. The gavel hit the sounding block and her own life sentence began.

      She was to marry her rapist and he was to avoid prison altogether.

      She fell to the ground as she choked on her tears. The memory was too much still, even a year later.

      No white dress for her wedding. No happy ululations from her friends. No roasted chickens or almond stuffed dates with goat milk. Her wedding looked like a funeral. The men blamed her for making him rape her and the women mourned the pain of an unjust sentence awaiting her.

      Her life was over.

      As her breath steadied and her heart rate slowed, she continued her self-imposed marathon in the dark streets of Shackville, fighting the tears that clouded her big brown eyes in spite of her. Soon she found herself in the leafy calm of wealthy homes, in the Casablanca she only dreamed about. She often wondered why poor neighborhoods in her city were so close to rich ones; why was it that from the backyards of the penniless they glimpsed a constant reminder of the life they were missing out on. Her tiny feet bled as the rocks and gravel dug at them, but she didn’t care. She was free. She no longer had to succumb to the life of servitude and humiliation she had been sentenced to.

      The past year was a daily reminder of her misfortune. The monster she’d married had no money; in fact, he was a resident of the same slum she lived in with her parents and five siblings. He’d been watching her for a while and cooked up his little plan after a friend of his did the same thing to another girl. The monster moved her into his lowly abode and proceeded to rape her, beat her, insult her and blame her for his lack of success in life. No amount of pleading helped her case as he rejoiced in her sorrow. On the day of her sixteenth birthday, she was to put her plan into action.

      So far, it was working.

      Meriem ran past the local souk and didn’t even flinch at the smell of day-old sardines. She headed toward the neighboring villas, passing the walls of the old Casbah, the walls that kept the old medina and its destitute residents away from the rest of Casablanca. As she made it past a few villas, her sense of calm returned and she felt freedom welcoming her. Palm trees lined the streets in perfect order and the smell of freshly cut grass permeated the air. No destiny from here on could be worse than the one she had escaped, she told herself. As she stooped to take a rest, sitting on a rock behind the walls of a fancy residence, she fantasized about what her life could become, while playing with a rip in her old jeans. Maybe joy was not just a dream after all; the folks in neighboring villas could certainly attest to that. Maybe her slice of Happy Pie was still awaiting her. Maybe …

      “MERIEM … MERIEM!” she heard him bark.

      It was him. Definitely him. And he was on her trail.

      She got up and continued running.

. . .

      She stood in her dorm room looking out of the small window. Lake Erie caressed the shore gently and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sparkled like a rare jewel in this clear-skied autumn day. Carefully examining her brand new Levis and clean Converse, she couldn’t believe her luck. A college student at last! And in the United States of all places! And to think that just four years ago, things were so different …

     Four years ago to the day, she was running in the narrow streets of the slum of her childhood, fleeing her rapist-turned-husband. As he closed the gap, Meriem ran faster and faster, taking shelter in the backyard of a villa where the gate had been left ajar. Quietly, she crept up to the front door and knocked, and the owner, a retired journalist, let her in and listened to her story, while she took turns crying and talking and crying some more. He insisted she stay with him and his wife, and within weeks, the foreign media were aware of her condition.

      And look at her now! A high school diploma that she fought so hard to get, a long list of supporters around the world who cheered her on, and a scholarship to an American university thanks to years of hard work, English classes and perfect grades.

      Meriem met his eyes as soon as she entered the cafeteria. Andrew, thick blond hair and dimples, had already interviewed her for the school paper and taken an interest in her story. He said hello to her and she went and sat next to him, feeling her blood rise to her cheeks with lightning speed. Their conversation flowed naturally, as usual.

      “You never told me,” he asked, “what happened to … him?” a bit more hesitantly.

      She didn’t want to think about him. She swallowed hard and answered.

     “He died. He ended up in prison and was beaten to death.”

      “I can’t say I am sorry,” Andrew countered. He had such honesty about him, such ease. Meriem felt safe by his side. He made her want to forget about her past, about the pain and suffering.

      “I got you something,” he declared, pulling a couple of Mars bars from his pocket. “Happy Birthday, Meriem,” he said cheerfully.

      Eyes misty, she took one of the chocolate bars in her hand and smiled. “Thank you, Andrew; you remembered!”

      “Of course I did. You are all I think about.” His dark blue eyes spoke a universal language. “Can I take you out to dinner to celebrate? Cleveland is even more beautiful at night.”

      She leaned in and gently kissed his cheek, her long dark hair brushing against his arm. “I thought you’d never ask.”

      They walked out of the cafeteria hand in hand, her heart dancing, her mind dreaming of a white dress and almond stuffed dates.

In Memory Of Amina Filali, who left our world way too soon.

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