Last week, outside a gate leading from Tangier’s medina to its casbah, a man sitting on an old stone ledge caught my eye. He was just a trim guy in his 40s, dressed in Western clothes, but what caught my eye was that next to him sat two fishing poles and his daughter, wrapped in a beach towel.
All of a sudden, all of my curiosity about Arab family life—or, I guess, to be more specific, North African Muslim family life—rose to the surface. For at least two weeks this summer, in Tunisia and Morocco, I’d been fascinated by how families functioned in public. (disclaimer: I’m equally fascinated here, too. This isn’t some purely orientalist gawk.) Things that struck me:
• Families are everywhere, and very visible. I don’t know why this surprised me. Maybe because we Americans often have this stereotype of Muslims hiding away their wives (and hence family life) under burqas and behind high, window-less walls. Or maybe because in New York, there’s often almost a shame factor in bringing the whole brood out. Here we face the disapproving gaze of the childless, who just want to drink and smoke, and of other parents, who are no doubt criticizing our behavior, whether sotto voce or direct to our faces.
• Dads take a bigger role in raising children than I’d expected. Maybe “bigger role” isn’t the right word. They’re just very visible in taking care of basic things, like holding kids’ hands or pushing the red Bugaboo, that again, here in New York, seem to be clear markers of Modern, Involved Parenting.
• Kids stay up late. I guess this shouldn’t be too surprising, as North Africa’s damn hot, and people tend to spend midday relaxing indoors, in the shade, and enjoying the cool night air as much as possible. Still, you know, when you see infants and toddlers out and about at 11 p.m., it’s hard to control that initial OMG reaction.
Anyway, all these things had been on my mind when I suddenly spotted this man and his daughter and decided to abandon my loftily uninformed post as speculating blogger and descend, briefly, into the fetid waters of actual reporting (in French, too, which didn’t make it easy). So: His name was Mohammed; he was 48 and a policeman (which meant I couldn’t take his picture), and his family had lived in the medina for many generations.
“It’s very difficult to be a true father,” he explained. “You have to be a professor, a magician—a singer, a dancer.”
You also have to figure out which traditions to maintain in a country that’s really quite modern. “If I’m out in the medina, and my son sees me with my friends,” he explained, “he’ll come over and kiss my hand, but also keep his eyes averted.” Not making eye contact is a sign of respect, he said. In Morocco, a father is considered a king, his wife the queen. As a child, you don’t look upon such people as equals.
As he spoke, his daughter, 11-year-old Zeynip, cutely cuddled next to him—very sweet, and a nice antidote to how Americans often view Muslim families. Right there you had unveiled public affection of a kind that would be recognizable just about anywhere in the world.
At the same time, Mohammed was also giving me the talk about how the problem with kids and young parents today was that so many had turned away from God—you may have heard this stereotypical talk elsewhere, perhaps. When I’m confronted with it, I don’t really know what to do, maybe because I don’t want to have to get into defending my atheism/Judaism/Americanism (pick one). So, in this case, I turned the conversation to more practical matters: Had he caught anything in the sea that morning?
Mohammed smiled and pulled from a plastic bag the medium-size octopus he’d caught. Zeynip squealed at the sight of it, but still looked at her father with pride. He planned to cook that night—himself. Cooking, he said, wasn’t just a woman’s job; a husband needs to help his wife when she’s tired or busy.
“One hand on its own can’t do anything,” he said before I left, “but two hands can clap.”