Friday, September 23, 2011

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

Zahra, our cleaning lady, who has become one of my dearest Moroccan friends.
Every Wednesday for the past year Zahra has come to clean our house, do our laundry, and sometimes cook for us her delicious Moroccan food.  I used to feel uncomfortable on those days, not only because I thought I should be the one washing my dirty laundry, but because of her thick colloqial Arabic which was very hard to understand at first.  Soon, however, I came to understand that her livelihood depends on the money she earns from her work, and shwiya b shwiya (little by little) we were able to make simple conversation. 

Our true frienship began when she invited me to her house, one room on the ground floor of a small dar, or traditional courtyard house, shared by two families.  Her room is just big enough to contain a bed, a small table, a television, and a refrigerator.  She gathers water from a well in the courtyard (shown left) and cooks with a tank of gas on the floor.

At first I felt incredibly sorry for her meager living conditions compared to our well-equipped house.  As our visits increased, however, my attitude changed.  She explained to me that she considers well-water to be much cleaner than water that's plumbed-in.  The simple furnishings in her room allow her to rearrange the space to accomodate guests or even take a bath. Indeed one time I came over just as she was finishing up her bath right there in the middle of her living room.

More than these small discoveries about her simple lifestyle, I have learned from Zahra the virtue of cleanliness. Included in her weekly visit is a show-and-tell of how much dust is collected from sweeping, how black the water has become from the laundry, and how red her hands are from all the scrubbing.  She then shows off how bright the floors shine, how fresh the cushions smell, and how spotless she has gotten the pots and pans.  Never a day ends without her reminding us to change our bed sheets, warning us that if we sleep in dirty sheets we will get sick and contract AIDS. 

While her opinion might not stand the test of science, there is an unquestionable presence of baraka in the house after she leaves.  Baraka is one of those hard-to-translate Arabic words, but roughly means blessing, luck, or spiritual energy.  Her cooking has the same effect, leaving us full, warm and smiling.  I am convinced it has to do with her saying 'bismillah' ('In the name of God') before adding each ingredient. 

Cleaning and cooking for Zahra is a form of worship.  She gets a great sense of satisfaction knowing that we are eating clean food out of clean dishes and sleeping in clean sheets.  She does not take water for granted, knowing its role as the agent of cleanliness and purification.  I am sure she would not be surprised that studies have shown the link between cleanliness and godliness.

Afternoon tea and milawi (flat-bread) at Zahra's house with Laura, my house-mate and fellow Fulbrighter.


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