A ferry to Tangier
Africa beckons from Spanish shores. It is summer, and we’re waiting for the 3:30 pm Ferry to Tangier, Morocco. Selma and I are ideal travel companions: we rise early, pack the basics, and eat whatever is served. Most important, we stroll endlessly through winding streets. Our strong opinions do not supersede our need for companionable fun, so we cherish each other’s need to turn to our kindles and phones for down time.
So now, we sit silently, in the ferry building in Tarifa, Spain, sipping machine-made coffee. We post photos of Gibraltar, check Trip Advisor for places to eat in Tangier and read Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, our reading assignment for this trip.
When teachers travel
We do that. Whenever we travel, we read books about our destination by people who know it best. Others have their own favorite travel routine. One signs up for cooking classes and another, a librarian, visits the main public library wherever she goes. Selma and I, both professors, choose books on kindle to complement our travels.
We sit in our corner and through Lalami’s book, I travel with Murad and Faten on a dinghy from Morocco to the coast of Spain. I imagine them leaving their homes to make new ones, imagine the pain that forces them to put their life on the line. The hope that leads to their departure.
Listening to languages as we watch people
Scattered Arabic filters from the doorway. A couple with four children between the ages of five and ten enter the room. A uniformed port employee swerves to miss the youngest trying to keep up with his family. She smiles as she steadies herself and addresses them in Arabic. A suit faces the window, making business propositions to his phone in Spanish. English, Spanish, Arabic, Berber have settled in the comfort of this corner of Spain that reaches out to the African Coast, to Morocco, the Maghrib (the West) of the East.
Mixing languages like spices
I have savored the sounds of languages intermingling throughout my personal and professional life. In Pakistan, the combined flavors of Punjabi, Urdu, and English tasted like a plate of dahi bhallay, cooled fritters floating in yogurt with a sprinkling of spices and tamarind, perfectly balanced sweet and savory for a summer afternoon. In California, in my classroom, Spanish and English combine like Mango con chilies y limon. Why would anyone isolate a language? Encouraging students to continually cross the border from one language to the other was my quiet rebellion as an English teacher.
Granted a mild rebellion, but English is so savory with a sprinkling of Spanish, Polish, or Mandarin.Tweet
Freedom from expectations
As we wait for the ferry to Tangier, I relish how leaving frees me of expectations—no more meetings, no more emails. As an immigrant from Pakistan to the US, I relinquished myself of the cultural expectations of arranging my children’s marriages, of never serving red lentils garnished with fried garlic to guests. Any South Asian will tell you NEVER serve red lentils to guests — unless you’re emancipated.
Freedom through departures and arrivals
At times, I seek freedom through departure, at others, through arrival. Once you’re home, you can be yourself, you can lounge in pajamas all day. Free of undergarments, serving red lentils with garlic to guests and family members, celebrating their choice of life partners, now that’s my definition of Paradise.
As I sit waiting for the ferry, I shut my eyes and imagine a tree-like image of a naked woman stretching across the Southern California landscape, “one half woman, one half tree.” It was a gift from Selma, her interpretation of Akka Mahadevi’s verse, When all the world is the eye of the lord All-knowing, All-seeing What can you conceal?
The legend of Akka Mahadevi
In the legend of Akka Mahadevi, the 12th century mystic from India married a king. Like many married couples, after the honeymoon was over, they argue. The king, a petty man, reminds her that her body is wrapped in silk that he bought. Having none of his over-lording, she strips, and, from that day, wanders the world without a thread to cover her body, absolute freedom.
In the painting at home, the stretching torso of the tree woman rooted in Sanskrit spreads the freedom of the verse. In an in-between space, between land and sea, between India and California.
But more than family and cultural restrictions, national and political control destroys humanity. Restrictive immigration policies and travel restrictions have never benefited people nor nations.