Short Story: The women of my grandfather’s house

My earliest memories are set in the home of my paternal grandfather.

It was a traditional Moroccan house, one that was typical of higher-rank royal courtiers. It was a two-story home, arranged the Moroccan way, with a squared court in the center and various types of rooms arranged all the way around it. There was a formal living room, with Moroccan sofas lining the walls, traditional rugs, covering the floors, Moroccan mosaic on the walls, and even a fountain. The family room was less ornate, but very similarly arranged, minus the fountain.


The living areas and the kitchen were downstairs. The living quarters were upstairs. The kitchen was quite large, and it had a small room ensconced in the back. Two ladies ran the large household. They did all of the cooking and other domestic work. There was a man who did all of the gardening, driving members of the household, running errands, etc. He lived in a small hut, something akin to a guard’s station, near the front of the house.

4711Sa’adah was a petite, stocky woman, Her face as round as a full moon and smile as bright as the sun. She was vivacious, always talking, hugging, laughing, while doing some household chore. Her ebony skin glistened from the constant movement and work, activating the favorite perfume family travelers would always bring back for her: Kolnisch Wasser 4711. On the rare occasions she ventured out of the family home, she wore a drab jellabah that covered her from head to ankle. A simple white kerchief covered her face from the nose down.

JellabahDada was a tall, very fit woman. Of the two, she was the more athletic. Her hair was bright red. Her eyes were as deep a green as the Atlantic ocean that lapped the nearby coastline. She had very long, slender fingers with the nails kept trim. Of the two women, she was the more refined cook. Her main duty was cooking for the dozen or so people who lived in the house. While she wasn’t talkative like Sa’adah, she too was very nurturing, just in a quiet way.

Dada was the literate one. When she was done with the day’s chores, usually after lunch, she would read to whichever of the children happened to be staying that day.

Both women had been with the family since their own early childhood, coinciding with the time my grandparents were married. I don’t know for sure, but I vaguely remember that one of them was a part of the dowry arrangements.  Sa’adah was of Mauritanian origin. Dada was a Berber. Both women had been purchased from their families to serve a wealthy Moroccan family.

After my grandparents died, one uncle took his favorite, Sa’adah, while my aunt took in Dada. After the last of my aunt’s children married, Dada went to live with my youngest uncle, until her death in 1994. Sa’adah had passed away a decade earlier.

Neither woman ever married or bore children. Both lived long lives. Neither left the family.

Both this blog post, and “Weekends on the farm” are part of a three part series inspired by the following article, published in The New Yorker, September 2014.

Freedom Fighter

A slaving society and an abolitionist’s crusade.
BY Letter from Mauritania | SEPTEMBER 8, 2014 ISSUE

Two springs ago, Biram Dah Abeid arrived home in Nouakchott, the desert capital of Mauritania. At the airport, he was welcomed by hundreds of supporters, along with his wife and children. Abeid, the founder of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, is the most prominent antislavery activist in Mauritania, which is said to have the highest incidence of slavery in the world. It was Friday, the holiest day of the week, and Abeid, returning from a trip to Berlin and Dakar, was enraged. Recently, he had helped force the government to put a slave owner in prison, and he had learned that the man was released after less than two months.

Abeid, a forty-nine-year-old man with hooded, intense eyes and a warm demeanor, went to his house, and changed from his Western suit into a traditional Mauritanian bubu, a long, loose embroidered tunic. He was going to lead a public prayer nearby, in Riyadh, a section of the city with rocky lots, narrow sand-bleached streets, and pastel-painted concrete houses. When he arrived, a few hundred people had assembled under a bright sun. Men sat on a wide mat on an empty stretch of street, wrapping their turbans tight to ward off dust. Women and children gathered behind them. Activists, sympathetic residents, and the press had been alerted that this prayer was going to be special.

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, while making no provision for punishing slave owners. In 2007, under international pressure, it passed a law that allowed slaveholders to be prosecuted. Yet slavery persists there, even as the government and religious leaders deny it. Although definitive numbers are difficult to find, the Global Slavery Index estimates that at least a hundred and forty thousand people are enslaved in Mauritania, out of a population of 3.8 million. Bruce Hall, a professor of African history at Duke University, said that people endure slavelike conditions in other countries in the region, but that the problem in Mauritania is unusually severe: “Some proximate form of slavery has continued to be a foundation of the social structure and the division of labor within households, so there are many more people who are willing to support it as an institution.” While Abeid was travelling, a well-known imam had given a televised interview. A journalist asked whether slavery existed in Mauritania, and the imam said no. Then why, the journalist asked, had the imam recently given the journalist’s boss a slave girl as a gift? The imam simply smiled. [ … ]


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