A girl between worlds

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In Chefchaouen, Morocco, lives 17-year-old Naziha Bouama: a teenage girl growing up in a Muslim society, teetering on the precipice of adulthood, in a country bordering continents.

Hundreds of miles from the Louvre, in an apartment in Chefchaouen, Morocco, an unframed portrait of DaVinci’s the “Mona Lisa” hangs on a bright, turquoise wall. The print is small and hidden between other decorations–a framed verse of the Koran, a picture of a mustachioed man in a suit, a wooden shelf displaying figurines of characters from “Shrek”, and a large canvas of the king of Morocco, Hassan II, hanging over the unused fireplace. Seventeen-year-old Naziha Bouama sits on one of the multicolored couches bordering the walls of the living room, in a purple turtleneck and tights, beaming. Her thick, black hair is fashioned in a braid, which is pulled to the side and resting on her shoulder. Her dark brown eyes widen, and she moves her hands rapidly as she explains the surrounding artwork.

“You know, the Mona Lisa can sense how you’re feeling,” says Naziha. “After my dad died, I sat here crying and when I looked at the Mona Lisa, she looked sad, too.”

Naziha ’s mother, Habiba, enters the room dressed in blue and yellow pajamas and a headscarf, carrying plates loaded with fresh bread, olives, cheese, and chickpea soup. Naziha’s 8-year-old brother, Ahmed, rests quietly in a chair as his mother sets the table for dinner, staring blankly at the television playing Dr. Oz subtitled in Arabic.

“I really love my Dad”, Naziha continues. “He was the best, but now he’s gone, and I’ve lost everything. I cry every minute of every day.”

I sit quietly on the couch beside her, unsure of how to comfort a girl who I only met a few hours before. My friend Marisa and I are living with Naziha and her family for two days while we both participate in a multimedia workshop, and even though I can barely remember her name, and she ours, Naziha is quick to open up. Her first language isn’t English, but she still chatters away about how most of their family has disowned them, how her boyfriend left her just before her father’s death with no explanation, and how she worries about survival once the money her father made as a nurse runs out. “But Allah will provide,” she repeats.

It’s been eight months since her father died from neurological complications, and Naziha has taken over his role as head of the household. When she isn’t studying for one of her 10 classes, she’s at home keeping her mother company, playing with her brother, or running errands. During school breaks Naziha doesn’t go to the beach or sit around watching television. Instead, she works 12 hours a day at the local store only to make 500 dirham, or 50 euro, a month. Habiba embroiders blankets and scarves, but can’t sustain her family with the 10 dirham, or 0,90 eurs, she makes per item.

Naziha ’s lack of spending money limits her favorite activity—shopping—so she settles on free entertainment provided by: Demi Lovato, Taylor Swift, or the movie Titanic. “I love the United States so, so much,” Naziha says. “I really want to go to live there and study.”

But in Chefchaouen, a town of 35,000 located in northern, mountainous region of Morocco called Rif, options are limited for young girls—especially those from low-income families. Traditionally, women in Chefchaouen have been homemakers; however, some now develop careers and move to other cities to attend the university. Still, only 39% of women in Morocco are literate, making Naziha one of the few girls privileged enough to attend school.

Next year, Naziha must choose between attending the university in Tetuan or living at home and providing for her family. She dreams of becoming a journalist and often stays awake until 4 a.m. studying to earn good grades so she can continue her schooling. If she chooses to go to Tetuan, Erasmus Mundus offers an exchange program through Abdelmalek Esaâdi University where Naziha can apply to study in Europe on scholarship. Leaving the country would increase her chances of finding work; however, Tetuan is an hour away and Naziha would inevitably have to leave her mother and brother, which would incur more living expenses. “My Mom wants to live with me in Tetuan,” Naziha says. “But I said: no! I need to be on my own.”

The need to migrate is a reality for many Moroccans, but without money or a visa, some choose to cross the straight of Gibraltar in makeshift boats, which can cost up to 600 euro for passage. Crossing the 15-kilometer stretch between Spain and Morocco is dangerous, but many see emigration as their only option. According to National Spanish Institute of Statistics (INE), 9.1% of Moroccans are unemployed as of 2011, GDP growth is at an all time low at 2.7% due to droughts, and one quarter of the population lives or is at risk of living in absolute poverty. Women are adversely affected by poverty and unemployment, and although they technically only comprise 25% of the labor force, they work tirelessly fetching water from wells, caring for children, and performing other domestic tasks.

To find work, thousands of Africans cross the stretch every year viewing death as better than remaining in their home countries. In 2012, the Pro-Human Rights Association of Andalusia (APDHA) estimates that 225 people died from exposure, thirst, or perilous weather conditions, adding to this immense sub oceanic graveyard. Conversely, for those with foreign passports and 33 euros, the trip takes 35-minutes and is tolerated with Cruzcampo and a barf bag. So the ferry mainly shuttles wealthy Spaniards looking for household decorations or cheap marijuana rather than Africans looking for opportunity.

Instead of risking her life and small savings, Naziha makes her passageway to other worlds through her television and cell phone screens. She’s watched everything from MTV’s “The Real World” to Indian Bollywood films and her house is constantly filled with the hum of the television. Exposure to Western programming, among other factors, has influenced the daily lives of Moroccan youth whose Islamic upbringings would normally shun tight clothing, pre-marital intimacy, and partying. “I can’t do what you guys do. I can’t have pre-marital sex or drink alcohol at parties,” she says. “But I really want to go to your country.”

Between her upbringing and aspirations, Naziha lives between worlds. She follows the five pillars of Islam: the profession of faith, daily prayer, almsgiving, fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to the Mecca in Saudi Arabia (which she has yet to complete), but she also listens to Adele’s “Someone Like You” post-break up and wears form-fitting dresses and eye-liner.

“Some parents make their daughters stay inside and wear head scarves,” Naziha explains. “But my father never talked to me about the scarf, and my mother said I can wear it whenever I’m ready. I’m free. They know I’ll turn out good, so it’s okay.”

Up until 10 years ago, such female liberties were unfathomable. In 2003 king Mohammed VI amended the Mudawana, or new family code in Moroccan law, to include new rights for women such as: the right to divorce, the ability to inherit property, the restriction of polygamy, and the right to elect to not marry. Arguably, a stark division between men and women still exists in Morocco despite these laws; however, I only spent 48 hours in Morocco, and to generalize the transformation of femininity in Chefchaouen would thus be unfair. As far as I can tell, Naziha can walk down the street without a headscarf, talk about first loves, sing Katy Perry and still remain proudly Muslim.

During our short weekend together, I came to see Naziha as a normal teenage girl—with an affinity to sparkles, a love for dancing, and an addiction to her cell phone. She works hard to enjoy simple pleasures like drinking tea with her friends or buying a new shiny ring. She values her family and constantly reminds her mother how much she loves her, but, like most siblings, still fights with her younger brother over the TV remote. Yet despite her beauty and charm, Naziha envies our pale skin, hazel eyes, and light hair. She fantasizes about shopping sprees and can’t get enough of Dr. Oz’s advice. She lives in the grey, looking through a glass ceiling with her feet firmly planted on Moroccan soil.

On our last morning in Chefchaoeun, as Marisa and I eat our breakfast of tortillas, cheese, and marmelade, Habiba emerges from her room holding two ceramic containers, which she extends in offering. Mecca is painted intricately on the small, circular boxes, which open to reveal bejeweled, heart rings that Naziha has included as her gift. Marisa and I put the treasures carefully in our backpacks, and carry them with us on our journey back to Spain, leaving Naziha and her family waving out of their apartment window. We return to our studies and hot showers within hours, but, for now, Naziha will stay in Chefchaouen, sitting on the precipice of adulthood, straddling nations and dreams, with her thick, black hair pulled into a braid that rests on her shoulder, beaming and waiting for an open door.