Stranger in a Strange Land
Germany and Morocco, 1978–93
I was born with thick, curly black hair and big brown eyes. My parents were more or less the only immigrants in our Frankfurt neighborhood, and I became something of a local curiosity. Even then, I had a particularly expressive face, but I also drew attention because I didn't look German. In the park, parents would leave their children and come to look at me. Many U.S. soldiers and their families were stationed in Frankfurt, not far from Klettenbergstrasse, where our apartment was, and they would greet us kindly.
"You looked so different from all these kids," the woman I would come to call my German godmother, Antje Ehrt, told me later. "You looked so critical when you were pissed about something. People could see, she's angry. They would fall in love with you, this funny, beautiful baby."
I was born in the spring of 1978, on the eve of a period of dramatic change in the Muslim world. In the months after my birth, events in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan sent the Muslim world into turmoil and started what would become decades of coups, invasions, and war.
In Iran in January 1979, the shah abdicated and fled with his family. On February 1, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from his years of exile and declared an Islamic republic, turning against his former allies the intellectuals and liberals. Instead, he instituted a return to conservative religious and social values, curtailing women's rights and enforcing Islamic dress codes. On November 4, student revolutionaries took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, seizing sixty-six American hostages, fifty-two of whom would be held for more than a year.
Sixteen days later, on the first day of the Islamic year 1400, a group of armed religious extremists took over the holiest sites in Islam, the Grand Mosque in Mecca and, within its courtyard, the Kaaba. Their sharpshooters climbed the minarets and took aim at pilgrims, worshippers, and police, all in an attempt to destabilize the Saudi monarchy and establish a regime based on fundamentalist Islamic ideology.
The Siege of Mecca lasted fourteen days and resulted in an estimated one thousand deaths and major damage to the holy structures before it was put down by Saudi troops with the help of foreign special forces teams. The reverberations were felt around the world, and forward in time. Osama bin Laden often recalled the defilement of the shrine by Saudi forces, laying blame on the Saudi royals and praising the "true Muslims" who had brought havoc to the holy place. A few weeks after that, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ushered in nine years of guerrilla warfare, as bin Laden and other Muslim fighters flocked to Afghanistan, giving rise to the era of global jihad.
My parents' lives were much more mundane. My mother, Aydanur, was from Turkey; my father, Boujema, was Moroccan. They'd come to West Germany in the early 1970s, within a few months of each other. They were guest workers, part of a tide of migrants from across southern Europe, Turkey, and North Africa seeking work and an opportunity to build more prosperous lives. At the time, West Germany was still recovering from the devastation of World War II and trying to turn itself into a prosperous industrialized nation. The country needed workers: young, healthy people who could do hard labor and take on the unpleasant jobs that many Germans didn't want to do. German companies were recruiting workers from Greece, Italy, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Spain, and Morocco. My parents were among them.
My mother had come to West Germany alone, at nineteen, on a trainful of Turks. Working in Hildesheim, not far from the East German border, she wrapped and packed radios and TVs for shipping and lived in a house full of other migrants, sharing a room with three other women. She later moved to Frankfurt to be closer to one of her brothers, who lived and worked there. She had long hair that she didn't cover with a scarf, and she liked to wear skirts that showed off her legs.
She met my father in 1972, through an older Moroccan gentleman who saw her waiting tables at a Frankfurt shopping mall café and decided to set them up. Back then, my father was working as a cook at a place called Dippegucker, which was known for international fare and Frankfurt specialties such as the city's trademark green sauce, made with herbs and sour cream, and served with boiled eggs and cooked potatoes. This was all new to my father, who had trained in the French cooking more popular in Morocco, but he had long dreamed of coming to Europe. Since his arrival in Germany a year earlier, he'd worked hard and made himself an asset in the kitchen.
My mother liked him immediately, but she was skeptical. The girls she knew were always saying that you had to be careful about these Moroccan guys, that they were good-looking but fickle, second only to the Algerians when it came to caddishness. Out of curiosity, she stopped by the restaurant and saw that he really was cooking, not just washing dishes, as she'd suspected. He was tall and muscular with thick, dark, wavy hair, and he looked impressive in his sparkling chef's whites and toque. She noticed that he went out of his way to smile and speak courteously to others, not just to her. They drank coffee together, and he asked when he could see her again. When she arrived home from work the following day, she found him waiting with flowers and chocolates.
"If you think you're coming upstairs, you're mistaken," she told him. Then she invited him up, and they drank more coffee.
The romance moved fast, and they married in a civil ceremony at Frankfurt's City Hall a few weeks later. My father's boss was his best man, and my mother's Japanese roommate was her maid of honor.
My mother got pregnant quickly. But life changed dramatically for Muslims and Arabs in West Germany during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when a group of eight Palestinian terrorists entered the Israeli team's quarters, killed a coach and a weight lifter, and took nine other athletes hostage. The militants belonged to a group called Black September. They vowed to kill the hostages unless Israel agreed to release two hundred Arab prisoners and guaranteed the hostage takers safe passage out of West Germany. Israel, following a long-held policy, refused to negotiate. The Germans, however, promised to fly the militants and their hostages to Tunisia. At the airport, German snipers opened fire on the Palestinians. But the terrorists were well trained; they killed the hostages. The raid ended in disaster, with all the hostages, five of the hostage takers, and a police officer dead.
Years later, it emerged that Black September was an offshoot of Fatah, Yasser Arafat's wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But in the immediate aftermath of the Munich attack, Muslims and Arabs faced new scrutiny. My parents felt the change, especially my father. Police would stop him often and ask for his papers. The homes of Arab students were searched because police suspected them of supporting militant groups or sheltering their members. "Some people would even say, 'Arabs should leave,'" my father told me. It didn't bother him because something bad had happened, and the Germans were trying to figure out who was behind it. He understood why they were suspicious.
The pressure continued throughout the 1970s, as terrorism became a daily reality in West Germany. Groups such as Black September and the Baader-Meinhof Gang, which called itself the Red Army Faction, were motivated by hostility toward Israel and what they dubbed Western imperialism, but ideologically they were left-wing and secular. The Red Army Faction included the children of German intellectuals; they saw West German leaders as fascists and compared them to Nazis. This wasn't entirely wrong; at the time some influential posts in West Germany were held by people with connections to the Nazis. The Red Army Faction undertook bank robberies, bombings, hijackings, kidnappings, and assassinations. The group had connections to the Middle East. In the late 1960s, Baader-Meinhof members traveled to a Palestinian training camp in Lebanon for instruction in bomb making and other guerrilla skills, and some members took part in joint operations with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other groups. The Red Army Faction kidnapped West German politicians and industry leaders, including Hanns-Martin Schleyer, an influential businessman and former SS member, whom they also killed.
In 1973 my mother gave birth to my oldest sister, Fatma. A year later, my sister Hannan arrived. Then, in 1977, my mother learned that she was pregnant for the third time. The doctors advised her to have an abortion. They thought I would be born with a congenital defect that could leave me without arms or hands. My mother was distraught.
"It's all in the hands of God," my father told her. "Let's have the child and whatever happens, happens. We'll deal with it."
In those days, some Turkish migrants were known to cause scenes at German hospitals when women gave birth to girls. They wanted sons.
When I was born, the doctor looked apologetic. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's a girl."
"Is she okay?" my mother asked. "Does she have arms and legs?"
"Not only is she okay," the doctor said, "she just peed on me!"
Because I was born healthy, against all the doctors' predictions, my parents named me "Souad," which means "the happy fortunate one" in Arabic. And in many ways I was a very lucky child. Klettenbergstrasse, where we lived then, is one of the nicest streets in Frankfurt. My father's boss, who owned the restaurant where he worked, rented an apartment at number 8, and he found us an apartment in the same building, at the very top, in a sort of attic. The building was old and had six flats. Most of the other residents in the building and the neighborhood were bankers, managers, or business owners. A stewardess for Lufthansa lived in the other top-floor apartment, across from ours. We were the only guest worker family.
While the area was beautiful, our apartment was not. The roof leaked so badly that sometimes my mother had to set up buckets to catch the rain. Both of my parents had to work, and not only to support us. They also felt responsible for their families back in Morocco and Turkey and sent their parents money every month. A German woman cared for my two older sisters during the day in her apartment. When my mother's younger sister came to visit her and their brothers in Germany, she took care of me during the day.
When I was eight weeks old, my parents learned that my mother's father was very ill. They couldn't afford to buy airline tickets on such short notice; the bus was more affordable, but it meant at least four days of travel. My parents worried that the trip would be too much for me.
Antje Ehrt and her husband, Robert, who lived in our building, offered to take care of me for the four weeks that my parents would be gone. My parents accepted but insisted on paying for my expenses. But my parents' return was delayed because my grandfather's health worsened, so they stayed longer. There were no telephones. The Ehrts started to worry about how they would explain to the authorities where this baby had come from.
After my parents came back, the Ehrts became like godparents to me. The couple had two children of their own and were more open-minded and inviting than some others in the neighborhood. Robert Ehrt was a manager at a big German company. I was told later that when I was a baby, he would come home from work and play with me and give me a bottle.
The family used to eat in their kitchen, and when I stayed with them as a baby they would leave me in the bedroom. But I didn't like that. I wanted to be where the action was. I would scream until they came and got "madam" in her bassinet. They would put the bassinet on the kitchen counter so I could be close to them as they ate.
On the ground floor lived another couple who would influence me. Ruth and Alfred Weiss were Holocaust survivors. My father would sometimes buy them bread from the bakery, and my mother would send them cookies or food she had cooked.
"Many of my teachers were Jewish," my father always told us. "I am very grateful for what they have taught me."
When I was just a few months old, my mother's sister, the one who had come to Germany to visit and had been babysitting for me, decided to return to Turkey to help care for my grandfather. My parents discussed sending me to Morocco, to stay with my father's mother. There, I would be with someone who would really take care of me; I would also learn Arabic and get my early Islamic education.
It seemed the right choice. I was still breast-feeding, and since my mother wouldn't be with me, my Moroccan grandmother found a Berber woman in her neighborhood to nurse me. Back in Germany, my mother mourned. She knew that I would make my first memories far away from her.
My Moroccan grandmother, Ruqqaya, had been named after one of the Prophet's daughters. She and her relatives bore the surname Sadiqqi; they were known to be descendants of Moulay Ali Al-Cherif, a Moroccan nobleman whose family came from what is today Saudi Arabia and helped unite Morocco in the seventeenth century, establishing the dynasty of the Alaouites, who are still in power today. They were a dynasty of sharifs, a title that only the descendants of Muhammad's grandson Hasan are allowed to carry.
My grandmother had been born into a wealthy family in the province of Tafilalt, in the city of Er-Rachidia, in the early years of the twentieth century. In those days, birthdays weren't always carefully recorded, but she remembered the French marching into Morocco in 1912. Her family owned land in the region, and she used to tell me about the date palms there, and the cows, sheep, goats, and horses they kept. Her relatives were considered nobility because of their connection to the Prophet. Such people are sometimes called by honorifics — moulay and sharif for the men and sharifa or lalla for the women — but my grandmother never used her formal title.
She was married young, at thirteen or fourteen, to the son of a close friend of her father's, a prosperous and wellborn boy a bit older than she. She gave birth to a baby boy about a year later. Over the next few years, they had another son and a daughter, but her husband grew violent, hitting her and their children. She told her parents she wanted a divorce. This was discussed in the family, but the friendship and business ties between her father and her father-in-law proved too strong. Have patience, her family told her, these things sometimes pass. My grandmother refused. She divorced her husband and left, taking her three children with her.
It was a radical move in those days, and my grandmother became an outcast. She was a young woman on her own who couldn't read or write, and she had never learned to work because she'd never had to. She fled with her children to Meknes, one of Morocco's four royal cities, where she married again. She never talked about her second husband, except to say that the union was brief: he left her while she was pregnant with another child, a girl named Zahra. Now she was alone again, with children from two different men. She swore never to marry again, vowing instead to work and support her family alone. In those years, she made her living mainly as a nurse and midwife, and she also mixed and sold healing oils.
My grandmother took risks but she always knew who she was — and she never forgot her roots. She told me that some of her most crucial role models had been the wives of the Prophet. His first wife, Khadija, had been a successful businesswoman who was older and had supported Muhammad financially and emotionally when his own tribe turned against him. She is honored by Sunnis and Shia as the first convert to Islam and as Muhammad's most loving and faithful confidante. Another of his wives, Aisha, was known for her intellect and extensive knowledge of the Sunnah, the tradition of sayings and activities of Muhammad, which is the second most important theological and legal source for many Muslims after the Koran. While Sunnis revere her as one of the Prophet's sources of inspiration, some Shia see Aisha more critically, suspecting her of having been unfaithful to the Prophet and arguing that her opposition to Muhammad's son-in-law Ali was an unforgivable sin. "Don't think women have to be weak in Islam," my grandmother told me.
She met the man who would become my grandfather in Meknes. His name was Abdelkader, and he, too, came from a wealthy background. But by the time they met, prison and torture had broken his body and his fortune was gone.
My grandfather came from a province known as al-Haouz and its outskirts, not far from Marrakech, which was known to have one of the strongest opposition movements against the French. In al-Haouz and other parts of Morocco, Muslims and Jews fought side by side for independence. My grandfather had been a tribal chief and a local leader in the independence movement, developing strategy and helping to funnel weapons and supplies to fighters trying to force out the French. They called it a jihad, but my grandfather and his comrades had strict rules: they could target only French soldiers and known torturers who worked on behalf of the French, not women or civilians.