The Individuality of Everyone: Los Angeles and Tangier in Conversation

The Individuality of Everyone: Los Angeles and Tangier in Conversation

videostreamed 22 May 2014


Robbie McCauley, Artistic Director, The Stories Exchange Project

(in Los Angeles)

The Stories Exchange Project has been collecting stories about people learning from difficult situations.  I remember that the last time I was with you in Tangier – at the women’s literacy program of the American Legation – there was one story in particular that amazed me, and I think you were surprised too. One of you told about being taken from her village when she was very young, about being made to work in Tangier without any contact with her village.

The idea of young people being taken away from their families is heartrending, and I am as moved now in remembering the story as I was when she told it. But she also talked about learning things that helped her survive—and still does, every day.

Fatima Gharbaoui

(in Tangier)

Well, I got to stay in my village, but everything changed when my mother died. I was six years old.

My father took another wife and I had to clean and wash and become a servant in my own house. My little brother and I were too small to do the things we were made to do, and it became more and more difficult to live in the family—with our new mother. She didn’t like us and she beat us. She didn’t care about us. We were living in hell. We were often forced to sleep outside: out in the elements, in the weather.

When I was fourteen I was forced to get married. My husband was thirty-five. I had four children with him, but he was more severe than our second mother. So it was out of the frying pan into the fire. I divorced him.

Then I had to take care of the children with no help from him.  But—now I have nineteen grand-children!


I wanted to applaud when you said you divorced him, and then went on—and now you’re here! (applauds)


Well—what’s good is not only that I can tell the story: I can also laugh.

Malika Boulich

(in Tangier)

I also lived in a village near Tangier. My mother didn’t die, but when I was little my father believed—and I suppose he still does— that young girls should not be educated, that school is only for boys, and that women are meant to take care of the men and the house, and that’s it.

Every morning when I saw children going to school — I felt sad. I too wanted to write and read and know about the wider world.

When my father got older he became handicapped. But my brothers had grown up and got married and left the house and didn’t really care about taking care of our father.  So I had to do it. I had to take care of him and work to support him. And when I went looking for work they asked me about education and I had no education because my father wouldn’t let me go to school. So it was very difficult to find work to take care of him.

That’s why I’m here now at the American Legation, studying in the literacy program to get skills. I’m studying, and I still don’t have work, but I have hope.

I’ve learned so much in the literacy program. I feel at last that I have a future.


I can see you speaking – how you use your gestures and your presence: you have a sense of yourself. That’s so important for communicating yourself to people. It’s what you have to do to get work, but also to live.

Latifa Laachaoui

(in Tangier)

It was the same for me as for Fatima: my mother died when I was young. But I was only two years old. And it was a larger family: I was one of seven brothers and sisters.

My mother was not ill when she died. She just got a headache and died. She must have had something go wrong, and then it must have been growing in her, but she just—went.

She was pregnant when she died.

My father took her to the hospital. But he did not tell us that she was dead.

We only found out because mother had a sister who had a dream that mother died, and so we found out from that. When my aunt told about her dream, my father said yes, she had died. That was how we found out. It was about a day later.

My mother went so quickly. But I’m still thinking about it all these years later.

I came to the Legation because although I had some ability to read, I had forgotten a lot.

Jerry Loftus, Director, American Legation, Tangier

(in Tangier)

We often refer to the literacy program, but we talk about it in the abstract. We talk about how the program has been running, how many women there are in it. But the lesson I get from this session this afternoon is— everybody has an individual story that led them to come to the Legation, to enter the literacy class. Everyone is an individual with very interesting stories, very interesting backgrounds: sometimes sad, sometimes happier. I think that’s the strength of your program, of the Stories Exchange Project. It shows us the individuality of everyone.

This is a room that we hope will become part of a community museum. It’s just next door to the women’s literacy classroom, so we hope that it can be a bridge for the women to come and share their stories with other people.

We already have some images from them. Fatima Gharbaoui – she told us her story today—she learned to be an artist at the Legation, and her work is displayed in this room.

Jack Erwin, Director, The Stories Exchange Project

(in Los Angeles)

Yes, yes — we can see it, Jerry: it’s all around you!


That’s what we want to show in the community museum: images and stories from our neighbourhood, the Medina of Tangier. And through the Stories Exchange Project we hope the women of the Medina and their families can share their stories – and other people can learn from them as well.


I’m so excited about this: the work can go on. And on.

Do we have another story today?

Batoul Matioui (in Tangier)

Well, I don’t have any special story, but…

My mother came from a rich family, but she married a poor man.

Because of their different status, there were many problems in the marriage. For instance, my mother wanted to travel. She was used to going with friends to different places, and had quite a free life before she was married. But her husband would not have any of that. She couldn’t travel any more, or go about with friends.

My mother had nine children by her husband. But that was enough. She got a divorce.

Her husband had not only refused to let us girls go to school, but let the boys just take some classes in religion at the mosque.

In order to take care of us after the divorce, my mother had to sell everything she had, all her fortune. To take care of the family – because her husband would not do it.

She was forced to sell her land to buy a sheep for the great Muslim sacrifice of Eid.

My brothers too were so severe that they did not allow us girls to work. All we could do was a little sewing at home. And so I looked forward to getting married and leaving the family – and to having some freedom in my life.

I married a man from the middle class and had four children.

But it pains me to remember that my mother suffered so much. She had been the daughter of a diplomat and had everything, but then became a poor woman and suffered for the rest of her life.

There’s a picture on the wall her of a reception for the King, and my grandfather is in the picture.


I feel such sympathy for your mother, but I also head the generational story and that what happened to your mother is not happening to you.


Before—before my father died, I always felt that I needed something from him that I didn’t get. But after he died, I don’t feel that I need anything from him anymore.


No. You don’t.


Of course these are all generational stories. What about the children? What are you hoping for your children?


I hope they won’t have to face what I did.


I’m not married yet. But I have hopes for myself.

I want to learn French. I’m already learning how to send messages on the Internet. And I’m hoping there will be a good job waiting for me,


I too hope that my children will have a better life than I’ve had.


I hope that my two boys will get good jobs.


And in the Stories Exchange Project we have hopes for you and your daughters as well as your sons. We hope that you will work with us to get your families and friends – in the Medina, in other parts of Tangier, and in your villages – to tell you more stories that we can all learn from.

We have many more stories.


Many, many stories!


Yes, and other people, your children and your neighbors—and your husbands – have many stories too. So it’s very important to get other people’s stories, stories you haven’t heard yet. You may find out some surprising things about them. And they may be surprised by what they find out about themselves when they tell you their stories.

Mitchell Chanelis, Stories Exchange Project Director for Morocco

(in Tangier)

Of course everyone has many stories, and if you’ve been surprised to hear what you’ve heard from each other, you may be even more surprised when you ask other people for their stories.


I wanted to learn from a very early age. I went so far as to “borrow” books form my older brothers – but I couldn’t understand them, and I didn’t know how to learn. Now, though, here I am: learning—and teaching at the same time.


I was just thinking how many wise things women are saying about how they are going through their lives: taking about what they are doing now in terms of what they’ve gone through.


Is the Stories Exchange Project interested in stories of other generations, of our mothers and grandmothers?

Robbie, Jack, Mitch

(in trans-continental/trans-oceanic chorus)

Yes! Absolutely! Bring ‘em on!


(to Malika)

I just want to say that the passion you have is what we hope will be released and developed as we work together with all these generations of stories. It’s the passion that will help you realize your dreams: that’s what it takes!


I really do have a passion – for learning.


And you also have the stories. In fact you’re all rich women. You have the wealth of your stories, and the many other stories that other people will give you in exchange for yours.


I go back to my own story—though I’m not going to tell it today because it goes through generations. What I’m always doing is telling my own story and the story of the people I come from, and using that to grow more stories. When we exchange stories we connect with people all over the world.

I don’t mean that stories actually pay you, but they’re a different kind of wealth: the wealth of being a human being, and being able to share things that are similar and things that are different.


As far as we’re concerned, why stories? People will come to visit the community museum to see pictures and to hear stories – and especially when they hear the stories about real people they will understand Tangier.


(to Robbie and Jack in L.A., and Jerry and Mitch in Tangier)

You are so lucky to have been educated so that you can do wonderful projects like this one. But I’m educating myself and other people too. I’m giving a class in sewing. No matter where you are, you can receive and give at the same time.


As fortunate as we may be in the West, we’re so grateful to be able to share your experiences. What you have, many of us have lost from our lives.


I’m giving free sewing lessons. And I’m happy in spite of all the bad experience. And you’re right, Robbie: what you go through can make you able to do more.


Especially if you tell about it and listen to other people’s stories about how much they’ve learned from facing challenges.

Of course you’ve been doing this for thousands of years. The stories from your villages are all about transforming bad experience into wealth which is far deeper and more lasting than gold.

But if your kids get involved in developing  that very old work—learning to communicate themselves as Robbie said Malika does, and as all of you have been doing today—they’ll also be prepared to get the good jobs that you want them to have.



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