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3/29/09 Snapshot: Xalti's Departure

Xalti means sister-of-my-mother in Tamazight. It's the name I use to address Ama's little sister, the mother of my 9-year-old cousin and my newborn baby cousin (whose birth I attended, back in August).

As loyal readers may recall, she stayed with my host family throughout the summer. She had originally planned a shorter visit, but sometime in mid-July, her husband informed her that he no longer wanted her or the children. With help from my host father, her brother-in-law, she brought her heavily pregnant body before the Berberville judge and got a divorce settlement, including alimony and child support requirements. Which he refused to pay.

As Xalti was now completely without resources, she stayed on with us until the birth of her baby. She couldn't stay after that, though, because local Berber custom dictates that a man cannot live with two sisters. As long as Xalti was pregnant, she was (presumably) sexually unavailable, so there was no problem...but once the baby was born, it was Hshuma (shameful, inappropriate, morally repungant) for her to keep living in her brother-in-law's home. So when the baby was four days old, ie as soon as Xalti could be expected to bounce along a dirt road for an hour without hemmoraging, she was packed up to live with her father, my Bahallu (Grandpa), in a mud house without running water or electricity.

Bahallu comes into town most Fridays, to visit the mosque on the Islamic holy day, and to pick up vegetables and other necessities at souq. (Berberville hosts a small souq every Friday and Saturday morning.) Whenever he came, Xalti and the infant would come with him. My little 9-year-old cousin usually stayed behind with an uncle so she could keep going to school.

This has been the pattern for the past six months. Whenever there's a school vacation - which happens a lot - Xalti and both cousins come up to stay with my host family. (There's some loophole in the two-sisters custom that allows for long visits but not actual residence.) Ama and Baba also financially support Bahallu and everyone living with him, though I don't know to what extent. Whenever Xalti visits, she takes over all of Ama's domestic tasks. She cooks, she cleans, she does the laundry...I'm not sure whether it's out of gratitude, just because she's nice, or whether it's a formal way of paying Ama back for the financial support. Regardless, Ama appreciates it, especially now that her own pregnancy is progressing.

(Hey, surprise! Ama's pregnant! I've known for a long time, but she asked me not to tell anyone. She even stopped going to the Hammam, the public baths, so that she could hide her swelling body from her neighbors. But now she's showing so visibly that it's undeniably obvious even through her bulky traditional clothing, so I'm allowed to talk about it. :D Ama's pregnant! I'm going to have a new baby brother or sister! I'm very excited.)

Ama loves having her sister come visit nearly every Friday and for longer stays at every holiday. She gets to play with her tiny nephew while her sister takes care of all of the household work. She gets to see the sister she adores. In her opinion, the situation was pretty perfect.

And then suddenly, a few weeks ago, Xalti's husband called up and said that he'd changed his mind. With less than 24 hours notice, he had her pack up her things and the children's things and come join him, several hundred kilometers away.

Ama was broken-hearted. At a stroke, she'd lost her sister, her helper and best friend, as well as her beloved neice and nephew. To make it worse, she'd lost them all to a man who cut off his 8-month-pregnant wife without a penny, who had refused to pay court-ordered familial support, who hadn't even given his children presents for 3id al-kebir, the closest Muslim equivalent to Christmas.

She repeatedly urged her sister that if her husband was a jerk to her again, that she should pack everything back up and come back here to Berberville. But Xalti was thrilled at the thought of exchanging her status of dependent, abandoned, poor relation for that of the prospect of having her children's father back in their lives. So she brushed aside her sister's concerns, packed up all their belongings - nearly all of which had been gifts from Ama and Baba - and went to her husband.

Her daughter was extatic to have her daddy back; her infant son gurgled happily in his daddy's arms. So Xalti was happy.

Ama was heart-broken. Suddenly she was the one abandoned, bereft, stripped of family... She wept. Every time she came across another tiny shoe or other trace of her sister's family, left behind in the hasty packing, she'd start crying again.

I have to admit that Xalti and I were never particularly close (in anything except age - she's 3 weeks older than me, to the day), but I'm mourning her departure for Ama's sake. I hate seeing her so sad.

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