When I moved to Berberville, 27 months ago, one of the first people I met was a tiny little girl that Ama introduced as Kalima (left, with her sister and mine).
"Kalima" sounds like the word kalimo, which means word, so I figured her name was a reference to the holy scriptures in the Qur'an. It occurred to me later that our village's dialect blurs the distinction between l's and r's, and that the little girl's name might be "Karima", a common Arab name.
But since I never saw it written - her mother, like Ama, is illiterate, and even after the child started school, I never asked her to write her name - I simply had to pick a mental spelling, and I've always thought of her as Kalima.
Kalima's mother is Rebha - one of a thousand women in the area to carry that very common Tamazight name. This particular Rebha is Ama's next door neighbor, and her closest friend. Their daughters pour into and out of each other's houses, playing and giggling at all hours of the day and into the twilight. Kalima is the youngest of the girls, and tends to follow Noora and Fatima around with the eager delight that I remember following my big sister around with myself, when I was 5 or 6 like Kalima. (Ages are usually vague, too, because dates are as hazy as written words for the women in my village.)
Whenever I think of Kalima, who I haven't seen in three months, I first remember her sparkling eyes, dancing with mischief and innocence and delight. Sometimes all at once. I've never seen such bright eyes. They glowed with some inner radiance.
Next, I remember her ready smile, with its tiny white milk-teeth. Rebha is one of the better cooks in Berberville, but refined sugar is rare (except in tea!), which might explain why Kalima's teeth remain perfect, without benefit of western impositions like a toothbrush.
Many Berberville children were wary of the tall pale foreigner, but Kalima - like her older sister, Noora - accepted me immediately. After a long day of children clamoring for my attention or begging for candy, it was always restful to run into Kalima on the path by Ama's house, and relax in her undemanding presence.
Kalima and Noora could be found underfoot at Ama's house at least as often as any of my own little brothers and sisters, so she shows up in several of the pictures I shot in my host family's house. Here, she and my sister are reading (or at least looking at) books I brought back from Rabat:
I also took a few deliberate portraits of her on the day of my cousin Lucky's wedding, because she was dressed in her sparkling new caftan (and apparently trying to focus on a mote of dust a foot in front of her ):
For reasons that I never understood - despite repeated painstaking explanations using lots of words I didn't understand - one of Kalima's neighbors decided that he wanted to buy brand new caftans for Kalima and Noora, for the wedding.
Kalima in her new caftan:
Caftans are an Arab import into my Berber village, but they're hugely popular at weddings. Made of satin (or shiny polyester), embroidered with bright patterns, and often liberally sprinkled with sequins, caftans are long, tightly belted garments that manage to cover a girl or woman from neck to wrist to ankle, while still showing the general curves of her body and flowing gracefully with her movements.
Every young woman needs at least one caftan to wear to family weddings - and *somebody* gets married almost every summer evening in my little town. Of course, the entire town is always welcomed at any wedding - whatever you're wearing - but relatives of the bride or groom are expected to dress up. And in Berberville, wedding dress code = caftan. For women, anyway. For men, it's simply the white tunics they wear to pray in the mosque.
Wealthy young women own more than one caftan, plus girls tend to loan them out as freely as my friends swapped our gel bracelets in elementary school, so pretty much anyone who wants to dress up for a wedding will be able to.
The little girls aren't quite as lucky. Since little girls everywhere grow like pretty little weeds, buying custom-tailored garments that can only be worn a handful of times before they're outgrown doesn't make sense to most families. So little girls whose sisters or cousins are getting married usually have to make do with hand-me-down caftans, belted and cinched within an inch of their lives.
At our cousin Lucky's wedding, my little sister Fatima was one such cinched figure, tripping over a hem that trailed a good six inches on the floor, and nearly drowning in a garment meant for a girl at least twice as wide as my stick-thin sister.
But Kalima and Noora got brand-new, custom-fitted caftans. I think because their neighbor is related to the family of the groom, who is connected in some truly round-about manner with the mother of the bride...? Yeah, I never did figure out exactly how they scored new caftans, but that didn't stop me from beaming happily (and snapping lots of pictures) as they paraded around town in hand-tailored finery.
Here's Kalima (second from the right) and a bunch of other sleepy girls at Lucky's wedding. This picture was taken around midnight, when the festivities had been going for about 8 hours and had another 4 or 5 hours to go...
Why am I spending so much time talking about my tiny friend Kalima? Who I met when she was 4 or 5 and who I knew only two years?
Because last week, for no reason anyone could discern, Kalima lay her tiny body down, curled up into an implausibly small ball, and died.
Children die all the time in the Third World, usually from preventable illnesses. I'm truly grateful that none of my tiny friends passed on during the two years I spent in their village.
But that blessed bubble has now burst, and Kalima's shining eyes have closed for the last time.
Ajaar akom Allah.