Saloua Ali Ben Zahra


Listen to the audio version read by Kristen Milosh.

"The raisin in the Mesfouf," he called her.
He is open to North African cuisine.
He liked the sweet Maghrebi Berber couscous from Atlas mountains,
offered with raisins, nuts and dates known as "Mesfouf."
He seemed to read her moves and moods with his mind's eye.
They were lovers of celestial sunlight, global music and books.
Driving her back to her place, he plays their favorite music loud enough.
They listen and dance to Rai songs.
He was especially fond of Algerian Cheb Khaled's song "El Arbi."
"Love is friendship set to music," the fortune cookie said.
Waves of emotion sweep over Alia while eating,
then she would laugh away her sadness.
She laughs loudly and heartily.
So did her cousin, Heidi.
a cinnamon brown Tunisian girl, a samra.
Heidi, daughter of aunt Beloved,
proud and elegant as a palm tree.

He saw or seemed to see beauty in Alia, the samra brown daughter.
She heard consolation when he told her so.
Her heart would sing with joy when he called her "Queen Cattousa of Tunisia."
As a Tunisian, she loves a cat, cattousa
as much as Turkish love cats in Turkey,
her mother's ancestral land.
He called her "the Raisin in the Mesfouf" when he saw her picture,
an infant surrounded by her apparently loving white cousins.
Cinnamon Brown raisin in a Mediterranean sea
of white sand couscous.

Cousin Heidi wants her story heard.
She fell victim to the herd.
She wished to travel the world.
She dipped her French baguette into spicy hot Shakshooka.
She shared no bread.
Younger samra Alia would fly and buy another baguette for all as she continues to do.
Her innocent age believed they were not cousins, but true sisters.

Alia loved her aunt even more than her own mother.
Beloved was cherished for her kind spirit and food.
Her dishes were as tasty as the nigella bread of Alia's mother Ommi,
and her home-made Moorish coffee flavored with orange peel.

Ommi would add pomegranate seeds to her Mesfouf or serve them as dessert with orange blossom or rose water.
After her only daughter has bathed and groomed her, she would bestow on her a special blessing saying:
"May you always be like the pomegranate. beautiful outside and full inside."

Beloved used to say "I love my niece Alia, Ali's daughter, more than my own daughters."
Yet, she did the unconceivable to banish her from memory.
She punished her for what she has not heard, seeing her fitter as maid and made too imperfectly.
She punished her for her existence, her unwanted conception and the rebel concepts they would tame out of her.
Even though alive, she tried to bury her.
That was her way, their way of unborning her.

Could it all have been love and hate? Was there no love at all? Was it all pretense?
When loving niece visited her, she would grace her palm with rich and rare pine nuts-piñon.
Niece, the dear Ali's cherished only son-daughter, man-woman now
feeds piñon to birds when visiting her aunt's graveside.

United all three girl cousins, used to break bread, share lamb couscous, and drink mint tea to honor mother.
Food for thought.
Now ruminating as she eats, memories, laughter and tears.
Today, she lets herself be enchanted in a dreamland of international cuisine.

Fulfilling herself and songman's desire with a love sound to her ear,
she snacks on a goûter of mint tea and buttered tortillas.
She hands pignons to her son but the young eagle offers them back to her gracefully.

The brown crunchy baguette end, the "gaamoura,"
he offers her lovingly.
From his hands he offers the samra flower "Evening in Missoula tea"
and Moroccan Mint tea.
She drinks from the golden squash flower vessel he picked with care
from his garden, the eden he loves above all.

Against all odds and wits,
She feels loved. She has to preserve her senses and fall in love with her self and work.
Although cast in exile,
She is well and fertile.
She keeps birthing again, her way. The heart beats memory.

He offers open hand.
She places hers in his.
He said "the samra raisins are not good enough for you?"
She was selecting golden raisins and discarding the brown.
Now and here she is starting to learn to embrace the glory of her beauty and goodness.
Only she herself can save herself while mothering others.
She can be born again, bear herself again, by writing her own scripts.
She is yet to come, forward out, as legally brown, a script she has yet to birth as captain of her penwomanship.

She continues to bring out the maternal gift she has always had
and father dear birds with loving golden brown eyes,
Andalusia red-headed chachia bird from Tunisia, wide-winged in Barnous cape watching over her.

In homage I offer sweet brown deglet Noor and medjool dates.
The loving memory lives on in the story of "Maryam,"
Mother of Jesus / Issa, to whom Qur'an God sends dates.


Originally from Tunisia where she was educated at the university of Tunis-Carthage and taught at various Tunisian universitiesSaloua Ali Ben Zahra is Associate Professor of Arabic language, literature in translation and culture including Middle Eastern and North African cinema at Appalachian State University. She is also Director of the Arabic program and was for three years Faculty-in-Residence at the Learning and Living Center. She obtained her Masters' and Doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota where she was a recipient of Fulbright scholarships twice. Her doctoral work focused on representations of disabilities in Arab/Islamic post-colonial literatures, cultures and societies. Her book Arab Voices, Abilities and Agencies Disability: Portrayals in Muslim World Literature and Culture is pubished by Lexington.