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  • Dr. Abdesalam Soudi

Celebrating the fatherhood of my father: A hero and a grateful, honorable man

Fathers are influential figures in many lives. My father died almost 9 years ago, but he still inspires me every day. In our village in Morocco, people looked up to him as a source of wisdom and bravery. He is known throughout our family for his amazing narratives about the war and the history of Morocco. Unlike many people in important positions who get profiled in the news, my father, though a daily inspiration to me, was an ordinary man from a village in Morocco. Yet he risked everything to fight in WWII to save Europe and the rest of the world from the terror of the Nazis. Even though he has passed away, he continues to shape my perspective in many ways, and I believe in the strength of his powers and blessings.


My father’s childhood

My father after his return from WWII

My father, M’Barek Soudi, was born during WWI. He never lived his own childhood: He lost his own father at a very young age and was forced by circumstances to work on farms near his village and in small jobs to help support his mother and sister. He was unable to attend any form of school, but was a very smart and visionary man. Even though he did not get a formal education, he believed in the power of knowledge and had the utmost respect for teachers.


A Veteran of WWII

My father was recruited as a young man to fight in the “Goumiers”, the Moroccan irregular unit attached to the French Army in WWII. At that time Morocco was a French protectorate. As part of the Goumiers, he fought in North Africa (Morocco and Algeria) nominally as a local police keeping force but actually in training, in Italy during the Sicilian campaign, breaking the Gustav line as the key to the liberation of Rome, in the freeing of Corsica, in France as part of Allied invasion of Provence, and in Germany. Moroccan soldiers were not treated the same as regular French soldiers: my father has stories of walking in the snow in his sandals, and eating spring onions that he found growing in the wild while in Germany. When he came back from the war, he started from scratch as he did not receive any education, pension, or other assistance from the French government.


As children, my brothers and I would repeatedly write letters for my father to the French government asking for a pension. My father was illiterate, so I always wondered what the French government thought of these letters, mailed from their former colony and scrawled in a child’s handwriting.


We looked at every letter that came from the French government as an opportunity to improve our family’s fortunes. But all the responses, unfortunately, were either negative or simply prompted my father to provide yet more paperwork. One letter we received said that my father did not serve enough years in the army to qualify. In hindsight, I wonder how I broke this news to him. My father served from 1939 to 1947.


I now know that France denied pensions (they were frozen when a colony gained independence) to the citizens of their former colonies until 2002, when a court case forced them to pay pensions. These were indexed to the cost of living though, so a Moroccan got 1/10 of the pension of a French citizen. It wasn’t until after the release of the 2006 film Indigenes which chronicled the story of the Goumiers and their mistreatment, that France agreed to pay equal pensions.

My father nominated in 2004 as "Chevalier de la legion d'honneur"

I was very proud when, in 2004, my father was finally awarded the legion of honor at the French Embassy in Morocco. This was during the tenure of former French President M. Chirac. He spent much of his retirement in the city of Agadir which was about 1 hour from my village. Several years later, I met M. Chirac by the beach in Agadir just a year after my dad passed away in 2012. He was sitting for lunch at Yacht 33 just two tables away. I was able to introduce myself and tell him about my dad and the letters. I thanked him for the recognition, which meant a lot to my dad and to our whole family.

My father’s medal and citation from Chirac were his prized possessions, ones I am proud to keep today in my home in Pittsburgh.


Father of 9 children, a source of influence, sacred lineage, and a life saver

After the war, he landed a job quickly as a “forestier,” or a forester, a perfect shift from the stress of war. My parents had 9 children, and I often joke that the 9 of us, together with my parents, could have formed a soccer team. I am the youngest kid. That meant many people watched over my well-being, and I grew up feeling very loved and protected. Unfortunately, two of my siblings, Malika and Mohamed, died before I was born.

Along with my other hero, my mom, he raised 9 children on just 450 Moroccan Dirhams ($45 a month, the equivalent of about $310 today). We lived in a clay house and had no gas, running water, electricity, or phone service. We acquired water from the village well. We survived on such a small monthly income because we also had our own chickens (and therefore eggs), local honey, and on our three acres of land we grew wheat, which we then ground at the local mill.


My father saved my mom’s life (and mine) when she was pregnant with me. My mom was about 7 months pregnant when suddenly, in the middle of the night, she woke up with some kind of pregnancy complication. My father ran through the field to get one of the villagers, known as “Belhabib” (son of the beloved), as he was the only one who owned a car (actually a white Peugeot 504 pick-up truck). Belhabib held a very special status thanks to his car, and in fact went by the nickname “the car owner” in the village. Belhabib carried everything in his Peugeot: brides, grooms, animals, food, and occasionally, as in this case, people with medical emergencies. My mom lay down in the back of this white Peugeot, covered with a blanket, and my father rode in the back with her. It took a little over an hour to arrive at the closest hospital, “hôpital King Hassan II,” in the city of Agadir. My mom stayed there for a few days until her condition stabilized and she could return home safely. No one knows exactly what happened anymore, but I am grateful that my dad was there and ran to get Belhabib. I often wondered why I was the last kid but perhaps this scary trip to the hospital was the reason I became the last one.

Things have changed quickly in just a generation. My siblings (including myself, despite my mom’s pregnancy scare) were all born at home in the village, and my mother helped birth numerous other village children. My nieces and nephews have mostly been born at hospitals in Morocco and my own children were born in Pittsburgh at Magee Women’s Hospital, one of the top hospitals in the world.


My father took pride in his sacred lineage and lived up to it. People called my father “Moulay M’barek” (Honorable Blessed). M’barek was his name, but Moulay was an honorific that recognized his lineage. People also called him “Forestier” too, because of his job guarding the trees. After his pilgrimage to Mecca, he went by “Eljhaj (Pilgrim) Moulay.” Depending on context and on my behavior, I went by either “wld Forestier (Son of the forester)” or “wld Moulay M’Barek” (Son of the honorable and blessed man). Despite his limited income, my father donated regularly to build mosques and our school in the village, and to help others.


My father’s primary means of transportation: The green bike

Many people remember their family car growing up. For me, it was my father’s green bike. It was my dad’s primary means of transportation to work, to the market, to social events, and to my school. My father took me everywhere on the back of his bike. My father never owned a car or drove one. When he passed away, the only request I made to my family was to save me his bike. I am still trying to figure out when and how to bring it back here to Pittsburgh. He took me on this bike to haircuts, occasionally to school (usually I walked), and to visit his friends. One of the stories I share with my kids in Pittsburgh is that, while riding on the back of green bike with my father, occasionally my foot would fall asleep and my leather sandal would fall off. He would bike back and forth along the road until we found it, because losing a sandal was a huge burden on the family’s budget. Since I played lots of soccer, my leather sandals also had to go to the cobbler for patching and re-soling frequently before I could get new ones.

Work ethics, hosting others

My dad never missed a day at work. He was also very punctual and built deeper connections with people he worked with. He often hosted them for meals in our home. At his work, he always exceeded expectations. Respect was very important to him. Over the years, in addition to being a forestier, he also ran errands for the office of the commissioner/engineer in charge of the water and forests. He advised all of us to live close to school or work. Somehow, he did not need to read research to know that people who live farther from school tend to miss classes more.

My father could be strict, but he was also very protective. For example, he did not tolerate drinking, smoking, or drugs. Even the adult smokers in the village would not come close to him. They put out their cigarettes a few feet away. He did not like the smell. I never tried smoking, too scared to find out what he would have done if he ever caught me smoking. But one day, walking home from school with my friends, I jumped over a fence to play inside a car junk yard. My friends watched from outside as I got behind the wheel of a car and pretended to drive it, turning the steering wheel left and right. The owner suddenly caught me and locked me up in his garage. The kids ran to the house to get my dad, who rushed to the junk yard to save me. Even though what I did was wrong, my father yelled at the junk yard owner for locking a kid in a garage and rebuked him for his insensitive approach. I never jumped over that fence again and neither did my friends. Today, this is perhaps one of my daughter’s favorite stories.

My father also had several habits or rituals he passed down to me. He taught me to recite some special prayers 11 times for protection against the evil eye. He himself memorized these and I inherited that practice from him. When I put my hands on my kids’ heads, they can only tolerate one or two prayers before pushing my hand off. He had sayings about different foods as well, for example, “lettuce sweeps your stomach” and “pomegranate irrigates your heart”.

We moved to the “city,” closer to school, we got our first TV

I was a lucky child because by the time I finished my primary school (5th grade), my father had finished building our first cement and brick house outside the closest town, called “44.” It had stairs inside, unlike our ranch clay house in the village. It took him several years to build it. Today, that house costs about $12,000 on the market. We got our first TV when I was 14 (black and white since we could not afford the color one yet). It was battery powered, and rechargeable. Before that I used to run to the neighbor’s house in the village and beg to watch their TV. My father watched no sports and no movies. He would watch two things before he went to bed: the weather and the news. Then he would advise us to turn it off to save the battery. The weather was important to him because of his farm. He prayed for rain every day, especially after planting all our wheat seeds and ploughing them in the earth.

Grateful and mindful man

Everything my father shared or accomplished was marked by “Alhamdullah,” a religious invocation that means “Thanks” or “Praise to God.” He used it for everything, whether it was achievement, his green bike, his horse, his work, his kids’ success at school, or his time in this life.

After many years, in 1998 my father finally saved enough money to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. There he also faced the reality that he will one day pass away. In fact at Mecca he brought his own white cloth (which is not typical) and asked my older brother to save it for when he passed. He was ready to meet his destiny, and unlike many of us, he was never fearful of death. He always shared the opinion that he had had a full life. When he woke up to pray during my visits to Morocco, I would often overhear him at fajr prayer asking God,

“Yaa Rbbi tqadd l’mur m’a lbSar” (O God, balance my time on earth with my physical ability)

because he never wanted to be a burden on anyone. That he was not. He also always thanked God for his life and for the extra time he had. At 75 years old he said he had a full life, and he was ready to meet God. But he died at 93.

My father’s passing, our last in-person meeting, and the magical dream

On December 15, 2012, around 5 a.m., my cell phone rang in Pittsburgh. It was my brother, who I had called for some time “the bad news deliverer,” because he had also called with news of my mother’s stroke a few years before. I answered “Alo Assaluma ‘alaikum (Peace be upon you),” and my brother responded in kind, and continued, “Bbwa Allah iraHmu (Our Dad, May God Bless his soul).” I held back my emotions through a moment of silence followed by a short prayer. Then I began plotting.

I prayed waiting for Royal Air Morocco to open to make arrangements for same day travel. Then my wife and I departed Pittsburgh for New York City where we had a layover, and then to Casablanca. Unfortunately, our plane was delayed and we missed our connection, so we drove the 5 hours from Casablanca to the small village outside Agadir where the funeral was being held. We stayed in Morocco for 7 days and I went every single day to the cemetery to make prayers by his grave before heading back to the U.S.

When I last saw him in May of 2012, he somehow knew we would not see each other again in this physical world. I kissed his hands as I was heading to the airport and he called me to come back to him again. He told me,

“As I have been saying, my time in this life is coming to a close, and so when I die, please my dear son, (1) do not be upset and (2) do not leave your work to come running. You will change nothing. Focus on your service and on your wife and life in the U.S.”

I did not listen to his advice. I went rushing when he passed away and I continued to be sad for weeks after he passed away. I thought about him every minute of the day. Finally, he came in a dream one last time to tell me this:

“Dear son, you have all my blessings, please let me die.”

He looked like he was in a hurry, and his face was lit up, and I knew he would not keep showing up in my dreams. In fact, he did not need to after extending his blessings and curing me from my sorrow over his death. The next day, it felt like he was still there with me, and I still feel his presence every day wherever I go. He never met my children, but I know he is watching over them and they are enjoying hearing his stories from me. My son, Laith Mubarack (which translates to “Blessed Lion”), reminds me a lot of my father.

Conclusions

My father met his obligations responsibly. He stepped up to his tasks as a husband, a father, a community member, and a citizen. Despite all his economic hardships, he provided for his family as best he could. Personally, I always felt that my father could almost provide anything I might have asked for, even though in reality he might not have been able to. He was fully engaged in our upbringing and has been a good role model of fatherhood and masculinity. He balanced his acts of physical toughness as a soldier, farmer, and hard worker with his gentle care and love for his kids, my mom, and our neighbors. He started and ended his day with prayers asking God to protect and provide for his family. He continues to inspire me every day.

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