From the moment I was born, my parents knew I would need to fight to find my place in this world. That is why they named me Faiza. The victorious one.
Ten perfect fingers and ten perfect toes—it’s what every mother checks when they see their newborn the first time. But when the midwife brought me to my mother, she felt the universe pivot. She said it was something in the way the old woman’s eyes refused to meet hers.
I was born with ectrodactyly.
Taking me into her arms, my mother examined for herself my tiny hands—thumbs but no fingers—stretched up towards a world that would recoil from them. She looked into my eyes, too innocent to understand the guilt and shame she would endure silently, needlessly because of me.
Still, my mother told me she fell in love the instant she held me.
I was born during the most festive time of the year in Morocco, so my father, a sheep farmer, slaughtered a ram the day I was born, sharing it with our neighbors, and then another seven days later. He knew raising a girl, his only daughter, with different needs and appearance would be a burden in our remote village. Still, he was thankful. The ‘Years of Lead’ were evaporating, a new century and political reforms were on the horizon. He always told his children anything was possible.
Wedged between the rain shadow of the Anti-Atlas and the salt lick of the Sahara, the tiny, Amazigh village where I grew up lay next to fields of saffron stretched under lucerne skies. Most men eked out meager livelihoods from saffron, olives, and cereal wheat between the years of drought. It was beginning to exact a toll: the ‘dry years’ seemed to come more frequently and last longer.
The women, in contrast, were master carpet weavers. Known from Agadir to Marrakech for their nimble skills, they passed this sacred tradition from mother to daughter, encoded in their maternal DNA. But not my DNA.
When I turned sixteen, a time when most girls proved their feminine virtues by sitting at the loom and learning intricate patterns, or working in the argan collective with lightning-quick fingers, I worked and tended the fields. Several crops were needed for dyeing carpet wool: madder, indigo, and turmeric. Caring for the plants, from the time they were furrowed until they were ready to harvest, made me feel useful to my family. That was important to me. So while some of the older women sat and gossiped, combing and spinning strands of wool for dyeing, I watered and weeded, coaxing my delicate flowers to bloom.
And this is what I hoped I’d do for the rest of my days. At least until the day my father came from Tiznit with news that would change my life forever. I saw him walking towards me in the field and knew exactly what he was going to say.
“Who?” I asked.
I sat beneath an old argan tree. It swayed and bowed from the desert headwinds, but never completely buckled. Hot, salty tears left their streak marks down my face. I planted my hands in the rocky soil, wishing I was the one who could take root.
The feeling my family was abandoning me—finally throwing off the burden they received the day I was born—sat on my chest like a heavy stone. My mother came and sat down beside me. “It’s natural to be afraid,” she wrapped her arms around me, “so was I when the time came to marry your father.”
My head rested on her bosom as I spent those last moments of my childhood listening to her calming words. The same balm mothers soothed their daughters with since betrothals began. I wondered how many times those same words had been whispered beneath those branches.
“Sometimes we don’t have a choice in the matter, but it does not mean you won’t grow to love him.” I wondered how she could be so sure. My parents knew each other their entire lives. From the time my father finished school, there was never any question they’d end up together. “It’s not as if he is very old,” she explained. “These days, forty-two is still considered young for a man.”
In my mind, he might as well have been ninety.
“The most important thing is that he has a job and he can take care of you, Faiza.”
At this, my head raised, prepared to voice the protest building inside. “So you admit it?”
“Admit what?” My mother was genuinely confused. Maybe she thought I’d be happy or relieved they found someone for me to marry.
“That the reason you’re sending me away to live with a man, a widower I’ve never met, whose children are older than I am, is because of money? If we were richer, I could go to school, like girls in Rabat. Maybe even attend a university?”
I had always excelled in school, but like most girls in my village, I stopped at 8th grade. Depending on the family’s straits, some quit even earlier. But my oldest brother Adil was a carpet trader in Marrakech, where he said it was acceptable, even considered normal, for girls to attend high school and sometimes beyond that.
“Where are you getting these ideas? Girls in the city have lower moral standards. Hassan Hadid will make a good husband and needs a good, devout wife!”
“And what about these?” I raised my arms and showed her the hands that were given to me. The only hands I’d known, the hands that always invited stares, the ones I always tried to hide. Would my new husband be ashamed of them also?
“He knows about your condition and doesn’t object. This is important. You want a husband who will treat you with respect. He will treat you well because his business prospects depend on it.”
And that is when I knew the man they’d chosen for me did not really want to marry me. Only my family’s wool. “Please, don’t make me do this,” I begged her.
“Faiza, it’s time you grow up and face reality. The weaving cooperative will never take you and you cannot work in these fields forever. This is the best option. Or would you rather move to the city and work as a maid? Do you know what happens to your reputation if you do?”
I knew my parents were doing what they thought was best. I did not argue with her. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this day might eventually come. What I did not know was how far I would go to resist.
Standing outside Dr. Yosef Ouaknine’s door, I inched closer to Adil. My hair, scrubbed, brushed, and twisted at the nape, smelled of cardamom and amber beneath my headscarf. I had borrowed my sister-in-law’s abaya to wear and, despite the intense heat, wore a long-sleeved tunic beneath it that fell past my hands. We decided on the way that Adil would do all the talking. I hoped the professor, one of Adil’s customers, would not notice me there at all.
A man, tall but slightly stooped, answered the door and welcomed us in. Judging from his copious silvery hair, he was somewhere in his sixties. He invited us into his study for mint tea.
My jaw fell when I entered. I couldn’t help it, I had never seen such a room. Almost every wall housed books from floor to ceiling. The one wall that didn’t, the one behind his desk, had shelves of glass jars instead, each labeled in Arabic and filled with plant specimens: hundreds of seeds, shoots, dried piths, and hulls.
He thanked a middle-aged woman, Farah, who came and set a tray of tea and glasses on the low table in front of us. Her eyes lingered on my long sleeves as she looked at me suspiciously. I was afraid to reach for it. Instead, I folded my arms on my lap and let it grow cold.
“So your brother tells me you want a job working in my argan orchards.” He spoke softly as if even the walls were listening. Perhaps they were, Farah was just outside the doorway, still, his voice made me feel at ease. “I have to be honest with you, this is hard work you’re seeking. I really expect to hire a man for this job.” He glanced towards my sleeves. I’m certain Adil already told him about my difference. “As you can see, I already have a maid.”
My brother mounted a defense. I could always count on him. Even when I told him I needed to find honorable work in the city so I could get out of my arrangement, something that would allow me to live, even save money to send back to our parents, he did not turn me away.
‘Faiza already tends the fields in our village. She knows a lot about plants, and don’t be fooled, she’s very strong for her size. The best thing is,” he added, his voice rising so Farah could easily hear, “she won’t bring you any trouble. All she does at home when she’s not working in the fields, or helping my mother in the kitchen, is read whatever books she can find.”
My brother was good at persuasion. There was a reason he could sell so many carpets.
Over eager to help, I added, “Back home I used to throw stones at the branches, gather the nuts when they fell. We’d crack and roast the pits to grind with orange honey and cinnamon.”
I regretted speaking even before the last word.
Dr. Ouaknine looked at me, squinting. His hazel eyes had flecks of yellow, like the pith of an argan seed ready to pick. “You know, Faiza, what we do here at the agricultural college is not the same as growing trees for nut butter in your backyard. Come with me, both of you. Let me show you.”
He brought us to an outer courtyard, down stone steps to an open field. Most of the trees grew in containers but one, like a sultan’s guard, grew directly from the ground.
“Its scientific name, Faiza, is Argania spinosa. I sometimes call it the giant relic of the Maghreb as it’s quite a stubborn son of a bitch. They can live for hundreds of years, but Southern Morocco has lost more than 50% of its argan forest in the last ten years alone. The government has funded me to figure out a way to reverse this.”
As we walked through the field, he explained how each row of trees were identical copies of an original tree and how he planted them in different soils. He showed me how it was done. He took a small pocket knife and cut deftly into the bark of a branch, wounding it, and covering it up, he tied it with a bag of soil. He pointed to my hands, “Do you believe you can do that?”
I looked at Adil. We had lost.
Later in the car, he spoke softly as he drove me back to the train station, “I don’t believe marrying Hassan will be as terrible as you think.” Then he kissed me on my forehead.
There was going to be a wait before my train arrived and Adil had to get back to the shop, so he gave me enough money for lunch and a Coca-Cola and left. As I sat in the train station, I watched people arriving and departing. I wondered how many of them had control of where they were going. Were any of us truly able to choose our own destination? How many just sidled along tracks already laid down for them?
It was at that moment I got up from my seat and walked out of the train station, back to the main road. At first, I didn’t know where my feet were heading. Later I realized I was walking back towards the college campus, all eight miles. I didn’t stop until I reached the professor’s door. When I knocked, Farah answered.
She did not look impressed.
She told me Dr. Ouaknine was having his supper and was not to be disturbed. I told her that I’d wait and that I already missed the last train back to Agadir. Temporarily homeless and possibly out of my mind, I looked her in the eye and told her I had to speak to him again, If I went back now, there was just one option waiting for me.
She shook her head and told me to wait in the study.
I waited for what seemed like hours, then the professor came and sat down across from me. “This is highly unusual. I thought I explained to you, Faiza, I don’t believe the work is suitable for you.” Still, he listened.
I asked him for just one chance to prove I could do the work. If I couldn’t learn it then I’d go back to my family. Farah stood in the doorway, listening. She looked at her employer. I knew the look all too well and I hated it. It was the look of low expectations from an unwanted burden.
Dr. Ouaknine recognized the look also, but instead of asking me to leave, he walked to one of his many bookshelves and retrieved a book. Then he asked, “Did you finish high school?”
I wanted to scream. How could I explain that I stopped my studies because I had no choice, “No,” I said looking at the book, “but I do read Arabic.”
He opened it to a page and asked me to read it for him. It was about a monk in Austria who worked in a garden, counting peas, and how it led to an important discovery. Then he explained how significant this simple work would become to the field of genetics.
“Tell your brother, Faiza, I think you’re extremely brave to come back here on your own and plead your case. I’ll give you a chance to prove you can do the work. And if you work here, I expect you to continue your studies. You have a lot of catching up to do.”
He asked if my parents approved of me staying in Marrakech. I told him yes.
The next day, I rose before dawn. A small lamp next to the bed I had slept in cast an uneven light on my surroundings. A storage cabinet, its paint curling fruitlessly from the wood beneath, hung over the door. It was empty, except for a few books with drawings of trees. Farah said it was just a dorm room for students, but I felt it was created just for me.
The feeling of unknown possibilities was a strange, heady elixir in my veins. It traveled like wildfire towards my chest, ravaging it completely, and left me with only embers—both of anticipation and dread. I had called Adil the night before. I told him how I couldn’t get on the train and that I wanted to live and study in Marrakech. I begged him to convince our parents the work was respectable and to let me stay.
He said he’d try, but he didn’t sound too hopeful about it.
I finished my list of chores before the sun finished moving from softly golden to harsh and white. The work was no different from what I did at home: mopping floors, washing clothes, hanging them to dry. Afterward, Farah prepared us a morning meal of bread, covered with amlou, and soft, white cheese with dates, then I followed the professor into the orchard.
“This entire row needs to be cloned,” he said, pointing towards a row of thirty trees, tagged and growing in pots. He explained how to choose the best branches to wound, then showed me how to apply a solution and sphagnum moss to help it take root. I rolled my sleeves. He made it look effortless, yet it took me several attempts just to make a single notch. It wasn’t pretty, but it helped to steady the gnarled and thorny branches with my bared teeth.
By noon, I had scrapes and cuts all over my arms, but I finished more than half the trees. Farah watched me occasionally from the kitchen window. She called for me at lunchtime, shaking that head. She seemed worried or, more probably, confused. I don’t think she understood why a young woman would choose such unseemly work.
Looking back, I’m not sure that lunch really happened, or if it was just a dream, a single moment stretched to infinity in my mind. The professor talked about the trees, his work in the Negev, and a host of other topics I could barely understand. But I nodded as if I did. It was clear how much saving the argan from extinction meant to him and he seemed pleased with what I had managed to do so far.
So when I saw my brother’s car pull up outside, I wasn’t alarmed. It was natural he’d check on me, to see for himself what I was up to. But when I saw my father and my mother get out of the car, my heart froze. Then it fled. I looked at the clock on the kitchen wall: they must have taken the first train out of Agadir.
My father’s eyes were brimming with barely controlled rage. I knew he was ready to grab me if I refused to go back and my mother would allow it. I was only glad he didn’t take it out on Dr. Ouaknine. My father didn’t want trouble, he only wanted what was rightfully his to protect.
“Faiza, you need to come now,” he didn’t even look in Dr. Ouaknine’s direction. My mother stood with her hands folded, but her eyes implored me not to resist. It was then I knew there were never any other tracks for me to choose. They all led to the same place. I looked over at Adil and I saw for the first time: he knew all along. He just didn’t have the courage to tell me the truth.
Or maybe he just wanted me to figure it out for myself.
It seems so strange now, what I was thinking. Maybe everyone has that moment in their youth, where the world seems to balance on a fine line of persisting or ending, the point in time when you must decide where your family ends and you begin. But for the first time in my life, I felt there was something I–Faiza, had to do.
I turned and walked away from my brother’s car. I grabbed the professor’s pocket knife and headed toward the orchard.
“Faiza!” I heard my father call after me. Then I heard my mother’s footsteps follow me as she placed her hand on my arm. She tried to stop me from going another step, but I yanked it away. The tears finally burst their dam.
“Let me finish!” I yelled at her. I didn’t care about anything else, I just kept walking. I looked over my shoulder and saw my father rush at me. My mother held him back.
“Just wait,” she told him quietly, “she’ll come.”
I don’t know why my parents allowed me that one thing, maybe they never saw me defiant before, or maybe they thought, after everything, I deserved a chance to prove myself, but they waited until I finished the entire row. The sun was powerful and relentless that time of day and there was no shade. At one point, Dr. Ouaknine came to me and told me not to worry about the trees, to let it go, that he’d finish the work himself.
Didn’t he understand? “I said I would do it! Is it too much to give me that?” And I added so that only he could hear, “Please let me finish this. Then you’ll never have to see me again.”
Not yet to the end of the row, my ears were ringing, and my breaths came short and quick. I was scared I would pass out. Farah brought me water from the garden pump, holding it while I drank. The water was warm as tea as it ran out and past the sides of my mouth.
She mopped the sweat streaming down my face, stinging my eyes, “You should listen to your family,” she told me. “They know what’s best for you.” I knew that. Still, I shook my head.
My hands and arms were a bloody mess by the time I finished. I collapsed into my mother’s arms, crying, as she led me back to the car. Before I knew it, I was on the last train back to Agadir.
Three years later, I was living in Tiznit with a family of my own.
I held my infant son in one hand while my two-year-old daughter reached up to grab the other. Together we walked through the small garden I had slowly built. There were almond saplings, miniature orange trees, and, of course, a wild, argan tree just starting to spread its arms and offer shade. My daughter especially loved dipping her fingers in the fountain pool Hassan placed at the center of it all.
My husband had a gentle spirit. I was lucky. I took care of him and he gave me the honorable life my parents wanted. My family had made certain.
The three of us sat on a wooden bench waiting for Uncle Adil who came regularly to visit on business. He always brought something for the children, but on that day, he had a packet for me. It was from the professor, a book, the one I read aloud in his study three years ago.
“Dr. Ouaknine still comes by the souk every so often,” Adil explained. “He’s glad you’re doing well. Last week he asked if I would give this to you.”
I had thought about that day in the orchard, usually in the early hours, before the children were awake and when the light made everything so vague. Still, it seemed so long ago. When I opened the book, I saw a message he’d written inside:
I wanted you to have a memento of your brief visit to the college. It’s no coincidence: the thirty trees you propagated not only surpass every metric but are doing so in every soil I have planted them. These trees seem to be every inch the determined warrior as you so, from henceforth, will be a new cultivar called A. Spinosa ‘Faiza.’
I closed the book with a small laugh. It felt odd reading those words, almost as if they were written about someone in a storybook, not me. I never wanted to be a warrior. That was never my dream as a little girl, climbing trees like a goat just to see how far I could see. I went to Marrakech because I wanted to choose my own path. What I needed was to find that part of myself that was my own.
The truth is no tree chooses its own soil. If those trees become warriors, it’s because they will find whatever they need from what they already have.
“Oxygen concentrations are rising, slowly, but well beyond the confidence interval of Phase I levels alone,” Dr. Ayalah Zeyad’s recorded voice relayed the same childlike exuberance she felt the first time her boots touched Martian soil.
Far beneath the planet’s surface, soft fluorescent light bounced through LED pipes and spread throughout inflatable greenhouses. Standing like sentries, hundreds of Argania spinosa were monitored for growth and respiration. She re-checked the numbers in her scientific log. If the measurements were correct, the trees had adapted to the Martian regolith beautifully.
Given their provenance, she wasn’t surprised.
The Martian Ecological Development project was a major part of NASA’s Phase II habitation schedule. Tasked with creating a sustainable environment in the underground habitat ring, they were now weaning the controlled atmosphere from electrolysis and oxygen scrubbers to a biological system: the first step, a baby one, towards a sustainable colony on Mars.
“The primary specimens are a stress-resistant cultivar of Argania spinosa developed by Dr. Yosef Ouaknine in the early 2000s. The species, one of the few botanicals to survive the Pleistocene, evolved as the last green defense against the encroaching Sahara. I believe it may be our best candidate for the ring and possibly bioconversion of Martian soil.”
Ayala stopped the recording and set the data pad on her desk. Above it, preserved in an acrylic case and mounted on the wall, lay the browned and tattered pages of a genetics book long bereft of its binding. The words on the first page, however, were clearly visible: a small note of appreciation, scribbled by Dr. Ouaknine’s own hand, and given to her great, great grandmother, Faiza Hadid.