A picture of romance


When Mustapha Aziz was smitten by a photograph of Maureen O'Neill, he says he followed the custom of his native Morocco and declared his intention to marry her.

Then he asked Maureen's mother, Paula Rose Pratt, for Maureen's address and telephone number in the United States so the couple could begin their courtship.

Needless to say, Paula was taken aback. She was new to Morocco, a professor teaching world literature and composition at Al Akhawayn University, the only Western-style university in the predominantly Muslim country. Her daughter hadn't even been to visit her mother's new home.

Mustapha, 37, a French teacher at a military high school for girls, met Paula through mutual colleagues, and the two became friends.

Paula gently explained to Mustapha the American customs regarding matrimony. She was sure her 31-year-old daughter -- executive director of the Baltimore Shakespeare Partnership -- wasn't looking to marry, especially to a groom provided by her mother.

Embarrassed by his social gaffe, Mustapha let the matter drop. In fact, he worried he had offended his new friend. So when Maureen came to visit Morocco a year later in December 1998, Mustapha kept his distance.

But when Paula and Maureen asked him to take them on a tour of the city of Fes, Mustapha obliged. Though they were essentially chaperoned by her mother and surrounded by other people at every moment, Maureen and Mustapha struck up a friendship during the trip. Mustapha's skills as a tour guide were exceeded only by his conversation skills, Maureen says.

And there was the moment, as they navigated the narrow streets of the city center, when he saved her from being trampled.

"Maureen was walking and a horse was coming," Mustapha says. "A man said, 'Watch out!' in Arabic. But Maureen didn't understand. I grabbed her and pushed her to the wall."

The episode brought them closer, and both say they knew they were falling in love. "Nothing was said, and we were never really alone," Maureen says, "but we just knew."

On the plane back to Baltimore, Maureen sobbed, telling a stewardess she had just bid farewell to her mother and her future husband.

She and Mustapha began sending e-mail. Maureen returned to Morocco for a monthlong visit in March 1999, determined, she says, to prove to herself that her long-distance love affair was too good to be true.

Instead, "I came back [to Baltimore] engaged."

Her friends were shocked.

"I was not into getting married," Maureen says. "But with Mustapha, it was like I had found a lost family member. He just immediately seemed like a person I wanted to live my life with."

That May, Maureen returned to Morocco, and she and Mustapha signed a marriage contract. The contract is considered the legally binding ceremony of marriage, Mustapha explains. He and Maureen had a two-night honeymoon in Fes before she came home to Baltimore.

Though he agonized about leaving his job and his family, Mustapha came to the United States last July.

"I just figured that this was where my life was leading me," he says. During the past year, Mustapha taught French at the Waldorf School and at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School substituting for teachers who were on extended leaves of absence. He is hoping to find a permanent position this year.

In April, Maureen and Mustapha returned to his homeland for their Moroccan wedding celebration -- traditionally held a year after the marriage contract is signed. On April 15, Mustapha's family, friends and neighbors gathered to officially welcome Maureen to the family. She and Mustapha fed each other dates and milk sweetened with honey, signifying the sweetness and love of marriage. And there was much music and dancing.

On June 3, Maureen and Mustapha danced together once more at their American-style wedding and reception. The ceremony was held at the Mill Centre in Hampden. The jubilant bride and groom then led a procession of guests around the corner to their reception at the Elm, where the celebration continued well into the night.

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