Play, exuberance and imagination of what is possible are the words that come to mind when we see the images of this 69-year-old grandmother living in Holland. Creativity has no age limit; we are all, no matter where we are from or what our age, imbued with a natural human drive to create. Some people are more open to how they manifest that drive than others, some special people have few constraints other than what makes them happy. This is another way of saying they are free to be themselves, which is often one of the gifts we receive as the years layer up.
Breaking the images of what people expect us to be is what we have been working on here for the last 6 years. Retired school teacher, grandmother, immigrant…this is Najate, and also so much more. Her means of creative expression is her clothes; they are her way of saying to the world, this is who I am, and isn’t this fun?
As much as we rue the times when we are pre-judged by the number that is our age, we too can fall into the same trap of judgment by arbitrary label. The cure is curiosity, an openness to discover things that may be new to us. Because if we are not growing and expanding, then we are shrinking and contracting, which definitely does not sound like fun.
This entire interview was done via her daughter who translated our English.
Najate, how old are you and where are you currently living?
69, living in the Netherlands.
How is it that you are now living in the Netherlands?
Immigrated to Holland in 1980 after I married someone who already lived here. I was working as an elementary school teacher in Morocco and started teaching here too, soon after.
What was it like growing up in Morocco as compared to where you live now?
It was quite a culture shock; Holland was so cold and the houses looked so different and tiny compared to grand riads in the Medina of Meknes where I grew up. But I have lived in Holland longer than in Morocco now and it has become my real home country. I only visit to see my elderly mother; other than that, I don’t feel the need to go because everybody I love is in Holland.
Was the transition to another culture difficult for you?
Learning the language was hard but once I knew how to communicate with Dutch people it was a lot easier. Also, I started working quite fast so my transition was different than most first generation women who mostly stayed at home and hardly went outside. When you are part of the work force and immersed in a culture you become part of it organically. We were lucky to have friendly neighbors who opened their doors to us so we could get a glimpse of how birthdays and other traditional Dutch cultural events took place. And there was a large Moroccan community and we had a diverse group of friends who worked in the social and cultural fields so there was always a feeling of belonging and connecting with our own culture too, which was very important for me.
When you are not on Instagram, what is your job?
I don’t have any social media; my daughter runs the account @meryemsfirst which is hers too. I am a retired elementary school teacher and grandmother.
“The love for beautiful clothes and quality garments comes from that artisan tradition in Morocco”
Have you always been interested in fashion? If not, where did your amazing sense of style come from?
I always loved fashion; style and craftsmanship is a very big part of our culture. My mother was a terrific knitter and seamstress; she even taught other young women from our neighborhood how to sew. For religious celebrations or other special occasions like weddings and birth parties, women dress up in the most exquisite traditional dresses for which they handpick the fabrics themselves and are handmade by seamstresses. The love for beautiful clothes and quality garments comes from that artisan tradition in Morocco.
What do you think about as you are getting dressed for the day?
I don’t put too much thought into it now that I am at home. It’s a lot of comfortable clothes like colorful sweat suits or jeans with a hoodie that I can wear around the house or to go hiking, something I love to do a lot. But for events or shoots I like to make an effort and take out my special looks that make me feel extra beautiful.
How does being your age influence how you dress?
When I was younger I would wear very high heels and lots of suits; especially as a teacher, you want to look representable. Now that I am older I mostly want to be comfortable but I still appreciate good quality fabrics and cuts, just now I prefer sneakers over heels.
How does your Moroccan heritage influence your style?
I love lots of colors and have a matching hijab for every outfit. Growing up in Morocco you are surrounded by many colorful surroundings and it becomes part of you.
What do your friends think of you being on Instagram?
I always get very sweet messages or excited phone calls from them when they see an article in the newspaper or when we are on television. None of my friends are on social media but they do watch television and read traditional media. I am not on Instagram myself either. All of that internet stuff is too difficult for me; only WhatsApp is handy for communication with loved ones.
“I don’t follow trends, I just follow my own intuition”
What style advice would you give to other women your age?
Don’t be scared of colors and standing out. I never cared about the saying, dress/act your age; whoever said that must have been a very boring person. The most important thing is to find items that feel good on your skin and that you feel comfortable in, like your truest self. I don’t follow trends, I just follow my own intuition.
We love your daughter’s account that you are featured on, @meryemsfirst. What are some of the reactions you’ve gotten on social media about your content?
People are so nice and loving it really warms my heart. Especially when my daughter gets messages from old students or colleagues; it feels super special to be remembered this way. And when people recognize me on the street they are so kind and encouraging it makes me very proud that what we do has such a positive effect on others.
How has working with your daughter changed your relationship with each other?
We have always been together and doing this made us even closer. I am incredibly proud of the work she does. At my age I never expected to be doing this; she gave me a new life and I am thankful to be able to do this with her.
“Providing Arabic lessons and cycling lessons were just small things that I could do to give back to others”
After you immigrated to the Netherlands, it seems like you created a community for other immigrants through your Arabic lessons. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to find their community?
As a teacher I saw a lot of parents, especially mothers, struggling to find their way in Dutch society. That inspired me to help the parents of my students so that their children wouldn’t need to worry about things like taxes and doctors appointments and could focus on their education. Especially women from my generation had a tough time adjusting, and providing Arabic lessons and cycling lessons were just small things that I could do to give back to others. Now that I am retired and recovering from breast cancer, I don’t have the energy anymore to do all, coordinate activities, but I am still part of women groups and we go on weekly walks and pre-Corona we even took swimming lessons.
What’s next for you? Any exciting plans?
My daughter has her first solo exhibition at an art gallery (Hama Gallery in Amsterdam) that opens on November 26th and it will be the first time that people can buy pictures of me, which feels kind of surreal.
Check out Najate Leklye on Instagram.
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