Sunday, October 19, 2008

Weekend in Sale

As it turned out, I have spent the entire weekend in Salé at Fatima’s house. I had a feeling this would be the case when I realized what a voyage Zakaria and I were making to even get there, but I had not prepared: as always, because of the language barrier, I was not privy to the planning of this stay, and was only told to come to Salé to do laundry. I feel a little stuck here, having left a lot of daily essentials (such as my phone charger, dictionary, sunscreen…) in Rabat. I also didn’t get to do as much work as I would have liked. I couldn’t go back to the NIMAR on Friday as I had planned; also, Mustafa is excited about my being here and so has kept me busy taking pictures with him (he has discovered the special effects-camera on Alma’s phone), singing songs,* and discussing favorite movies and cartoons (we have established that we both love superheroes. Though I am partial to Superman, and he is more of a ‘Phil of the Future’ lover). But I’m looking on the bright side; spending a weekend here has its advantages. For one, I get to take a shower everyday. Secondly, with little work to do I have been forced to relax a little, which has actually been nice. And another perk: Yunus and I have exchanged music. I copied some of my American rap onto his flash drive full of mp3’s, and he in turn gave me a substantial collection of Moroccan rap (Fnaire, H-Kayne, Casa Crew, and some others) – about which I am seriously excited.

Fatima and Alma took me to another party tonight – another celebration for someone’s return from Mecca – and again a dress-up party of sorts ensued. They gave me a dark red caftan this time – a modern style, sleeveless, that came with a shawl. Again, I was given shoes, a purse, jewelry – and because I really had nothing with me here in Salé, even the makeup I wore was theirs. They kept urging me to take pictures, “to show your family,” they said. When we got home, they even urged me to try on their caftans and take pictures with those as well. I held off a little, wondering if my praise for Moroccan dress – meant mostly as a compliment to them – had caused them to think I was a little infatuated with dressing up, and worrying that maybe they thought my interest a little bizarre. But they kept insisting, and did eventually get me dressed up in a jellaba and Moroccan slippers.

I am starting to think that this urging to take pictures, as much as they tell me it’s to show my family, is as much about them as it is about me. They take great care in dressing me up, positioning me just so for a picture – it’s a little too much initiative for something they’re only doing for me. And they ask me to take the same kinds of pictures of them – at the wedding last week, at least. I have whole photo series of Manal perched on a set of stairs, smiling and showing off her caftan. Also, I find myself being asked to show the pictures that have been taken with my camera to everyone who comes by the house – and tonight at the party, Fatima even had si Mahmoud bring over my computer to show all the other women in attendance (I had my camera with me and still had all pictures on there, but she decided we had to show them on a larger screen). As we all sat with our sticky tea and sweets, Fatima passed around my computer and camera so everyone could see the photographs I took of us all at the wedding – and showed them pictures of my family, as well. It made me a little nervous. I am protective of my electronics (especially when they are new, as is my camera) and silently freak out a little when I see sticky fingers brushing across the lens or screen. It is not really possible to be too protective of your things in Morocco – even when something clearly is the property of a particular person, everything is free to be used and played with by everyone else. In my host family, cell phones are the only real personal property, yet they are freely used by everyone else; as I have mentioned, Mustafa has been playing around with Alma’s phone all weekend. Ever since the others discovered that my phone has a Sudoku game on it, and ever since I have brought my computer down to the sitting room to show them pictures of my family, my electronics have become public property of sorts, as well.** I have been ok with this because this is the way it works here, but sometimes it kind of reaches a limit. I was glad when I was allowed to put my computer away again.

As had been the case for the wedding last week, si Mahmoud drove us to the party and left. And again, all guests were women. But there were men there all night: two hired servants, who brought us water from Mecca, dates, trays and trays of sweets, tea, coffee, and huge platters of beef and chicken. It was an interesting dynamic, and I began to wonder if there is a rule of some sorts that dictates when company is mixed, and when it is not. This was clearly a women’s gathering, but it was not ‘private’ – male presence was clearly not an issue, headscarves were not taken off; there simply were no male guests. So I asked Alma why there were no men. “This isn’t a wedding,” she told me, “it’s not really that kind of party. It’s just because that woman came back from Mecca.” This didn’t satisfy me – did she mean this was a smaller event? That it was less of a real, official ‘party’ and that smaller events were usually gender-specific?*** So I asked her, “If there were a comparable party at your house, would si Mahmoud and Zakaria not be there?” Because these two men are so much part of the family that I cannot imagine there being any kind of party or event without them, small or large. Alma laughed at the concreteness of my question, and told me that no, they would be there, they’re part of the family. It depends, she added – something that was later repeated by Fatima after Alma told her about my question.

My conclusion for now, then, is that there are no hard and fast rules. That “it depends” – on the family in question, on the type of party, and on any other circumstances specific to the event and the people involved. I also conclude that the gender-specificness of these events is not an issue of privacy or intimacy – or even of piety. Every party I’ve been to here – large or small – has been female-only, but never strictly. Men have never been completely absent. They are never barred, and walk in and out occasionally, but the events are always clearly a women’s affair. What is it, then? Just a custom, just the way people are used to doing things because they have always done it that way?

It’s still strange, though. Seriously: do men not do this kind of thing? Do they gather only in public, at café’s and coffee shops? And are there ever parties or events that are mixed in the way that they would be in the US and Europe?

* I have taught Mustafa a Dutch children’s song – ‘altijd is Kortjakje ziek.’ The melody follows that of the universal ABC-song, so that he picked up immediately. The Dutch, obviously, was more difficult to follow. So he has made up his own Dutch-sounding words, and now sings this all day (with a lot of gargling), while urging me constantly to sing the original for everyone else in the family.
** Though luckily, it will not go so far that they don’t ask me before grabbing my phone or camera, and luckily, they don’t know how to work an Apple computer.
*** Also, her answer confused me because last week at the wedding we went to, I didn’t see any men either. So what did she mean, this isn’t like at a wedding? I guess it means two things – one, of course the thing we went to last week was only a sort-of-wedding. Not the huge celebration weddings can be here. And second, it must mean that according to her standards, the subdued male presence toward the end of the wedding made the night count as a mixed-gender event.

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