Sunday, October 12, 2008

Women Dance Without Men

I got my answer to that question sooner than I thought: last night. I went to a sort-of-wedding with Khadija, Fatima, Alma and Manal, and was lent a caftan to wear. It was a sort-of-wedding because apparently the bride and groom had already gotten married last year, but had been living at home with her parents. Now that they had finally found a place of their own, this was a little do-over sendoff party.

Probably because I don’t understand everything that is being said around me, I usually don’t find out about plans to do anything until the moment people start getting ready to go out and ask me if I want to come. This makes everything feel very last-minute, when really it probably isn’t. Yesterday morning all three sisters went to the hair salon – a tiny little hole in the wall where a woman with a hair dryer, curlers, and some tweezers gives clients modest makeovers. I think you can come in to have your hair washed and colored as well, but I think the idea is that you then bring your own shampoo and dye – I didn’t see any hair products of any kind anywhere (and in the same way, I didn’t see any fabric at Manal’s shop anywhere. I think this is generally the way it goes in Morocco: you hire someone to do/make/fix something, but you supply the materials).

In any case, all three sisters had their hair blown out, and back home started putting on lots of makeup. I had just begun wondering if there was a special occasion for all this beautification when they asked me: do you want to come along to a little party? Of course, I said, what should I wear? This question then triggered a general gathering of items for me. First they brought out a caftan belt to see if it fit. It did, so they brought out the caftan and sent me upstairs to try it on. It was incredibly long – about a foot of it trailed behind me on the floor – but apparently that is the way it is supposed to be. Then they brought me some black pointy shoes (as I noticed at the ‘party’, Moroccans love heels with pointy toes. I am home), a black fake-Fendi, some jewelry, and told me to put on some makeup. A little embarrassed, I told them I had already put some on. Because I always find out about plans so last-minute, getting ready for me is always a scramble to gather all my stuff while everyone is already ready to go. So when they sent me upstairs, I immediately put my stuff in a bag, did my hair, and put on makeup. The thing is that I didn’t put on much more than I do on a daily basis. A little extra color maybe, and an extra layer of mascara, but that was it. And I guess this is nothing compared to the layers the three sisters piled on for this party...* In any case, here is the result:

I gathered a change of clothes in a bag like they had, and off we went. Fatima’s husband drove us, but clearly was not staying: he was in a tracksuit, quite the contrast from our colorful caftans. And indeed, once we got there, it was all women. I saw some boys/men around the perimeters of the party – in the backyard, out front, in the kitchen – but not in the living room. There, it was a sea of caftans, in all different colors and styles. About half of the women wore a headscarf, the other half had clearly had their hair curled and styled like the three sisters had. Soon after our arrival, the fact that some women began to sing a Moroccan song of celebration (I do not know what this is called but they sing it at occasions like this) announced the arrival of the bride, who indeed at that moment came down the stairs and made her entrance. She was wearing a green caftan covered with a layer of gold lace. Her makeup was elaborate, featuring lots of black around her eyes and some tiny diamonds on her temples, and every strand of her hair was glued into place, topped off with a tiara. Two women in white followed her around everywhere and kept re-adjusting her dress. She was clearly on display. She walked into the center of the living room and stood there, still, arms held out a little, while both a photo- and video camera captured her there. Finally, she sat down, with the help of the two ladies in waiting, who draped her dress around her. The camera, meanwhile, turned around and filmed all of us in the room, capturing each face for at least half a minute on end. I wasn’t sure where to look.

Then came the service. It began, again, with glasses of milk and some dates. Then, platter after platter of cookies and sweets were brought out and offered to us. And again, we were urged to pile as many as we could onto the plates we were given. Then came tea, and then came coffee. Meanwhile, the bride just sat there. Not eating, not drinking, not talking. She was a display. The guests, on the other hand, danced. Sometimes just one or two women, sometimes all of us. The DJ (a 20-ish looking young man sitting behind a huge sound installation in the backyard, shielded from the rain by a parasol) played cha’abi music – literally Moroccan ‘popular’ music. It’s hard to sit still when this plays; this music is all about rhythm and beats, and the very prominent drums make everyone at least bob their heads, though usually more.** The dancing is easy, but feels liberating – a lot of hip movement, arms in the air, shoulder shimmies. Everyone knows the songs and sings along. It is incredibly fun, relaxed but energizing – and I keep wondering, do the men get anything like this? Do they get to dress up, look beautiful, and let go like this?

It was strange to me, to be at a wedding, but have it feel like a girls’ night out. The whole thing had that comfortable atmosphere of women who are having fun, let go, and feel un-self-consciously beautiful because there are no men to watch them – no men whose opinion to worry about. Still, it also wasn’t that completely informal at-home atmosphere of the Moroccan women’s world. Those who veiled wore their headscarves, and men weren’t banned – they walked in and out occasionally, usually because something was needed. It was formal – but it didn’t feel formal.

At some point during all this I asked Fatima, where are all the men? Oh, she said, they come later on. At 8 ‘o clock, she told me, the groom would come to pick up his wife to take her to their new home. That’s when the men would arrive. Since this was only a sort-of-wedding, I wonder if actual weddings are as segregated as this. Or do men simply not have such huge parties? In that case, it seems to me like women have all the fun…

After about 30 minutes of display, the bride was escorted out again, and after yet another hour or so, came back to do it all over again in a new caftan, this time blue. Once again, she came in, stood still with arms out, was assisted in sitting down, and proceeded to sit there without food, drink, or conversation. She was all smiles though. What must this be like for a bride? To me it seems like the bride is very peripheral to an event that should be all about her. She is nominally the center of attention but in fact, the party goes on without her. She is a picture, not a presence. Are weddings in Morocco ultimately more about the family giving the daughter away, than about the daughter herself? This would match tradition, I think, in which the bride was mostly a commodity being transferred over to another owner. Western wedding ceremonies still include some rituals that are based on the same idea. But it is not like that anymore, no more so in Morocco than it is in the United States or Europe. Women make their own choices now, are equal partners in a marriage. But still, a wedding like this is not the bride’s party.

Neither is it the groom’s. Soon after the bride had gone and returned, in yet another caftan (this time white), he arrived, along with a procession of musicians dressed in red caftans and yellow shoes. They carried a variety of drums and simply sang, riling up the crowd with fast rhythms. They took their place in the living room and the crowd sang and danced along enthusiastically. Once in a while, an audience member would come out with a bank note of 20, 50, sometimes 100 dirhams, and stuff it in one of the musicians’ collars. The groom, meanwhile, had taken his place beside his wife, and now sat there, as much on display as she was. They did not look at each other or talk to each other – they did not even hold hands.

After the musicians left, out came the wedding cake. Here, apparently, Moroccans do things like Americans do them. The cake was placed in front of the newlyweds, they were given a knife, and each with one hand on that knife, they cut the first slice. Then, with cameras snapping, she fed him a bite, he fed her, and they fed each other. After which, of course, more slices were served to us. I was beyond full from all those cookies, but there was no way I could say no, so I worked my way through this cake as well. Like most Moroccan cookies, there were clearly a lot of almonds and walnuts worked into it. Delicious, but it was too much.

Around 9.30 PM, it was time for the bride and groom to head out. In their first real action of the night, they walked around the living room with a basket of plastic flowers, handing one to every guest. After that, they were out the door. A car, duly decorated with flowers and ribbons, drove them off, and that was that.

Or so I thought. Most of the guests left, and we all changed back into our every day clothes (as in: PJs). The living room was cleaned up completely, dishes were done in the kitchen, and just as I thought we would probably head out soon now that there was nothing left to do – it was about 11.30 PM, a huge platter of couscous (‘sksou’. This is pronounced something like ‘suck-soo’) was brought out. It was Rabat-style: with chicken, onions, and raisins. A variety I love, but it was TOO much. I ate what I could, and luckily there were others like me who clearly had full stomachs already, so I didn’t stand out too much.

And that was that. We drove home not long after, and I was in bed by 1.30. All in all, it was fabulous. Wearing a caftan, dancing, eating delicious cookies (even if there were too many), and all that while doing some serious participant-observation (with pictures to prove it): a pretty good night…

* Maybe this is a way to make up for the fact that they never have a chance to dress up on a daily basis. Manal will go out at least once a day in actual street clothes and her hair kind of done, but Alma and her mother never do. I think that if I spent all day in PJs, I would crave opportunities to dress up, do my hair and makeup. But maybe I’m just used to a different system.

** In fact, a lot of it is only drums with singers. I think this is its African origins shining through.

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