Monday, November 17, 2008

A Sunday Interlude

Yesterday afternoon, the host family and I went on an outing to a park of sorts. Manal had identified it as “la forêt” beforehand, and what it was, basically, was a green area by the side of a busy road heading east away from Salé. There were trees, indeed – trees that had lost all but a few dried up leaves – and some open spaces in between. It looked like it had once been lushly grassy, but was now more of an old carpet whose green had been worn away in places by heavy traffic. And indeed, everywhere, there were parked cars, and other people who had decided to spend their Sunday in the outdoors. They stood around, leaned on their cars, or sat on the tablecloths they had brought. They were eating lunch from plastic containers, drinking tea, taking their afternoon nap. Some had brought entire mattresses with them, others a whole stove, and made their tea from scratch. A few had even brought tents, and had constructed for themselves a little home-away-from home out there in the green.

Other than two cars, we had brought only a thermos full of hot, black, delicious coffee. We stood around, people watching and chatting, as we drank. Manal and Alma always on opposite sides of the group, both chatting along pleasantly, but conspicuously ignoring one another. Manal, as always, was chatting busily and loudly, either laughing excitedly at things she saw, or denouncing it as ‘hshouma’, shameful. She tends to touch people, pull or prod them, or otherwise make sure that they’ve heard what she’s said.* And as always, Alma was close to Fatima, with whom she seems to share an almost physical bond. Theirs is not necessarily an intense verbal relationship; they don’t talk to one another any more than to anyone else. But they share something that others are not privy to, it seems. Something wholly implicit. Something that means they are not constantly in conversation (because they don’t need to be), but means, for instance, that they sleep on the same sofa section, head to feet, under a single blanket. Their relationship is the exact opposite of that between Alma and Manal. It makes me wonder how the three of them relate to the fourth sister, who lives in Marrakech. What happens to the dynamic when the triangle becomes a square?

Amma and Khadija, the last two of the group, floated in between these three sisters, chatting with each. Khadija is always the automatic epicenter of everything, even if she is not the loudest; she is simply the force of gravity that keeps all others close. And Amma is always there in orbit, joining in the conversation occasionally, but mostly lost in her music, fed to her through the earphones that are always in her ears.

Yunus and Mustafa, meanwhile, had run off with a group of other young boys whose families were also here for the afternoon. They had each brought props: Yunus a soccer ball, Mustafa a deck of cards. Clearly these were great ice-breakers. Later, as I strolled around with the women, I saw them at a distance, both making good use of their items: Mustafa was involved in a game of cards with three others of his age, Yunus wholly immersed in a game of soccer. Si Mahmoud had also retreated: he spent the afternoon in the front seat of his car, the window rolled down, smoking a cigarette while doing the Sudoku puzzles in l’Opinion. Much like he does every weekend, in the kitchen or at the coffee house.

There was music: about 25 meters away from our cars we saw a small crowd surrounding a group of jellaba’d musicians. About 10 men with drums stood there, singing and swaying to their own beat, while a few of them broke into dance: a kind of rhythmic thumping of their feet on the ground, and a lot of shoulder shimmying. It made me laugh to see these old, grey men shake their chest like that; it reminded me of belly dancing. We joined the crowd, and just as I realized I had forgotten my camera, Fatima and Alma asked me simultaneously to take some pictures. I have become the official family photographer, it seems** – and taking pictures was clearly what everyone else was doing. Everywhere in the crowd I noticed hands holding up cell phones, recording the performance. A grey man in white jellaba, the star dancer of the group, made sure to give each photographer a good shot; he would pause in front of each held-up phone and give them an extra-long shoulder shimmy, staring straight into the lens. Manal, who had brought her own camera, actually broke straight through the crowd and took place right in front of the group to get the perfect shot. The grey man gave her an extra-special performance.

Having seen enough of the music, Amma, Alma and I took a turn on the child-size motorcycles and ‘quads’ (they look sort of like tractors, motorcycles with four wheels) that a group of young men had for rent: 4 dirhams for a small tour down the main road leading into the park. We climbed onto one of them, together. Amma insistently assured the proprietor that she knew how to drive this machine, but he clearly did not trust her and hung on to the side of the vehicle for our entire tour, not allowing her sole command over its gas pedal and brakes.

Other than that, it was a place for strolling around through the trees. We walked, splitting off into small groups, chatting quietly – Manal and Alma as far away from one another as they could get. Each person I walked next to would remark to me on the beauty of the place – but it was such a shame that it wasn’t kept cleaner. Indeed, there was trash everywhere. Old plastic bottles, yogurt containers, dirty diapers. Bits of plastic bags clinging to the bushes and plants. Even some worn and abandoned clothes here and there. Yes, I said. It’s a shame. I guess it’s difficult to convince people to take their trash with them. Then they asked me, is it the same in the United States?

This is a question I get often, any time my host family becomes aware that something is an ‘experience’ for me: when I make note of something, comment on something, or when they themselves decide something is interesting for me to see. Do Americans eat meals like I am served here? Do Americans go out like this on Sundays like this? Do Americans have anything like the soap we use for the hammam? Do Americans have grand taxis? Are Americans also worried about high electricity bills?

I am never sure how to answer. In part because I always have a hard time answering a question with a simple yes or no – and anything but that takes a while to think about in Arabic. Yes, I always want to say, Americans do something like this, but it’s a little different, because… I am also never sure how to answer because I wonder, what exactly are they interested in? They know I am a Dutch person who lives in the United States. So when they ask me this, are they truly interested in the United States (and if so, why don’t they also ask me about Holland?), or are they simply interested in ‘the West’ in general? And finally, I don’t know what to answer because I am not sure what answer they are looking for. Do they want me to affirm their difference, and perhaps some kind of superiority? Or are they interested in learning about differences and other lifestyles? On my part, I want to give them an honest answer, give a true impression of the United States. But I also want to affirm our similarities, to emphasize those habits, viewpoints, and customs that the United States may have in common with Morocco. To give some kind of sense that there is a certain kind of kinship, grounds for affinity, even. To give my host family the sense that they could understand something about the United States, maybe.

But most likely, I am just over analyzing these questions. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is probably fine, and most likely all that these people are looking for… over-analysis can be exhausting, sometimes.

* She is someone, I think, who is often in need of recognition. She often emphasizes the part she had in organizing something, and always makes sure I know when it was her who cooked something, and how much work it was. She is someone who, perhaps, may have been a little unrecognized, as middle child in a house full of other siblings? Alma is loud as well, but less consciously so. She does not directly ask for attention; she gets it much more automatically than Manal does.
** Whenever we go somewhere, I am usually asked to bring my camera, because they have decided mine is nicer than theirs.

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