Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Birth Celebration

It's usually the celebrations and sacred events that I wish I could photograph or video to share with you all back home because I want you to experience the feast of colors and sounds that make Morocco beautiful, but these are also the occasions when it is absolutely inappropriate to take pictures. So I'll try to give you a verbal description of the birth celebration I attended yesterday.

Imagine: outside it is windy. The color of the mud houses is washed out against a dusty sky. You step through the doorway and inside the dirt courtyard are laid out the best rugs in every color and pattern imaginable - flowers, geometric squares, lines, leaves, triangles. Laughing and talking on them are seated over 30 women in their best clothes, looking like a pile of bustling jewels in a secret cave. Fushia, emerald, black, saffron, ruby, lavender jellabahs. Silver belts, gold rings, sequined scarves. Coin earrings peek out from under fringed red and yellow head scarves. Turquise eyeliner pops out around peircing sea-green eyes. White smiles shine. With no men here, the women are freely talking, yelling, teasing one another.

I have already been doused in ginseng scent, and another woman comes around with a cheap cologne and sprays it about half an inch from me 5 times, and proceeds to do the same to every woman there. The smell is heady and sharp. Next comes the incense burning in a small urn. We lift our skirts to allow the ashy exotic smoke to fill our clothing. Next we take a pinch of a yellow powder and rub it on our necks and chest, reminding me faintly of spices and potpourri.

Then the music starts. It is both spontaneous and rehearsed. Five women take out drums and start five rythms, but eventually I can hear more than that. Everyone around claps different rhythms to create a more complex whole. The chanting begins. The songs are already known, but it is a new experience every time - never the same women, never the same number of drums, but somehow everyone knows innately how to play her part, as though the music is part of a deeper group consciousness. One of the younger women in a sky blue jellabah and a wide smile takes a red scarf and ties it around her hips and begins to move to the music. Several other girls join her bellydancing. This would never happen except in the presence of other women, as the tantalizing way the women are able to shake their hips would be "hshuma" to show a man. Their hips move seemingly of their own accord, dictated by the sound of the drums alone.

Several women set to the business of making tea for every person there. I am handed a tiny glass of the incredibly sweet sugar-mint-Chinese green tea concoction. Another hands out handfuls of peanuts, small crackers, and a cookie. Meanwhile, children, who had been away from the watchful eye of their mothers, and are rolling in the dirt in an attempt to dirty their finest clothes, come running back to the promise of a sugar high.

The women around me are thoroughly entertained by my botched attempts at speaking Tashlheet and are now offering me a husband in Tafetchna. One woman says she'll make the tea for my wedding. I explain that I don't want to get married, and when I hear the inevitable "why not?", and I have no adequate answer, I start to pretend I don't understand what they are asking. Eventually they get bored of this game and set about conspiring to untie the belt of another seated woman's jellabah. She catches on to this plan and without turning around yells "I know what you're doing!", eliciting a chorus of cackling from the conspirators.

Then the food comes. Women walk in carrying low tables on which are two large round bread loaves and a bowl of douaz - a traditional dish of meat and vegetables steamed with oil in a pressure cooker until so tender they fall apart. Everyone scoops up the douaz with bread. I content myself with nibbling on plain bread since I don't eat the meat. My host aunt explains this to a round of "the poor thing!" and I have extra bread pushed my way. Every drop of the douaz is devoured, and women and children pick up the tables and carry them off.

As soon as the food is gone, the women get up to leave. No extra attention or gifts to the mother or newborn is expected, but my aunt and I go to see the week-old baby. The mother holds up the baby and asks if I'd like to hold little Mohammed. I take him gingerly and he sleepily opens his big, black eyes, moves his tiny fingers a little, and looks around in a newborn daze, without making a sound. He is healthy and beautiful and the mother is well - no small thing in this village with no doctor, hospital or pre-natal care, and certainly cause for celebration.

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