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July 22, 2008 The Plate Incident

The scene: All the women of the household, from the 32-year-old Ama to the 5-year-old Little Sis, were baking cookies. At first I thought that this was just a fun activity, but eventually I learned that these will be served after the birth of Xalti’s baby (any day now!), when family and friends drop by with congratulations and baby presents.

We were baking pretty elaborate cookies (see Recipe #3), and at a high-tension moment, when Ama was pulling fried cookies out of the boiling oil, and Cuz was falling behind in coating them with powdered sugar, they realized that they needed another plate, to set the dangerously hot fried cookies onto.

Ama said, “Kawtar, get a TbSil.”

But I didn’t know what a TbSil was.

She was pointing in the right direction, but that’s where all the kitchenware is, so that wasn’t much help. Xalti echoed, “The TbSil, the TbSil!” Even my little cousin was saying, “Just get the TbSil, come on!” I finally dragged her over to the corner of the room with me and pointed at implements—a strainer? A bowl? A spoon?—until I finally touched a plate, which got her approval. I brought it back to the cooking women, long after they’d reached the point of utter frustration, saying quietly, in English, “I’m not stupid, I’m American.” This tipped the balance of Xalti’s frustration, and she screamed at me, “Speak Tamazight!!”

I understand why she’s frustrated – not only is she dealing with the stupid tarumit, she’s also preparing for the birth of her baby, which will be disruptive on many levels, not least of which she’ll have to leave our home and move in with her father. (She and her husband split up about a month ago, so she’s been living with us…but after the baby is born, it will no longer be culturally appropriate for Baba to be living with two sisters.) So she’ll be leaving our lovely home in the well-appointed village of Berberville and moving into BaHallu’s home, which has neither electricity nor running water, in a tiny village without a post office or hospital. Her ex-husband was been ordered by the court to pay a large sum of alimony and child support each month, but he’s refusing to, and since he’s a cash-paid day laborer, there are no garnish-able wages. So when she moves in with BaHallu, she’ll go out to find work, probably cooking or cleaning houses, the only socially acceptable sources of income for illiterate women, and leave the baby at home with my 8-year-old cousin, who will therefore have to quit school.

So I understand that she’s under stress.

And when she loses patience with me or her daughter, I remind myself that she’s going through a very difficult time right now.

But it was still a pretty hard moment.

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Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps