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


October 20, 2008 Family Wedding, aka Bedtimus Interruptus

Tonight I went to my first family wedding. I’ve attended almost a dozen different weddings, and walked past many more, but they were always for people I didn’t know. Tonight, my cousin Fatima* got married. Fatima’s sister N* is one of my best friends in Berberville, so not only was I invited, but I got to spend lots of time behind the scenes.

…but I almost missed the whole thing.

See, N* wasn’t sure when the wedding would be. I’m still not clear as to why, but for some reason, the wedding date was uncertain. On Saturday morning, though, she told me that it would be on Thursday. Three days from now. So I didn’t anticipate any problems when I decided to go to bed early. (The power was out, as it had been for most of the day, so I didn’t see much point in staying up long after sunset, anyway.)

So sometime after dark, I’m nestled all snug in my bed, and I hear banging on my door. I’m half-asleep, and it occurs to me that I’ve had middle-of-the-night “visitors” before. They usually bang on my door, holler a few times, bang again, and then wander off to bother somebody else. I consider it the price I pay for living a block from the center of town, on one of the two main streets.

But then I check my watch. It’s only 6:15pm. These aren’t drunken carousers; it’s waaay too early for that. It must be somebody who knows me…?

So I get up, stumble over to my door, and pull it open. There’s a young man on a motorbike, looking concerned. With urgency in his voice, he says, “N* says you have to come now. Come on!”

I blink at him for a second.

He tries again. “The wedding. You have to come to Fatima’s wedding.”

Fatima’s wedding?”

He nods.

“Is now?”

He nods again, his whole upper body moving from the effort he’s putting into bobbing his head up and down.

“But N* said that it was Thursday.”

He looks at me, still stressed, but clearly not sure what to do with that piece of information. Or maybe he just couldn’t understand me. That happens a lot, and I’m never sure if it’s my accent, or if I’m saying something wrongly. “Are you coming?” he finally asks.

This entire interchange has taken something less than 30 seconds. I don’t know why the wedding date has moved up three days, but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I’m in PJs. PJs that cover me from neck to wrist to ankle, which is why I was willing to open the door in them, but I’m still not going out in public like this.

“Hang on a second.”

I close the door, then put on outside clothes, including wool socks and a fleece jacket. It’s chilly out. Not cold, but chilly. Probably 50ish.

When I re-emerge, he guns the motorbike.

Naturally, I explain that Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to ride motorbikes, motorcycles, or anything similar, and that I will therefore have to walk to the wedding (which is only about a kilometer away) instead of whizzing through the streets of Berberville while clinging to a stranger’s back.

But I do get there.

And am promptly grabbed by my sister A* and my cousin N*, who are dancing up a storm. They’re in gorgeous satiny caftans, hip belts, and jewelry. I’m in jeans and a polar fleece. But they don’t hesitate, so I don’t, and there we are in the middle of the circle of clapping and stamping wedding guests, shimmying and wiggling and boogying Morocco-style. (Or maybe it’s just Berber style. After I visit an Arab wedding, I’ll let you know if there’s a difference.)

There’s a halogen-bright bulb in the middle of the circle with us, as well as a floodlight perched up on the roof, which is why we can all see each other. The blinding light down with us is attached to a butagaz tank, but I can’t see how the floodlight is powered. Either the electricity has come back on or else my aunt’s family has solar cells on their roof. (That’s not unlikely. Electricity only came to Berberville last spring, so anybody who wanted power before that bought a solar panel.)

After our dance, Ama grabs me and drags me back into the house. She goes into a storeroom, where by the light of my LED flashlight she digs out a caftan for me to wear. It’s nowhere near as elaborate as the ones my cousins/sisters are gussied up in, but it’s vastly more appropriate than my lumpy fleece. Ama offers to put it on over the fleece, but I know I’ll stay warm from the dancing, plus I know that the caftan would look ludicrous over all the lumps of my oversized jacket. So I strip it off – emptying out the pockets first, since Ama is worried about theft, with so many people in and around the house – and pull the caftan over my head. It comes down to within a few inches of the floor, which is pretty remarkable, given that I’m about six inches taller than 90% of Moroccan women.

Properly attired, I head back out. I take a place in the clapping-and-stamping ring, leaving the center circle for the lovely unmarried ladies of my Bernerville family. It’s not too long before they pull me back in, though. :) And when they do, a little girl – can’t have been more than 10 – tugs on my caftan and points out that I’m not wearing a hip belt, and am therefore utterly unequipped to be in the middle of the circle. But she pulls off the one she’s wearing, ties it around my hips – which are about shoulder-level for her! – and sends me back into the fray. As I’m shimmying and swaying, it occurs to me that I have no idea who the little girl is, and am not sure I’d recognize her again to return the belt to her. I know she’s wearing a blue caftan, but so are lots of girls.

Fortunately, when I again leave the spotlight (literally) for the clap-stamp ring, she finds me, unties whatever complicated knots she’d used to keep it clamped onto me, and reappropriates it. :)

One more thing about dancing – there’s a Berber tradition that relates to hair-swinging to music. I don’t understand it at all, but I can describe it: towards the end of some songs, the musicians (five drummers and a guy playing an oboe-like instrument) suddenly switch to an almost drumroll-like tempo, the oboe-guy stops, and that’s the cue for two or three women to start flinging their hair around.

Remember, these women keep their hair tightly knotted up in complicated buns, under at least one and usually two layers of telkusht (head scarves), all the time. Even when they’re hanging out in groups of only women, just because there’s always a chance that some man might show up at the door. The only time I’ve seen the hair of Moroccan women, other than during momentary re-adjustments of the telkusht, is in the hammam…and during these wedding dances. It only happens a half-dozen or so times in the course of an entire Hey Deuce wedding-dance-party, but when it happens…

The girls (and they would call themselves girls, because they’re unmarried) were shimmying and dancing without telkusht on, but in the poor light and with their tightly knotted black buns, I actually hadn’t noticed. But when the music changes, they reach up, pull out the one bobby pin that magically holds all of their hair in place, and start flinging their heads around. It’s a bit like the head-banging of the 80s and early 90s, but more circular than just up-and-down. The buns quickly surrender to the force of the motion, and the hair first slips out into a twisted rope (the first step of bun-making is to twist up all the hair) and then separates into a mass of black hair. Since I’ve only ever seen them with their hair knotted, I’d never realized how much hair A* and N* have. N’s is longer, reaching to the backs of her thighs, but A’s is thicker, and still reaches below her waist.

I marvel for a minute at how they can force such a volume of hair into such a tidy knot every day, then take a step backwards to avoid getting whipped in the face by it. The hair is flying in enormous swings, and I gain a new appreciation for the amount of space the clap-stamp ring has left for the few dancers in the middle.

The hair-swinging goes on for probably a minute, and then the music winds down and there’s a short break between dances. A* quickly reties her hair and pins it back under control; N* leaves it swinging free for the moment.

About that time, I decide to see what’s happening inside.

The bride and groom are sitting in a large room that’s lavishly decorated. This well be the most expensive-looking room I’ve seen in Morocco. I don’t know if my aunt and uncle own all of this, or if it’s borrowed for the wedding – I’ve never been in this room before – but it’s clear that they’ve gone all-out for the wedding of their 18-year-old daughter.

I sit down with them and make conversation. That’s made more difficult by the fact that the groom doesn’t speak any Tamazight; the bride translates for us. N* comes in and joins us for a while. I ask her when Fatima met her groom. “She didn’t,” she answers in English. (N* just completed her baccalaureate – meaning that she graduated high school with honors – and was/is a fervent student of English.) I must have looked confused, because she added, “Never before.” In Tam, I ask, “They never saw each other before now?” N* smiles at my comprehension. Then she adds, in Tam, “He is a friend of my friend.” She uses the word “asmun” both times, which could just mean male friend, but can also mean boyfriend, so I don’t know if she’s saying that the groom is a buddy of her boyfriend or just that there’s one degree of separation between N* and the groom.

About this time, some other wedding guests – cousins I’ve never met before – come into the bride room. (Oh, I should mention that the bride and groom spend the entire wedding in this room. They don’t go out and dance, let alone help with any of the work; they just sit next to each other, under a gorgeously decorated cape and in front of the pile of presents they’ve received, for hours and hours.) I’m still trying to make awkward small talk. I ask how old the groom is. He’s 28. For the record, Fatima (the bride) is 18. I successfully mask my shock, but don’t say anything, so N* hastens to add that that’s normal. One of the cousins who just came in chimes in that he’s 30 and his wife is 20, and it’s great. They married five years ago, he adds. So when he was 25, he married a 15-year-old. I take a second to let that sink in. Then he mentions that the reason she's not at the wedding is that she's very pregnant with their third child.

I’m trying to digest this when the platters of food are brought in. Fortunately, I have months of practice dealing with Berber food, even if I still get thrown by some Berber cultural mores. So we eat the plate of tagine (chicken and stewed prunes) and then the couscous (lamb and carrot). After those of us in the bride room eat, the guests in the other rooms of the house are fed. I’m glad that I was told by about four different people to stay in the bride room, because otherwise I’d be wondering if I were doing something inappropriate by sitting at the Berber equivalent of an American wedding reception’s head table.

After the feasting, all the women crowd into the bride room. They paint henna on her feet (her hands are already gorgeously decorated with henna zuaq), then sing songs for a few hours. Somewhere in here, my long day caught up with me, and I began dozing off. After the third or fourth time Ama (who was sitting across from me) jolted me awake, she said that I should go home and sleep. I apologized to everyone in earshot, then headed out. I’d been at the wedding for something over six hours, and I’d both gotten there late and left early. I don’t know how long it went on, or exactly when it started, but clearly my Berber family knows how to throw a party. :)

* I’m not even kidding. Yes, Fatima is the most common girl’s name in Morocco, but I’m not faking it – that’s really the bride’s name.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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