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December 9, 2008 Dressing Moroccan-Style

Last night, I slept at my host family’s house. For the first time in the six months I’ve lived in Berberville, I slept with the family. Before, during my three-month homestay and then when I spent the night a few times later, I always slept in my Western-style bedroom, in my Western-style bed. But last night, I slept on a pad on the floor, just like they always do. I’d been wanting to do it anyway, plus I had an iron-clad excuse: I had henna’d feet. Ama was wary – she wasn’t sure I understood what I was getting in to – but she after she’d offered several disclaimers, she went ahead with it. (“You won’t be able to walk into your bedroom.” “I know, I’ll just sleep in here with the kids.” “You won’t be able to go to the bathroom.” “I went earlier.” “You’ll be stuck in here all night.” “Yeah, no problem.” “Oookay…”)

First, Ama painted my palms, fingernails, and the dots of my knuckles with henna, then wrapped my hands in cloth and plastic. This much she has done before. (Altogether, this makes the fourth time I’ve been henna’d. My last weekend in my CBT village, the night before my trip, the night before 3id al-Fdor, and now the night before 3id al-Adha.) But I’ve never had my feet henna’d before. It’s pretty much the same process: she slathered the greenish paste over the soles of my feet, up my ridiculously high instep, up behind my ankles, over my toes, and then wrapped each foot up in cloth and tied it off in a mikka (plastic) bag. And she knew what she was talking about: once you have henna on your feet, you can’t walk anywhere. At all. I rolled off the mat I’d been sitting on, because Ama was rearranging the room for sleep, then rolled back onto it. I hitched myself into position with my elbows, and then Ama laid two blankets over me.

And this was only the first step in dressing Moroccan-style for the 3id. I’ve known for months that I was going to wear a jellaba – tjlabit – for the 3id, ever since my chic cousin caught sight of the jellabas I had hanging in my room and told me how fortunate it was that I was prepared for the holiday. (Don’t know what a jellaba is? Yes, you do. Jellabas were the inspiration for the cloaks worn by the Jedi knights in the original Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas shot all the desert sequences in Algeria, and thought that the outfits he saw on everyone would be the perfect look for his Jedi warriors. In case it’s been too long since you watched Star Wars: they’re ankle-length or floor-length cloaks with wide sleeves and long hoods. Men’s jellabas are cut straight from the shoulder down to the floor in an uninterrupted stretch of fabric; women’s are usually fitted closely down to the waist, and then fall to the floor.)

The problem: I bought the jellabas in our PST city, which is down near the Sahara. They aren’t winter-weight by any stretch of the imagination. Plus, they’re meant to be outer garments, with nothing more than a shawl over them. And did I mention that there’s still snow on the ground from last week’s snowfall? So I’d need to have enough layers under the jellaba to insulate myself…but they’re fitted garments. In fact, they’re the first (and only) garments I’ve ever had professionally tailored for me. Strike that – the dress I wore as a bridesmaid was the first. But these were as fitted as the bridesmaid gown, which didn’t leave a lot of room for layering. My ace in the hole: I’ve lost a ton of weight since coming to Morocco, and I got fitted for the jellabas only about a month in, before the inches started falling off.

I prepared as thoroughly as any Boy Scout. When packing for my overnight, I brought a full change of clothes – you’re supposed to wear new clothes for the 3id, much like many Christians do for Easter – plus I’d really thought through how I was going to stay warm without ruining the look. (I wear a turtleneck almost every day, but having a collar poke up from the gracefully hanging hood of the jellaba would ruin the effect.) I ended up wearing two V-neck long underwear shirts I’d inherited from a previous PCV, plus a third, scoop-necked, shirt that Mom sent me over the summer, plus a zip-neck thermal shirt that my sister gave me when I joined Peace Corps. That covered the top half. I wore my snuggest-fitting pair of long johns, a gift from my aunt, and then three skirts that Mom had sent me. One was even lined, making a total of four skirts. Throw on wool socks, hiking boots to deal with the thick mud everywhere, and top it off with the lovely tjlabit. This left my head bare, though. I’ve been wearing a stocking cap everywhere for the past month or so, and a fur hat when I sleep, but neither would work with a jellaba. I bit the bullet and brought along the shesh (pashmina) my aunt brought me from Kazakhstan. I’d wrap my head up Moroccan-style.

Back to this morning: After I scraped the dried henna off my hands, I retreated into my Western-style bedroom to get dressed. Several minutes later, when I hadn’t returned, Ama came looking for me. I’d managed to strip off all the layers I’d been wearing the day before, replace them with all my clean, new layers, and even brush my hair.

Ama saw me in the skirt, and smiled. “You look Moroccan!” she exclaimed. I grinned. “Watch this!” I told her. I pulled on the jellaba, and she was overjoyed. Then I asked her to tie the headscarf on for me – there’s a real art form to it, which I wouldn’t attempt without a mirror – and just made her day.

So…did it work? Did I stay warm in my snowy mountain village without any turtlenecks, polar fleece, or parkas? With the help of a blue sky and shining sun, plus wood-burning stoves in every house we visited…yes! Total success. Plus, everyone *loved* the jellaba. :D

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