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1/13/09 A Mo-rockin' New Year

Yesterday afternoon, walking through town, I ran into Ama's next door neighbor. We exchanged the usual greetings and pleasantries, and then she asked me if I was headed over to Ama's house. "No," I answered, "I'm exhausted. Maybe I'll go over tomorrow, inshallah." She nodded understanding, and we parted ways.

When I got home, I discovered two things: one, Baba (my host father) had called my cell phone half an hour before. I hadn't noticed the call, probably because the phone was buried under eight layers of clothing. Two, my big buta tank had run empty, so I couldn't light up my heater. Sadness! I'd really been looking forward to curling up in front of it and having an early evening. (I hadn't been lying about the exhaustion.)

So I unhooked the big buta tank, schlepped it to the hanoot up the street, then lugged the replacement tank back to my apartment. I live very slightly downhill from the hanoot, and I'm always tempted to roll the tank home. It's super heavy, so it'd be vastly easier than carrying it, but it'd also make me look raaather ridiculous to all my neighbors and anyone on the street. So I always overcome the temptation, and just heft it home.

As I approached my front door, my phone began ringing. I went the last few steps, whoof-ed the tank down on my stoop, and pulled out the portabl (very intuitive word for a portable cell phone). It was my host father again. Two phone calls midafternoon = guaranteed dinner invite. Which means no early evening.

I flipped open the phone and said, "Salaam ualaikum!" I tried not to pant. "Eyy, salaam, Kawtar," Baba responded. Sure enough, he was inviting me to dinner. I felt exhaustion dripping from my bones and sinews as I asked what time I should climb the mountain to their house.

"I'll send over your auntie when we're ready," he answered.

"OK, see you then," I responded.

I went through the elaborate ritual of opening my door, grunted the tank up the stairs, and dropped it gracelessly in the living room. It was installed with as little fuss as possible - which still meant five minutes of banging at it with a knife and blunt object - and then I curled up in front of it, as hoped-for.

Five o'clock came and went. By six, twilight was gathering. Xalti would hate going out after dark, I knew, so I figured I'd just head over now, and save her the trip. I swung by the hanoot to get soda, the traditional (hah) hostess gift, and texted Baba to let him know I was en route. (I really didn't want to miss Xalti like ships in the night - or twilight, as the case may be. There are different paths you can take between my house and my host family's, and she and I have different preferences. I like to walk along the road, because it's paved and well-lit. She likes to walk the dirt path between the houses, because it protects her from the eyes of the men who sit at the cafes along the road.)

I got to the house right around six. The wood stove was churning away, so I quickly stripped off boots, hat, scarf, gloves, parka, and fleece. Fastforward through two hours of conversation...and it's dinner time!

What I hadn't realized before getting there was that Berberville was celebrating the New Year tonight, January 13th. I'm still not clear on why...

But ringing in the New Year BerberStyle is a pretty low key event. There was couscous (Ama’s normal couscous, lhumdullah, not corn couscous, aka ablabl, which sounds exactly like “a billable”, as in “I worked a billable hour for my richest client this afternoon, and will work another twelve billable hours before going to sleep”). The one thing they did to make today’s couscous special was this:

Three date pits, each looking like a black, inch-long torpedo, were hidden in various places around the edge of the platter. (Since all food is eaten off of a shared platter, from the outside in, this meant that all three were guaranteed to be found.)

When they were explaining this to me, and warning me not to swallow the date pit if I came across it, I told them that there’s a similar Christmas Eve and/or New Year’s Eve tradition in Norway; some Norwegian family friends back in the US have shared that with us. Whoever finds the almond hidden in the pudding wins a prize (usually chocolate) and gets to be King/Queen for the evening.

There were four adults and four children sharing the dish, and all three of the buried date pits were found by children. I wonder if Ama did that deliberately… When each date pit was found, the child got a round of applause, but there was no other reward or celebration.

Afterwards, Ama compared their evening with New Year’s Eve parties she imagined I was used to, full of candies and crowds, and said that the Moroccan celebration was ixxa. That word usually translates as bad but really means about 75 different things, from ugly to poor to mean. I challenged her on it, saying that their party was “mashi ixxa, ghas imzi”. Not bad (or ugly or mean), just small. Everyone laughed, and Xalti repeated the phrase “just small” a couple of times, for her own amusement. :)

Then came tangerines, which were delicious, and then Ama packed me home for my 9pm curfew. I walked back through a moonless, star-studded night, grateful both for the radiant stars and for my LED flashlight. It was cold enough to make my eyes water, but the air had a crystalline quality that reminded me why winter has always been my favorite season.

Happy New Year!

UPDATE 1/15: I've solved the mystery of the New Year's celebration on a date that was neither the Muslim New Year (that was 12/29) nor the calendar New Year (1/1/09). Yesterday was the BERBER NEW YEAR, so the night of the 13th was Berber New Year's Eve. By the Berber calendar, we rang in year 2959! :D

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