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7/8/9 Baby Party

My new baby brother met the world Sunday night, July 5th. I spent all day Monday with Ama and the baby, greeting the dozens (hundreds?) of women who came pouring in to offer their congratulations.

A few cultural notes: it’s traditional to bring a cone of hardened sugar, almost the size of a traffic cone, to any major life event, whether birth, funeral, marriage, etc. I’m sure there’s a cultural/historical significance that I don’t understand yet, but the practical reason is that the home you’re visiting is serving *pots* of tea – tea by the gallon – which means that your hostess is burning through sugar like there’s no tomorrow. It takes about a cup of sugar to make a small pot of tea, so a big pot that can pour 20 glasses probably takes most of a cone.

It’s also traditional to bring money. Every woman who came to wish Mbruk! (Congratulations and blessings) then handed Ama a few coins, or a lot of coins, or even folding money if they can afford it. Berberville still doesn’t have much of a cash-based economy, for the most part (with hotel owners, cafĂ© owners, and tour guides being the obvious exceptions), so this represents more generosity than may immediately appear.

Also, on that first day of the mother’s lying-in, it’s traditional to eat aHrir (the bastard offspring of mac&cheese and grits) by the gallon. Every woman who comes eats a bowl of it, and then everyone shares huge plates of aHrir at lunchtime and teatime. I asked why, trying to get at the cultural significance of it. “Because of the baby,” my friend patiently explained.

“Yes,” I said, fighting down the irritation at being thought an idiot yet again, “I know, but why? Why does having a baby mean everyone eats aHrir?”

“Because everyone has aHrir after a baby is born,” she answered calmly.

I decided that I’d never get at the driving cause, and let it go.

Ama spent some time that afternoon making up a list of all the women who should come to the big party celebrating the birth of the baby. She ended up with a list of 85 names of friends and relatives, and expected that they’d bring friends sisters or daughters, so anticipated feeding between 150 and 200 women and girls. She then sent out emissaries to invite all these women to a party “maybe Wednesday or Thursday”.

So that was Monday.

Tuesday, I had other things to attend to, and then today (Wednesday), my sister and I headed back to Ama’s house to see how everybody was doing. We got there around 11:45. [[For purposes of today’s blog, all times are in Old Time, since that’s the time Berberville uses.]] She said, “The party will be at 1.” At first I misunderstood, and thought she’d said, “The party will be on Sunday.” (The words sound similar.) I nodded but didn’t react much. She said, “Do you want to invite Fatima? Go ahead and call her.” Recognizing an unusual level of urgency in my usually chill host mother, I thought back over her words and realized my mistake.

“The party is today? At one o’clock?” I asked for clarification.

“Yeah, so call your friend. Or send her a text message. Whatever.”

I had to admit that I’d forgotten my phone at home, so she sent me out to deliver the news in person. “Tell her that lunch will be at 12:00 and the party at 1:00. You know ‘party’? Food, dancing, lots of women…?”

“Yes, I know what a ‘party’ is,” I reassured her. “Should we wear Moroccan clothes?”

“If you want,” she said in a tone of voice that said, “Yeah, that’d be awesome.”

So I swung by Fatima’s house to drop off the news, then returned home to dress up myself and my sister Berber-style. I own two jellabas (also called tejlabbits), both hand-tailored for me in our training city last summer. I’ve never had a tailor construct a garment for me before; it was a pretty cool experience. But jellabas are relatively untailored sorts of garments – think monk’s habit or graduation gown, and you have a pretty good idea of the style – so I hoped that one would fit her. And sure enough, a garment designed for my size-8 self fit her size-16 self just fine, lhumdullah. Maybe tailoring here isn’t as tricky as it looks. ;)

I added a scarf, then remembered how much harder it is to wrap a headscarf than the deft hands of my friends make it look. I fussed with it for a while, then surrendered and rearranged the scarf in to my favorite triple-wrap and substituted a necklace and earrings featuring the Berber representation of the sun (a tight silver-and-black spiral). [A couple hours later, my neighbor Rebha fixed the scarf for me, to my great delight.]

We picked up cones of sugar and swung by Fatima’s to get her, and headed up to the party.

There was feasting – couscous with chicken, chick peas, sultana raisins, and caramelized onions, followed by mutton and prune stew that’s way tastier than it sounds – and then dancing. Much dancing. Imagine a room the size of a large classroom or small conference room, with women lining the sides and covering the floor, sitting and clapping. An open space maybe 10 feet across is occupied by 1-5 girls and women at a time, shimmying and sashaying and generally getting their groove on. (My sister said, “See, sissy?? There IS bellydancing here!” It’s not the same as the Egyptian/Fusion style I learned in the US, but yeah, it’s sort of, kinda, well, bellydancing-ish.) I’d been on the phone with Peace Corps (who always manage to call at the most inopportune times) sat in the back of the room for a while, but was eventually identified as a sister of the baby, and called upon to shake what my mamma gave me. :) My American sister and I both went up, and I grabbed my Moroccan sister and cousin on the way, just so *somebody* would be doing it right. The four of us danced for a few minutes, and then when the music paused, I sat down.

“Are you tired?” an anxious friend asked.

“No, no,” I reassured her.

“Then dance more!” she retorted, and pushed me back up.

So I went another round or two, before leaving the floor again to women who knew better what they were doing. I keep promising myself that I’ll learn how to dance the ahay deuce way, but I haven’t kept that promise. So I kept to the sidelines, clapping and smiling. My sister and cousin (who seem to me to be the Belles of Berberville – they’re both simply beautiful, and smart and polished and skilled dancers and great cooks and generally perfect) got up and did the Berber Hair Flip* for a while, and then tied their hair back up and sat back down. At some unseen signal, everyone got to their feet, and formed the traditional ahay deuce circles of clapping, bobbing women. Not too much later, everyone grabbed their wraps and departed.

Ama and baby had spent the entire dance party in another room, resting, hearing the music but seeing none of the dancing. Which is fairly typical for Moroccan celebrations, in my experience. At weddings, for example, the bride is blinded by an opaque veil and forced to remain sitting still for the entire party.

* Berber Hair Flip – I think I’ve described this before, but since I can’t get into blogspot, I can’t check. If it turns out I haven’t, I’ll explain it. ‘Cause it’s seriously cool.

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