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10/7/09 Dance Party

This morning, I decided that today was a good day to spend in bed. I'd spent most of the night coughing like I was trying to shove my lungs out through my larynx; rest seemed appropriate.

And then.

Around noon, I heard a knock on my door. I shuffled over to the top of the stairs and called, "Who is it?" and got the usual indignant, "It's me!" Oh so helpful.

But I recognized today's "me", my little sister.

I padded down the dirt stairs, regretting my decision not to put on my slippers, coughed loudly, then opened the door. Sissy, dressed up in new clothes, said, "Ama said to tell you to come over." I started to protest, but she dutifully powered through, continuing the message she'd been enjoined to deliver: "We have to go to Aicha's house for a party." Aicha is second only to Fatima as the most common female name, so I immediately thought of several places this could mean. There's the Aicha who's moving out of town soon, and might have a going away party; the Aicha who just had a baby, and might have a sib3; the Aicha who's pregnant, and might have a baby shower...and several other Aichas who I haven't seen in a while and therefore might have a party-purpose in their lives that I don't know about.

I weighed my options. On the one hand, I could continue my current plan of lying down all day feeling sorry for myself. Or I could go to a party.


I invited Sissy up while I pulled on party clothes. (Read: Regular clothes, but clean, and with a skirt on top of the jeans.) I brushed my hair while she looked on, and then followed her down the stairs and up the quarter-mile or so to Ama's house. Ama met us at the door with her sister-in-law (my eldest 3tti) and neighbor. We all walked down to Aicha's house. It turned out to be one of the 3 Aichas I'd guessed, but not for the reason I'd guessed. Turns out her best friend Rebha (the 3rd most common girl's name in Berberville) is getting married tomorrow, so Aicha is throwing her a party.

Its closest equivalent in American culture would be a bridal shower or bachelorette party, but in style it was identical to most of the other Berber parties I've attended.

First, women trickle in, over the course of an hour or so. When you enter, you slm everyone already there: shake their hand, kiss their cheeks/hands/heads (depending how close you are), kiss your own hand, exchange a highly-abbreviated form of the greeting ritual (usually just the how are you? I'm fine bit), and move on to the next person. Once you've greeted everyone, you take your seat along the wall.

Yes, along the wall. Rooms here are always furnished with pads and rugs lining the walls, and are usually otherwise empty. (The thickness of the pads and rugs indicates the wealth of the family. Rich and/or showy families will have pads about knee high, draped in bright-colored fabric. Middle-class families have pads about an inch thick, covered with vibrant shag rugs, usually woven by the mother. The poorest families have no pads, but simply line the walls with woven rugs.) There are no chairs; you sit on the pad - usually called a ponj - with your back against the wall and your legs out in front of you.

Once you've taken your seat, you wait for the rest of the women to trickle in. As they do, of course, they have to slm everyone there, including you. Be prepared to shake a lot of hands. :) (Oh - I've heard in other regions that you Absolutely Must Greet A Group from right to left...or is it Absolutely Positively left to right?...but here in Berberville, nobody much cares. The majority of the women turned to their left when the entered the room, and greeted their way around the room in a clockwise direction, but a couple did the opposite, and it didn't seem to make any difference at all.)

Eventually, the room is full, the walls are lined, and everybody's cheerfully chattering with their neighbors. Now it's time for tea.

Again, size matters: the richer you are, the bigger your tea service. Today's tea pots towered a foot or more above the tea trays, which were themselves about two feet in diameter, and held a couple dozen tea glasses apiece. This means massive wealth. Clearly, this party is being hosted by one of the richest families in Berberville. Aicha and her cousin carried the two giant tea trays in opposite directions around the room, meeting up at the far corner. After everyone had drained their tea, they came around again, collecting the glasses.

Then came the first course, aHrir. It was served without spoons, which I've never seen before, but I gamely dug in with my hands. (Well, right hand only, naturally. You never never never never never never NEVER ever eat with your left hand.) Since aHrir is more or less risotto, my hand got sticky quickly. Ama asked if I wanted a spoon, but I assured her I was fine using my hand.

She sees through me pretty easily.

She scored me a spoon in something less than a minute (woman's got skillz) and I admit, it helped me enjoy the meal a lot more.

The aHrir came in large earthenware platters that were set in the middle of each of five tables set around the room. (When we'd first entered, they'd been lined up along the otherwise-empty middle of the room, but when food time approached, everyone pitched in to arrange them around the room.

After the aHrir came the main course, roasted chicken with olives. We spent the first few minutes sopping up juices and snagging olives with the de rigeur loaves of bread (flat loaves that look more or less like a Medium Pizza without any toppings). Once the juices were gone, one of the women at my table briskly ripped the chicken apart. She tore open the breastbone in a split second, then quickly sectioned off the legs, thighs, etc. She piled up sections of meat for everyone at the table (except me - Ama explained my vegetarianism to her) and then distributed them. The two little kids at the table - Sissy, who's 8, and the 3-year-old son of another friend - each got small piles, while the 5 adults each got a first-sized chunk of chicken. Ama snagged a big chunk of bread and shoved a handful of meat into it, to bring back to my little brothers. (At 10 and 11, they're far too old to receive invitations to a women's party like this one. The oldest boy in the room was probably 3, maybe 4.)

A minute later, the hostesses came through the room with small plastic bags, which they passed around. This drew my attention to the fact Ama was only one of many women who had squirreled away food for the unlucky males in her family. About a dozen of the 30-some women there took bags. I was suddenly reminded of "doggie bags" at restaurants.

Then the tables were wiped down while the women returned to the edges of the room. Time for the ...


No DJ. No iPod. No band. Just a roomful of women singing, led by two grande dames, with three other women providing percussion on two hand drums and one metal plate (which comes with two metal spoons, used as drumsticks).

The women who wanted to dance - probably half of the women there - each took their turn in the middle of the room, shimmying and shaking and gyrating what their mommas gave 'em.

Around their feet danced a miniature version of the grown-up dance party, featuring girls from 5 to 8, showing fair approximations of the older women's clothing, hairstyles, and moves. Cutest of all, two tiny toddlers showed us their moves, bobbing up and down, clapping their hands, and even shaking their bitty baby hips. :D

After an hour or so of dancing, women began slipping out, in twos and threes. Berber Dance Party #274 has wound down...tomorrow's, for Rebha's wedding, will begin in something like 24 hours.

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