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1/16 Teatalk

So I'd finished bathing in Berberville's public hammam. I came out into the changing area and began toweling off.

"Oh, it's a tarumit..."
"Did you see the tarumit..."
"Have you talked to the tarumit..."

The voices swirled around me. I grinned to myself, too shy to strike up a conversation with one of these curious ladies while still en deshabille.

Until one of them said, "...yes, she understands Tamazight." I looked over and grinned at a friend I hadn't seen in a while - who I hadn't noticed yet because I was focusing only on putting on my many layers of clothes.

Catching my eye, her neighbor asked, "Really? You speak Tam?" and I answered, smiling, "Yes, I do."

"How long have you been here?" she asked.

It surprised me to hear that anyone in town didn't know about me. "About two years," I answered.

"Where are you from? France?"

"No, America." That brought on a new wave of chatter. Ooh, America...

"Where do you live? Rabat? Marrakesh?"

If I lived in a major city, what are the odds I'd speak her dialect? I asked myself wryly. Of course, she's never traveled any more than 200km from her home in her entire life - may well have never even left the village. How would she know how rapidly her unwritten language changes with geography? Or how few cityfolk speak it at all? Aloud, I answered, "No, I live here." I mentioned the name of my landlord and nearest neighbors.

"Do you live alone?" was the immediate follow-up.


"So where's your husband? Back in America?"

With a sideways smile, I replied, "I don't have a husband."

"You're not married?!?!" was the incredulous reply.

"Nope. Not yet. Maybe someday, if God wills," I finished my stock reply.

I finished putting on my clothes and accepted one of the proffered tea invitations, from an older woman who'd been resting on one of the benches in the changing room since I'd walked out of the hammam.

On the way to her house, the interrogation continued. "So you really don't have a husband?"

Do you think the answer will be different because we're in private? Why yes, I do, but I'm keeping him a secret because life is so much easier if people think I'm unprotected and alone. Yeah. "Really. I don't have a husband."

"But you have a boyfriend, right?"

Since the word can also mean friend-who-happens-to-be-a-boy, I want to answer yes, I have lots...but that'll open a whole icky can of worms, so I let it go. "No, no boyfriend."

"You're alone??"

"Yup, I'm alone." The same word is used for alone and lonely, and I've never figured out how to distinguish the two concepts - I'm single but not lonely. I live alone but don't feel isolated. It works easily enough in English, but in Tamazight? The concepts are too closely intertwined. To be alone is to be lonely. These folks, for whom family is the central aspect of identity, home life, life planning, and life in general, have no way of conceiving solitude as anything other than sad isolation.

We get to her house. I step in, scrape the mud off my boots, set down my bucket and bag full of hammam things (soap, loofah, kis scrubby brush, shampoo, etc, in the bucket, and all the layers of clothes I'd taken off, before scrubbing, in the bag). She shows me into the main room. On the wall she's hung pictures. She immediately explains them to me. "This one is my oldest boy. He's living in Grenada. This is my next boy - he lives in Marrakesh. This one died. My youngest is at school in Marrakesh, living with his brother and his brother's wife." I don't see a picture of her husband. Before I can ask, she volunteers, "He died a long time ago. We lived in Marrakesh when we were married, but after he died, I came back to Berberville."

I murmur the condolence phrase, and then ask, "So this is *your* village?" I'm just trying to keep up.

"Yes, this is where I grew up," she clarifies. She looks back at the photographs. "Aren't my boys handsome?"

"Oh, yes, of course, they're very handsome," I quickly say, feeling, as I so often do, that I'm picking my way through a social minefield. If I'd volunteered the statement, unprompted, it might made me look flirtatious and therefore inappropriate. But the fact that she asked for it makes me feel like I was rude in not complimenting her children immediately.

"And my oldest is in Grenada," she repeats. I nod. "He's a good boy," she says, touching his photo briefly. "Is Grenada nice?"

I've never been there, but I say, "Yes, it's very nice."

"You should marry him," she concludes, triumphantly.

My smile freezes. I should have seen this coming.

I so should have seen this coming.

Before I can demur, she jumps back in with, "Well, you want to get married, right?"

Aha - here's my out. "No, actually, I don't. Men suck." [That's the most idiomatic translation of the phrase I used - Ixxan iryzan. It could also be translated as "Men are bad", "Men are ugly", "Men are useless"'s kind of an all-purpose-insult word, which is what makes it so handy in cases like this, where I don't want to be all that specific.]

She bursts out laughing. "Men suck?"

I nod and say it again. "Yeah, I don't want a man," I continue. "I like my life as it is. And I don't need a man." This has her in gales of laughter. I'm laughing, too, in acknowledgement of how ludicrous such a sentiment must sound.

She stokes the fire, brings out bread and oil and tea, and we continue chatting.

As I always do, I murmur, "Bismillah," before eating anything. It translates as "In the name of God," and it's the phrase that devout Muslims always use before beginning any endeavor, from eating to taking a trip to speaking in public. It implies that whatever action you undertake is done for God, and under the protection of God. I have no theological objections to any of that, so I say it often - more often than many of my not-terribly-devout friends and neighbors.

She hears me, and perks up. "Are you Muslim?" she asks excitedly.

"No," I explain, "I'm Christian." She doesn't understand the word I use - messaHiyan. It's from Classical Arabic, and therefore unknown to most illiterate folks, like this dear little old lady. Women didn't get educated around here until this generation, so women over the age of 30 or so are invariably illiterate; even between the ages of 15 and 30, it's hit and miss.

I try a Berber-ized version of the word: "I'm tamessaHiyanit." I'm a female who's a Christian.

Still getting blank stares.

I pull out the cross I wear around my neck. Today, like usual, it's buried under lots of layers of clothing. She sees it, but has no idea what it means. "I follow Jesus," I try. She recognizes the name of one of Islam's chief prophets, and nods. She probably thinks that Christianity is some Jesus-intensive sect of Islam, but that's fine. I'm just trying to answer her question, not start a theological discussion.

She moves onto more concrete territory. "Do you pray?"

"Yes, I pray."

She beams. Anybody who prays is clearly a good person, regardless of this messaHiyan nonsense. I'm definitely good for her son.

"Do you fast?"

"Yes, I fast during Ramadan, here in Morocco."

She opts not to comment on my slight qualification. (I do fast in Morocco; I didn't fast when I was in the US for part of Ramadan. I'm a terrible liar, so I tell the truth as often as possible. Or maybe I'm a terrible liar because I get so little practice at it - I try to tell the truth, even if I have to "tell it slant", as Emily Dickinson would say.)

Around that time, some other women come in - her sisters, sisters-in-law, and neices, as she later explains - and we go over all of this again. These women, too, find it hiLARious that I don't want to get married immediately. And they love the "men suck" line, and the "I don't want a man/she doesn't want a man" line. They repeat it, I repeat it, they repeat it...and it's always good for a hearty laugh.

One of the sisters-in-law begins telling me about her husband. Her ex-husband, she clarifies. He abandoned her with young children. He's a bad man, she says clearly. All men are bad, she adds.

I've given up on defending men, as I usually do, because for the purposes of this conversation, and avoiding my hostess's marital schemes, I'm sticking to my happy singleton story. "Yes!" I say, guesturing to her emphatically, "This is why I don't want a man."

She blinks at me, clearly at a loss. She'd been arguing with me earlier, and now realizes that she has supported my side of the argument, and she has no idea how to get out of the corner she painted herself into. She's happy to bash men, but still thinks that all women should marry. She opens and closes her mouth a few times, but doesn't say anything.

Fortunately, she's saved by the bell. (Well, by a knock at the door - nobody but the most pretentious have actual doorbells, in this community.)

More women come in; more of the conversation is rehashed; more tea is drunk; more laughter is shared.

Eventually, I say goodbye, promising to return for more tea and bread. And laughter. :)

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