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11/26/11 Some things never change (and some things do)

This evening, I ate a salad drizzled with olive oil. We continued sitting around the table after the dishes had been cleared, and I saw a small puddle of oil on the table. Without a second thought, I wiped it up with my hand and began rubbing my hands together, massaging the oil into my skin.

My visiting friend did her best not to react, but from a quick expression that flickered across her face, I suddenly realized that this is Not A Normal American Thing To Do.

But it's a perfectly normal Moroccan thing to do.

For most of my female American friends, cleaning one's hands involves warm water, soap, and then lotion. The soap and warm water strip the natural oils from one's hands, so women (and, I imagine, some men) rub lotion in to make up for it.

But during the two years I spent in my cold mountain village, we had a different custom. And nobody spent money on lotion except *maybe* some rosewater oils for use on special occasions. But in my village, the cold and dry air keeps skin constantly dry and often chapped. Hands, which get plunged into water for cleanliness and laundering and dishwashing, can get scaly with the cold. So when you encounter something oily, you take advantage of it.

Most of my American friends would never dream of putting oil directly onto their hands, unless it's mineral oil and they're about to give a massage. But olive oil? Rendered animal fat? Not a chance.

But if you think about it, lotion is really just a mechanism for delivering moisture. Most prize themselves on a "non-greasy feeling," but the fact is, they're trying to approximate chemically what natural oils produce, well, naturally.

After Americans eat a greasy meal, they head for the hot water and soap. And maybe lotion, afterwards. After Moroccans eat a greasy meal, they rub their hands together until the oil has soaked into the skin, leaving the hands smooth and soft. (Smoother and softer, anyway.)

This phenomenon was thrown into relief for me when my American family came to visit me. My oldest sister was being feted for having done well on her college entrance exam (which I believe is the International Baccalaureate, or IB). My host family insisted that my biological family join in the celebration, of course.

We all drank tea and ate various celebratory goodies, mostly cookies and pastries. At one point, my mom asked for a napkin. I translated the request (using the French word for napkin, serviette, since there's no Tam word for it that I know of), and one of the many hostesses ran off to find us some.

She came back just as we were finishing up a particularly greasy crepe-like pastry. Mom, Dad, and my sister all hastily took advantage of the chance to wipe their hands. When I was handed a napkin, though, Ama and I laughed as I realized it was too late -- I had just finished rubbing the oil into my hands. "She's not an American girl. She's an Ait Hadidou girl," Ama said proudly.

The unexpected praise caught me off-guard, and made my eyes water with emotion. I know part of it was that Ama had felt threatened by the arrival of my *other* mother, and she was trying to maintain her claim to me -- but she also meant it. I'd actually succeeded, at least in that moment, of being truly accepted by this community I'd lived in for a year.

All of this came flashing back to me tonight, as I found myself making good use of the spilled olive oil. (And by the by, olive oil and corn oil have less smell than most lotions, and are actually more effective at keeping skin moisturized. For what it's worth.)

I've been back for 18 months now. I served for 27. I've finished the re-entry process, for all intents and purposes, but I like the pieces of Kauthar that have survived my re-becoming my American self. I still say "Bismillah" before beginning anything important. I still say (or think) "Inshallah" when talking about the future. I still find hot running water truly miraculous. And, apparently, I still prefer to use oil rather than scrape it off and then have to replenish my skin's moisture.

Ama would be proud.


10/12/11 On the public display of breastfeeding boobs (PG-13)

Sorry for the long radio-silence, dear readers. Life in America just doesn't seem as exciting to share as life in Morocco did.

But I've run into another culture clash / cross-cultural moment, so thought I'd share.

It's about boobs. Breasts. Mammary organs. Whatever you call them, they belong to about half of the species, so you'd think people would stop being surprised by them. As Julia Roberts pointed out in Notting Hill, "They're just breasts. Every second person has them."

And yet.

In America, they're considered sexual objects, and have remained one of the last bastions of public decency laws. Bikinis have continued to shrink, revealing more and more flesh on beaches and pool chairs, but if you want to be completely topless, you need to be on one of a very small number of private beaches.

Facebook ran into a problem a couple years back when it announced that it wouldn't allow visible breasts in posted pictures, whether the photo showed a breastfeeding mother or was designed to "appeal to the prurient interest," as the Supreme Court would say.

Some women considered the conflation of sex with motherhood offensive, and responded by making their profile picture one that showed them nursing a baby.

Now, in 2011, as more and more of my friends become mothers, I see breastfeeding more often -- and that creates moments of culture clash inside my head.

First, some Moroccan background.

In Morocco, most women cover their bodies from neck to wrist to ankle. Many also wear veils over their hair and necks, though some urban women choose not to. Given this cultural expectation of extreme modesty, it surprises many westerners to see the casual attitude towards public breastfeeding.

Most young mothers wear V-necked dresses that allow them to reach in, pull out a boob, and present it to their hungry baby. In colder areas, they'll wear a turtleneck under the dress, which they'll pull up and out of the way to get the boob out. This allows them to remain fully covered -- except for the fully exposed breast.

Once the baby latches on, the breast is somewhat covered, by the child's head, but it's still plenty visible.

Even more surprising to me, when I first arrived in Morocco, is that the young mothers don't expect you to look away.

I figured that some sort of principle of "averted gaze" must exist, to allow for at least the illusion of modesty -- something like the principle operating in gym showers in America, where women all bathe together, quickly, without making eye contact, and without any acknowledgement that they might actually see each other's bodies.

On the contrary, Moroccan mothers would ask my opinion of the babies latched onto their breasts.

Eventually I figured out that infants spend the vast majority of their tiny lives completely swaddled, wrapped from head to toe and tied onto their mothers' backs. Meal times -- that is, while nursing -- is the only chance you'll ever have to see the baby.

So young mothers *expect* you to gather around, coo at the baby, exclaim over its cuteness / handsomeness / resemblance to (insert family member here) / etc. All the things that mothers everywhere expect you to do with their babies, but in Morocco, it could only happen while the infants in question were attached to the organ that I'd been raised to consider private, sexual, and inappropriate-in-public.

Moroccan women have limited (but growing, alhumdulillah) access to birth control, which means that babies are everywhere. And nursing mothers are everywhere.

In my first, temporary host family, my sister-in-law had a nursing baby that she wanted me to admire. In my second, permanent host family, I attended the birth of my nephew and then my little brother, plus I saw dozens -- hundreds? -- of other babies and mothers around town.

I saw mothers breastfeeding on the tranzit, both to feed a hungry baby and to quiet a fussy child on the long ride. I saw mothers breastfeeding at community events like weddings and other celebrations.

And eventually I learned to get over my Western attitude of embarrassment, and celebrate the tiny new life as I was expected to. I found a mental trick: I created a mental equivalence between the boob and a bottle. After all, if I saw a mom bottle-feeding a baby, I wouldn't get weird and evasive and try to look away. Similarly, in Morocco, if I saw a mom breastfeeding a baby, I shouldn't have any reaction other than smiling at the child. When a boob appeared, I treated it exactly as I would have if a bottle had appeared.

When my replacement (Hassan) showed up in my village, I warned Ama that he might be embarrassed when she fed our little brother. ("Our" because he lived with the same family I did, so he became my brother and adopted all my brothers and sisters.) I explained that in America, women don't commonly breastfeed in public -- I skipped discussion of the controversy, for simplicity's sake -- and so he might react in ways she would find odd if she pulled out a boob in front of him.

I mostly wanted Ama to understand that if Hassan suddenly began staring at his shoes, or refusing to make eye contact with her, or in any other way acted like she was doing something odd, it was really because he was just having an American reaction to a Moroccan scene.

I also warned him that she would breastfeed in front of him, and that he should not react, if he could help it.

They both agreed to make allowances for the culture of the other, which I thought was very gracious on both sides, and I prepared for my return to America.

Where I spent more than a year without seeing any breasts in public.

And then, a few weeks ago, I saw a mom comforting her fussy infant by bringing the tiny head to the edge of her sweater. She was wearing loose clothes and had turned away from the bulk of the people in the room, but made no move to drape a cloth over herself or the baby.

And I found myself having a classic Moroccan reaction: wanting to coo at the baby and smile down at the breastfeeding scene.

I caught myself in time, alhumdulillah. While many moms -- apparently including this one -- have been asserting their right to breastfeed in public, I'm pretty sure it's still not acceptable in America for people to act like they're watching.

And in America, we have lots of other chances to coo at babies. They don't spend most of their time swaddled away, out of sight.

On the other hand, since many Americans still feel a fair amount of disapprobation for public breastfeeding, maybe the moms would appreciate it if someone showed cheerful approval.

Or maybe I've just been brainwashed by Morocco, and have lost all sense of American propriety.

So, breastfeeding moms, I ask you: How do you want me to respond? Should I engage my powers of averted vision and pretend nothing is happening? Should I smile down at the baby and boob, as I would in Morocco? Something inbetween? Something else entirely?

Comments welcome (and helpful!).
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