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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.


  1. Beautiful. Thank you.

  2. So interesting! For what it's worth I don't buy or use any of oils or lotions marketed fo babies and kids. Olive oil works better and doesn't overwhelm the baby's system with chemicals and perfumes. -Ali

  3. She will. I will tell her tomorrow.

  4. Lovely, lovely. I think I'll try it myself - my super-sensitive skin doesn't like scented lotions anyway!

  5. I stopped using chapstick in the winter when I realized that the olive oil on my salad does the job much better. Since then, I've even occasionally used olive oil on my lips even when I'm not eating.

  6. Hi there! great post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge in this area. keep it up!
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