23 May, 2007

Cross-cultural communications

I slouched amongst the women and cushions lining the walls in the long narrow salon, my hair catching in the grit of the earthen walls of the house. I had been at the wedding for hours at first enjoying time with a few men and boys from the family and listening to music then gathering with the women in another room to drum and sing.

I wondered if my host family was worried I never returned for dinner. I had stopped by to congratulate the bride and groom, which I now knew was not the way thing were done, around 5:30 and I guessed it was now after 12am. I was cold, hungry and tired, but excited to be some sort of honored mystery guest at the festivities. I didn't know the young couple getting married, but their family was related to the family I was staying with. Of course most everybody in the village was related to my new family. In little Amazigh villages like Hadida, about an hour east of Ourzazate and well off the beaten path, a wedding can stretch for days. I was beginning to wonder which day we were going to be fed.

Everyone was chattering away, weddings being a great opportunity to network with relatives from far off, when a young girl kicked off her shoes and entered the room carrying a brass basin and kettle used for washing your hands before and after meals. Relief seeped down through my bones because food would surely follow.

The young girl wore the incongruous layers of clothing favored in the bled that some of the other women wore; a wild assortment of textures and patters starting with thermal leggings and topped with a spangled headscarf wrapped and tied around the head instead of the neck in what I termed "country style hijab". She took small steps across the many carpets, carrying the basin carefully, the kettle perched on top.

I wore my own post-modern Amazigh get-up: hiking socks and thermal leggings under a traditional tiered and embroidered Amazigh skirt that I never actually saw a single Amazigh women wearing (but Peace Corps staff insisted we purchase so as not to stand out) topped with my funky camouflage print fleece jacket and the black headscarf a few of the women tied on me when I tried to be excused to run home and fetch my winter hat.

I was ready to wash and eat. But then I noticed something odd. The girl stopped in front of each woman and bent slightly as if to ask permission. Everybody always washes before a meal. Everybody. Yet as I watched this time each woman waved the girl off towards the next woman seated beside them. And this was repeated by each woman until the young woman was about three women from my left.

Surely, I thought, I knew what was going on, so I pushed back the sleeves on my jacket to ready myself to wash my hands. The woman seated next to me looked at me, smiled and softly said, "O-ho," or "no" in Tamazight. I smiled back but insisted on reaching out to indicate to the girl I wanted to wash. She looked at me as though totally confused, but smiled and looked over her right shoulder at some of the other women in the room. I was met with a barrage of sweet but insistent "O-ho"s and some explaining in Tamazight that was far beyond my level. Everyone was smiling and the women closest to me laughed and slapped my shoulder a bit in jest.

Finally a large women with a serious face seated across the room from me signaled sternly for the girl that she would wash. As she washed her hands, quickly and roughly, two more girls entered the room, one lugging a portable gas burner and the other carying a huge tray with rows of tiny, jewel-like glasses and the ingredients for tea: a large tin of gunpowder green tea, another tin with chunks broken from a sugar cone, and stalks of fresh mint. The girls lay the items in front of the woman, who began the process of making tea for the 50 or so women in the room.

Finally I understood. By agreeing to wash you are agreeing to the task of making tea for a room full of connoisseurs. These women had already accepted me for me and shown me every day that they loved me, but there was no way they were letting the foreign girl (taromeet) make the tea yet.

It was delicious.

1 comment:

m. bouba said...

this is a great post, Aicha.
i loved the "post-modern Amazigh get-up".
thank you for sharing.
a-kem i3awen rebbi.