Yesterday I was achy and I was up all night with a fever and chills. I woke up with a splitting headache. Headache, fever, chills? I sent the family off on their own and settled in to a quiet morning in bed. I made the mistake of getting out our copy of “Where There Is No Dr.” This handy book assumes that, while there is no doctor, there is a large, well-stocked pharmacy nearby. It also has lots of graphic drawings—helpful, no doubt, if you are wondering if that skin lesion is leprosy or merely part of a tubercular rash, but a bit disconcerting when combined with a splitting headache and a morbid imagination. I lingered a while in the fever section, wondering if I could possibly have malaria, dengue fever, or typhoid—my symptoms fit all of them. Except my fever wasn’t that high—yet. I wandered over to the “colds and coughs” section and decided I wasn’t going to die after all, especially as by this time the ibuprofen (sold locally as Brufen) was kicking in. If my fever continues to mount in the following days and I experience other symptoms, I’ll let you know, but I doubt it. I’m already much better.

When Elliot was 5, I found him leafing through the section on childbirth. It has extremely graphic drawings—suitable for a book of this type, but for a 5 year-old boy, not so much. “I just want to be ready in case I need to know,” he told me. That made me relax, as you can imagine.

So it’s not exactly a fun and meaningful Mother’s Day for me. That’s ok—we can always celebrate the French version, which is the one the kids make me cards in school for.

Last night, in spite of the aches, I went to a birthday party for an Arab friend of mine; one of my students. She’s Palestinian, not Maure, and although she has lived in Mauritania for her entire life, she and her family are noticeably different. I suppose we don’t blend in that well either, come to think of it, but you can always tell a Middle-Eastern Arab or even a Moroccan from a Maure.

It was a great party. Women only. Everyone arrived covered head-to-foot under colourful local veils, which were instantly removed to reveal skin-tight halter tops, tiny skirts, nose-bleed-inducing sparkly heels, and bare midriffs. Soon we were all sitting round clapping as the girls took turns belly-dancing to Arab pop music. It was great fun. Ilsa, who just turned 9, was persuaded to join in, and she had a blast. They invited me as well, but I didn’t see any of the other married women dancing, so I didn’t know if it was appropriate. Some of the girls concentrated deeply on their moves; other were laughing and singing along as they danced. It was strange to see movements that we in the West would view as sensual being done in front of an all-female audience. I also liked that none of these beautiful girls were what we’d call thin in the West—yet they obviously enjoyed themselves unselfconsciously.

The room was solid people, and the door was closed so that no passing male could get a glimpse in, so it was stiflingly hot. Soon they brought round tiny glasses of bissop—made, I think, from hibiscus flowers, a really good local drink the color of cranberry juice. There was also lots of good food—tabouli salad, falafel, two kinds of cake. We gathered round the birthday girl and her one large candle in a cake she’d baked herself, and sang along to a taped rendition of “Happy Birthday”—first in French, then in English, then in Arabic, then disco-style in English again. A rumour that the girl’s father had returned caused a general panic, and the veils were whirled round them once more. False alarm; the girls relaxed once again.

Later, the birthday girl opened her presents—that is, she and all her friends and sisters opened them. One friend tried on 3 different kinds of perfume, and her sister put on a new ring. I’m sure that at the end, she got all her presents, but I liked how casual she was with them initially. The point is, she was having a wonderful time with her family and friends.

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