Aicha wants to talk to me. She’s pregnant again but doesn’t want Donn to know—that is too embarrassing. Although Mauritanian culture expects wives to get pregnant soon and often, at the same time pregnancy is something that must be hidden; it’s intimate, and has a whiff of shame about it. Someone (male) catching a glimpse of a pregnant woman might inadvertently think about what causes it. Aicha tells me that once she is obviously pregnant even beyond the loose swaths of her mulaffa (head-to-toe veil), she won’t leave the house. What if one of her older male relatives saw her and realized, with a shock, that she wasn’t a little girl anymore? I tell her, “That would be his problem, not yours!” Aicha has been married 7 years now, and is in her mid-to-late 20s. But I can’t convince her.
I love my friend Aicha for many reasons. We have that soul connection that makes friendship possible across the boundaries of culture, language, political and religious views, and even diverse topics like race, or what constitutes beauty. Why are we good friends? We just like each other, in that mystical way that happens when you find a real friend. We like being together; we like talking about things. We may disagree, but we listen to each other.
One of the many things I appreciate about her is the way she has, more than any other single person, introduced me to Mauritanian culture. She has opened the door to me. Aicha comes from a very conservative tribe but she is university-educated. Her traditional background makes her a great source of information. The culture was always somewhat diverse, made up of various tribes each with their own oddities and special areas of expertise–the scholarly tribe; the warrior tribe; the tribe of griots, or singers. Different tribes have embraced modernity to varying degrees. Aicha’s tribe is well-connected and educated in general, but they have also fiercely held on to their traditions. Talking to her, I get a glimpse into another world.
Aicha’s tribe practices an ancient local custom called sawaHah, and I have to say that only people obsessed with not thinking about sex could have come up with this one. SawaHah originally dealt with relationships from generation to generation; it’s about showing respect to elders and not broaching certain topics in front of them, and it combines concepts of respect and embarrassment. But here, it also deals with the relations between in-laws and spouses and with keeping one’s parents from ever having to face the realization that one has, well, grown up. Accordingly, Aicha’s husband has never even met his father-in-law. “He saw him once from across the room in a public building,” Aicha tells me when she is explaining this to me. Since there is no marriage ceremony, only an agreement between 2 families followed by a lot of sheep meat and women ululating, it is possible to never confront your parents with the reality of an in-the-flesh, real live spouse.
But this is also a culture where married couples often live with their parents. Aicha’s sister and husband lived for a while with Aicha’s parents. The son-in-law never sat in the same room with his wife’s father; never greeted him. If he had to walk by an open door to a room where his in-laws were seated, he would pull his robe up to cover his face and scuttle out of sight as quickly as he could. He is in the military, and one night a thief broke in and came into the parents’ room, demanding cash, threatening violence. Because of sawaHah, the soldier son-in-law was helpless to interfere. He couldn’t shame his parents-in-law by seeing them in their nightclothes, much less by what was implied that he was actually in the same house as they were! The thief got away with the family’s cash that night.
Just like it is shameful for a bride to show happiness, lest she be thought eager, brazen, in the same way when Aicha is living with her in-laws, she must be the last at night to go up to the bedroom she shares with her husband. If she is tired and goes to bed before the rest of the family, everyone will wink and nod knowingly, and she will face their sneers the next day.
She doesn’t tell her mother-in-law that she’s pregnant, and is worried that the older woman knows. “She told me not to carry in the tray of drinks, that it was too heavy,” she sighs. She enjoys the freedom of discussing pregnancy with Michelle and I, who as friends AND outsiders are doubly safe. When she was pregnant with her first child, I loaned her an old copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In it, she found a frankness of information that astonished and delighted her. She was also thankful for the openness with which I talked to her about my own pregnancies and childbirth experiences. It’s surprising to me that she doesn’t feel comfortable discussing these topics with her own mother; although she can tell her mother that she’s pregnant, they won’t talk about it at all. She would never tell her father and is embarrassed that he will eventually realize that he’s expecting another grandchild. Aicha would never shame him by being in the same room as he and her son; she is a dutiful daughter who adores her father. “I couldn’t believe my sister!” she tells me one day in shocked tones. “My father is traveling and asked her what gifts she wanted, and she said shoes for her child!” I don’t get why this is shocking, so she explains. “It is not right that she discuss her child with my father like that.”
SawaHah is frustrating to the outsider. “How can a society function like this?” we wonder aloud. It’s still a mystery, and part of what makes living here a bit like visiting outer space. Even other Arabs wonder about it; as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, Mauritania is the only place that practices it in quite this manner.
In the meantime, Aicha pops prenatal vitamins that Michelle was able to get her from a visiting doctor and worries about how she’ll balance her full-time job (with an international company) and another baby. She wants my advice, wants to enjoy the freedom to discuss anything and everything that we enjoy together. I tell her stories from my own culture, of my own relationship with my in-laws, and we agree that we come from opposites sides of the globe.