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I don’t really like kids. Oh sure, I love my own kids, but you know how there’s one house on the block where all the kids play? I hate it when it’s mine.

So, when Ilsa begged me to let her do a Camp Fun & Games all by herself, I’m not sure what possessed me to agree with it. I’m pleading temporary insanity, only unfortunately it’s turning out to be permanent.

A little history. Last summer when we were in the States, we stayed with my friend Heather and her 5 children. Yep—that was 8 kids in one house, ranging in age from 1 to 13 ½, plus 4 grownups, ranging in age from late 30s to early 40s. Sometimes Heather and I had to take our coffee up to the treehouse, where we could simultaneously hide from the children and keep an eye on them.

Heather has awesome kids, and I’m not just saying that so she’ll continue to let me take over her basement and crash my borrowed van through her fence with a wild abandon. Her oldest, Hali, is bright and creative and organized. Last summer, she created the original “Camp Fun & Games” and it was most impressive. Everything about it was realistic, from the parental permission slip I had to sign (told you it was accurate) to the chorus of “Thank you, Camp Cook!” at the end of every meal. Elliot, 11, got to be a junior counselor and that meant he got to teach a class—light saber fighting, I think it was, or possibly legos, or some other useful ability. Hali, who gets her organization skills from her mother (which means she has so many they just ooze out of her; she can’t help it; when she was barely 2 she made her own bed without being asked), drew up a schedule that balanced trampoline time with rest time and craft time. Honestly, the girl’s amazing.

Ilsa watched and learned. Sort of. I will say right now that she gets many of her organizational skills from her mother, which usually means you can’t see the floor of her room. (Although you can see my floor. At least most of it) The kids are on Spring Break now for 2 weeks, 2 weeks in which I am not only NOT on Spring Break but am dealing with students saying to me, “What topic would you suggest for my thesis paper?” when the deadline is theoretically May 3rd.  So my resistance was down when Ilsa begged me to let her have a “Camp Fun & Games” at our house. She promised that she would spend all her own money, that she would do all the organization. All I had to agree with was allowing her to do it. With much trepidation, I said okay.

She drew up elaborate invitations, spelling out the dress code (red and blue), who was invited, what was planned. She made up a schedule lasting 24 hours, down to the last minute—some activities were from 5:10 to 5:40, for example. Her inexperience showed up in some of these details—she included FOB time (Flat On Bunk; obviously designed to give camp counselors a break), but she had it just after the campers arrived. Cooking class (Elliot making brownies) was supposed to be at 8:30 a.m., a time when the camp cook didn’t even plan to be up yet, much less be finished with breakfast.

It started out with just 2 girl campers, but ended up with 3 boy campers coming along as well, for a total of 8 screaming children. First each of my boys wanted to invite a friend, but then that meant that one of the girl camper’s brothers was left out. It got awkward. I took a deep breath and invited him too.

I had to take them shopping instead of grading thesis papers. No one in town had marshmallows. They do have Gatorade right now though (exceptionally; first time we’ve seen it here) so Elliot spent all of his money to buy each kid their own bottle (American product = expensive). Abel bought a tin of pineapple so I’d make ham and pineapple pizza. (See how I’m getting more and more involved in this?) Ilsa bought a lot of candy as “prizes.”

The children arrived right! on! time! and starting screaming almost immediately. Donn and I at first played the Are They Gone Yet? game which is when you hide behind closed doors, put in the earplugs and practice taking deep breaths. I like this game a lot—I first starting playing it when I had 3 babies and over the years I’ve gotten really good at it. Unfortunately, my children have also gotten better at finding me.

Soon it was time to spend hours and hours in the kitchen making pizza. The kids followed Ilsa’s clues to a treasure (candy), played Mummies and the winners got candy, and, in general, ate candy. Then they wanted Gatorade. It took a long time to decide what movie to watch.

Ilsa wasn’t the youngest of the children, but she is the smallest and among the youngest. That made her necessary bossiness difficult. Foreseeing this, she had drawn up a list of rules: No making fun of other people. You have to listen (underlined twice in different colours) to the camp director. You have to be nice. You have to be either happy or sad. There was also a list of penalties for rule-breakers: They lost their vote on which movie to watch, they had to sit out the games. When Erik, in spite of having pinky-sworn not to, announced in front of everyone that Haley was in love with Oliver, the girls sat in judgment on him and he was horsewhipped on the steps and drummed out of their club. Basically, that is. (I’m not making this up—I saw the paperwork. He’s lucky it wasn’t pistols at dawn. These girls are serious)

The hours dragged on. And on. Finally they all went to bed, only to get up far too early in the morning. No calisthenics; just TV. (What kind of a wimpy camp is this?) I think they played Nintendo. I don’t know. I just know there was a lot of noise. I drank a lot of really strong black coffee.

The morning dragged on. I tried to correct papers and put out fires, such as when Jr. Counselor Abel decided to do Lego Workshop instead of the Art that the campers had signed up for and the Camp Director got really upset, or when Jr. Counselor Elliot got very pedantic during his Cooking Class and started giving out awards and saying things like, “Now, who can tell me what Erik is doing wrong?”

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Part of cooking class was copying the recipe for home

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Haley and Bethany enjoy the rewards of cooking class

Camp Fun & Games lasted 24 hours. We managed to make it through campers telling me they didn’t like what I was cooking (a. who doesn’t like fried eggs? And b. you can’t get away with that at a REAL camp) and through the schedule getting all messed up and the bigger boys constantly sneaking away to play Gameboy, which I imagine is pretty typical even at the real camps these days. Finally, by 3:30, we were waving goodbye to the last of the campers. The house was still standing. Oddly enough, nearly every camper left a pair of shoes behind. Was this some weird sort of superstition to make sure they could come back?

If so, it won’t work. The insanity brought on by 24 hours of merriment may be permanent, but one thing is certain: we are never ever doing a repeat. Ever. I really mean it. Pinky-swear.

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Dance Class; Ilsa is in the middle

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Jordan going off to hide during  cache-cache-loup, aka hide-n-seek. The purpose of some of these pics is to show my house to those of you (Shannon) who have asked to see it. The walls are empty because Donn currently has a photo exhibition at the National Museum–more on this later.

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The title of this post comes from a comment Julie Q made in response to this post. She said it was nice I gave warning in my title of what to expect, in the time-honored tradition of titles such as “Strychnine in the Soup” or “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch.” This traffic story has a happy ending.

At the time, I wondered if it would though. I had just come out of a combined errand of getting my hair cut and buying new school supplies for Elliot. Last week in the school courtyard, Elliot’s backpack was stolen from right under his sister’s nose (the spy wannabe, you might recall) as she sat in the sand with said nose in a book, back against a wall in the shade of a tree. His backpack was quite new and nice, full of school textbooks (which we have to buy) and cahiers and pens and the cool flexible ruler that we bought last summer in Oregon that is the envy of his classmates. It’s becoming a problem at the school, and there have now been 3 backpacks stolen but don’t worry—Ilsa in on the case. She has examined the courtyard with a magnifying glass and asked several leading questions of her friends. In spite of the investigation being in such capable hands, I still had to buy new supplies.

The papeterie (bookstore/school supply store) is right next to my coiffeuse, so I parked the car and went first for my appointment. Madame wasn’t there yet, of course, but they insisted on washing my hair right away. I had arrived 15 minutes late, knowing Madame like I do. (My initial appt was the day before, but after 40 minutes she still hadn’t shown up and the girl was murmuring, “She’s probably sleeping; she’s so tired; she traveled up from Dakar two days ago.” Sigh) I sat there, hair wet, flipping through two-year-old French magazines looking in vain for a hairstyle that I wanted. I have the kind of hair that sounds nice on paper—thick, naturally curly, dark blonde—but in real life, it tends to do this soft frizz that makes me look like a 50-year-old housewife or stick out in wispy little ringlets that make me look like I still hope to pass for 12. I succeeded in finding a picture of what my hair looks like with a bad haircut (a triangle) and held on to it. Madame phoned to say she’d left her house in plenty of time (for a change) but was stuck in traffic. It was the afternoon before the inaugeration, and a lot of roads were already completely closed, necessitating an excrutiating crawl round the edges of town.

Madame is Algerian and can handle Western hair, Arab hair, and African hair. Eventually she showed up and cut my hair with great efficiency, reassuring me that it wouldn’t form a triangle and that she remembered how much it shrinks when dry. Her assistant blew it dry, running her fingers through it the entire time. (I never blow dry my hair; I just push it into shape with my fingers, add some gel to shape the curls, and off I go) By the time she was done, I looked like a Breck girl from the early 80s—layered and sort of flipped.  

I was also running quite late, and still needed to buy the school supplies. I zipped around the store but it was still 6:10 when I finished. I needed to get home and get Donn the car so he could make it to Oasis for conversation class at 6:30. It was just possible, if traffic wasn’t too bad.

Yet, once again, there was a car parked in the road behind me. This time, I saw it before I started backing out. (Yaay, me!) Again, the entire vehicle was in the road, just left behind a line of cars parked off the street.

A passing young man saw my situation. “You can make it out; just let me direct you,” he assured me. I was doubtful, but at least it beat just sitting there fuming. Besides, I was still subdued from having to stare at myself in a mirror for an hour, and therefore more inclined to submit to strange men waving their arms at me.

I inched my way back, cranking my wheel obediently in time to his frantickly wheeling hands in my rear view mirror. I pulled forward, straightened my wheels, turned them again. To no avail. The problem, according to him, was not the car parked in the road—it was the car to my right, a filthy once-white car parked at a very sharp angle nearly facing me. It’s true that the car complicated things, I agreed, but I insisted that my real problem was the guy who had parked his car in the middle of the street and just left. I feel that is morally wrong.

Two more young men happened by, saw the situation, and joined in. They enthusiastically beckoned, wheeled their arms, shouted instructions. Three more men saw the situation and spilled out of a nearby shop, and began beckoning me forward, pushing me back, wheeling and turning and shouting and gesticulating. An older man in a stained white robe wandered by and took it upon himself to go out into traffic and stop all the oncoming cars.

About 20 minutes after we started, and with much fear and trembling, I managed to inch my wheels down into the street. There was much rejoicing by my crew, who redoubled their arm gestures. All traffic stopped. I managed to shoot straight out into the street, missing both cars by inches, and triumphantly drive off!

Who knew my new Breck-girl look would be such a traffic-stopper! 

Two years ago on August 3, 2005, Donn went off to a morning meeting.  It was a stressful time in our lives; in June, his dad had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and had surgery for it, and on August 1 or so, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, totally unrelated to the first kind. We were trying to decide if we could fly home as a family, since this would be a personal visit and come out of our own pockets instead of being covered through our NGO, and we only had a month till school started. Yet this might be the last time the kids could see their grandfather. “Don’t fly home,” he urged us over a staticky connection. “If you spend all that money, I’ll feel obligated to die.”

We were also still dealing with the aftermath of a murder of a close friend and colleague; a multi-ramification event which sent us into such a tailspin that it was still, 5 months after the fact, something that had to be dealt with almost daily. We were struggling with depression, dealing with an especially hot and sticky “rainy season,” and looking for tickets home for even a semi-affordable price. It was summer; I was trying to keep the kids occupied. And Donn, as I said, went off to a meeting.

He called me shortly afterwards. “Stay home; apparently there was a coup last night.” I was amazed. The last coup attempt that had come close to succeeding (there were others that didn’t) had kept us up all night; there was heavy fighting and people died. There were demonstrations and parades afterwards.

The kids and I went upstairs and turned on BBC. Turned out the then-president, Maaouiya Ould Taya, had gone to a funeral in Saudi Arabia. When he returned, his plane was refused permission to land, and his former best friend, Colonel Ely Ould Vall, and a military council had taken over.

The weirdest thing was how quiet the city was. It was as if everyone was just watching and waiting. Yet business went on as usual. Donn ended up spending his day helping a friend get something out of the port, and looking for airline tickets (which here means going in person round the various airline offices).  The kids and I watched TV. For once Mauritania was on the news! We snickered at the various ways the announcers pronounced “Maaouiya Ould Taya”—each time a new person was on, we’d hear a new version. (How is it pronounced? My best version would be “Mow-eeya Wuld Tiya”)

We knew how to act during coups. You decide which books to take in the event of an evacuation; you gather important documents and negatives of your husband’s artwork; you bake something. Last time apple pie; this time brownies. Have an extra cup of coffee. Invite friends over. Watch TV. And PHONE YOUR MUM! I didn’t do this the first time, figuring she wouldn’t know and why worry her, and of course she saw something on BBC and freaked out and called our NGO, both my brothers, and Donn’s parents. The NGO didn’t know what was going on and got mad at us too. This time we phoned them, phoned both sets of parents, checked the latest news, ate more brownies. None of these precautions were necessary.

The coup was actually welcomed by many Mauritanians, who were sick of Ould Taya, who took over in a coup in 1984 and, like my case of shingles/Creeping Eruption, just wouldn’t leave. He kept winning “democratic” elections with 92% or 95% of the vote, while his opponents languished in prison. Ould Vall promised that there would be free and democratic elections within two years, and that neither he nor any of the military council would run.

And everyone thought skeptically “Wouldn’t that be nice?” and sat back to watch.

Last summer, a year after the coup, Mauritanians voted on a new constitution. Among other things, it guaranteed a 5-year term for the president, and stated that the president could only be elected twice. No more “in it for life” dictator-types, in other words.

Last November, elections were held for parliamentary positions and also for mayors of various townships and neighbourhoods. Observers from the EU and the AU praised them for their transparency. I heard a story about how someone important came to cast his vote and, as was his habit, began to push his way to the front of the line. In the past, this would have been accepted as normal, but instead he was forced back to the end of the line, to wait out in the hot sun like everyone else.

And finally, last month, presidential elections were held. As he had promised, Ould Vall did not run. There were 19 candidates, 4 of whom had a real chance. Two split the main percentage of the vote; in the run-off election, a man named Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi became Mauritania’s first democratically-elected president.

A  Sudanese friend had said to Donn, “There’s never been a free election in Africa. Are you telling me the first will be in Mauritania?” It was. Even people who were not thrilled with the outcome praised the elections. He really won, they assured me. And so, in this quiet way, this little desert country of only 3 million people, this nation of sand and barren hills where even the capital city is full of goats and camels, became a leader.

Mauritania is in many ways half-Arab, half-African. But true democracy is rare in either world. Usually, when a country turns to democracy, there is fighting and rioting; everyone wants to be the winner at any price. Look at the news from Nigeria, the former Zaire, Iraq, to name but a few. But here, amongst a nation still struggling with tribalism and the legacy of slavery, poverty and illiteracy, democracy was welcomed.

Oh sure, it wasn’t perfect. One of my older students had to miss class to travel to his village; he told me, “200 people are dependent on me to help them know who to vote for.” But then, America can’t exactly talk—we’ve had our own issues recently (hanging chads, anyone?), and we’ve been working on this for over 200 years now.

All week, the city has been washing its face, so to speak. Trash has been picked up. Long stretches of concrete wall along the main roads have been repaired and painted. Crews of men with pots of fresh cement have repaired curbs, which given the driving around here were in pretty bad shape. Date palms have been planted all along the main roads. It looks really nice in comparison to normal, although I wonder how it will strike those unused to its particular charms. Also how long before it resumes its normal littered look.

Today the streets are lined with soldiers. Many roads are completely closed off, rendering traffic even worse than usual. There are cannons and anti-aircraft guns pointed above the horizon in all directions.  There is a ceremony brewing and high-ranking dignitaries from 11 countries have already discovered there aren’t a lot of hotels here. Though tempted to claim that it is all in honor of today being our 6th year anniversary here, this is all in preparation for the inauguration of the new President. The population was warned in advance that there would be a 21 gun salute, in order to avoid widespread panic.

Donn went to buy a phone card this morning from our regular seller, who was listening to the radio. “We’re the best democracy in the world!” he announced happily. Ok, in the real world? Not exactly. But today marks the celebration of an incredibly large step in the right direction. Congratulations to my adopted country.

(And for those of you who read my earlier post on the subject, the Purple Candidate with the rap music is the winner!)

This is part 2 of an earlier post.

Remember that Sting song from the 80s, with the chorus about “if the Russians love their children, too.” He made the point that in certain elemental ways, people are the same across the globe. In one of the many classes we took on cross-cultural training, preparatory to moving our family from green forested Oregon to the wind-blown sands of the Sahara, they told us that “everyone is like everyone else; everyone is like someone else; everyone is like no-one else.” In other words, everyone has the same basic needs—food, water, shelter—and many of the same desires—marriage, children, success, although what these things look like varies around the world. Everyone is like some other people; those from similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds, from the same tribe, religion, etc. And, of course, everyone is unique, with their own story, experiences, and preferences.

All this is a long introduction to the topic of mother-fear; protecting our children. Or not, as the case may be.

Part I talked about how maybe SOME modern American moms are going a teensy-bit overboard, what with not letting their kids drink tap water and did I actually see that booster seats are now REQUIRED till the kid is 12 or a certain height? (What’s next? Booster seats for adults under 5’4”? How about if we just don’t leave the house?) Ironically, this hyper-sensitivity to potential dangers has developed in a time of unprecedented safety, at least in the West. Infant mortality is so low that babies born 15 weeks premature can survive and even thrive. Vaccinations guarantee safety from those childhood killers of the past—diphtheria, polio, smallpox, etc. Access to safe drinking water and vitamin-enriched flour and cereal are so basic that they are taken for granted.

Then, there’s Nouakchott. The first few months we lived in this house, Donn and I lived a nightmare every time we backed our car out of our garage. A sweet, chubby two-year-old, who lived in the barak (wooden shack) just opposite, LOVED to run behind our big four-wheel-drive. You can’t see a sweet, chubby two-year-old behind your big 4WD—he’s just too small. We would look carefully before we backed up, making sure he wasn’t heading our way. Sometimes he would run quickly out of the barak alongside us. We were petrified that he would trip and fall in front of our wheels. We tried to talk to the parents about it, but they just smiled and nodded and nothing changed, until finally a neighbour saw one of our near-accidents and yelled at the parents at the top of his lungs. After that, they assigned his five-year-old sister to keep him out of the way. Apparently that was our mistake—we didn’t come across as angry enough.

And car seats? Don’t really exist—certainly not required. You can buy them here now, drastically over-priced in the trendy Westernish shops. Ironically, this is a place where you really should wear seat-belts (and we do! Honest! Some of the time…) and have car-seats. Instead, babies sit on their mothers’ laps, cars are crammed full with two layers of people and animals tied on top, and enormous trucks without brakes barrel through intersections without slowing down.

Perhaps the difference is that where safety can’t be taken for granted, fatalism takes over. In this Muslim country, religion also plays a role: Islam teaches that even the tiniest of events is the “will of Allah,” excluding personal responsibility to the extent that if your toddler is run over, you will grieve, yes, but you will also shrug your shoulders at the inevitability of life in all its tragedy and joy. Westerners, frustrated, say that yes it may very well be the will of Allah, but a little intervention on the part of the parents wouldn’t hurt either.

There are so many factors at play here. Several years ago, my friend Beth went to the national hospital here with her friend Couru, who was giving birth. During the time she was there, 5 babies were born. 3 didn’t go home with their mothers; they were buried in the children’s cemetery that backs the hospital, and is included in the same wall surrounding the hospital complex. Mad wisely pointed out in her comment on my first part that part of our increased sense of uncertainty and mother-fear is that, whereas our grandparents were likely to have 9 kids and expected they would lose a couple, we are likely to have 1 to 3 and not expect to lose any. Here, parents may still expect to lose a couple—to untreated malaria or cholera, to diarrhea. Death can sometimes be prevented by something as simple as a bottle of clean water (like American tap water, for instance) with a pinch of salt and a handful of sugar added. Car accidents take many lives.

As is typical, the divide is between rich (and educated) and poor; my friend Aicha will have 2 or 3 children and all will no doubt survive to adulthood; the family in the barak will have a child every year—they will be, as Elliot, in his innocence of economic and educational factors, put it, “Poor in stuff but rich in children.”  They’re up to about 6 or 7 now, although it’s hard to tell because there are about 3 or 4 girls all within a year of each other, and I get them mixed up. The children play in the street. They still sometimes chase our car.

Of course my children don’t play in the dirt (much) and I make them wear shoes (most of the time). For us, life here really isn’t more dangerous than in the US; we live in a Western-style house with running water and electricity that works most of the time. The whole family’s gotten intestinal parasites on village trips but it’s no big deal; you just take some pills, drink Sprite, spend a day or two on the couch watching TV.  On the other hand, in this dry, hot climate, we rarely get colds or flu. I read your blogs—you get sick more often than we do, in damp climates, with lice infestations.

In many ways, my children are much safer here; for example, they can run unsupervised to the corner boutique seven times a day if I keep forgetting things I need like butter, milk, laundry soap, or matches. No one will hurt them. (Funny aside: once Ilsa had a friend over and I sent the two of them to the boutique, with promises they could spend the change on candy. There’s a mosque right across the street from us, and the call to prayer was just beginning. “Bon jour les filles” announced the muezzin over the loudspeaker, before beginning the “Allah akbar.”)

Once in a while, I answer the doorbell to someone with an official-looking folder from WHO, wanting to know if I have any children in the house. Yes, I assure them, and they’ve already been vaccinated against polio. I don’t have to produce any proof—my white skin is enough; so they scrawl a symbol on my whitewashed wall in blue chalk and move on to my neighbour’s. A physical therapist spent 2 years here and told me that everyday she saw things that in the US are only textbook cases now, basically eradicated.

We go to the beach every week and the current here is often quite strong; we keep a close eye on the kids but unless it’s really bad, we let them battle it. They want to; they go out with their friends, armed with faded and aging boogie-boards against the choppy waves. All three are strong swimmers, learning to make wise choices based on factors other than timidity. The sharks are small here, too.

When I’m back in the US, I notice my “mom-radar” is much more relaxed than my friends’. I don’t keep my kids constantly in sight.  I am relaxed at playgrounds and public parks; I don’t panic at malls if they are a couple of clothes racks away.  I let them drink from the water fountains. (How can that be worse than drinking tea with the barak family, who sometimes buy water from a donkey cart?) I even let them share drinks with their friends. Yep, I like to live dangerously all right.
I don’t really have any brilliant conclusions here. Life is uncertain no matter where you live and always has been. We are not in control as much as we pretend we are. But exaggerating our sense of danger isn’t ultimately doing our kids any favors.

“You look terrible—weak and feeble,” Ma told me. I don’t see Ma very often—every few months, maybe. We’re not close; we have mutual friends, and once in a while see each other at their houses. She was startled when I smiled and blew her a kiss. I knew what she meant—that I’d lost weight. Later, Donn said to me, “Why did she say that to you?” We both know that in Mauritanian culture, it’s insulting to tell a woman she’s lost weight—sorta like Americans telling each other, “Wow, looks like you’ve gained weight! Been laying on the Cheetos and Ben & Jerry’s lately, I see.”

He was bothered by it but I wasn’t. First of all, it’s impossible for me to feel insulted when someone tells me I look like I’ve lost weight—especially as I HAVE, and I’ve been working hard at it thank you. But also, I’ve spent more time with Mauritanian women than Donn has and I’m more used to them. Blunt is the word.

The other night, Michelle and I were over at Aicha’s house. She and her husband are building an apartment on top of her in-law’s home. They are going all out—everything is high quality, carefully done. She has a little alcove where she’s put decorative tile in a geometric pattern and 2 black couches, with a plant in the corner between them and colourful cushions on the couches. It looks very attractive and very Western, and it’s the first time I’ve seen such an arrangement in a Maure home. Maure homes are all tiled, but have wall-to-wall carpets laid down in the salons; they consider it a fashion faux pas to show tile. On top of the carpet, they might put Persian-style rugs. I happen to like tile—what’s the point of pretty tile if you cover it all up? I demand rhetorically of Donn, who agrees. Our salon has 2 Persian-style rugs laid on the grey and white patterned tile and I think it looks nice.

Michelle and I ooh’ed and aah’ed over Aicha’s arrangement. But later that evening, Aicha’s aunt (who is close to our age) stopped by. “It looks terrible!” she scolded. “Can’t you afford carpet?” Michelle and I laughed. Sometimes it stings to be told your hair looks funny, or to have your accent mocked, or to be told Americans are stupid with languages because you are struggling to pronounce the “ein” which is a terrible sound you make in the back of your throat. But knowing that they’re basically all like that, that they aren’t just mocking you because you’re an outsider but that they treat each other the same way, helps you deal with it.

I went to a wedding Saturday night. We were there for about 2 hours, and left without ever seeing the bride and groom.

This particular saga started for me on Thursday night. Amina’s in town, and she stopped by to tell me her sister was getting married on Saturday. “Why this weekend?” I moaned to Donn. Because of course this weekend was packed, with egg-dyeing planned for Friday, egg-hunting and a dessert for the adults planned for Saturday night, and of course Easter service on Sunday. I said I’d visit her at her family’s home on Friday night after all the eggs were dyed, and come to the wedding around 10 p.m. after the dessert on Sat. Then another friend called to invite us to something else on Sat. evening. Sigh. I thought regretfully of all those uneventful weekends. It never rains…

When I arrived at Amina’s family’s house Friday evening to greet her, the guard took me all the way around the house to enter through the back door, because every inch of floor downstairs was covered in Persian carpets laid down for the celebrations next day. I stumbled along in the dark and one of Amina’s many sisters met me and ushered me upstairs, to a room full of women. The bride-to-be, Maryam, was lying propped against big cushions, her feet elevated, hands up, all extremities covered in plastic bags. She laughed when she saw me, a note of triumph in her voice. “M’baruk,” (congratulations) I told her. “I asked God for a husband, and now I have one,” she said triumphantly in her low, husky voice. I laughed with her, somewhat amazed. She patted the carpet beside her so I sat there while she told me all about her husband.

This is the first time I’ve seen a Maure woman openly happy about her wedding. “My mother keeps telling me to hide my face,” she chuckled, as another friend pulled her muluffa up over her head for her, since her plastic-bandaged hands weren’t functional. Brides aren’t supposed to show any joy—that is considered brazen and rude. Other brides I’ve seen have trembled, looked scared, unhappy, reluctant. They are following the dictates of their culture. But Maryam is unashamedly chuckling and happy, although she reassures me that she won’t embarrass her family by being like this at the actual wedding. It’s refreshing.

I stay for a few hours. Amina takes me into another room to show me her sister’s outfit for the wedding; a black muluffa with a white one wrapped around the shoulders. “White symbolizes that she’s a virgin,” she tells me. “Traditionally, the couple would sleep on it, and then it would be shown to the groom’s family as proof that she was a virgin.” I nod understandingly. I’ve heard of this, although not round here. “They only do this in the villages,” Amina reassures me, “and even there it’s not too common anymore.” She’s embarrassed; worried I will think they are hopelessly backward, and so moves on quickly to show me lingerie that the bride has collected over the past few years.

I sit out in the other room next to Maryam while the henna woman removes the plastic bags from her feet. Underneath, her feet are wrapped in disintegrating toilet paper and daubed in thick, greenish-black henna, the consistency of mud. I wish fruitlessly for my camera; her feet look like something out of a plague, or perhaps Lazarus emerging from the tomb, blinking in the light of day, wrapped in decaying bandages. The henna woman (what would you call her?) chats ceaselessly on a pink cell phone while ripping adhesive tape cut in swirls and stripes off Maryam’s feet and ankles. The tape is cut into patterns, and the henna daubed over it and left for hours to set. Henna dyes last about 10 days on the skin and are permanent on the nails; most Mauritanian women have orange half-moons of various henna jobs growing out.

The henna is the most elaborate I’ve ever seen. It covers her feet and ankles in a solid pattern of arabesques, dots, swirls and stripes. “My husband is paying for it,” Maryam tells me. He’s in the army, and was recently in Hungary, and brought back European chocolates. Maryam and Amina tell me that at some point, he will literally shower the henna woman in chocolates and phone cards, and others around her will scramble to collect a few goodies themselves. (I hope I’m there—I could use a phone card myself! And I’m always up for European chocolate. But I’m not there at the right time) The henna is so elaborate that it took four women (one on each extremity) working six hours; then Maryam had to just sit there with her hands and feet wrapped in plastic for another 3-4 hours, waiting for it to “set.” Next day, she’ll have her hair braided and wrapped around a golden head-dress—another day of sitting still and waiting. The total for both, she tells me proudly, is 100,000UM–$400. Her husband will pay, she underlines for me. He phoned the henna woman himself and told her to do an exceptional job.

Saturday evening, at 10 p.m., we’re still drinking coffee and chatting with American friends; the kids have found most of the eggs hidden in the dark yard; Donn and Jeremy both made ice-cream; things are still winding down. I don’t want to go to the wedding; I’m tired. But I was invited TWICE and I did say I’d go. Michelle agrees to come; she knows one of the sisters. We go to my house to change and add lipstick and jewelry; Maure women glitter when they go out. Ilsa agrees to come; she’s my ticket out of there. The wedding will go till 2 or 3 a.m., but if I have my sleepy daughter along who needs to get to bed, I have the perfect excuse to leave anytime I want.

The wedding is held at a nearby wedding center. It’s a walled courtyard open to the sky, partly sheltered under enormous tents. It’s packed. We park some distance off and make our way to the door, running the gamut of the 20 or so men who are hanging around, looking bored, outside.

Inside it is packed, wall-to-wall women in muluffas sitting on the floor. After a quick glance round, we plop ourselves down near the door, but one of the sisters has spotted us and makes her way from the front, stepping over women’s laps and feet, to greet us. “You must come up front,” she tells us. We don’t want to, but protests will be useless and it’s too loud anyway, so we follow her, threading our way through the seated women in their variegated muluffas. She puts us in chairs in front of everyone but since we’re next to the band it works out ok as people are constantly walking in front of us, so we have a good view without feeling that everyone’s staring at us.

Next to us is the loudspeaker, blaring. It’s like being at a rock concert, up front next to the speakers, except that instead of rock, it’s the sliding wails of Mauritanian music, which is difficult for Western ears to appreciate—and yes, I like world-beat as well as you do, trust me, this is different.

I stare out at the crowd. I’m terrible at estimating numbers, so I shout at Michelle, “I think there must be 500 women here! Do you think that?” She shrugs. She has no idea either! And she’s an accountant. I think accountants should be better at estimating crowd numbers than we literary types, don’t you? But she agreed so I’m sticking to my 500 estimate. And this is just the women. At Maryam’s house are all the older men of the tribe, sitting on the Persian carpets. Her closest male relatives are closeted with the groom, working out the marriage settlement. (This involves money paid to the bride and her family, and usually certain deals such as a house provided, a length of time in which he will not divorce her (typically 3 months minimum), and a promise not to take another wife while still married to her)

The singer begins wailing a song with Maryam’s name in it. The settlement must have been reached, in that house across town. The women begin to dance. Maryam’s closest friends and relatives are dressed in matching muluffas—sectioned in yellow and a dark brownish purple—and glitter with gold in their hair and at their wrists and ankles, high heels, pale face powder and dark lipstick. Amina has put in her green contacts and hennaed her hair a deep orange. They all look beautiful, and they begin to ululate and dance around the singer, showering her with 1000UM and 2000UM notes. The audience claps along.

It’s so loud that I have to shout in Michelle’s ear to say something, and even then she might not hear me. In spite of the noise, Ilsa curls up at my feet and goes to sleep, her hair drifting onto the tray holding Cokes, bottled water, mango juice, Sprite, and other drinks. Sure it’s nearly midnight, but how can she sleep in the noise and commotion? Mauritanian children come to stare at her in bewilderment—little ones of 4 or 5 who have no problem staying up till midnight and beyond, wondering why this pale child has already succumbed to sleep.

Amina comes to tell us the plan. At midnight, there will be a procession of cars, honking incessantly, over to her parent’s house. There, the bride and groom will be presented. We will sit with Maryam until 6 a.m., when she and her new husband will leave to travel. As modern, well-off Mauritanians, they have adopted the trendy new custom of a honeymoon.

We watch the 2 singers; the older woman, in a red and black muluffa patterned with circles, sings in a deep voice, while the younger woman, in a yellow muluffa with lilac arabesques and flowers, dances. She pulls her muluffa over her face and twirls slowly, snapping her fingers, thrusting her hips, undulating her hands like water. Mauritanian dancing is not like traditional Arab dancing—it’s not as sensual as belly-dancing, for example; it’s slower and less aggressive. This woman is very graceful and fluid. I don’t know why they always cover their faces to dance. Afterwards, guests take turns dancing; their friends clap hands rhythmically behind them. Three men beat time; two have drums, but the one in the middle is beating the soles of his shoes on a large metal platter.

Serving men suddenly appear with platters of dates and crème fraiche, which are passed out to the crowd, platter after platter—there must be close to 100 platters total. They are collected about 20 minutes later, and then platters of goat meat, still on the bone, with a knife to cut with and a long baguette to eat with, are sent out into the crowd. Michelle and I speculate idly, albeit at the top of our lungs, on how many herds were slaughtered to provide for this meal. Then comes couscous in bowls. Michelle and I pass on all this; sitting up on our chairs, protesting that we ate already, it’s easier than it usually is.

By now it’s 12:30 a.m. After the couscous, a lot of women leave—maybe half of them—but there are still a lot sitting there, a kaleidoscope of colours in their multi-coloured and patterned veils. Around the far edge, the tent is patterned in green and red and gold; underneath it are couches, with older women sitting on them. I wish I was back there and that I had a camera with me. (I’ve got to start carrying my camera around all the time. Maybe I could get a cell phone with a camera?) However, the matching muluffa set are all dancing again, and in general none of the people likely to go to the house show any signs of leaving. Somewhat reluctantly (if it was any other weekend!), Michelle and I decide to leave.

I drag Ilsa to her feet, try to get her steady. Sure enough, she’s my ticket out past the protests of the sisters—no, stay, come with us, please, you haven’t even seen Maryam, please come. I parade her in front of them, bleary-eyed, barely able to stand, and they release us regretfully but graciously. Holding hands with Ilsa, Michelle and I steer our way back through the crowd, out through the mélange of vehicles, back to the car. It’s 1 a.m. by the time we’re in bed, and next morning we have plans.

We didn’t even get to see the bride or the groom. That’s a wedding in Mauritania. Once you’ve eaten the sheep and couscous, you can go. Unless you’re a close friend or relative, it’s not unusual to not even see the happy couple. But it’s always a late-night event.

Last summer, I went shopping at the Clackamas Meier & Frank (detail for you Portland readers! Both of you!) with my mother. She’s getting frail, and it’s hard for her to walk long distances, so we borrowed a wheelchair from the mall and I wheeled her round. At one point, we were waiting for an elevator when a mum with a kid and a baby in a stroller came along. The little girl, who was about 6, saw a water fountain and started to take a drink. Her mother freaked out. “Stop! That water’s dirty! Don’t touch it!!” she shrieked at her startled child. “But I’m thirsty,” whined the girl. “We have bottled water in the car. We’ll go there now.” The mother shooed the girl and the stroller into the elevator and they were off.

I stared after them in horror. Dirty? A drinking fountain in an American mall? Does that mother have no idea of what safe drinking water actually means? I felt sorry for that child, growing up in a safe environment yet being raised to fear the world around her.

I do realize I’m being judgmental. Maybe the child has some drastic hidden illness; maybe the mother was traumatized at a drinking fountain by a bully and has to confront her hidden fears every time she goes to the mall. Or did that sound sarcastic? The point is, I don’t know this woman’s story. But she typifies what seems in many ways to be modern America’s take on the modern world—it’s beyond our control and that scares us; we will deal with this by pretending we can control every tiny bit of life, and woe betide anyone who messes with our illusion!

Shannon posted a link to an article that deals with this. Raising children in fear. It’s something all mothers struggle with. How do we keep our children safe without communicating to them a debilitating caution with an activity as basic as drinking water, especially when that caution is overblown?

Elliot was born in July, 1995. The day I brought him home from hospital, I opened up the paper from his birthday to see what the headlines for this auspicious date were. And I read about the fall of Srebrenica, and how Muslim “men,” 13 and up, were rounded up and shot through the back of the head, until they all fell into a mass grave. This is how this world treats men, and I had brought a man-child into this world. I was terrified. I didn’t see how I could bear the burden of motherhood, the burden of desiring nothing more than the life, health and happiness of my children, fighting against all the uncaring billions who didn’t see how precious he was.

I worried a lot when my kids were little. I would pray against car accidents, cancer, weird bug bites, terrorism, predators, disease in general, earthquakes–OH and that they would grow up to be friends with each other and still like me and do well in school and get advanced degrees and spouses that I like and and and. I had the sort of attitude that if I could just think and plan for every possible contingency, somehow that would protect me against it, in some sort of weird superstitious way. I finally realized I couldn’t possibly think of everything. I might miss the spider bite, or the e-coli in the spinach, or the freak accident where a bookshelf collapsed or the head flew off a hammer or something else that I’d never even thought of!

And so, I realized that to stay sane, I had to not worry quite so much. I had to learn to take calculated risks; which is to say, not to engage in foolhardy behaviour (like driving the roads of Mauritania without a seat belt…shut up Donn! I do too wear it sometimes!) but not to be so afraid that you can’t (literally) share a bowl of zrig with a friend. It’s not so much that we ignore the dangers, just that we accept them as part of life as it’s been known on earth since the Garden of Eden. It’s not fatalism, it’s not superstition—it’s living life.

Our times are unique. We are safer than ever—much less likely to die in childbirth, to lose children to smallpox or TB or even the flu—yet we are much more aware when something does happen. We hear of bird flu in China and we are afraid, because the distance from there to here has shrunk to a matter of hours and minutes instead of weeks and months. Events such as Sept. 11 have shown us anew what was always true—we can’t control our world. We can’t keep planes in the air, or airborne diseases at bay; ships from sinking or potato famines from happening. We don’t have magic cloaks to shield our loved ones. And part of helping our children grow up (which is actually our job) is letting them learn it—teaching them to see the world as it is, and live in it not hide from it.

This weekend, the kids went to a sort of party that involved most of their English-speaking friends. The woman organizing the event planned a scavenger hunt. In teams of 3, they had to scour the sand looking for things such as a goat’s horn, or a braid of false hair. No problem—those things are readily to be found in the dusty alleyways of this capital city. She also gave each team 30 ougiya and told them they had to buy steel wool at a local boutique. The trick was that steel wool costs 40 ougiya a pad—the kids had to bargain them down. I wonder what the boutiquiers thought of all these white kids proffering two coins in sweaty hands while trying desperately to get them down 10 ougiya, just under 4 cents. One of Ilsa’s friends cried real tears while saying her mother would beat her—a story which is all too believable to locals. Apparently, she convinced one of the guys in the shop, but the other said, No way.

I’ve mentioned before that my kids aren’t tall. Ilsa just turned 10, but if you just saw her you’d probably think she was about 7 or 8. Sometimes this is a hindrance, but sometimes it’s an advantage to be thought younger than you are. She was the first of the kids to go into one of the boutiques, which I’m sure helped. Her friend Hanna told me how she just stood there, holding out her 30 ougiyas, making this face she makes whenever she’s trying to persuade me to let her do something. She opens her eyes wide, pulls down her mouth into a sad little bow, sometimes quivers the chin a bit, makes the eyebrows puppy-dog, blinks hard.

It worked. They found her charming, practically gave her the steel wool for free. She was the only one out of 6 teams to manage it.

“Congratulations,” I told her later. “You finally found someone the face works for.” Because, of course, it doesn’t work on her own parents or brothers.

I wonder how the face would work on the IRS?

April 2007
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