“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.

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