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This weekend, some friends had an international party. People were supposed to dress up, should they feel so inclined and have the clothes for it, and bring something to eat, preferably from another country, along with the recipe.
Against my better judgment, I let Donn talk me into donning a mulaffa for the first time since that wedding. I don’t mind wearing them in Mauritania, where at least I sort of blend in. But here, on a freezing Portland November night, a woman in high-heeled sandals, no stockings, wearing a thin tie-dyed head-to-toe covering tends to stand out a bit.
At least I wasn’t wearing pointy white shoes and a belt to my ankles, like Donn was.
We would have won Weirdest Costume if anyone had been giving out prizes. Mauritanian clothes are just bizarre. The dra:ah (long wide men’s robe) is meant to double as a tent, should you ever be stuck out in the desert, but it doesn’t quite work as an umbrella. Compared to us, the woman in Indian costume and the man in jeans with a pot of borscht seemed quite normal.
It was strange to once again wrap myself in a mulaffa. I did it right; I went all out. I began by coordinating my clothes for underneath. Mulaffas are often thin and fluttery, and glimpses of the underneath clothes can be seen. This particular mulaffa is light green and dark blue, with white dots tie-dyed into it, so I put on a blue skirt and a black shirt, and wore my highest black heels. I put a silver and blue bracelet on one wrist, and a purple and blue bracelet on the other. I put on tons of makeup and wrapped my mulaffa tightly round my face so my hair didn’t show, as if I were a devout woman who refused to show my hair.
Of course it fell off. Even Mauritanian women, who wear these things daily from age 13 or so and never appear in public without one on, are constantly readjusting their mulaffas. For me, with my finer hair which I wash daily, mulaffas constantly slip off. I spent the evening adjusting and readjusting and getting cross with it. I even, shameless hussy that I am, took it halfway off to redo it. Even though they are completely covered underneath, a Maure woman would NEVER dream of doing this in public. I don‘t think my American friends were shocked to see me in a t-shirt, though.
As I carried my chicken-olive tagine carefully out to the car, I wondered what the neighbours would think of us. Fortunately it gets dark by about noon these days, it seems anyway. (No we’re not in Alaska–we’re adjusting, remember?) Everyone was inside, windows lit against the darkness, as we drove away into the night. I fastened my seat belt over the layers of gauzy fabric and felt strange and bulky. We rarely wore seatbelts in Mauritania, which I know is horrible and feel free to slam me in comments should you choose.
Later, home again with squished hair and aching calves, our conversation turned naturally to our old home. (Let me qualify that Donn’s hair was not squished nor were his calves aching. That part was me)
Lately, we’ve been a bit homesick. Go ahead and splutter and spew your coffee. I wasn’t sorry to leave; I mean, I was, but at the same time, I was so excited to be here, to enjoy fall, and to experience Morocco next year. None of those emotions have changed. I’m so happy to be here! I talk to my mother on the phone several times a week; I see Heather frequently; I am, as you may have noticed, enjoying the beauty around me to the fullest. I’m so excited to have a proper Thanksgiving complete with actual turkey instead of chicken, and real cranberry sauce. I can’t wait for Christmas; this one will once again be cold and crisp, and I’ll be surrounded by people who are celebrating too. We’ll get a real tree for the first time in years!
At the exact same time, I miss Mauritania. I think of streets, of markets, of the university, and it seems inconceivable to me that I will never see them again. I imagine our garden, our little “corner of Paradise,“ is dead by now. I look at pictures of the desert, of wind-carved rock and barren shrub, of suspicious people swathed to the eyebrows looking askance at my photographer husband. I don’t want to be there, but I want to be there.
It is like I am two people. These places, Oregon and Nouakchott, are the exact opposite. That’s why I named my blog “Planet Nomad”–I meant that Mauritania was like another planet, one that celebrates nomads. So how can one person want to be in two places at once? I am totally content to be here; I snuggle under a blanket on the couch and stare out at the last few golden leaves falling in a frenzy under the lashing of the wind, I drift into Starbucks just to inhale the aroma of coffee. The kids and I joined the library and checked out armloads of books, laughing gleefully, feeling as if we were getting away with something, as we walked out to the car with our booty. They miss their friends; they even miss their school. Mauritania was home to them.
My henna is nearly gone now. There are the tiniest smudges of orange on the very tips of my fingers, and about a centimeter on my thumbs. (Toes are a different matter, but at least I wear socks most days so don’t have to deal with it) It looks a little odd, but I usually cover it with nail polish. Even when I don’t, most people don’t look all that closely at your finger nails. But my swirling, conflicted emotions remain, from that July afternoon when I walked through the dust of the marketplace with plastic bags on my feet and smudges of henna between my toes and fingertips, excited to leave but dreading it at the same time.

November 2007

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