Today one of my close friends is getting married. She’s half-Sudanese, half-Moroccan, and her wedding reflects both sides of her heritage. I’m happy for her, but I’m sad for me–I can’t believe this is happening when I’m not there to see it. I can’t believe she won’t be in Morocco next year when we arrive, helping me learn a new culture and introducing me to her extended family.
Sumaia is beautiful. She has almond-shaped dark eyes and an oval face framed, always, by a hijab, the Muslim head scarf. Her eyes are sensitive and kind; she is often smiling. She dresses attractively yet modestly, in teals and turquoises and navy blue; tailored tunics that come down to her hips and long pants or skirts, all coordinated with shoes and handbag and scarf. She and her sister are thoughtful, articulate and intelligent, serious yet always ready to chat and laugh. They are motivated and hard working. They are the sort of girls you’d be proud to call your friends or your daughters.
I first got to know them when they joined my conversation group. That first group of women, who came to my house every Thursday evening for nearly 3 years, gave me my best and deepest relationships in my new country. (Subsequent groups gave me other friends, but not like these)
Now Michelle calls me from Nouakchott at 8 in the morning my time, when I am emptying the dryer looking for clean underwear for Ilsa. She tells me about the contract signing last night; how Sumaia had her hair straightened and a manicure done after the henna patterns had set (Moroccan hennas don’t include the nails like Mauritanian ones do). She appeared to her all-female guests first in a traditional Moroccan dress; then in a traditional Sudanese one.
Michelle tells me that our Palestinian friends were there, along with many other Arab women. Knowing this, I can picture the party. Everyone arrives swathed head to toe in fabric, then behind closed doors strips down to tiny t-shirts and sparkling high heels. Arab pop music pumps through the house, and the women dance with each other, gyrating to the rhythmic beat, with twirling raised arms and seductive hips. Closed and shuttered windows and doors guarantee stifling temperatures. Around the edges sit the older women, still fully covered, chatting and drinking tea and watching. I’ve heard that they eye the girls for suitable brides for their sons. These all-female parties are strange to the Western outsider. The young women are beautiful, but all this beauty can be revealed only to other women or to their husbands, brothers, or fathers–no other male can catch even a glimpse of it. So they express their pent-up sensuality in all-female groups, although it is not intended for any other female.
After the dancing, the women ate cakes and pastries, drank sweet mint tea, and talked excitedly. Around midnight, they began to leave the bride’s house.
The contract has been signed, and tomorrow is the wedding. I can’t describe it for you; I can’t picture it, and our international phone connection was so bad that Michelle and I got cut off multiple times and finally had to give up. Moroccan weddings are totally different than Mauritanian ones. The bride wears a white wedding dress, then changes into a Moroccan dress, then changes again–as many as 9 times. The groom is there too, and friends carry the two around in special chairs. (I’ve seen these chairs in the marketplaces; elaborate silver creations worthy of Disney to my mind, yet I don’t doubt that in context they seem lovely and ornate) I don’t know how much of this they will pull off in Mauritania, where perhaps the Moroccan embassy would have a chair they could borrow but perhaps not, and where Sumaia didn’t want to do all 9 changes of clothes anyway.
Then, the groom will leave for Sudan, and the bride will continue to live in her parents’ house. This is not normal, but it is part of their specific marriage contract–they are legally married but will not touch for at least several months. Sumaia has spent the past 3 years living in Morocco, at first with her mother’s family and then in student housing, working on her Masters’ degree. She has not yet finished and defended her thesis, and her parents won’t allow her to be fully married until that is finished. When it is, she’ll join her husband in Sudan.
Her sister, also my good friend, sent me an email announcing the good news. I already knew–Sumaia and I often instant-message across the miles, and she and I chatted for a couple of hours last week. I’ve followed the ups and downs of this thoroughly-modern Arab couple, who met and developed a friendship first and then approached her father, who has the final say in whether or not a marriage will exist.
Today, it is raining here in Portland. Drops slide down the windowpane; during the short sunbreaks, squirrels flash their tails up and down the branches in the tiny woods out back, and birds fly in and out of our little barbecue, dipping tiny beaks into some collected rainwater. We’ve had the gas-fire on all day, trying to dry out Abel’s only pair of shoes, which he soaked in the small creek out back 3 days ago. (He’s been wearing sandals with socks; a definite fashion risk) I’m a world away from that hot room in a desert city, where today my friends are celebrating the start of their lives together, even though those lives won’t start quite yet.
I wish for them a long and happy marriage; children that adore them; a determination and love that will carry them through the rough times and difficult spots that are inevitable. But I also wish that their travels and ours will coincide often; that I will get to spend extended time once again with this young wife who is so dear to me.