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Ilsa is worried about going to school in America next year. “What if I don’t do well in conjugation?” she says. “What if they ask me to write a paragraph in the past simple and I don’t know what that is?” “Don’t worry,” I tell her. Conjugation isn’t likely to be a problem. I expect she’ll do fine, even well, but she’s not comforted by my vague answers.

She asks about the popular kids. “What is American school like? Is it like French school? Are the popular kids the smart ones? Or is it like in the movies?” “Like the movies,” I think, but I don’t say this. Maybe her junior high will somehow be different. I don’t know. I remember moving, at the age of nearly 12, from a tiny town on the Canadian prairies to a new town and new school in California, and how terrified I was, thanks to the movies, and scary books like “Blubber.” They proved to be accurate enough in my case, and I hated that California junior high. I don’t want her to hate her new school. I don’t want it to be like the movies.

In the meantime, I search for online school reviews. One says, “Before I came to X school, I got bad grades, but hear I get strate A’s.” This stresses me no end. No way can I send them to this school.

I shoot off frantic emails to friends. “What do you know about schools?” I ask them. I have a friend who’s an elementary school principal and she’s fantastic, telling me which schools are good, pointing me in the right direction. I find a review praising a junior high for involved teachers and high academic standards. Of course these new schools have requirements that families live within certain boundaries. I don’t know how we’re going to manage that in time.

When I was in junior high, I looked forward desperately to adulthood. I would see my mother, on her rare visits to my school, chatting confidently with my teachers. I wonder, now, if she was as worried for me as I am for my own children. Perhaps she wasn’t. After all, we all project our own experiences and backgrounds onto our present lives. Her childhood in a Welsh town, attending a school where the headmistress was a personal friend of my grandmother’s, experiencing WW2 and its aftermath, was very different from mine. I suspect when you are grieving the loss of a close cousin whose house was bombed, or helping refugee children from London settle in the area, you aren’t so worried about what’s in style and who’s not speaking to whom. Ilsa’s experience, again, is vastly different; although she’ll go to an American school next year, she’ll probably drop a few French words here and there, show up with a fountain pen in her trousse, and generally be exotic enough that I suspect she’ll enjoy at least some initial popularity. I hope so! Because I, too, am worried about school in America next year.

There are many things going on in my life right now, that I will bore you with tell you all about sometime, and I haven’t been posting. In the meantime, I’m going to do several short posts on some of the highlights of the past few weeks.

8 days ago now, the kids got out of school for the summer. (They get out early because they attend a collége, which is middle school in the French system, with the equivalents of Grades 6, 7, 8 and 9. In order to advance to lycée or high school, students are required to take a week-long exam called the brevet at the end of Grade 9. The 9th-graders are given a week to review, and then of course a week to take the exam, so school ends mid-June for the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Was this too much information for a summer afternoon? Sorry)  Donn and I happened to be coming home right as school finished that last day, and we heard a mighty cheer go up! It was pretty fun. 10 minutes later our kids burst in the door, faces flushed with excitement, to tell me about the all-school party that had occupied their afternoon. Ilsa had taken in a plain white t-shirt and had it signed by most of her classmates and teachers, as well as the principal and vice-principal.

Ilsa prepared for her last day with great aplomb. She and I have had plenty of hennas done in our time, but for the first time, she decided to do it herself! We mixed henna with water to form a paste and she squirted it out of an empty syringe to make patterns up her left arm and on her ankles (and mine!).  Then we put lemon juice on to help it set well.

ingredients

preparation

starting

finished product

Over the past, oh 20 years or so, I’ve fallen into the habit of getting my hair cut only about twice a year, sometimes less. At first I like it, then I get sick of it, then I decide to grow it out, then I decide I look frumpy, then I get it cut again. That’s because no matter what I do to it, by the end of the day it looks the same. It will always be curly. It looks best medium length, with some layers. It’s boring. I buy mousse and shampoos marketed at curly hair, and I believe they make a difference although my husband, who is bald, is not convinced.

My last visit to the coiffeuse was in June, so my hair had gotten quite long. And by long I mean past my shoulders by a few inches. Remember, curly. Yeah. But since it was a grow-out of a shorter cut, it needed to be shaped and trimmed, I felt.

I pondered my hair at odd times. I was in a taxi on my way downtown, sitting next to the taxi driver, “When I Need You” playing on the radio station that plays obscure English songs. Incredibly, the taxi driver started singing along.

Should I go back to Madame and her little local salon, where it’s less expensive but seems somewhat limited? Or should I splurge and go to a more Westernized place, in hope of getting something different than the standard cut? “Wen I neeeeed luf! I just close mi EEEYYYYYEEESSS…” warbles the taxi driver, like he’s trying to be the Rabat version of a Venetian gondolier. I decide to try the more Westernized salon, for a change.

Since I go so rarely, I tend to forget the vocabulary, so I spent some time doing research ahead of time. I reminded myself of the word for layers, and how to explain how much my hair shrinks when dry, and how to explain that if my hair is all one length it will form a sort of tangled triangle.

I show up on time, and the woman looks vague but then remembers my appointment. “Madame Jeness?” she says. I nod. One of the fun things about taking a common name like Jones overseas is that it becomes exotic. My kids used to be so amazed, reading books, when the lady down the street was named Mrs. Jones. “Like us!” they used to exclaim in excitement, while I would roll my eyes.

I had specifically asked for just a shampoo and cut, declining to pay extra for the dubious pleasure of having my hair styled and sprayed into a stiff bouffant version of its former self that would only last till the next day anyway. I carefully explained what I wanted, using all my new-found vocabulary strength.

She shampooed my hair, settled me in a chair and away she went! About half way through, I knew that this was not what I had asked for. Moments like this leave me puzzled. Is it that my French is just not understandable? Was I having an off day? Or did she not really listen? Or, even, was this just her version of the standard cut?

At the end, she re-shampooed my hair (not sure why) and blew it dry so that I wouldn’t have to catch my death of pneumonia by daring to walk outside on a 70-degree day with damp hair. It was kind of her. I liked her. She added a bit of gel to give the curls a bit of definition, and we were done.

She did a good job, I’ll give her that. And it’s not the same cut that Madame does, I’ll give her that too. It was professionally done, nicely thinned, the shrinkage of the curl allowed for. I even like it. It looks fine.

But it’s not what I asked for.

On Tuesday morning, I spend a long time choosing my underwear. Not too big so I look dorky, but not too small either. I’m going to a hammam, where I will wear only my underwear, and I want to find the perfect balance.

This is my first visit to a hammam. They had them in Mauritania, but I was put off by my Arab friend Aicha’s description of waxing. “You leave a bottle of Fanta orange in the sun until it’s become just a paste, it’s sticky,” she told me. “Then you smear it on your arm and yank it off!” I curled my body into a ball and shrieked at the thought. I have very sensitive skin.

“No, no,” said my friend Sumi. “A hammam is a bath. It’s so relaxing, and afterwards you are so clean!” To top it off, an American friend described going to a Westernized upper-end hammam, where afterwards you lie on a heated marble slab while getting a massage. That did it. I was convinced I had to try it.

I wanted to try a traditional Moroccan hammam rather than one that caters more to expatriates. Sumi offered to take me to the one nearest her house, in L’Ocean. (Guess where that part of the city is?) She bought me a keiss at the market, which is basically sandpaper disguised as a sponge. She bought the traditional soap, which is piled in goopy brown pyramids in the medina. She tells me it’s made from “olive bones.” I don’t correct her because I like this imagery.

The hammam has women’s hours in the mornings, and opens about 10. We meet at her place where we drink water before heading over. When we walk in, we see piles of wood, roots of trees, etc. “That’s very traditional,” she points out. The burning wood heats the water. Usually next door there’s the neighbourhood bakery, and the same fires are used to heat water and bake bread, but for some reason, next door in L’Ocean is a garage.

We pay our 11 dirhams (about $1.40) and enter a large tiled room. I sniff appreciatively—chlorine! Smells like a swimming pool! I feel like I’m in a  locker room as we put our bags down on a bench and strip to our undies, then hand our bags, plus 1 dirham (12 cents) to a woman who’ll watch them for us. We walk in to an empty room that’s only a little warmer than the one we just left, and from there into a room that’s definitely warm. Women sit round the edges, several of them accompanied by children. Each has several buckets in front of her.

We keep going into the hottest room, and take our places in the corner closest to the oven, which is behind the wall. “If it’s too hot, we can go back,” says Sumi, but honestly although it’s quite warm, it’s not even as hot as a sauna. We spread out our plastic mats and sit back. I’m impressed with this place—it’s very clean and tiled. We have plenty of company—there are probably 20 other women in the room, surrounded by their buckets, but everyone keeps to themselves.

Sumi’s already spoken to the woman who works there, who is wearing a headscarf in addition to her underwear. She brings us bucket after bucket of hot water, filled from the taps near us.

Sumi instructs on how to smear one’s body with the traditional soap, which she swears is unique in its properties to penetrate layers of dead skin cells. I dunno—my money’s on the sandpaper, but I don’t deny that it’s pleasant and may have exfoliating qualities. She even puts a little on her face.

We sit back and relax to let the soap soak in and loosen up those dead skin cells. We sit there, eyes mostly closed, for about 10-15 minutes before the woman comes back. She takes my keiss and briskly, professionally, rubs my entire body. It hurts! I grit my teeth and squinch my eyes. It feels lovely on my back, though. I open my eyes and view with amazement the fat grey little rolls of dead skin on the mat beside me. The woman laughs! Yes, it really works.

Afterwards, she rinses me off with the hot water from the buckets, at one point dumping an entire bucket over my head! Then she moves on to my friend. My skin is lobster red and I look parboiled, but I’m very relaxed. She refills our buckets, and I take my time shampooing my head, rinsing bits of dead skin off my mat.

We pad our way back out to the first room and retrieve our bags, then we wrap ourselves in towels and just sit on the benches for a while. We apply lotion to our bodies. Then we dress and head out back into the cold, draping scarves round our heads to ward off chill. We tip the “scrubbing woman” 30 dirhams each—about $3.75. Grand total for this expedition—a little over $5.

Back at her house, we drink several glasses of water and eat some oranges, chatting of this and that. Later, at my own home, I eat lunch and then just sort of sink into my bed. I can’t keep my eyes open. But my skin feels incredible. It’s never been this soft. I feel deeply clean and relaxed. I wake an hour or so later feeling refreshed and renewed, and totally addicted to this new experience. I can’t wait to go again.

On Saturday we went down to the rocks to photograph and I forgot my camera. Typical. “Remind me next time,” I said bitterly to Elliot, who wasn’t listening.

Drive just south of the city, past the Oudayas at the mouth of the river with the huge cemetery running down to the sea, past the lighthouse and the surf school, past the bicycle market. To your left are line upon line of apartment buildings and to your right is the Atlantic, in deep green today, and the setting sun is sometimes in your eyes as you follow the curves of the road.

Here you are: you are getting to the part where the cliff face falls down into rocky shelves and tide pools, where fisherman stand on the very edge of the sea and get soaked in the spray and as always, you worry about them being swept away. (I don’t know if it happens or not…is this part of a fatalistic view of life where preventative measures are not taken, or is it just not really all that dangerous? Some day I will find out and tell you.)

We swerve across oncoming traffic and park in a tiny spot in front of what looks to be an empty apartment building, newly built. Taking our lives into our hands, we commend our souls to God and cross the street, where we find ourselves at the top of a cliff. This area has an enormous shelf at the bottom, complete with tide pools, casual boulders scattered about, and a sandy bit where boys are playing soccer and turning cartwheels and flips.

We make our way down. Ilsa climbs an enormous rock and pulls out her sketching book and pencil case from school—the one I just had to replace because the first one got stolen. She drops a brand new pencil sharpener in the sand and I stoop and put it in my purse with a sigh. Boys come to show off, climbing behind her on rock, doing flips down the side, glancing sideways to see if she’s noticed their antics. They faux fight, they race. Ilsa sketches on, unmoved. The wind blows her long blonde hair behind her as she bends over her paper, concentrating on the silvery mermaid she is drawing. “I like to be the only one on the rock,” she tells me.

Later she decides to go rock climbing herself. The boys follow to where my daughter is scrambling up, her hair a golden curtain. It’s obvious to me what’s going on but Ilsa is oblivious still, disdainfully scorning a proffered hand when coming down, appalled at the offer of help which she interprets as doubt in her ability. She is a mystery to them, in her black leggings and tennis shoes and long hair, clambering all over the rocks. She fancies herself a tomboy and mocks the “Barbies” at her school, but she’s really quite feminine in many ways.

The boys continue to approach in a sort of dance. They don’t come too close, they take turns; there are definite rules to this. I think that I could map this out, the way they circle shyly, the way they punch each other and vie for who can throw his body into the air the highest. We are near a shelf of rock covered in tide pools. The boys strip to their underwear, run across the rocks, and suddenly dive into the one deep pool in all these tiny ones. I catch my breath because it looks so improbable, like they’ve somehow found a tiny stretch in the space-time continuum, a baggy part, where they can splash and play. It’s still dangerous, but it’s fun too, like watching those scooters weave through traffic—there’s freedom there.

A lot of this is done with sideway glances at Ilsa, who continues totally unaware. I’m glad for it, but part of me wishes she could see her power without being damaged by it, and that this knowledge could be a pool unexpectedly deep enough for diving set in the rocky shoals of the upcoming years. We leave them, still splashing, and set our faces towards the cliff that is our way home.

“There’s a new disease in the world, and it can kill you,” announced Ilsa’s friend J, a blond German girl with whom Ilsa speaks a mixture of French and English. “Yes, I know; swine flu,” I smile, reassuringly. But the discussion, complete with wide eyes and grand statements, continues.

“The internet says you’re not allowed to hug and kiss people anymore,” says J, “so you can’t kiss your brother anymore.” This announcement causes Ilsa to jump on Abel and kiss him wildly. Normally, 12 year old boy/girl twins don’t kiss anymore. Long gone are the days when they’d spontaneously hold hands and kiss each other and announce how much they loved each other, how when they grew up they were going to marry each other. Now that same love is shown in annoyance, in tricks, in teasing. Now if I tell them how they used to be, I get faux vomiting.

The children discuss this international news item. “In which country it started?” asks the girl. “I know it is in Spain now, which is close to Morocco, but it is not in Morocco…yet,” she adds ominously. She tells us that her 8 year-old sister was sobbing last night, because she thought she could no longer hug her mother.

I point out that the kids won’t have to greet French parents politely, with a kiss on each cheek. “You’ll like that.” For some reason, the kids have imbued enough American culture to be embarrassed by this, which has always made me a little sad. I love it when I see their friends at school and they practically line up to kiss me, so polite. My mind wanders a bit…I could see something like this being the death knell to a cultural practice that has no doubt endured for centuries. (My brief google search did not turn up a lot of history, although I did find a fascinating study on how many kisses to give depending on what region of France you’re in) Maybe the French will stop kissing in greeting during the pandemic (should it continue), and it’ll never really come back. I hope not.

“ I wonder if it will be something like the Black Death, and claim a ton of lives,” says Ilsa a bit ghoulishly, pulling me back to the current discussion. Abel demurs. “No! Nowadays we have medicine!”

“If you have it, you have it! There’s no medicine.” J smiles, defiantly. “That is why I’m scaarredd!” She says it triumphantly. Although these kids are worried (“We haven’t even lived half our lives!” says Ilsa, which leads to a discussion of how long lives are. “I’m too young to die!” says Abel, and I think, sadly, no), there’s something grand and fearless in their discussion of this reality too terrible to be imagined. I remember similar discussions from my own childhood, about nuclear bombs and, once, the possibility of a flash flood; the fear and the grown-up feeling of importance and the disbelief all rolled into one emotion.

The children are not the only ones discussing potential pandemics. I run into Ismail  and we end up chatting for a good 20 minutes, an occupational hazard of our front gate. “Have you heard of this grippe porcine?“ he asks me. He tells me that Morocco will no longer allow importation of pork meat, which is available here only in the bigger supermarkets, small wizened chorizo sausages imported from Spain and very expensive. I bought bacon for Donn’s birthday in September, one piece each for the family and 3 for him, and it cost me $12.

Ismail believes swine flu is a punishment from God on people who eat pork, but I explain no, it’s airborne. “Even those who don’t eat pig meat could die,” I tell him. This makes him nervous. Later that night, I make pepperoni pizza with the last of our pork meat from our February visit to Spain, and I think of Ismail as I eat.

This afternoon is bright and breezy, and Ilsa has 3 friends over to celebrate her birthday. It’s a quiet celebration; lots of giggling and music and the girls eat only a little cake and not the potato chips. The cake fell apart (it was still too warm) but fresh strawberries can cover a multitude of sins.

I’m used to kid parties; this transitional year of 12 is a bit tricky. I hope they’re having a good time. It’s nice to sit here and type, instead of herding and worrying and coming up with games. The girls sit on the wall and talk. I eavesdrop from the balcony, camera in hand. We do an impromptu photo shoot after the opening of presents; after each click, the girls demand to see. “Oh I look terrible!” they moan in unison, these girls who can’t see their own beauty. “I look like a moron!”

Today, thoughts of pandemics and plagues are far from their minds; they sit in the sun, heads tilted back, hands weaving stories of school days and mean teachers and best friends. In the living room, a breeze from an open window wafts a balloon silently across the floor.

I seem to have a sort of theme going. First I wrote about handing out Christmas boxes in late February. Then I wrote about getting Christmas presents in March. Today’s topic? More Christmas boxes, in April.

lovethatsmile

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit a handicapped center to pass out some more Christmas boxes. You might think, “but we are nowhere near Christmas” and of course you’d be right, but since Christmas is not officially celebrated here, it’s really a moot point. And ask any recipient if they care about getting a box of presents wrapped in red and green when the calendar says April. They will not answer you because they will be too focused on that box to listen to you.

yassine1

I went with my friend and her family. They were there officially; I was just tagging along for fun. (No PMS this time either, in case you’re wondering) I brought my camera, even though I have a special sixth sense that causes my subjects to move just as I click the button. Makes for some quality snaps, let me tell you.

The place was pretty remarkable. The director of the project told me a little of his story; he attended this school as a child, when it was just a primary school, and always retained a soft spot for it. (Aside: do you retain soft softs for your primary school or schools? I don’t think I do actually. Yet I had a happy childhood) He was saddened to find it was now one of the worst schools in the city. So he …worked with his association? Set up an association?… and has brought about enormous change. Within four years, the courtyard has been transformed from a place of sand and pebbles to an inviting green space, lush with flowers and scattered with art made from recycled and found objects; broken tagine pots, curiously-shaped sticks, etc.

schoolgrounds

There’s a large section where there are animals; turkeys and ducks, a baby donkey, many different sheep and goats, guinea pigs, doves, parakeets, even a Dalmatian.

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The director explained that the handicapped children work with petting, feeding and caring for the animals, which provides them important motor skills. But the “normal” kids, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds and struggle with behavioral issues, also benefit greatly from caring for the animals. “It helps them become good human beings, good citizens,” explains the director. (Yes, I’m wondering why I didn’t get his name also).

The school is for nursery age, 2 or so, up through primary school. Kids are integrated in the younger classes, although there are special classes for the older handicapped kids. There’s also occupational therapy, where they learn skills such as painting and making silk flowers, rug weaving and pottery. This is used by all the children.

vocationaltraining

I have a million pictures. Do you want to look at a million pictures? Doubtful. I will show self control.

kissthanks

Saying thanks with a kiss.

oneglasseye

This little guy has one glass eye.

naptime

Naptime! Two little ones snuggle in a bottom bunk.

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After I took pictures of these two, I showed them their faces on the back of my digital camera. Look at the results:

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smileamal

I don’t recommend visiting the Rabat Children’s Hospital when you’re having PMS because you will be transformed into the type of woman you never wanted to be–the weepy kind. (Gosh I am rocking this middle age thing! Zits, wrinkles, and overt emotions! Woo-hoo! Bring it on!)

Since no one had the consideration to tell me this ahead of time, I visited the Hospital yesterday with my friend, who has volunteered there for about 12 years. It was the day they were passing out the Christmas boxes, and she wanted to be there. You might think, isn’t Christmas over yet?, and you would be right of course, but these are boxes that are packed up by children in privileged countries at Christmas, labeled “boy” or “girl,” and shipped overseas. There is a fair amount of administrative detail, planning and shipping and coordinating, that goes into these things.

My friend told me about the first year they passed out Christmas boxes. They took a collection in to a group of children who were having dialysis. The children spent the entire first day just hugging their boxes. No one opened theirs. They just held them. After all, the joy of anticipation is a huge part of receiving a present. It wasn’t until the next day that they opened their boxes, shared out their presents with their brothers and sisters. In subsequent years, the volunteers helped them start. “Someone has to go first and everyone else will wait for that,” my friend explained. I agreed, although we both know it’s not like that in American families.

I loved seeing the amazed smiles on the faces of the children yesterday as they clutched their boxes to their chests. I am not sentimental about third-world children; I have driven through too many villages where the children ran up to beg for my pen and cursed me when I didn‘t give it to them, or threw rocks at our car as we passed by. But the kids yesterday were the stuff of which appeals by children‘s charities are made; shy sweet smiles of gratitude, pure joy as they clutched their boxes to their chests.

The boxes themselves were pretty awesome too. Many were hand-decorated with pictures of Christmas trees and snowmen and candy canes, and most had some version of “Mery Cristmas” on them, written lopsidedly in colored marker.

The Children’s Hospital is not a depressing place. It is bright and freshly-painted in rainbow colours and there’s even a play room on this floor, put in last year, with big windows and a good variety of toys. My friend told me of the many, many changes since she first started coming. She gets frustrated that various volunteer groups have spent money on paint instead of on medicines for desperately-ill children whose families can’t afford their care. I understood her point–who wouldn’t?–but I also pointed out that the feel of the hospital is important. It feels like a place with hope.

At the same time, that hope can be hard to sustain. We saw a tiny apple-cheeked baby, cocooned in the thick polyester blankets ubiquitous in North Africa, just a bright-eyed little face in a wad of material. She was sporting that thing when they’ve got to keep a vein open so they stick a needle in you, plug it off, and tape it in place. I know there is a single, simple word for these in the English language, but I can’t tell you what it is. Hers was in her hand. Next to her, a toddler howled disconsolately; he had a vein-open thing (whatever that word is) in his head, wrapped in purple cloth; his mother and aunt were fussing over him. Ilsa gave him a Christmas box but he didn’t even look at it, just kept wailing while his mother pulled a much-washed-but-clean t-shirt over his head. These tiny ones are already on dialysis. I don’t know the details of their conditions, but I do know that their futures aren’t bright.

At this hospital, a female relative (usually the mother) stays with the child; they sleep in the same bed. On the one hand, that obviously isn‘t ideal in all circumstances, but I can see the appeal of this too–how nice for a sad scared child to snuggle with his mother, enjoying her undivided attention.

We met baby Adam, who was bright-eyed and curious but very thin, in with a kidney infection that just wouldn’t clear up. He sat on his mother’s lap and reached for a blue teddy bear. We met a woman my friend has known through the years, in with her daughter. They have no money to pay so the girl has gone a couple of weeks without her medicine. She lay there on her bed, curled up on one side, absolutely still, her eyes inwardly-focused and unaware of us. In the other bed, a girl of about 10 was getting her dialysis; she also didn’t move but her eyes stared back at us, curious. Next to her on her bed was a Christmas box, opened and spilling forth its brightly-colored contents.

We didn’t stay all that long, but it was hard to leave. People kept coming up to us. My friend has cut back on her hours there and so many people wanted to talk to her, wanted to give her updates on their children, wanted to show her the lists of expensive medicines they can’t afford.

We walked down four flights of stairs, each one with a different colour stripe (which is brilliant for a clientele that is often illiterate), and out into the warm spring air. “If I break my arm, will I come here?” Ilsa asked me. “No,” I told her. “You would go to a private clinic.” My friend’s daughter chimed in. “Your parents have money,” she told her. “You wouldn’t come here.” And that is the case. In a land where a visit to a specialist costs about $25, we can afford good care if we need it.

The woman whose daughter lay so still? She only needed about $12 to bring back life and movement, at least for a while.

In other news, Wednesday I got my hair cut. I really ought to have had it done before we left America, but I didn’t get around to it. It was longish but looked acceptable. Then we arrived back in Africa, where it tends to be hotter than Oregon, and suddenly it was just too long. But I still put off getting it cut. After all, we had only just arrived. How was I to know where would be a good place, clean, competent, used to Westerners and our hair? I spent a lot of time eyeing the two coiffeuses between our apt and the school, and when we were downtown, I would look at salons I passed.
Learning a new country involves more than just learning if you can find peanut butter or which store carries fresh milk instead of long-life milk; it also involves keeping your eyes open and trying to interpret what you see around you. I don’t know many Moroccans yet. So as we walk around, I watch other women out of the corners of my eyes, trying to figure out what is normal here, trying to discern if the woman I am eyeing is one I would want to imitate.
We Americans are individuals and we have the concept of individual style. If you dye your hair pink it may or may not mean anything beyond a simple urge you had. But this is something I learned in my years in Mauritania: Arab societies aren’t like that; they are much more tightly bound together. (Which, to just rant against Disney again for a minute, is something that bothers me so much about Aladdin. Jasmine, an Arabian princess, simply wouldn’t take matters into her own hands and ignore her father like that! Grrrr.) You communicate the kind of person you are by how you present yourself, and the rules are strict. I know the Mauritanian rules much better than Moroccan. Respectable women don’t show their calves, for example, and they wear sleeves. If you are taking a taxi alone, you should sit in the back.
Doing this sort of thing changes the way people react to you. This is something that is difficult for Americans; we demand that people accept us for who we are, and it’s a message that is drummed into us from childhood. Arabs, in general, aren’t this way. You dress a certain way because that is how it’s done. Period. If you wear your turban a certain way or grow a beard, it signifies your religious leanings. Of course styles come and go, but there is more of a rigidity, more of a sense of obligation to how one is viewed by the world. And as a guest to this culture, I want to be clued in. I don’t expect or even want to become Moroccan, but I want to be viewed as someone you would want to be friends with, rather than a wild unpredictable foreigner.
Morocco is much more flexible than Mauritania. I see women in everything from head-to-toe djellaba and hijab scarf, to tight jeans and midriff-baring tshirts, whereas I have never seen a Mauritanian woman in public in Mauritania who wasn‘t wearing a muluffa. Everyone here is wearing nice shoes though. No flip-flops or comfortable, manly sandals. Also, there seems to be a real difference depending on age. Like in America, it’s the teenagers who are wearing the skimpiest styles.
This is what I’ve noticed so far: older, respectable women wear a variety of styles but they are always modest, always dressed nicely, always have great shoes, and always have short hair or tie their hair back (although the majority cover it).
I realized my hair was too long to wear loose. I noticed I got a lot of attention when I walked down the street with blonde curls flowing down my back–much more than when I tied it back. So I tied it back, every day, but reluctantly, and I knew I wanted to get it cut.
I decided to try one of the salons I pass daily. It has a dark window and door that says, “Haute Coiffure pour Dames” in French and Arabic (presumably, that is. For all I know it could say “Live Chickens Plucked Here“). I poked my head round the door on Tuesday afternoon and met a nice woman who spoke no French, but who managed to communicate I should come back in the evening, which I did, and managed to make an appointment for the following morning.
I was right on time, but the coiffeuse wasn’t. She was 20 minutes late. I’m used to that from Mauritania. I looked around the salon. It was nice; small and clean, with diplomas from “Ecole Parisienne” on the wall. I didn’t look closer to see where this school is actually located, in Paris or perhaps right here in Rabat; still, I was impressed by the diplomas, which I suppose is the point. The posters of models with extreme hair weren’t sun faded, a good sign. The Arab-speaking woman handed me some catalogues to browse through. This was encouraging right there, because in Mauritania I would have to page through 2 year old versions of news magazines, looking for someone with hair remotely like mine.
Madame appeared eventually, full of apologies for being late. “This usually never happens,” she told me, but I really didn’t care. This is my 7th year in Africa, and if I was going to worry over people being late to appointments I’d never have made it this far.  I showed her the picture I liked, without much faith that she’d be able to reproduce it. I was just happy I’d remembered the word for layers.
So I was surprised when she did it. She had all the tools of a modern American salon (only probably not sterilized nearly as often, but if I was going to worry about that, etc etc). I have thick, heavy, curly hair and I’d selected a picture with a lot of layers in it, expecting that meant I’d get a couple. She had thinning scissors and everything. The result is shorter than I’d have liked, but it will grow.
After she cut it, she shampooed it, which I found an interesting switch to the normal order. Then, it was time for the “brossing.” I usually just sort of push my hair into shape and go; I never blow dry it or attempt a style. But it was a cool morning and I really didn‘t want to go out with wet hair, and I have a reader’s love of letting scenes develop to see what happens, so I agreed to have it styled.
It took ages. Madame would curl a bit with a brush and her assistant would blow dry it. It was very involved. The result was a sort of flip, with a straight top part and curly ends. It’s hard to describe, but it looked like it has never looked before. Also, I apparently have bangs for the first time in about 15 years! Surprise.  My family freaked a bit, and Elliot thought I looked like I was wearing a wig, but today I washed it again and it looks fine, or rather it will in a couple of days, when the curl dies down a bit. (It sproings a bit after a cut, because of the weight it’s lost, if that makes sense. Today it‘s a bit like Attack of the Curls)
I know you want pictures. I just hate pictures of myself, because the camera always adds about 10 pounds to my face. (Question: How many cameras were on you?) Couldn’t you just imagine it? I did have Donn take pics but I hate them.

Ok: Before. I’m the one with the curls

With the flip style

Attack of the CURLS!

Your opinions. Cute and sassy? Or hopelessly retro-80s, not in the good sense?

Also, I forgot to say that you can read about my last Mauritanian hair cut here.

Friday, I had my teeth cleaned and my body fat measured. No cavities; significant weight loss needed, in case you were curious.
I was thinking about how much maintenance is required to be an average American female, middle-aged I guess (hate that term). Why is that? We must hide our grey, sweat regularly in a forced “work-out” that wouldn’t otherwise be part of everyday life, visit doctor and dentist semi-regularly, watch our salt and sugar intake, avoid too much processed food. I’m all about these things (except salt–salt is wonderful and good, especially when included with processed foods like dill pickles and salt and vinegar flavoured Kettle chips and Moroccan olives), but I do occasionally wonder how fun it might be just let it all go. How bad would I look? I’m not really even tempted to find out.
Coincidentally, ABC News recently did a story about Mauritanian views of beauty. Go read it and watch the video: I’ll wait here. Don’t forget to come back!
http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=4322187&page=1

The thing is, Mauritanian women care as much about beauty as western women; they just go about it differently. (I’ve posted on this topic before: here and here if you are interested) As is evidenced in the video, they go to great lengths–even drinking fat until they vomit–to get those jiggly, fleshy upper arms so seductive to a nomadic man, who knows there’s room on his camel for such a prize. (Not that he’ll really SEE those arms until they’re married, but that’s a different post)
I got a free 7-day trial at 24 Hour Fitness last week at the urging of a friend, and went over to check them out. I like working out; love the adrenaline rush and the hours spent searching the mirror for those infinitesimal signs of progress. I was prepared for the hard sell; my friend had gone the day before, and been subjected to a very rude body-salesman. He asked her what her purpose in coming to the gym was, and when she said fitness, he looked her up and down and said, “You don’t want to lose weight?” This is not only unforgivably rude, but also ridiculous, as she is not at all fat.
So I was prepared. Forewarned is forearmed. I was all ready to riposte, “You must be a lot of fun at parties!” if they implied so bluntly what is true: that I should lose more than a few pounds.
Of course I got a different guy, one that was really nice and not really as pressuring. He did manage to talk me into joining, but only because of this incredible deal blah blah no initiation month to month blah blah etc.
And so a few days later I had my body fat measured, which in so many ways is worse than going to the dr. At least, the dr wears a white coat and everything is conducted in a hushed, professional manner, rather than in an atmosphere with music blaring in the background and thin women with weighty eyelashes sashaying by in the background.
After all my humiliating statistics were recorded and we both agreed by nodding silently how grim they were, I went to work out. And since I have never before actually BELONGED to an American gym, only ever gone for free trial months or the many many free visits when Heather worked for years at the Willamette Athletic Club, I’m enjoying it. But as I climb onto the elliptical machine (is that right? I really have no idea what things are called), or alter the weights down to some more sensible number, I can’t help flashing back to my last experience with exercise–at the Power Gym, in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
In Mauritania, there are women’s hours and men’s hours. Women show up swathed head to toe in colourful veils called mulaffas, and even the Western women are generally well-covered when they arrive at the gym. Stephanie had to post signs explaining that women were not allowed to work out in their street clothes–that the long gauzy cloths could catch on bits of machinery–and she had to reassure and reassure that no man would dare darken even the door during women’s hours. If the male guard had a question for Stephanie, he would send his wife, who also used the gym’s fridge, which sold cold water (scorned by locals, who know that drinking cold water when you’re hot ensures you’ll get a cold yourself) to store her meat for the evening’s meal.
It’s a little different at 24 Hour Fitness, where I can go whenever I like, a fact I appreciate, as women’s hours always seemed to be at inconvenient times. No longer am I startlingly thin in comparison to my fellow sufferers; no longer am I the only one red-faced and puffing on the exercise bikes. I used to work really hard at the gym in Nouakchott and get my heart rate up while jamming out to U2 on my headphones; afterwards, the girl at the front desk told Stephanie that she was worried about me and what if I really hurt myself? Now, no one is worried, as long as I carry my own towel (mine came free in a cereal box) to wipe up my sweat.
24 Hour Fitness is, to put it mildly, bigger and better stocked than Power Gym. You could fit 3 or 4 Power Gyms into it. The temperature is controlled. One entire wall is windows (looking out on a parking lot where other gym members arrive and depart), a change from a place where we had to keep the curtains drawn and windows closed even upstairs, in case passing men caught a glimpse of glories unknown and squashed into a too-small pair of sweatpants. And I like this 24 Hour Fitness where, in addition to young, toned and stylish people, there are plenty who look like me–who are working hard just to maintain.

July 2020
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