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I am wondering what on earth possessed me to call this “My Life in a Nutshell.” These are enormous nutshells! I have always been verbose.

See, what happened was that I had about a month of non-stop activity and some major event every single day, including weekends, so I took a day off. I didn’t get out of my pjs and I slept 12 hours and then took a nap. And the next day I decided that I would write one blog post with several events in short paragraphs called “My Life in a Nutshell” but then it got a bit long so I posted it. And here we are on part 3 now. All of them full-length at least. Sigh.

Why part 3? Because, in case you care, chronologically this happened just after Part 2 but before the normally-named blog post “Things to Carry.” And I do regret the nutshell theme. But, in case you care, parts 1 and 2 are there to be perused. Of course the only connection between these is in my own head.

Today’s (final) installment is:
Henna Party

The day after the Eid party, Ilsa and I and all of our friends are invited to Mona’s for a henna party. We went once before, in September, and everyone had such a lovely time that we decided to have another one. “Bring your friends,” Mona urges. She lives in a small apartment and I happen to know she has invited all her children’s teachers plus all her teachers at the community college, where she is taking writing, communications, and grammar classes. So I let Ilsa bring one friend and figure that’s good for numbers. Mona is a little surprised that I didn’t bring more people. I forget the plate of cookies I’ve made on my kitchen counter. This is fairly typical for me, I’m sad to say.

When we get there, only 2 extra women have come—her son’s 3rd-grade teacher and one of hers from PCC—plus of course several other Iraqi women, all of whom I know from my class. The PCC teacher is French, so we talk a little in French, which reminds me of how quickly I’m forgetting it now that I’m not using it. Le sigh. I resolve to read some books in French and listen to French radio. So far, I haven’t done any of this. I call Ilsa in to chat in French with her lovely little accent.

First we dance. Then we eat. Then it’s time for henna. Mona and Sophie (Egyptian-American and bi-lingual) were very disappointed with the henna last time, and they have gone to great lengths to get good henna this time. They mixed it with lavender and tea-tree oil and it smells gorgeous. Again, we have bowls of glitter to sprinkle on. Mona starts with her son’s teacher, and we all stand around and admire, and eat too much, and the children (Ilsa and her friend, Mona’s twin daughters, Sophie’s daughter) grab their own henna packets and start decorating each other’s arms, legs, and necks.

refreshment table

It takes a while to do everyone. As before, some of us go a bit risque—I get Donn’s name written in Arabic on a part of me usually covered by my shirt. Last time Maude got an elaborate “necklace” on her decolletage but today there isn’t time. The other teachers leave; a 3rd one comes late. Maude has offered to go last, and by the time it’s her turn, Mona’s husband and son have come home so she only has a small one on her hand. Mona never does get to have her own arms decorated, but she assures me she doesn’t mind at all and we’ll do it again soon.

adding glitter

ilsa got her name in arabic on her hand

The henna is excellent quality and leaves gorgeous, deep brown patterns that last a long time. I have more pics but I don’t like to post pics without checking with people, so that’s it for now.

 

Today, as you may have noticed if you went on the internet at all, is the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. I have written before of what it was like to experience that as an American living in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. I also remember a student at the university in 2002 referring to the “accidents” of 9/11. That made me angry, until I learned that he was simply transliterating Arabic, and that’s how they refer to wrongs done and sins committed. (Which would make for an awfully interesting side-trail…) Also, this week I read a fascinating book called In the Land of Invisible Women I got it from the library and it was great. I want to own it. It’s a memoir by a British-Pakistani secularized Muslim doctor who lives in Saudi Arabia for 2 years. Her description of experiencing 9/11 in Saudi had my jaw literally dropping open, while on public transportation. (Which got me a few looks but not many) I experienced nothing like that in Mauritania or Morocco.

Today, President Obama said to do what we normally would do. I sort of listened, sort of didn’t. While it’s true that many of days include visiting Iraqi friends, normal days do not include henna parties. This one did. It had nothing to do with the date—in fact as far as I know, I was the only one who noticed. We planned this party weeks ago, and today was simply the first day that all of us were free. And yet, I thought, were it not for this date’s horrible events, my Iraqi friends would not be in my country, and I would not have met the others. (Aside: I’m not at all trying to belittle my Iraqi friends’ journeys, which involve terrors and bombs and insurrections and loss of children, in some cases, and of husbands in others. I was just thinking of the way things have turned out)

So we all showed up at Mona’s about 3—Leslie and I from America, W and Mona from Iraq, Bea from Lebanon and Sophie from Egypt. Head coverings came off, and low-cut, form-fitting clothing covered in sequins and dangling gold “coins” appeared. Arab pop music blared from the stereo. Ilsa disappeared with Mona’s daughters into the bedroom where they danced for a while before joining us for hennas.

We decorated each other’s arms, legs, and necklines. We talked and ate and spent time together, beginning new friendships and deepening existing ones. Tonight my hands are beautiful but they stink slightly, as henna does. Mona scattered glitter liberally after each application, and my clothes are full of it but my arms twinkle in the light of the computer screen as I type.

It wasn’t a bad way at all to remember the day’s tragedy, meant to divide but instead, in some weird way, uniting us with people with whom we share neither language nor culture nor religion.

As a blonde, I must admit to sometimes being lazy when it comes to certain grooming habits practiced more faithfully by my darker-haired friends. In a word, eyebrows. I never pluck them. They are scarcely visible as it is; why go through the pain? In spite of this, for the last few years I have been considering having them done. I eye other people’s, notice attractive shapes. Should I?

I was over at Mona’s the other day, helping her study for her upcoming final in an ESL class she’s taking at the local community college. The talk turned to her plans to open a restaurant and her life in Iraq, and she told me how she was also considering opening a salon. “I love to do hair, and henna, and eyebrows,” she told me, grabbed a spool of white thread and began somehow looping it back and forth. She offered to do my eyebrows. I muttered something about how it had been a while (I didn’t want to tell her it’s probably been about 20 years) and let her at it.

She sat me down in a kitchen chair, had me hold the skin taut. I closed my eyes. Mona was very fast and proficient and 5 minutes later, my eyebrows were cleaner than they’d been in years.

The threading is very strange and difficult to describe; I have had to search on youtube as words have failed me. It sort of whispers against my skin. The woman in the video says it doesn’t hurt—I wouldn’t go that far, but it doesn’t hurt very much.

Mona asked me how often I have to do my upper lip. I shrugged, raised my newly-shaped eyebrows. I have no hair on my upper lip, just a fuzz only discernible in strong light. Mona tells me she has to do hers at least twice a month. I don’t even shave my legs that often, I admit to her.

I glance at her forearms. Sure enough, they are hairless. I remember Mauritanian women offering to help me remove my own arm hair with their own special concoction—coke left in the sun until it’s a syrupy, sticky paste, smeared on the skin and then ripped off! Just the thought of doing this makes me curl into fetal position, whimpering. I share this thought with Mona, who laughs at me and tells me she does the same thing. Sigh.

Although Arab women seem to want to be as hairless as possible, the opposite is true for the men. Donn was once out with a friend and they spotted a man with a huge Saddam-Hussein mustache getting out of a Mercedes. “Women love a mustache like that,” the friend told Donn. “And you know what else they love? Hairy backs. Women really go for that!” “Are you sure?” said Donn, but his friend reassured him. “I think maybe American women are different,” said Donn, but the friend was not convinced.

And last week, Donn learned a new Arab proverb. “A man without a mustache is like an egg without salt.”

I must admit that I am fascinated with my new eyebrows. I am constantly quirking them at myself in mirrors. And, as soon as Ramadan is over, we’re going back for a henna party!


in process…

I got a henna a few days before we left Morocco. The woman who did it got a small smudge of orange goo on the bottom of the nail on my ring finger while swirling arabesques and paisleys and diamond shapes onto the back of my hands. The henna, one of the prettiest I have had, was woefully short lived—by the time we were in Portland, it was already fading. But the nail smudge remained, and I have watched it slowly growing out along with the nail. It’s nearly gone now, entirely on the white tip.

 

In the time it takes to grow a nail, my whole life has changed. Now where I live, it’s getting dark by 4 p.m. The world wears colours of rust and grey and, always, the indifferent green of the pines and firs in the background. Christmas things have been for sale since September and now, mid-November, a lot of places are already decorated.

Aside: everyone I know complains about this. “Shocking!” we agree. And yet, someone must be buying this stuff or they wouldn’t put it out. They’re not stupid, these multi-million-dollar corporations. They know how to make money. I’m bitter though. They have stolen Thanksgiving, relegated fall decorations to cut-price racks by early November. It has been swallowed in the rush to Christmas. This means, of course, that Christmas will finish early—people will be sick of their dead trees and incessant carols by mid-December, and then what?

We have missed both major eids—the end of Ramadan and the Eid Adha. No one is grilling sheeps’ heads on street corners, filling the air with the scent of charred flesh. No one is sending up plates of liver (which is good) or inviting us for steaming platters of grilled meat.

But last Thursday, I sat in an overheated apartment while Arabic women shouted at each other. “Is it getting too much?” one asked me. “Are you getting a headache? Are you ready for some advil?” I grinned at her and shook my head. I felt quite at home.

The women, all of whom had arrived from Iraq sometime within the past couple of years, were welcoming and friendly. I had given one of them a ride home from an event, and she’d invited me in. It was 9:15 when we arrived at the overheated apartment and shed our coats and shoes, settling into chairs, being proffered bowls of candy. Anyone who said ‘no’ was still firmly handed several pieces. “It’s still the feast,” they explained to me. “We have to eat and celebrate.”

When tea was going round, I noticed that several women said “no sugar” so I did too. Hooray! I didn’t realize that was an option. Iraqi tea is black tea with cardamom, and without an inch of sugar in the tiny glass it is delightful. I resigned myself to my fate and accepted several small cookies and a slice of chocolate marble cake. Soon, we’d moved on to the inky black coffee served Turkish style in doll-sized cups. This coffee is perfection, a glimpse of paradise on earth, worth any amount of sleepless nights. Zeineb smiled at my praise and promised she’d teach me how to make it. And it didn’t keep me up, proving my theory that if you have a little caffeine, it will keep you up, but if you seriously overindulge, it won’t. Either that or Arab coffee/tea is practically decaffeinated, as it doesn’t keep me up but American tea/coffee will.

Ilsa having her henna done

It snowed last night. The kids and I went out at 10 p.m. to throw snowballs and shriek and generally annoy the neighbours. Ilsa stomped an enormous heart around the word SNOW all over the street. Then we stayed up drinking hot chocolate (Trader Joe’s peppermint hot chocolate with actual chunks of bittersweet chocolate in it…soo good) and being silly. Good thing school was cancelled today.

This week is our feast, here in America. I’m planning on making some sort of pumpkin dessert that can be eaten by hand (i.e. not pie) and handing it round to my new friends. I suspect we’re all in the same boat; thinking of faraway places, listening to echoes from past feasts, enjoying celebrations both new and familiar.

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

Do you feel touristic is a word in English? I never have myself, but my former students used to always use it, in spite of the gallons of red ink I spilled telling them not to. And really, why shouldn’t it be?
But I digress, before I’ve even started.
Many of you have recently read Ilsa’s description of our trip to the Oudayas, and Abel’s description of our trip to the Chellah. I thought I’d fill in the blanks a little bit, and add another perspective.
Ilsa wrote of our trip to the Oudayas, which she called the Casbah or the pirate fort. All are appropriate names. It was built in the 12th century as a place for soldiers from the Spanish wars, and it contains a castle, which gives it the right to call itself the Casbah (although that word can just mean ancient quarter of an Arab city as well). At some point, it was appropriated by pirates. Since the Oudayas are right on the mouth of the river, on a bit of rocky coastline, story has it that pirates used to offer to guide the ships over the rocks, and would instead guide them onto the rocks and then plunder the sinking vessels. Later, a tribe called Oudaya moved in, hence the name.
At some point around the turn of the last century (i.e. not a couple of years ago), the interior was all built up in a sort of Spanish style. It’s charming. There are narrow, paved alleyways that twist and turn, all painted blue and white. A community of about 3000 live there, of which approximately 60 are European.


Donn and I want to live there. We could deal with all the tourists walking by on the weekends, couldn’t we? There’s even a public phone!


We’re not really going to, although prices are reasonable for the city. It’s just too far from the kids’ school. But we’re tempted, really tempted.


We wandered in, right behind these people,

and were immediately accosted by a woman doing henna, which Ilsa described. After a fairly long conversation in which I explained that we lived here, we weren’t tourists, and we’d had henna done many times before, she said she wanted to do just one flower–”for me,” she insisted. Ilsa, who was sitting down taking off her sneakers and putting on her new bright orange sandals, gave that look of longing and great expectation, and the woman saw it. One thing I have learned in walking the streets of Africa is how important facial expression is. If you even look the teensiest bit interested, it’s all over.
You know the rest. She did much more than “one flower, just for her.” She could see from my face that I was less than thrilled. “Pay me whatever you like,” she crooned, and then complained when I paid her 20 dirhams, which I felt was appropriate. She left us alone after that, though, and when we ran into her later, in a group of other henna women, and one of them starting saying “Just one flower, madam, for me!”, she obviously told them that we were hers. If you visit us, we promise not to abandon you in their hands.
After that, we spent our time just wandering the tiny little cobblestone roads, admiring the way people had taken pride in their houses, visiting art galleries. Eventually we made our way to a large open space that overlooks the beach…no doubt a look-out for those pesky pirates once upon a time.
There was a lovely fresh ocean breeze, and I admired the view across the river to Rabat’s twin city of Sale. Donn admired the waves.
This is a view looking up the river:

See? These people have plenty of room for laundry. I know we could be happy there.


Eventually we wandered down to a café, the only one I’ve seen that was open during Ramadan. We sat on the terrace and drank sweet Moroccan tea, feeling somewhat illicit and wanton since we are sensitive during Ramadan and don‘t eat or drink in public. This place catered to tourists, though. We gazed out over the view, and enjoyed the breeze.


I think this is the house I’ve picked. Either of them. The people in them need to leave, so we can move in. Don’t you think?


We wandered out through a beautiful garden, which is the way most people go in. I neglected to take photos. Next time.


I have read, in various travel articles, complaints at how life is changing in traditional places. These writers bemoan the fact that you can be camping under the desert stars and hear a nearby nomad answer his cell phone, or see camels put in the backs of pick-up trucks. I have always felt this to be unfair. We don’t complain when Europeans have modern cities built around ancient ones. Why should we deny people here the joys and sorrows of technology? I for one am not willing to live as my ancestors did, even if it would be more “picturesque” for visitors. And so one of the things I love about Rabat is its mix of ancient and modern. I love how it’s quite a developed city, and yet you can suddenly turn a corner and be confronted with a sight that hasn’t changed much in 100s of years. And I especially enjoy where the centuries meet and mingle in just one frame of my camera’s screen.

Ilsa wrote this for her blog today, and I thought, “Why not steal it for myself?” I love being the mom.

I don’t feel like posting but my Mom is making me.

Today we went walking for ages and now my feet hurt. We went to the medina and the Casbah, aka ancient city of Rabat and the pirate fort. People live in the pirate fort now, and it’s boring with so many tourists. I liked it though; I liked the beach. It has cannons.

Here are two pictures of Abel and I sitting on a little cannon:

I got new sandals. They’re orange and have flowers. I know that sounds ugly, but they’re actually pretty. You can see them in the bottom of the picture.

As we were entering the pirate fort, I got a henna done by a very pushy lady. She sat down next to me and started drawing henna on me, after my Mom had already told her about 8 times that we didn’t want any. She did it really quickly, and she was good. Then, she said, “Pay me whatever you want,” but after Mom gave her 20 dirhams, she said she wanted 40. But we left. The henna is very pretty and I like it a lot, although it was itchy after it dried until I scratched it off.

For people who don’t know about henna, it’s wet when they put it on and you’re supposed to let it dry for at least 30 minutes and then scratch it off. So I didn’t just waste 20 dirhams. This picture was taken when it was wet. After it dries and you scratch it off, what is left is bright, deep orange.

They have very pretty doors there. There are art galleries in the Casbah–maybe when I’m older I can join one.

Bye! Write me a comment if you read this!

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.

My henna is basically gone now; my natural skin colour emerging startlingly pink after all this orange and brown so deep that it’s nearly purple. My nails have already grown out enough that it’s starting to look a little funny to American eyes; the top half of my nails are orangy-red, but the bottom half, the new growth, is white. It’s the opposite of when nail polish comes off, and it’s starting to earn me some odd looks if people notice.

This half-nail colour is normal for Mauritanian women. When they travel, they usually henna their hands. All my friends, when they heard we were leaving, told me to call them for a henna once we’d bought our tickets. Henna is a part of their culture. They henna their hands for weddings, births, feast days, whenever they want to look pretty, or if their husband is returning from a trip.

Henna exists in many cultures, Arab and Indian, but there are differences in patterns and designs. Traditional Mauritanian henna is patterned with strips of tape (medical tape) laid down in intricate designs; henna paste is then daubed on and when everything is removed, the beautiful shapes are apparent. This is the kind they do for brides. It takes hours and hours. I’ve had a traditional henna done but a fairly simple one, not the bridal kind.

Now there’s a quicker, more modern way that Mauritanians call “Moroccan style.” The henna women mix the henna powder into a paste and put it into a little plastic bag; then they snip a tiny corner off and draw designs freehand onto outstretched fingers and palms. They work quickly, and it only takes about 30-45 minutes to cover your hands in lacy outlines. Then, they wrap kleenex round the individual fingers and palms, and cover the whole thing in a plastic bag tied round your wrist. You then must wait for 3 hours without using your hands while it “sets.”

On our last day in Mauritania, Ilsa and I went with Aicha (another Aicha; it’s a very common name. This one is Amina’s sister, for those long-term readers who are keeping track, if you even exist). She went in the morning to have a traditional one; she arrived at 10:30 and finished at 7:30. Ilsa and I, what with one thing and another (late thesis students, for example) made it to Aicha’s house at 4. Her driver took us to a market I’d never seen before, down past Marché Capitale, between Capitale and the Moroccan Mosque. Then he led us at a terrific pace through a sort of tiny alleyway that wound through stalls selling boubous and kids’ clothes and past men dumping bowls of leftover food out into the walkway. We suddenly swerved into a tiny bare room, with mats on the ground, which opened up onto a little space. It was L-shaped, so the women sprawled on the ground having their hennas done were not in view of passerbys.

Ilsa and I joined Aicha in sitting on the cement floor leaning up against some old, ratty cushions. Immediately two women each took one of my hands in theirs and began to work, kneading the henna paste between their fingers, and beginning to expertly draw patterns on my outstretched palms. Ilsa dug out my camera and took pictures, but I can’t get them off my camera so you will have to make do with photos of the finished work.

henna-heart.jpg

Having your hands done is easy; having your feet done a bit more complicated. I lay awkwardly on my side, trying to allow both women access to my heels while still keeping both hands (already wrapped in plastic) from touching anything. My skirt hiked up and I looked in disgust at my fat white calves, then had that minute of dissonance as I realized that those around me probably envied me what I despised.

After both Ilsa and I were sitting with our hands wrapped in plastic bags, and my feet as well, it was time for Aicha to get her’s removed, a process that involved razor blades scraped over the skin to remove all those bits of tape. We sat and sat, and by this time it was nearly 7. “We need to go,” said Aicha, “but don’t worry—you can walk on the bottom of your feet.” And so it was that I found myself walking on the ground of an African market with only kleenex and a thin layer of plastic on my feet. It felt very strange, but Aicha assured me that it was normal, that every night women come out like this. I am skeptical of this—it seemed I got a lot of attention, although I supposed it was just because I stood out anyway. I avoided the damp spots where earlier trash had been emptied as best I could. Aicha got me a taxi and I arrived home to deal with another 2 hours of plastic bags—and  this on a night when people were stopping by non-stop to say goodbye! Two of my students came by, with gifts for Donn and I (jewelry for me; a keychain for him) and shy smiles of pirde when we effused our thanks. We took pictures together, me trying to hide the fact that my extremeties are covered in plastic. I had to eat a sandwich with only my fingertips, through the kleenex and plastic. It was extremely difficult and a little worrisome, as I didn’t want to smear the patterns before they’d really set.

Finally it was time to remove the bags, peel off the disintegrating kleenex, and scrape off the henna. The henna “develops” over time; although I took the bags off at about 9 p.m., the henna looked its best, darkest and crispest, the next afternoon.

henna-hands.jpg

I know that henna exists in America, so I assumed that most people would at least be familiar with it. But the reactions I got ranged from enthusiatic to appalled.

Many, many people asked me if it was permanent. Others backed away in alarm as I went to hug them, afraid of my nearly-black fingertips. As it started to fade, people assumed I’d been berry picking or finger-painting. Many people assumed it would wear off onto their clothing, and were alarmed that I was wearing a cream-coloured Moroccan tunic, sure I would get rust-coloured stains all over it. But no, none of these things were true.

A lot of people asked me the significance of it. It’s rather like an American woman getting a manicure, I explained. You do it to look nice, to celebrate, to dress up, for decoration.

Now, it’s basically gone, and I’m regretting that decision to do a typical style. I’ve had many hennas done over the years, but that first time, I got so sick of watching my big toe-nails grow out that I stopped having them do my finger and toe tips. But it was my last day in a country that had been home for 6 years; I wanted to be typical, I wanted to remember. So, in a fit of sentimentality and excess emotion, I let the henna women do it.

 henna-back-of-hand.jpg

It’s okay, and I’ll cover it with polish. But I’ll have orange on my thumb nails till about Thanksgiving, and on my toe nails till about March.

ilsas-henna.jpg

 Ilsa had her hands done too, but not her feet.

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