Moroccan Immersion – I

Our Local Neighborhood Photo Credit: Kerrie Steil

Our Local Neighborhood
Photo Credit: Kerrie Steil

Meeting the Neighbors

Since moving to Chefchaouen in mid-September, Tomas and I have plunged into the deep end of the pool, so to speak – often without water wings or snorkel gear – and immersed ourselves in Moroccan language and culture. Tomas meets regularly with Mohammed, our friend and agent, who speaks English well enough for them to converse. I do not have an English-speaking friend (besidesTomas) and so I am required to draw upon my high school French of 40 + years ago, while expanding my ability to speak Moroccan Arabic (Darija.) It’s quite interesting to be learning two “foreign” languages at once.

My interactions with the women in this small neighborhood have continued. I have begun going from house to house, asking: “Who lives here – what are the names of your husband and children?” This is definitely a high road to take in this situation. There is nothing a Moroccan woman is more proud of than her family and when you praise her home or her children, you get a radiant smile that melts your heart in return.

I have learned that within the eight families that comprise our immediate neighborhood, there are over 30 children. A couple of families have six apiece and one woman is the proud mother of eight. The other evening I was sitting in our courtyard with Fatima (her name is Fatima, NOT Fatna, as I had thought) and Hannan (NOT Hannah, as I had thought) and Zura (I’m sure I don’t know this woman’s name but will visit her shortly.) Hannan was helping me write some of the names in my little notebook that I carry for just such purposes.

We had finished with Habiba’s children and turned to Fatima, requesting the names of hers. She tried to deter us, claiming that all her children lived so far away (most of them are in France.) I promptly piped up in my best Darija (think of any broken English dialogue from any movie featuring immigrants to America and you’ll have a reference point for that statement) that MY children were far away in America! Fatima began reciting the names of her six (grown) children. Toward the end of the list were two daughters, Namia and Lila. She has a third daughter, also named Fatima.

The very next day Tomas and I heard a lot of commotion on the third floor above us. There were multiple voices coming from downstairs and a lady dressed all in white was inspecting the backyard – scrupulously. Who could this be? A bit later, I went down to return the pot that Fatima had brought to us the day before filled with soup. Now her pot was full of pasta and ratatouille. A young boy answered the door and stared at me like I was from outer space. He called his mother, who introduced herself as Namia! Another woman introduced herself in French as “another Fatima.” Hadn’t I just written those names in my book last night? So much for Fatima’s children being “far away.” Actually, Namia addressed me in English and explained that they had just come from Tangier as a “surprise” for Fatima. Fatima had cut short her trip to visit them in Tangier the previous week. They were heading back to France on Monday and wanted another quick visit with their mom before they left.

I handed the pot of pasta to our landlady and indicated that it ought to come in handy with all the extra mouths in the house. “Merci Beaucoup!” was her grateful response. She was in the kitchen cooking and it was clear that this food would go straight to the table for her unexpected guests.

All of these women seem to have an uncanny sense of timing when delivering food gifts to us. They tend to show up with soup or couscous just when we are really hungry and need something to eat – FAST! I felt like I had “paid Fatima back” in the very best way.

A New Wardrobe Was Way Overdue

A New Wardrobe Was Way Overdue

Shopping for Clothes

It was time. I’d been limping along in my faded American T-shirts and my Moroccan tourista pants long enough. I needed some new clothes to wear that represented someone who actually lives here. Tomas and I went out together on a Sunday evening and found three women’s clothing shops right in a row just beyond the daily produce market. I entered one of the shops. Tomas waited outside. Oh Boy! I really did it this time. A Spanish family owned the store. The father quickly retrieved some items that I pointed to that were hanging up near the ceiling and then turned the operation over to his teenage daughter (well, she could have been 25 – what do I know?) Spanish is not my language of choice but the daughter was charming and helped me in the dressing room, smiling brightly as she turned the tunic around and put the zipper in the BACK. I used to know how to put clothes on. Was I nervous or what?

Half an hour later, I emerged with two tunics and a new skirt – all of which would need perpetual ironing, an activity I had given up decades ago. For that matter, I’d kind of given up fashionable dressing, too but the women here “dress up” when they leave the house and that involves neatly pressed clothes, proper shoes, matching bags and head scarves AND makeup. Ironically, the women here also dress in what I would classify as pajamas and nightgowns when they are at home or visiting within the neighborhood. Before they “go out” they just pop those jellabas (long loose tunics) over their “at home” clothes, put on the shoes and the makeup and “Voila!” – they’re ready to step out and stun the world with their beauty!

The new skirt and tunics were a great start but I also wanted a jellaba. Not a fancy one – I already have a Berber evening gown from my first trip to Chefchaouen in May. I just wanted something I could wear every day, to the souq or shopping or just out for an evening stroll with my husband. I tried to ask Hannan about jellabas – can you buy them ready-made or do most of the women have them custom made by a tailor? My French didn’t reach that far but Tomas came to my rescue and suddenly Hannan offered to take me shopping to buy a jellaba! WOW!

So – the very next day, we went shopping. I was in my best American T-shirt and tourista pants and Hannan was in a beautiful brown jelaba with matching scarf and heels! And, of course, makeup. We started off down the road toward the Medina. The next four hours became one continuous Darija lesson. Colors, clouds, animals, plants – I can’t remember a quarter of it but I returned with two pairs of pants, a LIPSTICK and a beautiful white shirt that I had been unable to find the night before. And while we did find a lovely aqua blue jellaba in one of the stores, I needed a resupply of money and wanted to show it to Tomas before I purchased it. I was elated anyway. You can’t spend five minutes with Hannan without feeling elated. Four hours of shopping and conversing with her stretched my abilities to feel joyful and effervescent to the limit.

Well, I was slightly disappointed that I’d come home without a jellaba?

Returning to our neighborhood, laden with shopping bags, we stopped for a moment (make that 30 moments) to visit with Letifa and show her our treasures. She juggled her baby boy, Nusserallah, on her lap while Hannan explained our quest and how we had found one jellaba but we still weren’t quite sure about it. Letifa disappeared into another room and came back with a gorgeous pomegranate pink one that she could no longer wear, since giving birth to her son. She offered it to me for half of what she had paid. It had been custom made for her and was practically brand new. Of course, it fit me perfectly. Jellaba found.

The next day Tomas and I returned to the store in the Medina and bought the aqua blue one too. Thursday evening I donned the pink one and went off to dinner in Shaouen on Tomas’ arm, having passed inspection and received rave reviews from all the neighborhood ladies.

This morning I finished ironing everything and taking up the sleeves of the tunics. The clothes are lightweight and allow air to flow around my body. I feel as though I’m beginning to look like I live here while staying true to my Self. No head scarf for now and I can’t quite imagine wearing my pajamas under my jellaba, although I do have a pair of PJs that are an exact match for the pink one

There are more parts to this immersion story but I’ll stop here. As we say: “shwiya, shwiya” – little by little. That phrase covers a lot of territory in my life right now.

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5 thoughts on “Moroccan Immersion – I

  1. i love this post for so many reasons (but you knew that already!) — you are surely a joy to all, and you definitely are not the ugly american that bulldozes through a foreign culture. your neighbors are surely pleased to have you in their lives.

    you look STUNNING,and i am glad that you have a nice selection of lovely fabrics!

    • Thank you Dear Heart — As I’m sure you know, as carefully as we try to tread in another culture, we often still step on toes and unintentionally hurt feelings because of the differences that we are blind to. But our overall attitude is to be sensitive and make amends as best we can when those blind spots catch us unawares.
      All my new clothes ran up against a sudden change of season about a week after I purchased them. I am now trying to find layers to wear under and over those things I already have, instead of completely buying another new wardrobe. FUN, FUN, FUN! Love and hugs, Alia

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