Thursday, December 25, 2008

Upward spiral. -


You all know how I love spirals – I’ve always seen them as symbols of the ever-changing but ever-present cycle of nature, of life. It wasn’t until after I got my tattoos that I learned such a set of three spirals, arranged triangularly, is an ancient Celtic symbol of nature – earth, water, fire.

Now I come to Morocco and find that the spiral is also an ancient Berber symbol of infinity. It’s everywhere – from carvings to pottery to wall tiles to jewelry, like this pendant I picked up in Marrakesh, my first piece of Moroccan jewelry:

Some people think a spiral is a ridiculous infinity symbol, because it does in fact have a beginning and an end. I’m OK with that. Everything does end – change is the only constant in life. But then things begin again, slightly altered.
“You are Welcome here.”
It’s funny how aghast some people here are that I don’t speak Tashelheit, the regional Berber dialect. That I’m new to this country, that I’m here as a volunteer, that I’m trying to learn the language spoken by the vast majority of Moroccans – these mean nothing to them. Why would I come here if I don’t learn the language? (This after I’ve been in the village for all of four weeks.)
Sound familiar to those of you back in the States?
Of course, the vast majority are so pleased, proud even, when they here the slightest trickle of pidgin Darija dribble out of my mouth. At the post office, in a taxi, at the corner store, I’m constantly congratulated … and when I demur as to my lack of skills, it’s they who encourage me: “Shwyia b shwyia, shwiya b shwiya.”
And while I feel keenly the stares of disbelief when I walk down the street (not to mention the calls of “Hey, foreigner” and various French phrases), often mixed with a healthy dose of suspicion, I do my best to look people in the eye, smile, and say, “Good morning, are you well?” Those unblinking stares generally turn into surprised smiles and handshakes and the usual 12-minute exchange of greetings.
Even better is when a stranger takes it upon her/himself to greet me first. The ancient man with the toothless grin, bumping along on his donkey cart. The heavily wrapped Berber woman walking the long road to the weekly suq market, rattling off a string of Tashelheit I can’t possible unravel. Especially the children, running up to kiss me hello (instead of throwing rocks, the alternative means of capturing my attention). Such small gestures can make all the difference between a good day and a bad one in my mind, between feeling welcome here and … not.
So if you see a possible newcomer in your own little village today, smile and say hello. It takes so little, but it can change that person’s entire outlook on the day and on the town you share.
L3id update.
First off, I now understand why the sheep was pumped full of air on the L3id Kbir holiday. You maybe don’t want to know … if you’re squeamish, just skip to the next paragraph. If you’re curious … it’s to blow all the s**t out of the bowel and intestines. So’s they can be eaten, y’know. Remember: 99.9% pure from bacteria!
However squeamish I may be about all this, I also have a great deal of respect for those so in tune with their food sources. The procedure is little different than what happens to that Christmas roast (or ham, or goose) you might be enjoying today. Perhaps we are the odd ones, feeling the need to distance ourselves, pretend that meat is just another shrink-wrapped, value-added “product” that comes straight from the supermarket.
As my brilliant 9-year-old niece told her mother on viewing pictures from my previous post, “Well, Mom, but if they do this every year, they’re probably used to it and it’s something for them to look forward to.”
The days after L3id entail an odd tradition in several Moroccan communities, and I was fortunate to get a glimpse. My host sister Khadija asked if I’d like to visit her family’s home in one of the many dyour that surround our village. A duoar is kind of a mini-village of Berbers who work in the surrounding orange groves. Little did I know our visit meant a 5- or 6-mile hike, through several dyour, a walk I enjoyed immensely but for which I would have shod myself far differently had I been apprised.
We stopped at one duoar and walked the dusty path toward the sound of chanting and beating drums. Women were gathered in every doorway. The closer we got to the center of the duoar, the louder the music got. A pack of children started running from around a corner.
Then, there they were, the main attraction: A young man dressed in a costume sewn of goat and sheep skins, with a posse of friends dressed in a variety of costumes, striding authoritatively through the town, weapons in hand. The aim is to stop at every house, and corral every running child, to demand dirhams. For those cheeky children who refuse, the punishment is to be whipped … with a bicycle innertube.

This -- the animal skin, the chasing of children, the innertube -- is the tradition regionwide. But here the festivities seemed more ceremonial than real. The kids seemed to enjoy the chase; I saw not a single use of the innertube; and this prosperous-looking foreigner, with a giggling-yet-scared-stiff Moroccan woman in full caftan regalia cleaning to her elbow for dear life, got no hassle when she calmly said “Makaynsh l’flus” – I have no money.
But my friend and kind-of neighbor Faye had a far more hands-on experience, and she does better justice to the tradition at her blog.

Khadija with girls from the family’s duoar.

Today is our own l3id kbir, or big holiday. Christmas. In a country that is 99 percent Muslim, Christmas isn’t even on the register here. No shop windows adorned in red and green, no fake snow in the desert, no annoying pop stars belting out Christmas “classics” on a half-hour loop. No crisp cold snap hovering at the zero-degree mark, as it has been back home. No going overboard on gifts and paying the bills into next summer.

Also no baking cookies with friends, then walking the neighborhood to look at the lights. No helping my niece and nephews draw Christmas cards; no spending the afternoon sprawled on my parents’ sofa after inhaling way, way too much food and so much love. No reminiscing about holidays past … the tree ornaments that used to fascinate us for hours, the ancient Christmas records that were the soundtrack to my childhood festivities.

Christmas eve dinner was a little tagine of cauliflower, tomato and potatoes, scooped up with bread. Plus a little dish of fried zucchini, which I know was placed there because the family has seen how much I love it. Woke this morning on my hard flat mat, three heavy blankets guarding against the morning chill, to the sounds of teenagers rushing to the school across the road rather than rushing to see what Santa left for them.

This weekend I’ll gather with some other Peace Corps volunteers in the area for just some of those traditions – too much food; maybe even a little too much wine; overdose on Christmas movies and music. It will feel like home, and not.

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