Thursday, December 29, 2011

Henna Party


Henna is undoubtedly an important element of Moroccan female culture. For any big celebration such as a wedding or traveling to visit family and friends, women receive henna as a symbol of good health and good luck. Every time that I have left the country, I have remarked about the great majority of Moroccan women standing alongside me in queues for ticket counters and to board airplanes that have freshly done henna on their hands and often on their feet as well. I am immediately struck by the pride these women with meticulously decorated hands and feet carry with them - about where they came from and where they are going. I see the henna and I think of the time that it took, who did it, and who was there. If she’s traveling alone, I think of who saw her off at the airport and who is waiting for her at her destination. Henna signifies the excitement in taking a new step, be it traveling, moving, getting engaged, or getting married, and also the support and love that friends and family give to her for taking such a step. 
Just like language, cuisine, culture, and fashion varies from region to region, henna is no exception to this rule. 
Rabati-style henna done during my semester abroad in Rabat during the Spring of 2010.  In my experience, Rabati-style henna is known for its floral designs. Notice the leaf-like motif on our hands?

This is an Amazigh (Berber) woman with henna covering her entire palm. I've been told from friends who have lived in Amazigh communities that staining entire palms, soles of feet, and fingertips are a very common practice.
Taken from the National Geographic website.

This is an example of Fessi-style henna (from Fez). 


This was my last week in Rabat before I went back home to spend the holidays. As a self-proclaimed Rabat local, I felt that it was only fair to get my hands done before my departure. The opportunity arose on Tuesday night when a homestay family of one of the students from my study abroad organization organized a mock-Moroccan wedding/henna party open to all students and guests. On Tuesday night around 9 pm two friends and I met at the medina wall and found our way to the house where the event was taking place. The inside of the house was absolutely breathtaking. After passing through a large and intimidating front door and dark hallway, a beautiful open tiled courtyard opened up before us surrounded by traditional Moroccan salons. Music was playing, cookies and tea were placed about, and many of the students had already arrived and were getting dressed in beautiful Moroccan caftans. Caftans are the traditional outfit for Moroccan women to wear at various celebrations. It is essentially an ornately decorated tunic shaped dress that is cinched at the waist by a large and often glittery belt. 

The homestay mother who threw this going away party of sorts is known throughout the medina was the wedding dresser. If you are having your wedding in the Rabat medina or will be attending one, she rents out dresses, jewels, and accessories from her home. When her daughter returned home from work around 10 pm, henna began. A tray was brought out from the kitchen with napkins, a syringe, medical gloves, and a bowl of something resembling Nutella hazelnut spread but smelling more like an old musty cedar closet. I placed my hands on a pillow and the daughter began to freehand designs on the tops and undersides of my hands. A friend of mine who accompanied me is on a Watson Fellowship, which means that she is spending 12 months traveling outside the United States while conducting research. Before Morocco, she had spent time in India where she got henna done in the local style. She noticed many differences between the two applications, but there were two that stood out to her. First, she said that the color was different. Indian henna is much darker with either a red or black hue, while Moroccan is a soft orange-brown. She also said that the Moroccan Rabati-style was much more delicate than the Indian henna she received. The designs were looser and more floral while her Indian henna designs were much busier. 






Within a matter of minutes, our hands were covered. I left the party daintily holding 20 dirhams for my cab ride home with the tips of my fingers in an attempt to not smudge my partially-dried henna. When I woke up the next morning, I brushed off the remaining dried bits of henna off of my hands to reveal a beautiful design. I can't wait to travel back home in style, à la marocaine. B’shaourahah! 






Friday, December 16, 2011

The Hammam and its role in Moroccan female culture

When one thinks of Morocco, what comes to mind? I know for me, Morocco was once nothing more than a painting by French 19th century painter Eugène Delacroix. I thought of camels, sand, women behind mysterious veils lounging in dark and opulent salons, and of Arab bath houses.

Before my first trip to Morocco, the hammam, or Arab bath house, was an important aspect of my oriental fantasy. I imagined day-long trips to these sumptuous bath houses filled with essential oils, steam, and women sharing ancient beauty secrets.


In reality, the hammam is so much more than a superficial Western Orientalist fantasy. I still can remember the first time that my homestay mother took me with her to the hammam near our house in the medina. She told me that all I needed to bring was whatever I used in the shower, a towel, 10 dirhams for entrance, and a clean pair of underwear. After school one night, we carried a stack of buckets and cups, rubber mats, hand scrubbers called kees, and savon beldi (special soap that women use at the hammam that is made by combining olive oil and henna) a few blocks down the street to the hammam. I remember being nervous about not knowing what to do or how I would react to whatever scene awaited me.


Typically, there are two or three different tiled rooms that make up a hammam. The first room that you enter is slightly warmer than the changing room. With each room, the temperature of the space increases. The last room of the hammam is usually so hot that it is difficult for me to stay there longer than 10 minutes without water and so steamy that its visibility decreases down to only a few inches in front of you. I remember walking into the first room with my homestay mother, each of us holding our buckets filled with shower supplies.




The experience felt almost existential: here I was, in a country where women are traditionally covered heard to toe out on the street, completely naked. As I tried to get my bearings in this unfamiliar environment, I felt if I had floated outside of myself and was watching the entire scene from up above. The temperature rose and the room filled with steam. Women of all ages, shapes, and sizes were sitting in groups around the different rooms gossiping, laughing, and cleaning themselves and each other. LittAside from the novelty of me being clearly a white American, barely anyone stared at me the way I worried they would. At the faucets located on a wall of each room, older women would smile and try to help me fill my buckets. I soon felt foolish for ever thinking that this experience would be anything less than an eye-opening experience into an intimate facet of traditional Moroccan female culture.

The process at a hammam goes something like this:

1. First, you fill your buckets with water. Be careful not to fill your buckets with just hot water, as it will be boiling hot and scald you. Also, you must be sensitive to the established hierarchy at the water line. Under no circumstances should you try to move someone else's bucket or stick your hand under the faucet to test the water before it's your turn.
2. Carry/drag the buckets back to your determined spot where your shower stuff and bath mats are waiting for you. Once you have doused yourself with water, use your kees and begin scrubbing every inch of skin that you can reach (you will usually have to practice reciprocity with a friend or family member to scrub backs). The kiss has a very rough texture, which will soon loosen all dead skin cells and make you feel like feel like your body is being buffed and polished. Apparently, this powerful exfoliating tool is great to ward off cellulite.
3. Rinse intermittently to get rid of all the dead skin.
4. Once you have successfully scrubbed your entire body, apply the special savon beldi. 
5. Do everything else you usually do in the shower.



The last time I went to the hammam was a few weeks ago with two friends of mine. While scrubbing, we had a discussion about hammam culture and the type of women who still go to hammams. Originally, hammams were created because most families did not have a way to bathe themselves in their homes. It became a tradition among both men and women to visit the hammam about one a week to clean themselves and socialize with neighbors and friends. Now, in an age where Moroccan society is becoming increasingly more stratified between the rich and the poor, hammams have become a marking of the lower class. Many friends and acquaintances that I have met here have told me that they have never gone to the hammam, or haven't gone since they were very little. While I have always been fortunate enough to have a bath and shower at every house I've lived in,  I went to the hammam first out of a burning curiosity and I continue to go on occasion because I see it as a very special facet of Moroccan culture; one that cannot be depicted through photographs or from a National Geographic special. It is something that must be experienced for yourself. I promise, you will never feel cleaner. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Open Lecture: Professor Mustapha El Khalfi Gives an Insider's Perspective of the Justice and Development Party



I work as an intern at a well-known American study abroad organization in downtown Rabat. For a wide variety of reasons, the majority of our students that come to study either for a semester or the entire academic year choose to take courses offered at the center rather than at local universities.  Rather than the students attending classes at local universities where most of the courses would be taught in either Arabic or French, the academics come to them, where they can be taught in English by an affluent team of professors that come from several of the most prestigious institutions in Morocco.

With the recent win of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) for the majority of seats in Parliament, our political science professor, Si Mustapha El Khalfi, has become a bit of a local celebrity at the organization. Along with his position as an academic, El Khalfi is also the director of Attajdid, a radical newspaper with strong ties to the PJD. While students say that he keeps his personal politics at bay during class lectures, he opened his lecture last Friday morning to all students and staff where he discussed in detail the background of the PJD, its political platform, and the strategies it used to win majority vote in the recent election.

A photo of Mustapha El Khalfi taken from the Attajdid newspaper website

According to Si Khalfi, the PJD identifies itself as a moderate Islamist party, whose presence in Parliament began in the 1990's and over the last 14 years it has been gaining a great amount of political success. Since the concept of a moderate Islamist party is a predominantly urban phenomena, one of the major hurdles that the PJD had to overcome in the last election was winning votes in the rural areas. With a high rate of illiteracy and poverty, the needs of rural communities tend to be very different than those from more urban and educated areas. The party had to find a way to reach the rural communities and to convince the people that the PJD would hear what they had to say and represent them in Parliament.

One of major the ways that the PJD appealed to rural and urban communities alike was through the languages used in their campaign. Si Khalfi said that while many political parties look to the "top" for guidance, the PJD believes in a bottom-up hierarchical system, where instead they look to the members to determine what issues should be addressed. Relating to this idea is language. Instead of using elevated language such as Modern Standard Arabic or French, the PJD carried out their campaign using the language of the people they are looking to represent: Darija and Tamazight. As an example, Abdelilah Benkirane, who was appointed last Tuesday by King Mohamed VI as the new Prime Minister, had speeches all over the country where he spoke charismatically in Darija. Though other political party leaders mocked him for using "ordinary language", his decision to use colloquial Moroccan Arabic helped him connect with his audience. Rather than targeting the elite, the PJD tailored their campaign to the majority of the society, the 'everyday' Moroccan. The result? The PJD was the first political party to win majority vote in Amazigh communities.




Si Khalfi cited three external factors that contributed to PJD's success:

1. The Arab Spring, and specifically the February 20th Movement in Morocco, sparked a new consciousness that spread through the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. The Moroccan people finally feel that their voices are being heard by their government and that their vote will mean something. As a result, the Moroccan regime realized that political transparency is crucial to maintaining stability and legitimacy.

2. "Street pressure", as a result of the social youth movement demanding political reforms, created an emerging democratic dynamic. In order to succeed in a post-Arab Spring political environment, political parties must acknowledge the demands of the Moroccan youth by appealing to them using their preferred mode of communication: the internet.

3. The weaknesses of other political parties acted as a major catapult to PJD success. While other parties failed to succeed in creating strong and effective street campaigns, the PJD was considered as an "alternative" to the authoritarian policies.

A poster made of Benkirane, the recently appointed Moroccan Prime Minister in response to his efforts to support the February 20th Movement


In order to create a new government, Si Khalfi noted that the three main challenges that the PJD faces are as follows:

1. Fighting the various levels of corruption in Moroccan society

2. Creating jobs, supporting small businesses, reworking fiscal policy, and focusing on economic development.

3. Improving social justice: improving the quality of the education system, creating a health care system that is accessible and affordable to all, and improving the housing crisis throughout the country, especially in rural Moroccan cities, where the rate of poverty is twice that national average.

What was interesting about the PJD's strategy for facing all of these major challenges was the role of the monarchy.  While the February 20th Movement demanded that the King's power be distributed more evenly between the monarchy and Parliament, Khalfi repeatedly stressed that in order to create democratic progress, it is crucial for the PJD to work closely with the monarchy. Furthermore, while this political platform appears reasonable on paper, the concern that I share with many Moroccans who I've spoken with is how their adherence to Islamic values will play out in their politics. For instance, when asked about where the PJD stands on the promotion of women's rights, Si Khalfi said that the PJD supports the traditional Islamic family structure while also encouraging women to work outside of the home. It will be interesting to see how they plan to strike a balance by appealing to both sides of this argument - those that want a more socially progressive political system, and those that still believe in a government that adheres its policies to Islamic scripture. Furthermore, I have heard many Moroccans expressing concern that in an effort to promote Morocco as an Islamic state, the PJD may impose restrictions on female fashion and crack down on establishments that sell or serve alcohol. With the Western world's economies in crisis and majority of the MENA region in an unstable state, Morocco is becoming an example to follow. If the PJD can promote democratization while maintaining a moderate Islamic platform, they have the potential to not only prove many Western skeptics wrong who believe that an Islamist party in power is a recipe for disaster, but also to show the world that democratic progress is possible in the MENA region.




UPDATE (1/15/12): Upon returning to Rabat, I found out that Si Mustafa El Khalfi has been appointed as a minister in Parliament and will no longer be teaching at the study abroad center.



Thursday, December 1, 2011

Eid al-Adha // Feast of the Martyr in Rabat



As a New Englander, an odd feeling sets in when it becomes November and yet you are living in a new city where the leaves aren't falling, where you don't wake up to find a morning frost covering the blades of grass in your front yard, and where the complete absence of familiar holiday advertisements makes it difficult to come to grasps with the season. During the end of October and the beginning of November, I found myself in a state of happy ignorance, relishing the warm weather and acting as if time had just decided to slow down. However, in early November, I could feel something changing in the air. Everyone's moods started to improve, there was joking and smiling in the streets among old friends and strangers alike. Nothing was a big deal. Fender bender on the way home from work? Mashee mushkil.


This was how the week was leading up to the Muslim world's biggest holiday of the year: Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Martyr. This holiday is celebrated to commemorate a story that can be found in the Qur'an and the Bible alike: the story of Abraham who was instructed by God to sacrifice his only son on top of a mountain to prove his faith. Abraham, being a true believer in God, agrees to God's request and takes his son to the top of the mountain. Just as he is about to kill his son, God puts a sheep in his place and the sheep is slaughtered. In honor of this miracle, Muslims gather on this day to slaughter an animal and spend time with family and friends. On this year it fell on November 7th, but the date is not fixed. Instead, it depends on the phase of the moon. However, everyone knows when the day is approaching and a few days before the date is announced. Two days before the Eid it felt like Rabat became filled with sheep. Sheep with their front and back legs tied were carted up the streets and into apartment buildings and houses throughout the city. I also learned that not every Muslim country slaughters the same animal. For instance, a friend of mine in Cairo told me that her family slaughtered a cow, which took 5 butchers to take down. In Morocco however, most families choose a sheep. A sheep is a very special animal because for most of the year it would be far too expensive to purchase an entire sheep to feed your family. Often times neighbors or relatives pool money together to purchase one animal in order to afford it.



 The night before the Eid, I was incredibly restless. As a vegan, I have a hard time coming to terms with animal morality. Hearing the sheep bleating inside neighbors' apartments throughout the night and knowing that this was their last night with the living made it really difficult to fall asleep. I knew that starting very early the next morning all of these sheep would be slaughtered in the name of God. To be clear, emotions aside, I don't really have any qualms with the way this holiday is celebrated. The sheep is killed in accordance with Islamic tradition, which requires a swift death followed by draining the blood from the body and a thorough cleaning of the organs and cavity area so every part can be used. 




Around mid-day on the Eid, we took a walk from our apartment down to the medina to try and get into the local 'holiday spirit'. As I walked out of the apartment, the first thing that I noticed was how quiet the city felt. And yet, at that very moment, I turned my head and saw a girl that couldn't have been older than six years old, wearing a nice dress, giggling, and holding a bloody severed sheep's head by one of the horns. That juxtaposition of absolute tranquility and a tinge of barbarism was what shaped the rest of our excursion in hopes of getting a better feel for what the Eid al-Adha really means to Moroccans. Walking down Avenue Mohamed V, the most centrally-located boulevard in the entire city, felt like a post-apocalyptic zombie attack had just occurred. The streets were empty, cafés were deserted, and there was splattered blood all over the sidewalks. Down every side street there were kids who used box springs as huge grills and pulled together old thrown-out wooden crates, cardboard boxes as kindling to roast their sheeps' heads on. If it's anything like holidays I experienced growing up, I can imagine how this tradition got started: over-excited children bouncing around the house with too much energy, won't leave their parents alone to cook and sit with their guests, they give the child the sheep head to play with.Voilà.  On every corner, sheep skins were neatly cleaned and rolled up in a pile. In the medina we saw more of the same. The narrow streets were filled with children grilling sheep heads and playing games of soccer amongst the debris from the huge barbecues. As we walked past, we would smile and say, "Eid mubarak sayeed", which is how locals wish one another a happy Eid. Everytime we would say that their faces would light up and they would thank us. We stumbled upon one group of kids grilling sheep heads and and using hatchets and hammers to chop up the skulls.
They said they didn't mind if I took a video. Here it is:


video


 As a foreigner, there are two things that really made me appreciate Eid al-Adha. First, I appreciated how much Moroccans celebrated in accordance to the actual religious story that the holiday came from. In America, our Easters and Christmases have been so tainted by commercialism that it is hard to even rationalize the reason why we consider them religious holidays. Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem and therefore a man in a red suit rides once a year in a reindeer sleigh and delivers gifts to children? Then later that year Jesus is resurrected from the grave and that's why a huge rabbit comes and hides colored plastic eggs filled with chocolates in your living rooms and backyards to find on Easter morning? I think I made my point. Secondly, partially connected to my first point, is the lack of consumerism found on Eid al-Adha. Instead of people being stressed out and exhausted before the holiday worrying about what to get everyone on their list, all families have to worry about is being with one another. There are no Eid al-Adha cards, no TV specials, no special deals the day after at Macy's...And as a result, on the day of the Eid, amongst the sheep skulls, the raging outdoor fires, blood-splattered streets, and the sheep skins on every corner, the whole country falls into a state of tranquility. People eat well and spend time with those they love, no strings attached.