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The Rhythm of Women


You must be patient and flexible. You must be patient and flexible. I heard that warning so many times during the Peace Corps application process and training that it would have become a mantra if I hadn’t grown so sick of it. Okay, enough already, I’m flexible! I’m patient!

Now, more than a year has passed since I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer and assigned to Morocco. My patience and flexibility have been tested in every way imaginable, from transport that shows up a day late to co-workers who value paper pushing over useful action. I’ve learned that I’m not quite as patient, or as flexible, as I thought I was.

But I’m getting better. It’s a matter of self-preservation. I must be patient and flexible to live and work in my little village in the High Atlas Mountains. Sometimes the road is washed out and transport doesn’t run. Sometimes the social formalities of tea drinking take precedence over the things I feel need to get accomplished. My favorite example of just how patient and flexible I’ve become happened only today.

My best Moroccan friend, Fadma, promised she’d help me out with a survey I was conducting on home birthing practices in the region. Since she understands my American-accented Berber better than anyone, she said she’d help interpret between me and the women I wanted to interview. Our first stop was the home of Fadma’s niece, Bzza.

Bzza wasn’t home when we arrived, so her mother-in-law sent a younger sister out to find her and poured Fadma and me mint tea. She told us their neighbors were having a wedding that day—we could just hear the beat of the wedding drum through the thick, warm air—but no one had come by to invite them. Fadma sipped her tea, clucked, and muttered, “Shame, shame,” under her breath.

After an hour or so of tea and complaining—and still no sign of Bzza—I started to wonder if I should come back another day. I could interview Fadma herself; she had a baby about six months ago. As I was about to get up and make my excuses, Bzza burst into the room. She accepted a glass of mint tea from her mother-in-law and began clucking over the wedding invitation. I thought, this can’t go on much longer. A few more clucks and I make my move.

But the conversation didn’t stop—it just blasted forward, full steam ahead, growing in volume and intensity, the women’s hands flying back and forth, heads thrown back in half-bemusement, half-despair as all possible aspects of the offense were examined, hashed out, and argued over.

In the end I didn’t interrupt. As Bzza was pouring the fourth round of tea and I was plotting my escape for the second time in an hour, a young neighbor woman appeared in the doorway. “Come and dance!” she shouted into the room. “What are you doing?! Come to the ahaydous!” (wedding dance). The women sprang up with eyes on fire. “Yallah, Dunia!” Fadma shouted, as she pulled me up by the wrist. “Let’s go!” We slipped into our shoes and half-strutted, half-danced out the door and over the rocky hillside to the neighbors’ house. “We’ll just stay for a bit,” Fadma promised me as we entered the house. “Then we’ll do the interview.”

I nodded. Yeah, sure. Just looking at Fadma’s eyes, the way her body perked up and started moving at the mention of the ahaydous, I could tell we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. I calculated how many days I had left to get these interviews done, how many interviews per day that meant.

I followed Fadma’s lead, circling the room, grasping each woman’s hand in turn, touching children’s heads, asking about everybody’s health, homes, families. There were perhaps thirty women and as many children in the room. Most sat on the floor, feet tucked under them, babies tied to their backs. Some ate taam (thick white gruel with melted rancid butter) and others sipped steaming glasses of mint tea. One woman was a blur of glass washing, tea brewing, tea pouring, tea passing. She fed frankincense into the mijmar from time to time to keep the air fragrant and festive. I squeezed in against the wall, and somebody passed me a spoon. I took a few hot bites of taam.

A girl in the corner started up a soft drumbeat and several women, prodding and pulling others along with them, rose to form two lines facing each other. They grinned and clapped to the rhythm of the drum, pressing their shoulders against their neighbors’ shoulders. One woman started a high-pitched, wailing chant that kept time with the drum. The other women joined in and the volume grew.

“A good life for the bride and groom,” they chanted. “Many children…good health…prosperity….” One row of women began the chant and the facing line echoed back; everyone stood still, chanted, clapped, and grinned. The late-afternoon sun filtered in, winding its way between the two lines, reflecting off the swirling incense smoke, off the silver spangles on the women’s bright dresses.

Slowly, they began to move—one woman first, a slight move right, then a small move left, her neighbors picking up her signal in domino fashion until the entire line was inching back and forth. The facing line echoed their movements, chanted in return, everyone moving just slightly; but somehow with each move the entire group shifted a little to the right.

Staying in parallel lines, they moved around each other in full circles, a little faster now, and a little faster still. Each woman in her bright spangled dress became a sparkling part of the whole beating, swishing, chanting circle, clapping, stepping, breathing the thick frankincense, looking into each other’s eyes and smiling widely.

The bride was not there; these were some of the women of her extended family. The bride is seen only twice during the three-day wedding festivities—once, fully and thickly veiled, dressed from head to foot in bright red and a great deal of clanking jewelry, on the long, slow parade through town. The second time, her face is uncovered but her eyes are closed as she is presented in the courtyard of her new home to members of both families. The parade and the presentation both feature an hour-long ahaydous, the drumming line of men and the echoing line of women. In the “co-ed” ahaydous, all the women but the leader keep their eyes closed, their faces down, their chants calm and quiet and even. They are shy, modest.

There was no modesty that afternoon. Someone pushed Fadma to the middle when the two lines degenerated into a ragged, pulsing circle. They tied a scarf around her hips and, with very little prodding, my best Moroccan friend shook her booty like a belly dancer in a B-movie. Fully clothed, she put on a sexier floor show than anything you could hope for at a strip bar in the United States. The rest of the room writhed and shouted, laughed and ululated, egging her on in boisterous, appreciative tones.

One octogenarian got really into it. She strutted over to the mijmar and flung the hem of her skirt over it to perfume her legs with frankincense smoke. She swiveled her hips back and forth for effect and pranced back to the ahaydous, hooting and grinning wickedly when she saw my eyes popping out.

The next time it started up, someone pulled me into the ahaydous. Wedged between Fadma and the risqué octogenarian, I clapped to the drumbeat and felt my heart pick up the rhythm, sensed the chants seeping into my body, kept my shoulders stiff and unmoving as my feet picked up the pattern of the slow shuffle. It could have been five minutes or five hours that we danced; it was entrancing, addicting, to become part of the rhythm and the movement of these women. Finally, with a fierce, high-pitched ululation, the drummer finished off with a flourish, a low collective shout went up, and somebody uttered a loud sigh. “Igran!” The fields. It was time to get to work, cut grass for the animals, pick potatoes for dinner.

“No, nooo, NOOOOOOOO!” someone protested. “There’s still time!” someone backed her up.

“Come on,” a third chimed in, and the old frankincensed woman hooted and rounded people up to keep dancing, keep dancing, keep dancing. A brief thought leaped through my mind about some vague job-related thing I was supposed to be doing, but I was pulled into the ahaydous again and found my legs moving in time with a dozen other women. The thought was gone. By the time three more calls went up to get to the fields, and three more protests beat them down, there was only half an hour of daylight left. Normally, women spend two hours each morning, and two again in the afternoon, working in the fields. There was a look of happy defiance, an unadulterated joy in every body, soul, and voice that no interview could have revealed.

This was my real work, I thought. Physical health is important, but today I found out what makes these women’s hearts beat, what makes their eyes shine, their skin glow, their blood flow. This was my prize for being patient, my reward for being flexible. The work will get done. But in the meantime, pass the frankincense.

Kathryn Crabb (Morocco)

Kathy was a maternal-child health Volunteer in Morocco's eastern High Atlas Mountains. She worked with local Berber women to improve home birthing practices, prenatal care, and recognition of risk factors during pregnancy and birth. She has a B.A. in politics from Mount Holyoke College.

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