A Merry Moroccan Birthday
Originally Published on St. Olaf's Term in the Middle East Group Blog.
On our last Thursday evening in Fez, Lauren and I were invited to a birthday party by our host sister, Mejda. The party was for her friend Rita, whom Lauren and I had met before, and she was adamant that we should attend. Not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to experience a real Moroccan celebration (we’ve heard they know how to have a good time), and desperately seeking an excuse to return to the world of eyeliner and “real people pants” (read: jeans), Lauren and I agreed.
Rita and Mejda both work at a private clinic in the Ville Nouvelle of Fez as midwives, so their friendship makes sense despite the small age gap between them. Mejda is twenty-four. We discovered Rita was only turning nineteen. Nineteen! It shocked me to realize that a girl so young (at least in my very-American perception of age)had such a prestigious adult job, and I had originally anticipated her being much older. However, seeing her in the comfort of her home, sans headscarf, Rita transformed from the tired working woman I had originally met a few weeks prior and into the young, vivacious girl I expect a nineteen-year-old to be.
She rushed to the door upon our arrival. “Jessica! Law-rhen!” she cried (Moroccans always seem to have trouble with Lauren’s name) and hugged us real close as we stumbled over the Darija words for “Happy Birthday” that Mejda had carefully practiced with us on our walk over. She ushered us into the living room and introduced us to a throng of friends and family, one new face after another, and sat us down on the couch in a place of prominence next to her mother. Mejda removed her veil despite being in the presence of non-familial males, and we noticed that she had straightened her hair for the occasion. She obviously felt very at home here, and went about talking and laughing with the oldest relatives (Rita’s grandfather) to the youngest (Rita’s youngest cousin, Mohammad, age two), charming them all.
Lauren and I were left on the couch in front of an expansive table of sweets. One very cute boy, Unis, (age 21, just like Lauren! Eek!) brought us each an enormous slice of cake on a decorative china plate. He then proceeded to bring each giant tray of sweets from the table to us, Rita’s mother begging us to try every single one. There were bricks of taffy with almonds, sweet anise clumped in caramelized sugar. There were crescent shaped tarts, and trays and trays of cookies and flatbreads. There were peanuts and sunflower seeds, and a delicious new treat that we discovered was simply dried chickpeas (something neither Lauren nor I had ever encountered). The whole experience felt very opulent.
Throughout the night there was music and dancing (we even noticed that there seemed to be an Arabic version “That’s What Makes You Beautiful” on heavy repeat). Young cousins mingled with Rita’s older friends from the hospital and neighborhood. People hugged and laughed. We were asked multiple times if we would mind taking a picture. No one wanted to take pictures with us, just of us, which made me feel a bit like the party’s entertainment. Bringing two blonde Americans to your birthday party is apparently all the rage in Morocco, but it never felt uncomfortable.
When it came time to leave, both Lauren and I felt a little sad. We carefully hugged Rita, who was in the process of having the most beautiful and intricate of henna done on the couch, and had to sidestep around her very affectionate boyfriend in order to do so. “Thank you for coming! I will miss you!” she laughed. Lauren and I looked at each other. We hadn’t thought much about it before, but we knew we would miss her too, miss Fez, and especially miss the magical relationships we had developed here.