Hospitality, RedefinedRabat, Fall 2012
As I sat watching our new friend’s steady hands lace henna across my palms, I thought back over the day and realized that some things get completely lost in translation. For instance, I’d heard that Moroccans were hospitable. I was expecting warm welcomes, good food, and the occasional inquiry about my health. That’s hospitality, right?
Right… Actually, Moroccan hospitality might be better defined as “graciousness so abundant that your hosts will literally hold your hand through the streets, bathe you, and spoon feed you until you’re nauseous.” Succinct, no—but accurate.
For example, when my host mom explained in a creative mixture of Moroccan Arabic and Charades that my roommate and I should get our towels and follow her into the street, it seemed like a harmless suggestion.
Several turns later we reached the hammam. A hammam is a public bath where you can pay to wash yourself while socializing with your neighbors… Fantastic. Just the way I wanted to meet new people–buck naked in an echoing room getting scrubbed raw by a (hospitable) bath attendant.
Admittedly, it was rather luxurious to have my hair shampooed and be doused in warm water, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had regressed to age five. This impression increased as my host mother wrapped scarves around our heads (going outside with wet hair is a sure way to die of some illusive disease) and led us back home.
That afternoon, our host mother showed us an empty package of henna and loosed us upon the Medina to buy more. After multiple fails, we entered a tiny salon papered in 80’s fashion posters. Over the Turkish soap opera blasting in the background, we managed to express our desire to purchase henna. The shopkeeper, carefully positioning himself between us and the exit, yelled down the street until another man poked his head into the muggy salon.
We pantomimed again and he shuffled away only to return minutes later with a bag of powder and a syringe… As if to apologize for their dubious appearance, these ignominious objects were wrapped in colorful paper with pictures of bejeweled ladies. Yeah—that really decreases my feelings of sketchiness.
Just before dinnertime a friend came over to decorate our hands with the henna. She started with me; it took about an hour per hand with a pause to dry. By the time she started my roommate’s hands, I had missed dinner. My host mom asked if I’d like to eat while my hands dried. Being still naïve in the ways of Moroccan hospitality, I agreed, imagining that I would balance a spoon betwixt hennaed fingers to eat my warm rice and milk.
But quite suddenly my host mom pulled up her chair directly in front of me and peremptorily popped a spoon into my open mouth. She proceeded to (hospitably) feed me until I had to insist between attacks of the spoon that I was too full to hold down anymore.
It was at that moment that I perceived the true (and inescapable) nature of Moroccan hospitality. It’s not just courtesy or niceness– it’s downright serious business.
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