A Moorish Woman's Life

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A Moorish Woman's Life  (1921) 
by S. M. Denison
January 1921 edition of The Moslem World Quarterly Review

All Moorish women's lives are not alike any more than all British, French or American women's lives are alike, but the following true incidents in the lives of some Moorish women I have known give a very true picture of the ordinary, year in year out, life of a Moorish woman.

But before getting on the subject of the Moorish woman we must have a look at the life of the Moorish girl. So we will begin at her birth and follow her on, step by step, till she is grown up. All the particulars I give here refer to life in the one inland city which I know well, there may be little differences in other parts of the country in the life of girl or woman. A Moorish girl's birth is announced to the world by the women of the house in which she is born uttering two-ear-piercing shouts of joy (^'luluing" this screaming is called, tho' there is no resemblance to the soft sound of ^'lulu" in the harsh shout) with a short space between the two so as to render them very distinct to the neighbors; for a boy's birth is announced by three such shouts, a boy being of much more importance than a girl; though as a rule, the girl is made very welcome, too, and sometimes there is great joy that a baby is a girl, especially if the mother already has several boys living, or if she has had many boys, even though they are not all alive.

I know one mother with three boys living and three dead; one died of smallpox and the two others were weakly ill-nourished babies who lived only a short time; but she was firmly convinced that her children died because someone had cast the evil eye on her on account of her excessive good fortune in having given birth to so many boys, and she was very, very anxious lest her next baby should also be a boy and so the evil eye's effects continue. She often called upon God to requite any who had "eyed" her and insisted that nothing else killed her children. The next baby was a girl, and she is now a fine child of over two years, having been well nourished by a black nurse whose ebony son makes a picture with the little ivory girl, for Kinza (a treasure) is very fair-skinned.

But sometimes the girls are very unwelcome. There is a family living near us who have four little girls and one boy, and the last little girl had a very bad reception; even the mother said, "I don't want her, I don't like her, I'll never like her." The only sign of rejoicing in the house was over the mother. The mother-in-law and slaves said, "Well, at any rate, praise be to God that she has got over it, but we wanted a boy." The father even shed tears when he heard of her birth. She is now a pretty baby of some six months and is probably doing what the Moorish saying says a girl does, i. e. : "A boy, when he is born, is in the very centre of the liver (the liver is the seat of the human aflfections) but sometimes works his way out to its extreme edge. A girl, when she is born, is on the extreme edge of the liver, but she works her way into its very centre." When the baby is eight days old there is held a great reception of friends and relatives, a sheep is sacrificed for her and she receives her name — this eighth day feast is called the Sabaa or "Seventh," probably because it marks the beginning of the second set of seven days in her life. It sometimes goes on for several days. The first morning is given up to men guests who come very early to a very fine breakfast feast and are present at the offering of the sheep which is slaughtered in the beautifully tiled courtyard — the one who slaughters it having first inquired the name of the baby and mentioning her name as he kills the animal. The mother is in a room at hand with a curtain covering its doorway. This part of the ceremony (i. e. the slaughtering and naming) is called the Akeka or "Separation" because the child is "separated" or distinguished from all the rest of the family by having a separate name bestowed upon her. The Moors never name a child for a living person ; but, if its grandfather is dead, then the first boy in a family is called for him; and also, if the grandmother is dead, the first girl is called usually, for her; otherwise the custom is to call the first boy Seedi Mohammed (for the Prophet), and the first girl Fatma (for his daughter) ; in this case it does not matter if these names are also the names of the children's parents, for the children are not considered as being named for them.

After the men guests have dispersed the women arrive. If the family is wealthy enough to have a very grand Sabaa the women stay for a number of days and bring with them their babies and children who are too small to be left at home, and also slaves to look after the children. They dress up in different clothes and jewels each day, most of the things being borrowed for the occasion, and sit in state in the courtyard each afternoon, while hired women musicians sit on mattresses in the centre and play all sorts of instruments made of coarse earthenware with parchment tightly stretched across their open ends. Some of them play the violin; these are considered superior musicians.

On the day of the Akeka the baby receives its first bath ; up till then it had been wrapped in soft rags and smeared with oil and henna, etc., but now it is dressed in little bright silk garments just the shape of its mother's, and then is swaddled in a long brightly colored band which is rolled round and round its body from the shoulders to the feet, its little arms having been first placed very exactly flat against its sides and the sleeves pulled down so that no creases or wrinkles are left which might hurt it or cause it discomfort. It is then wrapped in a soft silk or muslin shawl, embroidered round its four sides and an end of the shawl is tied on its head with a piece of embroidery to match; its eyelids and eyebrows are blackened and its hands tinged with henna. It is now on show and the old nurse sits in the mother's room and receives the pieces of silver money which admiring friends and relatives place on the baby's brow as it lies on her knee. Up till this time the baby had not been shown to visitors lest the evil eye should be cast upon it, and now each one who sees it says, "To the Praise of God" or some such ejaculation as she looks at the little one, and this ejaculation is supposed to keep away the effects of the evil eye.

When the baby is a few weeks old she is taken by her mother, (if the mother is not one of those who are never allowed out of the house in day time) or by some woman friend, to visit the tomb of the patron saint of the town ; or to the tomb or to the shrine of some other saint if the baby is being specially dedicated to any saint or order; and when she is a few months old, either she is taken to Dar Ettabeebat ("the missionaries' house") or the tabeebat is asked to come to her father's home that she may be vaccinated or "have the smallpox taken out of her," for her friends recognize that she must have one of three kinds of smallpox, "God's smallpox," i. e., smallpox, or "Ettabeebats smallpox," i. e., vaccination, or "bought smallpox," i. e. inoculation which is hardly practiced now but used to be done by the Jews who charged a certain sum of money for doing it. There are now also, in all parts of the French Protectorate, dispensaries where children can be vaccinated free.

Then when the little one (whom we will call Kinza) is about three years old she begins to attend Dar El Maalama" (or the Mistress' House) where she is taught the special trade of the "mistress" who has been chosen to instruct her. The trade may be embroidery on linen, muslin or silk with the cross stitch which comes out the same on both sides ; or it may be the more quickly worked "Eastern" embroidery, something like crewel work; or plain sewing; or lace making; or machine sewing; or fringe making; or slipper embroidery with gold thread; or the heavy gold embroidery 01 saddles, etc.; or the knotted silk work of coverings for reins and trappings for horses and mules; or preparing boards for book-bind- ers; or, more rarely, reading and reciting the Koran and writing. There are not here as yet any schools opened by the French for native girls; the people are not desirous to have their girls taught to read or write; for, they say, "It is not good for women to know more than just what is necessary to enable them to pray." There are very good French schools for Jewish girls in the Mellah or Jewish quarter, and it is quite a pleasure to see the pretty tidy little things in their black and white checked overalls and their hair neatly tied with a scarlet band of ribbon. But Kinza at the same age is already veiled and goes about the streets with a white muslin ^^litam'* drawn tightly over her face, crossed at the back of her head and drawn again over her forehead so leaving only her eyes to be seen. However, at three, when she begins to go daily to "D«r El Maalama^^ she is too small to bear the veil and also too small to use her needle aright, so she learns to sit and watch the older children sew or embroider, and after a little she is promoted and allowed to thread their needles for them; then she can be trusted with a needle and silk and is put to the task of "filling in," that is crossing the simple stitches which the mistress or bigger girls have put in to trace out the pattern to be worked. And woe to Kinza if she makes a mistake, for one false stitch puts the whole pattern wrong, and naturally the Maalama is very angry.

Kinza attends Dar El Maalama till she is about twelve or thirteen, then she is considered too old to go out daily and is provided with an embroidery frame at home and begins to teach other little ones who come to her, as she used to go to Dar El Maalama. She now either takes in work to do for others, or sets to embroider her own trousseau, if her father is well enough off to buy the silks and muslin which she needs, before he has received the money which the bridegroom's people will pay him on her engagement, and which all will be returned in bedding and embroidery when she is married. Kinza's wedding things are now being prepared, even though it may be she is not yet engaged, for she is almost sure to be married off, as her parents arrange all about it, and it is not her business. As one father here answered, when he was asked what his daughter said about a marriage he was arranging for her, "She I" he said, "she doesn't say anything; it's not her business."

S. M. Denison.
Fez, Morocco.