A Moroccan Birthday Party – حفلة عيد ميلاد خنساء

Tuesday I attended a party a Fassi friend threw for her daughter, a celebration that could not have been more different from my own childhood backyard pinata parties.

When I was still living in the shared house in Fez, I would at least once a week buy breakfast breads from a small store in the Rcif market from a woman named Hanan. Hanan makes excellent harsha, a fried, cornbread-like cake made from semolina, sha’ir, similar to harsha but made from barley, and malawi, chewy, fried, flatbread from heaven. I would sometimes chat with her about her cooking and once I brought her a piece of a lemon pound cake I had baked earlier that day. The next few times I visited Hanan, she didn’t comment on the cake until she saw that I was buying all the fixings to do more baking. The conversation went as follows:

Hanan (looking fearfully at my shopping bag): So, um, are you going to be making another cake?
Me: Yes! Would you like some again?!
Hanan: Why don’t I give you my recipe. The last cake you made was dry and not so good.

I pretended that she didn’t hurt my feelings, baked a cake following her recipe and gave her a piece, which she ate approvingly.

During my visits to Fez I usually stop by to say hello, and this past visit she invited me to her daughter’s 4th birthday party. I showed up at her house at around 4pm and watched the girls of the house get their makeup and nails done. Even the birthday girl had on foundation, heavy eyeliner and eyeshadow, and glitter blush.

It took a while for the guest to arrive but when they did, the party started full force. An Isawa band was hired and the guests, mostly middle-aged women and their kids, plus a small group of teenagers, didn’t hold back and started dancing almost as soon as the music began. The dancing didn’t stop even when the mint tea and cookies were passed around.

Isawa music is actually Sufi spiritual music. To oversimplify, Sufis are adherents to mystical Islam and the Isawas are Sufi brotherhood that originated in Meknes, about an hour from Fez. Isawa music is a major part of ceremonies organized to bring people blessings for special occasions like birthdays and weddings.

The band consisted of four or five men playing a large drums and big tambourines and singing. The teenagers hoisted the birthday girl up in a large throne and danced her around the room as she held on, staring out at the crowd, terrified.

A few women danced themselves into a Sufi trance, tearing off their hijabs and rhythmically swinging their hair back and forth to the beat of the music, eventually collapsing with exhaustion when the song was done.

Of course my camera was sitting in Ifrane, so instead imagine a smaller girl on a smaller throne.

The Isawa music sounding something like this:

When I snuck out at 9:30pm, the party was still going strong.

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About Laura McAdams

Laura McAdams is a Master’s student at University of Pennsylvania studying International Educational Development. Her experience in the MENA region includes 15 months as a Fulbright student researcher to Fez and Ifrane, Morocco in 2010 and 2011. Her project was interested in understanding the disconnect between the policies of technology usage in education and the reality of how these policies unfold in the classroom. Summer 2012 she returned to the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco to work with a women’s weaving cooperative. She is excited to learn more about other countries in the MENA region and issues involving education policy and reform, technology usage in curriculums and gender equality in education. One of Laura’s lifelong goals is to one day be able to sit down and leisurely read a newspaper in Arabic.
This entry was posted in Fulbright Student Research in Morocco, 2010-2011, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Moroccan Birthday Party – حفلة عيد ميلاد خنساء

  1. As a Group working in the African music industry “A Moroccan Birthday Party |” is right up our street and we will keep checking for interesting additions to your post. If you want to know more about Moroccan Music, visit us at %URL% … Well written, thank you 🙂

  2. haha That’s awesome!! I saw the picture before I read that it wasn’t taken by you and I was like “She’s 4??!!…Must have meant 14 at least!” Sounds like one great party Laurs!! Haha. I wonder if the women would like my cakes? Sounds like a tough crowd.

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