So I was cleaning out some old diskettes and came across an email I'd posted to lds-grads on cross-dressing Berber women when I was living in Morocco. I decided to call M up. He's at a Lebanese café with his cronies.
Me: Do you remember when I visited Essaouira and saw a Berber woman dress up like a man?
Me: You know. She was supposed to be like a penis.
M: Oh yeah! Now I remember.
Me: Does that turn you on?
----- Original Message -----
From: Sylvia A. Cabus
To: LDS-Grads E-list
Sent: Tuesday, June 27, 2000 8:07 AM
Subject: National Geographic moments
Last week I went to visit our field office in Essaouira, on the southern coast of Morocco. Essaouira is where Jimi Hendrix wrote “Castles in the Sand” (although “camels on the beach” is the more realistic scenario) and still retains a lot of vestigial hippie-ness – much like Santa Cruz, CA. It’s the wind-surfing capital of Morocco. Yeah, I know. Tough life. Alas, I did not spend much time on the beach or staring at the “trustafarians” (Rastafarians with trust funds) in the medina (traditional quarter). I accompanied our field staff on their regular monitoring visits to the project sites.
We stayed in one village for two days for a introductory training on forming a village association for Berber women. They wore aggressively colorful clothes. Definitely mix and match, emphasis on mix. If I stared at one woman for too long and then closed my eyes I could still see her image. I asked why they wore such loudly extravagant clothes and they said that it’s because their husbands shopped for them – the nearest market was three hours away on horseback and women were not allowed to enter the market. The women themselves were extremely striking. Many were pale white with blue or green eyes and black, black hair, which they wore in two ponytails tied with red string.
After the training finished we spent some time singing and dancing. I was finally able to show off some of my belly-dancing moves to an appreciative (if all-female) audience. Then Naima, my colleague, said that one woman was going to perform a special dance that she herself had never seen. The woman will dress up as a man, she told me. This region is known for its sexual proclivities, Naima continued. Some men ask their wives to dress up as men before having sex. Oh, I said. Most people in the US stop at football player and cheerleader, or perhaps stern teacher and naughty student, I told her. Not that I would know from personal experience. At the door appeared a huge figure dressed in a djellaba (traditional hooded robe) with the hood up and a piece of cloth wrapped where the face would be. This figure wandered around the room while the women clapped and chanted. It approached some women individually, causing much shrieking and laughter. It’s supposed to represent a penis, Naima whispered to me. Ah, I said. I carefully noted this under Berber cross-dressing practices in my notebook while Hadija, our fully-veiled colleague, has thrown her arms around the dancing figure. At the end the woman finally revealed herself. She had spent the whole time bent over, with a bucket tied on her bottom, which had formed the head of this male figure. (I won’t even attempt to figure out the subtext to all this.)
On the long drive back to Essaouira, Naima, Hadija, and I talked about men. I told them about my date with Younes the computer guy, during which we walked around downtown Rabat for three hours without talking, except when he asked me what kind of pastry I wanted. They said this was normal. After further discussion I concluded that American men weren’t so bad after all. As we approached the city, Hadija told me that normally after a long stay in the field it was customary for the staff to go to a hammam.
So later that evening we took off to the public baths for women. The place was crowded, filled with women and children in various stages of bathing. The smallest tyke I saw was sitting in his own large bucket. There were women of all shapes and sizes, vigorously scrubbing themselves or each other, or soaping up their children. We undressed, found a corner to ourselves and filled several buckets full of hot water, and then got to it. In a country where many women only show eyebrows and ankles, my industrial strength garments attracted curious stares. I tried not to think about contracting athletes foot or losing a contact lens while I squinted through the steam. Naima and Hadija had brought with them enough accessories to stock a drug store, all of which we used. Much strenuous exfoliation took place. Oh no, I didn’t need that epidermis after all. It was as if I had undergone three cycles in a washing machine. When we emerged into the cool Atlantic air afterwards I felt every open pore on my body.
When I returned to Rabat I had dinner with C. I told him about my week in the field (his Peace Corps post was just north of Essaouira) including our grand finish in the women’s bath. A hammam? C said. He smiled. Every man’s fantasy.