Meriem Bennani

Jun 18, 2015

Meriem Bennani writes an e-mail to a friend about one night in Morocco

2015-06-18 10:06 GMT-04:00 Meriem Bennani <mmeriembennani@gmail.com> wrote:

Dear A,

I hope you are doing great.How is editing?

Morocco has been good so far. Everyone is talking about the live-streamed performances of international pop stars at the Mawazine festival in Rabat.

I remember this conversation we had about what has been inspiring me in writing the character of Fardaous and other stories. We had talked about the Kardashians and California in relation to Morocco. Something about the Spanish influence of the architecture and a love for modern villas got me really thinking about filming reality tv in a Moroccan house. There is more though. I realize I never really got to tell you about La Nezha, my mother’s cousin. I was at her house yesterday for her yearly Gnawa night. One day you will come here and I will take you. I have been writing about her, drawing her and thinking about her house since I was a teenager. I’m not sure she has any idea what I do and how much I have borrowed from her.

My mother as Fardaous Funjab

My mother as Fardaous Funjab

I want to tell you more about that night- and as usual- – I apologize for my ESL.

I arrived at her house with my older sister and mom in the afternoon. Distracted by a painted portrait of her at the entrance of the house, I lose my party friends.

In the middle of the thick musk smoke and rows of sugar-dipped legs of aunts and aunt cousins, I look for the chubby and pale ankles of my grandmother. Her feet usually hang right over the floor, pulled down by the weight of a heavy heel, straightening the trunk-like shapelessness of her white ankles. Once I see them I will look up and find her small and hard eyes. Some women are commenting on each other’s dancing, something about J.Lo’s performance in Rabat the week before and speculations on how many centimeters of fabric were covering her expensive body. I walk past them and hit the chipped bottom of a golden dog sculpture. Two skinny men are holding hands. A perfect blow dry stretches their long hair and an impeccable pluck job defines their dark eyebrows. No one seems to care about their handhold or the rings around their fingers or the transparent polish over their nails. I cut through a small crowd of hard bodies and get to the central living room. My grandma must be there, in the middle of the dancing, by the Gnawa Mâalem.

My sister has found her long before me and has already sat in the only available velvet square between my grandmother and skeptical mom. I will take you there but don’t expect me to stay past sunset. Lost, I seat across their familiar faces, sliding my body next to a voluptuous woman in her 40’s, bleached blonde curls, light blue eye shadow and heavy breathing through her massive glittery breasts. She pinches my cheek and punches a kiss onto it then wraps her thick arm around my shoulders. Locked between her intrusive embrace and the faces of my grandmother, mother and sister across the living room, I feel strangely grounded and ready for the night.

My mother has been taking us to her cousin La Nezha’s Gnawa nights for years, but this is our first attendance as consenting adults.  Through the night the Mâalem sings songs dedicated to specific Jnoun and calls upon them. La Nezha, her two sisters and other guests open their bodies to the dry bass line of the Guembri and let the Jnoun take over. They are now singing for El Bouhali, a male spirit who is characterized by silliness and the absurd. La Nezha’s first sister, La Fatema, mimics an old man walking and dancing with a cane. Her anemia and hollow cheeks have always scared me as a child. Her gray teeth are constantly visible, completely uncovered. She is wearing a patchwork of different color fabrics for El Bouhali. She moves her cane vertically like a rotated blind walker and slides her tight heels forward, leaving embedded strokes behind on the tortured rug. She is headed to the center of the rug where a man in an oversized suit has placed a monumental plate of couscous.  A slow flock of barefoot women ( the Jnoun enter the body from underneath, wearing shoes prevents them from coming in) is diving towards the meal, dipping their hands in the white and grainy mount, extracting greasy pieces of meat and candy, passing them to the guests seating around. Made in honor of El Bouhali, the “silly couscous” mixes lamb and wrapped candy of all sorts. Terrified that someone would hand me a small plate of lamb wrapped Tofita that I wouldn’t be able to refuse, I curl backwards like a turtle inside the curly bleached blonde shell of my improvised friend.

A few hours go by and a few more Jnoun have been celebrated, called upon, sang, danced, and dressed up for. Each Jnoun has a dedicated song, color and set of characteristics. Some Moroccan psychotherapists have compared their features to specific neuroses and Gnawa nights to group therapy. The trance has spread and most guests are now operating on a level I seem to have no access to.  People have given up their notoriously unbreakable Moroccan souab (etiquette) with their shoes once they entered the arena of endless possibility defined by the edge of the gigantic rug. The complicated woven patterns are stomped over like the re-designed map of a catastrophic war aftermath. Once inside, anything is allowed: every curse word, every scream, obscene dance move, shaky hair pull and frantic jump is attributed to the Jnoun in control.

The Mâalem is now singing for Lalla Malika. From what I gathered she is the spirit of beauty and fabulousness, a lover of purple and pink tones, and a very good French speaker. I heard people sometimes say of gay men that they have Lalla Malika in them. As I am wondering whether the explanatory aspect of this popular assumption is a sign of tolerance or the opposite, the heavy arm of my new friend starts shaking over my shoulder. I look at her face from under her massive chin. Her pale blue eyelids are trembling over white eyes and her mouth is half open, letting out an irregular series of broken sighs.  It was not before she threw herself face first down on the rug and proceeded to humping it that I was able to identify the nature of her sighs. Embarrassed by my friend’s sudden chemistry with the floor, a woman tries to stop her. La Nezha yells: Leave her alone. It’s bad to interrupt. Sweet Jamila had a lot to let go of I’m glad she came tonight. They have been coming in and out of me all night. This Mâalem is really good, isn’t he? Where’s the waiter? I’m thirsty; I’ve been thirsty all night. She speaks like a queen, constantly flicking off the ceiling with her golden tiara. She looks down at the humping blonde with the tenderness of a lioness (a lioness with a perfect hairdo). Her tattoed chubby soles must be the softest gateway for the Jnoun. She turns around and calmly wanders through the guests’ occupied bodies, satisfied and proud, ready for a cigarette. She seats down behind the Mâalem where golden embroideries separate the rest of the sofa from a central throne area.

A., I wish I could show you a photo of her. The atmosphere felt too thick for iPhones or any other technology.
I think she looks like an American pop star. Can you imagine if she had her own show? I have been thinking about her and why I find her so fascinating. Her life is structured around the spirits, celebrating them, visiting marabous and helping people in their daily lives. Customers come to her with a problem, she consults the Jnoun at night and provides answers and life tips in the morning. Although the mystery of her heavily spiritual life could explain my obsession with her, it is not what I am most interested in. Something about the beautiful thickness of her body and her extreme aesthetics seem to protect her from judgment. It’s like any misogynistic comment or rule that is usually thrown at Moroccan women would implode if it approached her. A different set of rules applies to her. Even Jennifer Lopez didn’t benefit from this special treatment. She shows me a Morocco which popular culture encourages self expression and recognizes sex as a natural aspect of social interactions outside of marriage. There is so much freedom in the space she opens up in her house once a year. Every time I borrow from La Nezha in my work, it is that beautiful space of possibility that I open up once again.

Will you give a kiss to your doggy for me?

With Love,

Meriem.

ps—-Oh, I also have this video from a couple years ago, on her birthday :