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A taste of Morocco, with costume changes

September 7, 2010

This summer, I was invited to my French cousin’s wedding in Marrakesh. As a food writer, I was excited about what I would eat. But aside from culinary extravagance, I didn’t know what I was in for when I arrived at midnight for a ceremony that would last until dawn.

Scarcely over the threshold, I was handed the traditional date and glass of milk. The Moroccan women arriving with me were like dozens of Cinderellas. Shedding plain outer clothes, they revealed their best caftan gowns of jewel-toned cloth and glittering filigree. These outfits, I learned, are scrupulously hidden in cupboards for safekeeping, covered with cloaks, unveiled only at the last minute.

I was given a concoction pale as jade—and tasted my first milk and avocado drink. I wanted the recipe. A flaky pigeon pastilla pie combined savory meat with sweet almond paste and spices. The main course platters arrived piled high with roasted lamb and pullets. My French relatives and I kept waiting for the vegetables—but they never came. Instead, whole-fruit pyramids of brobdingnagian proportions were followed by trays of tiny almond paste sweets.

I had been expecting an elaborate meal. But not the sequence of dresses. Traditional Moroccan weddings unfold over seven days, most of which the bride spends sequestered in a chamber. Increasingly, however, families condense the festivities into one night of extraordinary pageantry. Seven days turn into seven dresses.

Each of my cousin’s dresses—white, green, blue, purple—shimmered with silver or gold embroidery. Her veils were studded with sequins or crystals or coins. Jewels hung heavy from her earlobes and forehead and collarbone.

Most of the stunning entrances had her looking down at us from a litter borne by six men wearing djellaba robes. Her jewelry would have jangled had she not dutifully kept her head still—regal composure—even as the litter-bearers broke into dance.

When “on stage,” she sat on a throne as wide and ornate as any parade float. At particular stages in the ceremony guests could stand near her long enough for a picture. Otherwise, we saw her only from afar. The only people near her were the stage directors, three women hired to deck her, guide her to the appointed places, and bend her hands into the appropriate poses. They hovered and fussed like Rapunzel’s over-protective guardian witch, orchestrating each dress change. To signal the end of each scene, they raised their voices in a wailing song-chant—and then whisked her away for yet another costume.

Their hold on my cousin broke only once, when, too exhausted and hot, she refused to wear the elaborate Berber dress of wool and fur.

At the end of the night, after the last dress, morning brought in the final act. We were served the last course: a breakfast soup of lentils and a fried sesame sweet. Then the bride, free of the stage directors and her pounds of jewelry, sank into a chair next to me, surrounded by leftover pastries.

*    *    *    *

[This piece was published–with a few changes– in my column “The Roots of Everyday Life” for the Los Altos Town Crier. It appeared in the Aug. 24 Wedding section.]

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