Algerian women love to dress up. All women do, I think. But North African cultures take this to the next level. Of course, I didn’t know this yet. After throwing my friend an American-style baby shower, Thilelli invited our women’s group and others to her home after the birth for a traditional celebration.
“What do I wear?” I texted another Algerian friend, Thiziri.
“I’m wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Wear whatever you want.”
So, after church I changed out of my dress and put on jeans, a sweater, and some simple pearl earrings.
I picked up Thiziri at 3pm. She walks out of her house wearing dress pants, black studded stilettos, and a fancy blouse which matches the color of her cream-colored hijab.
“That is NOT a T-shirt!” I exclaim.
“It’s not?... oh, you know…. My English.” she laughs dismissively.
“And those are not jeans,” I say.
“I didn’t say jeans, did I? I thought I said pants.”
“I’m going to drive back and put on a dress if you don’t mind!” (If this is an occasion to get fancy, I’m not going to miss it). I quickly drive back home, throw on a dress, and get back in the car, where Thiziri and her son are waiting in the back seat.
“Which shoes?” I ask, holding up a pair of black boots and high-heeled dress shoes.
“The heels. Always the heels.”
As we drive, Thiziri does her make-up. She reaches over and hands me a little red tube.
“Put this on. You need it,” she directs. Assuming it was lip-gloss for my chapped lips, I did as she instructed before looking in the rearview mirror. My lips were bright, bright red.
“I look silly!”
“No!” says Thiziri, “You look sexy… Don’t you wear lipstick?”
We are at a stoplight halfway there, when she reaches over from the back seat and sprays me, unexpectedly, with very strong perfume. “You need this too. Now you smell good!” She laughs. I cough. “A little warning next time please.” I tucked my head to sniff myself, just to make sure she wasn’t being serious.
Some of my Algerian friends have a very indirect, round-about way of communication. Not Thiziri. I love her sarcastic, witty humor.
In the car I told her that I was reading the Quran. She knows where I stand spiritually, but I explained that I’m reading because I want to better understand my Muslim friends. “Can I ask you questions about it?” I asked. “Maybe, but you know how I feel talking about religion,” she replied. “Now your brain is going hurt because you’re going to have too many questions. Maybe you think too much."
She also shared that her Christian neighbors have invited her to their Christmas celebration, and she is hesitant to attend. She doesn’t want her young son to get confused about their beliefs. I understood her position. My kids are a little older, but I told her that I think it is completely possible to teach your children faith, while helping them develop an awareness of other belief systems, which they will inevitably be exposed to here in America.
Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, while Christians believe that He is the living and divine savior of humanity. Though we disagree, I’d still welcome Muslim friends to my Christmas table, and I’d be honored to attend an Eid celebration (a feast marking the end of Ramadan).
One thing I love about my friendship with Thiziri is our ability to have fun, while also communicating about serious things regarding life, faith, and parenthood. But this wasn’t a day for deep dialogue; it was a day for fun and red lipstick.
When we arrived, many of the ladies from our women’s group were there. There was one other (underdressed) American woman. On the table were at least five different types of cakes, cookies, cheese, fruit, pastries, and sushi, and everything lavishly decorated with blue balloons and doilies.
I wondered how Thilelli had the energy for this after just having a baby. She didn’t look like a new nursing mom at all. She was wearing a brilliant blue dress with puffy sleeves and pink flowers. Her hair was flowing with curls, and she was wearing clear glass diamond-studded heels. (Algerian Cinderella!) I’m not exaggerating.
Algerian women love to dress up.
American women do too. We just don’t do it as well or often as the Algerians.
Well, today my day will consist of unclogging a bathtub drain, cleaning the toilet, baking a lasagna, and enjoying hugs from my son with the flu. He will wrap his sticky jelly fingers around my belly and rub his snot nose in my face. I’ll receive it with joy.
So tomorrow I might take off my sweats, brush my hair and wear a dress.
“Who are you dressing up for?” My husband will ask, knowing very well I won’t plan on leaving the house except to the grocery store for reinforcements of chicken soup.
“You,” I’ll tease. (He’s much too sick to follow through with the strings usually attached to that loaded statement).
But really, ladies, we know it isn’t for him. It isn’t for men at all. We don’t need a reason to dress up. We do it because we can. It’s half the fun of being a woman. And sometimes we just need to remind ourselves that our femininity hasn’t been completely lost in the sticky-fingered joys of motherhood and toilet cleaning.
But though we love to put on the ritz, one value that conservative Christians and Muslims share is modesty. The secular world balks that modesty is outdated, oppressive and patriarchal. But we view it as a way of respect for ourselves, our husbands, and our brothers. We don’t repress our sexuality (or we shouldn’t); Rather, we hold it in highest honor. So, we keep it restrained in mixed company.
But in the safe company of women, my Algerian friends let loose. They don their favorite lipstick and heels, pull off their hijabs (for those that wear them) and wrap them around their hips in traditional Algerian style. Then they dance. Algerian dancing involves some seriously fast-paced hip shaking.
It was a delightful afternoon. I’m not sure we celebrated the baby at all beyond the blue decorations. We passed him around as other children ran about the floor playing with balloons and racing cars. It was wonderful to be together in the company of friends eating, dancing, and laughing. It was one of those evenings that makes me so grateful for working cross-culturally. It’s a privilege to be welcomed into spaces like this- spaces where I am the outsider. Spaces that challenge my perceptions and my understanding, allowing me to see and celebrate life through the eyes of my international friends.
Best of all, Thilelli felt so very loved.