In Morocco, we are named Jellabas. We are long fancily embroidered robes with a hood. Originally, we were worn by men and we were quite plain. Women would then be draped in white or black veils according to regions. Splendid silver fibulae, rings, heavy ear rings, ankle and wrist bracelets and, head jewels on vividly colored scarves would enhance women’s femininity, making of the veil a mere support for their beauty. By and by city women decided to adopt us since we offered sleeves that freed their hands. First, we followed the austerity of men’s jellabas in colors and forms. During the fight for independence we robed women in black, brown navy blue and grey and our embroideries strictly matched the color of our material.
Kenitra, end of the sixties
When she was eighteen, Hakima (The wise) was advised for the purpose of decency, to wear a jellaba to protect herself from the indecent looks of men. (To say she “was forced” to would be convenient for those who are eager to hear stories on Arab-women-forced-by-their men-to-wear-a-veil.) We are not veils. We are garments, LADIES garments now!
After her high school graduation, Hakima decided to start working. Her father was against it. (Sorry this does not fit the cliché of the Arab-father-taking-his daughter-out-of-school-and-forcing-her-to marry-someone-she-does-not-love!) Hakima insisted on working and her father reluctantly accepted the fait accompli. One day she slipped me on and… (Oh, I forgot to introduce myself. I am a light grey poplin Jellaba with thin black stripes, grey embroideries on the front and I was designed and sewn by a handicraft artisan in the city of Kenitra [which means Little Bridge] ) So Hakima slipped me on and off we went to register for a job at the Employment Agency of our small city. Small, yet strategically important with its three U.S. American Bases: one in the suburbs, one North and one South of the city.
The pale faced man at the Agency was hooked to his telephone (Well yes, in my time telephones had wires.) He waved us to sit. We obeyed and calmly waited. His secretary brought a paper and put it on his desk. As he was talking, Hakima looked at the upside down paper and managed to read it. Pale Faced hung up the phone and said in a rude way:
- “What do you want?”
- I would like to work sir
- Have a resume?
- Yes sir
- (Seemingly looking at the resume) We have no job for you for the moment.
- How about the one on the American Base right here on your desk?
- (Surprised and condescending) Do YOU look like someone who speaks English he said in Arabic
- (Angrily, in English) Well, if working means dealing with people like you, I don’t want to work anymore.
Hakima and I left before Pale Face realized what was going on. A week later, Hakima received a letter from the Employment Agency. Another man was sitting at Pale Face’s desk. A man with an honest face who welcomed us and told Hakima, that there was a job for her at the American Navy Base. We were thrilled: Hakima since she got THE job, and I because I had not been a hindrance for her. At that time, being a ‘modern’ literate young girl had to be immediately seen through the fashionable Western clothes you wore. Hakima warmly thanked the agent and, on a frolic tone and seemingly interested, Hakima asked :
- What happened to the man who was here last week?
- He is sick.
(Indeed! Sick in the head. And how many sick people are directing and ruling us in this world, Hakima thought)
Paris, early seventies
I was born in Hakima’s head and when Hakima bought my material, a thick, strawberry red, warm flannel, nobody in the world would have imagined my destiny. She took me to her traditional, handicraft jellaba maker and asked him to keep the form of the jellaba but she wanted no embroideries, no curlicues. She wanted me plain, with just two little slots on the sides near the ankles and poodle like fur boarding the wrists and the hood. Surprised, the artisan looked at Hakima with his eyes wide opened:
- But I’ve never done this. Besides, nobody would wear a jellaba like this!
- Don’t worry, I am not going to wear it in Morocco, where people are going to criticize it or hypocritically sneer at its sight. This one garment is going to Paris. So please just sew it as I designed it.
This is how without realizing it, Hakima launched a fashion that was going to be spread in Morocco in the eighties and I was proud to be a prototype for that fashion.
In the suitcase Hakima prepared for Paris, I had pants, and skirts, and blouses, and pullovers as neighbors and we traveled in harmony; no civilization clash between us as we dialogued about elegance and decency as well as the colder weather waiting for us in Paris.
In 1974, Jellabas were rare in Paris, and their social context clearly defined: only illiterate women who had come to join their working class immigrant husband would wear a jellaba since they had never worn anything else before and were as innocent in their jellabas in Paris as the Western tourists in low necked T-shirts and shorts or miniskirts. Both sinning by their unawareness of looks that classify and kill. So a jellaba as a test for the acceptance of otherness? Why not? PARIS! HERE I AM
O, I forgot to tell you what brought us to Paris Hakima and I. As I was coming to lifefrom the artisan’s hands in Kenitra, Hakima was quitting her job with the ‘United’ Nations in the capital, Rabat (which means The Link). She had deciding she was not developing a bit in that organization and therefore, she enrolled in Paris 7 University in Paris for under graduate and graduate studies in English and American Literature. Why Paris? Very valuable studies in the best Universities for free. Hakima did not want her father to pay a penny for her studies. She had already worked for eight years, had her own apartment, paid for everything she needed and even opened a bank account for her mother, where she would transfer a monthly sum. Hakima hated routine jobs and when she had nothing more to learn she would either progress in the same organization or quit. She quit and we left.
Luckily Hakima’s college, Charles V was in the Marais. Because of its narrow, ancient streets, she had decided to give it a Moroccan name: “Paris Medina” (ancient city). I had the privilege of strolling in Paris and frequenting at the same time Shakespeare, Blake, Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and more. However, does a Jellaba in Paris look like someone who speaks English?
There is bakery shop near Charles V College, where she would buy her morning “pain au chocolat” and today she had decided I would come along. She put me on but deeply involved in what she used to call the Hamlet case, she forgot all about her brown skin (not exactly from here), about me, Morocco, Paris and the rest of the world. She had leaped back into Shakespeare’s age where she was trying to untangle the dramatic elements of the Elizabethan Era in England: The ‘end’ of Feudalism and the beginning of demagogy (Words, Words, Words!), the advent of subversion through words, the hardly veiled anti-Semitism for Guildensterns and Rozecrantz .
Drowned in her reflections, Hakima entered the bakery shop and asked in perfect French “Donnez-moi un paint au chocolat, s’il vous plait.” (Give me a chocolate croissant please.) Blocked, however, by my sight, the vendor started waving her lack of understanding. As in an instant like in a time machine, Hakima leaped back to the seventies of her twentieth century, took a look at me, immediately realizing I was the cause of the no communication problem and said, still in perfect French but articulating slowly as if talking to a child : “Il y a un probème, Madame? Je vous ai demandé un pain au chocolat.” (Is there anything wrong, Madam I asked you for a chocolate croissant?) Baffled, the vendor put herself together and served Hakima. We got out and I could feel Hakima chuckle.
Jerry Farber, a university professor and writer came from California came to Paris as part of his experience on the sociology of racism in Europe. The university had chosen twenty students as guinea pigs for an experimental B.A. Luckily Hakima was one of them. They studied each author from four different perspectives, with four different teachers: History, Sociology, Psychology and Linguistics. Jerry Farber’s was one of the funniest classes, since it was based on ‘spontaneous drama’. He had the students gather experiences through their spontaneous interactions with people.
Any better Idea than using me for spontaneous drama against racism? And any better place than the famous Parisian Metro. Fatima, a French Algerian friend of Hakima’s came to visit her one day. As they were going out, Fatima said:
- What a beautiful Jellaba! Do you have one I can borrow so I can also look Arab today
- Well I’m sorry no, but you can take my husband’s Selham (Cape)
O, but I forgot to tell you that Hakima and I found a husband. Hakima met Chakir on the campus, he was studying pharmacy, they fell in Love and quickly married. And believe it or not among Chakir’s clothes there were a Selham, a man’s cape. It was a light grey wool Selham, woven by a woman artisan in south Morocco. I was not alone anymore.
Hakima and Fatima decided that since they were clad in Arab clothes, they would take the darkest metro line, from Porte d’Orleans to Porte de Clignancourt (Today it bears a mere number: Line 4) Why dark? Since it traverses immigrant districts where people are darker than the ‘normal’ French people. In order to have some good subject matter for Jerry Farber, Hakima told her friend that they should put their native accent on their Parisian French. They got into the Wagon and Hakima said with a very heavy Moroccan accent and grammar mistakes along with some Moroccan words:
“Weely, Weely, Weely Fatima, on si trrrompé. Rlatna” (Damn, Damn, Damn Fatima we’re on the wrong line)
Hakima and Fatima were standing, scrutinizing the metro map as if they were foreigners lost in Paris. At the same time, Hakima would cast looks behind her to see a heinous look of racism in the eyes of four guys sitting and looking in their direction. When Hakima spoke in bad French to her Friend, one of them suddenly stood up and verbally aggressed Hakima with:
- Hey you! We are not in the desert here.
- Are you addressing me? Hakima answered, with a ‘natural’ Parisian accent as she turned around and we faced the outrageous man who fell back on his seat, stunned. What is your problem, she continued, (from inside I could feel her boiling against people’s narrow mindedness and stupidity, but she kept calm and smiling) I am Moroccan and I’ just playing with a Moroccan accent but you are an ex colonialist and unaware, you’ve picked up an Arabic accent that you don’t even think of getting rid of. In a way, we are language cousins. Hakima felt the man was going to explode with rage and when the metro stopped at the Barbès station, the four of us quickly got down for a walk.
After five years of Parisan complicity and Hakima’s graduation, we returned to Morocco
Casablanca, as time goes by.
When we came back to our home country, we were stunned with the evolution of the jellabas in the early eighties. A great festival of forms and colors
In fact, with today’s communication means everybody can watch our joyful dance in links like this one:
After two years of teaching in Rabat and the birth of a son, Hakima, her family and I
moved to Casablanca. (No it’s not always romantic, and it’s more Moroccan than the film, though it was discovered that Humphrey Bogart had a Moroccan Corsair among his ancestors. We had no Ricks Café until an American lady decided to create one in 2004. She recreated the film’s atmosphere and hired a Moroccan pianist named Samy to play As Time goes By.)
My mission as Moroccan ambassador in Paris was finished. Hakima keeps me dearly though. Once in a while, she would take me out of the closet so I take some sun into my tired fibers and we would exchange good memories.
Casablanca, with its very rich and very poor areas, its five million inhabitants, its numerous factories, its grand Mosque advancing right into the sea. Casablanca! The biggest city in Africa, whirling with activity day and night. Casablanca-Anfa, and its grand, flowery villas on that residential hill along the Atlantic shore where Hakima is walking along the cornice, lost in her thoughts. I, a royal taffeta jellaba, enfold her in a luminous royal blue under an azure July sky.
The Sun Beach, a V.I.P. Club. Very Private as it must be, only open to the happy few who can afford a membership in these VEPPs (you don’t know what VEPPs are? Very Expensive Private Prisons.) As she got near the entrance of the club, Hakima woke up of her reverie. This arrogance aroused anger in her but not out of jealousy, she loved her freedom too much to even think of adhering to these snobbish places and their condescending members.
She decided to violate this ‘Temple of Wealth and Exclusion’. We entered and Hakima asked the receptionist: “What are the price and membership conditions to become a member. The woman stared at her, puzzled by the contradiction between Hakima’s firm tone and her jellaba. The tone had authority in it but the population frequenting this club wore no jellabas. However the woman answered “Yes Madam and handed a leaflet with the information on it. After thanking the lady Hakima, left the club, happy to breathe free air. The following summer Hakima gave me away to Latifa and I lived with this new woman in Aïn Sbaa (The Lion Water Spring) a working class area where I kept in my fibers, the memories of our profaning visits to vain luxury altars with Hakima.
Of humans and robes
Our geography is rather wide and our history rather long. They give us different names in different regions of the world. We are of one color or another according to their religions, their ceremonies. Yet, what is more universal than ankle long robes with a hood? We’ve covered monks like William Rolfe or Tibetan Monks, rebels like Robin Hood, princes and poor people, brave men and villains, men and women. Richly embroidered in silk and pearls or roughly weaved in plain linen, we are a mere ephemeral skin on people’s skin. We become their companions and the witnesses of their good and bad actions and, their inward feelings. Numerous and singular, we lasted and subtly resisted to harsh winds. In Morocco we have, robed people of different civilizations through different eras, Berbers, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Jews, Christians and Muslims with the same kindness and generosity.