After whining unconvincingly about having a headache, my Kenyan husband explained why he didn’t want to go to my god-daughter’s dance performance at Lowell, a public high school in San Francisco.
“You remember when you went to a wedding?” he demanded.
I thought back to the Swahili wedding I attended on Lamu before we were married. I was recovering from what I thought was flu but I realize now was probably an allergic reaction to the black mold creeping up the walls of our Shela flat. Our physician (and part-time Swahili poet) Dr. Abdallah prescribed a one-two punch consisting of a fantabulous steroid and a knockoff Indian version of Zyrtec. Blissfully uncongested, if woozy, I was helping Gabriel with dinner when I was nearly blasted out of the kitchen by Zanzibari music. Think Sheherazade as a drag queen on meth in charge of a drum machine with the control stuck on reggaeton.
“It’s a wedding,” Gabriel said. “You should check it out.”
“Ugh. I hate weddings.”
He shrugged. “It’s culture.”
“I’ll go if you come with me.”
Gabriel looked at me uncomprehendingly. Then he laughed.
“I can’t,” he said. “It’s only for women.”
“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” I told him. “Who do you dance with?”
“The women dance together,” he said.
Indeed, your basic Swahili wedding is more Heloise and Abelard than Father of the Bride. The bride and groom don’t get together until after the ceremony, at the bride’s parents’ house. The “reception” consists of a men’s stick dance, followed by a bachelor party. (The bachelor party features porn, since there are no strippers on the island, and as we now know from Osama’s stockpile, pornography doesn’t seem to violate the Koran.)
I had seen the stick dance the previous day. It was a mock fight, limp-wristed by American standards. Not that Swahili men can’t be macho, but their swaggering is usually related to dhow races, soccer, women, and clothing. (Pastel-colored cotton kikois, which are like sarongs, are favored, and so are expensive, near-bulletproof rainjackets shipped in from friends in Europe. If you have sailed during rainy season on the coast, you understand.)
The actual ceremony takes place in the mosque, the boy’s club epicenter, no girls allowed. The bride’s involvement in the official doings consists of signing a document attesting that she’s a virgin, no matter how patently untrue.
The big exception to male domination of the wedding is the women’s wedding party. Gabriel’s mother has been a regular at these affairs for years, and he still grumbles about being left at home as a kid while she went off to weddings. I can hardly blame her, since weddings are virtually the only time women leave the house except to shop.
I gave in to Gabriel’s urging, as I am wont to do, and stumbled in the direction of the Sheherazade disco. Oh-so-tentatively, I opened the curtain that had been strung, It Happened One Night fashion, across the narrow alleyway leading to the courtyard where the women gathered.
Women, women, everywhere, women with their hair oiled and perfumed with jasmine, women wearing too much makeup, women swaying and clapping their hands. Women on the sidelines, women seated, women in a conga line, eyes half-closed, women bumping and grinding as if they were fucking each other in the ass, women trancing out, all in front of a comically oversized brass bed mounted on a dais. Is there a female version of “homoerotic”? Half-cartoon, half-fairytale, the giant bed reminded me of the Princess and the Pea skit in the Carol Burnett show.
I noticed a British professor I’d met the previous day while walking on the beach. She’d mentioned that her research involved dance and culture, or dance and gender or perhaps all three, I couldn’t quite remember. She was watching attentively from the sidelines. Busily taking mental notes, no doubt.
The hipsway cadence quickened, gearing up to the big night. I felt uncomfortable, but I was afraid people would notice if I left too soon, so I tried to keep it together.
Why can’t you be more like her? I berated myself, watching the professor who was clapping her hands in time to the music but maintained her evaluating gaze. Observe. Be neutral.
Whenever I tell myself this, I am about to have a major fight-or-flight response. Zyrtec plus steroids, or plain old American anxiety, your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that I fled.
Is there something about being confined in a “woman’s” role that makes me feel like Maya Angelou’s proverbial avian victim? Lamu does this to me in a thousand small ways that I don’t notice until after I leave. After flying home last July, I lived for a month in Manhattan while the U.S. government tried to determine if my laidback soccer jock husband was a terrorist. I joined the luxurious Equinox club, mainly because it was within walking distance of the apartment that a lovely high school classmate had loaned me. It was my turn to dance.
Clunk. After matching my pace to the gliding goddesses of Senegal and slogging through sand in the ninety-degree sweat of Lamu, even the yoga classes in Manhattan seemed to move at warp speed. I needed something to jump-start my metabolism so I forced myself through the most hard-core exercise routines I could find, in classes with names like Blast and Turbo.
Type A, anyone? This was the Upper East Side, folks. I watched, stunned, as a hugely pregnant woman jumped up and down so rabidly I wondered if her goal was to have a miscarriage.
I wasn’t pregnant so what was my excuse? For two weeks, I swam in mud. Then one day I felt it. The rush. The power. The “I Am Woman” moment. I crouched and leapt and reveled in the lightness of my limbs, with the funky funky girl music pounding in my ear.
Then I found myself thinking of a beautiful woman I know in Shela. She is thirty-one and when she was fourteen her parents sold her to an old man. A rich old man. She rebelled and her parents locked her in her room until she relented.
There are worse stories in the world, and I have heard those, too. But for some reason, this woman’s story made me unbearably sad. Perhaps it was because she recited it so plainly, without complaint or outrage. She told me that she understood why her parents did it.
But when she met her current husband, she put him off for several years, because she had no desire to be married again.
She needed to tell the story, needed a witness. I thought of her as a magnificent animal with a docked tail. Housebroken.
Apart from a few bold girls who kick the ball on the beach before wandering off in embarrassment, women don’t play soccer on Lamu. Instead, they worship at the Princess and the Pea Shrine of Sex. Their arms and legs might as well be bound, like the feet of Chinese girls, and this is not only legitimized but required by the Muslim religion and the Swahili patriarchy. Women on Lamu use their bodies for cooking and sex and childbirth. They reinforce the bars of their cages with heinous Bollywood movies.
In America, the balance may have tipped too far in the other direction; in my case, there’s no doubt that I feel alienated from the archetypal female physical experiences of childbirth and, sometimes, even sex. (But not often, and not for long.)
Still, living on Lamu has made me a supporter of Title IX, the federal legislation that ensures women’s sports receive funding equal to men’s. The law isn’t perfect, but I’m glad it’s there. Because who knows? Perhaps girls’ soccer is softening these harsh dichotomies that have trapped women both here and there.
My gorgeous, effusive god-daughter has played soccer and studied ballet since she could walk. At seventeen, she’s a choreographer and dancer. The dances I saw at Lowell emphasized friendship and emotional support (to the great old Bill Withers song “Lean on Me”) and self-expression. There were a few boys in the dance company, unembarrassed, though occasionally awkward, still learning to control their recently expanded bodies.
You are what you dance.
My husband should have gone to Tira’s performance, if only for the sake of her parents, who have been extraordinarily welcoming to him, as he struggles to adjust to America. But I don’t feel like preaching today. At first I thought he didn’t want to go because he thought it was, “a woman thing.” (This is what he calls my marathon visits to the hair salon.)
When I woke up, I realized that it was something else. Gabriel is on my turf now. He’s hamstrung by unfamiliarity, frustrated and often humiliated by the strangeness of cold and fog and buses and the driver’s license he doesn’t yet have. He’s been a good sport about volunteer coaching the North Beach Wild Parrots, a soccer team made up of eager fourteen-year-old girls.
He needed to say no, if only this once. He needed to draw a boundary around himself, the way I had when I ran away from the whirling disco dervishes in their jasmine and lipstick.
As it turns out, there are things even American women don’t need to share with their men, at least not all the time.