The Big, Fat, Moroccan Wedding

So there we were, completely naked, carrying plastic buckets, and padding into a small tiled room with a trough of water in the corner. The floor was a little too hot for my bare feet, and as we proceeded to fill the buckets with water, and pour it over ourselves, I couldn’t help but wonder, if this was an Edinburgh Festival show, what would it be called? The situation verged further into “gritty & honest feminist theatre (five stars)” territory, as we stood legs akimbo, and another naked woman entered and, with a concentrated look, slathered us in an exfoliating henna mixture that looked rather like menstrual blood. Then, we waited, sweating in the sauna-like heat, and wondering what was to come. Then, each in our turn, and in various different positions, we were scrubbed all over - scrubbed in places we didn’t know we had – and scrubbed harder and more thoroughly than Lady Macbeth ever scrubbed, until at least 10 layers of dermis had been removed. Our experience in the hammam was amazing – we left relaxed and rejuvenated – nevertheless, for us, it was quite a change. I had never prepared for a wedding like this before! As I lay, like a fish in distress, naked on the tiled hammam floor, with family members around me (also naked), being scrubbed until I was baby soft, it was so new for me, that I couldn’t help but find the experience surreal. Only a few days earlier I had been at a friend’s wedding which was, not only stylish and utterly beautiful, but also the epitome of all my childhood dreams and expectations of a wedding.  The change from wedding number one to wedding number two was so enormous, it was quite overwhelming.

"And you won't believe where she scrubbed me next!"

At wedding number one a friend whom I have known since we were babies got married in a church two minutes from her childhood home, in the lovely rural village where she had grown up. The reception was on the village green where we used to play, and where I can remember us talking about the future (including dream weddings), as we sat on top of the climbing frame. Her wedding lived up to any childhood dreams, with the added style and sophistication that characterise her as an adult. When I walked through the trees to the marquee on the village green, adorned with fairy lights and bursts of pink flowers, the overwhelming combination of childhood nostalgia and wedding magazine level perfection made me shed a few tears. The wedding was amazing, but I was sad that my sister (who had also played with us on the village green) wasn’t able to be there to share the day. She was in Morocco, preparing for wedding number two: her big fat Moroccan wedding. While just as beautiful as wedding number one, wedding number two was very, very different, and had none of the ingredients that we had dreamed up on the climbing frame, expect from the essential component, a lovely spouse. At wedding number one, the dress was simple, white and impossibly chic. At wedding number two there were five dresses, each more glamorous and highly decorative than the last. At wedding one my friend walked down the aisle with her father, but at wedding two my sister was paraded around the room in a glittering palanquin (I doubt Cleopatra in her barge was any more spectacular). My friend’s bridesmaids dressed in chic pastel gowns for the wedding, while as one of my sister’s bridesmaids, for one portion of the wedding I dressed in an Amazigh traditional costume and my sister, similarly but more spectacularly dressed, rode a horse and brandished a gun. In short, the first wedding of the summer fulfilled and surpassed all my wedding expectations, while the second had no connection with any of my expectations whatsoever. Nevertheless, I loved my sister's big, fat Moroccan wedding. I enjoyed wearing my pink, sequined caftan (I felt like a mermaid, or an enormous, shimmering crevette). I loved the food, and the spectacle of it all. I enjoyed how each stage of the wedding featured a kind of theatrical tableau and amazing costumes telling a story about some part of married life or the family heritage. I particularly enjoyed helping my sister change into her five outfits, with hair, makeup, and jewellery to match. But as I helped her fasten her last dress, pinned a tiara onto her final, enormous hairpiece, I realised there were more changes afoot in her life than those between fabulous outfits. The contrast between the Summer’s two weddings really showed me exactly how much my sister’s life was about to change. 

Change is a fact of life, we only exist because of change – growing from a microscopic zygote to the most complex creatures imaginable - and it happens everywhere all the time. Despite its quotidian nature, change can also be frightening. The nature of change and the changes in nature were a big topic of discussion in Shakespeare’s day, and authors from Edmund Spenser to Mary Wroth were inspired by ancient texts on the topic (like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura). Never one to miss a bandwagon, Shakespeare too wrote about change. In many of Shakespeare’s plays we see characters who are destroyed because they can’t deal with change: think of the rigid Coriolanus, unable to compromise until he is eventually (literally) torn to pieces. King Lear is often presented as a figure who cannot understand his place in a world shifting away from feudal values (although I think if we look at the facts, King Lear’s main problem is very likely just a bad UTI). Hamlet can be interpreted as a man who cannot deal with what is simultaneously the most normal and most terrifying type of change – that between life and death. But Shakespeare’s most famous examination of change comes in his play Antony and Cleopatra

As anyone who has studied Antony and Cleopatra will tell you, the theme of change is intrinsic to the play with its frequent breakneck scene changes between Rome and Eqypt, the use of melting imagery, and Shakespeare’s casual approach to language (since when was ‘discandy’ a word?). Roman characters in the play are troubled by their aging, changing loyalties, and changing strengths. Roman soldiers throughout the play grumble about the changes in Antony from firm, stoic soldier, to uxorious, overblown lush. Enobarbus is appalled by his own changefulness in deserting his one-time general Antony, and spontaneously dies of shame. Antony himself, suffers from an identity crisis, when he sees how much he has changed over the years. He compares himself to a cloud and its shifting form: 
“Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendant rock,
A fork├Ęd mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon ’t that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs.
They are black vesper’s pageants.”
With pleasing metatheatrical irony, Antony describes the shifting forms of the clouds, and by extension, himself, as “pageants”, as if they are, as he really is, a theatrical performance. Antony declares that he, like those clouds, cannot maintain a single form. He sees the way he has changed as a descent from something noble and martial (represented by imagery like the bear, lion, and citadel) into the shapeless illusions of dusk.  The image of ‘black vesper’ forebodingly prefigures Antony’s decision to end his life. Romans, it seems, don’t do well with change. There is one character in this play who, in contrast, deals very incredibly well with change. You guessed it, it’s Cleopatra. The play depicts Egypt’s queen as a political chameleon, entering into alliances with Pompey, Caesar, and finally Antony. The actor performing Cleopatra can choose to depict her relationship with Antony as her latest expedient political choice, or as an epic love affair, but no one can deny that she is very adaptable. Enobarbus’ famous praise “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety” doesn’t suggest that Cleopatra doesn’t age or that she doesn’t change – Cleopatra explicitly states that she is “wrinkled deep in time” – but that each phase of her beauty and behaviour is exciting and unexpected, and just as good as the last. Cleopatra does a good job of making the changes in the world go her way, and we often see her change her mind about a plan she has made, mid-scene, when the action takes an unexpected turn. Unlike the Romans in this play (and others) she celebrates change as an opportunity, rather than splintering under pressure. Ultimately, as engaging and resourceful as Cleopatra is, the play sees her time run out.  Octavian, the new Caesar on the block, is a man with whom she cannot make an alliance, political or otherwise. She sets plans in motion, and changes them when it becomes clear they won’t work (the ploy with the jewels), but as adaptable as she is, she soon sees that this is a fight she can’t win. What Cleopatra then achieves, unlike Antony, is an acceptance of this, and concentrates her efforts on changing the narrative so that she is remembered in a way that she chooses. When she knows she has been trapped by Octavian, she commands “Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me.” She dresses herself in the costume of a goddess, and presents herself as the victor, rather than the victim. Sure enough, when Octavian re-enters, persuaded by her display he concludes that, far from the humiliated slave he sought to make her, she is "royal" and her story is one of “glory”. 

While Antony saw that the world was like the changing scenes of a pageant and was terrified, Cleopatra made herself powerful by seeing that transience and choosing to perform her role in each scene to the best of her ability (and I assume was also fabulous at all times). Change can be experienced as frightening or exciting, and as the scenes of our lives change, we must decide whether to play the victim or participant of that scene. I think at this juncture in my life, as I see big changes on the horizon, I need to take a leaf out of Cleopatra’s book. Like Cleopatra I need to see change as opportunity and adapt to suit new circumstances. But maybe, in these circumstances, I could do more than just following Cleopatra’s example in embracing change. I’m sure she could give us all a tip or two on carrying off lavish hairpieces and glamorous makeup (a trick I’d love to learn), but most of all, I’ll take a bet that she was also far more au fait than me with naked bathing. So next time I visit a hammam, instead of feeling awkward and absurd, I’m going to make every effort to think, 'what would Cleopatra do?', while I lean back and enjoy a good scrubbing. 


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