The Voyeur at the Wedding

To take or not to take a picture in Djibouti

By / May 2015

I had never seen men put on makeup. I knew some men wore makeup, but I had never watched them apply it. That is, until I sat with the groom of an Afar wedding in rural Djibouti. I’ve been to a lot of weddings in Djibouti but always with the women. Friends, or friends of friends. This time I was a tourist visiting an encampment in the mountainous region of northern Djibouti and didn’t know the names of the bride or groom. I never even saw the bride.

We had hired a guide for the weekend. He led us on hikes, or gathered groups of young boys to guide us while he searched out meat for our lunch. While I stumbled over rocky paths and rolled my ankles and slipped down loose scree, these boys in plastic flip flops loped effortlessly over the ground. They carried no water (I had two liters for my family of five) and no food (I had two boxes of granola bars and a tube of Oreo cookies to share with our whole tour group of nine). They needed no rest (we stopped twice on the way up and once on the way down) and they needed no recovery time (I felt like I could barely move that afternoon).

After the hike our guide took us to the village garden where he picked not-quite-ripe pomegranates for us and, our water bottles already drained, we eagerly sucked the bitter juices and spit out the seeds. We explored the water source where a woman washed thick blankets by dunking them in and out of the water as it trickled down the mountain through a narrow cement trough. A man watered two camels and a little girl filled yellow water jugs and loaded them into a wheelbarrow. My children scrambled up a massive tree that was being slowly suffocated by a strangling fig, an invasive species that wrapped tentacle-like bark around the host tree and thrust its roots downward. They hung like wooden strands of knotted hair, grasping for the earth.

Photograph by Rachel Pieh Jones

That evening we feasted on roast goat, rice, spicy tomato sauce, and orange slices. The boys who had been our guides performed Afar dances and urged us to join them. I tried my best but looked more like an overly eager member of a band, marching in place and clapping out of rhythm, than I managed to look like an Afar warrior. Finally, exhausted from the walk and the mountain air, we slipped through the starry darkness toward traditional huts, rounded structures with woven grass mats as coverings, and fell asleep. We needed sleep. We had been invited to a wedding the next morning.

The celebrating would continue for days.

The next day, after breakfast and a short hike to the parched spot where a waterfall would be during the rainy season, if the rainy season ever came, we headed back to the village to attend the wedding. I’ve always felt a bit awkward at weddings when I don’t know the bride or the groom and this time felt particularly voyeuristic. We were invited because almost the entire village was invited. It was a Friday, the day of rest, and our guide and the employees of the camp wanted to be at the wedding and not on a hike or preparing food. We were invited because the people wanted to proudly show off one of their happiest celebrations. We were invited because we were outsiders.

Our guide repeated that I could snap photos, that I should keep snapping photos, but I hesitated. Even while I knew that afterward I would wish I had been more bold and taken more pictures, I felt timid and hung back, wishing I could hide my big black camera. As if what made me stick out was the camera and not my foreign skin or my clothes (I packed for hiking not weddings and my Djiboutilicious t-shirt felt garishly out of place, my tennis shoes instead of strappy sandals looked excessively masculine among the shoes scattered outside). What set me apart was not my camera but my language, and every other thing about me, especially the fact that I was a woman in the groom’s preparation chamber.

Preparation chamber is perhaps a bit dramatic, it was the sitting room, in Djiboutian parlance. Low cushions lined the walls with pillows for backrests, every one of them with a man leaning back against it. The bride wasn’t present, she was in her own room nearby, with her own attendants. I would have preferred to sit either in the bride’s room or to stay outside, among the female relatives. On the way into the sitting room we had walked through a scrum of women scrubbing dishes, chopping onions, stirring massive pots of rice with wooden paddles outside under the sun. Eventually I pushed myself up from the cushions and wandered outside.

I found a woman who spoke French. She was monitoring a pot filled with fifty kilos of rice and pieces of boiled goat. Part of her job was to dye the rice and she poured green dye mixed with vinegar along one edge of the pot. She scooped up some of the rice with her fingers and plopped it into my palm for a taste. Another woman mixed the next color. It was supposed to be orange, even though the label on the package read “Strawberry” in English and the women were deeply unsatisfied with red.

They tried to thin the color by adding more vinegar but eventually had to settle for blood red. The woman showed me a pot of potatoes boiling in tomato sauce and a platter loaded with kilos of sliced onions. She said they had cried all morning while cutting the onions.

I wandered back toward the sitting room and took a couple of photos when people asked me to. I sat down inside and waited. I tried to imagine what I would have thought if a Djiboutian tour group showed up at my wedding sixteen years ago. I think I would have welcomed them, let them take pictures. I think I would have felt strangely unworthy, like there was nothing inherently interesting about my particular wedding day that it should draw attention from foreigners. I like to think I would have felt honored and slightly embarrassed, pleased. But I can’t be certain. Since I moved abroad twelve years ago, I’ve only ever been the outsider invited. I’ve only ever been the one doing the photographing, the eavesdropping, the incessant question-asking.

Except on this day, I noticed several men using their telephones to take pictures of us in the sitting room. I didn’t mind, it was only fair. I was actually glad they did, their interest and curiosity lessened the distance between us. The wedding fell on a Friday and before the party would officially begin, the groom would go to the mosque to pray. One of his friends knelt before the groom with a beaded bag in his hands and a thin, pointed stick. He saw me watching and said in French, “This man is a king for four days, for a week. He is the king and we take good care of him.”

Then he plunged the stick into the beaded bag and pulled it out again. Black liquid, kohl, coated the tip of the stick and he brushed it along the inner lip of the groom’s eyes. The groom closed his eyes and his friend slid the stick out. The groom’s eyes watered but the black liquid stayed on mostly, like mascara but for the rim of his eyes, not his lashes. The friend handed the groom a mirror and a pink plastic short-bristled brush with no handle. After they had both brushed their short hair and checked their reflections, the groom straightened the prayer shawl over his shoulder, and they rose to leave.

A flurry of conflicting emotions swirled in my chest. I felt utterly uncomfortable and out of place. I felt like an invasive species, like the strangling fig tree. I felt honored, a stranger in this inner chamber on an auspicious day. And I felt inspired by the friendship between these two men, the way they understood each other, the willingness to serve, the intimacy of their gestures.

Our guide told me it was fine to take photos of the groom putting on his eye makeup but I couldn’t lift my camera. Of course, now I wish I had a photo, I can’t imagine that I will ever again be privy to this kind of event, from the men’s side. But it felt sacred, a man and his friend preparing to pray and then, for one, to marry. I took a picture after the beaded bag of black makeup was hung up on a nail in the wall.

My tour group left the wedding and the guide took us to his house where we were served two heaping platters of wedding treats. The potatoes and goat, the green and red rice, fried flat breads.

I’ve lived so long in Djibouti that I rarely feel like a tourist. I often feel like an outsider, which I am, but it is as a kind of invested-outsider. Resident. Expatriate. Foreigner. Person living in a different country. Someone who has history in a place, friends who have shared grief and joy, success and failure together. Someone who strives to find a comfortable and creative balance between adopting local customs and keeping my own, someone who appreciates local values while holding to my own.

It was important for me to be reminded at the wedding that day that I am still a tourist in some sense. That I will never fully blend in and that pretending I do carries a kind of arrogant denial of difference rather than a humble willingness to learn. As I watched the groom and his friend put on makeup, I caught the groom’s eye for a moment. He looked calm though slightly nervous, anticipatory. He smiled.

 

Rachel Pieh Jones, a frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler, lives and writes in Djibouti City.

 

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