Dancing and cake and grandmothers

I spent the afternoon at an Afghani birthday party. It was my ESOL student’s daughter’s 18th birthday, and at our last lesson she’d invited me to come. I had no idea what to expect, except that the conversation would all be in Farsi so I wouldn’t have a clue what was going on all afternoon, but I’m always up for a new experience, so after a quick meetup with Rars at lunchtime I dashed home, got changed into something a bit more party-like, and headed off up the street to my student’s house.

When I arrived, the party was in full swing. The first thing of note was that there were only women present (apart from a couple of pre-school boys). I had actually expected that, because my student had told me before that a birthday party for a girl is only for women, and a birthday party for a boy is only for men (and at other parties there’ll be separate rooms for the men and women, with no mixing except when the women bring the food in to the men’s room), but it was still kind of weird at first walking into a room full (seriously full – I counted about 30 women, plus assorted small children running around, all in an ordinary sized lounge) of women of all ages having an obviously great time without any men present (and, obviously, with no alcohol involved either).

The next thing of note was that I was seriously under-dressed. All the women, even down to the tiniest girls, were dressed up in their finest dresses, shalwar kameezes and saris, of beautiful colours and covered in sequins and embroidery.

The room had been stripped of furniture, but large flat cushions were lined round the walls to sit on. And I discovered I’m a lot less flexible than the average Afghani grandmother – they happily sat there cross-legged for hours, while my knees and ankles were aching after about 10 minutes.

I was right about the language – everyone was speaking Farsi, leaving me to sit there incomprehending. I didn’t feel left out though – occasionally someone would get brave enough to try out a sentence or two of English on me, or one of the teenage girls (who are all reasonably fluent in English, but naturally enough choose to chat together in their first language (except, I noticed, when they’re gossiping, when they’d switch to English, presumably so their elders couldn’t understand :-))) would sum up a long burst of conversation for me with a brief sentence “they are talking about the tsunami”. And when lunch was served (yes, my second lunch of the day), platters of rice, lamb, chicken and bread laid out on large plastic sheets laid down over the carpet, everyone around me was most solicitous that I eat… and eat, and eat, and eat…

The meal actually reminded me of eating on a marae. About half the party headed for the kitchen to help out, and there was that same sense of an efficient system worked out over many occasions of feeding large groups. These women represent almost all the Afghans in Christchurch, and every time there’s any sort of social occasion in the community they’ll all be there. So they’re used to working together like this frequently. The plastic tablecloths were laid down, and while one team of helpers were bringing out the food, others were distributing plates, cutlery and cans of soft drink. And after the meal (which concluded with a prayer led by one of the grandmothers) there was an equally efficient clearing up, leaving the floor clear for the dancing to continue.

The dancing is when you see the point of the whole gender divide thing. A group of women dancing for their own enjoyment is something very different than a mixed dance where there’s always a sense that everyone’s performing for the opposite sex. Though the women were performing, for only one or two would get up and dance at a time, with everyone else watching and clapping along, it didn’t feel like a performance – there was none of that self-conciousness, just an enjoyment of the dance and the music. Even the shyest girls, who had to be coaxed to their feet, once they started dancing seemed to lose their shyness and dance with the same enthusiasm as their bolder friends.

I even had a go at dancing! I’d just been enjoying watching and clapping along, but then one of the grandmothers decided it was my turn to get up and dance. When I said I didn’t know how, she got one of the teenagers to teach me – a hilarious process, which started off with her doing pretty simple steps and me clumsily following along, with much laughter from all round, especially as the girl started introducing ever more complicated movements, which I got ever worse at reproducing. Everyone was killing themselves laughing, but in an affectionate way, and when I eventually collapsed back to my cushion I got an enthusiastic round of applause (and even better, one of the oldest grandmothers lent over with a huge smile, offered me her hand and said “thank you”. I’ve met her before and know she only knows a couple of words of English and is very nervous of attempting even them, so that was a huge honour.

A few other random observations:

While the adults and teenagers all spoke Farsi together, the primary school age children spoke English as they played together (though returned to Farsi when speaking to the adults) – and they already have noticeably kiwi accents.

The very smallest children were shown an incredible amount of indulgence (especially the boys), allowed to run around and climb over the adults, with only an occasional “tsk” from a grandmother when they got too out of hand. The only small child I saw being told off was a little boy who knocked over his drink, and all he got was a few words from the grandmothers. But I noticed the oldest of the preschool girls was already being taught to sit quietly, and being dissuaded from running around with the other littlies.

After I’d been there about an hour, I noticed I was getting a lot of attention from one corner of the room. The woman sitting next to me, who had a little better English, told me they were all wondering who I was. I introduced myself as N’s teacher, and then we had an impromptu English lesson, as each woman round the room introduced herself with her well-learnt English class phrases “My name is …. I come from Afghanistan”, with those too shy or unable to use that much English being introduced by their neighbours. Then there were the usual questions for me: “Are you married?” (I said yes – it’s easier than trying to explain the concept of a de facto relationship) “How many children do you have?” When I said none, there was a gasp of dismay around the room, and the woman sitting beside me consoled me that insallah, I would have a child soon. I just thanked her – again, explaining the choice not to have children to these very traditional women would be just too complicated.

When all else fails with communication, smile at the antics of the children. One of the grandmothers and I totally hit it off despite her not knowing a word of English. Every time her grandson did something I’d share a smile with her, and by the end of the afternoon she was making sure I had the most comfortable spot on the cushion and pressing extra cake on me.

The cutting of the birthday cake was interesting. The birthday girl had left the room during lunch, and once everything was cleared away a low table was brought in and covered with a red and gold cloth. Then everyone’s presents were piled up around it. The birthday girl came back into the room, having changed into another spectacular outfit, and sat in front of the table. A HUGE cake was brought in, and she lit the candles herself then blew them out, after which an attempt was made at singing “Happy Birthday” in English (not very successfully, with half the women not knowing the words or the tune, and two different factions developing as to speed – everyone had a go though!). Then everyone crowded round to see her cut the cake. I couldn’t see what was going on, but suddenly my student dragged me up and sat me next to her daughter. I thought she just wanted a photo, but her daughter cut me a little piece of cake and fed it to me. There was an expectant pause then, but as I hadn’t been able to see what had been going on, I didn’t know what to do, so I got up to let the next friend get her piece of cake. Then I discovered that I was supposed to feed the birthday girl a piece of cake in return. Oh well, nobody seemed offended by the fact I’d got it wrong – just as with the dancing, they were just pleased I was taking part.

I’d originally thought I’d just show up for long enough to be polite and then slip away, but I actually had such a good time that I ended up staying for the whole afternoon. One of the best parties I’ve ever been to, and definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with a group of people I don’t share a language with. A great experience!