New Discoveries, New Explorations: Morocco

Artisans selling colorful wares. Alleys lined with spices. Vendors calling out to pedestrians on the busy street. Flavorful delicacies and sweet mint tea. A chatter of different languages in the air.

I’m nearly at the end of my two-week stay in a bright, colorful country. Called by the name of المغرب (Al Maghreb), Maroc, or, of course, Morocco, I am lucky to be spending my winter break in this nation, where the culture and language fill me with wonder and intrigue. In this somewhat long post, I wanted to note down some of the observations that I found most interesting as I journey through this country and expand my mind as an aspiring linguist and traveler.

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Beautiful mosaics in an old palace

This is not the first time I have stayed in an Arabic-speaking nation. My trip to Morocco differs greatly from the time I spent in Jordan. Here in Morocco, I am tourist, and not a student. Here in Morocco, I observe, without being part of the community around me. Here in Morocco, my backpack holds extra jackets and a camera, rather than an Arabic textbook, notebook, homework, and pencils. This has changed my lens of observation, as well as how I am perceived by locals.

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Landing in the busy Casablanca airport, my role shifted from that of a daughter, to a somewhat struggling traductrice or مترجمة (mutarjama), a translator. The first hurdle in my way was making a decision: Arabic or French? I don’t consider myself fickle or indecisive, but my hunger for linguistic immersion in both languages made it hard to choose one over the other. Having read that Arabic was the “language of the Moroccan people”, I tried to use my Arabic first. It’s been a while since I’ve studied fus7a, or Modern Standard Arabic, since I have been focusing on Shaami, Levantine Arabic, with my tutor. As a result, I started off by approaching locals in Shaami. I soon realized, however, that their dialect is nearly unintelligible, to me at least. While Moroccans are exposed to the Shaami dialect through media and popular culture, their own dialect, Darija, is extremely difficult to understand outside the region. In fact, a conversation with a tour guide taught me that Moroccans can understand all other dialects of Arabic, but their dialect is generally unintelligible to the rest of the Arabic-speaking world. That truth, paired with the fact that my Arabic is no where close to fluent, made navigation in Shaami a challenge.

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View overlooking the Fes medina, the largest medina in the world

Thankfully, French is a life saver. Although I have been learning French for five years, this was the first time that I had to use the language outside the classroom. Trips to Puerto Rico and México have pushed me to use my Spanish, living in Jordan meant that I had to speak Arabic, but relying on French was a novel experience. I personally don’t feel very confident about my French accent, and I have found reading and writing in the language to be easier. However, my skills were put to test when we spent three days in a homestay run by an older French couple who didn’t know any English. I am so thankful for my French studies and for my amazing French teacher who has helped me acquire necessary skills over the past years. Now, having spent nearly two weeks in Morocco, I definitely feel more comfortable speaking in French.

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Traditional Berber village

When I first walked through the busy souq (traditional market) in Marrakech, I had thought that my French, alone, would be sufficient. As I soon realized, this wasn’t always the case. Stopping to take a look at a stall selling scarves, I asked the vendor the price in French. He answered me with ease. However, an inquiry about the material of the piece left him tongue-tied. In these cases, I have learnt to switch quickly to Arabic, and tell the vendors to speak to me in fus7a (Standard Arabic). It has been nice to see that I can thus use both French and Arabic side by side, depending on who I am speaking to.

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At the souq in Fes

Aside from the language, I am struck by certain elements of the culture that remind me of my summer in Jordan. The first is the spontaneity. In a nation where “Inshallah” (God willing) dictates all future plans, it has always been fun to see the beauty behind the otherwise unexpected. Just yesterday, as we sipped yet another cup of mint tea in a cafe while listening to live Berber music, the musicians suddenly stood up and started dancing! Before we knew it, everyone in the restaurant, staff and diners alike, were dancing to the traditional tunes.

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Traditional Berber music

Like Jordan, I have been overwhelmed by the hospitality in Morocco. As I have learnt, Moroccans treat guests like royalty. In a hotel that we stayed at, we were told repeatedly that we were welcome and that this was our home. Often, while walking in the city, people would ask us if we were Indian, and greet us with phrases such as “Namaste”. People would always comment about how much they loved Indian movies and actors, and would try to recite a few lines from famous films. Once, while walking down the street, a vendor shouted out “Hindustan zindabaad!” or “Long live India!”, just to please us. Just yesterday, a taxi driver told us, in French, of course, about how much he loved Indian classical music. He also gave me tips about how to improve my French (by reading novel or poetry), and told me to focus on my fus7a studies so that I could become a better Arabic speaker. In Jordan “أهلا و سهلا” (ahlan wa sahlan), meaning “Hello and welcome”, is a staple phrase. In Morocco, it is not uncommon for one to hear an enthusiastic “مرحبا بكم” (marhaba bikum) or “Welcome” while walking through the streets. This open-hearted, friendly attitude that I have witnessed in Morocco gives me, once again, a real-life example of the Arabic phrase بيتي بيتك (bayti baytak), “My home is yours”, something that I experienced in Jordan.

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Camel rides in the desert- I honestly found it quite scary 🙂

I started this post in 2017; it is now 2018. This trip to Morocco has been a great way to end a great year, and I have many things to look forward to at the start of 2018. Next up, we will be heading to Rabat where I will get to meet some of the students on the currently NSLI-Y Arabic Academic Year program! After that, I will be off to Washington for the NSLI-Y Alumni Representative Workshop. I am looking forward to my upcoming adventures and Inshallah- or, as they say in Morocco- Inchallah, I will be writing about them soon.

Addendum, ONLY FOR LANGUAGE NERDS: Here are two more linguistic observations that I noted down about Arabic in Morocco. I have tried to write them in a manner that is somewhat interesting to the general public, but I feel that they warrant a warning nonetheless. 😀

Transliteration of Arabic is different here! The prevalence of French means that transliteration has also been affected. For example, in Jordan and many other Arabic-speaking nations, the name هاشم would be written as “Hashem”, abiding to English rules. However, in Morocco, the same name is written as “Hachem”. The effect of French on Arabic transliteration is also seen with the letter ع (ain). While it is generally expressed as “3a” in transliteration, I have seen many road signs that write the letter as “aâ”. Thus, the word “3adi”, meaning “normal”, could be written as “aâdi”.

The letter “g” is written differently when in Arabic! This sounds petty, but I actually find it quite interesting. For the aspiring linguist, road signs are literature. Driving through the city, I always have my eyes peeled for signs on shops and streets, and I have noticed some interesting differences in the script. The Arabic script lacks the letter “g”. Thus, when expressing the “g” sound, often in loanwords, different regions stylize the letter in different ways. For example, in Jordan (and in the other parts of the Levant), “g” is often written with the letter “ق”, which actually makes a “q” sound. This is because in Jordan, males pronounce this letter as a “g”. (I could write an entire blogpost about the pronunciation of “ق”, but I’ll leave it at that for now.) In the Masri dialect of Egypt, the letter “ج”, which produces a “j” sound in most registers of the Arabic language, is used as a “g” instead. I have noticed something different in Morocco. Instead of using a pre-existing letter to produce the “g” sound, they have their own letter for it. It is written as the letter “ك” (kaaf) with three dots on it, similar to the “gaaf” in other languages with the Perso-Arabic script, such as Persian and Urdu.

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