Hello, my avid readers. It’s now been about two weeks since my last post and so much has happened in that time. Most notably, I hit the one month mark of my stay here in Morocco. And damn, did that month go by quickly. I can’t help but feel that it went by a lot faster than the rest of them will, especially considering how full my schedule is every day (thank you PC for 6 days a week of class. . . .) and how much information is being crammed into my head (were twelve sessions on sexual harassment really necessary??) But I do think that the next 26 months will go by fast, which is why I’m trying my best to make the most of every day–which right now, means cramming as much Darija as is physically possible into my brain.
And so I’ve decided to devote this post to language: to both the extreme amount of language that I’ve absorbed as well as to all of the faithfully departed, the language which has been lost in the great chasm known as translation.
So as I’ve mentioned before, the national language here, and the language that most people speak is known as Darija, or Moroccan Arabic. There are also two widely spoken Berber languages known as Tashelhit and Tamazight that are spoken more among the older population but have recently been recognized as national languages by the king and are now being taught in public schools. Darija, which I am learning, is known to be the most useless form of Arabic to learn, in that, outside of Morocco, no one will understand a word you say and even a foreigner who is well-versed in Darija will not be able to understand much of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or Fusha (pronounced Foos-ha). However, Darija is written using the MSA script and therefore, most Moroccans grow up being able to read, write, and speak in Fusha. And I just learned recently that the reason I can’t understand a lick of what is being spoken on television is because the news is done in Fusha. And the movies are dubbed in Fusha. And the road signs are written in Fusha. That’s right–when I’m finally able to read Arabic script, I still won’t know what the road sign says because it’s not written in Darija. And did I mention that His Royal Highness, our very own King Mohammed VI also speaks in Fusha?? Sound confusing yet? Well, I’m just getting started.
On top of the Arab languages spoken in Morocco, we also have French which was introduced here when Morocco became a French colony in 1912. Morocco has been independent from France since 1955 but is still the language of the educated elite and of all official business. French is taught in public schools beginning in 2nd grade and anyone who has completed at least a high school diploma will have a basic knowledge of French. The Moroccans have kind of a funny relationship with the French language. Clearly, the recognize that they need it to trade at an international level and attract foreign direct investment and tourists but French has also begun to fall out of favor with the codification of Berber languages and the increasing importance of Darija. Indeed, when I went to Fes for the day and saw the immense number of French-speaking tourists (other white people!!) I could see exactly why Moroccans continue to learn French. And might I point out that every Moroccan person automatically assumes that we are French. I mean, why shouldn’t they? Most of the tourists here are French. Yet somehow it still irks me, even though I am a fluent speaker of French and consider the language to be one of my greatest passions. Every single person on the street greets us with “Bonjour” and in stores and restaurants when we ask for the price in Darija, they respond in French (much to the chagrin of the non-French speaking PCVs i.e. PRACTICALLY EVERYONE). We even get hit on in French; one of the most common phrases being, “Bonjour les gazelles.” (In case you can’t translate that for yourself, yes, they are calling us a species of antelope. . . .)
And now I come to the last language spoken in Morocco and that is Spanish. I won’t spend too much time discussing this one because it’s not that widely spoken but suffice it to say that Spain has a long (and somewhat tumultuous) history with Morocco as well as being in extremely close proximity (there are places in Morocco where you can SEE Spain). Other examples of the Morocco-Spain relationship include the large number of illegal immigrations from Morocco to Spain and the Western Sahara conflict (you’re going to have to Wikipedia that one yourself). The reason that I bring Spanish up though is that there are many Moroccans who speak it. Prime Example Number One: I have an uncle here that I like to affectionately call “Tio Mohammed” because every time he comes to visit (one never knows exactly when, or for how long Tio Mohammed is going to stay for. . . ) he insists on speaking Spanish with me. After all, every American speaks Spanish, right . . . .? “Como estas Marta?,” “Es mucho frio, Martha,” “Adios amiga.” All I have to say about that is “Non habla espagnol.”
So maybe now you can begin to see why so much here becomes lost in translation. My brain is constantly swirling in a mix of English, French, and Darija. When I speak French, Darija words come out of my mouth. When I speak English, French words come out of my mouth. My host family seems to think that if I don’t understand a word in Darija, that they can just say it in French and all will be solved. Not true. Case in point: I was at my friend Brenna’s host family’s house and they were trying to explain a recipe to me in Darija which contained many spices. Seeing that I was immensely confused, they switched into French and started listing off the names of the spices in French. For easy ones like salt, pepper, and garlic this made things much clearer. But for others like paprika, turmeric, coriander, and parsley however, I became confused yet again. “Why don’t you know all of the spice names in French????” they seemed to wonder. While I do consider myself to be fluent in French, I do not everything there is to know in French. I was pretty impressed with myself for knowing a few spices! Clearly, they were not. Just to make me even more confused, they brought down a book with the spice names in French and pictures of the plant they come from. So if I didn’t know the name of the spice to begin with, I know knew it in French, but still not in English. . . . And don’t even get me started on those pictures. As if I could actually look at a picture of the plant it came from, read the name in French, and know what it was called in English. AS IF. My confusion has sprouted into not just one language, but three.
Yet at the same time, learning a new language is fun and exciting. One of my favorite parts of learning a new language is learning all of the little idioms and expressions that people use. For example, in English to describe an event that will never happen we say it will happen “when pigs can fly.” In French, they have the same expression yet they say, “when chickens have teeth.” I can’t wait to learn what the Moroccans have to say in this case. Maybe, “when couscous has legs” or “when French is no longer spoken in Morocco” or “when we no longer eat bread.” And the Moroccans have many great expressions (mostly God-related) that you will hear me use in future blog posts. I can’t wait to learn more of these and above all, become fluent in Darija. Yes, I know that’s a lofty goal, but if you can’t set your goals high, why set them at all right?
So for now, I am lost in translation. But being lost is kind of fun anyway, right? And think of all the things you discover and learn while finding your way back.