Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Colors Out Of Reach

"When I woke up this morning, a rainbow filled the sky. That was God telling me everything's gonna be alright" - G. Love

Photo taken on the roof of Cafe Clock. With my laptop. (I didn't have a camera.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

On The Bright Side Of Minor Failures

"If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!" - William Strunk, Jr

In my sophomore year at Wheaton, my International Relations Theory professor, David Lumsdaine, always stressed this quote. “Because," he said, “'truth arises more readily from error than from confusion.'” (This time he was quoting Francis Bacon).

Oh, how true. And I think Strunk’s words are particularly applicable when learning a new language.

There are certain words in darija that I hate. There are combinations of letters that are difficult for me to say, or sometimes there are words in which I tend to invert the letters and say something completely different. These words stress me out, so I usually cheat. I find a synonym or use the fusha word and I don’t have to worry about it.

But, of course, this is no way to learn a language. Yesterday I decided that I’d really try to embrace the words I hate.

The darija phrase for “goodnight” (tsbah ala khaiyr) gives me trouble. I hate that H at the end of tsbah. Typically I’d work around it with other phrases: layla sa’ida (in Fusha), ahlam halwa (sweet dreams), etc.

But last night I decided to practice. Soukaina and I said goodnight to each other about a thousand times...

Me: Tsabhi ala khaiyr! (Goodnight!...the vowels change when speaking to a female, FYI)
Souks: Heta anti! Tsabhi ala khaiyr! (You too! Goodnight)
Me: Heta anti! Tsabhi ala khaiyr! (You too! Goodnight!)
Souks: Heta anti! Tsabhi ala khaiyr! (You too! Goodnight!)

An on we went. Thanks to my silliness with Souks I’m feeling good about “goodnight.”

This morning, however, my new resolution to “say it loud” didn’t go quite so smoothly.

On my break between classes I was at Cafe Jawhara (more fondly known as JJ’S), grabbing a quick breakfast and doing homework. I didn’t know what a word meant, so I asked one of the waiters, and he told me in fusha. A few minutes later the other waiter, KAMAL DIYAL JJ'S came by. Kamal was one of the first people I met in Fez last time, and he’s watched my linguistic transformation from miming everything, to using scattered Arabic words here and there, to being fully conversational in Fusha.

When the other waiter told Kamal that he helped me with a word, Kamal was amused that I’m starting over with a new language and asking lots of questions like old times. So he laughed.

At that point I decided to use another one of my dreaded words: dhak....the verb "to laugh." The conjugation is easy in fusha but killer in darija. I wanted to say to Kamal, “alash ktdahik alaya??” (why are you laughing at me??) But with so many consonants in a row I couldn't help but get tongue-tied.

I ended up basically saying, “Why are you l-l-l-laughing at me?”

So of course he laughed more and more. My face turned like a tomato, so I buried it in my hands and said, “ba’d minni!” – “Leave me alone!!”

He kept laughing as he walked away. A few minutes later he was back, looking over my shoulder as I wrote. I gave him my “be careful” look, and he said, “Ma kndhaksh!” – “I’m not laughing!”

But he still had a huge grin on his face. He was laughing on the inside, and I knew it.

But I suppose there's a bright side to all of this. People seem to really enjoy teasing me whenever I fail miserably at pronouncing something. They find something endearing about the fact that I can't pronounce words with 17 consonants in a row.

I guess I'm adorable.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Talking Like A Teenager

I love learning languages. Every time I try out a new word or phrase and someone understands me, it feels a little bit like magic.

Last time I was here in Fez I studied Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, or FUSHA) for 9 months. This is the brand of Arabic that is used in news and politics and is at least understood, if not spoken, by literate people across the Arab world. It falls somewhere between Quranic Arabic and the spoken dialects. I focused on Fusha last time because of the breadth of its usefulness. This time around, however, I have the pleasure of learning DARIJA, the Moroccan dialect.

Each country, and sometimes even different cities within the same country have their own dialects of Arabic. The dialects of the Gulf region and the actual Middle East tend to be closest to Fusha while those of North Africa tend to be quite different. The Moroccan dialect is very very different. The difference between them seems to be similar to the difference between Castillian Spanish and Catalan, although I don’t know enough Catalan to say that with any confidence.

I’m very happy to have received a language grant. Because Moroccan Arabic is so different from the standard, many Moroccans – especially the illiterate – do not speak or understand Fusha. Even when people understand, it takes quite a bit of patience for them to speak it. More often than not, my friends start out speaking to me in Fusha, but they get bored quickly. They switch to their mother tongue of Darija, and it’s much more of a struggle for me to understand.

As a linguistics nerd, I love Fusha. It is a beautiful, rich language. But Darija has a beauty of its own. My host family watches soap operas from all over the world, dubbed into Arabic. Most of the time they’re in Egyptian, Syrian or Lebanese Arabic, and occasionally in Moroccan. But MARA MARA (from time to time), we’ll get a soap in Fusha. I was really excited to watch these, since I understand them. But I hate it. Not only because they’re really dumb shows that rot my brains out aside from the linguistic benefits, but because soap operas just don’t work in Fusha. Because it’s not a mother tongue, it’s unnatural and so hard to convey any sort of real emotion

SOUKAINA, my 16 year-old host sister, is a feisty little thing. Everything she says in Darija is dripping with passion. Whether she’s happy or sad or angry doesn’t matter. Every word that comes out of her mouth is beautiful. I want to talk like her.

SHWIA BI SHWIA (little by little) I’m learning to speak Arabic like a teenager with an attitude.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On The World's Best Harira

I suppose it’s time for that obligatory post about Ramadan in Morocco. This is my second Moroccan Ramadan, but the first time I’ve spent it with a Moroccan family. As a non-fasting non-Muslim, I’d have to say that Ramadan is a terrible time to be in Morocco. And also a wonderful one.

Ramadan is the holy month of fasting in Islam. From crescent moon to crescent moon Muslims fast from daybreak (around 4:30am this year) to sunset (around 6:40pm). Everyone in Morocco fasts. Even people who aren’t particularly religious the rest of the year take the fast pretty seriously. All the cafes and restaurants are closed (except Cafe Clock, HAMDULILAH), and it’s illegal to eat or drink in public. Everyone on the roads drives like a maniac – people generally attribute this to nicotine deprivation. It’s certainly not the most pleasant time to come for a holiday in Fez.

At around 6:40pm a cannon fires to mark sundown and time to break the fast. That’s when the party starts, with a meal called “Iftar”. Traditionally, you break the fast by eating a date. Then a homemade fruit juice. Sometimes it’s water-based (orange juice, tangerine, grape, mango) and sometimes it’s milk-based (banana, apple, avocado) but always it’s delicious. Then comes my favorite – harira!

Harira is a tomato-based soup with meat, chickpeas, cilantro, noodly things, lentils, all sorts of spices and whatever else that particular family decides to put in it. Every Moroccan thinks that his mom makes the best Harira in the world. But seriously...Latifa (my host mom) really does make the best. Really. I’ve had a lot of good Hariras, but not one of them comes even close to Latifa’s. We’ve eaten it every single night that I’ve been here (because that’s what you do in Ramadan) and I look forward to it every single time.

After Iftar we have tea and pastries. Then it’s time to take a nap, to pray, to watch ridiculous Moroccan Ramadan sitcoms, or to go out for a bit. In Fez, the city usually shuts down around 9pm...very few people stay out late. But at night during Ramadan the streets are always bustling. Sometimes I’ve gone with the family to see friends and relatives, and other times I’ve gone out with Hamouda and/or Soukaina (host brother and sister) to a cafe, or just to meet up with some American friends. Tonight I’m staying in to study and blog. You’re welcome.

Then around 12:30 or 1am we eat again. This time it’s a proper dinner. The food is wonderful but my eating capabilities are somewhat diminished by then. I’m not allowed to go to bed until after dinner, though. In a lot of families they wake up around 4am for another meal called Sahour. They eat and eat until they hear the daybreak call to prayer which marks the beginning of the fasting day. My family doesn't do that though, hamdulilah.

I’m not fasting, but by default I don’t eat a whole lot during the day. I get so much food at night that I’m not hungry until about 3pm...and by then I know that I’m going to have Iftar in a couple hours so eating’s not such a good idea. I’ve been getting by on water and coffee until it’s time to break the fast.

Ramadan ends on Sunday or Monday. When it’s over there’s a big eid (a feast). I’m not sure how that’s going to be, but I’m looking forward to spending it with the family. I can’t say that I’m gonna miss Ramadan a whole lot. I’m really looking forward to being able to sit in a cafe for hours every day. As long as Latifa still makes Harira from time to time I think I’ll be ok with saying BISLAMA to Ramadan.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Variables and Constants

Things change and get strange with the movement of time...

My first few days in Morocco were spent in Rabat, attending lectures and Embassy gatherings. Not a bad start, I’d say, but by the third day (ok, actually by the end of the first) I was extremely antsy and ready to get home to Fez.

For the past couple months I’ve been gearing up for the new version of Fez. I realized that my entire Fassi experience depended on a thousand factors that all met together in one moment. It was based on the convergence of very particular people in a very particular place at a very particular time. I knew that, for better or worse, the Fez that I would come back to would not be the same place it was 2 years ago, when our Ramadan evenings were spent on the roof of the ALIF Villa, watching the Office and drinking scotch. I decided I had to prepare myself for “New Fez” – the version of Fez that an older (wiser?) version of me would experience with a (mostly) new cast of characters.

And finally, I’m here. Fez is visibly changing, and some of the people I once knew here have moved on to other places. But some things will never change.

I’ve been noticing strange little things – like how my feet make the same shuffling sound when I’m climbing the twisted stairway to the apartment. The Khattabis’ apartment has a new look (new furniture, etc.) but smells exactly the same as it did before. I’m not talking about the smell of whatever is cooking in the kitchen – just how every home has a unique scent. I’m not sure how to describe it– but it smells like Khattabi.

Soukaina is my host sister. She was 14 when I left, and now she just turned 16. I hate saying things like this, but all I could think when I saw her is “my, how you’ve grown!” She’s so grown up now – and quite stunning. But I was very relieved when her older brother was picking on her, and she snapped back with the same spitfire quality that I’ve always loved about her. No matter what she says, she makes Darija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic) sound so beautiful.

I’m happy here. It’s so so nice to be back with the Khattabis. Things are definitely different this time around, but maybe the most important thing that hasn’t changed is that I still feel very much at home.

Friday, September 4, 2009

On Hanging Out and Storytelling

So, uh, what exactly are you doing in Morocco?

The answer will depend on my mood.

The formal answer: "Conducting field research for a book on cultural change and the role of women in Moroccan society."

My real-world translation: "Hanging out and storytelling."

For the next year (or so) I'll be in Fez meeting women and finding out who they are...what makes them tick...their hobbies...their interests...their fears...their histories...their dreams...the role they play in their family and society...the basis on which they make decisions. I want to know them.

I don't want to do in-and-out interviews. Instead, I want to hang out with them...drink tea with them...go shopping with them...cook with with them. I want to have friends and to be a friend.

These women (inshallah) will come from different backgrounds...different parts of the city...different socio-economic statuses...different levels of education, ages and occupations. They'll reflect (to some degree) the diversity among women in Fez...and there is much of it.

And then I'll tell their stories.

I'm writing a book of which each chapter will be a portrait and will tell the story of one woman...who she is, how she got that way, and how that plays out in her life. I'll include 10-15 women in the book. I fully expect that the stories will speak for themselves and highlight shifts and tensions in Moroccan culture, without much prodding.

I really don't have a political agenda. Based on relationships that I've made in Morocco previously, I have some hypotheses of what I'll find, but I don't want to spin anything. I'm going for truth through simplicity. Of course, I myself can't be removed from the picture. These stories will be told through the blue eyes of a young single Christian American woman. Anyone who claims they can be an unbiased writer by ignoring who they are or where they come from is either lying or delusional. I have to call it like I see it.

So that's the general gist of it. The first 3 months will be all Arabic language study. I'll basically be doing the same thing I did last time I was there, only this time the government is footing the bill. I'm ok with that.

In December I'll be turned loose on the city of Fez. Oh geeeeeeez...