Thursday, December 10, 2009

On The Fine Line Between War and Running Away

When I was little I couldn’t say my R’s. My mom told me that when we moved to Pennsylvania and I started 1st grade at my new school I’d have to go to speech therapy if I didn’t learn to say that blasted letter ASAP. Mom and I sat in Pizza Hut one rainy afternoon shortly before we moved, and she tried to help me.

“Megan,” she coached, “say ‘RRRRRRRRRR’”
“Megan, say ‘Red Robins in the Rain’”
I said, “Wed Wobins in the Wain”
“Megan, say ‘Ratty Rug-Rats on the Roof’”
I said, “Watty Wug-Wats on the Woof”

I was fwustwated. I could hear difference between what my mom said and what I repeated, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the weird sounds she was making. Until one day right before I started 1st grade. By then we had moved to Pennsylvania, and I was playing Barbies in my room. My Barbies must have been saying something to each other, because suddenly I could say my R’s. It really came out of nowhere. I rushed down the stairs to show my mom my new skill:

“Mom! RRRRRRRRRR! Red Robins in the Rain! Ratty Rug-Rats on the Roof!”

I’ll never forget my exuberance when it came out right for the first time. I felt like I had just beat a level of Super Mario Bros. that I had been stuck on for ages.


About 13 years later I was working towards a Spanish minor at Wheaton. I decided to spend the summer after my freshman year in Salamanca, Spain to finish my minor. In Salamanca I lived with a family and became quite close with their son, Juan. But he harassed me constantly about my inability to say the hard Spanish J. It’s a sound you make back in your sounds kind of like you’re snoring. (I’ll transcribe it as kh)

“Megan,” Khuan teased, “Say my name!”
I said, “Hwan”
“Megan, say ‘embakhada’” (embajada – embassy)
I said, “Embahada”
“Megan, say ‘por ekhemplo’ (por ejemplo – for example)
I said, “por ehemplo”

Tragic. I never heard the end of it from my darling Juan. Again, I could hear the difference, I just couldn’t make it. Until a couple months after I left Spain. One day back at Wheaton I was talking to myself in the shower (in Spanish, of course...don’t judge me). Suddenly I could say the J. I got out of the shower, danced around like an idiot, and kept repeating,

“Embakhada! Embakhada! Embakhada!”

My roommate thought I was a little loca. I was. Again, I felt giddy, like I was Mario, and I finally made it to the castle.


And then came Arabic. I’ve had a couple little hurdles on the way, since Arabic has some letters that aren’t even close to resembling sounds we have in English. There’s one letter described by my textbook as “a sheep sound.” SHNU??? What does that even mean???? It’s called the 3ain. (Yes. When we transliterate Arabic sometimes we use numbers. 3=The sound a sheep makes.) But after time I learned to make the new sounds.

Except for one thing. And this time it’s even worse.

Arabic has 2 letters that we’d call H. The “Ha” and the “ha.” I’m not sure which one’s which, but for now H will be the one that looks like jim and h will be the one that looks like a curly cue. As far as I’m concerned, they’re KIF-KIF (exactly the same). Moroccans look at me like I’m an idiot because I can’t tell the difference between Harb (war) and harb (to flee). Ummm. Kif-Kif?

The other day I was graded on a dictation assignment. Dictation is like death, only it’s worse because it lasts forever and my hand and brain get tired. When my teacher graded it, he asked why I missed so many words.

“Because I don’t know them,” I said.
“But usually you're able to spell things right, even if you don’t know them.”
“But these words have H’s in them.”
“You mean you can’t hear the difference between H and h?
“Listen...Hayat (life)...hua (he)...”

We spent the next 20 minutes doing dictation with words that have Ha’s and ha’s in them. Apparently Ha comes from deeper in the chest and ha comes from the mouth. Whatever that means. It seems to me that anything you say comes out of your mouth. The worst is that I don’t even know which one I’m saying. Sometimes I say one, and sometimes the other. It’s really a 50/50 chance that I’ll be right...or wrong.

After an extremely frustrating (yet comical) class I am finally able (I think) to hear the difference between the two of them. That’s step one. Maybe one day, inshallah, I’ll be able to differentiate in my speech. Until then, Mario is getting his butt kicked by those doggone flying turtles.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Moroccan Weddings and 19th Century Western Literature

On Monday night I went to a wedding with the Khattabis. As Marmee says in Little Women (the movie): “Nothing provokes speculation more than the sight of a woman enjoying herself.”

Sometimes I feel like I just can’t win. I try to be good and do everything right so as not to bring heaps of shame on the Khattabi household when they take me out in public. Yet somehow at every joyous occasion I step out of line and do something that invites the speculation of the masses.

There’s entirely too much to worry about at an event where women sit around the circumference of the room, taking notes as they watch the younguns shake their groove things. They always have their matchmaking antennae up. It’s like a Jane Austen novel on crack (or at least massive amounts of mint tea). I find that a lot of people are trying to fit me into one of two categories: eligible or MASKHOTA (naughty, promiscuous, of ill repute).

If I talk to boys, I’m being too forward. If I don’t talk to boys, I’m being rude and distrustful of respected family friends. If I joke around with the brothers I get told HSHUMA (shame on you). If I don’t joke around with the brothers they’re certain something’s wrong with me. If I don’t dance, I’m an ill-humored Darcy. If I dance like a Moroccan, I’m critiqued on my form. If I dance like an American, I’m ridiculous.

Eventually there comes a point where I just give up. If I’m going to be the object of ridicule to matter what I do, I might as well enjoy myself. I embrace my inner American goofball. I dance and laugh. I drag the brothers onto the dance floor, all the while flatly denying any allegation that I’m planning on marrying one of them. I bust out the most absurd dance moves I can muster. And I become the star of neighborhood gossip for at least a week.

On the bright side, I'm hoping that my out-of-the-box personality will help to fend away some would-be suitors and/or their families. After all, the assumption around here is that a single woman in possession of an American passport must be in want of a husband.