Over-Easy Arabic

By this time, I have a favorite bakery, a favorite butcher shop, a favorite vegetable souk, a favorite hanoot, and a favorite place to get rghayef with amlou on a Saturday morning. Two weeks ago, I found my favorite egg store.

You can find eggs in some hanoots, souks, and the mini supermarket. But this is a shop that sells eggs, eggs, and only eggs. A garage door opens into a small room full of brown eggs in open gray cartons on tables, sorted by size- small, medium, large. I never knew chicken eggs came in different sizes, but they definitely do.

I had been traveling a lot and I hadn’t been there in two weeks, so I didn’t think the shop owner would remember me. But he answered my Darija request for “six of these, please” with “Speak English, remember? You’re my English teacher and I’m your Arabic teacher.” Sure enough, I had told him exactly that in my broken Arabic two weeks ago when I’d discovered the egg store. “I’ll be your English teacher and you’ll be my Arabic teacher, ok?”

“Alright,” I say in English, “What’s the Arabic word for egg?”

“Bayda.”

“Six eggs, please.”

He wraps the eggs in newspaper and puts them in a plastic bag. He waves goodbye. “After!”

“See you later!”

“See you later.”

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“Bravo, America!”

My city is small, and people are starting to recognize me and realize that I live here. I’m that American girl. I’m not a tourist. I’m here to stay. And I now have a growing collection of unofficial Darija tutors holding me accountable for my progress, in the form of Maroc Telecom employees and vegetable vendors.

I walked into Maroc Telecom to pay my first internet bill. I didn’t think the man behind the counter recognized me, but he did. (Not the Bob Marley fan who drilled a hole through my wall. A different Maroc Telecom man.) I handled the whole transaction in French, because when it comes to money I don’t want to take any chances. And because, let’s be real, French is easy and I’m lazy.

“Elizabeth,” he said, giving me my change, and using my middle name as- for some reason- people here often do. Maybe because my first name means “me” in Arabic and that’s confusing. “How’s your Arabic? Are you learning Arabic? Are you learning the Moroccan language?”

It may have just been small talk, but I interpreted that as a “Use Arabic next month, when I see you again.” Homework assignment duly accepted.

I was buying beets in the vegetable market a couple days later. “Cinco dirham,” said the young man behind the counter.

The guy at the next vegetable stand shouted over, “She speaks Arabic!” And the conversation switched to Darija.

“You speak Arabic?”

Me (in Arabic): “No, I don’t speak any Arabic at all. At all.”

They thought this was hilarious.

“Yes, you do! Are you Spanish?”

“No, I’m American.”

“American?!?” (There are not many Americans here.) “Bravo, America!”

“But I live here now.”

“You’re studying here?”

“Yes, I’m studying Arabic and Spanish. And I’m teaching English.”

“Bravo, America!”

Today was a good day!

I went to my university’s copy center today and walked out later with exactly what I wanted, after communicating only in Darija! This was a big Morocco step for me.

The conversation went like this. (At least, this is what I think I was saying. I may have actually been saying something entirely different.)

“Hello! I’m a new English teacher here…”

“Hello, [my name]!” Whoah, she remembers me! I guess I am the only American around here, after all. I’m a zoo animal.

I have four… four…” Quick, how do you say files??? Wait, nevermind, it’s ok, she understands me.

“Something something something something?”

“Fifty of everything, please.”

“Something something fifty something something?”

“Yes. I don’t know how many students I have… [I was SO proud of that sentence, just sayin’] … but fifty, please.” Most likely I will have closer to a hundred per class, but from what I’ve heard, many of them will not be there on day one.

“Something something you speak Arabic something something?”

“No…”

“Yes, you do, a little!”

“Yes, I’m learning Darija! I speak English and French, but I live here now.”

“Something something something twelve pages something something fifty something something wait here.”

“Yes, okay, thanks.”

And it worked.

On top of all this, I got my schedule today. A real life actual schedule, with classroom numbers and everything, formatted specifically for me, and in English. Wahoo!

Every conversation with a store owner, waiter, or cab driver in this city

Me: Very basic Darija phrase

Them: Very basic Darija phrase

Me: Very basic Darija phrase

Them: Something something something something something in Darija

Me: Uhhh… ha, yeah, you got me. I don’t actually speak this language.

Them: Vous êtes française?

Me: Non, mais je parle français…

Them: Español?

Me: No

Them: Are you English?

Me: Sort of!

Sometimes they guess my nationality/language in a different order. I like seeing what the first guess is. It’s always different.

Brb, off to the hanoot to buy some water with my fake-it-till-ya-make-it Darija!

3afak 3tini qHwa bi-Halib

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On our last day of Darija bootcamp, our teacher took us to a cafe. There was one small catch: If you speak any English or French with the waiter, you pay! Thankfully, we’ve been working hard, and we all succeeded in ordering our coffee.

It’s interesting to compare cafe and restaurant culture between Morocco and the United States. In the U.S., going out to eat is common and there are restaurants everywhere. Going to a coffee shop to sit leisurely sipping a café au lait and chatting with friends is not so common, except in hip neighborhoods in cities. When we go out to get coffee, we get it in styrofoam to-go cups and rush out the door to carry on with our busy lives. In Morocco, it’s the other way around. Moroccans don’t eat out very often. But they do spend a lot of time in cafes, and there are cafes everywhere!

The downside- for me, a girl who loves her some coffee shops- is that in Morocco, cafes are a man’s scene. When I walk by a typical Moroccan cafe, I see men men men everywhere, and usually no women. But thankfully, this is changing! In Morocco’s big, less conservative cities, there are now many cafes where a woman can feel comfortable going alone, and even in the small city where I’ll be living there are a few.

Shftksh!!!!

You know that feeling when you’re playing Scrabble and you turn over your letters and all seven of them are consonants? And you’re like… What am I supposed to do with this?!? Well, good news. Have I got a language for you! It’s called Darija, or Moroccan Arabic.

Start with Standard Arabic. Get rid of all of the vowels because vowels take too long to say and life is too short for vowels. Smush each word into a quick jumble of consonants. Stick “ka” on the beginning of your present tense verbs and “sh” at the end of all your negatives. Throw in a few French words here and there. Then talk really, really fast. Ta-da! You’re speaking Darija!

I’m sort of joking, but not entirely. The Darija phrase for “I didn’t see you” is “ma shftksh” (ما شفتكش).

Despite all that, I think Darija sounds truly beautiful when Moroccans speak it, and I am excited to get the chance to learn it. I unleashed my full Darija vocabulary (okay, like five phrases) on a taxi driver yesterday and managed to find out where in Morocco he was from, tell him I was an English teacher from America, and remark that there were “many people” out and about.

Why did the djaj cross the road?

Picture: A man unloads crates of fruit outside the souq.
Picture: Just outside the souq.

I got another chance to practice speaking Darija today, when our Darija teachers took us to the Souq al Khemis (“Thursday Market”) and turned us loose for an hour. A souq is an open-air market. Touristy souqs in the medina offer scarves, leather goods, tajine pots, and so on, but this was not that kind of souq. This was a souq for routine grocery shopping, and we were definitely the only non-Moroccans there.

We hit up the poultry aisle first, and by aisle I mean dusty path through the market, and by poultry I mean live chickens upon live chickens everywhere with their feet tied. I wanted to get a chicken, mostly because the Arabic word for chicken, “djaj,” is really fun to say. But I didn’t want to think about taking it to the butcher on the other side of the souq, so I didn’t come home with any djajes today.

After the djajes were the goats, sheep, and cows… all live, of course. Then the slaughterhouse. I thought about going inside, but I took one look in and saw some things I didn’t want to see and kept on walking. Nope nope nope. Call me a city girl, but I like to think my meat comes from the magic meat-producing machine in Stop & Shop. Next up: lots of raw meat everywhere, which OF COURSE came from the magic meat-producing machine in Stop & Shop. Even the entire head and neck of a camel, freshly skinned, that caught my eye. Yep! There were grills next, and if I’d bought that djaj, I think I could have taken it home ready to eat.

The herbs, veggies, and fruits were more fun. As I walked by piles of cilanto and rosemary, I started thinking about what to buy. I decided on bananas. It was either bananas or the camel head. So, bananas. I walked up to the fruit seller and had the following conversation in Arabic.

Me: “Hello”

Banana Man: “Hello”

Me: “One kilo of bananas, please. How much?” (Except I may have accidentally said “May Allah destroy you” instead of “please.” Oops. The Banana Man decided to go easy on the clueless foreigner.)

Banana Man: “Ten dirhams”

Me: “Lower it a little? Six dirhams?”

Banana Man: “Nine dirhams.”

Me: Blank stare because the word for “nine” sounds different in Darija than in Standard Arabic.

Helpful friend behind me: “Nine”

Me: “Nine? Ok!”

So I walked out of there triumphantly with my kilo of bananas, for about a dollar, happy at the result of my first entirely-in-Darija conversation. I spotted another banana stand and thought about going over there to buy another kilo of bananas and see if I could get them for cheaper – ya know, go for a personal record! But I hadn’t been entirely aware of what a kilo was and I already had more bananas than I could eat.

I’m glad these souqs are a weekly sort of deal. By the end of the morning, I was exhausted and sweating and a little overwhelmed by all the sights and smells and dust and animals, and I don’t think I could do this every day. But I got my bananas!!!