COMING SOON: comunicación sayib près de ntuma!

Imagine your typical day…

You wake up, maybe you drink coffee and sit down for some breakfast…. you might pull out your newspaper or check your email. You get ready for the day and then you walk/drive to work. Throughout the day, you communicate with your co-workers about issues at work, chat with your friends about when your next get together might be, and talk to your family about what might be for dinner or what is coming up next in your lives. You go home, spend time with your family or friends, maybe watch the news and finally you head to bed. Before you go to bed though, think about all of the time that you spend communicating throughout the day. How easy is it to transfer ideas and thoughts to the person/people you were talking to. If you are American, did every person you spoke to speak fluent English- family, friends, and co-workers? Did you read a newspaper in English? Was your nightly television show or newscast in English? Unless you are among the 20% of Americans that speak a different language at home, then the answer to all of these questions would be yes (United States Census, 2010). But think as hard as you can about how it might be IF* it all weren’t in English… what if some of your communication took place in English and some in Spanish? What about English, Spanish and French? What if… you knew two sets of alphabets? Like the Chinese alphabet or Greek alphabet along with our standard Latin alphabet?! What if all of these were incorporated into your daily lives?

I bet you are now wondering, after all of that imagining, what the title of this blog post means… well, figuratively it means “WELCOME TO A DAY IN LARACHE, MOROCCO!”. Meaning that at any given time throughout the day people can be speaking French, English, Spanish and Arabic (both standard Arabic and Moroccan Arabic). And the multi-lingual experience does not end with speaking… when walking around Morocco, you can see street signs written in French and standard Arabic! CRAZINESS! BUT* if you must know… literally, the title means: Coming soon: difficult communication near you (a word in each of those languages)!

Obviously with five languages floating around all of the time, there can be some confusion, especially for someone who speaks only a little Spanish and NONE* of the other languages. But this confusion is a necessary evil- and has forced me to think about communication and language in a much different way. First it now SHOCKS me that in the United States EVERYTHING* is in English! Absolutely everything… yes, there has been an increasing presence of Spanish, but even with a slight emergence, EVERYTHING is still in English!  My host sister in Ifrane did not believe me when I told her this- she said it could not be possible. I know that I have written a post like this one previously, but that is because the notion of language here in Morocco and its crucial role in everyday life has had a profound impact on me.

The ability to communicate with others in any country depends on knowledge of a local language. Language creates bridges to meaningful relationships, and specifically here, relationships are the foundations for which Tyler and I can begin our work. In Morocco, it is not only difficult to communicate because of the plethora of languages but that, Darija (Moroccan Arabic) has a feeling of exclusivity because it is only a spoken language. There are some resources for learning Darija, but these are few and far between and sometimes inaccurate.  You would never be able to find a Rosetta Stone and would be hard-pressed to find a Darija class outside of Peace Corps training. Also* as mentioned before all signs are written in standard Arabic, so even though I am working on reading Arabic letters- nine times out of ten, I won’t know the meaning of the word that I am trying to read. This brings me to my next point, illiteracy. An idea first proposed by a fellow traveler studying in Turkey, you can see her post here. Never in my life would I have thought of myself as illiterate, I have had almost 20 years of schooling AND my idea of a fabulous rainy day is cozying up with a good book! But in reference to Arabic, I am in fact, illiterate, according to the definition, “unable to read and write”. This idea was reinforced today when our mudir (director) invited me to join a Moroccan women’s literacy group. I was, obviously, nervous before going– my knowledge of Arabic letters is on the slim-to-none side and it did not hit until halfway through that these women are (or were a couple of months ago) illiterate. This is by far one of the most emotional experiences I have had in Morocco- yes, I have cried plenty, been frustrated, excited etc. etc. But* to sit with grown women and listen to them sound out words, answer questions from a worksheet page, and  then to exchange a mutual confused look with my neighbor when we were supposed to be following along and have her say to me “Htta ana, walu” (me too, nothing) was an overwhelming emotional experience. My neighbor also chuckled at me when I asked our teacher how to spell my name, but then nudged me and proudly showed me her “cheat sheet” which had her name written on it.  Of course, they also laughed at my transliteration of the words into English, called me mesquina (poor thing) and talked about me (because they don’t think I can understand) but I felt bonded with them on an entirely new level. They were not the sixty-something percent of Moroccan women who are illiterate, but rather, strong and determined individuals who are intent on building new relationships and a better life for themselves.

As I think more about language, obviously I examine the prevalence of English. As one of the top languages in the world, I feel as though native English speakers sometimes expect English to be spoken even* when we travel to other countries. Admittedly, as an adventurous 22 year-old, I arrived in Spain with the expectation that all of my problems were magically going to be solved by all of the wonderful English speakers. That dream was harshly interrupted by several people looking at me as if I had two heads when I spoke English to them. In Morocco, it has also been considerably difficult to find someone who speaks English. And as Tyler and I have learned this past summer with aggressive guides (seeking financial benefits) in our city, if someone does know English well, why do they know it so well? It is not only pompous to assume that other people will speak English, but where does that idea come from? Is it only an idea that Americans have because we are insulated from the world of varying languages?

I emphasize this point on the expectation of speaking English, because as a white person attempting to speak Arabic (I stress attempting) there are often looks of surprise and disbelief as well as the attempt to keep communication in French. Often, these looks of disbelief continue when I adamantly say that I don’t speak French. In the seven months that I have lived here, I have yet to meet a Moroccan that has the expectation that I should be speaking Arabic. If anything, it is more of a problem that I don’t speak French. Even the delegue ,(who is our boss’s boss), told me that it is a waste of time to learn Moroccan Arabic and that I should focus on standard Arabic. I realize that for my future endeavors, learning both would be highly beneficial, but this idea leaves me dumbfounded. I would never encourage someone to not speak my language! In fact, being an English teacher I am doing my darnedest to HELP people speak my language!

So* despite the fact that I am, by definition, illiterate, it has been an interesting ride these past seven months. Our mudir and I often communicate with some Spanish and some Darija, which gets us by and probably sounds crazy to an outsider. And even though this way of communicating is a little abnormal, we are slowly developing a relationship and it is WORKING*! He is really starting to understand what we want to do here and how we want to help!  Tyler and I can now get around to places we need to and find the things that we need with our language skills and I am hoping to get to know the group of women through the bond of “illiteracy”. With the four languages (and a dialect) floating around us, the most useful phrase is still “shwiya b shwiya (little by little).


2 thoughts on “COMING SOON: comunicación sayib près de ntuma!

  1. There aren’t many things that either one of you have started or tried that you haven’t done well. I am sure you will finish this. Enjoyed your blog. As they say “shwiya b shwwia” Love you, Papa Duff

  2. Your story about the women’s literacy group made me cry! It’s so beautiful that you can connect with those women and work together with them. You definitely put a lot of things in perspective (for me and for yourself) – I’m so proud of you!

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