In Every House
A week or so ago, after half listening to the news on 2M, my host father switched to channel 8, Morocco’s official Amazigh language channel. Normally when this happens, I’m just the tiniest bit crestfallen. In Moulay Achraf, where my ears are already so starved of ambient Arabic conversations to learn from, the TV has become my last reliable teacher. This time however, instead of retreating back into the all too familiar semi-consciousness that your brain reverts to when all it hears are foreign speech sounds, I perked up and payed attention.
For the first time since arriving in this country, I was seeing something on TV that looked like the Morocco I had experienced up until this point. I was so surprised by the novelty that I payed close attention, even though my ears were doing exactly what your eyes are doing when you read this: ⴰⴷⴱⵓⴳ ⵙⵊⵎⴻ ⵉⴳⵀ.
Out of the four months that I’ve been in Morocco, I spent two and a half of those months living with people who watched a lot of TV. Evenings at my CBT’s host family’s house were essentially spent flitting around the main public channels. There’s Aloula (“the first,” channel 1), which shows Arabic news during the day, then Darija dramas later in the evening. Then there’s “deuzème” (the number two and the letter m read in French, channel 2), which is most watched when it airs the two Darija-dubbed Turkish dramas that are wildly popular in Morocco: 7obb A3ma (Blind Love) and Sam7ini (Forgive Me). 7obb A3ma is a little more racy and higher budget: women occasionally wear low neck-lines and skirts that end above the knee, and the whole thing is lit to make the blues and blacks of the shots very stark and brooding. Sam7ini is conservative and endearingly low budget. Everything is sensibly covered and the lighting staff is probably standing off camera clutching a few bedside lamps. Immediately following these two soap opera sensations is the news in French. Finally, there’s 8 Tamazight (pretty self explanatory). They do it all, the news, music shows, debate shows, documentary segments, and historical dramas: entirely in… uh… the native North African language(s).
Now, what my senses have been taking in from the real world around me over the past few months has been irreconcilable with the hundreds of hours of Moroccan TV seared onto my retina. Where are all the ridiculous mansions that Moroccan TV characters seem to inhabit? Where is the Darija so thick with code-switching it comes out a solid 40% French? Where are the glossy, swanky cafes where the young men and women on TV go on dates? Sure, I guess we’re drinking the same tea and eating the same couscous as the people on TV. But even then, not quite.
There’s an ad for Dari, one of the leading couscous brands here, that has been playing since I got to Morocco.
The tag phrase of the ad, which is repeated as the camera cuts between different families eating couscous, is f kul dar… (in every house). This would lead you to believe you are going to be shown a representatively diverse montage of Moroccans’ homes. The first shot is of a gleaming stainless steel kiskas (couscous pot). Nope, still have never seen one of those, plenty of dull aluminium though. Next shot: individual place settings. Nope, everyone I’ve shared a meal with eats out of the same plate. After that, there’s a shot of Lbin (buttermilk, a traditional accompaniment to certain kinds of couscous) clinging to a hipster’s waxed mustache. Haha, what? Oh, here’s something familiar, in this shot the older people are balling up the couscous with their hands. But wait, see that window behind them? It’s so huge, it lets in so much sun! Nothing like the rectangular portholes that are cursorily inserted into cold concrete walls. Alright, and then this last grandfather and his family are sitting at a midriff-height dining room table, on actual chairs. No Moroccan family I have met eats like that. Tables are around knee height, and everyone sits on couches that line the walls of the salon.
This why I was so astounded by the show my Moulay Ashraf host father flipped to last week. Not a hint of this shiny TV-Morocco. Instead, square concrete houses painted salmon and dark red stretched along a dusty street. A single donkey dragged a wooden plow through a rocky field. The farmer pushing the plow behind him did so with only sandals on his feet. Most men and women wore djellabas when they went outside. A few of the men wrapped their heads with scarves, and others wore knitted caps. Hills and mountains a were dotted with sparse trees and tough, thorny bushes. And of course, not a word of Standard Arabic, or French, or Darija, just good ol’ Tamazight. The shows I had glimpsed previously on channel 8 all seemed to be set in the past. However, this one was modern, as evidenced by a plastic soda bottle on a knee-high salon table and the western jacket one of the characters was wearing over his djellaba. Add a few more sheep and some snow-capped mountains in the distance, and this could have been set in Moulay Achraf!
I started writing this post intending it to be about something slightly different. Instead it’s going to be mainly stories about what I’ve been watching on TV for the past few months.
But I’ll take a brief pause before I launch into the next one.
In case you couldn’t tell from the fancy embedded YouTube videos, I now have wifi, and a house to put it in. I’m up on a hill, on the second floor, so when I open my windows in the morning the first thing that greets me are the distant snow caps.
The inside of my apartment is still pretty bare. But my kitchen and my bedroom/living room/dining room have everything I need. I even turned one of my empty rooms into a mini dojo. Right now the tiled floor is still much too cold to do anything barefoot.
A funny thing happened a few days after moving in. We volunteers had spent the past few months steeling ourselves at meal times every time the copious amounts of uber-sweet tea and bread were hospitably forced down our throats. Despite this, after a week in my own home without those staples, I found myself craving the once begrudged dietary scourges. I finally caved. Tea leaves and a bunch of shiba (a kind of absinthe, way better than na3 na3 mint if you ask me) now rest prominently on the pantry corner of my kitchen counter. Yesterday was my third trip to the bakery, and this time, I even managed to order in shil7a: k-i snat tkhbziy 3afak.
Alright, back to TV now.
The Translation of “OK”
My host brother in CBT would always come home late. When he arrived around 10 pm, he would grab the remote and discard flipping through channels, one, two, and eight in favor of his own holy trinity: Aljazeera documentaries, Quest Arabiya, and any channel showing a soccer match.
Aljazeera is Qatari, and Quest Arabiya is Emirati. Both would occasionally show original content, but for the most part, they rebroadcast shows from the History Channel and National Geographic. Because these are Gulf TV stations, all the English-speaking travelers, animal experts, and car engineers are dubbed in Modern Standard Arabic.
I’m going to try to illustrate the utter ludicrousness of this choice. It’s not something I fully understood even while studying Arabic in college. Until I arrived in Morocco, MSA used to be my only method of communicating in Arabic. I knew academically that it was a tad stuffy and overly formal to use in day to day situations, but in classroom settings that was never a reality I had to face. However, as soon as I arrived in Morocco, fus7a or standard literary Arabic was suddenly relegated to a very specific set of circumstances: the news, the call to prayer, and the occasional nerding out session with my CBT mates. MSA became distant while Darija became comfortable and familiar. More importantly, I finally had a foil that made the incompatibilities of MSA with everyday life leap out at me.
The first one is pronunciation. Strictly speaking, it’s not incompatible, more incongruous. When Arabic is written, it can be occasionally vocalized, meaning every consonant is labeled with an additional mark that looks like a diacritic that tells you which vowel to pronounce after that consonant. Almost every syllable in MSA ends in a vowel, giving it a very stately cadence: katabtu fawqa-rri7i/ isma-lati u7ibbuha (these are the first two lines of a Nizar Qabbani poem, “I wrote upon the wind/ The name of she whom I love”). In addition to the vowels, there is also a mark called a sukun, which means “emptiness.” It’s a little circle used sparingly in MSA which indicates that there is no vowel following the consonant. My host brother in CBT would often joke about the vocalization of my Darija. “No, no, no, not katabtu,” he’d form a circle with his fingers and imprint it in the air above my words, “sukun, sukun, sukun. Say it again.” Darija is notoriously devoid of vowels. Hearing MSA is like seeing a sleek thoroughbred prancing down the track, while listening to Darija is like watching a giddy child scrambling to get in line as soon as the cracker-jack stall opens.
There’s a movie we watched during CBT called 3abdu 3and al-Muwa7idin (Abdou visits the Almohads). Abdou is a modern-day Marrakshi hustler who gets sent back in time to the Almohad Caliphate (12-13th century). It’s a comedy where the main gimmick is that all the Almohad characters speak literary Arabic while Abdou bumbles along in his Marrakshi Darija. Here’s a clip that I hope can highlight the difference in pronunciation even to those who speak no Arabic. Abdou thinks he’s on a movie set and is protesting that he didn’t sign a contract, while the Moulay’s courtiers are denouncing him as a spy:
(I couldn’t figure out how to add a stop time to the clip, so you can keep watching the movie or pause when you get the gist and keep reading)
This may make MSA sound like the equivalent of carefully articulated RP in the English-speaking world. However, MSA’s incongruity goes beyond its poised procession of vowels. Like any self-respecting literary language, fus7a delights in long-winded expression: Inna sawfa yekunu min aS-Sa3b annana naquma bi-hadha-l-iDTla3i (“verily, it will be with difficulty that we carry out this undertaking”). In Darija, that would just be S3ib dak shi (“that’ll be hard”). What this means in practice for the Gulf broadcasters is that the voice actors who are dubbing Bear Grylls, the snake experts in Florida, and Deke from the Auto Body Shop have to fit three or four words in for every two from the original English. The resulting exchanges sound very much like high school debate teams, with everyone on screen rushing to finish what they have to say before the next person butts in. Kudos to the actors, they never trip over the extra syllables they are supposed to fit in half the normal time it takes to say them. But this rapid-fire patter really eviscerates the gravitas from “man, that’s one big-ass snake.”
Finally, there’s word choice. This is easy to relate to in English, because that’s one of the primary ways we switch registers. The difference in speaker and audience is instantly clear when we hear, “that party was lit” versus “the party was animated.” However, in English, we tend to change content words when we want to move between slang and formal speech; it’s our choice of nouns, verbs, or adjectives that signal the switch. By contrast, the little words that string speech together stay the same regardless of context. In MSA, even the function words like prepositions, conjunctions, and even interjections can be different from their equivalents in colloquial Arabics. I get a serious kick out of how the Qataris and Emiratis have decided to translate, “OK.” Reducing our speech down to letters in English is perhaps the epitome of disregard for the conventions of our language that we learned about in primary school. Despite this, anytime Deke’s crew agrees with him about the car they’re working on, their Arabic voices say, 7assanan. Often, when a word in MSA ends in -an, it means it’s become a special kind of literary intensifier, the kind of verb modifier that permits such lofty turns of phrase as shakarahu shukran jazilan, “he thanked him with exceeding thanks.” So while the the brawny, tattooed, heavily bearded engineers grunt out their “OKs,” “yeps,” and “mhms,” far, far away, their Qatari and Emirati counterparts demurely acquiesce with, “advisably so.”
Materially, my life is downright cushy. My home is almost too comfortable, so aside from market days, I pretty much only leave my house for work in the evenings. Additionally, the Peace Corps has repeatedly warned us how slow things can be during the first year at site. Perhaps I’ve taken this too readily to heart, and it’s fed a kind of complacency. It’s winter break, all youth related activities are slowly grinding to a halt. But I still spend at least an hour most evenings with the boys at the Dar Talib. Sometimes I help them with their homework, sometimes they teach me some shil7a, sometimes I just answer their questions about what the US is like. Surely that’s enough for now, right? The boys seem very excited to have me around, and I always find these exchanges to be fulfilling. Surely that’s enough to justify keeping to myself during the rest of the day. I have no problem spending most of my day reading, cooking, and occasionally streaming some Moroccan TV to hone my Darija. Part of me really enjoys the semi-monastic life-style.
I’m a human being, and being alone is only enjoyable up to a certain point. Also, my work ethic is nagging me: I don’t just want to coast for two years, I want to do well. The obvious solution to both of these quandaries came succinctly from the mouth of one of my CBT mates over the phone a few days ago: “our job is to make friends, so I just go out on the town.” Simple. So today, I took a book and some flash cards, intending to plant myself in a cafe for an hour or two.
I ordered tea with shiba when I walked in, and to my surprise and delight the guy behind the counter answered back in English. He didn’t have shiba, but he did had lwiza. “How do you say it in English?” I had to Google it. Verbena. When he brought the tea out, I invited him to sit, and we chatted in Darija about Moroccans’ TV addiction, about his own holy trinity (Nat Geo, ZDF, and France 24), about the teaching of Tamazight in schools, about North Korea. When I was about to leave, he said simply, “speak to me in English.” I smiled and promised I’d be back to do just that.
Physical discomforts are virtually nonexistent, and I am happy to report that the emotional challenges I’ve had to face so far remain easily surmountable. However, as an acknowledgement of my friends and colleagues who don’t have it so easy, and as a reminder to future volunteers to do some careful introspection before committing to service, I feel it’s necessary to point out that I have been sailing smoothly thus far in no small part because I am a man, because I happen to be an introvert, and because I had prior language experience.
Because I am a man, I can leave my house by myself and not have to deal with being cat-called. When I feel cooped up and in need of ambient humanity, I can sit at cafes without my presence there being tacitly or openly questioned. When I want to practice my language, I can engage readily with strangers at these cafes, without having to worry about rebuffing misplaced romantic interest.
Because I am an introvert, I am less affected by the loneliness typical of the beginning of service. I talk with friends and family on the phone a few times a week, and I see other volunteers once every week or so. That has been enough to sustain me through the solitude of living alone in a place where I still don’t have anyone I would call a friend. I’m also very content to be investing time in my own hobbies: reading, writing, learning to cook Moroccan food from Chef Choumicha videos (the woman speaking in the couscous ad), brushing up on Standard Arabic with my translation of Harry Potter, etc.
Because I had prior Arabic experience, learning Darija was a question of reshaping what I already had instead of creating from scratch. As such, I now feel confident leading classes, running field games, and talking about what’s on TV all in Darija, even though I still make frequent mistakes. I also speak French, which means anytime I come into contact with officialdom, I can read the fine print. I also know exactly what the recorded voice is saying when I have to add data to my phone. All this helps me preserve an appropriate sense of autonomy for the twenty three year-old that I am.
For some people, none of these three things may be true. To those of you thinking of joining Peace Corps Morocco, please don’t let this dissuade you, but know that patriarchy, solitude, and a foreign language make one vicious cocktail. Not only do they present daily challenges, they also cut off access to a lot of coping mechanisms. To my friends who already know this all too well, your tenacity and resilience are inspiring. Make sure you reach out to your loved ones when you’re tired of being strong. And as soon as we can travel around the country freely, I’ll come cook you some comfort food and we can watch videos of baby animals being cute.
In the meantime, picture this:
Fridays are the live-stock market in Moulay Achraf. Today, I saw a man ride into town on his donkey, with two lambs bouncing along in his saddle bags. Not twenty minutes later, a taxi pulled up, the door opened, and a fully grown sheep got out, followed by a man holding its hind legs. I asked someone later if you had to pay for the sheep’s seat too. Daruri. “Of course.”