I headed to Morocco with some questions and tried to keep my expectations to a minimum. I was surprised in so many wonderful ways by the culture (for example, the men were a lot less aggressive than I expected), the classes and classmates (I wasn't the oldest student, hurray!) and the landscape (The whole country isn't a desert!) and cannot wait to return, insha'allah (we'll get there).
As I sat down after my first (and only partial) day in Morocco, after having arrived, checked in at Qalam wa Lawh Arabic school, at home with my homestay mother and Sofia, my Italian housemate, I realized that my "mad lib hypothesis" was a generous one. I was lucky to get one word out of 15! I had never been so aware of my embarrassingly small Arabic vocabulary. I knew that my Arabic dictionary and Moroccan Arabic phrasebook would be my best friends for the following two weeks.
That night, I got my first exposure to the call to prayer. I knew that there were five daily calls to prayer and that each mosque had a prayer caller and, in modern times, a loudspeaker for all to hear the prayers, but I was surprised to see the prayer on TV! At sundown, a voice called out a recorded prayer and the text was displayed on the screen over images of mountains and other nature scenes. The next morning, the sunrise call to prayer made its way through my (closed) window and by the end of my two-week stay, I was sleeping through it.
Arabic in Morocco
The "darija" (read more here) spoken in Morocco is supposedly the furthest from Modern Standard Arabic ("fus-ha") that is taught in most Arabic classes. It includes French, Berber/Amazigh, and even Spanish words (read more here). I've been told that if you speak this dialect in the Middle East, they won't understand much, if anything, of what you say. It was virtually impossible to understand anyone who wasn't willing to speak formal Arabic. In Moroccan Arabic, there's a different word for "Who", "What", "Why", and basically every question word; there's even a different word for the number two (Ithnain in standard Arabic; jouj in Moroccan darija)! Needless to say, on the ride to my homestay with my host mother, I felt like an idiot when I didn't understand her when she said the number two.
I hope to return to take another level of semi-intensive (4 hours per day) Arabic classes and would like to add an hour per day of darija tutoring to be able to speak everyday Moroccan Arabic in the street and with taxi drivers.
French in Morocco
Other than its relative safety and political stability, a big reason of why I chose Morocco over another Arabic-speaking country was its relation with France and use of French. I wanted to see how the French language is used these days and how it (and the French) are perceived some 50 years post-independence.
The Arabic spoken semi-informally on TV includes a fair amount of French. For my non-French-speaking classmates, this was really frustrating; for me, this was often a beacon of hope in an otherwise difficult comprehension exercise. A non-scientific representation: "Arabic-arabic-arabic, et le pire, arabic-arabic."
My host mother also explained that only those who attend school will know French, and one's schooling reflects one's ability to pay and/or not work to help support the family, so there is a socioeconomic component there. We had an linguistically (and otherwise) interesting moment when our van, heading back from Marrakesh, backed into a small car (Fiat?) parked right behind it at a gas station. The car had European plates, the driver was dressed in European fashion, and, despite being moroccan, she wanted to speak French with the driver and guide of our group. Our guide, the fantastic teacher Taoufik, basically said, "Give me a break. We both speak Arabic [as a native language]. Cut the I-speak-French-better-than-Arabic act."
There's nothing quite like entering a tiled steamroom with one's host mother and fellow guest sister, stripping down to one's skivvies, and having one's [practically] entire body scrubbed down by a middle-aged woman (who does this for a living) using an abrasive mitt and some kind of green soap/gel. What at first I thought was part of the soap turned out to be my own dead skin, visible as gray little rolls that were being sloughed off.
Shai time is my kind of time
At the school I attended, Qalam wa Lawh, mint tea was served twice a day (10am and 2pm, or halfway through morning and afternoon 4-hour classes). It was also frequently supplied by my host mother. A perfect blend of tea, mint, and copious amounts of sugar broke up the day, and my four-hour classes, very nicely.
Gratitude and Humility
As a language teacher, my peers and I are always trying to show our students that cultural perspectives and practices are reflected in a culture's language, and vice-versa. In Morocco and many Islam-dominated regions, this can be summed up by "Insha'allah" - God willing/If it pleases God - and "Alhumdoulilah/Alhumdilah" - Praise God.
Any future plans, including those as simple as saying "See you tomorrow" when parting ways at the end of the day, are followed with "Insha'allah", demonstating the believe that God, or Allah, is in charge of one's life and one's future, and that one can't be so presumptuous as to assume even to be alive and able to come back to work/school the next day. I suppose this concept could become dangerous if it causes an attitude of not working toward or against anything at all, but I haven't really seen that so far and appreciate the humility and graciousness of the expression.
Praise God/Allah accompanies the expression of many facts and states of being, including "I'm well", but even "I'm sick", and can serve as the answer to "How are you?" Gratitude is a good attitude, no?
This oversized entry is nowhere near complete, and I can't promise it ever will be. But it's a start and I hope you've enjoyed a few culture observations from Al Maghreb.