Friday, February 19, 2010


Two days ago, the same day that Hazel and I did absolutely not very much at home except the homemade biscuits that were delicious, I joined a couple of American women from Paul’s school for a Darija lesson at a language center. It was their second and my first. The whole hour I scrambled along after them, an eager, confused puppy unused to the size of my paws and the length of my legs. I felt like I did during some parts of a class on Shakespeare and critical theory in grad school. Or like I did when I was seven and first learning ballet in the huge old elementary school gym with the high caged windows.

Hassan was nice. Lanky, lean, long in his jeans and blue sweater. An open face, energetic, a head of chin-length loose and moving ringlets. Eyes alive. The other women all are teachers (one is married to a Moroccan); so I am busy focusing on the reasons they speak more than I do, and better. At one point I hear myself say, “I’m at home all day with my two year-old!” Meaning, “These guys get to talk with their Moroccan students!” And Hassan just kind of looks at me. And moves on. I felt myself wanting to establish personality. Where did you learn English? Have you traveled to the States? What are your thoughts about French—especially in Morocco? I was born in Carthage—I’m Tunisian! A rush of that sort of thing. I felt like a no-person, kind of—just the receptor. With nothing to hang these sounds on except what I am manufacturing as we go.

He’s teaching us letters from the Arabic alphabet as they come up in our lessons. And it’s not a classical Arabic class—it’s Darija, the Moroccan dialect. So there’s no written version. Classical Arabic is the “real” written Arabic, as I understand it. My point of reference, as far as learning a language (which does not include my gaping regard for Hazel and her acquisition) is middle school and high school French class—chalk board conjugations and memorized dialogues. The visual in that scenario bore some relation to the spoken—and here, there’s no real visual. Or rather, it’s whatever you can phonetically invent to match what you’re hearing. It’s a conversation class, a class to supplement your living of the language—and I’m realizing (as I think I knew before) I have been living in a French world, self-imposed, and was happy leaving it at that. In fact, to be honest, it was Paul who bought and (regularly) uses the Moroccan Arabic phrasebook. I have picked it up—maybe once or twice. Full disclosure.

There was another especially awkward moment when I asked if the shortened version of “salaam aleikum,” in addition to “salaam,” is also “asleh’ma.” Something I have been saying since we got here. Hassan just kind of looked at me, thought for a second. And then said no. I think (in retrospect, and what I didn’t think of at the time) this is my dad’s Tunisian version of the same. I have heard it since I can't remember when. OK. Nevermind. This is Morocco. It was an awkward moment, of course, because I chose to type that word—or take it that way in the first place. I’m over-sensitive. And I don’t think anyone else cared one way or the other.

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