Thought 10: What do you mean, “There will be a test tomorrow if God wills it?!”

Whenever my professor announces the schedule for tomorrow’s class, she says “Inshallah,” even if that schedule involves an exam.  On the first day of class, she asked me where my name came from, and I explained that I’m named for my Grandmother (my father’s mother) who passed away many years ago. She replied with “Allah-ya-HamuHa.” When any of my classmates sneeze, the whole class says, “Hamdulillah” before turning our attention back to the teacher. I discussed my graduation plans with our resident director the other day, and he commented “MaShah-Allah” to my plan to graduate in December.

In just two short weeks in Morocco, I can see that the Arabic language is intertwined with both the geography of place and the anthropology of religion in the Arab world. At the vary least, its important to keep in mind the importance of respect for culture, language, and religion. I’ve found that its easiest to understand a culture if you first understand the language. In understanding the language, colloquial phrases are as important as verb conjugations, especially when both religion and language are tied together. The Arabic language and the religion of Islam have a long history both together and apart, and this is reflected by the way Arabic speakers use phrases like “Inshallah,” in everyday speech.

If you talk with an Arabic-speaker long enough, you’ll start to notice patterns with the use of common expressions. In general, Muslim and non-Muslim speakers of Arabic use all of these phrases. There are some phrases that exist specifically within certain religions–there are Arabic-speaking Christians, Muslims, and Jews all living in the same cities in Morocco. For non-native speakers of Arabic (like myself), it can be helpful to have a short tutorial on the meaning and usage of common expressions–for example:

  • “In-shah-Allah”: It means “If God wills it.” Use this when talking about the future–making plans, scheduling things, or hoping that things turn out all right. Example: Inshallah my sister comes to visit me. Inshallah we will get coffee at three pm. Inshallah she feels better because she has been sick.
  • “Al-Hamdulillah”: It means “Praise be to God.” Use this literally–Hamdulillah I did well on the test. Hamdullilah the train was on time.
  • “Allah-ya-Haneek”/”Tareq Salaama”: It literally means something along the lines of “God guide you and keep you safe;” or “Through peace,” it would be best translated to “Godspeed” in English. Use it when someone is going to be traveling.
  • “Salamu-Alay-kuum,” (Response: “Waa alay-kuu-mu-Salaam”: This means, “Gods peace onto you” and doesn’t really have a direct translation to English.  I think the only time I’ve encountered it is in Sunday School–there’s a passage somewhere where Jesus sends out his disciples and tells them to go into a house and if they are welcomed, to say, “Peace onto this House”. In my Arabic translation of the Bible, it literally says, “Salamu-Alay-Kuum,” which I imagine reflects that a similar phrase exists in Hebrew. People nowadays use this greeting to say hello and goodbye, and to express well wishes to friends and family. It is formal and can be used with elders or professors, and also among friends and family.
  • “Ma-shah-Allah”: Means something along the lines of, “Praise God that you have been blessed but I’m not jealous of your blessing and I wish you the best.” There is no direct translation to English–maybe something like “Congratulations,” but that doesn’t quite cover it. You use it when a baby is born, you use it when someone achieves something special (like graduation), or when someone exhibits a talent.
  • “Allah-ya-HamuHa”: means “May she rest in peace.” Its appropriate to use this when someone mentions that a family member or friend has passed away.  Some people will begin stories or memories by saying, “My Grandmother, Allah-ya-HamuHa.” It is sometimes applied to things that have been broken beyond repair (like a car, a bike, or a refrigerator), but that’s less frequent.
  • “Maa-Salaama!”: This one’s easy–it means goodbye. Literally translated, it means, “With Peace.” Its used the same way we use “goodbye” in English.

And with that, I say, Maa Salama and Inshallah you have enjoyed my post today!


Thought 9: Family

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to stay overnight with a Moroccan family and experience traditional Moroccan hospitality. It was incredible. Below are some things I noticed–a “compare-contrast” to American hospitality. 

1. Relationship matters more than time. Native Moroccans use the phrase “maybe” all the time–“maybe” I’ll pick you up at 8pm, “maybe” we’ll go to the beach tomorrow, “maybe” there will be a wedding party tomorrow night. My host mom said she would come at 8pm to pick me up–she showed up around 9:30 because someone in her family had gotten married and the party lasted longer than she thought it would. This is normal for Moroccans–relationship matters more than time of day and if your friend needs you at an absurd hour of the night, then you answer your phone and help him out. 

2. Family means sharing everything. The family I stayed with had three kids–in a two bedroom apartment. Everyone shared the same closet, the same bathroom, the same gigantic plate of food at dinner, and the same tv. There was nothing that belonged to only one person–it was about one unit of people doing life together. While American families are still units of people, by my observation, we do things just a little bit differently. For example, in my family, everyone has their own closet. My sister and I never shared a bedroom, and at dinner, we all ate off of our own plates. American culture contrasts with Moroccan culture simply because Americans value individualism and honor associated with personal actions. Moroccan culture values family honor and collective deeds over individual honor. 

3. Trust is important. On Saturday morning, my host mom charged me and the three other American girls to take two of her kids to the beach. We crossed a main highway and went swimming in the ocean with her kids–she had only met us the day before. She trusted us, as new members of her community, to take care of her kids, because she had other fish to fry. Literally–we had some amazing fish tagine for lunch when we got home from the beach. 

4. Greetings are important. This goes for Moroccan culture in general–its important to greet everyone you meet. I don’t mean walking down the street–but I do mean that every person greets every person that enters their home. When the four of us arrived, each child greeted us with three kisses on the cheek and a warm smile. When they returned me to school the next day, we said goodbye the same way. Throughout the weekend, we would all greet the doorkeeper, family visitors, and old friends we ran into on the beach the same way. The way you greet someone shows the respect you have for them. 

5. Some things are the same, no matter the culture. While Yousef and Nasser-al-Din may fight over who gets the last fig (just like Sophia and I fight over who gets the last oreo) they still need each other to play a proper game of tag. These two brothers showed no mercy to each other when all of us played UNO (Sophia can confirm that mercy in UNO is a weakness), but at the end of the evening, they still hugged goodnight. My host mom opened up her home, cooked a delicious meal, and went out of her way to understand our lives and studies. This reminded me of my own mom–a woman who often fed whoever I brought home from school with me, a woman who still cares a lot about how well Sophia and I do in college. 

This weekend was humbling because it showed me how far I still have to come in learning Arabic and understanding Morocco. This weekend was a blessing because I needed some time away from my textbooks to relax on the beach. This weekend was a challenge because I didn’t always know how to accurately communicate my thoughts. This weekend was informative because I had the opportunity to experience Moroccan family, hospitality, and culture in a new way.  


Thought 9: Reflections

What a week! 

20 hours of class, 5 trips to the souk, 1 exam, about 50 black olives, and 200 vocab words later, its finally the weekend. 

After two weeks in Morocco, its safe to say I’m settled in. I’ve grown accustomed to the routine of class, lunch, language partners, and group activities. Yesterday I walked into a “Hanoot” (small street store) and knew the correct price for my candy bar before the shopkeeper told me–6 Dirham equals 1 KitKat in my life at the moment. 

My roommate and I ventured to “Sharia’ Makseeq” (Mexico Street) to buy some new clothes this week and I purchased the best pants in the world–they’re high-waisted and made of fluffy green fabric. Its a new level of comfort for something considered business casual in Morocco. 

Moroccan fashion is a colorful mix of European, African, and Middle Eastern flavors. Women’s attire ranges from clothing commonly seen in the US–blue jeans, v-necks, and flip-flops–to long dresses and a robe called a “Jalaba.”  Everything is brightly colored and decorated with prints and designs.  The majority of women wear clothes that completely cover their cleavage, stomachs, and arms. Shorts are uncommon, as are tank tops and mini-skirts.  Tights under tunics, cute flats, and fashionable sunglasses are also essentials for women. 

Men’s fashion is comprised of its usual elements–t-shirts, long pants, and sandals. It seems like everyone has a favorite soccer team–either Barcelona or Madrid. Soccer jerseys are as common as football jerseys in the US, especially among the boys kicking soccer balls around on the streets. Its also pretty common for men to wear long tunics and robes made of light linen material. Its a comfortable way to dress with the warm weather. 

To live in Tangier, you need all five senses. Streets are peppered with the colors of headscarves, soccer jerseys, storefronts and fruit for sale. The sounds of the city add to the color and vibrancy of life here. In the same moment I can hear bartering in the souq, the sound of dice being played by men in coffee shops, the giggles of children at the city park, and the Call to Prayer floating over-top all of the hubbub. Tangier smells of chicken tagine, salty water, and fresh bread. The market has scents of yesterdays over-ripe fruit, tomorrow’s dinner, and an acrid burning overtone. Our school smells faintly of pine-sol and laundry soap.  Touching Tangier means you feel the fabric of linen skirts, every peach at the corner market, and the breeze off the ocean.  And of course, most importantly, to taste Tangier is to eat Chicken Tagine, fresh bread, and the perfect peaches from the Souq. Tangier is sweet mint tea and perfectly spiced toss salad next to cous-cous on a plate with sauces and flavors that are best tasted on Friday after your first exam.


Thought 8: ‘Ishoor bil…….

AL-Kitaab is the most prominent Arabic-language textbook for English-speakers; it is used by most colleges and universities in the US to teach basic grammar, vocabulary, and culture.  Al-Kitaab is in its third edition–complete with sound-recordings and an interactive DVD for students to use to improve their speaking and listening.

The primary character in these sound recordings is named Maha–she speaks slowly and clearly in FusHa (formal Arabic) with short sentences that are atypical to Arabic.  She uses only vocabulary from Al-Kitaab, and her facial expressions match the awkward tone of her voice. Maha’s famous phrase is “‘Ishoor bil-WaHida,” meaning “I feel lonely.” Often my classmates and I use this phrase jokingly–saying we feel lonely when we end up eating lunch alone, or when we have to go to the bathroom by ourselves. We use this phrase not because we truly feel lonely, but because its easy to remember and its easily accessible–it pops up in Al-Kitaab all the time, as various characters make appearances in Maha’s life.

Here in Tangier, I’ve started into the second book of Al-Kitaab; in a couple of weeks we’ll finish it and move to book three. This book contains a whole host of other “feelings” phrases–sad, happy, busy, in love, crazy, angry, homesick…things my classmates and I actually feel, especially while we’re studying abroad.  Arabic is a beautiful language with lots of attention to detail; simple things like the names of people and places describe specific aspects of beauty and character that English names often fail to capture. For example, my Moroccan language partner’s first name means “woman with big eyes;” the city we traveled to last weekend (Tetuan) means “two big eyes.”  Some friends are heading to the city Chefchon this weekend–“Chefchon” means “the space between two horns of a cow.” Our director gave us the description of the name–and he aptly said, “there isn’t a word for that space in English. But, we have one in Arabic–its Chefchon–and we call the city that because its positioned just between two mountains.”  How Perfect.

And now, back to Maha, her feelings, and Tangier. This week has been a struggle because when I speak only Arabic, I lack a deep vocabulary–I lack a way to explain that I’m not really homesick, I just want to eat a toasted cheese sandwich from Kalid’s and watch a Hawkeye’s game on ESPN.  In the words of my classmate Heidi, I want to be here in Tangier, but I’m overwhelmed, and I don’t know how to say it, which makes it even harder to feel. The hardest feelings to feel are those which we can’t concretely and accurately identify and describe.

We jokingly say, “Arabic broke my English,” because even when we have group meetings in English, its not a relief to return to our comfortable language–its almost just as difficult. English grammar is hard to switch back to, and I find myself constantly searching for words because my brain is full of words from Al-Kitaab instead of American newspapers, books, and daily conversation.  It also becomes increasingly difficult to translate things I’ve learned in Arabic into English–things like the history of Morocco, information about religion, and daily life in Tangier. Its stored in the Arabic part of my brain, and when the English part of my brain tries to go there, it gets a baab slammed in its wajah. (Door slammed in its face).

Tangier is a beautiful, wonderful place and I’m learning so much–but I’m in a funk. Does Arabic have a word for funk? I don’t know. I’ve identified my emotion, and I’me realizing that navigating the world using Arabic instead of English has challenged me to express myself in new ways–and its hard to learn how to do that again. I suddenly understand why small children have temper tantrums–they understand what’s going on but they don’t know how to engage the situation because they lack the words to do so appropriately. The last few days, I’ve had moments where I get so frustrated with myself–my lack of vocabulary, my lack of understanding, my lack of basic communication skills, that I just want to throw a temper tantrum. Unfortunately, I’m 21 years old and this is not appropriate.  So, sometimes I settle for “Ishoor bil-Wahida,” and sometimes I settle for not speaking about my feelings. Yesterday, I settled for about 50 freethrows and a few windsprints.

Every day in Tangier is about the small things. Its about learning the Darija words for “How much does this kilo of strawberries cost” and then using it at the market correctly.  Its about figuring out how to conjugate the verb “to become” in the future so I can say, “I want to become a person who helps refugees and immigrants who live in the US after I graduate.” Its about an engaging conversation with my language partner about the way American women dress and how it relates to our religious views. These are the small successes I’ve had this week, and these small successes make the uncomfortable feelings and challenging moments worth the struggle.


Thought 5: Second Languages

This summer, I’m studying Arabic in multiple methods. I’m studying Arabic as it appears in the media, in song, in literature, in Morocco (dialect=Dariija), and formal standard Arabic. This means I spend roughly 6 hours a day in class, 4 hours a day on homework, and the rest of my waking hours trying to hold a conversation with my classmates–we’re only allowed to speak to each other in Arabic.  The program is designed to be total immersion.  If your last thought involved the word “intense,” you understood the situation correctly.

Last weekend, things got frustrating when all I wanted to do was eat something and speak English. However, here in Morocco, there’s only two ways to obtain food–go to the Suuq (market) or go to a restaurant.  Both of them require me to speak Arabic.  I was out of luck. I was frustrated. All I wanted was some hotdish and a glass of lemonade–two items not for sale at the local Suuq. 

The street that leads to the Suuq doesn’t look like a common American street. The pavement is littered with gravel, there are kids playing soccer where cars should drive, and men hang out on street corners catcalling the occasional lost tourist. There’s a few street vendors selling juice, candy, and small trinkets.  The architecture is colorful and rough around the edges–elegant and comfortable at the same time.  

I picked my way through the street, keeping my head down and finding a vendor with some bread. “Besh Hal?” “10 Dirhem.” Despite the fact I knew I was getting cheated–that price is double what bread should cost–I handed over the equivalent of 2 US dollars for bread. After that, I found a small store–Hanoot–and purchased some yogurt and cheese.  

On the way home, I surveyed the landscape and took a moment to think about the Morocco I know so far. From my perspective, Morocco is challenging. It challenges me to speak and think a language that doesn’t come naturally. I’m studying in a country I don’t know, with people and professors that I’ve never met, in a culture that’s unfamiliar. In that moment, I couldn’t imagine having to live in Morocco for more than a summer–I couldn’t imagine a year, two years, or four years.  

Thinking back to the Suuq, I suddenly wanted to call every friend I know who speaks Arabic–and tell them about my success! I suddenly wanted to brag about the fact that the guy at the counter of the Hanoot had understood my request–that somehow, I knew enough words in Arabic to buy food, do my homework, and hold a conversation about my family.  

And then I realized: every friend I have who speaks Arabic is an international student. Every friend I have who speaks Arabic, speaks it fluently, at a highly educated level, as their first language. And all of those friends speak English with me, in the supermarket, and in all their classes at the University of Iowa–all of them must think and speak in a language that does not come naturally or easily to them. All of them live in the unfamiliar culture that the US is–a place where the rules are unwritten and the consequences for breaking them are steep.  All of them have spent the last several years facing the challenge of cultural and linguistic immersion; a challenge I’ve been facing for only 6 days–and I’m already tired and frustrated. 

I write this not out of pity–but out of a place of humility. I write to recognize hard work, perseverance, and risk-taking. I write to recognize that I have the best friends this world has to offer. 


They are the brave ones, not I. 




Photo taken on my first exploration of the city of Tangier