Conversations between people who don’t speak the same language are difficult. First, one person might try talking slower–hoping the other person will somehow understand their words if there’s more space between them. Then, they try using simpler terms–saying “help” instead of “I think I just caused a hairline fracture in my left kneecap.” After that, the person starts miming the information they need to communicate, and before long a simple conversation has degenerated into a game of charades. Sometimes, this works–things like “bathroom,” “sunglasses,” and “fish” can all be mimed. During my trip to Asilah I discovered that some things are better spoken and not mimed.
I stood in front of the resturant after lunch, chatting with some classmates about our morning. We had just finished eating freshly-caught fish after touring the Old Medina and viewing the beautiful murals that decorate the city walls. We were weighing our options for the afternoon–beach, camel-riding, and mumkin (maybe) ice cream. I was chatting with Tyler and Kelsey when I started to overhear a hurrid conversation behind me. I say “started to overhear” because initially I didn’t understand what was going on. I could only hear part of the conversation (my back was turned and I couldn’t see the miming). I’d been out for several hours with our group and had settled into the groove of thinking and speaking in Arabic–and the conversation I began to hear was in English. English is my first language, but when I’m thinking in Arabic, English kind of sounds nonsensical, especially after speaking Arabic for a long time. After a few seconds of listening, I suddenly understood what was happening and turned around.
There was an American woman having a conversation with our waiter from the resturaunt. Well, she was trying to have a conversation–the situation had been reduced to miming. The problem was, she needed to find a pharmacy. How do you mime “pharmacy?” She didn’t know, and neither did the waiter. He was looking at her with a furrowed brow, and every time she would say, “Pharmacy…you know, toothpaste? Medicine?” He would say, “Asif, no English. No English. Espanol? Frances?” This situation is common in Morocco–many people speak three, four, or five languages fluently, but English is rarely one of them. I’m constantly asked at the souq to speak French or Spanish, and men on the street typically holler comments in Spanish. I’m up to three marriage proposals–but I say no to anyone who calls me “chicka.”
I interjected into the conversation with a question–“Ma hiya al-mushkila?” What’s the problem? The man looked at me with relief, and he replied with, “Praise be to God, its Arabic!” The woman immediately looked at me and said, “I need to get to a pharmacy–do you know where one is?” I turned to the man and asked him in Arabic. His response: “Ohhh, that’s easy! There’s one on this street!” I quickly asked where (how close? On the left or the right?) and thanked him for his help. I explained the directions to the woman, and she rushed off–clearly in distress.
Our group started walking to the beach a few minutes later, and I forgot about the incident and rushed into the ocean. It was only on the bus on the way home (after my seatmate fell asleep) that I took a few minutes to think about the experience. It wasn’t anything fancy or complicated–I had simply translated a question and an answer. It wasn’t a fancy conversation, and I may have made a few grammar mistakes, but it was functional. It was communication at really basic level, in a situation I consider “low-risk” because of all the exposure I’ve had recently to Arabic.
All in all, my experience with the city of Asilah was wonderful–the beach, the camels, the art, the Old Medina, the delicious food–but the most memorable part of the day was a fleeting conversation I had with an American tourist and a Moroccan waiter.