Category Archives: Cultural lessons from language learning

Sometimes cultural preferences and assumptions can be seen in the structure of an unfamiliar language. Here’s some of what I’m learning about Moroccan culture by struggling with the local dialect, Darija.

Around Demnate

After our pottery mudslide and olive press visit, we made our way to Demnate, where we wanted to explore the Mellah, the historical Jewish section of the town.

Storks on top of the minaret at the central mosque in Demnate

The first Mellah to be established was in Fez, when a Marinid sultan persuaded the Jews living scattered through the old medina to move close to the royal palace.  (Many a Moroccan sultan saw himself as a protector of the Jews, those handy artisans and financiers.)  The word Mellah evidently came from the word for salt, milha: the Mellah was the place of salt, the place where salt-traders gathered, the place where the salt-trade was financed and organized and run.

Demnate historically had a large Jewish population; we had hoped to take a tour of the Mellah with a guide specializing in this history, but he was in Agadir for the few days of our visit.  We stopped by the veteran’s center, on the edge of the Mellah, to see if anyone there would talk to us a little about history, but everyone was deep into a game of backgammon or cards, so we wandered off on our own, dropping into a courtyard near the entrance.

This was something like a tailor’s souq, with many small shops braiding djellaba trim and sewing it onto djellabas.

One older man here knew a little about the Jewish community.  There was only one well-known Jew remaining–a cantor.  (Nancy was delighted to recognize the Arabic word by its resemblance to Hebrew.)  Everyone else had left for Israel, as Jews across Morocco had emigrated en masse within a brief span of time.

While James and Nancy chatted with the men surrounding this djellaba shop, Jeremy was making friends.  One man in the center of the courtyard let him run the braiding machine for a moment–
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–he didn’t even mind when Jeremy ran it backward by accident.  Another man hunted around in his shop for a present for our boy, finally emerging with an onion!

After a wander around the town, ducking in and out of bright sun, and dodging through dark and chilly corridors, we headed out of town again, looking for the Imni n’Ifri cave or bridge or geological formation.  We didn’t really know what we were looking for, but the guidebook said it was worth a stop.

In the end, it was both a cave and a bridge, with an interesting geological formation taking shape under the natural bridge.  Guides wanted to be paid to lead us through, so (as at the Cascades), they showed us the least appealing, apparently most difficult approach first.  We declined their help, thinking we might just walk down the easy steps on the other side, and look at the passage from the bottom.  One of the guides followed us down and again offered his help.  “We’d rather do it ourselves, thank you.”

In fact, James and I were the ones who really wanted to keep going, so Nancy volunteered to stay behind with the children.  At which point, Zoe, with a maturity beyond her years, noted that while she didn’t want to go, she would be mad at herself later for missing something interesting.  Of course then Jeremy was unwilling to be left behind.  So we all girded our metaphoric loins–prepared for wet feet–and kept going.
P1010118We were so glad we did!  The “map of Africa” is the formation’s claim to fame, P1010128

but we were most taken with the structure of the walls,

the water misting down in a beading curtain, capturing the light.
It was a magical space–these photos don’t really do it justice.



Learning (in) Darija

When you spend two hours a day with someone, that person starts to feel a little like a friend or a family member. Youssef finds this easiest in relation to Jeremy.  “Aji!” he calls to Jeremy.  “Gliss!” (Come here! Sit down!)  He pats the chair next to him emphatically.  Jeremy looks at me sideway and I nod: yes, you need to go and sit down, at least briefly.  Jeremy does so.  Youssef then tries to carry on a one-sided conversation: “Ki deir? Mizian? Hamdullah! Sahebi?”  (How are you?  Good?  Thanks be to God.  Are you my friend?)  I nod at Jeremy, and he obediently nods at Youssef.  Friends.  Youssef gives him a hug.

Before long, Youssef has raised the ante: “Khuya.” Jeremy is now his brother.  (People on the street also call each other “my brother” or “my sister,” but in this context, it’s a little more intimate.)  Before we came, I worried some about the famous Moroccan love of children.  I wasn’t sure Jeremy would appreciate being loved by people he didn’t know well, but while he’s a bit timid at present, he’s taking all the love in stride.  Still, he scrambles off to play again as soon as he thinks he can get away with it.

In many ways, Youssef seems more traditionally Moroccan than many of the people we meet here in Ifrane. Most Ifranis have at least moderately good French, for instance, even people who only made it through 3rd grade.  Youssef has some words of French, but not enough to communicate clearly.  (He doesn’t speak much English either, which makes it hard to ask about new words or concepts.  And occasionally, the translations he offers head in the wrong direction: “God needs you” instead of “May God help you.”)  Like “the country people” Ifranis describe, Youssef doesn’t change his watch with the official changes in time.  (Morocco follows daylight savings time, but goes off DST during Ramadan, and then returns to DST at the end of Ramadan.  We changed our clocks with the official time, but Youssef didn’t, with the result that for about a week he turned up an hour before we expected him.)  Less traditional, I imagine, is Youssef’s passion for linguistics: he just finished a master’s degree on using technology to teach modern standard Arabic to foreigners; he’s hoping to start a new degree in Fez come the fall—perhaps a national doctorate (as opposed to an internationally recognized PhD).

In practicing vocabulary, Youssef and I talk about families and where we come from.  Youssef was born in Errachidia; he lives with his two brothers in Azrou.  Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 9.35.43 AM
One brother is a greengrocer; the other sells furniture like Moroccan banquettes.  Youssef occasionally drives a truck for this second brother, picking up furnishings from El Hoceima, for instance, on the Mediterranean coast, and grabbing a few hours on the beach in the process.  Back in Errachidia, his father used to sell vegetables in the suq; he’s now retired. Another brother brings truckloads of produce from Agadir (on the southern Atlantic coast) to sell in Errachidia.
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If I recall correctly, there are four brothers and three sisters in total.  One of the sisters lives in Rabat; I lost track of the other two.  But I’m struck by the geographical distribution of the family, given the importance of family within Moroccan culture.  Still, one of Youssef’s nephews is going to marry one of Youssef’s nieces—Darija makes it clear that this is cousin rather than sibling marriage—a practice still quite common in Morocco.

Family vocabulary is very important in Darija, so it’s interesting to see what the structure of the language allows and emphasizes, and what it obscures.  There’s no simple word for cousin, for instance: instead, one specifies the relationship through the older generation.  A cousin is “son-of-a-paternal-aunt” or “daughter-of-a-maternal-uncle.”  An American “blended” family is hard to describe in Darija.  To talk about my much-loved stepmother, for instance, I have to refer to her as my father’s second wife, which has rather different overtones.  Talking about my stepfather is a little more shady: “Your mother’s second husband?” (Really?)

Youssef and I work on an imaginary family tree.
Fatima and Hamid are the grandparents; they have four children, two girls (Ouam and Amina) and two boys (Khalid and Mohamed).  All four are married: Ouam to Abdellah; Amina to Qasm; Khalid to Nizha; Mohamed to Ismaa.  I read the family tree from the wrong direction, left to right, taking the women ahead of the men. When I ask about terms like sister-in-law, Youssef points me to the mother-in-law relationship.

“No, I want to know how to describe the relationship between Ismaa and Nizha.”
“There is no relationship there.  No word to describe it.”
“Really.  Besides, they hate each other.”
“What do you mean?”
“This woman (pointing to Nizha) always hates this woman (pointing to Ismaa).  At least if the brothers share a house.”

Ah, the light dawns.  Brothers share the family house, and their wives are structurally in conflict with one another, struggling for dominance, disagreeing over how family resources and space should be managed.

Youssef isn’t done.  “But the worst is this one.”  He points to Fatima, the matriarch.  “Both of these women (Nizha and Ismaa) hate her and she hates them.  They must work for her, and she may be terrible to them, making trouble for them with each other and with their husbands.  The older women are especially bad: no education, nothing in their life but the power to make their daughters-in-law miserable.”

Wow.  I make a face at Youssef to show I’m a little taken aback.
He nods and grins.  “You won’t find this in any books, but this is what I say.  This is what I see.  It’s not so bad now, but in the old days it was very hard.”

Talk about names within the family leads to a discussion of how affection is expressed.  Parents are called by their titles: El Haj (marking those who have been on hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, but the title is used more generally to indicate respect); a Lalla.  Children kiss their parents’ hands; parents kiss their children’s (bent) heads.  On the street, of course, there is the double kiss–cheeks pressed together on both sides of the face–and often an embrace, mostly between people of the same sex.  Youssef imagines I want to know how to say ‘I love you,’ though I don’t think I’ve asked this.  “The young people use ‘bgheet’ (the same as ‘to want’) but the old people don’t say this word.  They show love by helping each other with burdens or giving a hand down a steep path, but they don’t say the word.  The young people–it’s the opposite.  They say the word, but they don’t show it!”

Youssef and I are very different from one another, and Youssef works, often visibly, to overcome the strangeness our family represents.  When we invite him into a different part of the house, beyond the public area of the Moroccan salon, he pauses and then physically pushes himself forward into this inappropriate interior.  When I bring up one of the famous secret prisons from Morocco’s “years of lead,” he startles, but again pushes on: “In this context” of tutoring, he states explicitly, “we can say anything.”  The statement demonstrates openness and tolerance even as it marks a political gulf between us.

He’s happier to talking about the Green March, celebrated each November 4-6 in Morocco.  During the Green March, some 350,000 Moroccans (escorted by 20,000 army troops) marched into the disputed territory of the (then Spanish) Western Sahara: they marched singing, carrying Qurans and Moroccan flags.

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image from Morocco World News                       image from

“My uncle was a part of the Green March,” Youssef tells me, exultantly.  “He was so happy: they were all so happy!  Marching, singing!  It was a wonderful time!”  The Western Sahara, cannily annexed without bloodshed during this Green March, continues to be a vexed political issue, underscored by a 16-year war and ongoing conflict with the Polisario front, but it’s clearly important to Moroccan patriotic feeling.

When my tutoring sessions with Youssef come to an end, we take some photos to help us remember our time together.
Youssef wants photos with Jeremy and James; James insists on taking a photo of Youssef with me.  I can feel Youssef’s discomfort despite Jeremy’s presence between us.
Once the photo has been taken, Youssef leaps away and then steps back to tell me I am like a mother to him.  I would have chosen younger brother rather than son (is this vanity on my part or immaturity?), but I take his point.  He has coped so well with this strange family, has worked diligently at this odd relationship with an uncovered, inappropriately dressed older woman.  A lalla Betsy: Ms. Betsy.  How do we resolve this odd, uncanny friendship?  Through the model of family.  Khuya: my brother.  Umi: my mother.


The neighbor, then the house.

Al jar, thumma ddar.  When house-hunting, the Moroccan proverb says, choose your neighbor first, then choose your house.  Somewhere I read about an Islamic teaching that insists on the importance of looking after one’s neighbors, up to 40 houses in all directions.  That’s a sizeable neighborhood!

Said adapted this for us: choose your landlord first, then your house.  It’s more important to have a good landlord, one who will work with you, than to have the perfect house.  But we really like both our landlord and our new home.  Omar (that first letter is actually more guttural than it looks) is terrifically warm and welcoming; he also speaks fluent English, which makes it easier to appreciate how thoughtful and articulate he is.  Omar’s son actually lives in Philadelphia and did a master’s degree at Villanova, so we’re also all struck by the bizarrely small world we inhabit.

SONY DSC SONY DSCOmar’s house is unusual in several respects: it separates public areas (ground floor) and private sleeping areas (upper floor) instead of mixing them together; it has a well-equipped kitchen, including an oven (!) and a microwave; SONY DSC SONY DSCand it’s nicely furnished in a mixture of Moroccan and French styles.

We think it’s beautiful!

And the alternatives–kitchens without ovens, with only two encrusted electric burners–or dark, squalid, small apartments–make us all the more grateful to have found this!

Our one worry is the winter cold: Omar is replacing the hot water heater and refurbishing the coal-fired furnace, so we hope that all will be well.  Ifrani houses are not built for the cold, despite the reliably cold winters.  Puzzle that one out: my guess is that the cost of construction pushes builders into using the cheapest materials–cement bricks.  But more on building materials later….