I am having a great time re-familiarizing myself with Moroccan Arabic. Its sounds are difficult, sometimes impossibly so, to pronounce, and hearing other people speak it often sounds like an endless string of very guttural consonants (and then they tell me Dutch sounds like someone’s gargling…). But its content can be full of allusions and metaphors. I am discovering the often multiple layers of meaning that words can have as I read short plays with Ilyas and listen to Moroccan songs. As I vividly visualize the suggestions made by the simplest sentences, I get the feeling that Moroccan Arabic, even in its colloquial everyday usage, can be pure poetry. Ilyas clearly appreciates his language, too, and takes the time to help me visualize it all. Here, by way of example, are some of the idioms I have recently come across:
“Nashif” means ‘dry’, but is also the word for ‘broke’.
“Zhar” means perfume, but also means luck.
Someone who is crazy may be called “hmaq,” but you can also say that ‘his bird flew’: “tar lih l-farh.”
If someone asks you how you are, you can say ‘fine’, but you can also say ‘the country is care-free, and the sky is clear’: “l-dounia hania ou l-sma safia.”
“Moul t-taj kaytaj,” literally, ‘the owner of a crown is in need’, is a way of saying that even those who have much are sometimes in need of something.
“Shi haja ma dairash,” literally ‘something not round’, means “something unique.” If you like a girl, Ilyas said, you say, ‘she’s not round’.
And then there is a particularly intriguing word: “Hrag.” It means to burn, but also, to illegally immigrate.* This one is full of subtext, I think. In my head, it conjures images of people burning their ships behind them – illegally immigrating often means not being able to go back home – or ‘burning’ their legal status, their citizenship; perhaps even ‘burning’ – forcefully creating, without permission – a place for themselves in the fabric of another country…
The other day in class, we read a brief play that featured two young men in Tangier who dreamed of a better life in Spain. A motif that kept returning was the metaphor of thirst, contrasted with the water of the sea separating Morocco from the land of plenty – Spain. Debating the risks of ‘burning’ versus the poverty and starvation sure to result from remaining in Morocco, the story kept contrasting the image of farm animals on dry ground, dying from thirst, to the image of risk-takers drowning in the water of the strait. Yearning for a land where there is enough water not to be thirsty, too much water becomes their death before they ever reach their goal. ‘To drink the sea’ was used as a way of saying ‘to make the crossing, to swim across’, but in Moroccan Arabic is also a way of saying ‘I don’t care’ – sort of like, ‘I could drink the entire sea’. It was so poignant, and so beautiful.
“Hrag,” according to my dictionary, can also mean “to hurt or cause pain.” I think this is the meaning of the word as it appeared in a song we listened to a few days ago. It’s a well-known song in Morocco called “Qitar l-hayat,” or ‘the train of life’. Basically it’s about a man who is in love with a woman who despises him. About halfway through the song he describes an encounter in which he came to declare his good intentions and sincerity with a bouquet of flowers. But “the shock was powerful”, he sings: “she ‘burned’ the bouquet in my hands, and its ashes fell on top of mine.” I thought this was beautiful: she scorned and rejected – in other words, ‘burned’ his flowers – and in doing so ‘burns’ the giver as well. Both man and bouquet are rendered a poor pile of ashes – they are completely rejected and discarded, left without hope.
This language is so poetic – but can also be so incredibly prosaic that it makes me smile. It is prosaic, to me, in the sense that it often needs very little words to express something, but mostly in the sense that it clearly had no scruples about integrating French – the language of the colonizer – into its own fabric. Some of the most common everyday words come straight from French: cheese is “fromage” (with a thick, Spanish ‘r’). ‘Train station’ is “lagare,” with the French definite article worked into the word. French also pops into a lot of daily conversation – people will throw in little phrases like ‘pas encore’, or ‘…’. Especially when it comes to any kind of technology, French loan-words dominate. The gears on a car are referred to with French ordinal numbers – la première, deuxième, troisième. A cell phone is a “portabl” (‘un portable’), and a phone plan is ‘l-abonmon’ (‘l’abonnement). Most Moroccans have a prepaid phone, for which you buy minutes on a “lakart diyal resharj” (‘la carte de recharge’). Reception – on both phones and computers – is “rizou” (‘réseau’). If you want to be able to use your European or American phone in Morocco, you can ask a guy on the street to do a “dicoder” (‘décoder’) on it. An internet café is called a “cyber” (pronounced ‘see-ber’). And although these internet cafés (in the medina at least) are sometimes little more than narrow caves hidden behind little shops selling lingerie or shoes, they have everything you need to lead a very social life online – all computers are equipped with Skype and MSN messenger software, a “kamera” (webcam), and a “micro” (microphone); some cafés offer the services of a “skanir” (a scanner).
So even if my Arabic doesn’t reach far enough to follow the simplest conversation, I can hold my own in the jottiya, the part of the medina where phones, software, and computer parts are sold (and a lot of it illegally, I think), and talk the technical talk with the boys who tinker around with phones and computers all day…
* The fact that there is a specific verb for this issue speaks to its dominance in the Moroccan consciousness. It is a pressing problem, as Ilyas also once again confirmed. Morocco is heavily involved in the business of illegal immigration into Europe – not only because so many Moroccans dream of crossing over, but also because Tangier is the portal for all other Africans hoping for a future in Europe. In Tangier, the presence, lure, and mystery of ‘the other side’ hangs in the air constantly – and not surprisingly: the Spanish coastline is so close by that on a clear day, you can see cars driving on the other side. It’s so close you think you can almost reach it if you just stretch out, yet it remains so elusive and impossibly far for so many here.