Friday, October 10, 2008


Amma is not very good at English, she says, and so yesterday I helped her with a homework assignment. This gave me a chance to look at her English textbook – a Moroccan method that satisfies the national requirements for secondary education. Mostly, it is a language book like any other. Exercises ask students to match appropriate responses to questions, to fill in the right form of a verb, to summarize short articles, and so on. But I was struck by the tone of the book. Every single article for reading comprehension is about the third world, its development, and its problems; and every single exercise asks the student to imagine him- or herself being asked to respond to English-speaking humanitarian aid-workers. “An employee of an NGO has come to your village and has asked you to advise him about some villages that need help. What is your response?” Or, “Your e-pal has asked you about what kind of work he might do if he comes to Morocco. Write him an email in which you respond to his question. Be sure to use lots of comparisons.”

It’s a completely passive form of language learning – not in the sense that students are asked to listen and read rather than to speak, but in the sense that it is geared toward people who are receiving English-speakers in their own country, rather than people who are going out on adventures to explore the English-speaking world on their own. Students learn what they need to know to interact with foreigners (who apparently are all here to work toward Morocco’s socio-economic development) on their own soil, to respond to requests and offer help. They do not learn how to initiate conversations, how to use English to explore Anglo-Saxon culture. It is always ‘your English guest…’, and never ‘your English host…’. This is really curious, I think, and I wonder what thought process lies behind the structuring of language learning this way. And in the same vein, what philosophy lies behind Western language-learning textbooks? Does it affect how well someone is able to learn/use the language?

I need to express some frustration: There are so many questions I have but am hesitant to ask because I do not know how sensitive they are. I want to ask Amma if she has a boyfriend, and ask Alma why she doesn’t work, how come she’s not married? I want to ask them about shouafat, about jnun (plural of jinn, a ghost or spirit), if they believe in all that, about their thoughts on religion. I want to ask them how it is that Lahcen is so old and frail while Khadija is not.* I want to ask Amma how she feels about the fact that her parents are divorced,** and how her family feels, how Moroccan society feels about that. Mostly, I want to not worry about asking these questions and just try them out, but the thing is that I don’t want to do that with the people I live with, the people I have to be on good terms with for the next three months at least – and hopefully longer. I don’t want to risk awkwardness or even offense with them. I’ve thought about prefacing each question with a note of caution, of sorts: to tell them that if this is too a sensitive question, I am sorry and I won’t ask them to answer. But despite the relative lack of a language barrier we’ve had there are already so many little miscommunications here and there, and I’m worried that the subtleties of my inquiries and cautions would be completely lost.

I guess Ilyas is the one to ask about the sensitivity of questions. And other than that it’s probably just my own shyness that I need to get over.

* I had erroneously assumed that Lahcen was a little senile – because he sits in his room all day calling out names of people without end, until someone screams at him that whomever he wants isn’t here. So the other night, when I saw him leave his room and then heard the front door of the house open and close, I got very worried: I pictured him alone on the street, unable to recall where he lives, completely lost. No one else really looked up at all, though. I thought maybe they simply hadn’t noticed, so I went up to Amma, worried that I would sound completely stupid, being worried about nothing, and asked, ‘your grandfather just left, is that ok?’ Her response was completely carefree – ‘oh, really?’ And that was it. Later on he came back, and of course everything is fine. So I did feel a little stupid. But at least, I thought, better safe than sorry… I now think that Lahcen is less senile than he is just really old, and mostly blind. Last evening, I was by myself in the living room when he started calling out for Amma. Without anyone to scream at him, he came out of his room and walked straight into the living room where he clearly saw me. “Amma? Amma?” he said to me. “No,” I said, “Amma isn’t here. I’m Charlotte.” He walked right up to me, hovered over me, gave me a kind of Larry David-like scrutinizing once-over, and then said, “Oh. And who are you?” “I’m Charlotte,” I responded. “Oh,” he said again, and then “How are you?” “I’m fine sir, how are you?” I responded. “Alhamdulillah,” he said. Then once more, “Amma isn’t here?” I repeated that she wasn’t, he said “OK,” and he went on his way. I’m a little ashamed that I assumed he wasn’t all there anymore, and I don’t really know why I thought this.

** This became clear when I asked her where her father lived, because he clearly does not live with us. She had already mentioned once that her mother lives in Spain. Her father, she now told me, lives somewhere else in Rabat with his wife and their daughter. Why don’t you live with them, I was man enough to ask. Just because I prefer it here, she replied. I’m used to the medina, it’s a more vibrant area, all of my friends are here.

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