Saturday, November 8, 2008

On A Quest

Sometimes the littlest things can seem so difficult to get done in Morocco. Buying mouthwash, for instance.

My Listerine is running out, and so I decided it was time to purchase a Moroccan replacement. I looked up the French word for mouthwash in the dictionary (“eau dentifrice”), and armed with that knowledge I went on expedition into the medina. I didn’t expect to find Listerine anywhere, but did not think it would be difficult to find something similar; the numerous “parfumeries” all over the city are stocked full of any kind of drugstore product one might need.

These “parfumeries” are little holes in the wall, tiny drugstores that sell everything from shampoo, shower gel and hair dye to deodorants and toothbrushes, and they have all the big western/European brands.* And with so many Western products, I was sure any of these parfumeries would have what I was looking for. No such luck, however.

Like most other small shops here, a parfumerie is not a place for browsing; everything is displayed behind a big counter. This means that shopping always requires intensive interaction with the shopkeeper, who must be asked to fetch all the products you want to look at, and whom you must then bargain with for a good price. And so, armed with my French word, I stepped up to the proprietor at the first parfumerie I found. “Wash ‘andek de l’eau dentifrice?” I asked in perfect Aransiya.** “Dentifrice? Bien sûr,” the proprietor responded, and pointed to a shelf full of toothpaste behind him. Which brand did I want? No, I told him, not “dentifrice,” but “eau dentifrice.” He gave me a puzzled look, and I repeated myself. “Eau, de l’eau,” I told him. He processed this for a while, and then shook his head. “La, ma kaynsh.” And so I thanked him, left the store, and walked straight to another one, where the exact same conversation took place. This exact exchange took place, in fact, at every single parfumerie I went to. I began to wonder: does mouthwash not exist in Morocco? But hadn’t I seen it in Casablanca? Was I using the wrong word? Or were parfumeries not the place to go?

Back home, I asked Amma and Alma about it. They did not understand me either, until I showed them my bottle of Listerine. Oh, they said, like a “bain de bouche”? Eagerly I nodded, and they urged me to come to the bathroom with them, where they showed me bottles bearing those words on the label. Yes, I said, I think it’s something like that – and took a look at the label. Not what I am looking for at all: their bain de bouche is more of a salt solution than the acidic alcohol rinse I am in search of. All members of my host family are in the process of getting various dental work done – a tooth pulled here, new braces there – and their bains de bouche come from dental prescriptions. I tried to explain what I had in mind precisely: something against cavities, and to prevent bad breath (what is the word for gingivitis in French?). Sort of like what toothpaste does, I said. Alma gave me a puzzled look. “Then why don’t you just use toothpaste?”, she asked me, “why do you not like toothpaste?” No, I said, I love toothpaste; I use both, first toothpaste, then bain de bouche. Ah, she said, with a smile and a wink, “that’s why your teeth look so good.” She finally told me to check at a pharmacy – and then immediately called a pharmacist-friend to ask him if he knew what I was talking about. Alternating on the phone, she and I tried to explain to him what it was that I needed. Eau dentifrice didn’t register with him either, but bain de bouche did. Something acidic, however, he hadn’t heard of. Still no luck.

I was confused. There is no shortage of beauty products in Morocco. If people actually have a bathroom, it is stocked full with deodorants, creams, shampoos, conditioners, fragrances and other products. Why does no one know what mouthwash is? I began to regret my decision not to bring more Listerine with me. Thanks in part to a hyper-vigilant dental office that has a dramatic flair about their care for the health of my mouth, I am a little hyper myself when it comes to my dental routine. I had just sadly resigned myself to a fate of tooth decay when I walked past the Mohammed V medina exit and noticed another parfumerie-looking store and decided to give it one more try. I walked in to what turned out to be an actual drug store – no hole in the wall, but an actual store with aisles that allowed customers to browse the products for themselves. And there, in the very first aisle, next to the toothpaste, stood not just one kind of mouthwash, but four different brands of it. All acidic, all exactly what I was looking for, in my choice of price ranges and brands.

It had seemed so impossible to find mouthwash, and then finally turned out to be so incredibly easy – once I had found the place to go. It seems to work that way with a lot of things here. A lot of everyday transactions seem to be a matter of simply ‘knowing’ – where to shop for what, where to get the best deal, who to talk to when you need something, how best to get from one place to another. This is true for any place in the world, perhaps, and my difficulty probably stems from the fact that I am simply unfamiliar with this culture. But I maintain that there is something different about Morocco. It seems to me that here, there is no way to acquire this knowledge but through trial and error. There is no system; there are no chain stores to rely on (yes, there is Marjane, but this is not the kind of place you go to for your everyday needs), no bus schedules to pick up at the station, no consumer reports to advise you of the best choice of vendor.

And it does not always help to ask a Moroccan. The logic of these things seems so self-evident to them that they have a hard time putting it into words. For instance, asking my host family for directions to somewhere in the city is hopeless. They don’t navigate by means of street names, and when I mention one I am given blank stares. The same happens when I show them a map; they are not used to looking at their city this way, and get confused when they try to work it out. In turn, I am often unfamiliar with the landmarks they navigate by. A complete miscommunication, in other words.

For the same reason, my hopes at flying back to the United States with some authentic Moroccan recipes will most likely remain unfulfilled. My host family is perfectly happy to explain to me how they make certain dishes, but the way they conceive of cooking is just completely different. A fair number of ingredients seem to be taken entirely for granted: I see them putting eggs or butter into their dough, but they are never mentioned in their recipes. Measurements are also different. Again, they seem entirely intuitive: everything is given to me as “shouiya diyal…,” ‘ a little…’. I would need to take a seat in the kitchen one day and observe something being made from start to finish – but would probably mostly be in the way if I did that.

And so learning how these little aspects of daily life work is probably a matter of observation, combined with a lot of trial and error experimentation. And shouiya-bishouiya (little by little) I’m finding my way. At least it’s another interesting ethnographic challenge…

And apparently I am at least starting to look like I know my way: this morning on my way to the internet cafe, a woman stopped me and asked me where she could find a taxi to Temara (a Rabat suburb), in Arabic. And in Arabic, I directed her to the grand taxi stand at Bab Chellah. The few odd bystanders looked at me with as much surprise as I felt myself. That she would ask me, the most obvious foreigner, for directions in Rabat, in Arabic. and that I was actually able to help her. I have to say I'm pretty proud of myself.

* Only some of these products seem to have been produced for the Moroccan consumer; most of it is, I think, contraband destined for the Benelux (the Netherlands/Belgium/Luxemburg) or Germany. That is, they come with Dutch/French or German writing on the back instead of French and Arabic, and have been produced in the Netherlands, France, or Germany rather than Ain Sebaa in Casablanca.
** ‘Aransiya’, or ‘Faranbiya’, is a combination of the words ‘arabiya’ (‘arabic’) and ‘faransiya’ (‘french’), and refers to many people’s tendency to mix a lot of French words and phrases into their Arabic. As an imperfect speaker of either, I have become quite adept at this hybrid language.

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