Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Apart from my main responsibility to the conference on migration, one of my new jobs at the Nimar is to help coordinate two cultural programs organized for our sizeable group of students. One of these is a mandatory lecture series on themes relevant to Moroccan culture and issues present in Moroccan society – about which I’ll write more in a later post. The other is a more recreationally-oriented series of field trips and interactive forms of entertainment, one every other week, meant to facilitate students’ exploration of their surroundings in a more hands-on way.

It was in connection with this latter activity that today, I found myself in charge of a tour through the old medina of Rabat. Seeing as we’d hired a guide to take care of the tour’s content and ended up with such a small group of students that we looked more like a group of friends than a group of tourists, my responsibility did not involve much more than carrying with me the envelope containing payment for the guide.

The guide was a friendly jellaba’d man in his sixties who had a clear love of languages. We had hired him because he spoke German (which is close enough to Dutch that most of our students would be able to understand him well enough, we reasoned), but he made clear early on in his conversations with us that he spoke a whole collection of tongues: aside from German he mastered French, Italian, Spanish, English – and showed himself amazingly adept at picking up our Dutch. Once he learned that our students were studying Arabic, he took it upon himself to turn his tour into a veritable cornucopia of linguistic variation. It became a pleasant exchange of languages and words; through his combined Franco-German explanations, he threw in a few Arabic terms here and there, playing around with the students’ budding knowledge of that language. Motivated by this man’s linguistic energy, some of us began to eagerly feed him new words in Dutch, to add to his collection. With such a small group – five students, and the two Nimar interns, me included – his tour became more of a conversation than a lecture, and as we walked down Rue Souika, turned left onto the Rue des Consuls and headed toward the lookout point at the far end of the Kasbah des Oudaias, the guide eagerly answered our multitude of questions with additional stories and anecdotes.*

I have to say that I didn’t participate as much in this conversation as I might have liked to, because I had taken it upon myself to trail behind a little bit. I already knew the medina, I figured, and so I thought to keep some distance from the guide – not only to leave the students more space to stay within listening range, but also to pick up on any stragglers that might lose sight of him and get lost. This last worry seemed a bit pointless even at the time – with only 5 students and a relatively straightforward medina, I didn’t have that much to be concerned about. Mais bon, I remembered how intimidated I used to feel by medinas, and my own worries about losing the group and getting lost, four years ago on a tour of Fes.

But I also think that I perhaps took this task upon myself more for my own benefit than anyone else’s. It was a way for my to extend my sense of responsibility for the expedition – and this is a feeling I reveled in a little. Because it underscored how different this new Morocco experience is from previous ones; it illustrated my change in ‘status’. I was no longer the wide-eyed student: I was now part of the organization, the guiding framework attempting to facilitate these other wide-eyed students’ introduction into this different world.

It feels so good to be on the other side. It feels as though I have finally gotten somewhere, after this investment of time and effort, and it adds to the feeling of independence I have finally found in Morocco - the feeling that I can make it on my own. But of course, I can’t avoid also feeling like an impostor sometimes. And in a sense perhaps that’s what my behavior on the tour was about as well: I needed to underscore that transition I’ve made in order to convince myself that I really do belong on the other side – that I really have blossomed from stranger into person-in-the-know. Because as far as I know I’ve come, I’m always one to focus on everything I haven't yet mastered. The ease I don’t yet have with either French or Arabic, the things that still surprise me every day.

But – I’m trying to channel that into motivating energy, using it to propel me ever-forward…

On a side-note: something I found myself wondering about is how a man like this comes to be a tour guide. He was clearly a well-respected guide himself; this he emphasized himself with numerous stories in which his expertise in both cityscape and language was called upon to oblige various groups of high-ranking VIP visitors to Rabat. Nevertheless, as far as I know the job of tour guide does not lend one any elevated sense of respect. It is not a job for the sons of the middle class, and is often described as the kind of profession one rolls into when one has few other prospects (see, for instance, Laila Lalami's 'Hope and Other Pursuits'). This man, though, clearly had a talent for languages and learning – a linguistic competence that went far beyond the conventional spiel that most guides must, for the sake of making money, learn to be able to rattle off for groups of tourists. This man’s speech was not performance, it was not learned – his interaction with us reflected a comprehension, and a true engagement with language. How does someone with such a clear talent end up in this line of work? What was his background, what does his life look like, now? To what economic class does this man belong, and how does that compare to the class in which he grew up? Can he lead a comfortable life? Do his children have prospects?

* Apparently the guide was not universally liked; we received less-than-positive reviews from at least one student. I guess everyone looks for different qualities in their guides...

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