Sunday, February 1, 2009

Letting Loose

Two years ago, the Nimar began its intensive Arabic language program with three Dutch students. The year after, this number doubled to six, and this year we are expecting no less than fifteen students. They all come from Dutch universities, and they will be here for either an 8-week or a 14-week program. They have been arriving in Rabat since the middle of last week and have created quite a bit of extra work for Farid, the Nimar’s office manager, as he fetches them from the airport, assists them with their frantic and nervous search for housing, and provides a bit of comfort in all this Moroccan unknown that I’m sure is the cause of all their nervousness. On top of that, his apartment is still in the midst of renovations that were initially slated to take no more than his ten days of winter break, this past December, and so he has been a bit of a nomad.*

And so last night, he decided it was time to let loose. We dressed up, he called his friend Samad to meet us at the train station, and off we went for a night on the town. After a fruitless attempt to have dinner at the Goethe Institut (too crowded, too much of a wait) we ended up at a restaurant adjacent to the train station. The place was deserted, but it looked inviting and offered the great variety of menu options that is characteristic of this type of Moroccan restaurant: sandwiches, salads, “grille” platters, crêpes, tajines (Moroccan stew – the type of meal I ate every day with my host family), and couscous on Fridays. An option for any appetite, in other words. As we looked over our menus, both Farid and Samad engaged in a friendly chat with the establishment’s owner. It was the kind of conversation that always emerges in Morocco, that makes you think that everyone here knows each other. There was that instant comfort and friendliness that I love, and that always makes me smile. It turns out that Farid and Samad actually did already know the owner in some way: Farid had been there before, I believe, and Samad, who is a producer of tile and other bathroom hardware, had actually supplied the restaurant’s floors.

As the owner walked away, Farid leaned over to me and said, “see, this is how you do it. You chat a little, make friends. That way you know you’ll get good service, and perhaps they’ll even throw in a free dessert.” And he was right. Just as we were beginning to decide on our menu choices, the owner returned and made us an offer we could not refuse: a three course meal for the three of us, consisting of a large salad, a “mix grille” platter, followed by dessert. It was delicious. A “mix grille” is basically a platter of skewers with various varieties of meat: pieces of beef, sausages, kefta (ground meat with spices), and so on. Along came a bowl of a kind of harr (Moroccan hot sauce) though not as spicy as usual, as well as rice, fries, and bread (there is never a shortage of carbs here). The meat hit the spot: without a working fridge I’d been living on Nutella, bread, and bananas, and was craving some protein. By the time dessert – a platter of fruit – was served, we had all eaten way too much to touch anything else. We paid the bill (definitely less than we would have spent if we’d all ordered separately), thanked the owner, pocket the business cards he gave us, and headed out.

This is how it works in Morocco. It’s the thing that makes me most nervous, but it’s also what I love the most: the fact that every daily transaction involves a conversation, a friendly chat. It opens doors, broadens your options, renders everything more pleasant, and can make life a bit easier. There is always room for negotiation.** This can be unsettling to the foreigner (and to me) because it also means that the way-things-work here is much less straightforward, but once you get the hang of it, I think, it can be pleasant. There is a human contact here that warms me up. This happens sometimes in Chicago and San Diego, too, and it’s one of the things I love about these two cities. But it doesn’t compare to the Moroccan level of friendly interaction. This may sound strange, but I think that even in those moments when a vendor or taxi driver attempts to take advantage of a western-looking tourist, there is an openness to dialogue – and if you play along, if you engage in the way a Moroccan would, there is always a good-naturedness about it all that I appreciate. In the end, this person attempting to ‘take advantage’ is simply exploring his options for a bit of gain – a very human and understandable pursuit.

The trick is, then, to play along. I don’t even think it requires expert fluency in Arabic. I think the point is simply to try, to be open, to not be scared of the interaction. I’m getting better, but I really hope that someday, I’ll actually get good at it…

After a brief interlude involving another newly arrived student in need of help, the three of us ventured over to a lounge that doubled as karaoke bar, where we ran into an acquaintance of Farid’s, a Dutch woman who works for the embassy and has contacts with the Nimar (and who had, apparently, heard all about me already…), with her Moroccan partner. The five of us spent the rest of the evening dancing to upbeat, energizing Moroccan songs, and listening to the karaoke-attempts that interchanged them – invariably a slow-ish French pop ballad. An interesting mix of music…

Unbeknownst to any of us, it turns out that all but the real night clubs close these days at 1 am. This apparently has to do with an incident that happed about 6 months ago in Skhirat (a southern suburb), where a bouncer died after being hit by a drunk driver. And so, at 1, we headed home and, after another hour of conversation in the only room with heating, said goodnight and went to sleep.

Today I am taking it easy and trying not to get nervous about my first day of work tomorrow. But I’m going to relax, convince myself that I know more French/Arabic than I think I do (it’s just latent…), and get excited. I’m sure it’s going to be fun.

* He has actually been staying in the other room at the Nimar apartment for the last three nights – and I have to say it’s been nice to have someone else around.
** Don’t take this to mean that anyone can get anything here if they know how to work this system; of course there are a multitude of limits and inequalities to all this openness and friendliness (subtle ones and not so subtle ones) that I as an outsider do not see. What I’m talking about here is simply the general level of interaction involved in simple transactions such as the one at this restaurant, where the two parties operate from a standpoint of relative equality.

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