Mr. Mohammed and Ms. Fatima / by George Bajalia

In our language class there are three Mohammeds and three Fatimas. We had another Mohammed, and another Fatima, but they left for higher level classes. As our teachers often indicate, every Mohammed has a moustache and each Fatima has a cute shoulder length hairdo. 

As is probably clear by now, there is in fact no one named Mohammed or Fatima in our class. In fact, we each have distinct names. However, for one of our teachers, this is less important than our gender, and the according title: Mohammed, or Fatima. To get our attention, or to indicate who should speak next, he will, with a friendly gesture, indicate that it is Si (Mr.) Mohammed’s turn, or perhaps he should speak to Leela (Ms.) Fatima in the corner. For a bit, this kind of bothered me. Actually, it just seemed kind of silly.

We also, learned, however, that to get a man’s attention you can simply call out, “Si Mohammed,” something especially useful for cafes. Embarrassingly enough, this put to rest a question I’d had since I was in Tangier last year. At one of my favorite cafes there, people would routinely call the waiter Mohammed. I was positive, though, his name was not Mohammed. To add to this, people would also call the other waiter Mohammed, and I was pretty sure that his name was Mustafa. I sat the wondering, why on earth do people think both of these guys are named Mohammed? It’s a common name, but come on… Now I realize. They didn’t think that. I was really the only one who ever seemed confused by this, and now I know why. 

So I put this to the test. I walked up to a man selling hot, salted chickpeas and said (in darija), “Si Mohammed, I’d like 2 dirham’s worth.” And he gave me 2 dirham’s worth. And didn’t even bat an eye. Point taken, Si Mohammed. 

Can you imagine walking up to CVS clerk and saying, “Hey, Mr. Charlie, where is your laundry detergent?” Or to a tamale vender on Clark Street, “Mr. Carlos, gimme two tamales.” Or to a waiter at the bar, “Hey, Mr. Jesus,  what are your specials tonight?

It doesn’t really seem to work the same. And I’ve been trying to figure out why. I’ll venture a totally unsupported hypothesis here. In Moroccan culture, as in other cultures, the collective is often valued over the individual. Moroccans often see giving alms to beggars as a social duty, and people passing on the street will sometimes give leftover bread to those less fortunate. A blind man walking down the street can rely on other to guide him if he needs it; during Ramadan, this becomes even more prevalent. Clearly participating in this collective identity is an important part of the culture, and it even becomes second nature. 

The first part of the epithet “Si Mohammed” comes from the word Sidi, or saint. And Mohammed is clearly a revered figure. So calling someone Si Mohammed, and responding to that call, is a two way exchange that accepts this collectivity and affirms membership in its social order. It’s a respectful way of saying, “Hey brother, I don’t know your name but I know that we are equals about to participate in a social exchange (verbal and monetary alike).” 

Perhaps, then, it’s similar to how an American might say, “Hey man,” “dude,” or “brother” or whatever the regional and/or social epithet may be. But it indexes a specific larger social entity, and therein lies its intrigue. There is clearly a connection to religious identity, but it’s a gesture without obvious religious significance. It’s essentially a secular exchange, but Morocco isn’t a particularly secular society. I’m sure there are plenty of other things that have made the journey from religious significance to social significance as well, essentially undergoing secularization, without losing their religious importance.

I haven’t really been here long enough to pin point them immediately, nor am I in any position to make a guess as to the exact nature of this process. However, I am sure that these processes are worth noting in a place like Morocco, where religious and secular culture exist so side by side. I guess I’ll keep thinking about why it’s important, and how it happens.