Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome / by George Bajalia

Moroccans speak more languages than the MC in Cabaret.

Terrible jokes aside, it’s true. Our first week in Rabat was full of lectures on Moroccan higher education, culture, society, and importantly, language. Between three Amazight (Berber) languages, Moroccan Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Quranic Arabic, French, Spanish, and English, you never know what you could hear on the street. Chances are, though, that it will be Moroccan Arabic, or darija.

Darija is the local dialect of Arabic and it varies all throughout the country. Linguistic differences in Morocco are part of what make its cultures and peoples so rich and varied. Both in their similarities and differences, languages in Morocco often inspire political debate and even protests. This past July, when the King announced a reformed constitution, there was an entire section devoted to languages, official, national, and otherwise. The referendum recognized Amazight as an official language of Morocco, a major victory for the Berber minorities here. Other cultures of the Mediterranean teach us not to underestimate the importance of language and political recognitions such as this. For Americans, it’s easy to see politics as a game without real impact on daily life. In this case though, it’s an important point.

Consider Yugoslavia of the 1980s. As civil and economic pressures started to grow, cracks started appearing in the (formerly) model socialist republic. Yugoslavian fractured into Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian, languages affectionately called Serbo-Croatian by academics but fiercely divided in the former Yugoslavia. These three languages vary little in grammar, slightly in vocabulary and pronunciation, and extremely in alphabet. Serbia adopted the Cyrillic alphabet while Croatia kept to the Latin; meanwhile, Bosnia prints all road signs in both scripts. Seen as such, the major difference between these languages is a politically imposed decision.

Musings aside, I’m now in Fes preparing for intensive study of Moroccan Darija at the American Language School in Fes (ALIF). Our classes start Monday and this morning we arrived from Rabat to meet our host families. Most of us will be staying with a host family for the first 6 weeks in Fes’s old medina. Notorious for its aesthetic overload (both good and bad), the medina is often viewed as an impenetrable maze of narrow roads and high walls. Luckily I’m living right near one of the more iconic, and easily located, landmarks. On the whole, it’s the oldest functioning medieval city in the world, and home to the world’s first university. I’m living with a family of 7, though one of the sons in the family is married and lives in Bologne. The house has been in the family for centuries (between 400 and 500 years) and they have great wifi. It’s a beautiful home, and I feel pretty lucky to have landed here. 

One of the first things I’ve noticed is the soundscape of the city. My room is up several flights of stairs, and I have a window overlooking one of the more popular streets in this part of the medina. Less than 50 yards away is a towering minaret from which the Ahdan (the call to prayer) swells into my room while below me kids tussle in the streets. My neighbors are fans of Mexican telenovelas and the cafe down the street is a popular spot for young musicians to play for friends. Walking through the city, you get a sense of all these things, but you’re a passerby. Guidebooks talk about the sounds of Fes as sampling a buffet. Perched up in my room though, I realize that there is much more than simply sampling bits and pieces as I wander aimlessly through the streets. Here, the cacophony turns to the sounds weaving together a community. The buffet sharpens into a cornucopia, elegantly and organically produced. 

As tempting as it is to simply sample the wares, though, that’s not why I am here. Fes is so much more than a pretty picture and interesting sounds. To read the signs and hear what is behind the sounds–and to my part to contribute to my community here–I need to learn more Darija. Classes start Monday.