Category Archives: Ambassadorial Scholarship

The Derija Monologues

For the first time today, I talked for about five minutes straight in nothing but Derija.

I was giving my first Rotary Club presentation to the Casablanca Doyen RC.

The response I got from the club was positive. Embarassingly positive, in fact. Without any false modesty, I have to say that although I’ve been making steady improvement, I’m nowhere near fluency. It speaks to the rarity of Derija learners and the status of the language that the Doyen Rotarians didn’t hold it against me when I had trouble understanding a few follow-up questions in Arabic.

When people ask me what’s the use of learning Moroccan Derija (they only speak it in Morocco!), I want to tell them about the kind of response I’ve gotten today. Any progress you make is rewarded with more affirmation that you’ll ever get trying to learn, say, English. Or French. Don’t even get me started on French.

The flip side, naturally, is that this is only possible in a context where even speakers of the language doubt its value. What is Derija compared to English? What is it even compared to modern standard Arabic?

In trying to take this issue head-on with some classmates, I’ve come up against various and conflicting attitudes that challenge the way I’ve thought about Derija so far.

In class last week, after a presentation on language and globalization, I posed this question: Can we talk about a unified Arabic like we talk about a unified English?

There are a lot of “Arabic speakers” across the world, but in daily life most people speak a dialect that other “Arabic speakers,” hundreds or thousands of miles away, wouldn’t understand. Sure, they might pick up a few words. But just because I get the gist of a conversation in Italian doesn’t mean I speak the same language as Italians.

The reaction that my question provoked in class was more intense than I had expected. I took for granted that Moroccans don’t consider their day to day language to be legitimately “Arabic.” Over and over I’ve heard Moroccans talk about “Derija” as opposed to “al-loura al-3arabia” (“the Arabic Language” a.k.a. “Fus-ha”), occasionally going so far as to classify Derija as less than, or even not as beautiful compared to Fus-ha or other languages more similar to standard Arabic.

The flip side to the relaxed and informal attitude towards Derija is a tendency, among Moroccans I’ve talked with, to take standard Arabic very seriously, both as a language and as a unifier of a transnational community of Arabic speakers and Muslims (with plenty of overlap between the two). I was pretty taken aback when several classmates reacted defensively to my insinuation that Arabic was not a “lived” language.

Something I’ve started to realize now that I’m here is that standard Arabic isn’t as inaccessible as I’d first thought. The Moroccan King always addresses his people in Arabic. One classmate pointed out that it is the language that’s read by millions of people who read the newspaper in Arabic. Another classmate pointed out that the gulf between daily Arabic and written Arabic will narrow with education.

Oh boy, and that’s to say nothing of the ten million Moroccans who speak Tarifit, Tashelhit, or Tamazight.

Sure, I believe in having standards for a language and respect for its rules, but I also think that it’s vital for people to feel proud of the language that they use to communicate every day. When I arrived here a few months ago, one of the first things I noticed that was different from the last time I’d been in Morocco, in 2005, was the television programming. 2M, the national television channel, had started to broadcast foreign soap operas dubbed in Derija, opposed to only standard Arabic or, I would argue worse, Egyptian dialect.

But that’s also because I hate tuning to a program in Egyptian. It frustrates my efforts to learn Moroccan Derija.



Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Arabic, Casablanca, derija, Rotary

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” mayoral edition

Sometimes it’s a relief to know that I have that “dumb foreigner” card in my back pocket for occasions such as last night’s.

Let me first say that I’ve met a handful of Rotarians since I got to Morocco two months ago, and it’s difficult to keep track of everyone’s names, especially if I haven’t had a long conversation with them.

Last night a very friendly Rotary couple took me out to a Rotary soirée hosted in someone’s home in the very chic neighborhood of Californie. About 150 Rotarians and spouses gathered for an evening of poetry and music by a Moroccan poet, one Senegalese and two American collaborators. Performances were in Arabic, French, American, Moroccan Derija and Wolof, as were the side conversations among Rotarians. The atmosphere was congenial and, yet…well, I’ll just say that I’m glad my Rotary event outfit default is set to “fancy.”

I was chatting with some people at the party, who suggested that we go out in the back yard to get some fresh air and avoid the heavy traffic of Rotarians coming through the front door.

As we stepped out, I recognized the familiar face of a man who stood up to greet us.

I had on my Ambassadorial Scholar smile and my custom-made nametag, not to mention a little stack of business cards, so I went for it.

-Salaam! I’m Kathleen. I think we’ve met before! On se connait, je crois.

(I didn’t shout, I’m just using exclamation points here to show my enthusiasm, which now seems…ridiculous.)

I went in for a handshake, which he accepted, but the man looked at me with a mix of puzzlement and amusement. The handshake, at first enthusiastic (at least on my part) got limp as my confidence waned. The people I’d been chatting with chuckled.

Wait…what’s going on here?

-No, I don’t think we’ve met before.

-Um…oh…you look familiar, though…Votre tête me dit quelque chose, pourtant

-He’s my Dad, said one guy.

Obviously I still didn’t get it, and an awkward silence reigned.

-And he’s this guy’s brother-in-law, said another with an ironic smile, pointing to someone else.

-Um, okay, I said. I started to laugh nervously while I racked my brain. And then I remembered. In fact I had a few seconds to think about how I had failed to recognize this man before he finally broke the tension.

Je suis le maire de Casablanca.

That’s right, the mayor of Casablanca. Whoops…

-Oooh, that explains it, I said, turning beet red and laughing sheepishly.

Chuckles all around, in fact.

I can now say that I not only met the mayor of Casablanca, but that I made an idiot of myself by violating social conventions (probably) when I accidentally accosted the mayor of Casablanca at a private party. I can only hope that my “dumb foreigner” card bumped me up to “endearing” from just…”awkward.”

Maybe he’ll remember me next time?

Mayor Mohammed Sajjid with Chicago Mayor Daley and Vice-President Biden. Urban Forum, May 2009


Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Casablanca, Rotary, Sister Cities, Urban Morocco

some happy news

I found out this morning via email that I’m officially accepted into the Moroccan American Studies Masters program at Hassan II university. lHamdulilah!

I wrote earlier that this was kind of up in the air by the time I left Chicago. Technically, I took a big risk by coming here without having the last required document turned into the foundation: a letter of acceptance. That being said, I never doubted that I needed to be here, instead of waiting in the US until I got official permission.

We’re in the last few days of Ramadan, so many people are on vacation. Or they’re getting ready for the Eid, the holiday that marks the end of the month of Ramadan. This means that it’s difficult to get a hold of people and generally get things done unrelated to the holidays.

So I’ve been a little jumpy because classes start up again next week, and I was beginning to worry that things might get complicated. Thankfully the Rotary Foundation has been accommodating, and now that I am accepted into the program I can finally receive the actual scholarship.

I am arriving in the middle of the Masters cycle, since the department offers only one year at a time. This makes me ineligible to receive the Masters diploma. Then again I am to be a student here for one year, not long enough to finish the program anyway. So mashi mushkil!


Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, getting things done

“Which is better, Rabat or Casa?”

I feel full of energy and enthusiasm after spending the weekend in Rabat. Or I should say returning to Rabat. Although even as I write this I’m coming down from my high because it’s around midnight and I’ve finally adjusted to the different time zone. One week, right on schedule.

Rabat is at the same time exactly as I remember it and drastically changed in the past five years. The few months I spend living in the medina were the most stimulating of my life so far, so I have every detail of my stay burned into memory. I’ve been away long enough that all the children I knew have grown a foot or more, but I feel like I never left when I hang out with Safa and her family or walk around the medina. I am happy to brag that I was walking around with a fellow Ambassadorial Scholar and found the English bookstore on my first try—I’d only been there once. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to say that I did get a little bit confused when I thought it would be fun to try to find my way from the CCCL to my homestay family’s old house…

The city is undergoing a lot of exciting changes. The tramway I mentioned last year is underway, and I really hope to see it in operation. Construction is a pain, but it looks promising.

I wouldn’t have really noticed the quality of the roadways in 2005 since I almost never left the medina but Safa says that the city has done a lot of repaving. Oh, and I did a double take when I saw…a bike lane!

The riverfront has been completely redeveloped, although on the other bank it looks like about half a dozen hotels sit unfinished. That project was started not too long before the economy went down the tubes. They were supposed to accommodate the ten million tourists who were supposed to visit Morocco in 2010.

Yes I know, all this would be more interesting with pictures, but I accidentally erased all of mine from this weekend.

I also paid a visit to the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning, which houses the SIT program I attended. After catching up with a few wonderful staff members, I had the surreal experience of sitting in on an orientation lecture with the newly arrived American students. They spent the last fifteen minutes of class discussing how to be a guest in this country, and what it means to be sensitive and respectful in an unfamiliar culture.

On Saturday night I gave my first formal introduction in Arabic—and to a minister, no less. A real bigwig, apparently, although neither Safa nor I can remember what he’s the minister of. The occasion was a very fancy ftour hosted by I’m not sure who, but attended by members of Safa’s Young Researchers Association. I was underdressed. In any case, I am always a little bit lost these days but found myself sitting at the table where louazir wanted introductions all around. So I let loose: Ana Taliba fi bi3ta tha9afia bilmaghreb min Chicago, 3andi minha min ljama3ia Rotary linqra fi 7assan teni. *

*I am a cultural exchange researcher in Morocco, from Chicago. I can have a scholarship from the Rotary foundation to study at Hassan II.

This weekend I also reached the point where I actually believed that I will be conversant in derija by the end of the year. It’s one thing to be given that assurance by everyone here, it’s another to actually start to understand whole bits of conversation.

As for the title: Rabat and Casa, like Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, are only an hour away from each other by train. The rivalry is alive and well, and I am being pressured from both sides to accept that each is better than the other. Recording vocabulary in my little red book was confusing this past weekend because Casaoui and Rbati derija are slightly different. I am sure to get some laughs when I use a Rbati word in Casa, or a Casaoui word in Rabat.

This picture business is getting silly. I promise to work on that.


Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Arabic, Casablanca, derija, Rabat region, Rotary, Transportation development, Uncategorized, urban development, Urban Morocco

Baby steps into Casa

Today I stepped outside into Casablanca by myself for the first time. Nhar kabir hada!

I can’t stress enough how grateful I am to have landed right in the home of some wonderful people who take excellent care of me. I’m graduating from being 100% a guest. Now I’ve started clearing dishes, even attempting to wash them. Which apparently I can’t do without breaking a glass. Ugh!

Up until today I’ve gone on really brief errands, arm in arm with Ibtissam or with her family. This morning, for instance, we paid a visit to l’école Le Cedre, mere blocks away! I was struck with an exhilarating feeling: I have been here before!

I reacquainted myself with the director, who does remember me and who announced, freshly home from vacation and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, that he’d only just received my email and will get back to me as soon as he can. His office is still decked out in pictures of Chicago–Garfield Park fountain, my old principals, Lincoln Elementary, etc.

After that Ibtissam and I went out for a little shopping in the adjacent neighborhood, Maarif. (Which is pretty swanky, actually. Zahra, Mango, Adidas, you get the idea) I got myself a phone at last, and then we went back home so that I could have a little breakfast. This was around 1PM. I hadn’t eaten yet and I felt pretty faint and sympathetic towards those who’ve been fasting for three weeks now.

I have fasted in the past, when I was in Rabat in 2005. But when I think about what might be the worst way for me to fend off culture shock and homesickness, not eating comes to mind…

This afternoon I stepped out into the street, walked for a bit and asked for directions before hailing a cab to take me to the center of town. I can’t say this any better than my friend Mona, so I’ll quote an email she sent me earlier today: “I think sometimes having a chaperone who keeps all the intensity at arm’s length also keeps you from realizing that yes, you can actually deal with it!”

Yes, I can actually finding my way, asking directions when I have to. I appreciate now more than ever the wisdom of my old study abroad program directors in Rabat. They drove us around town in a bus and dropped us off to force us to find our way back home. Sounds crazy bananas until you do it and realize “you can actually deal with it!”

I feel good. I feel great. I feel wonderful.

Anyway, I was going to finally meet the larger than life Boubker Mazoz. I also saw a professor I’ve been trying to get in touch with for…seven months now? And another American I’ve heard a lot about, who’s been living in Morocco for four years. I am in awe.

Not much news to report on the Sister Cities/Sidi Moumen front. The plan is for me to intern on a volunteer basis at the office downtown and possibly the Sidi Moumen cultural center, but all that will depend on my schedule.

Which depends on my studies. Which in turn depends on what I will hear from the Rotary Foundation about auditing courses, instead of enrolling in a Masters program. The official reason for my stay here is to go to school, so that will be my priority.

Here is the problem: The Moroccan-American studies program I have wanted to attend is mid-cycle. I would be coming in for only the second year. Therefore I can’t officially enroll, though I can probably audit courses and even TA for the department. I’m very excited about this prospect, but cautious. I expect some protest from the Foundation… Of course I should have know about this mid-cycle business, but here you can’t always count on getting even basic information when you make your plans.

I’ve gotten many wonderful emails from friends and family. Keep ’em coming! I’m impressed with how well you put into words all that I’ve been experiencing these past few days. I can feel your support and sincere joy for me, and I’m reminded that I’m right where I should be.

(P.S. Pictures are forthcoming.)

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Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Casablanca, cultural shock, getting things done, Rotary, Sister Cities


I hope to one day look back at this post and laugh–Oh Kathleen, now that you’ve successfully enrolled in a Moroccan university in Casablanca, you see there was nothing to worry about!

This blogpost by a fellow Ambassadorial Scholar has gotten me very, very nervous. The abridged version of her story goes like this: Scholar has been planning on going to Tunisia, has applied through the normal diplomatic channels to a university, has a well developed idea of what she’d like to study in Tunisia. Scholar arrives in Tunis in late July to start taking language classes and pays a visit to the US embassy. Someone at the embassy announces that her chances of getting into a university in Tunisia (I think he says “in North Africa”*ALARM BELLS*) are slim unless she goes to a private school.

Cue my frenzied emailing of half my Rotary and Morocco contacts…

You see, I’ll be arriving in Morocco on the night of August 30th with no guarantee of enrollment in the University. That guarantee is one of the very few requirements for receiving my scholarship. The check that makes all of this possible, in other words.

Is a mirage too clichéd of an image to use when talking about Morocco? Answer: yes.

My heart is pounding a little softer after I received emails from a couple of people who assure me that things will work out. A former scholar to Rabat told me she attended public school (albeit with the help of some State Department contacts) so I know that it is not impossible to get enrolled in the public school system. My Casablanca Sister-Cities contact opened his email with: “I am sorry to hear about your nervousness. There is nothing to worry about.” Those are the sweetest words I’ve heard all morning.

I hope he’s right, because I have big, wonderful plans for Casablanca and they don’t involve turning back around and coming home.

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Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Casablanca, getting things done, Kafka...mumkin, Morocco, Rotary, Travel, اصهاب

Visit to Norridge-Harwood Heights RC

Yesterday, I visited the Rotary Club of Norridge-Harwood-Heights with Ji Soo, current ambassadorial scholar from South Korea. I gave what is likely to be my last Rotary presentation before I leave for Morocco…

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Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Rotary