Category Archives: Arabic

Salon International du Livre (SIEL) 2011

I took a morning trip with a friend to the 15th annual international book fair in Casablanca, held in the Park d’Expositions across the street from the Hassan II mosque.

I tried unsuccessfully to find some books in derija–I know they exist! There were books in several languages, though mostly standard Arabic.

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Filed under Arabic, Casablanca, day in the life, pictures

قَوْسْ قوزَحْ

A rainbow // un arc-en-ciel // قَوْسْ قوزَحْ // qaous qouza7, viewed from the apartment.

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Filed under Arabic, day in the life, derija, pictures

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

“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

Chicago Arabesque festival

Chicago Arabesque 2010

In June Chicago hosts Arabesque, an Arab and Arab-American festival. Performers take the outdoor stage on Daley plaza, vendors sell food and knick-knacks, and sponsored booths showcase bits of Arab culture and trivia.

The website for the event, which is presented by the Chicago Commission on Human Relations Advisory Council on Arab Affairs has a great FAQ section that you’ll find helpful if you’re the least bit confused about the “Arab” designation.

Here are some highlights:

Who are the Arabs?
An Arab is anyone whose mother tongue is Arabic and who identifies himself or herself as Arab.

Does “Arab” denote a race?
The term Arab does not refer to a race, a lineage, or a religion, but rather to a language and a culture. Arabs may be Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, dark skinned or light skinned, city dwellers or farmers. Despite this diversity, Arabs share a common cultural identity.

Is the Arab World the same as the Muslim World?
The Arab World is not the same as the Muslim World. 80% of all Muslims are NOT Arabs. The terms “Arab” and “Muslim” are never interchangeable. Arab is a cultural/linguistic term, while Muslim is a religious term. The following countries for example are NON-Arab Muslim countries: Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country.

Do Arabs have a shared religion?
No. Arabs belong to many religions, including Islam, Christianity, Druze, Judaism and others. Within each of these religions there are additional distinctions.

Maghreb Association of North America booth. Maghreb refers to the region of North Africa that includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya

visitors match names to pictures of famous Arab-Americans

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Filed under Arabic, Chicago, cultural understanding, Middle East, the Arab World

I went to Beloit to make my first Casaouia friend

I spent Saturday in Beloit, WI, where after a few months of email and facebook contact, I finally met my new friend from Casablanca. She has spent this past year at Beloit College as a Fulbright scholar, teaching Fus’ha. In a couple of weeks she’ll be heading home to Casa. She’s been a teacher since way before receiving her fellowship to come to the U.S. In fact, my Casaouia friend also used to teach at…Lycée LeCedre! The very school that has an exchange program with Lincoln Elementary School here in Chicago.

l3alm saghir! !العلم سغير

I can tell she’s a teacher just in the way that she patiently indulged me in some conversation in derija. She’s a pro language partner, and a really cool girl.

It’s thanks to my conversation with her on Saturday that I dreamt in derija last night!


Filed under Arabic, Casablanca, derija, اصهاب

Well that changes things…

For the past few months I’ve been intensely focused on two things: honing my presentation to Rotary clubs, and finding ways to study derija. I have to say that I’m pretty satisfied with both of those projects right now.

However I was neglecting kind of a key aspect of preparation for next year until early last week, when I realized with a panic just how complicated it’s going to be to actually get enrolled in a Moroccan university. I called a few people in Morocco over a couple of days, scrambling to make the calls as early as possible, Chicago time. Most of the time, no answer. Finally, I reached a woman who picked up the phone at the main switchboard for Hassan II university. After indulging my very broken and totally inadequate derija, she put me on the phone with a woman who explained, in French, that I just couldn’t get enrolled directly as a foreign student. I would have to apply through the Agence de Cooperation Internationale.

OK, so at this point I’m a little relieved to get a straight answer and find out that there is actually a system. But I’m starting to understand more concretely what a former Ambassador Scholar to Morocco warned me about: forget about getting your confirmation before you leave the states. First of all, the process is long and typically closes around August. Second, I’m not even guaranteed to go to Hassan II.

Here’s another interesting development, one you might even call a “game-changer.” A professor at Hassan II, who is also very implicated in the Chicago committee of Casa Sister-City dropped this bomb on me: All the sociology, geography, and history classes are in Arabic.


I’ve been operating under the assumption that at least some classes would be in French. Four years ago a friend who was getting her Master’s in economics at Mohammad V (in Rabat) was taking classes in French, so I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect at least some classes in French.

I’m still doing some detective work to find out if this Arabic-only classes thing applies only to one campus of Hassan II or all of them. More on that later.

In the meantime, the Plan B suggested to me by my Sister-City prof doesn’t look too bad: I would major in American Studies.

Now before you get too excited over the irony of an American exchange student majoring in American Studies, here are some examples of classes I could take:

“Survey of Arabic and American Linguistics”
“Cultural History of Moroccan–American Relations”
“Issues in Contemporary Moroccan Literature”
“Language Policies in Morocco and in the US”
“American Travellers in the Maghreb”
“The Maghreb In the American Cinema”
“Issues in Moroccan American Politics”

In other words, the classes seem to focus not just on the U.S., but rather on its relationship to Morocco. This interests me very much of course, as does the prospect of taking classes with Moroccans who are eager to learn about the country I’ll be representing.

All this hints at what a couple of former ambassadorial scholar friends have been telling me: make plans, but accept that things might turn out to be nothing like what you planned. I suppose this is good advice to life generally, but it’s really helpful to hear this now, when it’s so easy to get carried away with larger-than-life plans.

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Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Arabic, Casablanca, cultural diplomacy, derija, Kafka...mumkin, Morocco, Rotary, Sister Cities