Category Archives: derija

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

دنيا هانية ، سما صافية

Dania henia, smeh safia.

…is what I’ll be chanting under my breath from now on as I sit in some of my classes. It means “it’s all good, the sky is clear.”

Some classmates taught me the expression this morning because I tend to get a little worked up in class. In both good and bad ways.

Dania henia for short.


Filed under day in the life, derija, Moroccan-American Studies, Proverbs

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

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

Talking to myself, Part Deux

I’m getting the hang of practicing my derija using A Basic Course in Moroccan Arabic, despite the poor sound quality. I’ve never tried something like this before, not even with Al Kitab when my grade should have theoretically depended on it. In the past I’ve been somewhat of a lazy language learner. Four years of German in high school, a year of Spanish, two years of Arabic…and so far I still can’t say that I’ve learned another language to fluency.

Originally I planned to jump back into studying fus’ha, maybe take a city college class. At the very least, before the winter semester started I was going to go the flashcard route. I was armed with more motivation to learn than ever, but I knew it would be slow going.

Then I realized that I could instead focus on Moroccan arabic. There are communities of derija speakers online, a handful of Moroccans in Chicago, and so far at least one other American derija learner I can work with here in Chicago. Now, for once, I can retain vocabulary more easily. When I listen to the ABCIMA mp3s the rhythm and cadence of the phrases sound familiar and, as I repeat basic sentences such as, “Did you hit the thief?” I fantasize about the impressive derija skills I’ll have a couple of years from now.

The guy who reads off the words and phrases I’m supposed to repeat speaks so fast that sometimes I think I hear him mocking me and anyone else who tries to keep up with him. You know how you can hear a smile in someone’s voice? I picture this man, Mohammed Abu-Talib, in front of the microphone, tag-teaming with Richard S. Harrell. He’s bored of repeating the same phrases. They sound inane to him: Is that new blue car yours? Yes, I am a little bit sick. To me, they’re tongue-twisting feats of memorization and throat acrobatics. Sometimes one of them will mess up. Sidi Abu-Talib doesn’t flinch, but Mr. Harrell will hesitate at the next sentence. He’s realized that he messed up the order, said ‘this morning’ instead of ‘yesterday.’ And I’m excited that I caught it first.

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