The next morning, I was shocked to hear about other students’ host families. I honestly got exactly what I asked for after stating my (lack of) preferences in living conditions. Realizing the families I could live with (with the luxury of toilet paper! and toilets! and bedrooms with locks! and sunlight! and functioning sinks!) I was persuaded to switch families. I still feel a bit like I’ve cheated or copped-out, like I’ve rejected the culture I was so ready to accept in place of a more comfortable, familiar life. But as I was told before embarking on this adventure, the effort doesn’t lie in trying to immerse yourself in the culture, but in trying not to drown in it. Alas, my bubbly new host mother picked me up at lunch and led me by hand to my new home, repeating “baitee baitk,” my house is now your house, and insisting I call her Mama Hakima. We stopped at the patisserie for croissants before entering my new palace of a home. It is located directly above the entrance to the medina, at the hub of taxis.
I was greeted by the entire family—mama Hakima’s two sisters (one of whom is Amina, also the “chef de cuisine”), husbands, and children. I have one 16 year old host brother, a 23 year old sister Myriem whose husband owns the cyber café downstairs, and Salma—a beautiful 8 year old, quick-witted gal. This family has hosted many students in the past, thus were accustomed to welcoming strangers in their home. I have the impression that the living room is the center of family life. Plush, decorative couches border this enormous living room, where a big screen TV is constantly playing a Moroccan film. Cable in Morocco is free, so satellites providing thousands of channels sit atop every single home.
Translucent, embroidered curtains drape from the fifteen foot ceiling over the couches, inviting me into a sun-filled garden (home to one lonesome turtle) that leads to my secluded room. The regality of it all is incredible… and the scent of homemade bread by Amina is always wafting throughout the home. Salma has become my guide, my protector, and the younger sister I never had. After helping me unpack then sitting me down for “Arabic exercises,” I took her out for giant sundaes in the medina and she asked me about life in America. My sentences to my host family, who speak no English, are crazy combinations of French and Arabic and Salma has been an incredibly helpful intermediary.
I awoke refreshed, Alhamdulillah, and headed to our last Moroccan Arabic crash course. We later sat through a lecture on the linguistic situation in Morocco. Two hundred million people are Arabic speakers in the world—defined as living in countries where Arabic is a national language. Including all Arabic speakers in the world, the number rises to 350 million, in 24 dialects. Classical Arabic, which I am learning, has resisted time and remained unchanged because it is the sacred, divine language of God. Modern Standard Arabic is the more flexible version of classical that is used in the media, the press, schools and in formal situations. According to professor Taoufik El-Ayachi, classical Arabic isn’t a dead language but “frozen”… it won’t be considered dead as long as people take Islam as a religion, and shifting the language would be a breach of Islamic law. Taoufik El-Ayachi, whose mother tongue is Moroccan Arabic (classical and M.S.A. are learned only in school), illustrated the extreme differences between dialects in recounting his time in Boston living with a Tunisian roommate and Egyptian neighbor. The three men tried communicating in M.S.A. but had such difficulty understanding each other that they eventually resorted to English, which shocked me.
At home, Salma and I sat on the cool tile of the living room and she painted my nails then played with my hair, trying to teach me body parts in Arabic. I tried earnestly to make conversation with Salma’s father and Amina, as the whole family reclined on cushions on the floor, glued to the Egyptian drama on TV. Amina took Salma and me to see Bab Boujloud and point out the appropriate cafes to sit at and safe food to eat. We bought some vegetables and munched on salted pumpkin seeds as we wandered through the souks.
After a dinner at 10 of bread, potatoes, lamb, pasta, soup, and pineapple juice, we gathered once again in the living and I chatted with Myriem about her French and Economic studies. We were up until about 1am watching her wedding DVDs. Such a huge, tradition-filled celebration! With over 1,000 guests! On second thought… that could have been a language misunderstanding. At last, I am starting to feel more comfortable here. My French and Arabic are steadily improving, as my family speaks no English, and I feel confident navigating my way between ALIF’s riads and my new home.