Klma = Word. Klmatic Monologues is a semi-regular series on words in Moroccan Arabic (Darija). Note 1: I am neither a linguist nor a native speaker, so this should be taken as amateur antics. Note 2: Darija is not a standardized written language, like Modern Standard Arabic (FusHa) or Standard English, so my Latin letter transcriptions are subjective. In other words, spelling will always be questionable.
كلمة: Mskeen / مسكين
The closest English translation of “mskeen” is “poor.” It is, in itself, a poor translation. It does not always mean a lacking or a deficiency. “Mskeen” or “mskeena” is an adjective that denotes sympathy towards someone else’s misfortune. “Poor guy!” we might say in English—and we don’t mean that his income level is low.
According to our Mama Fadila, everyone is mskeen in some way or another. According to her, our Baba Hassan is mskeen because he has no top teeth. Our little sisters Ahlam and Imane are msakeen (plural) because they have tons of homework from school. Robert and I are msakeen because our Darija is crappy.
Mskeen can be a temporary state, as in the case of our Darija (kantmmna, inshallah!). It can also be a permanent state, as in the case of Baba.
Mskeen can define your life—if for instance, you are mskeen because you are living in poverty. Or it can just be in one small instance—again, as in the case of Baba, whose lack of top teeth does not affect his great job, his lovely house, his perfect family, or an entire townfull of folks who adore and respect him.
At first, mskeen seems completely negative, but it surprisingly has some positivity to it. If you think someone is mskeen, it means you care about them. After all, you wouldn’t worry about the woes of someone you didn’t like. Even when it is negative, it is not usually an insult or an offensive term.
Technically and officially, mskeen is used in the context of zakat—charity, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Muslims are obligated to help mskeen people, in this case defined as “the needy.” Some people have told us that the word has roots in connection with “humility” or “humbleness,” as the Prophet prayed to Allah to live in a mskeen way. However, the everyday colloquial usage of mskeen can vary from pity to empathy.
We are constantly called mskeen. Sometimes in pity, sometimes in empathy. Mostly because we are foreigners who are struggling (and often failing) to speak Arabic. One time, we told a taxi driver that we’d be living in Morocco for two years on volunteer stipends, and he responded, “Ah, mskeen!” When we asked why he said “mskeen,” he said, “Because in American, you have a lot of money and nice things, but you are choosing to live in Morocco.” So it turns out that you can be mskeen for things both in your power to change and out of your power to change.
If someone falls ill, they are mskeen. If someone trips and falls, they are mskeen. If someone’s loved one passes away, baraka f rasu, they are mskeen. If someone is tired, sad, angry, or stressed out—they are mskeen.
A mangy, starved-looking cat on the street is mskeen. A soap opera character whose husband has left her is mskeen. A kid throwing a temper tantrum can be mskeen. A person who has to stand because the train is too full is mskeen.
Mskeen is a condition of humanity. As Mama Fadila puts it, no one can completely escape mskeen-ity. As for us, we are owning our mskeen! Every day here, we are the embodiment of mskeen. And that is perfectly alright with us.