Our Top Five Most Used Arabic “God Phrases”

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.

For more Klmatic Monologues, go here.


This is a special edition of Klmatic Monologues, fueled by the Blog Challenge! You can’t learn any dialect of Arabic, the language of the Quran, without learning about God phrases. Living in a Muslim majority country means that our everyday conversations are peppered liberally with references to Allah. As Arabic language learners, we find that God phrases are incredibly useful and dynamic. We’re sharing five of our most-used God phrases—it’s pretty much impossible to have a conversation in Moroccan Arabic without using at least one of these!

1. Tbarkallah

“May God grant you grace”

Used as a “congratulations” or “good job.” And just like the English phrases, yes—it can be used sarcastically. (Yes, we’ve combined tbarkallah with a slow clap.)

2. Alhamdulilah (most often shortened to Hamdullah)

“Praise be to God” / “Thanks to God”

Used to express that all is well for any occasion. You can use it to express happiness or contentment or gratitude in any form. Some common times to break out the hamdullah: during greetings (you can use it by itself to answer “how are you?” questions), after you burp, after you finish a meal (especially if a Moroccan mama is insisting you eat more! Invoking the hamdullah often—though not always—stops the urging).

3. Bismillah

“In the name of God”

Used at the start of anything or before you begin any activity. Before you start a meal, before you eat or drink anything. Before you exchange money. Before you read something. Before you start on an adventure. Before a new work project. Before you start studying for an exam. Before you start an exam. Before you start a car (heard very often from taxi drivers). It’s also the first word of the Quran.

4. Inshallah

“God willing”

Used for any sort of future tense. Things will happen only if God wills it. Even as nonbelievers, we’ve come to really respect inshallah. After all, it’s true—no human can really know the future. We can have all the intentions in the world to see our friend later, to go the event, to start the work project—but still, things happen that we can’t control. Plus, inshallah is the perfect cover for things you don’t reeeaaallly want to do.

“Come over for lunch next week!” says someone we don’t like very much. “Inshallah!” we say in jaunty unison.

“Next time, I’ll pay,” Robert tells a friend who treated us to coffees. “Inshallah,” she replies. We look at her suspiciously.

We use inshallah so often that even when a character in a movie or TV show says “see you later,” we whisper under our breaths, “…inshallah.”

5. Llah yrHm l-walidin

“God bless your parents.”

When we first learned about this phrase, we were told by our teachers and our textbook that it’s used when asking for a service/information or to express gratitude to someone. For example, when you’re lost and ask someone for directions, you can throw in a “llah yrHm l-walidin.” This is true, but it wasn’t until much later that we learned about the other side of this phrase. After we had passed the fifth or sixth shouting argument in which we heard this phrase screamed, we realized that in certain contexts, “God bless your parents” can also mean “SCREW YOU.”

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015

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Klmatic Monologues: RAS

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.

For more Klmatic Monologues, go here.

كلمة: RAS / رأس

Literally, “ras” means “head.” Some people might know it from the name of that Batman supervillain. In Moroccan Arabic, “ras” is used in abundance metaphorically.

“Ras” is a synonym for “self.” It refers to the human being in their entirety, so in Arabic, the head is the locus of everything that makes the self what it is. The body, in this metaphor, is inconsequential. Ras + possessive suffix = reflexive action.

“B rasu” means “by onself” or “alone.” Similarly, “mn rasu l-rasu” means “on one’s own.” However, it also implies that the person should have accepted aid. Mn rasni l-rasni. I did it on my own… but I should have asked someone for help.

The word “rais,” meaning president, comes from “ras” too. People also use “ras” to mean the beginning or end of something. The extremities. It’s the source of the river and the peak of the mountain.  The start of a story and the top of a page.

Ras al Mt. Toubkal, the tallest summit in North Africa.

Ras al Mt. Toubkal, the tallest summit in North Africa.

A common thing we say when we say goodbye is “thalla f rask,” which means “take care of yourself.” Because it literally means “take care of your head,” there’s a joke that we hear a lot in which someone replies to “thalla f rask” with “b shampwan” (with shampoo)!

Other ways to use “ras”

baraka f rask = blessings on your head = blessings on you (what we say in times of grief and loss)

diHa f rask = mind your head = mind your own business

Ras al Hanut = the head of the shop = the name of the mystery mixture of spices found at almost any shop or spice vendor

3mel b rasu / dir b rasu = to do in the head = to play or act, faking it

dyal rasu = of the head = independent, free, to do what one wishes

fiq m3a l-rasu = woken up/gotten up with the head = sharp, astute, observant, discerning, shrewd

rasu xfif = light head = to be intelligent, quick-witted

rasu tqil = slow/heavy head = to be dense, slow-witted

rfed r-ras m3a = to give a hard time to / to be prejudiced against

3la r-ras u l-3in = on the head and the eye = you’re more than welcome, gladly/with pleasure

ras l-3am = head of the year = New Year’s Day.

And these are a couple that I’m not sure of the literal meanings for, but I know the common-use meanings:

Hdi rask = Be careful

Tlq rask = Hurry up

This isn’t a complete list, of course. Do you know any more? Add your “ras” phrases in the comments below. And thalla f raskum. 🙂

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Klmatic Monologues: HASHAK

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.

For more Klmatic Monologues, go here.

كلمة: HASHAK / حاشاك

“Hashak” is ritualized politeness. There is not really an English equivalent. The closest would be, “Pardon me for mentioning a word or phrase or expression that is contemptible in some way.” Or maybe “Sorry for saying something nasty!”

It does not just mean “pardon me” or “sorry”—you would say “smH li” or “smH liya” (excuse me) for those general moments when you accidentally bump into someone, interrupt a room, etc. “Hashak” is always specifically used as a pardon for saying other words.

“Hashak” is very telling of what Moroccan society or a Moroccan individual thinks is dirty or uncomfortable to mention. Of course, any gross bodily function is included. But also: dirt, dogs, donkeys, trash, spitting, bathrooms, sex work, swear words, etc.

The case of donkeys (Hmar) being “hashak”ed is interesting because it seems pretty unfair to a lot of people! Donkeys aren’t contemptible. They do so much important work in society. Moroccans use them for everything, and they bear such great burdens for human comfort. Plus, they’re even kinda cute! So, why do we need to say “hashak” every time we say “Hmar”? It does make sense in a way. Linguistically speaking, ass is a synonym of donkey in English, and ass is certainly considered a dirty word. Practically speaking, donkeys are very often used as trash animals here. They haul and eat trash. Still, I’m against the use of “hashak” for donkeys! I’ve seen how people can disrespect them because they’re considered “hashak.” Too many kids in my neighborhood like to play chase-the-poor-frightened-donkey-with-sticks. 😦

That was a digression, sure, but it shows how dynamic the use of this word is. One Moroccan friend told us, “Honestly, you could probably argue whether or not ANYTHING needs a hashak.” On the other hand, one Moroccan mama told us, “When something is hashak, it is hashak. Safi!”

When someone else performs a dirty task for you, you thank them and add a “hashak.” For instance, if someone cleans up your muddy shoes or washes your underwear. (As much as you try and avoid having other people do these things, Moroccan hospitality will inevitably win.)

One very ritualized place you use “hashak” is when someone (usually the host) is washing someone else’s (usually the guest) hands. Before important events, or when important guests come over, Moroccans often use a special handwashing basin. The host pours warm water over the guest’s hands, and the guest murmurs “hashak.” Then the guest dries their hands with a towel, which is passed around the room.

handwash

The handwashing basin.

Saying “hashak” is not always necessary, especially as a foreigner. Our language trespasses are more easily forgiven. But if you do use it, it always garners appreciation and often garners laughs! And it definitely makes it less awkward to ask strangers for the location of the bathroom!

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

 

Klmatic Monologues: BRAND NAMES AS WORDS

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.

For more Klmatic Monologues, go here.

كلمة: BRAND NAMES AS WORDS

This post is not about any specific word. Instead, I’m going to write a quick blurb about the phenomenon of generic trademarks in Moroccan Darija. Also known as proprietary eponyms, these words are trademarks or brand names that have become the general words for products.

English has them too. Some examples: Band-Aid. Google. Thermos. Aspirin. Chapstick. For Native English speakers learning Darija, some of the generic trademarks can be funny-sounding—but we have to remember that we have just as many! They’ve just become normalized to us.

And some are crossovers. For instance, in English, we use “Kleenex” as a general word to mean “tissue.” However, in Darija, there isn’t even another word for “tissue”! The word “klinix” means “tissue.” Safi.

Here are some other brand names that are Darija words:

  • “Teed” (aka TIDE) = laundry detergent
  • “Danoon” (aka DANNON) = yogurt
  • “Poulet Kentucki” (aka KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN) = any fried chicken
  • “Indomie” (aka INDOMIE BRAND RAMEN) = any ramen/instant noodle package
  • “Pay-say” (aka PC) = computer
  • “Sinial” (aka SIGNAL) = toothpaste

In our opinion, these words make it infinitely easier to learn some aspects of Darija! Instead of a complex Arabic word with no common cognates with English, we get some words with easy-to-remember associations. Yay!

And so the language adventures continue along with all of our other adventures. 🙂

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Klmatic Monologues: BZAF

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.

For more Klmatic Monologues, go here.

كلمة: BZAF / بزاف

One of the things I love most about learning Darija is how simple it can be sometimes.

I know, I know. You’re like, WTF JULIE ARABIC IS EASY???

Oh, don’t you worry… I am not saying Arabic is easy! I still struggle with it every day. I get by just fine with the horrible Arabic I already know, but I won’t ever be truly fluent in it. And Arabic FusHa is definitely not easy! BUT. Darija is a different beast sometimes.

What I mean is that Darija has way less vocab words, synonyms, and word variations than English. I’ll demonstrate by talking about one of the most prevalent Darija words: bzaf.

In Darija, “bzaf” means: much, a lot, a great deal, too much, very, very much, many, too many, very many, numerous, a large quantity, so much, and sooooooooooooooooooo much.

IMG_1082

couscous bzaf

Bzaf has bzaf meanings.

In English, we have all these synonyms to express the same idea. Furthermore, they don’t all have the same meaning. There are differences that are difficult to explain to English language learners. The difference between “so much” and “too much,” for instance. We say “too” when we mean it in a negative way, if the quantity is undesirable or otherwise contemptible.

“That kid is too clever for her own good,” we might say about a troublemaker. “He has too much time on his hands,” we might say to criticize a lazy person who isn’t doing anything. “He gave me too many books,” we might say while trying to lug home a library haul that’s slightly more heavy than we can handle. “I ate too much food,” we might say after a Moroccan meal—a concept Moroccan mamas might not completely understand.

In Darija, no matter what, you can use “bzaf” to mean A LOT.

And you can use it for countable nouns, uncountable nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and even propositions!

3ndhum floos bzaf! (They have a lot of money!)

Kayn shimisha bzaf lyum! (There’s a lot of sunshine today!)

Ana mrida bzaf… (I’m very sick…)

Hiya zwina bzaf. (She’s very beautiful.)

Kayn l-Hut bzaf f had l-wad. (There are a lot of fish in this river.)

Sloughi kaytmmsha bswiya bzaf (The sloughi–a breed of Moroccan dog–walks very slowly.)

Kanbghik bzaf! (I love you a lot!)

In English, the meaning changes depending on which word you pick. (Ex. I have a lot of food vs. I have too much food.) But in Darija, there’s only one word for it all. I think it’s simple because in English, if you pick the wrong term, the sentence is grammatically incorrect. (I love you much = INCORRECT … They have very many money = INCORRECT … There’s very fish in this river = INCORRECT) When you’re learning English, it’s sometimes hard to know which one to use! But for us Darija learners, this part’s a snap. Sahil bzaf! (Very easy!)

You can even sometimes replace “bzaf” where “too” is implied. Example:

Instead of “bkri” (early)–

Host mom: You’re leaving now? Stay!

Us: We can’t! We have to go to sleep now.

Host mom: Why? What time are you getting up tomorrow?

Us: Eight in the morning.

Host mom: Ahhhhhhh bzaf!!!

One of my fave uses of “bzaf” is in combo with “swiya.” Swiya is the opposite of “bzaf.” It can mean any version of “little bit of.” Sometimes, people will say “swiya bzaf” or “bzaf swiya” and we think it’s hilarious. But it makes complete linguistic sense! After all, in English, we say things like “a little too much” or “very little.” It’s used the same.

Sorry, sorry… rambling on too much here! But what can I say? I’m a linguistic nerd!

We hoped you learned bzaf swiya from this post! We hope your day is wonderful bzaf!

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Klmatic Monologues: WILI WILI WILI

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.

For more Klmatic Monologues, go here.

كلمة: WILI / ويلي

The first time we encountered this Darija phrase, we looked at each other and burst out laughing. Our 14-year-old host sister Ahlam had just said something sassy and almost-inappropriate—and in reply, her 11-year-old sister Imane gasped and exclaimed, “Ahhhhh wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili!”

The next day in class, our CBT mate Kinsey beat us to the punch and asked our teacher Khalid about it. The rest of us chimed in, saying we’d encountered “wili wili”-ing too.

Khalid told us, “It’s like Hshuma [“shame/shameful”], but not as bad.”

We confirmed with him: “Wili” is a milder, nicer version of “Hshuma.” You might say “Hshuma 3lik” (“shame on you”) to a kid if they are bullying someone. You might shout “Hshuma 3lik” to a creep who is harassing you. (These are the serious ways to use “Hshuma,” but people do kiddingly use “Hshuma” with friends.)

“Wili” is more like “Oh my God!” or “Oh my gosh!” or “Oh my!” in its usage. In the region we live in, people often use the word “nedi” in the same way. You can extend the “wili” (“wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiili”!) or add more “wili’s” (“wili wili wili wili wili wili wili”) to taste. Rarely do you simply use one shortened “wili.” It is often accompanied by the gesture of pulling your cheek down with one finger, like this:

CBT Wili Wili

CBT Wili Wili

Here are some of the ways you can use it:

In cases of clumsiness. Ahlam, who is basically composed of long lanky limbs, falls a lot. Any time she tripped or fell off her chair during lunch (which was a lot), she would emit a loud “ah wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiili!” Any time someone drops something or accidentally bumps into something or spills something, they or someone nearby will wili.

In cases of awkwardness. One of my favorite “wili” stories is from Kinsey, whose 4-year-old host sister, in the midst of trying & failing to put her pants back on after peeing in a field, blurted out “wili wili wili wili wili wili!” Other awkward circumstances it can be used for: when your friend tells you that someone icky has a crush on you, when someone walks in on your while you’re changing, when you pull a door that needs to be pushed… or when your cat gets her paw stuck in her tail and you’re alone and you’re a crazy cat lady. Haha.

In cases of shock, good and bad. The other day, we overheard a fruit guy tell someone that avocados are 50 DH per right now (that is a quarter MORE than my daily salary). The guy was like “wiiiiiiiili!” and left the fruit stand quickly. You can use “wili” when you’re bargaining to express shock at the ridiculously high price the vendor tells you. Or it can be used for a positive surprise as well, like…

In cases of delight/awe. Like when we show someone an extraordinary photograph. Or like when we tell someone we’ve had a Moroccan wedding thrown for us (“ah wili zwina!”). Or like when we actually say a grammatically correct sentence in Arabic. Or when a ridiculous plot twist happen on one of the Turkish soap operas everyone watches. The positive wili is rarer, but it exists.

In cases of expressing “WHAT?!” to others saying things for shock value. This one is kind of specific, but I’ve come across it a lot because I have some sassy students in my Advanced English Class. For example, one time right before Eid al-Fitr, we were discussing holidays. I asked everyone to tell me their favorite holiday, and one particular rabble-rouser said “The best holiday is Christmas,” to which everyone in the class shouted out “AHHHHH WILI!”

In cases of mild annoyance/disapproval. Someone’s trying to wake up a deep sleeper. Someone just learned that guns are legal and easily accessible in America. Someone’s kid is being irritating. Someone tells you they have a full schedule when you’re trying to hang out with them. Another favorite from Kinsey, the Queen of Wili, is when a waiter tried to take her plate away before she was done eating. She reached for it while blurting out “wiiiiiiili!”

Again, this isn’t comprehensive at all! There are waaaaay more ways to wili it up.

According to some sources, “wili” comes from Al-Wayl, which is the name of a valley in hell. (I’ve also heard “river in hell” and “mountain in hell”…some sort of geographic feature in hell, I suppose.) “Wayl” / “Wil” originally meant “punishment” but now the word is closer to “woe.” When you add “ي” (i) at the end of a word in Darija, it means “my ______.” (Ex. Bint = girl/daughter. Binti = my daughter. Ktab = book. Ktabi = my book.) So when you exclaim “Ah wili,” you are literally saying, “Oh, my woe!” 

“Wili” is one of my absolute favorite words in Darija, and I’m sure a lot of Americans who learn Moroccan Arabic would agree. Like many Darija words, it’s just so versatile. And uniquely, it’s absolutely hilarious! Plus, it has a special place in our hearts because our CBT dubbed ourselves “CBT Wili Wili” because of our penchant for the inappropriate and the awkward.

Our adventure has been full of wili wili wili moments, and I’m glad of it. Traveling/living abroad isn’t always sleek and photogenic like any Wanderlust Pinterest board might suggest. There are so many messy moments—clumsy, awkward, shocking, irritating moments. They are just as authentic and valuable as scenic Tangier beaches or giant colorful couscous platters or camels resting beneath date palms. Hamdullah for each and every wili wili moment, and hamdullah that we have the language to properly express our feelings when they happen.

ahhh wiiiiiiiiiiiili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili wili

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Klmatic Monologues: SAFI vs BARAKA

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.

For more Klmatic Monologues, go here.

كلمة: safi / صافي & Baraka / باركة

In Moroccan Darija, “safi” and “baraka” both mean “enough.”

Sometimes, they are interchangeable, but they have subtle differences for different contexts.

For example, if you are eating a meal at a Moroccan family’s house, both of these words can come in handy. At one point, you will reach the stage where if you consume anything else, you will literally burst. “Eat, eat, eat,” your hosts will continue to insist. “Please! Take more! You haven’t eaten anything! Eat!”

“I’m full,” you’ll say. But the insistence will continue. At this point, you can employ the “enough!” (Remember to say it several times, along with lots of “Hamdullahs”—Thanks be to God—for it to stick. ) “SAFI, SAFI, thank you, BARAKA, BARAKA, SAFI, SAFI, SAFI!”


“Safi” is a super-common word in Morocco. Everyone uses it in pretty much every other sentence. That’s because it also doubles in meaning as “OK” or “alright.” To me, it seems even more prevalent than “wakha,” (or “waxxa,” as the Peace Corps Language textbook spells it) which also means “OK.” Safi also means “that’s it. period.” You’d add it on after a sentence that you want to emphasize. Just like English conversations are littered with these affirming phrases, Moroccan Darija coversations are chock full of “safi.”

On the other hand, “baraka” cannot mean “OK.” But it does have a few other meanings besides “enough.” It can also mean “blessing.” For instance, we often say “baraka llah fik” (God bless you) as a thanks. I use it most often during friendly business exchanges—if I buy something from a shop, open a contract with the internet provider, or ask the youth center key holder for the projector. “Baraka” can also denote a kind of spiritual flow that connects divinity to humanity—this last meaning I don’t know much about. You’ll have to ask an expert.

I didn’t make this connection until fairly recently. When we first arrived in Morocco, a series of sad events happened with family friends. We attended a few funeral feasts in those first months. Because of this, we learned that when someone passes away, you say “baraka f rask” to them.

“Enough in your head”…? I thought it strange, but also quite compelling. Maybe like you were telling people, “I hope the sadness in your mind is finishing up.” Unfortunately, I’ve used it several times since we first learned it. Only recently did I realize it actually probably means “blessings on you.” I was thinking too literally, as many foreign language learners do.


If we say them together, “safi baraka,” it often is akin to “alright, we are finishing this up.” It can be used at the end of almost any conversation. Doesn’t matter if you’re just calling your host mom to tell her you miss her, or if you’re asking your boss about a new program, or if you’re just buying some peaches off a cart.

So… safi, baraka. See you later!

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Klmatic Monologues: DEBA

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.

For more Klmatic Monologues, go here.

كلمة: Deba / دبا

“Deba” is the Moroccan Darija word for “now.” It is wholly unique to Morocco. However, the concept that English speakers might know as “now” is pretty different.

When an English speaker says “now,” they mean the literal moment that we are living in. When a Moroccan says “deba,” they could mean that OR they could mean a few hours ago, a few minutes ago, a few minutes from now, an few hours from now.

If someone tells us that we are leaving “deba” or eating lunch “deba,” it is always wise to clarify with them. “Deba wlla deba deba?” (Now or now-now?) “Deba deba” is usually a closer approximation to the English “now.”

It still gets me. One time, I asked the train ticket counter guy when my train was leaving. He replied, “deba,” causing us to freak out and rush madly to the platform—where we realized that his “deba” was “soon-ish” and our train still had ten minutes before departure.

I’m not a very exact or time-oriented person, so sometimes I adore “deba.” I can call someone to let them know we’re coming over “deba” and still have time to finish up whatever else I was doing and meander over slowly. Other times, my American sensibilities cause me to be very frustrated with “deba.”

“Deba” is a reminder that knowing the translation of a word doesn’t always mean knowing the exact nuances and complexities of a word. One can read as many textbooks and dictionaries as one wants—but true knowledge of a language comes from communication in real-life. True understanding does not come from codex-bound lexicons, but from contexts and conversations. From people.

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Schwiya b Schwiya: Early Reflections on Learning Moroccan Arabic

adde parvum parvo magnus acervus erit.

-Ovid

Little by little. Step by step. Schwiya b schwiya.

Darija, Moroccan Arabic, is at once an arduous challenge and exuberant fun. It is the greatest roadblock to everything we want to do in this country—but we’re also having the time of our lives learning more every day.

We owe pretty much all of it to our amazing language teacher back in community-based training, Khalid. (Khalid, if you’re reading this: you’re the best and we miss you a lot, bro!) We also owe debts to the many people in our communities who have patiently explained words to us and generously slowed down their sentences. And also a shout-out to our buddy Nawaf, who gave us a few Arabic lessons before we left the states. (The fact that we mostly memorized the words for “boobs” and “penguin” is in no way a reflection on Nawaf’s excellent teaching abilities.)

What looks like innocuous script/diacritic practice here may or may not be me being super immature.

What looks like innocuous script/diacritic practice here may or may not be me being super immature.

Learning a new language is no picnic. (Except for those couple of times that we were invited to literal picnics in Arabic, I guess?) There are certainly times when it feels so impossible. Ghayns stuck in our throats and uncooperative tongues refusing to trill R’s. Realizing later in the day which conjugations we completely botched. Repeating a word a dozen times to a listener who is still shaking their head and shrugging.

There are always those moments.

Fortunately, Moroccan Darija is such a wonderful language! There are loads of difficulties for the tongues and ears of English-speakers (here’s glaring at you, extra letters and collapsed vowels), but it’s really, really fun to learn. It is an amalgamation of Modern Standard Arabic (FusHa), French, Spanish, and the gorgeous Amazigh languages (Tarafit/Riffian, Central Atlas Tamazight, and Tashelhit/Shilha). Unfortunately, it is too different from other Arabics. (Unfortunate because one of our naive early hopes had been traveling to the Middle East with near-fluency. But alas, they won’t be able to understand us and we won’t be able to understand them.)

There are endless moments of hilarity and awkwardness in our lives because of language. Most people are kindly willing to stoop their words down to our baby-level. Alas, our mudir (our boss, the director of the Dar Chebab), is not one of those people. He is an erudite, eloquent person—and his natural speech is full of words even the average Darija speaker would consider elaborate. He’s the kind of person who says “archives” instead of “old papers.” (Dude, why couldn’t you have just said “old papers”??) Conversations with him are quite an ordeal. While most other people stick to pointing at objects/miming actions to teach us words (a much preferred method for us babies), our mudir is ruthlessly teaching us the words for metaphors (ex. “passing the torch”) and abstract concepts/philosophy. He’s a very kind man though. During one meeting, he told us, “We’ll help each other out. There are some things we’re good at and some things you’re good at. We’ll fill in the gaps together.” I’m guessing that when he said this, language was at the forefront of his mind.

More moments. The PCVs whom we are replacing studied Arabic FusHa before they arrived in country. So everyone asks us constantly why our Arabic isn’t as good as theirs. Ah, well.

More moments. Every once in a while, a waiter or shopkeeper will tell us our total bill and we will stare blankly for a moment, panicking because apparently our Arabic is so crappy that we can’t even understand numbers… before realizing that they’ve spoken to us in French. Ah, well.

In Morocco, when in linguistic doubt, sometimes pronouncing words in a French accent will help. It’s been working wonders for me. “What did you study in college?” someone will ask me. Blanking on the word for “literature” in Arabic, I just purse my lips franco-fully and say, “leeetchura-chuuur dyal longli!”

My favorite was the time we had to get our passports photocopied in a hanut. Robert asked the mul hanut, “Wesh kayn photocopy?” He stared at us uncomprehendingly. “No, sorry,” he said in Darija, “I don’t understand. What do you want?” We looked at each other for a moment, before I slowly let out, in an exaggerated French accent, “foo-tu-cou-peh?” His eyes immediately lit up in realization. “Ah, kayn!” he exclaims.

Our early predictions about language acquisition have been spot-on so far. Robert’s fear that I’d be better at remembering and regurgitating vocab because I’m bilingual seems to be about right. Not that it matters much. Because also, my belief that Robert’s natural kindness and people-personness would facilitate his conversations is definitely true. I’m cynical and taciturn in any language. It also helps that Robert is male and Arab-passing. A lot of men in our community tend to direct their speech towards him first, even when we are with Moroccan women.

One of the most frustrating aspects of learning a new language is the common reactions of Shock and Mock. Sometimes people are just astonished, and we don’t mind that at all. It’s perfectly understandable. But every once in a while, it’s a little tiring.

And when we are having one of those days when it seems like communication is impossible—our pronunciation nonviable, our memories decaying—it is good to remember that there are always ways to say what you need to say. Because here is a list of Complex Things You Can Discuss Even When Your Arabic Sucks:

  • Health care systems around the world
  • The intersection of morality and health in things such as smoking and drinking alcohol
  • Religious doctrine and religious extremism
  • Latinate → French etymology
  • The inevitability of death and grief
  • Systemic racism in the United States

And best of all:

  • Friendship and family and love!

Because even with our horrible language abilities, we’ve come to love so many people here. It’s unbearably cheesy, but hey—words are not a barrier to the connection of hearts. The people who have become our friends and family here know exactly what we are saying when we tell them how much we care about them, and even if we don’t know the exact translations all the time—we understand perfectly when they tell us how much they care about us. You know… there are just some things in the world that no language has the adequate words to express.IMG_8257

Yours Truly, 

Julie & Robert

Klmatic Monologues: MSKEEN

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.

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Look at these two mskeen souls!