Saturday, April 2, 2011

Talking Human in El Jadida Morocco

As you can imagine, over a three plus month period of time, Sarah and I have developed a number of ongoing strands of dialogue and observation that get picked up from time to time as we have little observations or reflections to add. One of the big ones is language. We’ve both been amazed at how easy it has been to navigate our way through the various countries we’ve been in using almost nothing but English. We study up in the guide book on “thank you” or “good morning” and “hello,” but generally, there have been few situations where we’ve had to resort to sign language to get our message across. This is mainly happening I think, because we are on a fairly standard backpackers/traveller circuit, where it pays to be able to communicate with the tourists. But there is a downside to this universality of English as well – it’s become a language of commerce. Some common phrases – “For you, big discount.” “Please look at my menu,” “Massage? Taxi? Maybe next time?”

It’s therefore been a real pleasure to step into Morrocco, where Sarah’s French has been put to the real test. (I’ve been blown away by how much she can speak) Communicating in someone else’s native tongue flips around the power dynamic in an interesting way. All of the sudden we are not speaking and being met with the blank pause where someone is trying to decode our words, we are the ones with the blank look as those around us wait patiently for us to catch up. I think this is partially why we’ve had a few more human, “connecting with other people” experiences here than we have in other places. Because we’ve moved beyond a language of commerce and into the language of the country.

An illustrative anecdote – Our first stop has been in El Jadida, a mid-sized coastal town on the Atlantic coast where we spent one day wandering around the old walled city that was built by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. There is one street with some vendors, one of whose shop we wandered into and Sarah began to chat with him about his life. Turns out he’s from a small village in the Sahara, where he travels back to frequently with money from selling things in the shop. The pieces are all handmade in the Saharan village with a very specific style, blocky figures, geometric designs, lots of metal and intricate handwork. We got a chance to see pictures of his village, his family, and the desert. This is not the type of experience you can have with someone whose learned mainly the words to communicate about buying and selling.

And another – The second day went took a “petite taxi” to the taxi stand to get on a “grand taxi” which took us the couple of miles down to the local beach, a long beautiful strip of white-tan sand with soccer games, wind-surfing, and endless teenagers milling around. The beach got more and more crowded as we lay there reading and watching the crowd until this pack of little boys (7 year olds maybe?) ran up to me and said something akin to “Monsieur, blah blah blah,” and pointing to the sand next to me. I tried out “Je…nous…parle….vous…Frances” in my terrible, terrible accent to which they grinned and repeated their requests. Sarah leaned over and said “They want to know if it’s ok if you’ll watch their clothes while they play.” Brilliant. Absolutely.

This is the pile of clothes they managed to get out of in three seconds flat before they sprinted towards the water.

This is mid sprint to the water as they briefly got involved with a pickup soccer game before making it to the waves.

And finally, an obligatory roll in the sand before heading back out to the waves to do it all over again.

And one final moment of neat human connection. As I’m sure “everyone” knows, April 1st was the opening day game for the Red Sox. I found myself in the smoky bar of our hotel at 11:30pm watching the sad ending of the game when the two young guys next to me leaned over and asked it the game was live (in English). Turns out they are from Tunisia and love American basketball and soccer but sadly not baseball. But they were interested in hearing the rules, so I walked them through innings, outs, pitchers, positions, the whole works. I’m not sure if they got it all, but it was great to just hang out, chat, and talk baseball even if it was to a couple of guys who had never heard of ARod.
The next morning, I was in the lobby checking email and the two guys showed up. They wanted to check their lotto scores because they were sure they’d become millionaires overnight (though they were not shocked to find out they were not). One lingered afterwards and said something about Facebook. I thought he wanted to check his account or something so I went to the website, where my account was open. He leaned over, typed in his name, found himself and clicked Friend Request. “Aziz?” I asked, reading it off the screen. He nodded and said “Aziz.”  I touched my chest and said “Steve.” He grinned, shook my hand, and took off. First time I’ve ever made a friend digitally and in person at the same time.

Look closely, you can see me in the reflection.

And what’s a blog post without a dancing camel?


  1. Steve I'm glad (and not surprised) to hear that you got your Red Sox fix.


  2. I still can't believe you insist on being a red sox fan while half way around the world. when will you learn...

  3. Great pictures of the City of El Jadida, and good job watching clothes :)