Monday, April 13, 2009

Don't TashlHate the Tarumit

Standing out like a sore thumb is stressful. Outside my village men often harass me. Simply being female is enough to elicit stares and calls. I once saw a crowd of men, happily chatting, fall silent as a women passed them driving a car. They tracked her down the street, staring and dumbfounded, until they broke into palpitations over the fact a woman had just passed them driving a car. Were I a blonde it would be even worse.

Cheesy pickup lines and shouts of ‘gazelle’ and ‘zwina’ are standard. Occasionally there are folks that follow you attempting to hold a one-way conversation. One day in Agadir I was followed for eight blocks by a guy who wanted to chat me up, and then just started talking at me. Some people just stare.

And then there is the non-pickup line-y side of it, the part where you know people are talking about you but you’re not sure exactly what they’re saying, which in many ways is even more uncomfortable than that ‘zwina’ business, because at least there you know what the game is. I can’t get too wigged out, though, because whenever I pick up the signals that I’m being gabbed about I just space out and grin. It’s not every day people call you a Roman. Unless you’re a foreigner in Morocco, that is. Then they call you a Roman every day.

I’ll back up here a minute. In both Tashlheet and Arabic, the word ‘arumi’ means either ‘foreigner’ or ‘christian’, though 95% of the time its meant the first way. In Tashlheet, as with most words, you feminize it by adding ‘t’ to the front and back, giving you ‘tarumit’. When I hear it being batted about as I sit down for coffee or kick an errant soccer ball back to a pack of kids I know I’m the object of discussion. But ‘arumi’ is derived from ‘Roman’, as in the Romans, who had an empire, and what good did they ever do for us besides the aqueduct and sanitation and the roads and irrigation and medicine and public order and all sorts of crazy things that all seem far too abstract until somebody calls you one. And then I just think it’s about the coolest thing ever.

So there are these rifts between men and women and Moroccans and foreigners, which have always been plainly visible to me. Then there are these other rifts you hear about but don’t quite believe in until one of them hits you in the face.

There is, we are told, a constant low-level animosity between Arabs and Berbers that has a tendency to boil over, but I honestly never thought it was real. Sure, I live in a place that’s probably 90% Tashlheet, if not more so, but I’d never seen or heard evidence of anything one way or the other. Yes, people would give a little fist-pump when I said I was learning Tash rather than Arabic, but five seconds later they’d ask if that was really the smartest thing to do, because can I even watch tv that way? It honestly seemed a non-issue.

Then one day another volunteer in my market town recounted a story from her recent trip north. As the baggage man at the bus station asked where she was going, she smiled and told him Fes. He sighed as he lifted her bag. “Arabs,” he said, and walked away.

This was weird, but one man does not a schism make. This next story, however, does.

One day last summer, two other volunteers (call them M and H) and I took a weekend trip to Agadir. We were days away from moving into our own homes and eager to pick up all the last minute items we knew we couldn’t live without. On our last night in town we walked along the beach, taking in the scenery and looking for dinner, when we came upon a Lebanese place. It should be noted that, unlike Lebanon, Morocco does not do hummus, baba ghanouj, or falafel. We were excited.

We sat down on the patio and after a few moments a man approached. We greeted him in Tashlheet and he burst out laughing. “That’s hilarious,” he grinned, speaking in slightly accented English, ”why on earth do you speak Berber?” We chatted with him a few moments and he giggled some more. He turned out to be the owner and head chef, and explained that, though he may speak five languages, as a Lebanese guy most of the time he had no idea what Moroccan Arabic speakers are saying, forget about Tash, but good on us. With one last laugh he gave us kudos and went inside.

A few moments later our waiter, obviously sent over by the chef who was gauging our language needs, walked up to our table. We happily greeted him in Tash but were stopped short. “Don’t you speak Berber at me,” he said, putting down a menu. H and I locked eyes. This could not be good. M, however, decided to poke. “Oh, why not?” she asked sweetly. “Because the Koran was written in Arabic,” he replied, placing down the last napkin, “not Berber.”

We were silent. What had just happened? And what on earth were we supposed to do now? This fellow had just said something wholly inappropriate to us (and in perfect English, make of that what you will), but in some strange way we felt at fault. What horrible injustice had this man suffered to cause him to hate Tashlheet people so?

We were petrified of angering him further, and all through dinner (it should be noted he was a very large man) we tried to be as polite as possible. We were the post professional trio of diners a waiter could hope for. Throughout dinner he not once smiled or broke his curt facade. After hoping, fleetingly, that he would notice we were finished, we waived him over (courteously!) and asked for the check. As he set down our change he paused, seemingly weighing the pros and cons of whatever it was he was about to do. Finally, he spoke.

“I have some information for you,” he said. Oh, no. “Just so you know,” he began, pausing long enough for us to run through the thousand different diatribes he could launch into on religion and race, “we are open until 3 am.”


H and I locked eyes across the table. Was this real? M, again, decided to play this for all she could. “So, if I wanted a falafel at 2:30 in the morning I could come here,” she started, glancing back at us, “and I could come back again for breakfast at 10:30?”

He stood there a moment, looking past us. Surely he caught the twinkle in M’s eye, or at the very least the fact that H was hiding her face and I was trying not to let my giggles escape my napkin. Then, as if to himself, he nodded. “That is entirely possible.”

And then he walked away.

Now if we’re honest, an ornery waiter and a bored, pretentious baggage handler do not a culture war make. But they do lend some credence to the notion that tensions still exist between Arab and Berber populations here in Morocco – and probably in Algeria and Mauritania as well. The Romans conquered the Berbers, then the Arabs conquered the Berbers. Then the French and the Spanish conquered both. And now Morocco is a single country, not conquered by anyone (save the two Spanish enclaves – we call them ‘Fake Spain’), but still sniping about things that happened ages ago. Like pockets of the US South where you still find the Confederate flag, or when some Hatfield decides post something stupid on a McCoy’s blog, or when you fight about the superiority of Star Trek over Star Wars.

Its conflict for conflict’s sake, so far removed from the original cause that nobody knows what their actions mean anymore, only that it seems like the thing to do, so we might as well carry on doing it, because it makes me feel better about my own situation. It doesn’t matter that at one point we all got conquered, because you conquered me first. And you conjugate things silly.

The Arab/Berber divide is just one of these rifts, like male/female, Moroccan/foreigner, rich/not so much, white/back, that I’ve seen here firsthand. At one point there may have been a real grievance, but now it’s the Springfield/Shelbyville feud, only I’m not sure there’s even a lemon tree.

It’s this kind of animosity that makes development more difficult, because there’s nothing you can do to fix the problem. People have to take the step and get over themselves before they can get on with things. This holds for most of life, really, not just socio-linguistic and cultural relations in southern Morocco, but is one of the major blocks to progress and productivity I’ve come across in my projects and those of other volunteers. It’s the same thing I saw in my hometown between local and summer people, those with college degrees and those without, the moneyed and not so much so, and the two people who happened to hate ice hockey and everyone else in town. Just because you think a certain group of people are annoying or out of place has no bearing on whether you should fix the pothole on Main Street. There is still a pothole that needs to be fixed, so just fix it.

I don’t want to get all senior thesis on you, so I’ll stop it here. I just wanted an excuse to show off the cross-stitch we believe will bring peace, love, and understanding to the souss.

We are planning t-shirts.



Blogger Allison said...

Don't know how I became so lucky as to find your post, but wanted to leave a comment!

I studied in Morocco in Fall 2007 and just competed my senior thesis (loved your comment on "getting all senior thesis" in your post) on the Arab-Berber conflict.

I really appreciated your post.
I would love to know more about what you're doing in Morocco, but will leave that ball in your court. You can find me on Facebook: Allison Asay (Transylvania University). I studied in Morocco with the School for International Training in 2007.

April 13, 2009 at 2:20 PM  
Blogger wide-eyed innocent said...

Just wanted to let you know that I posted a link to this page from my own blog about Tarumit issues:

Happy Wednesday! Hey, I hear from Meg & Sean that we're halfway through our stint in Morocco - can you believe it???

-your fellow geobabe

April 15, 2009 at 4:56 PM  

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