“Hello! How Are You? … What Now?!” by Mallory Mrozinski
After a few days of settling into my semester abroad, I am finally beginning to feel comfortable with the unfamiliar – an oxymoron that seems illogical, but makes perfect sense for someone immersed in the mélange of cultures in Rabat. I live with a host family this semester, which many agree is the best way to experience a foreign environment in an authentic way. True to form, my Moroccan family is traditional and devout in their practice of Islam, giving me many opportunities to ask questions about a faith I have had little previous exposure to.
For example, I was really confused the first time I was woken up in the early morning by a sound coming from outside the house. I knew that Moroccans stayed up late, but my instinct as I woke up startled in my still-dark bedroom was, “why does someone have their radio on at 5 am?” As it turns out, this is a call to prayer that is sounded from the nearby mosque periodically throughout the day, as a reminder of the importance of faith in society.
Specifically, it’s great to be living with a host family because of the home-cooked meals. Not only is the food out-of-this-world (or perhaps just my previous American world), but it also gives insight as to the common dishes and methods of cooking, and to table manners and food etiquette. It might shock Americans to see Moroccans using bread instead of silverware, or even no utensils at all! Were I to be living in an apartment or a dorm, I would not be tasting delicious homemade tajine (which is both the name of the dish and the ceramic dish it’s cooked in), and would not experience couscous Fridays. I am really enjoying getting to know these Moroccans who have kindly welcomed me into their lives (and their home), and having an outlet for all the observations I’ve made in and around the city!
One shocking thing about Rabat is how perfectly synchronized the multilingual society is. Modern Standard Arabic, also called Fusha, is the form used by news media and formal written works. The Moroccan dialect of Arabic that you can hear on the street, in the tram, and between members of my host family is called Darija. All people educated inside Morocco also speak French, and usually use it with me when striking up a conversation. My host family consists of a grandmother who speaks French and Darija, a father who speaks French and Darija, and a mother who speaks Darija, English, and Russian. Last – but certainly not least – is my two-year-old host brother who speaks a combination of all the aforementioned, adding his personal flair of adorable baby gibberish. I am really enjoying learning Darija in my daily class because I forgot the feeling of learning the basics of a language. The alphabet and sound patterns of this Arabic dialect are completely different than anything I am accustomed to, but it’s exciting and challenging to try and form the correct foreign syllables every day. Consistently hearing the target language is an amazing way to familiarize oneself with both new vocabulary and speech patterns, and it never ceases to astound me how quickly these multilingual families can switch between languages in the middle of a sentence!
My favorite example of such comes from my little host brother, who is a social butterfly and loves to chat the days away with me, despite the fact that we have little shared language with which to communicate. He starts off the sentence by toddling over to me and proudly inquiring, “Hello! How are you?” When I respond with a smiley, “I am good. How are you?” He simply replies with “Hello! How are you?”, completely restarting the exchange. His intelligence reaches beyond words and phrases, as he exhibits the ability to perfectly execute the code-switching of language between Darija with his parents, English with me, Russian with his mother, et cetera.
As the process of settling in and getting into a routine continues, I find myself feeling restless and relying on the momentum of my day to occupy myself. Sometimes I feel like I should be exploring the city from dawn until dusk, finding every unique hanut (corner store) and memorizing the tram stops. Other times, all I want to do is relax and catch up on my sleep. This feeling of “what now” can be worrisome for someone like me, who prefers to be busy all of the time. I am confident that when classes start and I have familiarized myself by way of immersion, it will lessen until Rabat feels as familiar as home. Luckily, I have discovered the short-term answer to “what now?” is a hot shower and a good night’s sleep!