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May 21, 2008 Culture Blips

Ito, my new friend riding next to me in the tranzit (and balancing precariously on a plastic stool, just like me), noticed the ring I wear on my right hand. It’s a silver band, which I wear mostly to discourage strange men from approaching me in the larger cities. I’ve decided not to claim I have a fiancĂ© or husband back in the States, as some female Volunteers do, mostly because I don’t like the idea of lying to my family and friends for two years. But I have no problems with waving a shiny ring at strange men and saying, “Shame on you, I’m married!” (Hshuma, iwlgh!) I haven’t done it yet, but I keep it handy.

But I wanted to tell Ito the truth, as far as my limited language abilities would let me. I don’t know the equivalent phrase to “family friend”, so I had to go with “friend of my mother” or “friend of my father”. It was a mental coin toss, and I picked the latter, saying, “Iga kado sg tasmunt n banu.” It’s a present from a friend of my father.

She gave me a rather horrified look, and I hastily thought over what I’d just said. Yes, I’d conjugated the verb correctly. Yes, I’d remembered to conjugate “friend” correctly. (Because even nouns – and adjectives, for that matter – get conjugated in Tamazight.) Asmun is a male friend and tasmunt is a female friend. And that’s when I realized my mistake. There are no cross-gender friendships in Tamazight. Asmun translates more literally as “boyfriend” and tasmunt as “girlfriend”. So a guy can hang out with his boyfriends (we’d say “guy friends” in American vernacular) and a girl can hang out with her girlfriends, but if a boy has a tasmunt or a girl has an asmun, it means they’re dating. So I’d just told her that the ring was a gift from my dad’s girlfriend, aka his mistress.


I shook my head quickly as though I’d made a minor slip of the tongue, and said, “Tasmunt n manu.” Friend of my mother’s. She repeated it back, I repeated it to her…it took about three rounds before she was reassured that I’m not parading a token of parental infidelity. Sigh.

I’m not sure if I can count this conversation towards my goal to have at least two successful conversations in Tamazight every day… ;)

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