During lunch, a couscous feast with several visitors:
Baba’s rattling off a paragraph, directed at me. At one point he holds up six fingers, but I don’t hear him saying “six”, just something that sounds like the word for “month”, and he uses the verb “fill” repeatedly. His tone of voice makes it clear that he wants me to agree with whatever he’s saying, and he’s never once tried to trap me into agreeing with something inappropriate, so when he wraps up his paragraph with, “Right, Kawtar?” I cheerfully agree, “Eyyah.” Usually, that’s all people really want from conversation. But he actually wants me to have understood. “Tsntt?” he presses. (You know this?) “Oho, ur sngh,” I admit. (No, I don’t know.) He gives a half-laugh, saying, “You said ‘Yeah’, so I thought you understood. OK.” (Yeah, I understood every word of *that*, but missed his long explanation.) He launches into it again. He’s speaking more slowly, but all I’m catching is i3mmr (fill), ixsayam (you have to) and asid (which means either stomach or electricity, and I always have to stop and think for a while before I remember which – the other one is adis). His hands are moving in slow circles, implying something repeated, and he’s pointing very explicitly, to a particular place across town. I take a stab. “You mean the gas station?” There’s an almost-completed gas station outside of BerberVille. It’s exciting for our little town, and I’m sure is a common topic of conversation over couscous, but I’m not sure why he’d be going to so much effort to tell me about filling up a gas tank, especially in front of strangers.
He sighs. He’s not irritated, yet, but he’s becoming frustrated. “Fill with what?” I ask. Ama tries.
Ama: Tsnt l-kart n asid? Ghorm l-kart n Zahra? You know the electricity card? The one you got from Zahra?
Ama: Do you know that you have to fill it up every six months? You have to put at least a little bit of money on it every six months, or else they cut off your power?
Me: Oh, yeah, Zahra had a problem with that; she had money on her card, but waited more than six months, so there was a big problem and she had to go to Springfield to fix it.
Ama: Right. (throws triumphant glance towards Baba)
Me: But she put money on it in Month 3 [March], so I won’t have a problem before Month 9 [September].
Ama: OK, good. Now eat more fruit.
The visiting men murmured to each other while I was speaking. All I caught was “Hey, she does know some Tamazight”, but they said more; I’m not sure if they were discussing why I understood Ama better than Baba, or the quality of my accent, or just marveling at a tarumit speaking Berber, but I admit that I was proud I was able to string a couple sentences together in front of strangers. Of course, after two months in homestay, I should be able to string whole paragraphs together, but I’m still celebrating the tiny victories.
Ama: Mani tishirratin? Where are the girls?
Me: Ur sngh. I don’t know.
Ama: [Says their names] Little Sis, Little Cuz
Me, laughing: Eyyah, snghtn, walayni, ur sngh manis dant. Yeah, I know them, but I don’t know where they went.
I’m not sure whether to be indignant that she thought I didn’t know the word girls, or grateful that she was patient enough to explain what she meant.
2 years ago