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5/13/09 Casual Conversation

Yesterday, I found myself on a tranzit and not squished, which is probably why I was unusually willing to engage with the people around me. We had a conversation which more or less mirrors every conversation I've had upon first meeting someone, so I figured I'd share it.

I forget what I said that launched it, but here's what followed...

Man #1 (lounging throughout the conversation; speaks a little French and Spanish and therefore feels superior to the others): Hey, she speaks Berber!

Man #2 (closest to me): She speaks Berber??

Man #3 (furthest from me): Yeah, she speaks Berber!

Man #2: Do you speak Berber?

Man #1 (overlapping, in French): You speak Berber?

Me: Some. I'm still learning.

Man #3: Do you speak Arabic?

Me: No. Just Berber. No Arabic at all. [This always gets funny looks, because the phrase used
for "none at all" is actually an Arabic expression that has been adopted into Berber.]

Man #1: Do you live around here?

Me: Yes, I live in Berberville.

Man #2: But you have a bike with you. Why?

Me: I biked from Berberville down to [my friend's village].

Man #1: For exercise? (Answering his own question, without waiting for a response.) Yeah, exercise is important.

Man #2: It's a nice bike. How much was it?

Me: I don't know. It's not my bike, it belongs to my organization.

Man #1: It's not your bike?

Me: Nope, it belongs to my organization.

Man #2: So how much is it worth?

Me: I don't know. I didn't buy it.

Man #2: So how much will you sell it to me for?

Me: I can't sell it. It belongs to my organization.

Man #3: How much did she say it was worth?

Man #2: She didn't. It belongs to her organization.

I'm thinking: Finally! It got through!

Man #2: How about that bike helmet you've got there? How much is that worth?

Me: I don't know. It also belongs to my organization.

Man #1: That's theirs, too?

Me: Yes, it goes with the bike.

Men 1, 2, and 3 (to each other): Yeah, OK, that makes sense.

Man #3: So where are you from?

Me: America.

Man #2: The land of Obama!

Me: Yes, the land of Obama.

Man #2: Is Obama good or bad?

Me: Obama is great!

Man #1: Who is better, Obama or Bush?

We're supposed to avoid political discourse, so of course I reroute the conversation. Eventually. But I'm censoring this part of the discussion anyway.

Man #1: What's your name?

Me: Kauthar.

Man #1: Kata? Maybe in America, but you need a Moroccan name. How about Ito?

Me: No, Kauthar is my Moroccan name.

Man #2: That's not a Moroccan name.

Me: It's from the Qur'an.

They exchange guilty looks. They should have known that.

Man #1: So what's your name in America?

Me: [rattling off all six syllables of my first and middle names in a rush - the most effective way to prevent anyone from trying to use it]

Man #1: What?

Me: [repeating the six-syllable version]

Man #3: [gives a pretty good approximation]

Me: Yes!

Man #3: Yeah, Kauthar is easier.

Man #1: So do you pray?

Me: Yes, I pray.

Man #1: You're Muslim?

Man #2: So do you pray the [starts rattling off the names of the five prayers].

Me: No, I don't pray [zal] like you, but I do talk to God [d3u]. I'm Christian.

Man #1: Will you become Muslim? Then you could pray right.

Me: I pray like my parents.

This is usually the ultimate trump card - the parents.

Man #2: Oh, so you only pray once a day. We pray five times.

I think about correcting him, but decide to drop it entirely.

Man #3: So are you married?

For the first time in months, I'm not wearing either of my fake wedding rings - I'd thought they'd get uncomfortable after hours on handlebars. So I don't take my usual approach when talking to strange men: lie like a rug.

Me: Nope, not yet.

Man #2: Not yet? You're not married?

Man #1: She doesn't have a man? [Note: the same word is used for "man" and "husband"]

Man #3: No, she doesn't nave a man.

Me: Nope. Maybe it's too late for me.

This is one of my standing jokes. It's a pretty effective way of deflecting marriage questions, plus it always gets a laugh. The word I use - bor - is the same one used for fruit that has spoiled. It more or less means that my moment of ripeness has passed me by, so now it's too late. It usually shifts the conversation over to (1) asking how old I am, and the (2) reassuring me that it's not too late to find a man. But at least people stop asking why I'm single, and if I'd like to marry their brother/cousin/friend/neighbor. Usually.

Men: (laughing, looking at each other)

Man #1: It's too late for her!

Man #2: She said it's too late for her!

Man #3: Too late? (to me) It's not too late. I'll marry you.

Me: (Forced hearty laughter)

Man #3: No, seriously, I'll marry you.

Me: If God wills it. (More hearty laughter)

Man #2: So are you going to find a Moroccan man to marry? Or an American man?

Me: As God wills.

Man #2: Well, are you willing to marry a Moroccan man?

Me: God knows. I don't know, but God knows.

As you may have noticed, I'm a big believer in falling back on God-phrases in sticky situations. I don't consider it taking the Lord's name in vain, because I do mean it, though I wouldn't say it as freely among secular friends. But I admit that I like that using the God-phrases can (1) make the more religious mutter "Amen" and drop the conversation or (2) trump anything else.

Man #3: I proposed to Hanan, and she just said No. You say if God wills. This is encouraging.

Me: (Hearty laughter)

Man #2: Do you know Hanan?

Me: Yes.

She was a PCV in a neighboring village until she got medically separated. The official story is that she had a bad bike accident that caused serious head trauma. The truth is more complicated, but also no one's business but her own. She did have a bike accident that everyone knows about, though, so it's an effective cover story.

Man #2: Is she healthy now?

He looks genuinely concerned, so I decide to give him a reasonably straight answer.

Me: Yes, she's doing much better, thanks be to God.

Man #2: Thank God.

Me: Thank God.

Man #1: Do you know what happened to her?

Me: She went back to America.

Man #1: Yes, because she had a bike accident and hurt her head.

Me: (nodding) She wasn't wearing her helmet. That's why I have a helmet. Helmets are vitally necessary. If she had worn her helmet, she wouldn't have hurt her head when her bike fell.

Men: (nodding, suddenly looking at my helmet as something other than a foreign oddity)

Man #3 (returning to the more pressing matter): So are you going to marry me?

Me: (laughing)

Man #3: Well, tell your American friends that there are lots of handsome Moroccan men who want to marry them.

Man #2 (worriedly): You do have lots of American girlfriends, right?

Me: (laughing and nodding) Yes, I have lots of American girlfriends.

Man #3: And I don't want a poor girl. Bring me a girl with lots of money.

Me (still laughing): If God wills it.

Man #1: The American economy is struggling right now. Men in America don't have jobs, but Morocco is fine. They'll want to marry us.

Me: If God wills it.

Man #2: So are you going to take him to America?

Me: He needs papers to go to America.

Man #1: Yeah, but you can arrange those for him.

Me: No, I really can't. That's impossible.

Man #1 (to Man #3): That's impossible.

Man #2 (pointing down the road): Hey, what's that?

And now we begin my favoritest game: test the foreign girl's vocabulary.

Me (watching a horse-shaped animal walking away from us. It's really hard to be sure what it is when all you see is the back of the tail and the haunches, but I give it a shot): Um...I think it's a mule, but it might be -- no, it's not a donkey. It's a mule.

Man #2: Hey, she knows "mule" and "donkey"!

Man #1: Do you know how to make bread?

Me: Yes.

Man #1: Really? How to knead it, bake it...?

Me: Yes. My mom in America makes wonderful bread.

Man #3: American bread is better than Moroccan bread?

Me: They're both great.

Man #2: Is America better than Morocco?

Me: I love them both.

Man #1: Yeah, but which is better?

Me: It's a tie. [The phrase for this is literally: In my soul, they are the same.]

Man #1: She says it's a tie.

Man #3: She says it's a tie?

Man #2 (pointing to a field): Hey, what's that?

Me (looking at a large crop area withgreen stalks blowing in the wind, women harvesting crops, poplar trees, and a canal): Poplars?

Man #2: (to the men) Poplars! She said "poplars"! (to me) No, women. Those are women.

Me: And some girls, too. But the trees are poplars.

Man #2: Yes, they're poplars. What's that? (pointing to a small boy)

I nearly always refer to boys in the plural -
ishirran - and am actually blanking for a second on the singular. Finally, the word arbo pops into my head, just in time for us to say it together.

Man #2 and Me: Arbo. (Boy)

Me (pointing to his friends): And some ishirran. (Boys.)

Man #2: Boys! Yes, boys.

Man #1: So how long have you been visiting here?

Me: I've lived here for a year.

Man #2: A year?

Man #1 (to Man #3): She's lived here for a year. That's why she knows Berber. (to me) And
how long will you stay?

Me: Another year, God willing.

Men: God willing.

Man #2 (pointing to a bull): What's that?

The word for "cow" springs into my head, but I don't want to get into a discussion about the difference between cows and bulls, so I take a second to figure out what the word for "bull" is.

Me: It's a bull.

Man #3: The king of the bulls.

Me: The king of the bulls?!? (genuine laughter)

Man #1 (holding out a small red-and-black bug): What's that?

Me (drawing a blank): I don't know. What is it?

Man #1: Abxosh. (Bug)

Me (recognizing the word, once he said it): Abxosh.

Man #1: What is it in French?

Me: Insecte.

Man #1: Yeah, insecte.

Man #2 (pointing up the road): What are those? (without waiting for an answer) Those are

Me: Yup, clouds.

Man #2: Think there's rain up there?

Me: Maybe. But down here, the sun is nice.

Man #2: The sun. Hey, how do you say "sun" in America?

Me: Sun. And in French, soleil.

Man #3: So are you going to give my phone number to your American girlfriends?

Me: No, that's inappropriate.

Man #3: What do you mean? Of course it's not inappropriate

Man #1: Yeah, what could be inappropriate about that?

I've noticed that men usually deny - with wide-eyed vigorous innocence - that anything they're doing is inappropriate (
Hshuma). I used to think that they meant it, that they thought that the rules of propriety don't apply to foreign women. Now I think that's sometimes true, but more often that they're just hoping that bland denials will get them what they want - my phone number, or the chance to date me [or my American friends!], or whatever else they're pushing for. Once, after I told a man on a bus that I have a husband in America, he said, "But you could still fool around with me. He wouldn't have to know." When I gave him a loud and indignant, "Hsuhma!" he tried to look innocently confused. "Why is that Hshuma? It would be fine."

Me: It's Hshuma to give a girl the phone number of a man she doesn't know.

Man #3: OK, then give me their phone numbers.

Me: That would be worse.

They can see on my face that I mean it - plus, there's no way they thought this was plausible - so they drop it. Except for Man #1.

Man #1: Come on, the American economy is in trouble.

Me: Yes, there are many problems in America now.

Man #1: So you'll be helping your friends.

Me (completely deadpan): Are you insane, by any chance?

Man #2 (to Man #1): She asked if you're insane! Hee, hee.

Man #3: She knows "insane"! Yeah, she knows Berber.

Me: I know some. But I'm still learning.

...and the conversation comes full circle.

Just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. :)


  1. meta-question: how do you remember long conversations in so much detail? do you blog them as they happen, or is your memory just really good?

    /friend of another moroccan PCV (who found your blog by accident while trying to figure out what a 'ponj' was)

  2. Hi, one-degree-of-separation-friend,

    No, I wasn't blogging in realtime. There's no wireless along my mountain road (plus, my laptop's wireless antenna died about a month after I got to Morocco). I typed up most of it an hour or two after getting home, and finished it up the next morning.

    I do have a fairly good memory, plus it helps that I've had a variation on this conversation at least once a week for the past year. :)

  3. This is one of my favorite entries ever. :)

  4. Hi lady. This one was definitely a good post :-)

    --Your former H-towner

  5. Wow. That was one of the best blog entries I have read in a while. You showed those guys plenty of Moxie.

    TA -US'92

  6. MA and TA and H-towner:

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. :)



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