University of Iowa

Why I was nervous about speaking Arabic in Morocco—and why I shouldn’t have been

March 26th, 2018

Stopped for the view on the way to Volubilis and Meknes
Stopped for the view on the way to Volubilis and Meknes

Prior to my arrival in Morocco, I was aware that there would be significant differences between the classical Arabic that I had been studying at Iowa and the colloquial Arabic used in everyday exchanges in my host country. I was worried that the difference between the modest Arabic I spoke and the Arabic spoken amongst Moroccans might be so vast that I would be unable to communicate with shop owners, people on the street, or my host family. I had heard that classical Arabic, to the ear of a native Arabic speaker, is something like Shakespearean English to a native English speaker—very old, highly formal, and often comical. Although I was eager to finally put my Arabic language studies into practice, I was also fearful of using the language incorrectly and sounding laughable. Fear won out—at the beginning of my time in Morocco I was reluctant to speak any Arabic at all.

 

My first night in Fes, the other students in my program and I, rather than eating dinner at our hotel, decided to try and find a local restaurant. We walked to a nearby café where there were a lot of men sitting outside and drinking coffee or tea, but nobody seemed to have any food. We attempted to explain to the man working there that we were looking for something to eat, but when it became clear that he did not speak English, my new friends turned to me, the one with the most Arabic experience. I just needed to say a simple sentence—“hello, do you have food here?”—but, scared of sounding stupid and hyperaware of all the café’s patrons’ eyes on me, I was unable to remember basic Arabic, let alone say anything. We finally got our point across using piecemeal French and a lot of hand gestures and were paraded down the street to a very small restaurant where I was able to figure out what there was to eat—tagine of chicken or meat and vegetables, or something with a goat head—order, and pay the bill mostly in Arabic—and it felt good.

 

Now, a month in, I’m eager to speak Arabic every chance I get. When I get into a taxi in the morning, the driver is almost always surprised that I greet him in Arabic— SabaaH al-kheir, la bes?—an exchange that often turns into a conversation on anything from my Arabic language studies, to the weather, to Moroccan food, and, just like that, I am speaking and learning Arabic before 8 AM. When my friends and I took the train to Casablanca, I was able to speak with the people in our cabin for most of the four-hour trip and we all exchanged hugs and well wishes on the platform upon arrival. Had I been afraid to initiate conversation, I wouldn’t have made four new friends—and the train ride would have been far more boring.

 

I am always amazed at how happy people here are when I speak a little bit of their language—even just attempting to order food in Arabic has earned me friendships and invaluable conversation practice with waiters and waitresses in cafes all over Fes. I have also found that speaking Arabic, even just “no, thank you,” can be a good way to decline the offers of insistent street vendors without seeming rude and flat-out ignoring them like many tourists do.

 

There are still a few situations in which I feel silly speaking Arabic, such as ordering at restaurants where the menu items aren’t written in Arabic, (afak bgheet…chimichanga?) but for the most part, I am speaking, or at least thinking about speaking, Arabic all day, every day. I’m so glad I chose to do a language immersion study abroad program— I know that I’ve already gotten significantly better at speaking Arabic, primarily because I’ve become ten times more confident in speaking Arabic.

 

The tanneries at the center of the Fes medina—leather goods have been made here this way since the 11th century! It looks better than it smells.

The tanneries at the center of the Fes medina—leather goods have been made here this way since the 11th century! It looks better than it smells.

A crash course in Moroccan Arabic in a beautiful, intricately carved classroom
A crash course in Moroccan Arabic in a beautiful, intricately carved classroom

A couple of cats in the sun at the historic Royal Stables in Meknes
A couple of cats in the sun at the historic Royal Stables in Meknes

The view of the medina (old city) from the roof of one of my friend’s homestays!

The view of the medina (old city) from the roof of one of my friend’s homestays!

The view of the medina (old city) from the roof of one of my friend’s homestays!

Staying hydrated before a tour of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

Staying hydrated before a tour of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

Admiring Morocco’s diverse landscape on the way to the Sahara Desert

Admiring Morocco’s diverse landscape on the way to the Sahara Desert


The largest dish of couscous I’ve ever seen. Couscous is traditionally eaten on Fridays, it’s ideally shared with as many people as you can gather—and eaten with your hands!

The largest dish of couscous I’ve ever seen. Couscous is traditionally eaten on Fridays, it’s ideally shared with as many people as you can gather—and eaten with your hands!

The view from the medina entrance closest to my home. Inside the medina is really only foot, bike, and animal traffic—you have to go outside of it to find a car.

The view from the medina entrance closest to my home. Inside the medina is really only foot, bike, and animal traffic—you have to go outside of it to find a car.

 

hannah g

Hannah Gellman is an English and creative writing major at the University of Iowa. She will spend her semester in Fez, Morocco, as part of the Arabic Language and Culture in Morocco program. 

 

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