“That is the price. I can go no lower.” I face my traveling companion, Ishaq, standing in the middle of Meknes’ overly-crowded souq. I try to signal my intentions without giving away our bargaining position, but I can’t say much without tipping off the vendor as to how much I want these skinny sweatpants. Luckily, I’ve been trained in the subtle art of negotiation.
“But ya basha,” I say, using the honorific term reserved for Ottoman-era Egyptian officials, “We are students. We don’t have a lot of money.”
“No, that is the price.”
“Well what if we buy two? Maybe you can lower the price.”
“No, that is the price.”
“But ya ustaadh,” I’ve called him a professor. Now that he’s buttered up, time to deliver the final blow. “I’m Egyptian. I’m an Arab like you!”
“… yes you are Egyptian. And I am Moroccan. And the price is still 20 dirhams.” I’m disgruntled, slightly peeved even. Meanwhile, Ishaq cannot contain himself from laughing at my abysmal bargaining attempt. We’ve lost the initiative. “So do you want them or not?”
I look Ishaq in the eye one more time. They really are nice pants. And last year my college roommates all had skinny sweatpants. This might be my only chance.
“Well of course we do.” I pay the equivalent of $2.09 and pick out the most comfortable sweatpants I’ve worn in my entire life. By the end of the day, I’ve bought a Moroccan wallet with coin and cash pouches, a (supposedly) Italian flat-cap and a sandwich all for less than $15. In subsequent negotiations, we rely on the skills of Ishaq’s new friend, a local Meknesian man named Aiz ad-Din, who is much better at bargaining than I am.
Since settling into my new home-stay, my experience in Morocco has been one of negotiation. I’m negotiating my way through Rabat’s hectic streets, jumping back onto the curb every time a car decides to run a red light. I’m negotiating the amount of free time I have to spend, as my schedule gets more packed with each passing day. I’m negotiating new ways of thinking about religion, about politics, about language and how these things have a tangible impact of the daily lives of the people around me.
There are some things that are non-negotiable. After we leave for school, our home-stay mother cleans our bedroom from top-to-bottom, turning everything inside out. It doesn’t matter if I want to keep certain things on top of my nightstand or on top of my bed; everything gets put away according to Nizha’s wishes. Jacob, my roommate, embarks on a scavenger hunt every evening just to find his Talmudic prayer book.
Modern Standard Arabic class starts promptly at 8:40 AM on Mondays through Fridays. At my university, I’ve never scheduled a class before 10:00 AM and even then, I can’t say I have a perfect attendance record. Strangely enough, I haven’t had any trouble getting up on time to make the 15 minute cab ride to school. Maybe it’s because most Moroccans live like college students. They eat dinner after 8:00 PM and spend most of the afternoon in cafés, drinking tea and coffee.
The hardest thing to negotiate here is Morocco’s complex identity politics. Following Arab Spring protests in 2011, a new constitution was promulgated recognizing the country’s Arab-Islamic, Amazigh and Saharan identity, “enriched” by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences. Judaism had a profound historical influence on Morocco’s Amazigh tribes, while Islam forms the basis for the monarchy’s legitimacy. Each street vendor, café waiter and academic intellectual has their own ideas about how the different groups fit together (or don’t) under one common Moroccan banner. One Amazigh cab driver told me he didn’t think learning the Tamazight script served any practical purpose, while another lectured me on the importance of Morocco’s Judeo-Amazigh heritage. During that particular drive, Jacob and the Amazigh cab driver somehow managed to make me, the Arab, feel out of place.
Moroccans have been negotiating these identities for centuries, so I don’t expect to fully understand it during the short time I have here. But perhaps as my skills in negotiating continue to grow, so too will my understanding.