The man I knew was wearing aviator sunglasses, an off-brown gallaba down the full length of his body and white Croc sandals, the same exact outfit he had been wearing two months ago. As we waited outside the Salé madrassa for a runner to return with our change, my father decided to engage the man in conversation. Speaking in his native tongue, my father rattled off a stream of Egyptian Arabic, punctuated by hard “G” sounds and disappearing “Q’s.” The man listened, fully comprehending, then responded in the staccato and swallowed tone of Moroccan dialectic “darija.” My father stood silently for a second, then respond with a phrase I would hear several times over the course of his visit: “I don’t understand Darija.”
Arabic is a di-glossic language, comprised of a formal, literary component known as fusha and an oral, colloquial dialect known as ammia. Each geographic area has its own style of speaking, with dozens of practiced dialects. The divergence between these dialects can be profound, with certain letters being pronounced in different ways and completely separate words being used to describe the same thing.
My father came to visit last weekend. Having grown up in the Asyuit province of Upper Egypt, I was curious to see how it would handle himself in Morocco. After checking him into his hotel, we walked over to my host family’s house, where Nizha had already set out a large pot of tea and a tray of cookies in preparation for his arrival. What struck me was how precisely executed his introduction was. He began by saying alif shukran (a thousand thank-you’s) to Nizha for hosting me and constantly repeating how ‘atheem (grand) her house and hospitality were.
Communicating primarily through fusha with my host family lent a more formal air to the conversation, though it was interspersed with funny anecdotes and colloquialisms. Typically, my father has been rather reserved or shy when meeting the parents of my American friends, so it was nice to see him operate in his element. He could not resist from quoting several lines of Arabic poetry while in the presence of our family, nor refrain from expressing classic Egyptian pessimism about the present state of Arabic culture. When he was leaving, Nizha said to me that my father was an ‘alim (learned scholar). I think the truth is a bit closer to what Jake remarked: my father knew exactly how and when to play up his Arabness.
Asyuit Province has one of the largest concentrations of Copts in Egypt. In Salé, the man with the off-brown gallaba wanted to show us what the Grand Mosque interior looked like. He brought us around to the main door where a man with a Muskim skull-cap answered. The man with the cap eyed us warily then asked “Antum Muslimeen?” Are you Muslims? A hold-over law from the period of French colonial rule prevents non-Muslims from entering mosques.
“Ihna Misreen.” We are Egyptians, my father replied.
“Copti or Musli?”
“La. Haram.” The man let us look through the entrance, but then closed the door.
Luckily, we were able to see the interior of Casablanca’s mammoth Hassan II mosque, which offers tours to non-Muslims until 2pm. Known within our family as difficult to impress, my father compared the effort needed to build the mosque to that exerted to build the pyramids, high praise coming from an Egyptian.
We ended our visit with a stop at a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop. While for most of the trip I had deferred to my father’s command of formal Arabic, I was able to employ the Darija I had learned in my classes to order and pay for our lunches. I’ve always been a bit salty that my father never taught me how to speak Arabic when I was younger, but now I might get the chance to teach him a little bit of Darija at the end of all this.