Midterms, and Languages, and Ambassadors, oh my!
School today was a pleasant surprise. Though I went to bed early, I was still exhausted from the weekends festivities (trust me, Moroccan’s know how to party, and their wedding hefla’s last all night long), and slept later than I intended, meaning I had to take a petite taxi to make it to school in time for my 8am class and the midterm that went along with it. I had a really nice taxi driver, who picked up some other nice people on the way, and (thanks to a great mix of FosHa and Darija) I was actually able to communicate and understand what was said in our conversations (Hooray for constantly trying to juggle 3 foreign languages!). I made it to class in time for some interesting discussions about djnun (aka. djinns) and what travel and experiencing “the Other” means for personal growth, change, and self-discovery. We had a midterm in the second half of class, which thankfully was a timed write on some of the literature we’ve read for the class (yes, in this class we actually read, discuss, and analyze Moroccan literature = win!).
My morning Moroccan History and Culture class was followed by Advanced Arabic Grammar, with a professor who never fails to keep class interesting, but what was really exciting about the day was what happened after lunch. Two of my friends from ISA and I went to get shawarma just off campus at a local place where we ran into some of our Moroccan friends. We then returned to campus together to listen to the American Ambassador to Morocco speak. He and his wife had come to the University to donate some books on American Studies (including titles by John Steinbeck, Malcolm Gladwell, Walt Whitman, Ray Bradbury, and J.D. Salinger to name a few) and have some discussions with the Moroccan American Association for Communication and Cultural Cooperation (MAACCC) on campus. After the public speech and official donation of the books, Ambassador Samuel Kaplan and his wife Sylvia moved from the university’s auditorium to the administration building for an exclusive meeting with the members of MAACCC and the American students who decided to sit in on the meeting (and were allowed in by virtue of being American). After introducing ourselves, the Ambassador and his wife asked us all if there was any way they could improve their mission in Morocco. They were rather pressed for time but still made an effort to listen to students’ input and address concerns, leaving a few minutes for pictures and some short side conversations before they had to head back to Rabat (Morocco’s capital is about a three hour long drive away from Meknes).
It was an interesting experience as an American student in the crowd of excited Moroccans. I hadn’t known the Ambassador would be there until I got to school that morning, though I do remember overhearing something about it last week. Vaguely. [At the time I thought it was part of another cultural event MAACCC is having later this week, but that’s another story.] That’s very much how things tend to go in Morocco, at least in my experience. Flexibility is key, especially when it comes to scheduling, so when I heard that the US Ambassador would be on campus in the afternoon, I quickly changed my plans so I could go. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see him speak (and I’m always in support of sharing books!) but I didn’t really think about the possibility of meeting him personally. However, after the meeting, as all the excited Moroccan students crowded around them, asking for pictures, the Ambassador made a point to seek out the few American students who were hanging around to talk and get a picture with them. We were all just along for the ride, but he and his wife seemed like genuinely nice people who were happy to see some American faces in the crowd.
Overall, I was slightly surprised at how informal the whole affair was, but now that I think back on it, it makes sense. The more I learn of other languages, the more I realize how very informal the English language is, especially the American dialect. The use of English combined with Moroccan culture, which is so very hospitable and welcoming that American political distance seems rude and which allows people to interrupt speakers and turn any speech into a discussion, would naturally make for a somewhat informal experience by US political standards. The small size of the group also made both the speech and the meeting more intimate experiences. Plus, Sam and Sylvia Kaplan’s desire to listen to students’ input further encouraged an open dialogue and more personal interaction with them.
I found that their speech was entertaining. They made some interesting comments, (some of which are roughly quoted below), some of which I agreed with and some I found more questionable. They seemed like genuinely nice people with good senses of humor (I’m not entirely sure the entirety of their audience got all of their humor in this case, but I at least appreciated it). The one thing that bothered me was the issue of language. The entire event was conducted in English, for which I was grateful, since it’s still the only language I’m fluent in and events in English are somewhat hard to come by in Meknes, Morocco. Since the topic was American Studies and the friendship between Morocco and the US, the decision to use English was conducive to the purpose of the event as well. However, neither the Ambassador nor his wife spoke French or Arabic (let alone Darija). In sharp contrast to the Moroccan officials’ formal “Bismillah al–Rahman al–Rahim…” they made no attempt to use any words or phrases in any language other than English (except for an appropriated use of “par excellence” in part of the Ambassador’s speech, which doesn’t really count) in the whole 2.5-3 hours they were there. Not even a single “shokran” for all the “marhaban bikoum”s they received. Not all of the mostly-Moroccan audience had the English skills necessary to fully accommodate this, and some asked their questions in French, forcing the Dean of the university to make hasty translations as the Ambassador read his notes over his shoulder.
Americans already have a reputation for not knowing any languages other than English and not bothering to learn the language of the country they travel to. The fact that our Ambassador to another country wouldn’t bother to learn any of the official languages of said country, nor the language of the people there (what people actually speak on the street in Morocco is different from the “official” languages) is embarrassing. The fact that he has held this position for over three years now (since 2009) and still does not know the language (or any of the languages used) makes it even worse.
Other than my thoughts in regards to language, the afternoon was a positive experience overall. Everyone was very excited and energetic, happy to share their experiences. Sylvia even commented on the large amounts of positive energy emanating from everyone on campus. It was an interesting experience and made for a memorable afternoon.
Here are some of the more interesting/memorable quotes from this afternoon:
Samuel Kaplan: (Ambassador)
“I would suggest that the most complicated word in the dictionary is friendship.”
[Discussing 4th of July] “…we celebrate our Declaration of Independence, which of course gave Morocco the opportunity to be the first country to support our independence. Yes I know that!”
[Discussing Obama’s inauguration] “…then President Bush got on a helicopter and flew away, and that is something I’m really proud of.”
“Through all the earthquakes, well, we don’t have that many earthquakes in America, but you know what I mean…”
Sylvia Kaplan: (Ambassador’s wife)
“I was a trapped house-wife in the suburbs….not with this husband, in my training marriage.”
“Ritalin would have really helped me.”
[After a last-minute interruption by someone plugging for the Moroccan Autonomy Plan] “You generally can’t have a discussion in Morocco without the topic of the Western Sahara coming up, so at least now we know we’re having a real Moroccan discussion.”