February 08, 2008

I now understand the predicament so many people I knew back in Xinjiang were in. Many of the foreigners I knew around Urumqi were there trying to develop skills in two languages: Chinese and Uighur. For some, it was the very existence of the Uighur culture--and its language, unrelated to Chinese--which brought them out to western China to begin with.

The problem many of my friends had with developing ability in Uighur was that most of them had come to Urumqi already having some level of fluency in Chinese. Accomplishing even the most basic of tasks in Uighur--asking for directions, enquiring about a price--became drawn-out processes involving attempts to recall vocabulary. Aside from the additional time it would take, there was a high chance of one party or the other misunderstanding what was said. For many people I knew, it was easier to just fall back on Chinese to get something accomplished: buy that fruit, ask those directions. Most people in Urumqi--be they Uighur or Han--can communicate in Chinese.

Now that I'm trying to get around Morocco, I've found myself in the same situation. I'm trying to force myself away from defaulting to French. The ironic thing is that French is not a language I have much ability with. I did study one quarter of French, long ago at university. At that same time, I studied Arabic: for three years. However, I'm finding French to be an easier language to fall into, for several reasons:

I have been making more efforts to speak Arabic in the past days. Those have been rewarding. I'm debating whether to give up on the Moroccan Arabic phrasebook which Ben brought out: what they speak here is so different from what I studied. Over the past couple days, I've been going about, speaking what I can recall from Standard Arabic.

Speaking the standard form of the language actually has advantages. The first advantage is that everybody can understand what I'm trying to say. MSA is sort of the equivalent of the speech used by the BBC, or that used by the American network news anchors. What's spoken is articulated in a way that everybody can understand, but in a manner nobody would naturally converse in--whatever region of the country they might be from.

Another advantage of speaking MSA is that people consistently assume that I am from some other Arab land. Yesterday, the shopkeepers I was speaking with were largely presuming I was from somewhere around the Levant. "Syria?" "Lebanon?" "Egypt?" When one shopkeeper directly asked me where I was from, I responded that I was, "American". She misunderstood what I said for the name of another nearby country where Arabic is spoken. "Oh, you're from Mauritania, then?"

I may have fewer, or even no, photos to post to future updates. My camera just broke. The lens is stuck out of the body of the camera and will not retract back inside.

I thought I had a solution. After asking around, Ben and I found the small street where electronics could be repaired. After more enquiries, we found just the right place: a small basement repair shop, cluttered with dusty video cameras and other electronics: much in pieces. After speaking with the old man on the other side of the counter (in a mish-mash of English, French, and Arabic) we agreed on a price of 60 dirham--about $9USD. He asked me to write my name down onto a sticker he would affix to the camera. I wrote both my name and the price we agreed on, he told me to come back the next day.

When I came back to his shop this morning, I found that he had been unable to repair the camera. That was probably a good thing. I noticed that the sticker he'd attached--where I'd written down my name and the price we'd set--had been altered. There was an extra zero, bringing the figure up to 600 dirhams. I'm certain that if he had been successful in fixing the camera, he would have insisted that I had misunderstood and pointed to the altered figure.

Ben is shopping around for a replacement camera, though that might not happen until later in the trip. Casablanca sounds like a large city where we might be able to buy a replacement, or get the broken camera repaired at a legitimate shop. Ben and I are likely to return together to Spain. Perhaps it might be a better option to buy a replacement up there, than to deal with camera shopping on the streets of Marrakesh.