Fluent or not Fluent, that is the سؤال

“Are you fluent in Arabic?”

Trailing only behind “Morocco….? Wait, where?” and “But like, ISIS. Is it really safe there?,” the question of my fluency in Arabic pretty much trumps all else in the list of the FAQs Sarah (and, apparently, most PCVs) gets regarding Morocco. One might also go ahead and assume it is the most straightforward to answer (and maybe the only one that doesn’t elicit an accompanying eye roll). A simple “Kan tkllm l3arabiya b7al chi maghribiya” (I speak Arabic like a Moroccan) or “No, I speak to everyone in English, and THEY LOVE IT” would likely satisfy.

The reality, however, is that I have no idea.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question for a few reasons. First, the time on my hands these days could be measured in metric tons. I’m working, yes, but they’re half-days and, well…it’s Ramadan. One can only do so much when a country is shut down between 3:00am and 7:30pm. The second reason is that I’ve re-entered the linguistic airspace of Morocco and have had to dust-off my year-old Arabic skills. I’m meeting tons of new people in the process: students, their parents, co-workers, and family I didn’t know existed, among other random interactions I have to survive while buying Snickers bars at the corner store. I’m either constantly needing to speak in Arabic to these new people (aforementioned Snickers example), or I’m getting introduced as someone who speaks Arabic and shoved into the deep-end of a high-level conversation about the intricacies of the TOEFL exam. Or my favorite—I get spoken to in rapid-fire French and get to sit and nod politely until someone notices I have no idea what’s going on….or they don’t notice. That’s always fun. But I digress. My love (lololol) of the French language always causes me to digress (see second to last paragraph).

Why not ask a neutral third party to assess my language level? Well, that would make the information in this blog entry a little too legit for my liking, but also— I have gotten reviewed. Quite often, in fact. The problem is that those reviews are extremely mixed and approach contradictory. Within the same day, I’ve heard myself spoken of as “3arfat l3arabiya, tbarkallah” (She knows Arabic!) and “Kat fa7m….chwiya.” (She understands…a bit). My sister in law introduced me to her family and told them that if you speak slowly to me and use the simplest words, I will be able to understand (Honest. Harsh. I’ll take it.) Alternatively, one of my students boasted that my Arabic is “wa3ra,” or awesome (Generous. Affirming. I’ll take that too). I surprise people when I make witty remarks or plays on the language, and I confound people when I cannot think of the word for something basic. I’ve walked away from conversations beaming, congratulating myself on how awesome my accent sounded, and crawled away from others, trying to pick up the pieces of my shattered dignity as they exploded with every mis-conjugated vowel.

When I try to explain this consistent inconsistency to people, they either think I’m being modest or that I’m exaggerating my proficiency. How can someone who lived in Morocco for 2.5 years not be fluent? Alternatively, as far as Arabic is concerned, how can anyone ever become fluent?

I want to just go ahead and blame everything on the wild, untamed beast that is Moroccan Arabic, or Darija. Ladies and gents, this ain’t your mama’s Arabic. Actually…no. It’s EXACTLY that. It’s your mama’s Arabic, not your textbook’s Arabic, or, really, not anyone’s anything that’s written Arabic. I don’t have the benefit of being able to pour over a newspaper or book every morning to sharpen my Darija skills or teach myself new words—that’s all written in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the “official” Arabic that no one actually speaks anywhere but that is taught in school. Sure, MSA and Darija have significant overlaps. Some of the more official words, like “school” and “surgery” are the same in both dialects. Darija, however, is generally less fond of vowels than MSA. In Darija, I get to put sounds like “t” and “n” and “f” all together in one slur. For example, the MSA pronunciation of “Marrakech” is a rhythmic “Mahr-AH-kosh.” Meanwhile, in Darija, it’s a rapid-fire “Mrrrrrrrrraksh.” This vowel-lessness adds legitimacy to both those who find my Darija impressive (when I’m able to make those rigid consonants flow like buttahhh) and, simultaneously, incomprehensible (when I completely butcher the pronunciation.)


So, to learn a vowel-lite, non-written language, one obviously has to go out and talk to people. Except your mama’s Arabic is different than my mama’s Arabic. People from the north have different accents and different words than those in the south. For example, in Fes, I’m hearing a lot of “ntina” (her) instead of Marrakech’s “nti.” People ask “fu9ach” (when) rather than “imta.” Moroccans have no trouble entering into this linguistic dance with fluidity and grace, but for a gouriya who is eternally learning, it trips me up. And if your mama actually speaks a Berber dialect, well, we might as well speak to each other in German and Chinese.

The whole French thing drags down my fluency score as well. I took a half of a semester of French in college and stopped because, well, why would I ever need to learn French? Minus one foresight point for team Sarah. Not being a standardized language, there hasn’t been any need to update Darija’s lexicon to keep up with new technologies and the like. So, here come the French in all of their colonizing glory, swooping in and shaping people’s tongues. Searching for a word to describe the stock market? If the MSA term doesn’t come to mind, try it in French! Can’t think of the word for “application” in Arabic? Say it in English, but in a French accent! The “iPhone 6” is described as such in French. People gawk when I translate that into Arabic—it makes sense, but no one would actually ever say that. Government, high-level meetings, academia, and the upper class that run in these circles: French, French, and even more French. So, instead of being able to reach into my magical French bag of tricks and pull out the word for “screen resolution,” I attempted to explain it to my niece yesterday in Arabic by saying “the thing that means whether something is very clear or not.” You know what she told me? “Wow, you’ve really forgotten your Arabic.” Because I didn’t know a French word. Sacrebleu!

So, am I fluent in Arabic? It depends. Where is your mother from, and how much French does she know?

Eat, pray, love and… eat!


Well, there’s no denying it– I love food! Peace Corps’ blog, Passport, featured a modified version of my post eat pray love. They wanted me to focus a little more on the eating aspect, which wasn’t too much of a stretch. Enjoy!

Originally posted on Peace Corps Passport:


There is a word in Moroccan Arabic for “hospitality,” but it might as well be “food.” On our first day in the country, the Peace Corps Morocco medical team broke the bad news to us PCVs: on average, they see a 15-pound weight gain over the course of 27 months in country. But just in females, of course. Our reaction was denial. Who has ever heard of a Peace Corps volunteer gaining weight?

Then we met our host families. Denial was no longer an option. On a daily basis, there were fresh fruit juices, savory and sweet tajines—meats, vegetables, and spices named for the terra-cotta dishes in which they are slow-roasted— and hot couscous on Fridays. Holidays saw sweet chebekiya, or fried dough soaked in rose oil and honey, rich white harira, a porridge of sorts, and the most delicious kebab sandwiches that can only be described…

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Liz-dom (Rhymes with “wisdom”)

Despite being an outdated grandma of the Peace Corps world at this point, I’m amazed by the amount of people who still reach out to me as a result of this blog. It’s humbling and lovely, and also a massive reminder to all the kiddos that your 13 year old selfies will live on in infamy thanks to the internet. Google searches can still find you! Boolean search terms (eh? eh? dusted that one off for the internet nerds out there) like “How is life in Morocco?” or “Traveling alone in Morocco” or “sexy Morocco girl time” (forreal) for better or for worse orient people to my blog. So here’s a pot o’ gold for all of you who, for whatever reason, stumble across my blog in search of wisdom. don’t really have any, but I’ll pass you along to someone who always pulls through with shining nuggets of it.

Everyone who knows me is aware of my massive girl crush on the one and only Elizabeth Gilbert. She’s the entire package– intellect, good looks, and a wit that will slap you across the face and make you love it. I (shamelessly) follow her on Facebook and may or may not get teary eyed when she posts stories and inspirational anecdotes. Liz (can I call you that?) also posts some super sage advice, due to being enlightened and more zen-ed out that I could ever aspire to be. This recent post is chock full of Liz-dom (GET IT?). I dedicate this to all of the females who have emailed me to find out about what it’s like to travel in Morocco alone, or even those just interested in traveling period. There are some quality reminders for all of us– veteran to novice travelers alike.

I myself have always had great experiences traveling alone. While there are certainly dangers, I have found that the same factors that make you vulnerable as a woman also make you powerful. What I mean to say is, a woman on her own does not telegraph a threat to anyone—which means that strangers all over the world will welcome you and trust you. They will let you into their houses. They will let you play with their babies. They will tell you their stories. They will give you a place to sleep. They will offer you assistance, food, directions, affection. I feel that, as a female traveler, I have had much more intimate experiences with new people than any man could ever have. They know I’m not going to hurt them, and so they open up to me. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

That said, do be careful—or at least alert. There are places in the world I would not travel alone. There are places in my own state I would not travel alone, for that matter. If you don’t see any local women walking around the streets at night, you probably shouldn’t be walking there either. Other tips:

DRESS MODESTLY. I keep this rule just about everywhere I go in the world that isn’t Miami. In developing countries or more conservative countries, I am especially careful to wear long sleeves and loose clothing. It’s more comfortable, for one thing. (Less sunburn!) It also tends to attract less male attention. But most of all, in places in the world where modesty still reigns, dressing carefully will win you the favor of local women—whose good graces you will always need. If you’re walking around in what looks to a nice Indonesian woman like underwear (tank top and shorts) she will be too embarrassed to interact with you. Try not to make people of either gender feel either aroused or embarrassed.

PACK LIGHTLY. I never travel with checked luggage…not anywhere, not for any amount of time. Carry-on only. Never bring more than you can comfortably carry. Being over-burdened makes you vulnerable in a thousand different ways. Stay light on your feet and you’ll be safer and less conspicuous. Also, you don’t really need it. Really, you don’t! If you’re traveling from place to place and living among strangers, nobody will notice that you work the same shirt today as yesterday. You will also be safer from people putting things in your luggage (drugs) or taking things out of your luggage (cameras) when you aren’t looking.

EYE-MASK, EAR PLUGS, PJ’s, SLIPPERS. Bring good ones. Sleep is the most important thing.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO LOOK STUPID. Try to speak some of the local language, even if it makes you sound like an idiot. People (except waiters in Paris) will usually be charmed, not appalled. Eat things you wouldn’t normally eat. Ask questions. It’s OK if you don’t know what’s going on — the whole point of being a visitor is not to know what’s going on, and to be unafraid to learn. Good manners and friendliness trump sophistication any day. You can always apologize for mistakes later.

DON’T ACT ENTITLED. I won’t give any examples here. Just ask yourself constantly, “Am I acting entitled?” Then stop. Actually, this is kind of good advice for even when you aren’t traveling.


Vintage Tameslouht, thanks to the former PCV, Lindsay, who served prior to Eric and me!

Quinn in Boston– the RPCV Files

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It’s like being a senior citizen– meeting up with fellow RPCVs in any situation inevitability turns into reminiscing about the good ol’ days of bartering in rural markets, struggling through the learning curves of an obscure foreign language, laughing at the culture shock experienced while re-assimilating into American culture, recalling with fondness our Turkish toilets….the venn diagram of PCV experience has quite the large overlay.

And thank god! It’s a lovely mug of steaming comfort to know that, no matter where I go, there is a group of people who, like me, also went through a strange and wonderful 27( plus or minus) month experience in a remote part of the world. I’ve thought about this quite frequently lately, as just a week or two ago was my six (6!!!!!) month mark of being back in America. Within those six months, Mustapha and I have checked quite a few things off of “the” list. We traveled to Ohio for my brother’s wedding. Then Mustapha and I got legally married. I got a job. Mustapha took English classes. We took a trip to the beach. We got married again (a big fun party wedding). We drove from Atlanta to Boston for our big move. I started graduate school. Mustapha started work. See collage below for photographic evidence of the diversity of experiences (although I to admit there’s a disproportionate emphasis on holy matrimony….)

And now, here we are, settled in (kinda– we’re moving to our upstairs and final apartment tomorrow) and wondering what adventures we will find at our feet tomorrow. With change and newness being the only constants in our lives, I was so freaking excited to read about a get-together for “new” Boston RPCVs yesterday evening. It’s a rarity for me, but for once, I actually had pretty exciting plans for a Friday night.

In the spirit of my entire Peace Corps service, the simple journey to a RPCV happy hour turned adventurous in an unintentional way. I left my house and trekked over to the bar where the happy hour was happening. The bar was PACKED! I walked around a bit, trying to figure out which group of random people were the RPCVs. It was a great conversation starter– “Are you guys the RPCVS?” “The VCRS?!” “No, the Peace Corps volunteers?” “The WHAT?” Bars, in general, are great backdrops for effective human communication– especially when you’re speaking in acronyms! I felt like a rhyming elf, hopping around from group to group with a really freaking weird riddle. I wanted to play it cool, though, so to blend in, I purchased a beer. I just pointed to an IPA on tap and asked for a closed tab. Turns out I have expensive taste– I selected an 8 dollar beer. Oh Athens bars with your cheap prices, how I miss thee! After about 10 minutes with said trust-fund beer in my hand (and a lot of dead-end conversations with random people), I caved and re-checked the event information. Turns out, I had the location 100% correct and the time 100% wrong. There was a backyard potluck happening at an RPCV’s house prior to the happy hour. With that realization, I stopped pretending to be this cool, confident girl who didn’t seem to care she was at a bar by herself, left my pretty-much-untouched-but-still-freaking-expensive-and-not-as-delicious-as-a-burrito-that-also-costs-eight-freaking-bucks and followed the yellow brick road known as Google Maps (yet another thing that got popular while I was playing in the sands of Morocco) to my destination.

Well, turns out the guy’s house was a whole 1.5 minute walk away from my apartment. The bar with the pricey beers was about 15 minutes away in the opposite direction. Ugh. But the event was great– lots of people, good food, and free Peace Corps swag. Like I said, it is always great to get together with people and not feel like you need to censor yourself when a story has a really good segue to witnessing a sheep slaughter. Or that time your host family dressed you up and paraded you around town and negotiated several marriage offers. You know, things like that.

"That one time I rode a camel down the beach"

“That one time I rode a camel down the beach”

Sometimes, in the excitement of applying to Peace Corps, waiting for Peace Corps, and being in Peace Corps, you forget about the fact that most of your life will happen before and after Peace Corps. I for one had only a vague notion of a life post-Peace Corps. But here I am– existing. Some of the coolest things about it?

Peace Corps friends are seriously friends for life (or at least, we’ve made it past the first 6+ months). It was ahhmmaazzziinnnggg to dance the night away in a wedding hall in Athens, GA with my fellow Darija mujtahidin. It felt like we were back in Morocco again– except this time we were clean! And our hair was brushed! And we were wearing new clothes that none of us had ever seen before! Some of the fancier RPCVs among us even rented cars (it’s still strange in my mind to picture any of us behind the wheel). We met for morning coffee at this great cafe where two people had pet dogs….pure magic to be in the context of America together. We then got to stay with Lauren + Justin on our way to Boston and hang out with Bryant, and now that we’re here, I’ve gotten to see several other PCVs from different groups in Morocco. One “sighting” occurred at an outdoor food festival, another happened on the subway. NUTS. and WONDROUS!


The other great thing? Being outside of Peace Corps, you remember that not everyone has done Peace Corps. In general, I’ve found that PC Muggles view any time spent in the Peace Corps as this mythical being that only really special (and perhaps slightly crazy) people do with their lives. They think it’s interesting, that it’s different, and that it’s really incredible. Because it is! Objectively, leaving your entire life behind for two years because you want to put yourself into a situation where you might be able to help others and taking the time to understand and (attempt to) assimilate completely into another culture to do it effectively….that’s amazing. I often forget this myself, mainly because the memory of soaking in a bucket of water for the duration of summer is still fresh in my mind, but it’s nice to let yourself be reminded of it occasionally.

Mustapha once told me that during one of his trainings, their session leader instructed them about how to make an impression. The take-away idea is that you should always introduce yourselves with your name followed by something memorable. Friday morning– the same day as the ill-fated RPCV potluck– I got to hear the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, talk a bit about the state of US education. Afterwards, I may or may not have barreled through a crowd of CIA-looking men for a chance to talk to good ol’ Arne. When I finally got to shake hands with him, I kinda just blurted out– “My name is Sarah, and I just got back from serving in Peace Corps Morocco. It’s an honor to be working with the US education system again.” Based on the look on his face in this photo, I’d say he thought that was pretty damn awesome. The guy behind him thinks so too.

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So that’s where I am now, my faithful readers. Mentally, I’m still transitioning out of Morocco and Peace Corps, the central part of my identity for 2.5 years. Physically, my feet are firmly planted in Boston as I run full speed ahead through a master’s degree. I honestly don’t find the Quinn in Boston to be half as interesting as the Quinn in Morocco, but I’m sure there will be occasional tidbits tossed into the blogosphere along the way. After all, it’s really hard not to want to share (enthusiastically) with people when I see a Moroccan restaurant, or I hear a conversation in Darija on the T, or I spot a tajine on a shelf in a butcher shop. I’ve also accepted the fact that I’m intertwined with Morocco for the rest of my life…till death do us part and all that. So, cheers to that, and to all of the lovely people who are in my life just because of Peace Corps.


كول صلي آ حب…و كول (Eat, Pray, Love…and Eat!)

One of the many things I admire and love about author Elizabeth Gilbert— particularly in Eat, Pray, Love— is her ability to write about really profound experiences and transformations in a self-aware (without the deprecation), funny, and profound way. There’s no preaching, and the writing is just so damn good you keep reading and absorbing vast amounts of information without feeling like you’re in science class. She’s a master at the art of crafting a story out of life (which, after attempting to do in this blog for 2.5 years, I can assure you is nothing short of neuroscience). Yep, it’s just you and your new hip BFF Liz chatting about ashrams in India and striking a balance within your life…all while gorging on a massive dish of fresh mozzarella and succulent olives. A novel about the latter two edible items would be Pulitzer material on it’s own, in my opinion, but Glibert reaches for the stars and goes beyond just satisfying the stomach.

…as did Morocco. Over the past 2.5 years, I’ve my own experiences with eating, praying, and loving (and eating) here in Morocco. Now, a little over 1 week into America and officially an RPCV (returned Peace Corps volunteer), I’m still searching for the right way to present it in written or any other type of form. My Arabic was comically inadequate for expressing anything beyond “I sad to leave! Yes, very!” to my fellow Moroccans, and, even in English,  someone who hasn’t been here in my brain for the duration won’t have the context to fill in the gaps. SO. I figured I would send out this thank-you letter to the universe in hopes that positive energy not only exists, but that it will be able to find its way to the people who have changed my life during my time here in Morocco. This is also a way to express on my own terms to the world what Morocco has meant to me. And don’t worry— food gets its own section.


Thank you, Morocco, for teaching me patience. You are a country that is too post-modern (post-something, at least) to be concerned with a task like waiting in a line. How in-the-box! You have revealed to me the delicious half-day adventure that is delivering a letter to the post office. I had no idea such an activity involved tea at a stranger’s house and politely dodging curbside conversion attempts. Whenever I would get frustrated in my huffy little American way about time, you would laugh at me. “Hey, Ms. Art Degree, when are you going to get creative? What is time, anyways– didn’t you do a performance piece on that?” My hours waiting for students to show up to classes turned into good ol’ fashioned thinking time. I’ve spent the better half of a day contemplating donkey unions and the gender-dynamics of coffee shops. Whenever I would get too carried away in the outcomes of projects, you would send me gentle reminders (or punches to the gut) about how important the process is rather than, well, whatever it is I thought was so important. Numbers? Statistics? Oh, Morocco, that’s not what you want me to learn or remember about my time here. You’ve encouraged me to sip my coffee, savor my food, ask the extra questions, read the additional chapter, and soak in the hours of doing nothing. That part in EPL where Liz sits down with an Italian newspaper (and a massive breakfast) every morning and has the time to read it in its entirety while circling and learning new words? That’s me, minus understanding the Arabic written in newspapers. I believe in Italy it’s called la dolce fare niente— the art of doing nothing. Here in Morocco, there’s no expression for it. “It” is the nature of existence in itself.

Thank you, Morocco, for giving me so much delicious food! Fresh juices, savory and sweet tajines, hot couscous on Fridays, sweet chebekiya and dates for Ramadan, rich white harira in the mornings, rafisa as my new comfort food, an abundance of fruits and vegetables grown down the street from me, thick crusty bread baked every morning, meats and spices and dried goods…all at my fingertips (as they shove these delicious things into my mouth). There were also stomachs, brains, intestines, cows’ feet, liver, eyeballs, head, and tongue…never have I eaten so much non-mysterious meat in my life (brains and feet are pretty true to their assumed form). It’s not just delicious food, though, that I need to thank you for, Morocco—it’s tasty food and a culture that values taking time to prepare and enjoy it. When else will I essentially have a mandated 2-3 hour lunch break daily? And the encouragement to finish up the last bit of my second breakfast? Morocco, you may have nurtured my soul, sure, but there is absolutely no question about my body.

Thank you, Morocco, for your complexity. Studying Buddhism in college taught me the basics of labels, the constructs we use to identify and categorize that actually, in fact, limit their inherent complexity. Preach, brotha Buddha. The worst question someone can ask me about Morocco is “How was it?” I have to boil down the most ridiculous 2.5 years of my life into a simple adjective. I can use the word “good” and be just as equally descriptive (and still honor the essence of my time in Morocco) if I instead say “horrible.” It was a waste if time, but it was also the best decision I made in my life. It was a hopeless glimpse into the world of development and international aid that, paradoxically, has given me a lot of hope. It made me cringe at organized religion while somehow renewing my interest in it. It was the best of times, it was the w….alright, you get it. I’d like to say that these (upwards of 50) shades of gray have made me a little more empathetic, a little less quick to make snap judgements about the things I think I know. Morocco is quite “in-between” right now: in between Europe and Africa, in between the internet and the mountains, in between Arab and Berber, in between education and unemployment, in between religion and secularism…it’s an interesting time to be in this awakening country.


Thank you, Morocco, for your humor. Any country that produces someone like Abdellah Ferkous is going to be a good one, right? When I was first assigned to the Marrakech region, people told me that Marrakchi people are famous for their sense of humor. They had no idea. Marrakchi people love to laugh; they speak in these exaggerated, loud voices that are the audial equivalent of peacocks waving their tails around (and they’re just as colorful). It’s honestly just as funny to be listening to the voices as it is to be understanding what’s being said (which happened for me once or twice). I was lucky to be placed somewhere that understood sarcasm and irony, where inflections of tone and wild contortions of the face get laughs and respect. The flipside is that, well, being the white chicken I am, everything I did was inherently funny. Morocco, thanks for lessening my stuffy self-awareness. You watched me dance like a monkey every single day, explaining to people that “YES, I do speak Arabic!” and “No, I’m not married yet!” over and over and over. And don’t even get me started about how much people liked making me actually dance. Weddings, women-parties, and basically any time the men weren’t around, the second-favorite activity (first place obviously is a tie between eating and watching soap operas) was turning up the beats, wrapping a scarf around my waist, and falling over laughing from watching me attempt at shaking my hips. Between me and the Marrakechis, there was plenty to laugh about.

Thank you, Morocco, for helping me find love. It was an honor to serve for 2.5 years with the Peace Corps Morocco community, the people who became my closest friends. It was love at first site with my CBT group, that fatefully haphazard group of 5 human beings at completely different points in their respective lives who were somehow, in every single way, soulmates. I fell in love again with Tameslouht, my home away from home, a city that prefers dirt roads with a killer view of the Atlas mountains to any semblance of Westernization. My village introduced me to a community of absolutely lovely people; a kind postman who would chase me down in the streets to hand-deliver me packages and letters, two coffee shop owners who would probably have let me drink coffee on credit for two years if I asked, two mul hanuts by my house who never questioned the fact that I bought chocolate and diet coke from them about 5 times every week, the ladies running the public bath who would give me free soap and squeal over my pathetically white skin that would become pink at the slightest scrub, the students who came to my English classes despite me not having any sort of grasp on English grammar, the little girls who would race across the street to kiss me even though I had never met them before in my life, the women artisans who defined my second year of work and filled my time with creativity, and a great group of friends who invited me over to their houses, helped me with work, and made me feel like part of the family. I also, of course, found l-o-v-e love: my weird, wickedly intelligent, passionate, kind, and lovely counterpart in-life-and-in-Peace Corps. Oh, my, what a journey it’s been with all of this lovin’.


It’s been my pleasure keeping a blog and writing about my time in Morocco, hoping that the world gets to know this country in a slightly more intimate (and less touristy) capacity. I still haven’t decided what to do with it now that I’m no longer a Quinn in Morocco– suggestions are much appreciated! In the meantime, send a moment of thanks to this strange and beautiful country that I had the honor of eating, praying, and loving in.


“When a Storyteller Dies, a Library Burns”


Several months into dating, Mustapha and I were sitting in a cafe that overlooks Jemaa El Fna. We were chatting about our lives, our families, our parents…and he casually mentioned that his dad worked as a storyteller in Jemaa El Fna. Coke spurting out of nose ensued. “What?!!! How has this never come up before?? That’s awesome!!!” My enthusiasm, of course, was regarded with that look I’ve gotten to know so well here– when I get excited about something in Moroccan culture that is not, in fact, worth a second thought to my Moroccan brethren. Other such moments include seeing the mountains on a clear day (“Sarah, those are there all the time….”), having a really delicious meal (“This ol’ thing? It only took me three hours to make. Stop fussing.”), or hearing that someone served as Brad Pitt’s translator during a movie filming in Morocco (“Yeah, whatever, he was pretty boring.”). Celebrities in particular elicit very little excitement from, well, pretty much everyone except me; apparently here, celebrities really can just sit at a cafe and carry on a normal life without being bothered by anyone. Having a legitimately famous father also falls under this category.

Ahmed Ezzarghani, also known as “Hajj”, is quite a guy. At the age of 7, he left his home and invested in a small cafe cart. For my western audiences, this is not the equivalent of a hip food cart– this is literally a put of coffee strapped to a heater that you carry around and pour into cups for people waiting at bus stops. Travel was a perk of the job, allowing little Hajj to travel around the Marrakech area to all of the weekly markets and sell his coffee. This is where the magic happened.

Being around the souk crowd, Hajj obviously met a ton of people. He also soaked up the stories of his country. Anecdotes, proverbs, religious texts, historical battles, traditional fables– it all intrigued him so much that he began to seek out the professional storytellers to learn more. At this time– the 1940s and 1950s– and probably through the 1980s, storytellers were abundant and well-loved in Morocco. They regaled audiences with their tales, embodying a spirit more aligned with theater than anything else out of today’s world. These were the entertainers of the day, drawing large audiences for hours in public squares and street corners. The tradition was rich, the crowds were ever-expanding, and these storytellers traveled to almost every imaginable city in Morocco.

This is Meknes in the 1950s. It has nothing to do with this story except that it's Morocco in the 1950s.

This is Meknes in the 1950s. It has nothing to do with this story except that it’s Morocco in the 1950s.

Hajj joined them. He spent years pouring over traditional texts and engaging in the nuances of each story. I wouldn’t say that he learned or memorized them as much as he embodied them, taking the poetry, rhythm, and story line of each tale and creating his own unique piece. There are several volumes of books that storytellers would learn at this time– many of the books have origins in the Middle East, but some of them are purely Moroccan as well. Hajj traveled to Rabat and then onto Fes, where he became famous for his stories. Ministers of the king would invite him to their houses , crowds would gather en mass every night to listen and watch the Hajj. After decades in Fes, it was time to return to his home– Marrakech– and take over Jemaa El Fna.

Years passed and Jemaa El Fna shifted. It became louder, busier, more touristy. Traditional storytellers found themselves shouting their stories to be heard, and crowds slowly decreased as their attentions found TV, cellphones, and the internet. Newer “storytellers” coming into Jemaa El Fna didn’t engage in the same brand of historic, religious, and artistic stories, favoring instead the instantaneous pleasure of dirty jokes and slapstick humor. Hajj and his fellow artists began to leave Jemaa El Fna in favor of other work and, in some cases, retirement.

The Hajj I met 2 years ago was comfortably enjoying his time running a cafe in town. For a man in his 70s, he is still energetic and conniving, repeating the day’s events to his family with the same facial expressions and hand gestures that I’m sure he employed in Jemaa El Fna. He’s the kind of guy where, when you learn that he was a master storyteller, everything suddenly makes a little more sense. Sometimes, in fact, gaining this tidbit of knowledge helps get a force in motion.

My dear friend Melissa stopped over for L’3id this year. She met the Hajj and, upon hearing his story, put together a quick proposal: storytelling and teaching at the almost-newly-opened Cafe Clock in Marrakech. It would be a celebration of the tradition, with Hajj performing his stories, and a preservation/ revitalization at the same time, enlisting several young Moroccans to study under Hajj and absorb the trade. Melissa worked tirelessly to recruit several young Moroccans with extensive language arsenals and put them together with the Hajj. The goal? In 6 weeks, these “apprentices” would learn traditional stories and storytelling from the Hajj and would perform the traditional hikayat in English as an opening event for the Marrakech Biennale. In other words, high stakes for all involved.

The three original apprentices– Oussama, Sarah, and Malika— committed hard from the beginning. They spent every Sunday with the Hajj for several hours, and then requested additional meetings on Thursday mornings to practice their English renditions of traditional stories. Oussama chose a story about how a fisherman’s strange catch acts as a catalyst for revenge; Sarah selected the tale about the gherreba water-seller in Marrakech, and how his honesty in the face of jealousy lead to a great reward; Malika went out on a limb and told a story about how women are trickier than men. For weeks, these three worked to perfect not only their English renditions of the stories, but also their body language and storytelling.

This past Thursday, the apprentices and Hajj got together for Cafe Clock’s opening event. Richard Hamilton, the author of The Last Storytellers, was present as well for opening remarks and book signings. In his research years ago, he felt a certain pessimism with the dying art of storytelling, quoting “when a storyteller dies, a library burns.” This statement accurately measures the depth of loss that Marrakech and Morocco are facing as they turns away from the art of storytelling. Once Hajj took the stage, I think it resonated with everyone in attendance just how much we stand to lose by not preserving the tradition. The portion of the audience without Arabic skills remained as enraptured as those who could understand the Hajj. It was truly beautiful watching the master shape and mold his craft.

The apprentices shone as well. Malika, Oussama, and Sarah– in that order– each told the best version of their respective stories that I’ve heard thus far.

Hajj closed with another story of his own, and, when a gnaoua band took the stage after him, he transitioned from song to dance.


As a step for storytelling preservation, this is a significant one. The problems faced by Morocco’s storytellers are rendered null and void in Cafe Clock Marrakech, where those who come are seeking out the tradition. Cell phones, TVs, and other distractions are put on hold in order to witness living history in all of its energetic wonder. It’s one of the best “youth development” projects I’ve been involved with over the past 2.5 years. If you’re in Marrakech and are wanting to check Hajj and the apprentices out for yourself, they will be performing every Thursday from 5-7pm at Cafe Clock.