Thursday, May 28, 2009

As-Salāmu `Alaykum!

I’m intrigued by Arabic language – it sounds very rough and agressive, yet you can say very beautiful things in it. And that written script! It’s flowing, artistic and absolutely captivating, like your very own secret language, assuming that you live in the middle of nowhere like Estonia with maybe 2 Arabs of our own :). It is very peculiar to see a simple laborer, who’s hands are rough from hard work and clothes could use washing to pick up a pen and write those beautiful precise markings with casual ease and such calligraphic elegance. On those moments i always think that i’m a former art student, this should be easy for me to do – and yet my version resembles more child’s scribbles than artistic calligraphy.

I signed myself up for an Arabic course last year, but decided to give it up quite soon. My teacher, though nice English bachelor himself, had a very dry approach to this complex yet incredible language and i think he utterly failed to insprire his students. His idea of teaching was just translating the texts and repeating the words, he didn’t see any point in active learning like practicing in pairs etc. You could feel that he doesn’t really like the language and it’s only means to employ himself for him. I decided that i want to learn it from somebody who is either a native or/and very passionate about Arabic. I’m in no special hurry with learning it and i can wait until my paths cross with someone who can and wants to inspire.

The language barrier in Morocco is a funny thing though. People in Morocco speak a local dialect of Arabic, indigenous people also speak Berber. Due to French occupation in the past, the influences of it's culture make Morocco quite different from the rest of the African countries. Today French language is being taught in schools, so most young Moroccans also speak it. People in up north, in the areas that were originally colonized by Spain can also speak some Spanish. While i know few phrases in Arabic, it’s far from speaking the language. My knowledge in French is lacking completely. An average Moroccan does not speak English, but funnily enough most of them know how to say that they speak a little. Experienced sales-guys often speak a bit of many different languages, but even so, every once in a while you are bound to meet a vendor with almost zero English skills. So if you try to talk to them, for example ask a question or two, the vendor quickly realizes that his 14-word vocabulary isn’t enough to get you to buy something, so he calls a friend who’s vocabulary is 19 words. Soon another friend is called and so on so forth. You can spend quite some time observing how the chain goes on and on. But all the joking aside, i have never in my life met people who seem to have so highly tuned genes for picking up new languages as Moroccans do. It’s easy to impress a random American by telling him i speak 3 languages and i’m on my way of getting a hang on the 4th, but Moroccans wouldn’t even blink an eye on that number. I’ve lost count how many times i’ve met some young Moroccan guy who speaks besides Arabic and French most other Roman languages as well. Italians are good cooks, Kenyans excellent runners and Moroccan appareantly have severe multi-lingual tendencies. And that makes me so jealous! „Well, at least i can draw good .., that is also not a widely spread talent ..“ is what i tell myself on these moments. Sigh ..

Some people have complained Morocco being impossible to travel in if you don’t speak any Arabic or French. I so disagree. If you’re just a traveler, not trying to make business business with the locals, then English + pantomiming is enough. At least i feel no need to start learning French just because i’m visiting Morocco. The people speaking to you in French are mostly 1) salesguys giving their pitch or 2) local playboys, both which i’m very happy to miss. So not knowing French has rather some serious pluses :).

I do recommend to use occasionally some Arabic, specially when you go shopping. When you walk into the shop saying „As-Salāmu `Alaykum“ or more often just „Salām“ you are one very big step closer to a more reasonable price. „As-Salāmu `Alaykum" [asalamu 'leikum] is a Moroccan greeting meaning "Peace be upon you", equivalent to a respectful hello. The correct response is "Wa `Alaykum as-Salām“ [wa 'leikum asalam] meaning "and on you be peace". The shorter form of both is just "Salām". To get the pronounciation right, i recommend listening to the people on the street. If your tongue doesn’t bend to speak Arabic then „Bonjour“ is another option, but forget „Hello!“. This will brand you as a dumb tourist who is most likely first time in Morocco. If you e-mail me, i can even share some newly acquired Arabic cursewords and few sharp ways to send somebody to hell when they are getting on your nerves :). So far i’ve practised them on the late night horny guys who keep tailing me around.
I actually have even more handsome >> collection of cursewords, insults and other creative phrases in Spanish, with audio track and all, though i never had the need to use them neither in Mexico nor Cuba.

Same goes to taking taxis. „Salam“ will get you a metered price, whereas „Hello“ means that they will try to sell you a fixed price trip, charging 20-30DH for one way, which can easily be 5 times the real price. Within the city always insist on using a meter, going on a ride without a meter means that you will get overcharged. And even if you're ok taking an unmetered taxi, always agree on a price beforehand. Some drivers target only tourists and refuse to use a meter. The hell with them, just get another taxi. Don’t even start arguing with them, they are not going to give you a fair price anyway. Sooner or later you’ll get a taxi driver that is, if not to say honest, then at least not so greedy. Getting a metered taxi might be more difficult if you have big travel bags with you and your destionation is airport or bus/train station. They will figure that you must be in a hurry and tell you without blinking an eye the price of 50 or 60DH. Just try again until you get a reasonable taxi driver. It might take you 10 minutes or so.

As the old saying goes: „Never run after a (wo)man or a taxi. Always wait for the next one.“

Here are few sample rates to get an idea about the prices in Marrakech:
(1 DH = 1,44 EEK)
from Djemaa el-Fna to the bus station ~ 8DH, .. to train station ~ 10 DH, .. to Supra Tours ~ 12 DH, .. to the main post office, with McDonalds over the street ~ 7DH and so on. If you have business from/to the airport, don’t bother with a taxi. Taxi from the airport is always unmetered and they charge a lot. Special airport shuttle bus no. 19 is on route between airport and the city. It takes about 10 minutes to get to Djemaa el-Fna and afterwards it makes a pretty hefty circle through Gueliz. Costs 20DH one-way ticket and 30DH return (the ticket is valid 2 weeks). It goes in every 30 minutes, the earliest bus from Djemaa el-Fna to the airport goes at 6:15 am and from the airport to Djemaa el-Fna 6:30 am, runs both ways until midnight. The bus-stop at the airport is on your left when you exit the building and on Djemaa el-Fna it’s where all the other buses stop, by the park.

A guy painting a lantern

Guys were very happy to get photographed, whereas women looked like they would gladly kill me if given a chance

A little girl selling fresh cilantro on the market

I think it's genius to add to the menu that the food is mad cow and bird flu free! :)

Written English is often very .. creative in Morocco

One of my favourite photos. The woman's glance is so so poisonous.


  1. Hey,

    I like your pages a lot thanks for sharing this with us. But, unlike what you said on the lonely planet website I cant seem to find a specific recommendation. Sure Lonely planet gives a couple of addresses but a personal genuine opinion is so much more valuable.

    For the sake of cohesion Id suggest that in the future you write down where you went, that way you could help out other people even more.

    Best wishes,

    Jafet from The Netherlands

  2. Thank you for your comment. I agree that my blog doesn't have a very clear "go there, do that, visit these" .. vibe, but that's because i don't have anything like that to recommend. My trips are usually quite .. random, i rarely have a plan on what i want to see or visit. I just go with the flow, so to speaks. And because of that i only end up describe what i did, where i went and how i experienced things, people can make their own conclusions if they're interested. I do try to put up specific information about hostels/hotels i've been, it's proven to be useful for some readers.


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