The First Hurdles

I knew it. My Arabic is every bit as rusty as I thought it was. Over the last twenty four hours I’ve jumbled kalimāt with ma3kulāt, completely ignored the feminine –īn ending, let sentences slide into the oblivion for lack of vocabulary and resorted to a mixture of French, Spanish and English to fill in the gaps. How people manage to stay on top of six or seven languages at once baffles me; four is troublesome enough.

And so begins the third and final stage of the Year Abroad. The afternoon call to prayer is sounding as I write, cutting over the Camarón playing defiantly from my earphones; two months in Tetouan, a small city on the northern coast of Morocco. Arabic is back with a bang in my life. It’s an early start for me tomorrow at Dar Loughat, my new school, though not so much so now that the clocks have gone back for Ramadan. Registration, a placement test and, like as not, the first class.

I’ve been here for a little over a day now, and though Tetouan is only a stones throw from Tarifa, it’s a very different world from the land across the Strait. And it’s not just the Arabic. Even mealtimes are a challenge, and Ramadan hasn’t even started yet. I’m all up for eating with my hands, but it’s a good deal more technical than I thought it was. Naturally, I made a bit of a mess of it last night. Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recall a similarly awkward attempt in Uganda, where the ‘natural fork’ – using your thumb and three fingers – is the done thing, but that got forgotten somewhere between the purple lightning and the mountain gorillas. Priorities.

Letting in the morning light through my bedroom window is also ‘not good’, something I hadn’t anticipated. Morocco is a long way from the Middle East, but some of the old Arab customs cling on here. 

Determined not to lapse into last year’s old habits, namely falling back on English whenever possible, I’ve taken a dive and lodged with a Tetouani family. For someone who really values his own freedom, that was a difficult decision to make. But when the other Arabists come back in October with an average of six months apiece in an Arabic-speaking country, I’ll be left floating, so as I said before, it’s my prerogative to push myself. And what better way than to live with a Moroccan family?

It’s not easy. I reckon I understand less than half of what they say to me, even though it’s in fusHa (when they speak Dārija to each other, I don’t understand a word). I tend to latch onto the first word I recognise and wrestle with that until I have some idea of what’s going on. More often than I should, I find myself using a French word coupled with a pathetic expression to make up for the words I’m missing. When it comes to conversation, which is – for now – rather one-sided, my contributions consist of a series of nods and noises of understanding. And I’m still very much at the stage where I’m constantly getting caught out by questions.

All of this is a bit disheartening after that triumphant C2 in the CEFR Spanish exam. It’s like I’ve been reset to zero, sent back to the starting line just before the end of the 1500m. No, it’s worse than that: it’s like that painful childhood moment when you’ve been playing Pokémon for five hours and then you turn the game off without saving, and after all the cussing and swearing you know you’ve no choice but to retrace your steps or give up and walk away.

I was an odd kid. Nevertheless, the spark that flared in me in my first year at university is blinking in the dark. There’s a reason I came out here alone, early, immediately. I’m not about to give up on Arabic. Far from it. I’m determined to make this work, to be reinspired. Dear Kate found inspiration in Jordan where I found only creeping despair. But this is round two, and I’m coming back fighting. I fought hard to come here and now I have to earn it. I have to show the downcast Ben from last year who’s boss. That’s easy to say now, before the course has even begun, but that’s what it’s all about: a positive attitude. And having the awe-inspiring cliffs of the Rif Mountains does help. A lot.

All this and more has been said before, so I won’t sweat it. I haven’t yet got out to explore Tetouan beyond this morning’s trip to the market, so I’ll tell you a bit about my room. It doubles as a library. There are books in at least four languages spread out across a bookshelf that stretches along the length of one wall; Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima and Ibn Battūta’s Rihla, Pablo Neruda’s Confieso que he vivido and a French history of the alliance between Moulay Ismail and Louis XIV. There are also fossils everywhere. Trilobites, ammonites, corals and seashells, sharkteeth and even a gigantic bone of some description. My hosts – or one of them, at least – are avid naturalists. You could say I’ve landed on my feet. It’s also got a desk, a luxury I was denied both in Spain and in Jordan and – heaven above – it’s got WiFi. Weak WiFi, but at least it’s there.

No bones about it: this is definitely a step-up from last year’s overpriced two-room flat with the haunted washing machine and the worksite next door. BB x

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