Expat Magazine

White Harira

By Quinninmorocco

“No, we don’t say that here in Fes.”

All roads lead here. Or should I say, all of my conversational roads dead-end here abruptly when I feel quite confident that I’m communicating effectively in a language I thought I learned several years ago.

It turns out that one of Darija’s little quirks is that pretty much no one speaks the same version of it. I’m not talking about cosmetic regional differences in accent, although those absolutely exist. It turns out that there are entirely different words used in different regions of Morocco to refer to the exact same thing.

This obviously leads to some adorable misunderstandings where I look like a complete idiot, having learned the Marrekchi term for, well, everything.

Sometimes, it comes from a simple question from a fellow foreigner. A colleague or friend might mistake the fact that I lived in Morocco for several years as some sort of litmus test for my language abilities. My boss, for example. We were in the middle of a Thursday afternoon bellydancing class, the appropriate backdrop for any sophisticated parsing of a language. She looked over at me in the middle of an exercise and wondered out loud—“How do you say ‘last’?” I was fighting a losing battle against my genetically-limited range of motion as I answer rather assuredly, “It’s ‘lkhar.’” I was too distracted by my incredible inability to imitate my teacher to second-guess the words coming out of my mouth. My boss thanked me and immediately made my confidence her own, projecting boldly: “Wech hadi lharakat lkhar?” “Is this the last exercise?”

Blame it on the loud music, or the American accent embedded within the Darija phrase, or the involvement of everyone in their own dancing at the time the question was posed. Yasmina, co-worker and peer-turned-bellydancing-professional, responded in perfect, unaccented English—“Huh?”

English is her third or fourth language, by the way.

Of course I’m listening intently to this exchange, looking for both confirmation of my own Darija mastery and, simultaneously, as a way of judging if I need some sort of an escape route. If it’s the wrong term, maybe I could pretend I heard a different word and responded to that?

We entered code red. My boss’ confidence didn’t falter in the face of Yasmina’s question—after all, I didn’t second-guess my in-real-time translation. Boss tries the same phrase, this time turning up the volume a bit: “Wech hadi lkarakat lkhar?

Yasmina shakes her head. Abort mission. Boss retreats to the mothership and asks the question in English, clarifying her word choice at the end with: “…and ‘last’ is ‘lkhar,’ right?”

At this point, I am the hardest-working bellydance student you ever saw, pouring all of my concentration and effort into the single move I have mastered—some figure 8 movement that they teach you on day 1. We have not been on day 1 in a while at this point. It was all I could to distance myself from the fact that I had provided ammunition for the wrong weapon.

“Oh, yeah, we don’t say that here in Fes.” Apparently, in Fes, people say “tell-ee” instead of the Marrakech term of “lkhar.” As in, there is absolutely no reason why anyone, especially a language learner, would ever connect the overlapping meaning of those two distant, five-times-removed cousins.

Other times, I wave my white flag of Darija on my own. When I first arrived in Fes last summer, I was invited over to a co-worker’s house for lftour. I was wow-ing everyone with my extensive knowledge of food—my area of expertise, naturally—naming each item spread across the table. “Oh, and this,” I pointed to a mound of crushed nuts and spices, “I love slilou!”

My host responded kindly, “Oh, that’s great! I made the sl-ou myself!”

Hm. That’s not the same word…or was it? Everything happened so quickly. Maybe I wasn’t really listening? But, again, if there’s one area of vocabulary where I know I’m solid, it’s the consumables. I decided to try my luck, asking more intentionally, “Oh, is sliiiiiilou hard to make?”

My host smiled. “Oh, yes, slllll-ou takes a lot of time—you have to crush so many nuts to make slllll-ou!

It took me a few months and many conversations later (I had a surprising amount of conversations about slilou this year) to just freaking ask the question. “Do you call that sl-ou?”

“Oh, yes, we do, why?”

“In Marrakech, people say ‘slilou.’”

“No, we don’t say that here in Fes.”

Slilou/ Sllou

Occasionally, we play this game as a team sport. I wandered into a group of Moroccan coworkers during lunch at a staff training. We handed a few phrases back and forth in Darija, and then I got asked a question. I can’t even remember what it was, but it made absolutely no sense. “Schnu? Mafa7emtkch.” “What? I didn’t understand you.”

“Oh, ask your husband.”

I turn around, and Mustapha is there, like a knight in shining, Google translating armor. My co-worker repeats the question. Mustapha’s response was something along the lines of, “I’ve literally never heard that word before in my life. We don’t say that in Marrakech.” The conversation ended with everyone talking about how great people from Marrakech are…and no consensus on the word itself beyond Mustapha’s declaration of it being “some weird Fessi word.”

After a year in Fes, I find myself still treading in unknown Fessi waters linguistically. There are points where I’m pretty sure the people around me think I’m just making shit up. Just the other day, some co-workers and I swapped lftour inventories. Harira, a traditional Moroccan soup, was listed as an essential in everyone’s list of must-eats. I asked perfunctorily—“Do you make the harira hamda ulla harira byda?” “Do you make the red harira or the white harira?”

My co-worker paused. I could see her turning over my question in her mind, with some large piece of mutual comprehension missing. “Well, I try not to make the harira hamda…”

Hamda, in every context expect when referring to harira, translates to “sour” or “spoiled.” It’s not what you would want your harira, or anything else edible, to taste like. For whatever reason, though, the term “harira hamda” also refers to the type of red harira that is eaten during Ramadan—a delicious tomato-based soup with chickpeas, noodles, and a variety of spices. I dove quickly back into the conversation with a giant life raft of English—“No, no, like, the red harira—harira hamda. (Light bulb moment) Or do you not call red harira ‘harira hamda’…?

Now I had two co-workers looking at me with an odd expression of misunderstanding—the kind that only comes when you hear the words of your mother tongue coming out at random, nonsensical intervals. They can place the words within your personal lexicon of knowledge, but not within any larger realm of meaning.

“All harira is red, Sarah.”

Duh, Sarah.

My self-defense was a slow and torturous explanation that didn’t even make sense to me the more I spoke out loud. “Oh…the white harira is made with a grain….but I don’t know it’s called…and then the red harira is made with tomatoes…maybe that’s why they call it hamda?…maybe it’s a Marrakech thing…”

Quizzical looks. “Sure…maybe…” they conceded generously.

I quickly called in the red vs. white harira expert to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind, that I truly had heard the white soup referred to as “harira” hundreds of times over my 2.5 years in Marrakech. This is all happening during the middle of a workday, mind you. Emails were not getting responded to as I worked to clarify what felt like the most important cultural misunderstanding of my tenure in Morocco.

Mustapha’s response to my desperate plea about the pigment varieties of harira was the most nonchalant “yup” you’ve ever heard. I asked roughly 8 additional follow-up questions to make sure—no really, absolutely sure—that we were on the same page. That I wasn’t crazy. That my quest to vindicate my own understanding of the varieties of harira was not in vain. I finally took the anecdotal, expert evidence back to my jury of coworkers (who had moved on to their actual work at this point). The response?

“Oh, okay…we call that a different name here in Fes.”

Regional freaking charm, Morocco.

The mysterious white harira.

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