The Agdal Hillbillies

Class distinctions in Morocco are visible on many levels. I’m incredibly aware of my privilege here, and becoming evermore aware of how I fit into the hierarchy of Moroccan class, which I’ve come to find is divided by race/ethnicity, what part of town you live in, languages spoken, and annual income.

Much like in the U.S., or anywhere, really, different socio-economic classes inhabit different neighborhoods; everything from rent to the price of a tomato varies accordingly. During my last visit to Morocco in December 2011, I spent the majority of my time in the Rabat neighborhood, l’océan, which is a working class community. The streets are loud and bustling with kids playing soccer, mechanics fixing cars and small storefronts. It is not uncommon to see graffiti or feral cats or garbage in the streets. L’océan neighbors the old medina, where you can buy almost anything you could possibly need; cellphones, shower curtains, artisan crafts, fresh figs and clothing are all widely available and relatively cheap depending on your haggling abilities. Inevitably I never get the real Moroccan price for anything, but things are affordable nonetheless. In l’océan I definitely stand out amongst the Moroccans, who are not as used to seeing foreigners in their hood. In neighborhoods like l’océan and the medina a young white woman, such as myself, will get heckled, but I’ve never felt unsafe in my surroundings. My roommates, Kaitlin and Shakira, lived in l’océan last year, and they established a rapport with the locals at the souk (market) and the hanuts (small general stores). They have some serious street cred in that part of town, and their Darija (Moroccan Arabic) skills are impressive. When I landed here in Rabat this time around, I spent a few days in their apartment in l’océan, and it was pretty clear to me, that whilst they had l’océan swag, I sure as heck did not.

In l’océan, French is not the primary language spoken, Darija is. So anytime I open my mouth and to ask for something, it becomes rather clear that I have no idea what I’m doing. I have mostly been keeping my mouth shut, while Shakira and Kaitlin haggle for me in the Medina, catch cabs, and buy our vegetables. Needless to say, I need to work on my Darija so that I can do some of these things on my own. I’ve got a few dozen words and can now count to 50, but my accent is rather comical, and if anyone talks to me in Darija I just stare blankly back at them.

Though I’m pretty useless on the streets, my French speaking skills have come in handy for more formal transactions. We recently made our move from l’océan to our new (BALLER) apartment in Agdal. Agdal is what Kaitlin and Shakira call “cheeky bzaff,” which means super posh.  (Note that cheeky is a derivative of the French word “chic”). So basically I live on the “Upper East Side of Rabat.” For the girls, they are also navigating living in a new part of Rabat. Here their street cred is taken less seriously, and I can move around with much more ease speaking the language of the colonizer. My French has come in handy when we needed to turn on the water and electricity and to set up our internet and phone connections for the apartment. It has also helped to make inquiries at the bank about setting up accounts and to meet a few expats from France. But speaking French here is a politicized act, which connotes privilege. Many upper class Moroccans use French as a way to show their socio-economic status, to identify themselves as more “western” and especially to separate themselves from the working class. I am acutely aware of how I come across to different people when I speak French, and often wish that I could speak both French and Darija so that I could move more fluidly between communities. Thus, I signed up for Spanish classes at the Cervantes Language School… I guess it’s my way of waving a linguistic white flag.

Though I can blend much more easily into my surroundings here in Agdal, my teacher salary (which I will not begin see until after my first month of work) leaves me on relative budget. The cost of living here in Agdal is much more than in l’océan, so we’ve been making trips back to Kaitlin’s old stomping grounds to buy food and random household necessities like light bulbs. We bought all my furniture from the second hand market, and Kaitlin and I rode in the back of open bed truck holding my mattress and night stand down. We got honks and stares and laughs as we rolled up to our new place. I joked that we were the Agdal hillbillies, because nobody on this side of town would EVER consider buying furniture for the second hand souk. Though we might conserve money on such items we are also privy to the flip side of the coin. Labor is so obscenely cheap here that we can afford a house keeper/cook to come clean for us once a week. For literally 150dh a day (approx. 17 $) we can have a lovely Moroccan woman come keep us company. She came last week to help us get the moving grime off all of our furniture and carpets and to clean my bed (which I’m still a little nervous to sleep in). We are all so unaccustomed to the idea of hired help that we had no idea what to do with her when she showed up. Not only did we not have cleaning supplies, but we also didn’t know what was appropriate to ask her to do for us. Kaitlin ended up telling her something along the lines of, “do what you do…you’re the boss.” She was surely laughing at us on the inside.

So where do I fit in here? I would say somewhere between the lower bracket of the upper class and the high bracket of the middle class. As a young teacher with a good salary by Moroccan standards, I will be able to afford a high quality of life here with many luxuries. I am not, however, used to living highbrow life styles like those of the people I am surrounded by in Agdal, though I obviously show my privilege by the color of my skin, the languages I communicate with, and the lovely neighborhood/apartment I live in. I am cognitive, however, of this privilege, and do not take it for granted. Humdillah (thanks be to God), I am extremely grateful for the lifestyle I am able to lead here and for all the interesting cultural exchanges I will have.

Here are some photos of the new abode and my roomies!

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3 thoughts on “The Agdal Hillbillies

  1. Lizzie,
    I just love this!

  2. chris parsons says:

    thanks..it is great to hear all about your adventures….

  3. Betsy Austin says:

    Great stuff Lizzie. So glad you’re where you are! How’s the Spanish coming?

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