Saturday, January 31, 2009

On being a fool (i.e. foreigner, westerner, farang, ex-pat, Christian, walking wallet)

I recently had a meeting with an odd collection of folks: a matronly madam with a broad, happily wrinkled face, a bright young woman who works, when she can, as a house cleaner, and one of the many young partially-employed men that populate Rabat's busy old-city streets. The others used various terms to describe me: one that translates as foreigner and the other means Christian. I have never considered myself to be a Christan. Foreigner makes more sense: I've lived in Morocco for a number of months now but I am not, nor will I ever be, an insider.

The meeting took place in the the old woman's house. I wanted to rent the house- the reason that brought us all together. We addressed her as Hajja (to acknowledge her status as one fortunate enough to be able to fulfill the Muslim duty of pilgrimage to Mecca). She sat in the place of honor. The younger woman, Farida, was the sister of a woman who's home I was staying at and, in addition to being a friend, was my resident sceptic- brought along to examine the house and discuss the price. The other man-Muqtar- had shown me the place the day before. He was one of a few simsars in Rabat's casaba. Simsar translates from Arabic as 'real estate agent' but, more realistically, it means 'guy who hangs on the street corner and has a rough idea about house and apartment vacancies.' He sat silently, stroked his facial hair and anticipated his commission. I sat on the edge of the couch, sipped my tea, and strained to follow the conversation that would or would not land me in the house. I was the tyro, fumbling along at the periphery of my own deal: the fool.

Before I leave home to settle in some far-off place, I try to imagine it. A brick wall of chatter in a different tongue, rows of apartment buildings that seem as unreachable as the world's most elite hotels, and animals that I don't recognize hanging from hooks in the butcher's shop. In places that are part of what is sometimes called "3rd world," or "developing" but in this blog referred to as the 2/3s world,* I also add an air of degradation to those apartments, a pervasive penury amid the throng of people. For many of us (who are fortunate to be able to go to places on the other side of the globe) these pictures are scary, for some they are thrilling. But setting up a place in a far-off country turns out to be not too difficult. If you don't have the money or desire to use an international forwarding firms and/or real estate agent you can find your way into the circles of information that turn throughout cities across the world: bars abuzz with the chatter of expats, cafes with leafy bulletin boards and locals who know the scene, who speak a little (or a lot of) English, French, and who, above all, are willing to help. You just have to be prepared to learn as you go.

Before I go on, I should qualify by saying that my experience is limited: I have only lived in places that- by the outdated nomenclature- have been called 'developing' but that many would hesitate to term '3rd world' and, so far, I've only lived in cities. There is no doubt in my mind that places (maybe even cities) still exist where you would be the first outsider to try to find a place to stay and set up a life. But it's interesting to note that several journalists didn't find it at all difficult to rent a house in Baghdad- outside of the Green Zone- in the early part of the American War.

As a kid I used to daydream about landing smack dab in the middle of a city so foreign that I didn't recognize a single marking on any of the street signs. Today, I find myself firmly in the category of adults who are thrilled by the idea of seeing something different. Even so, it's hard to pass on the solid advice of friends who have gone before you. So when I recently moved from Fes to Rabat, Morocco I took my friend Chris up on his offer to give me the number of a decent simsar. I was told that with a little wheel greasing I could be in a new place within days. Foregoing my childhood dream of total start-from-scratch otherness (and immense frustration), I asked for the number, called the simsar , spoke a stumbling but workable mixture of Arabic and French and three days later I was sitting in a Moroccan salon, fooling my way through the above mentioned meeting.

I was delighted by Farida's offer to come with me to the meeting. Not only is she good company but she has a practiced eye. It is her hard bitten experience as a homemaker that keeps her young family afloat. Scepticism and hard bargaining at every transaction may sometimes be the only tools that keep food in her young daughter and husband's stomachs. To my dismay, all that scepticism flooded the way as soon as we entered the house. We ambled through the salon, the bathroom, the master bedroom, and the upstairs bedroom. She gave me the thumbs up when she saw the house's terrace view and she guffawed over the stove top coffee maker and blender in the kitchen. Few houses in Morocco come furnished. Farida was impressed.

With my cover of feigned disinterest blown by Farida, we sat down to hammer out the specifics of the deal. Mint tea was needed to make things move forward and Hajja set to work preparing it. She pulled a tinfoil-rapped lump of sugar out of her purse (no Moroccan grandmother leaves home without a brick or two of sugar) and made tea in what was to be my rental tea pot. After tea came negotiations.

Muqtar had told me that Hajja was asking 4000 dirhams. In my best Modern Standard Arabic (which is not very good) I explained to Hajja that I was a student, here to research the history of Islam in Morocco, that I am a responsible tenant and that I'd stay in the house, problem free, for the better part of a year. At the end of my soliloquy, I offered her 3,000 dirams a month. She stared at me blankly. She turned to Ferida, "what?" Firdia repeated, to my ears, more or less the same speech but this time with a much higher number as the monthly rent. I thought my ringer had defected completely. But I quickly learned: Hajja doesn't speak dirhams. She thinks in terms of the old currency, riyal, of which there are 20 in a dirham. Negotiating moved forward like this: Farida translated my Arabic into Arabic and Hajja's riyal into dirhams. Eventually we agreed on 3,500 dirhams and some 5 figured number in riyal.

Prices settled, the others sat back to imagine my new life in Hajja's house. Hajja played the role of me. She folded hands on her stomach, put her feet up on the coffee table, and closed her eyes. I thought this life would suit me fine.

After our short nap,
Hajja gave me another tour of the house. She showed me the percolating coffee maker again and explained how it works and then coffee tray and how it works. I was getting the idea that my limited linguistic abilities had translated, in Hajja's mind, to limited brain function.

Finally it was time to pay the "real estate agent." I loudly brought up his asking price- 2,500- which I had accepted before I learned it was way too large a sum. Farida gasped. Hajja gasped (after the number was converted to riyals). All attention was on Muqtar who froze, mid goatee grooming. Apparently, Muqtar was an unwelcome entity anyway. As was the old custom, Hajja had given the local corner store owner the key to her house and it was his job to hand it off to interested parties. He'd outsourced the gig to Muqtar who asked far and above a reasonable sum. Slowly, I was learning.

Farida went to work. She skillfully employed the Moroccan tool of shame to muscle Muqtar into dropping his rate. At this point, the Arabic was moving far too fast for me to get all the details but the shaming went something like this, "How could you scam the poor fool? For shame!" The price dropped.

Piece by piece, I'll dismantle some of Hajja's fine grandmotherly decor (I've already covered up her shiny-green shag couches) and settle into the place. Getting here wasn't all that hard. An American friend, a Moroccan friend, and even Muqtar were keen to help. Maybe it's just Morocco or maybe it's symptomatic of the entire 2/3s world but people work to help you out. Of course, capital and massive global economic inequalities are a large motivating factor. That's of course another suitable label for me, I'm not just an outsider- I'm not here to work and send remittances home- I am, for the others at the meeting, a 'wealthy' outsider. Muqtar got his cut, the shopkeeper probably got his, and Farida would like it if I gave her a little housecleaning work (a fact which, in my mind, doesn't devalue our friendship- a subject for a later post) but it's also that the systems for finding a home are in place and they work, in Morocco at least, not by classified ads and contracts but by human relationships. Some tea, Farida praising Hajja's fine taste and here I sit. And, I hope, I'm a little less foolish for having gone through the experience.

*(to point out that hegemonic Euro-American discourses on the subject often otherize, infantilize, and marginalize the experience of most of the world's population)


L. J. Moore said...

Excellent post! I look forward to reading more about your adventures. ;)

Megan said...

oh sam- although i can appreciate that this wasn't the most fun experience as it happened, it was great to read about it, especially with your sense of humor. see you soon!

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, man! Looking forward to reading more.


binzer said...

Very nice Sam, one question though, "An air of decapitation"?

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Hi, very interesting post, greetings from Greece!

David said...

Looking points are great, having good sound also..!!

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Anonymous said...

Hello! You know, I have read you post with real pleasure and the warm softening of the heart that comes with recognition... I am American by way of Britain and live in Chefchaouen, should you ever come up this way, please send me a line and lets meet for tea. Jessica

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