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Morocco Lost in Translation

Last week a close Moroccan friend and I met for our weekly cup of tea at our usual café.

‘You know how much I like you foreigners,’ said my friend, ‘but you people confuse me, and other Moroccans as well.’

Smiling, I asked what he meant.

My friend went on to tell me of how he had been received at an American family’s home in Casablanca the week before. Following that visit, he invited the American family to his own home. A series of lost in translation moments had punctuated both visits.

As someone with one foot in the East and the other in the West, I could see the difficulties and, for this reason, I wanted to present a list of do’s and don’ts for Westerners living in Morocco.

Here it is:

When visiting a Moroccan home:

  • Take a gift, however small. Not to do so when arriving for a social visit is almost unthinkable. If there are children there, take something for them, or something straight-forward such a platter of pastries. Better to take more than less.
  • Don’t expect a tour of the house, or ask for one. Bedrooms and anything but the formal salon, will be probably off-limits, unless you know the family well.
  • Don’t be surprised if the television is left on all through the visit. TV is regarded as background noise in Morocco.
  • Don’t worry if people come in and out endlessly, while you feel awkwardly rooted to one formal chair. You’re a guest and, as a guest, you’re expected to be seated while everyone honours you. At prayer time members of the host family might slip out, pray, and then return.
  • And, as a respected guest, an abundance of food will be provided. Don’t gorge yourself on starters, as there will probably be large platters of cooked meat to follow.
  • The choicest pieces of meat may well be picked out and served to you. Don’t worry if you have to leave a little, because that’s fine in Morocco – just as eating every crumb is a sign that you are still hungry.
  • Do not help yourself to drinks, but wait for your hosts to serve you.
  • If eating from a communal dish of couscous or a tagine, keep to the triangle of the dish in front of you.
  • Don’t praise an individual object in the home too much, because it may well be presented to you as a gift.
  • Don’t take wine or an alcoholic drink unless you are very certain that the hosts drink.
  • Do make polite conversation, declaring how you adore Morocco, and Moroccan culture. Don’t launch into politics or religious matters.
  • Irrespective of whether you are the guest or the host, your children will be kissed by all. And, if it’s a conservative household, men either kiss each other’s cheeks (if already close friends), and women kiss women’s cheeks. Men shouldn’t kiss women and vice versa, unless you know the family well or if you know them to be less conservative. A handshake is always a good bet unless a cheek is offered.

 

When Receiving Moroccan Guests

  • On no account serve any dish containing pork or pork products.
  • Don’t necessarily ask your guests what they would like to drink. It’s better to just serve tea, or whatever, or to pour various cold drinks and present them on a tray. Don’t offer wine or beer unless you’re pretty sure your guests drink alcohol.
  • Never eat or drink anything until you are sure that your guests have all been taken care of. And never on any account help yourself to a second helping until all guests have taken what they need. If there’s a little food left at the end of the meal, never dive in and finish it if you are hosting the meal.
  • Remember that when receiving people in your home, they are traditionally guaranteed security beneath your roof. This means that you are obliged to treat them with respect, and so it’s not the right time to launch into severe arguments.
  • In Morocco, receiving a guest is regarded as an honour for the host, and so there should be an abundance of food. Don’t worry if you have many times what will be eaten, as you will be honoring your guests. Quantity, quantity, quantity.
  • Don’t offer a tour of your home, unless the guests are close friends. Moroccans are always confused about the idea of the house tour. It’s largely regarded as absurd.
  • Don’t stress if your guests sit in silence. In Morocco, as in much of the Arab world, silence is seen as a virtue and a medium through which people get to know each other.
  • Don’t be offended if your Moroccan friends don’t send a message of thanks. It’s not something required in the culture. But, you are likely to receive a return invitation instead.
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