The F Word

If you’re familiar with Morocco then you are aware it’s been heavily influenced by the French, because there was a French protectorate in place from 1912 until independence in 1956.

The result of this is still heavily evident. French is one of the three official languages (the others being Arabic and Berber). French is the official language of business and the language of all leases, contracts and other bits and bobs. It is taught in schools and spoken interchangeably in sentences. I have had a young nomad girl count to 10 in French for me. It’s everywhere. (Along with delicious pastry, cafes and a ton of French expats).

In fact, Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and Berber are riddled with French words. For example, the word for “pen” in Darija and in Berber is “stylo.” The word for “car” is a close proximation of “automobile” across the board. Sometimes there is no word in Arabic so they just toss in the French one.

So along comes the Canadian from – not Quebec. I have a complicated relationship with French as do many Canadians of my age. When I was going to high school, three things were happening.

1. I had to take one mandatory year of French. Grade 9. Madame Jeeves. Hated it. She was not fond of me, nor me her. “Mademoiselle Noir – OUT”. I spent more time in the hall for being a smart ass than I did in class. I learned to read some story about cheese and another about a man named Toto in a bike race. “Va se Toto!” Still rolls off my tongue. And a song about Napoleans soldiers.

2. Quebec was undertaking its first referendum. It was a big fuss. Justin’s dad was all talk talk. My dad couldn’t stand him. Things were tense. (And not just among the dads.) The general mood around my house? Let them go. “Or rev war” my dad would say. The whole separation thing has never worked out for them but the resulting Bill 101 and 2 official languages and the language police and relabelling e v e r y single thing so the Quebecois could read the labels too (instead of learning English) Lets just say it left us all with some deeply rooted and unpleasant feelings. I went on to take German in school.

3. My father elected to retire early citing in part the pressure from the government to change the labels on all the things he imported from the States and sold to his Anglo buddies. Too costly and too annoying to continue. So that was what I learned at home.

Also worth noting, the French in Canada elected to separate from the French in France and that’s how they ended up in Quebec. The language diverged from there. And, while I learned to read French in school, and conjegate verbs, there was not much focus on pronunciation. Then came years and years of exposure to Quebec French. Pronunciation and dialect. It was all downhill from there. My best French is usually me saying something smart with a Quebec accent like “two eggs side by each facing the sun.”

Fast forward to October 2015. My travel mate L decided she would use the occasion of our trip to Morocco as a chance to brush up on her French. After the immigration booth in Casablanca she boldly walked up to an armed militia man and said “ou est la guerre?” He laughed at her. She immediately backed down and said “shoot that didn’t go well, where is the station?”

It was a few weeks later on retelling the story that Mustapha pointed out she had asked the militia man “where is the war?” Oops.

Then I moved here. Thanks to a dear friend I had done and still do work my way through Rosetta Stone for French. I can get by with a few words. I can read a menu and get the general gist of a contract. I know what’s being said to me. I just can’t form a proper sentence in response. And I’m often told my accent is heinous.

The French that Moroccans speak you see is pure, proper, beautiful French. If I have learned nothing in my time here I have learned to listen to people speaking other languages. I can now tell the difference between Moroccan French and Canadian French. Like listening to Beyonce sing and listening to me sing. Viva la difference. A friend recently told me that when he entered Canada through Montreal all the Moroccans on the Air Canada flight were laughing at the announcements. “Your French is very broken.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I love Quebec. Culturally it is arguably the most sophisticated province in Canada. (Sorry Alberta.) They have gorgeous lakes and forests, great ski hills, amazing maple syrup and hello? Poutine. I spent a wee bit of time this summer in Quebec and yes the French onion soup is to die for. Excellent cheese. It’s got a lot going on. Just don’t try to have a conversation.

I have a few Québécois friends. I love them to pieces. We speak English to each other and life is good.

Why am I raising this F’ing issue? I got in a taxi today and had my DAILY dose of conversation. It invariably goes like this.

Me: Shokran bizef monsieur (thanks mister)

Him: (In French or Arabic) “oh, you speak Arabic?”

Me: (in Arabic) “A little bit”

Him: (in Arabic) Where are you from?

Me: (in Arabic) I am Canadian.

Him: ” AAAAAHHHHH Francais”

Me: “Nooooooooooo. Me pas francais. Ana mm mdeena Toronto” (I am from Toronto).

Him: “Oui! Francais! Canada francais”

And then comes the ongoing daily battle to educate the entire country out of their common misconception. I try in some form of Darija/English and French to explain that, no, just because I am from Canada does not mean I’m French. Not everyone from there speaks French. In fact only about 20% of the population speaks French. “No” comes the general reply. “You are wrong. Canada is French.”

“OK LOOK!!!!! Don’t make me explain my political leanings as it relates to the use of the French language.”

I suppose the alternative is to feign an American accent and side swipe the whole conversation. Ha! My Canadian friends know that this is NOT an option. It’s like being British and being asked if you are Australian. Not cool.

So I just go about my day. I take Darija lessons because it’s a hard language to learn. I absorb as much French from my environment as I can. I am used to every person greeting me with “bonjour” and assuming because I’m white I must be French. I comfortably reply “bonjour ca va?” And usually end up speaking in sentences that are part Darija, French and English. Like everyone else.

But I will continue my fight to enlighten Moroccans one at a time and let them know that not all Canadians speak French.

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