Shlada. It’s an Arabic word I learned early on in my time in Morocco, but not first for what the word actually means- salad, but for its metaphoric use to describe the Moroccan identity.
My husband’s family frequently asks me what I think of the Moroccan people, society and culture. It’s a risky question because if I say what I really think and my husband translates word for word, I could easily offend them. But, I’m often too honest for my own good. So, instead of coming up with a safe and diplomatic answer, I tell the truth of my observances and experiences since my arrival to Morocco in 2008.
“It’s confusing”, I start. “I see the older women wearing hijab and djallaba walking next to their teenage daughters dressed in the tightest western clothes possible and a lot of make-up. The daughter, rightfully passed the age when she also should be donning the hijab herself, is encouraged by her mother to buy more clothes and make-up. While you hear the calling for prayer in the streets, a Muslim has forgotten every single lesson in humanity from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and is gunning for you from behind the wheel of his car as you are trying to crossing the street. I guess I expected something different in a country of Muslims.”
When I feel myself going down a ranty path, I try to add in the difference in scenery and cities. “The landscape of the entire country is so different. There are tall, snow-capped mountains and oceans of sand in the desert…tropical paradises and beautiful beaches full of lush fertilization in the rainy seasons. All the cities have their own personalities and the way people live in Casablanca and Tangier is so completely opposite to the people in small villages and even the desert nomads. The whole country seems to be about opposition right down to the very earth it’s made of.”
I continue on, “The gap between rich and poor is so apparent here. There are the biggest villas in Soussi while there are shanties not more than two blocks from our own apartment. And there is all this modern technology, but so many people don’t even have a shower installed or running hot water in their homes…people have the latest cell phones and wireless internet on their laptops, but not hot water? I’m sorry, but this kind of doesn’t make sense to me. ”
And, then I go back to the Islam thing. “Why do people litter all over the streets, ruining the earth Allah has provided while they are saying ‘smillah before making any move?”
I go on, “the Moroccan people are known all over the world for their hospitality, but among each other that graciousness and generosity is missing.” I feel myself getting ready to relate my hammam tales of the times when I’m identified as an American and the times when I’ve blended into the crowd. A much different experience I assure you.
I can say more about the many differences I see in a society full of people mainly originating from one land, but I see they are getting my point and I finally finish with “I don’t know what to say about the Moroccan people, they aren’t at all “bad”, but maybe it’s a good example of how Westernization isn’t always such a good thing. The contradictions I see all seem to be related to modernization…” I trail off then. And finally, after all the translating is done, I hear them all mutter one word, “shlada.” The Moroccan identity is like a salad–mixed up, chopped up bits of different things thrown together in a bowl. They don’t say it with any animated excitement as if it’s a good thing. They aren’t offended by my views. At least, they don’t seem at all offended by my observations nor does my husband relate that anything I’ve said has hurt they’re feelings. Nothing I’ve said is meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m just relating what I’ve witnessed and experienced here.
But, often the conversation ends there never going further into the idea of Moroccan identity, whether it’s modernization or something else that has blurred Moroccan identity to an outsiders view. But, as they move on to another conversation, I’m left wondering: what is the Moroccan identity? Was it ever something different or more definable than it is now? What would they like it to be? Yet, my family just seems to accept it and move on to the next topic of interest.
Do other Moroccans feel and think the same way about Moroccan society and culture? Would they agree with my observances and my family’s notion of shlada? If it’s something different then what they want, what exactly would they like it to be?