Bryn spent her summer working at an English-language newspaper in Rabat, Morocco. Between high school and college, she spent a year living in Marrakesh, Morocco to learn Arabic and was happy to return this summer to see her friends, improve her Arabic, and learn more about Moroccan culture and politics. In addition to writing for the newspaper, Bryn wrote a series of essay about language and other aspects of her experiences for her Appel Fellowship writing.
We don’t really have one word for “of the people” in English, but they do in Arabic.
I first heard the word shaabi used to describe a neighborhood in the middle of Marrakesh’s packed streets. It was sunset, and my friend Hiba and I were riding our bikes in circles around the outskirts of the city though the falling desert night, dodging donkey carts and motorcycles. Throngs of boys began crowding the streets to begin the three-mile walk to the soccer stadium, waving flags and chanting, so we turned into a dimly lit side street to avoid the crowds. Uncomfortable in the dusk, I asked Hiba if we should go back to the main street. She said no.
“This is a shaabi place,” she told me. “We are safe here.”
In the cracked streets of the neighborhood, toothless, wrinkled men had set up a table in the middle of the street directly between their homes and were playing Moroccan cards. Motorcycles and cars driving by slowed to avoid the men. Little girls and boys with patches of dirt on their limbs played with a soccer ball, running barefoot across the sidewalk. Their faces flashed by as Hiba and I rode through the block.
As we passed through the streets, I instantly correlated the word shaabi to its false cognate in English: shabby. A neighborhood like the one Hiba was describing — unfinished walls, rusting grates on the windows, laundry fluttering over the street, and children running loose and naked on the streets – was a portrait of urban third-world poverty. Through most American eyes, everything on the street would have fit the definition of “shabby.”
In Arabic, however, shaabi means something very different. It means popular, but carries a different meaning than the conventional definition of the word in English: of the people.
I asked Hiba whether shaabi was a positive or negative term, and she looked confused.
“Of course it’s good,” she said. “Shaabi neighborhoods are where your child can play outside and not be scared, and where you can go to your neighbors’ house for dinner without an invitation.”
For the rest of the summer, I was intrigued by this word. I had never truly associated the themes of poverty and commonality with virtue, since the sector of American culture that I was raised in largely emphasizes personal consumption and status. The more I thought about it, I realized there is no word in English that carries the same meaning as shaabi.
When I took a train from Rabat to Marrakesh during my last weekend in Morocco, the first-class cabins with guaranteed seating were sold out. I was lucky to find a seat in the second class cabin in a compartment for eight crammed with ten women and children. It was 115 degrees, and the air conditioning broke. My nine compartment-mates spoke only Moroccan Arabic and wore tattered clothing.
After sitting in that train for four hours, I better understood the value Moroccans give to the word “shaabi.” Most people from my culture, myself included, would have borne out the heat in solitary discomfort, silently resenting the thighs pressing up on either side and the sweaty bodies of children thumping around. Instead of complaining about the heat, these women all shared food and water and fans as sweat dripped down our backs. Their children ran up and down the corridors playing.
One woman’s toddler moved from lap to lap in the compartment, grinning as she ate. She stood up with a manic energy when she moved, spreading her arms and twirling in the small open space between our legs. Every time she stood up, she would screech with excitement and recite the first lines of the fatiha, the introduction to the Qur’an. The women, all strangers, immediately got to know each other and attempted to include me in their conversations throughout the four-hour ride. They shared cooking tips and stories and laughter while passing around crinkled packets of tin foil-wrapped food. All of them called me binti – my daughter — and asked concernedly if I was seeing my real mother soon.
When I told my friend Zineb about the train ride when I arrived in Marrakesh, she smiled. “You were with shaabi people,” she said. “I’m so glad.”