When I entered the classroom, there was one Moroccan woman sitting ready in her seat, new course books in front of her. She looked to be about ten years younger than my mother, and was wearing a beige and blue veil that almost matched the blue of our course book. I whispered “bonjour” to the woman before sitting in my own seat and arranging my own books on the desk, two blue paperback books for French as a foreign language. More students filed in, mostly Moroccan women. About half were the same age as the first woman, and about half around my age. We were all students in the high intermediate class at the French Institute in Casablanca, Morocco, although were all there for different reasons. Once the class was nearly full, everyone started quietly flipping through the course book, waiting for the class to start. The teacher came in about 5 minutes late, bringing an abrupt end to the silence in the room.
“Bonjour les enfants!” She waltzed into the room, not pausing for a second to check if anyone had been offended that she had referred to them as children. “Vous allez bien? Vous n’avez pas froid? Il fait vraiment froid aujourd’hui, je l’ai dit ce matin, et je continue à le dire. C’est vraiment l’hiver!” The other students smiled and nodded, still a little shy. The teacher set down her bag and arranged her coat and scarf on the chair before beginning to walk around the circle of desks to ask for introductions. The first student to speak was a Moroccan university student, still living with his parents, but thinking about studying in France. As soon as he finished his introduction, all shyness seemed to have dissipated from the room, at least from the Moroccans. One of the older women began a story about a Moroccan girl she had known who left her family at 18 years to study in France and who became an alcoholic. “But that’s not typical,” she explained. “My daughter is 20 years old, and she is studying in Belgium. She’s a good student, very sure of her values, knows where she comes from.” The teacher stopped the introductions to give a quick description of the French language exams we could take and what would be required for university studies. Her description was punctuated by frequent comments from the students, who already knew a few things about the exams. The next woman then introduced herself; a 30-year-old housewife, married to a doctor, and four months pregnant. Everyone congratulated her, and another one of the older women gave a quick and unsolicited warning about not consuming too much sugar during the pregnancy.
The next student was a student of medicine. She said she had already been accepted to do the preparatory years in France, but her parents wouldn’t let her go. She had therefore lost one year of study, and had been obliged to do the program in Morocco, but wanted to reapply the next year to go abroad. The three older women were next; all three were housewives, and all three had grown children. I was last, since I had sat at the far end of the circle, furthest from the door but close to the board. I knew I had a soft voice, so I figured I would be more likely to be heard if I sat near the teacher. I gave my name, described a bit about my job, explained where I am from in the U.S., and how long I had lived in Morocco. “C’est tout,” I said, and shrugged my shoulders.
As soon as I finished, one of the older women called out, “Are you married?” I smiled and said no, not married, but engaged. The woman next to her shouted out, “to a Moroccan?”
“No,” I said, “not to a Moroccan.”
“All the better for her!” Called the student of medicine. The teacher jumped back into the conversation at that point, shushing the building commotion.
“Les enfants! Calmez-vous! We are going to speak one by one. Why do you say better for her? What is wrong with marrying a Moroccan?”
Five hands shot up. One by one, the other students explained that the Moroccan Man is lazy, does not know how to wash dishes, and sits watching TV while his wife works in the home. The two male students in the class objected briefly, but after some prodding, revealed that neither of them had ever washed a dish. “My mother doesn’t even let me wash dishes at home! She knows I would just break them.” One of the older women admitted to being ashamed for having to ask her husband for money for the French classes, but said that he preferred that she not work. The medicine student said that Moroccan men are spoiled by their mothers and expect the same from their wives. The pregnant woman finished by telling me that it’s really much better for me to marry an American anyway.
The teacher, noticing that everyone in the French class had spoken a lot except me, asked me if I could say how I met my fiancé. In giving the story of how we met at our church in another city in Morocco, I mentioned that he is not in fact American, but Central African. The teacher moved closer to me and asked if I could say what country he was from. “La Centrafrique,” I repeated.
“Il est noir?” the medical student asked. The teacher said, “ah ok, le centre d’Afrique. Il n’est pas Americain alors.” I wanted to jump in again and clarify that he is in fact from “La Centrafrique,” or “La Republique Centrafricaine,” a country that is in the center of Africa, but I didn’t because I always have difficultly pronouncing all the syllables the name of the country and didn’t want to trip over my words on the very first day. The class was no longer erupting with new comments; it was totally quiet for a few seconds. Then the pregnant woman chimed in again to give the last word. “My husband is a doctor, and he once worked in Senegal. He said that his coworkers were very kind. Well-educated, gentle, respectful; yes, they are really nice people.”
I wanted to answer her by saying that I have never known anyone from Senegal, and that I have no idea whether that’s true or not. But I decided to hold my tongue; that was enough excitement for one session of French class.