Runner-Up in the Privilege & Identity Abroad Narrative Writing Contest. See the announcement for all of our winners here.
I stand in front of the bathroom sink, towel wrapped in my hair, letting steam from the shower curl over my skin and rise to the ceiling. I see my reflection in the dewy streak left from wiping the back of my forearm against the foggy mirror. I greet myself, Sa-bah Elkhir. Good Morning. The words gurgle in my throat, leaving a pang in my chest. The night before, I had stayed up practicing the pronunciation of greetings. Speaking Darijia feels like extracting a shadow from my body. Painful, like removing a deeply embedded secret. We moved to the US before I can remember and the language faded, dissipating like the steam around me. My mom tells me that her grandmother told her that if there is anything you need to say but you don’t have someone to say it to, you should speak it to a running faucet. I turn the water on so it can wash my mangled pronunciation down the drain.
Radia, qu’est-ce que tu fais? Radia, what are you doing? My grandmother’s voice rings from the living room. When I visit my family in Morocco, my business becomes everyone else’s. Désolé, j’étais en train de prendre ma douche, je viens. Sorry, I was taking a shower, I’m coming.
If speaking Darija hurts from longing, speaking French hurts from lack thereof. Why my parents choose to raise me bilingual in the language of the colonizer rather than the language of the people is something I struggle with. I turn on the sink to wash those words down the drain, too.
To be Moroccan in diaspora is to hold my privilege blatantly out in front of me. My parents didn’t leave because of displacement, or instability. They left for opportunity, for education, for the “American dream.” Having the resources to seek better is a privilege in itself. So how can I justify the hurt I feel every time my phone dings with a message from my family’s Whatsapp group-chat that I don’t understand, that I’m not a part of? The uneasiness every time I introduce myself, alglicizing my name to accommodate the speech of my peers?
I hurry to the living room, wet hair dripping dark blue spots on my pale blue jeleba. It’s my 21st birthday, and the jeleba is the first I’ve ever owned. A great-aunt I didn’t know I had is waiting for me. I kiss her on both cheeks, she says, I hear you’re learning Arabic. That’s good, it will be useful. I smile. Well… I’m learning our dialect. She looks amused. Why learn Darija? You can only use it here. My grandmother chimes in, Why are you focused on the dialect when you speak English? English will give you more. I wince, but stay silent, not wanting to seem ungrateful.
That night, my family gathers around me as I sit in front of a beautifully decorated chocolate cake that reads “Joyeux Anniversaire.” The candles burn to stubs as they sing to me, first in French, then Arabic, then English. Rashida, the woman who works for my grandparents, a monolingual Darija speaker, joins on each round, despite not knowing the words. The next week, I will board a plane and return to my comfortable life in the US, where I have been blessed with a language and education that permits me to follow my dreams. The next week, she will return to her routine, cleaning the house, cooking. I do not know how to reconcile my privilege with my longing. I do not think I should. We cut the cake.
Radia Lahlou is a second-generation Moroccan-American from Carbondale, Illinois. She is currently completing her B.A. in Anthropology and Linguistics at Oberlin College with primary interest in language, media, race and power. Next year, she will be teaching English in Taigu, China, through the Oberlin Shansi Fellowship.