Sunday: Marrakech

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It’s Sunday and with the added event of it being the Prophet’s birthday, all the usual shops for translation are closed. Raining in the square, I am clutching to five thin blue sheets of an interview cut short.  Arriving back at Jamaa El Fna, part fear and part frustration sit in my chest unlike the frantic rush made two hours before this moment on another search for a translator. Although there was a slight replaying of the same search again, this time it felt slightly more pressured, as if there was more to lose.

Narjiss Nejjar, the one who has been elusive for months, the one who never returns my calls, doesn’t speak English just as I don’t speak French, finally sat and spoke with me. On the occasions when I ave found her on the phone, the Arabic language ceased to be affective in setting up appointments—- the phone dies, the phone rings, the phone never picks up…but today it was different.  After seeking out all of her friends, even those who couldn’t reach her, some deal was made. She knew I was out there seeking her and she agreed to meet with me through a friend but now I had to set up the meeting. “Why didn’t she set up an appointment with her when she had her on the phone! Now I’ll never find her again and I still can’t speak French well enough to set up the appointment.”


Sunday morning arrives, and I sit in a café with a cell phone that hasn’t rung yet, deliberating between two numbers to call: the translator I hope can help me speak, and the other number that never ever picks up. I try the translator first, but she’s sleeping and I’m anxious. Without any other option in hand and unable to speak, I spell out a message: “Bonjour Lalla Nejjar.  Esmee Michelle Medina. Andee motargim.” Five minutes later she makes contact after months of audio messages that went nowhere in cell phone history.  At noon I have an appointment at the Atlas Hotel and Spa in Marrakech. Exactly an hour and half after our meeting begins I am back in the square. Slightly defeated, very unsettled, and wishing I could have asked for just a little more.


I am seeking out a translator because I couldn’t finish my interview even though there were so many more things that I needed to say, to ask, to hear.  This was my one opportunity and my opportunity was gone.  Through the translator she made a promise. “She promises to answer anything you send to her but she is obliged to go.” As long as I could translate these questions into French I could make contact and I could be understood. Trying to remain composed standing on the side of Jamaa El Fna Square, I started to walk in search of someone…someone not just to translate but also to use my words and understand my meaning in a way that Nejjar’s translator at times did not.


The hotel manager offers to help but he seems unwilling and rushed. I can’t wait for him until 7 pm and I don’t want to disturb the tourists on holiday.  So instead, I’m looking in shops, asking for professors, you know, the old retire men from Europe that settle here in a café for life. “Café France, you’ll sure to find someone at Café France.” Why are all the English-speaking intellectuals at some variation of a ‘Café France’ from here to Essaouria? 


I find the café and I ask for help from a man standing behind the counter who does not know English. I expect him to turn me away, however he understands my Arabic and points me to his friend. A man, who not only knows English, but understands my questions. At first, he translates them roughly in French, asking me for the meaning and the context, my word choice, over again until he understands it as well as I think I do. He has sketched the outline in French but doesn’t feel comfortable to frame them in the language.  So we leave for his house to meet a man he calls his brother, who is an old French Buddhist writer who he says has the words. 


We begin to work, the three of us. With one man to my right and the other man to my left, we work for six hours, at times fighting over a single contested question for more than two hours.  The debate sometimes gets heated:

I know what I mean to say, why don’t you understand? Because you don’t say it like that in French…there are no words for that and it’s not a question! Say it like I wrote it because I didn’t say it like that. But there are no words for this and you just can’t say it like that. Why not, it’s very simple, very clear, see he understands? But I cannot understand and if I don’t understand the context and the meaning behind it I cannot place myself in her position to know how she would answer…I just cannot go on. I’ve explained the history of that word and the theories to each question before it… she’ll understand. Yes, but I can’t understand…we don’t say things like that in France. Yes, you can say it like that, and yes, she will understand.  It’s just not done.  {Silence}. 


“Listen to me. This is very important to me. Because I cannot frame these questions in the language I would like and I cannot ensure that they are placed eloquently like I want them to be placed, or even if they have the same meaning at all anymore. So please, I need you to help me make them sound beautiful.  I want some of my words to remain as they are.”


“But we must choose our language in our words well because people will criticize us based on them. They are our first observations. Our first images.”


This is exactly why there was a knot in my throat. This is why I was uneasy.  This is why I nearly laid my head down on the stool and cried, trying to get at the thing that eludes me but confines me in the same action. One word that needed to expose me, the word that needed to be my way of being seen and understood—my one shot to give voice to myself…this was my panic and this was my struggle.


As I sat there between two arguing men, arguing over my words, something came like a calm and I paused on them and this struggle over language. The struggle over language is where words like images give voice and give sight—, led by the desire to say it all.  Wherein a word is an image, a sentence is a thought, continuously leaving in search for meaning, which you pray doesn’t fail you and that you hope does not arrest you to it. 


This was where in three languages, from English to Darijja to French and English again, sitting between these men I realized that if it had not been for Narjiss leaving me too soon, I would not have seen each struggling with each other and struggling with me in an attempt to compose (my) Self. Trying to understand the complexity of the words [images] in this exercise of translation, which became a struggle for meaning and in the end, a struggle for beauty where within my questions and between my words, I came into being; forming and arriving in these sentences, every question enacting a struggle over exposure. Questions that were asking you to arrive, inviting you to appear, but allowing you to either conceal or disclose.


Like the women I was interviewing, who play with words and create images, I was asking them to disclose themselves. Inviting them to form me an image but as with every image, perhaps only a piece of its truth—a truth sometimes lying between the images, between the words that don’t capture the meaning and perhaps never can but are always attempting to. Often exposing a location never within the words themselves, which try to say it all, try to contain us all, but can only try to come close.  It is here, where one is arriving and leaving, struggling to find the words, struggling to make words fit, finding one’s body between words, between the images, between the lines.