A Stranger’s Pose (excerpt)

A Stranger’s Pose blends memoir, travelogue, and storytelling as Emmanuel Iduma relates his journey across several African countries. In this excerpt from Chapter 6, he explores interacting and communicating in French, a language he barely knew when he was in Rabat.

I looked at French words to guess their meanings. But there were times I faked understanding. In Rabat, when I went to Pause Gourmet for salad and café au lait, I would say yes to everything, hoping the question posed required a yes or a no. All my yeses were indicative of a larger paranoia, that of being marked as a clueless stranger. What the hell was a person who didn’t speak French or Arabic doing in Morocco? Sometimes yes would be inappropriate, or insufficient, requiring a modification. The waitress would immediately perceive my limited understanding, and ask for what I wanted in a clearer, drawn-out way. Again, I’d nod, suggesting finality with a smile. That would settle things.

Or when Khadija rang the bell of my apartment. I got dressed and went for the door. She was mopping the floor, this middle-aged woman who began to speak in rapid French when I appeared. I perceived she was talking about her work in the building—travail, ici. My nods were tentative, speculative. She didn’t seem to mind. She wanted to exchange numbers. If I wanted any help with the apartment I could call her. She left and returned with her number on a small piece of paper, written in blue ink. Also, a small piece of paper for me to write mine. When I gave her my number she asked if it was okay for her to call me. Oui, oui.

Or when a man came from the hotel to take me to a new apartment. The agreement was for me to stay in the first apartment until the new one was ready. He came to take my bags, explaining this with limited French. Frustrated by our translation problems, he asked if I spoke Arabic. No. From then on he seemed impatient, and yet subdued—almost rash in the way he suggested what he meant by lifting things and moving them before attempting to communicate where we were going.

After regular visits to Pizza Zoom for lunch and dinner, it seemed I was marked alien. I perceived—perhaps by dint of exaggerated self-importance—that I was the subject of fleeting discussions in the kitchen. Waitresses and their male colleagues recounted their encounters with me: He nods to everything, he wouldn’t pronounce “brochette” the right way, he always reads an English book. English is my fate here. The cashier, once when I tried to pay for my meal, switched to English to confirm what I’d had. I responded with relief. At last.

I wore my language deficiency like a veneer, like gauze, like stratum. Underneath was tangible communication, out of reach. Yet I did not bemoan this. My deficiency was benign in comparison. For migrants arriving in Morocco from countries south of the Sahara who have to make a living or wait almost interminably for a better life, to acculturate is to survive. Without the knowledge of French or Moroccan Arabic, they face the belligerent wall of inadmissibility, combined to the fringes of their new society.