Morocco has had a history full of various inhabitants and occupiers over the centuries. You can see this in the language (Arabic, French, “ShlHA”--Tamazight/Berber, Spanish, etc), food, and architecture. It is also apparent in the way Moroccans talk about money.
The current Moroccan currency is the dirham (MAD). This does not stop many Moroccans from talking about money in rials. A rial was a currency replaced by the dirham almost a century ago (1920s).
1 MAD = 20 rials
I must admit that I learned about this before I even entered the country. A former PC volunteer who served in Morocco gave me a quick math test on converting one to the other. This is all fine and good when I’m focusing on the problem, in English, in the comfort of my own country. It was another matter when I finally got here and experienced it as one more layer of confusion.
It isn’t that I’m so terrible at math (although as an artist, I don’t think I exercise that side of my brain as often), but when a number is shouted at you at the souq, where there is already too much going on, in a different language, it can be a little tough. During training I hardly tried. I was always prepared with, “in dirhams please?” They would usually give me the dirahms in French, which I still don’t understand (on my to-do list to learn some basic French, but darija is taking all my language-learning energy right now). “I’m sorry, I don’t understand French, in Arabic please?” By this time if the seller wasn’t rolling his eyes at me he was a saint.
After swearing-in and settling down in my new community I finally started to take the rial seriously. This was followed by many a “why why why?” to my tutor when we practiced. Why talk in a currency that doesn’t exist any more? It is so ingrained into my community (after all not all Moroccans talk in rials, or in the same way) that if you quote a price in dirhams it often has to be converted into rials to be understood. “But the currency is printed with the number of dirhams on it! How is this confusing for you?”
I eventually decided that the easiest thing to do is to not fight it. I stopped asking “why?”--it is just the way it is, and there is no way my protests will change it. After this acceptance and focus I’m finally gaining some confidence in my ability to understand and talk in rials. In the afternoons I can hear the vegetable sellers shout their prices from down the street.
“Miya-arbarin-banan, miya-arbarin-banan” = 140 rials /kilo bananas = 7 MAD /kilo bananas ( < $1 /kilo bananas, by the way)
My real moment of integration was when shopping around for the cheapest onions. I was getting most quotes in rials. When one seller gave me a number in dirhams, I didn’t hesitate to ask, “In rials please?”
I am currently serving in Peace Corps, Morocco, as a small business developer working with artisans since September 2008. I have a Master of Fine Art, in studio art from Washington University in St. Louis.