Buying Dates in the Salé Medina / by Brea Persing


It was about a month into my Moroccan Arabic language study and I had been trying to practice what I had learned with everyone I could. Mostly that was with produce merchants, the butcher down the street, and taxi drivers.

This one particular day, I went to the train station to purchase a ticket to Tangier to meet up with friends for the weekend. I had learned from a previous trip, namely my first train experience, that if you want a first class ticket, which is safest for a woman traveling alone, that you need to get it one day in advance, as there is no guarantee they won’t be sold out by the time you arrive to leave.

I had left the train station in Salé and decided to head into the medina, which was across the street and down a few blocks. My language teacher had previously pointed out to me which entrances to go into. I chose one and walked around inside until I found where merchants were selling produce, dried goods and my favorite, dates and figs. I soon found out that this medina was nothing like the one in Rabat, which most of the upper class and tourists shop in. No, this one in Salé was for was the medium to lower class, with no tourists in sight. For me, that meant more practice speaking Arabic instead of Moroccans wanting to practice their English.

As I was walking, I found a place that had many different varieties of nice looking dates. I had never seen so much variety. As I stopped at the little “store”, an older lady was there buying goods and so I greeted her and the vendor, with a smile, in Moroccan Arabic. They were both a bit surprised. The lady started speaking to me in French, which had happened multiple times before, so I had learned the phrase, “I do not speak French” in French to tell those who assumed that I was French speaker. French, in Morocco and most of North Africa, is the business language. So I kindly told this lady, in French, that I did not speak French. Then she asked me if I spoke Spanish and I answered, “si”. She asked if I spoke Italian and I told her I spoke Italian “perfectly”. I think she asked me this because because once I moved to Spain, I spoke Spanish with an Italian accent, and when I returned to Italy for a visit, all my friends told me I spoke Italian with a Spanish accent. So in Italy people thing I am a Spaniard and in Spain, people think I am an Italian.

I told the older lady that I spoke English too, even though she didn’t ask about that language, and that I was learning Moroccan Arabic (darija). I told the vendor, who was standing up and behind the multitude of dates and other dried goods, that I wanted to purchase a half kilo of dates, “nes kilu d tmr”! I pointed at which ones I wanted and he smiled, got a plastic bag and began to fill it with dates. In Spanish, I asked the lady about some of the dates in the back, the bigger ones. I learned later that they were Medjool Dates. She tried to explain tell me what they were in French but I didn’t understand. So she had the vendor get a jar of something to show me—date paste! She said you use those dates, the ones in the back, to make paste, and not to eat them by themselves. But let’s be honest, Medjool dates are delicious to eat by themselves.

Here’s a good rule of thumb with dates. No matter where you get them from, ALWAYS slice them open first to inspect there aren’t any worms, worm eggs or mold in the middle. They could make you sick if you eat them without inspecting them first, even the ones you buy in the store that are already pitted.

Back to my experience in the medina. At this point in my life, I hadn’t known much about dates, at least not the kind you eat. :) I wanted to buy more than just dates though, I also wanted some figs. I couldn’t remember the word for dried figs in any language by English, so I pointed to the figs and said I wanted a quarter kilo please “reba kilu affek”. The lady and vendor both smiled at me in delight as I pronounced my words correctly. They both complimented me on my pronunciation, of which I was very grateful. Learning a language is like a roller coaster, some days you can speak a lot and sound great, and then other days it’s a train wreck. It’s a huge win when you’re complimented! Had I been able to speak more, I would have asked the difference between all the dates, but I decided that would have to wait for another day, maybe when I had a Moroccan with me that spoke English and could explain. Rather than that, one day I just decided to buy a little bit of each date and try them to decide to difference. They were yummy!

I couldn’t remember how to say “you’re welcome!”. The vendor had said thank you to me and I thanked him back, but I also wanted to say, “you’re welcome!” I tried to ask the gracious lady beside me in Italian and Spanish, but she didn’t understand. So I pointed at the man and said “thank you” in Arabic and then pointed back at myself with the motion back to him to try and tell her I wanted to know how to say, “you’re welcome!”. She didn’t tell me the phrase I had learned before, which I have forgotten numerous times, but it was another phrase, something along the lines of “Thank you, God be praised!” They both told me in Arabic and I repeated, the lady corrected me and I said it again. She was pleased. Then the vendor told me to repeat it again, and then again. He said things needed to be repeated. Natural teachers! 

I thanked both of them and said farewell with a smile. I was very happy and pleased with myself. Everything I had wanted to purchase in the market I purchased and was thrilled with the day’s exchanges. My Arabic was getting better and I was pleased with that, as well as my level of courage! I walked out of the doorway I had entered earlier, crossed the street, and proceeded to walk until I was close to the train station again, where I knew I could get a taxi and go back to my homestay.