When I first started learning Darija, everything sounded like this:
مشيت لقهوة و شفت صاحبتي و گالت ليا علا نهارها، و من بعد فسرات ليا البرنامج.
(Since Darija is an oral language, I beg those of you who can read script to please forgive any spelling errors – I tend to ignore proper spelling when I’m writing Darija in Arabic script!)
As with most languages, what is spoken fluidly in the world can differ substantially from the sound of a word you’ve internalized in the classroom, so a lot of time is spent hanging onto each syllable spoken in order to discern anything recognizable. Of course, the word our ears are most trained to pick up and respond to, in any language, is our own name. Think of how many times you were tuning out a conversation in the background until your own name leapt out at you.
So for a while, I was hearing my host family say sentences that frequently sounded like this:
مشيت لقهوة و شفت صاحبتي و گالت Leah علا نهارها، و من بعد فسرات Leah البرنامج.
Wow, I thought, they talk about me a lot. It made me a little extra attentive (…and paranoid) during family time. As they were CLEARLY discussing me in some way, or making decisions concerning me without including me in the conversation, I was constantly asking “What? What? What???? I’M RIGHT HERE!”
Pretty soon, I realized that I was hearing sentences like the one above everywhere. And all the time. Gosh, I thought. Everyone’s talking about me a lot. Right in front of me, as if I wasn’t there. How rude!
Eventually, I started to get an inkling that my name might possibly be an actual Arabic word. Finally I realized that I was actually hearing this:
مشيت لقهوة و شفت صاحبتي و گالت liya علا نهارها، و من بعد فسرات liya البرنامج.
Essentially, “liya” is the construction of “to” or “for” plus the pronoun for “me.” It’s used very commonly with “tell” or “say,” as in:
She told me yesterday. (Literally: She told to me yesterday.)
The imperative form is tricky too. I’ll transliterate it so you can get the full effect:
Tell me: Gul liya
Tell Leah: Gul l Leah
As you can imagine, it is very hard for me to distinguish that doubled “l” sound which is the only clue that the preposition is being used with my name as opposed to the pronoun construction. So even when people were having conversations with each other, completely unrelated to me, I would be obsessively trying to follow along, convinced that someone was about to tell me something.
Almost equally devastating, “liya” is also used with “to be able to,” as in “may I.”
Can I go with you? (Lit: Is it possible for me to go with you?)
I can’t go outside. (Lit: It’s not possible for me to go outside.)
And it’s also used with:
Explain to me
Send to me
Bring to me
(Boys playing soccer in the street also loudly scream it to each other a lot, and I’m not sure exactly what word they’re using it with, but I can guess it refers to passing the ball.)
All this was a major oy vey. Even after I sorted out the issue, I would twitch significantly whenever I heard “Leah/liya,” while my brain sluggishly replayed the sentence in order to discern if it was my name or the pronoun construction that was being used. My host family LOVED this and would giggle with delight every time I had to ask for clarification: “Did you mean me, or to you?”
So what did I do?
I changed my name!
At least, I tried to. Several of my fellow trainees were given Moroccan names by their host families, but my host family loved my name. “Leah, such a pretty name!” they would say, even as I related to them the difficulties it was causing me. (I neglected to mention that Leah is only one syllable off from Aaliyah, the toddler’s name. They’re so similar that she never comprehended they were different names at all, and as a result still calls me by her own name, “Aaliyah.”)
Luckily, moving from my training community to my final site gave me the perfect opportunity to start fresh and rename myself from day one, forever shedding this pesky Leah/liya conundrum.
But what to change it to? Aaliyah was off the table since it was already claimed by someone close to me. Most Moroccans approved of “Layla” since it was close to Leah, but that was dashed when I found out that the PCV one town over from me (with a hard-to-pronounce L name) goes by Layla, and I figured it would be inconvenient if we ever collaborated together. I wasn’t crazy about the other “L” names I had heard of, so I started casting afield. I wanted something meaningful, and I liked the idea of a name that would have significance in both cultures, or represent a shared history. (As some of you know, I do have some experience in giving myself new names, although I still find the act a little hubristic.)
So I settled on Meryem (or Maryam, or Mariam – as usual, English transliterations are all over the map). Meryem is the mother of Jesus in the Qur’an; she’s actually the only female referred to by name in the entire Qur’an, which devotes a whole sura to her. Meryem is also the sister of Moses and Aaron (non-Muslims spell it Miriam), a story shared by all three monotheistic faiths (there’s even some funny lineage confusion in the Qur’anic text because both women have the same name). Anyway, it fit, I like how it sounds, and once I’d visited the girl’s boarding school in my final site and nervously announced my new name to a few dozen girls, there was no going back. Now I hear my new name called to me during games, shouted from windows, and comically mispronounced by the toddler I live with.
I still twitch at “liya.” But it’s getting better. And at least now whenever I do hear it, I know, every time, 100%, that it’s not about me.
Just for fun, here’s my favorite song about a very special Meryem/Miriam: