Leisurely shoveling vegetables and an unknown meat — maybe chicken? — into my mouth, I was hit with a small wave of fear; I had forgotten the word for “full.”
In Morocco, if you don’t know how to say “full” or “enough,” start saving for new pants as soon as possible. You will be constantly fed, having food either put in front of you or held close to your face. “Safi,” the Darijan — the Moroccan dialect of Arabic — word for “enough,” was one of the first words I was taught and I had forgotten it by day five.
It was my first day with my host family, a close-knit family of five. Though they speak French and Darija, with the eldest sibling learning English, my knowledge of both these languages is minimal, just enough to say, “Hello, how are you?” everyday.
Lunch is the biggest meal in Morocco and usually consists of bread, small vegetable dishes and a tagine, which is a large, clay dish containing meat and a vegetable shared by everyone at the table.
As I sat there, food staring up at me and family watching me, I began to think about what I could do. How was I supposed to communicate with my family that I was full? I could gorge until everything in sight was gone, but they’d probably — no, definitely bring me more food. I could get up and walk away, but that would be considered rude. I could pull up Google Translate on my phone, if only I had my phone on me.
My stomach was holding more that it could but they kept feeding me. “Eat, Alex, eat,” my host mother pleaded, her words almost bringing tears of pain to my eyes. I pressed on, not wanting to be rude, but the pressure only increased. “Eat, eat,” she exclaimed as I nodded and smiled, agony hiding behind my grin. “I’m not going to make it through this weekend,” I thought to myself.
Finally, the host mom left the table, and in that brief moment of desperation, I looked over to the eldest daughter and put my hands over my stomach. “Shbe’t?” she asked me with a puzzled look on her face. “Shbe’t?” I asked her back, equally confused. This wasn’t the word I was taught, but maybe it meant the same thing? Nonetheless, I decided to give it a go.
When the mother came back, I held my stomach and said “schbet.”
“You eat?” she inquired.
“Shbe’t,” I said, holding my stomach and telling myself to be firm.
Much to my surprise, she responded with “okay” and allowed me to leave the table. It had worked. This is how I would learn to communicate in a country where I don’t speak the language: through gestures.
Throughout the next few weeks, I would use gestures in any way I could. When indicating the price for a wool blanket was too high, I shook my head and pointed my thumb downwards. When I developed eight blisters from wearing the wrong-sized shoes, I pointed at my feet for the pharmacist, gesturing the shape of a band-aid.
Learning how to talk without using words was an element of studying abroad I hadn’t previously considered. It’s not really something schools teach about or something a traveler would learn from an orientation; it’s a lesson that has to be experienced.
Alexandria Saurman can be contacted at