Past, Future, Orientation

Katya Schwenk
February 13, 2019

It was a Wednesday morning, bleary and drizzling, in the center of Meknes, Morocco, a city full of orange trees (don't pick them; they taste like lemons), and we were all slouched in a classroom, learning Moroccan Arabic. Our professor had paused while explaining this particularly baffling bit of grammar.

"If you think about it," he said, after a moment (in Arabic—so I can't be held accountable for the accuracy of this), "the distance between past and future is infinitely small."

He pushed his hands together to demonstrate this. We blinked at him, bemused. "And if the distance between the past and future is infinitely small," he continued, "then the present moment doesn't exist."

No one seemed certain of how to respond to this. "There is no present," he repeated, grinning now. This philosophical point, apparently, explains why the verb "to want" is expressed in the past tense, in Darija.

It was the sort of moment that's nearly profound but is primarily funny. We laughed it off, and continued class.

I couldn't help but think back to that idea, though, for the rest of the ten days we spent at orientation in Meknes—mostly because that week of orientation felt like precisely the opposite; I felt constantly present in that city. Everything was immediate. The present was huge.

We were all shipped off to Meknes after arriving in Rabat to learn bare-bones Moroccan Arabic and to have a kind of ten-day test run with host families, before the real thing. Gradual cultural adjustment seemed to be the idea. We shared our feelings in small groups. We were served a lot of tea.

But still, the city, both quaint and grand, built up on the side of a hill, was unfamiliar, and its languages were unfamiliar, and unfamiliarity means you have no autopilot. You can never tune out. You have to think, extensively, about each step you take and each coffee you buy. You are in the present at all times.

It's almost meditative to go through life like this, so constantly aware. The sun was more dazzling. Each new word in Darija I learned was miraculous. The sprawling markets were bewitching.

We're all easing into routines now here in Rabat, which bustles with the absorptive energy of any capital city. The present is shrinking. I'm reminded of this when I listen to the call to prayer, which resounds through the streets five times a day. The first time I heard it was at sunrise my first morning in Meknes; the light was just starting to creep through the curtains. It was haunting, almost, this request to think of something greater. I thought it was beautiful.

Now, more and more, the call bleeds into the rest of the day. It's more of a reminder, now, that time is passing. 

Katya Schwenk

<p>I'm at junior at Georgetown, studying government, creative writing, and Arabic. I grew up in Vermont and Massachusetts. Interests include (but are not limited to!) radio, poetry, hiking, and beekeeping.</p>

2019 Spring
Home University:
Georgetown University
Amherst, MA
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