Sunday, January 18, 2009

Imaginary Money

It’s been four months and I still haven’t gotten used to the money system here. So, the printed and coined currency is dirhams (about 8.5 dirhams in a dollar). But in spoken Arabic they quote prices not in dirhams, but in this imaginary currency called “ryals.” There are 20 ryals in one dirham. This is what I go through every time I buy something:

  1. The vendor quotes a price in ryals (e.g. “Elfayn hamsmia u steen”)
  2. I mentally translate that into English (2,560)
  3. Then divide mentally by 20 (128 dirhams)
  4. Decide this is too high and decide I want to pay 80 dirhams
  5. Translate that into ryals (1600 ryals)
  6. Translate that into Arabic (Elf u stamia)
  7. The vendor quotes another price in ryals (Elfayn)
  8. This one is easy to calculate, so it only takes me one translation step (100 dirhams)
  9. I counter with 90, translate that into ryals (1800)
  10. Translate that into Arabic (Elf u tminmia)
  11. The guy holds fast at 2000 so I hand him a 100 dirham bill

I mostly just find it absurd that they don’t think or speak in the currency they use, and if I buy a bunch of stuff at a hanut, the hanut guy will add up this long string of high and complicated numbers (because they’re in ryals) and reach some total that seems astronomically high, which people then have to divide mentally by twenty to figure out which bills and coins to hand him. But even though my sisters and the hanuts I frequent most often have learned to quote prices to me in dirhams, this system is probably not going away anytime soon, so I’m going to eventually stop just thinking how absurd the system is and learn to adapt. I need to train myself to look at a 20 dirham bill and think “400” instead of 20. And be able to ignore the numbers on the 1 and 2 dirham coins and learn them as 20 and 40. This might be the first time in my life when being literate has been a disadvantage. It would be easier to just memorize the blue bill is 400 and the brown one is 2000. Well, after two years of this I am going to be very good at dividing numbers by 20. Useful life skill, right?

Another imaginary currency exists here, called "francs". There are 100 francs in a dirham, but there are only a couple of amounts that are quoted in francs instead of ryals: 1000 francs (Elf franc) = 10 dirhams, and "million", which equals 10,000 dirhams.