31 May 2010

Money Money

Since this blog is about me returning to Morocco, it seemed only appropriate to show how I pay for things while I'm there! Yay dirhams! Here is a list of some Muslim countries and/or Middle Eastern and/or North African countries and the currencies they currently use:

Afghani = Afghanistan
Dinar = Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Tunisia
Dirham = Morocco, Western Sahara, United Arab Emirates
Franc = Djibouti
New Lira = Turkey
Ouguiya = Mauritania, Western Sahara
Pound = Egypt, Lebanon, Syria
Riyal = Iran, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen
Shekel = Israel

The story of Moroccan money is not a simple one, however. Any current or returned volunteer from Morocco will probably groan to themselves while reading this, because they know what's coming.

For the rest of you, let me begin by saying that, to us in the States, if you see, for instance, a "20" on a bill like the one pictured here, and you know the currency of a country is "dirham," you would probably assume that that bill is worth 20 dirhams. And you would be correct. But, in our case, you would also be only half correct. Because that bill is also worth "400 riyals" and "20,000 francs." HUH?

Two of the previous currencies before the dirham was introduced were named, as you may have guessed, "riyal" and "franc." But, nowadays, riyals and francs don't exist in an actual bill or coin form anymore - although I have heard rumors of them being part of people's coin collection. Anyway, if you did the math from before, you know that there are 20 riyals in 1 dirham, and 100 francs in 1 dirham. As odd as this may seem to us, many Moroccans still think in riyals and, to a lesser extent, francs. Even if you are an Arabic- or Berber-speaking foreigner, you seem that much more fluent by being able to "speak" riyals (or francs) instead of dirhams.

From talking to people and other volunteers during my 2 years in Morocco, I have somewhat decided that there are a few different reasons for this. The main reason is illiteracy. Many people in poorer towns can't read. But let me be more specific: a lot of the women are the ones who do the shopping, and the majority of illiterate people in Morocco are women. So to them, the "20" symbol on our aforementioned bill means nothing. So they just memorize that the purple bill is 400 riyals, which is how they've been "speaking," money-wise, for generations.

This leads us to our other explanation: habit. Riyals are just how things are done in most small towns, and they really don't see a reason to change, because there isn't exactly an influx of new people, and everyone understands prices given in riyals. A friend of mine explained it like this:

She asked me: How is it that you type on your computer without looking?

I answered: Well, I just automatically know where the letters are.

It's the same with us, she told me, we just know that the green bill is 1000 riyals, and the purple bill is 400. We don't even think about it.

For those of you still paying attention, there is an added way of calculating large sums of money by counting in "centimes" or the cent of the dirham. Meaning, because cents are 1/100 of a dollar/Euro/whatever, 1 centime is the same as 1 franc.

For example, someone may tell you, perhaps, that the price of a Swing motorcycle is 1.5 million. But they will never say 1.5 million what. When I saw the price for this motorcycle on a price tag at a store, it said 15000. How is that the same as 1.5 million? Well, if you are counting in dirhams, yes, it's 15,000 dirhams. But, if you are counting in centimes/francs, it's 1,500,000. Just at the two zeros for the cents.

It works, trust me. It just makes for a giant zero-induced headache when I have to convert the price of a house from centimes/francs to Euro or dollars.

I don't even want to think about going from francs to riyals or the reverse...

By the way, as of today, there are about 9 dirhams in a dollar. And the coins in the picture above are 10 dirhams, 5 dirhams, 1 dirham, and 1/2 dirham coins. There are no centime coins shown here.

And so there you have it, a mini-explanation of the money situation in Morocco. Kind of ridiculous, but at least I am now very good at multiplying and dividing by 20 and 100.

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