Moroccan Math

Long time, no see! It turns out that the college search process takes up much more brainspace than I’d like it to. I’d love to be spending a lot of time on Plan B and thinking all of the big thoughts, but alas…Here’s an essay to make up for it! Commentary welcome.

Lightning slashes the distant sky, rain falls gently on crop fields, cattle bray and snort at the footfalls of thunder. I’m sitting in a plastic lawn chair, beside a rambunctious fourteen-year-old girl trying to best her brother in a drumming throwdown. Her dark hair, normally confined in a rumpled hijab, tumbles free and wild to her tiny shoulders. My host sister. Her father sits across from us, a stout, middle-aged man with a creased face and glasses.

Sidi Ouanjine is a math teacher, and he uses numbers to bridge the gap between my halting Arabic and his limited English. Tonight, he asks me about radians. At least that’s one word our languages share.

“Rah-dian,” he says. “Fehempti?” Understand? Yes, I understand them, on the superficial level reached in high-school math classes. But I want to know how they are explained here, in this vibrant country on the fault line between Africa, Europe, and the Arab world.

“Shwiyya,” I say. A little. His eyes light up, and he excitedly demands the glass his son has been fiddling with, then seizes a stray scrap of paper from the sticky hands of his young niece. He carefully tears two strips from it, and lays one on top of the glass, ripping it so it spans no more than the diameter, then splitting it in half.

“Rahdioos, fehempti?” I nod. He picks up the longer strip of paper, wraps it around the rim of the glass, and, satisfied that it represents the circumference, smooths it out on the table. He produces a pencil and lays the radius piece next to the circumference, making a mark for each time it fits in. Finished, he asks me to count the number of radiuses in the circumference, and I come up with just over six. “Sitta ou shwiyya,” I say, and he grins.

He scrawls the numeral 3.14 onto the paper, then 6.28. He points to the 3.14 (“Pi,” we say in unison), then the 6.28. A light flares on in my head, illuminating all of the vague forms and shadows collected from years of math classes. Things I’d never fully understood, but could work with well enough anyway. “Zhuzh pi,” I whisper, shocked. A circle is two pi. He applauds, as he always does when I remember the Arabic word for an object or beat him at marbles.

He continues the lesson, enthusiastic as ever, and I feel the incredible lightness of my epiphany: the unit circle, arc length, area calculations – it all seems so real.

A few months later, I’m sitting in a math class back home, watching a similar feeling wash over my classmates. Pieces they’ve had in their minds all this time—unfathomably jumbled, thick with dust—come together in a mind-blowing picture of an orderly universe. This knowledge stands resolute even in the depths of the perpetual existential crisis that is adolescence. I’m enamored with history, Arabic, and writing, but epiphanies like these make me hold on to math, universal and steadfast.

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