It means, “God willing,” and all the Muslims I know punctuate ordinary conversation with it repeatedly. In its most pious use, it’s an expression of humility acknowledging the paltry power we mortals have to make things happen they way we want them to. “Man proposes, God disposes,” as the Christian saying goes—inshallah, if God wills. The future is not in our hands. Tomorrow for lunch? Inshallah. See you at the game tonight? Inshallah. I’m working till six and then, inshallah, I’ll head home. In other words, here’s my plan, but you never know: God may have a different idea.
Our guide in Morocco was an inshallah kind of guy. Every morning on the bus he turned on the sound system, rapped the microphone a couple of times to be sure it was working, and ran down the schedule for the day. Every other word was inshallah. A religious man, the expression came naturally to him; but it was, I think, more than a pious reflex. It was also his way of dashing our American expectations of efficiency—Morocco does not exactly run on clock time; schedules are always approximate; the way things will actually work out is anybody’s guess.
The tour company’s materials urged us to relax into the “full Moroccan cultural experience.” Whatever else that meant, it soon became obvious that it covered a couple of promised activities that never materialized and more than a couple that became so prolonged they ate up all the time set aside for rest and exploration “on your own.”
When I was at my best, I tried to use the inshallah-ness of everything as a chastening exercise: You are in the hands of others now. Leave your inner control freak behind. Don’t feed your disappointment with complaint. Enjoy not being in charge for a change. Let yourself be surprised. Who knows what you will discover? You can sleep when you get home. But my efforts waned fast. I was too exhausted to summon myself to carefree heights.
I began to wonder if all the emphasis on entering the full Moroccan experience was just a dodge for really bad planning. I wasn’t the only one. Nearly all of us were getting sick, and the worst sufferers begged repeatedly to stick closer to the schedule or maybe even to curtail a few of the less important things (one fewer visit, perhaps, to a cosmetic shop, a carpet shop, the jeweler’s….) so that we could get some rest.
That’s when we learned that inshallah can also mean “maybe,” but more often just means “no.” It’s a weasel word, the sleight of hand employed in cultures that are almost perversely committed to making you happy, even against your will. The assumption seems to be that no human being ever wants to be told no, and therefore one must always leave open the chance of success in the other person’s mind, even when you know perfectly well you’ll do nothing to make it happen. It’s also flagrantly paternalistic, of course, assuming as it does that the client has no idea what he really wants, or what she really needs. How could you not want to visit another cooperative? It is a highlight of the trip (as were almost all the other venues listed on our itinerary)! Why would you want to rest when there are so many fascinating experiences to be had?
When our guide pulled that last one on me over supper one night, I was at my wits’ end. Testily, I replied that, indeed, I was certain there are millions of fascinating experience to be had in Morocco, and millions more to be had in the big wide world; but that being a mortal with only one life, I was also certain I would be missing most of them; and having long ago resigned myself to this limitation, I was not about to get avaricious now— so could I please skip the henna shop experience and go to my much-neglected bed?
He answered, “Inshallah.”