As a South African, this is a trip long overdue. I have been to Europe and the States but never beyond the borders of South Africa to explore more of my own continent!
The country side that flashes past our train window shows us a landscape not very dissimilar from home – very poor shacks as we leave the airport giving way to brown grassed fields where the odd cow (and quite a few donkeys) roam, to large tenement buildings which look far from wealthy but are absolutely covered end to end in satellite dishes, some rusted, some looking brand new. This gives way to more and more urban looking areas and then, finally we see the blue ocean! But this is no seaside port, oh no…it is not deck chairs or sunbathers but cranes and ships and containers that line the beach.
I have read up a bit in anticipation of our trip so arriving in Casablanca I know that this is not a city of scenery but rather an industrious, blue collar, roll up your sleeves kind of city. With its busy port the hub of most activity it certainly gives the impression of an industrious city. There is a slightly dusty feel to everything as though they took the dust covers off the city just in time for our arrival. The streets are wide and the driving reminds me of Naples, perhaps slightly less scary or perhaps Naples prepared me for the fact that in some places people use their hooters instead of indicators (mind you that’s not too dissimilar to some of our informal taxi’s!) and road markings are a guide and not a rule. I soon realised that what looked to the Western eye like a 4 lane highway could easily become a six lane highway. People just get on with it and every care we passed bore scrapes along it’s side – a testament to this casual approach to the road rules I am more familiar with.
Casablanca is a melting pot of cultures; there are still many remnants of the Portugese and Spanish invaders, obviously there is a strong French influence with everyone speaking French and Arabic as well as quite a few who speak English – of course Dot keeps confusing the issue by using what French she can, then when they respond in French (and my basic French not up to it) switching to English – ah well keep em on their toes I say There is a strong Jewish influence – which since I’ve done a course on the monotheistic beliefs and their origins didn’t surprise me at all and the Melt area is considered the Jewish area.
The hotels are clustered together in a hub a couple of blocks from the station and we wheel our way through the dusty streets past buildings which appear to be in various states of disrepair fending off offers from cab drivers. Dusty, peeling, grubby buildings with satellite dishes and washing hung across balconies and roof tops. In many ways the slightly (and in some cases, very) neglected buildings remind me of Naples. But, there are also huge differences; in the city center at least, there is no litter, no careless graffiti, no broken bottles or rubbish strewn along the pavements. Dusty perhaps but clean. There is also far more sense of order. As in Naples we soon discover not to judge a building by its outside as the most ordinary, slightly neglected abode can open onto the most beautiful interiors decorated with Persian rugs, beautiful tiles and mosaics.
The welcome from everyone; from the lass exchanging our forex at the airport to the concierge at our hotel desk (Best Western – Toubkal) and the taxi drivers we meet, feels warm, welcoming and sincere. It is currently winter here and about 22 degrees outside yet so many people are dressed in thick padded jackets and beanies, I think, my goodness, if this is cold for them, what is their Summer like?! I am very grateful for my long skirt which allow me to stay cool while remaining appropriately modest at the same time.
Bags dropped, electronics charging we made our way down to the dining area for a refreshing lunch of fresh salads, cooked veg and olives as well as some local red wine & beer (really very good!) Then we set off again to purchase our tickets to Fez and see some of the sites. We negotiated a round trip fare (100 dhms though if you use the little red taxis it would cost only 25 to 30 dhms) to the station and, upon getting to the station renegotiated a fare to see the Al Hussein II mosque. Our driver, Abdellah, was an enthusiastic tour guide as he drove us through first the old quarter, then showed us the local non tourist market hidden among smaller roads an alleys (it seemed impossible his old square Mercedes would fit down those tiny lanes littered with stores and people …but as in Naples impossible is nothing for local drivers). He stopped outside one moderately decorated, nondescript looking doorway and insisted we go look inside. There we discovered the most beautifully decorated hallway that led to another beautifully tiled room….filled with the most fragrant baked confectioneries all laid out on trays. Locals filed in and out tasting and selecting sweet biscuits to purchase. We’re offered a taste…and oh my gosh…I don’t particularly like sweet biscuits but I have to say despite it not being my thing (ans our sample being marzipan which I really don’t like) even I was amazed at the melt in the mouth freshness of it. If you enjoy baked and sweet biscuits and are in Morocco, Casablanca I highly recommend Patisserie Bennis.
From the old to the new – so far I have described the city as being old, there are parts which are old, parts which are ancient but, apparently since Mohammed VI has come into power (He ascended to the throne on 23 July 1999 upon the death of his father, King Hassan II.) there is also increasingly new! Along the foreshore new buildings are being raised everywhere, new hotels, parks, stations and conference and shopping centres. There is a positive sense of growth and our taxi driver attributed this and the job creation it brings to the new king.
Finally we reach the Al Hussein II Mosque, the 7th largest in the world built on the instructions of King Hassan II to commemorate the life of his predecessor built King Mohammed V. He actually wanted it to be the second largest after Mecca, however this not being a rich nation there was much public debate, eventually most of the money was raised by donations from the public and businesses.
Words (nearly) fail me. It stands flanked by a library and museum either side, tall and beautiful in cool white and green with the ocean alongside – it’s position is no mere chance – King Hassan II is quoted as saying: “I wish Casablanca to be endowed with a large, fine building of which it can be proud until the end of time … I want to build this mosque on the water, because God’s throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the creator on firm soil, can contemplate God’s sky and ocean.”
Every material used, with the exception of the large white granite columns (which came from Italy) was sourced in Morocco. Although for a building of this immensity it took only seven years to build it, it took 35 000 workers to construct it and that’s excluding the thousand traditional Moroccan artisans working for five years to create the lavish and beautiful mosaics, stone and marble floors and columns, sculpted plaster moldings, and carved and painted wood ceilings. It is huge, and yet not intimidating but rather awe inspiring in its beauty and the rich details that adorns it. To compare; St Paul’s Cathedral and square can hold 95 000 people (80 000 in the square) the Al Hussein II Mosque is able to hold 105 000 people (80 000 outside.)
The major attractions seen we headed back to our hotel, thanking our driver profusely and asking him to take some of the sweet biscuits back to his family to enjoy. Finally we fell onto our bed grateful to be able to stretch out…before I knew it we were waking up and it was nearly 7pm! Time for dinner. Should we head downstairs to the hotel dining room or go to Ricks Café… deciding that if we didn’t we would regret it ….”maybe not today. maybe not tomorrow. but someday and for the rest of our lives… ” we strolled the approx 1.5 km to the restaurant, yet another unassuming building (bar the suited security and doorman) which opened onto an Aladdin’s den of beautiful rugs, wooden carvings, mosaics and lamps.
The food was delicious beyond words. Fellow vegetarians will be ecstatic. Here vegetables are treated with equal importance to meat & not just as a side dish. My perfectly cooked Red Pepper was stuffed to the brim with a creamy but not too rich mixture of mushrooms and peas all deliciously spiced. I tried one of Pierre’s baked prunes (a hint of cinnamon) which came with his lamb and we shared side dishes (which come automatically with the mains). Beetroot and celery; crumbed eggplant; and pickled baby marrows….oh and chips with homemade tomato sauce but my word who had place for anything as ordinary as chips with this feast before us? Replete and with a couple of cocktails in us we left but, not before making a booking for the 27th. This time downstairs, next to the piano because there will live jazz music apparently 🙂 – someone will have to hold me back from saying; “Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.”
En-route back to our hotel we took the back alleys and wound our way past local cafes where groups of men chatted over coffee and young teen girls sat laughing together. Feral cats are everywhere but appear to be relatively cared for and are certainly not scared of people. I saw two young boys cutting up food for a few cats. For all that the main streets are clean and litter free we certainly found an alley or two which would not look out of place in Naples (for those who haven’t been to Naples picture rubbish literally strewn everywhere). It was warm enough for a light cardigan and felt perfectly safe….although I am sure as in any town there are alleys one should not go down. There was barely time to reflect on our first day in Morocco before I was fast asleep …and woken the next morning by the most beautiful call to prayers. Even at home it transports me taking me to a place and time different to mine. Now here, in that “different place” I lay dozing in and out of sleep transported to a time long long ago…