Morocco Travels: Rabat and Casablanca's Mosque (Part 1)
Novinite is publishing the first of three articles about Morocco, where a group of journalists was invited to spend more than a week in November and get to know a country which is not far from Europe, looks fantastic on tourist billboards and draws millions of visitors every year, but Europeans don’t know about it as much as one would expect.
This first part takes us to two cities in Morocco’s north. None of the texts pretends to be a guidebook at all; it is just a traveller’s way to share a few thoughts.
See Morocco and Die
Huge French-language billboards advertising telecom services, wide boulevards and bright night lights - all of these greet visitors to one of Northern Africa's biggest cities. But minutes into our tour around Casablanca, as the bus is stuck in rush-hour traffic congestions, the idea of having “something like Europe here" starts to look increasingly dim. Here are the African crowds in the streets, walking under endless rows of hoisted flags, with garments ranging from "European" suits to anything a European mind would falsely recognize as "exotic" (what does this word mean anyway?) and that the Moroccans and the Arab-speaking Mediterranean would call simply "kaftan" or "djellaba" (types of robe).
Taking a stroll along Casablanca's Atlantic coastline and later into souks, the traditional markets every city has, one gets immersed into the crowd in a matter of seconds. There is plenty of time to look around - this is no place to be in a hurry, and no-one around is. Within minutes, one realizes this different sense of time is not just a phrase to lure tourists, even a dynamic city like this one shows a different notion of rhythm, one that the famous Humphrey Boggart movie has largely failed to show.
Interesting as it might look at the beginning, Casablanca is just a gateway to another world – a preparation for what we, a group of journalists kindly invited to get a few albeit long-lasting impressions, are to discover here, going further east or south. “See Morocco and die!” is by no means an overstatement or an inadequate adaptation of the old Roman saying – and given how diverse (from snow to sand, from grazelands and cliffs to marvellous beaches) and big (roughly the size of California or Sweden) it is, anybody willing to know this North African country will have to spend some years traveling around before having seen all and dying in peace.
Just like any attractive country, however, Morocco is not about guidebooks. They can’t show you all the surprises that are hidden here waiting for even the laziest of travelers, those who might perceive tourism as ticking off a bulleted list of landmarks. As we arrive I have limited knowledge about Morocco and have to adhere to the list – at least at the beginning.
Short of ticking off the list, standing before Stop No.1 (Hassan II Mosque), my head is already buzzing with footnotes I am trying to add under the first bullet.
Casablanca's largest mosque is just 22 years old, but has already made history.
Very few mosques look so different by day and by night. No, it's not about their colors or anything visible in the pictures. You arrive by day and see what you think are the Hassan II Mosque's "true colors", the beauty of its mosaics, floors and columns which thousands of artisans worked for years to carve out, the ornate details its not very old minaret stands out for; but it isn't before the sun is down that you can feel the real energy of the place, because it isn't before the evening Moroccan cities wake up to life, with people forming spontaneous multitudes of friends and family gatherings at their favourite venues.
This is the largest mosque in North Africa. Some 25 000 people can gather inside and another 80 000 on the square around it.
Just like landmark areas of other cities here, this place will soon be full of people who don't want to be pictured, but who remind a visitor that, no matter how splendid Morocco is, it's the people here that make up most of its cultural heritage. People spend happy evenings talking about their day while children are playing under the world's tallest minaret (210 m) – whoever arrives to Casablanca has to spend at least ten minutes here to catch its rhythm.
It was King Mohammed VI's father, Hassan II, who decided to honor his late father by recreating the landscape where the mosque stands now in the early 1960s. Twenty years later, his plans had gone further: a temple was to be built on water, because, as Hassan II pointed out himself, "God's throne is on water".
Overlooking the Atlantic, with the ocean waves crashing against its foundations and the breeze blowing against its minaret and walls, the mosque is like a lighthouse calling on the faithful and helping them find their way. Inside, in the central hall, you can see the Atlantic beneath your feet. Much of this is built with donations: the donations of over twelve million Moroccan citizens.
A picture with an Atlantic view taken immediately next to the mosque is a challenging task; the place where North Africa's biggest mosque is, quite expectedly, is a security area. A few dozen meters away, however, anyone can stop for five minutes and watch the horizon.
Minutes after seeing Hassan II Mosque by night we are standing in front of another landmark venue – if there is a famous place that’s “younger” than the mosque itself it is just a cafeteria.
It needs no advertising at all; the US woman who opened it ten years ago did a good job herself by getting the word about (something Moroccans are good at) and creating the impression Humphrey Bogarth and Ingrid Bergman did sit at some of these tables. In truth,
the movie Casablanca wasn't shot in Casablanca. But Rick’s Caf? is there,
hidden in between major thoroughfares of the economic heart of Morocco. It is often shown to tourists as the place where most of the 1942 movie's action takes place. Records show otherwise: it opened just a decade ago when former US diplomat Kathy Kriger realized she might have just found the right niche.
Twelve hours later, we are on our way to Rabat, the capital of Morocco and its second-biggest city whose name has always looked somewhat dwarfed in the shadows of too famous Casablanca and too stunning Marrakech. The short, nearly one-hour trip from Casablanca, however, gives a different picture. (A wider selection of pictures from Rabat is available here.)
Rabat is a living schoolbook on Morocco's contrasts
Never spend just a day there; if you do, you risk feeling as if you started to watch a promising movie but were too tired and fell asleep halfway through, even though it might have become one of your favourite titles.
Brand new trams in the center, moving along a bridge only a few km before the Bou Regreg river discharges into the Atlantic, are a stark contrast to the well-preserved fortress walls of the nearby medina – a North African city’s “old quarter” which usually dates centuries back and has a number of maze-like streets. Rabat, a city of Berber foundation, is the first sign on our way of how intertwined “Arab” and “Berber” elements are in Morocco. Rabat, alongside Fes, Meknes and Marrakech, is known as one of the country’s “Imperial cities” – heirs to settlements established by Muslim Berber (Jewish Berber-speaking people have historically played an important role in Morocco as well) dynasties more than 800 years ago. Muslim women with robes and hijabs are a more common thing in the streets; but so are remnants of the past showing people are just respectful of their traditions.
Visitors to the Museum of King Mohammed V don’t necessarily have that “European tourist” look. Some are here just to pay tribute to the late king.
Downtown Rabat has a Mausoleum of Mohammed V, who negotiated Morocco's independence from France in 1956, after several years of exile, ensuring a peaceful handover of power from the French administration to the Moroccan kingdom itself. It looks like the best place to start a journey backwards in time – or back and forth. Chellah, a necropolis with sights dating back to the Phoenician era and nowadays turned into gardens, is home to a number of plant species. We who live in the Northern hemisphere and just suppose where storks go in the winter should know Chellah must be somewhere among their ten favourite winter destinations. The ruins of any ancient tower or tall tree are undoubtedly the best place to build a nest. For music lovers, the best moment to visit Chellah would be September, during the Jazz au Chellah festival that has been taking place for over a decade.
Just opposite Chellah, at the mouth of the Bou Regreg river, is yet another fortress. Looks exactly like the previous one on the outside and we are on the brink of wondering how to distinguish one from the other in our memories when we make it inside. In truth there is no way to mix them up after talking a walk surrounded by the white-and-blue walls of Kasbah des Oudayas – a UNESCO World Heritage area dating back to the Berber dynasty of the Almohads with narrow, rambling streets. After having had a cup (or actually a tea glass) of coffee at a terrace over the Bou Regreg we start going down an endless series of streets. All of a sudden the noise of the cafeteria disappears to give way to a quiet, out-of-time feeling and an occasional street musician.
A few dozen turns later, however, we find ourselves at a wider street with a post office, an exhibition of local artists, and many shops; the neighborhood lives its own, private life. Dark afternoon clouds gathering over our heads (the sun sets early in Morocco in November; by 5 PM evening has already started to fall) do not discourage locals from coming out of their houses, preparing for their usual night walks and gatherings. By the time there is not enough light to distinguish white and blue on houses’ walls, we find ourselves on a square surrounded by two-storey houses on the one side and a low parapet on the other, overlooking the ocean. We grab our cameras to take last pictures of the coastline... and we would have done so if they hadn’t come. More than a dozen young boys on bikes, all trying to impress us – and obviously small groups of girls standing all around and watching – performing stunts as if at a local competition. One starts to speed up, heading for the parapet, raises his bike’s front and, just when he is about to fall off the parapet, he pulls the brakes. It is high time we left and let them use their training ground.
Unlike some other old, "tourist-friendly" sites, Kasbah des Oudayas is not a mere setting to admire. It would be bustling even if a single tourist didn't set foot.
And then comes the souk – a traditional marketplace, kilometers-long and exhausting in a way, with countless stalls; just think of something you want to buy and it pops up right in front of you. Untrained eyes fail to remember so many details: first we walk past (and stop at) the shops of souvenirs, and there we still see many European faces.
Just a place one can spot and peek into while waking down a street of the souk.
Somewhat unnoticedly, the rows of souvenir shops turns into a line of clothes or carpet shops and then food stalls. It’s the food stalls where the role of souks in Moroccans’ lives is most obvious. Some hours into the evening, this part of the souk looks like a huge open-air restaurant, with meat, sweets, traditional dishes, raw or cooked vegetables and fruits sold all around; with horse- or motorcycle-driven carts and wheelbarrows of all sizes. Lively souks are something we already saw and we will see in every city we visit. Vendors love talking to customers or onlookers, but it's no easy thing to talk your way into a better deal. Cutting the half in price is not so simple as “The Art of Bargaining” manuals are trying to explain it; a good bargain takes some skill here, or at least good nerves. Those who are not good at negotiating a good price just enjoy the rest of the evening, wondering how different Meknes, Fes and Marrakech will be, the next cities we are heading for in the morning.
On our way, leaving Rabat: a reminder that Morocco is not just sand, palms and argan trees. There is much autumn up in the mountains. Ifrane is not quite “Moroccan”, unmistakably resembles an Alpine village. It is a memory of the French protectorate in Morocco in the first part of the 20th century, when European-style villas were built here for part of its administration. With cool summers and snowy winters, it is nowadays a ski resort that made “headlines” in 1935 with the lowest-ever temperature (-23.9 C) measured in Africa.
The second part of this travel journal is to follow on Monday, December 07.
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