On the main shopping street of downtown Casablanca I stepped out of the Zara women’s clothing store and hailed a bright red taxi.
“Do you know the Quartier California?” I asked.
“Yes”, the cab driver said.
“How much is the fare?”
“We’ll use the meter”, he said.
That was surprisingly refreshing. I hopped on board.
That’s the thing about Morocco. It’s surprisingly refreshing. I don’t know what I expected (or rather, I am ashamed to admit what I expected), but Morocco is a country of contrasts that simultaneously debunks and then reconfirms everything you think you know about the Muslim world. I was definitely on board for that.
All the guide books say don’t hang out in Casablanca too long, there’s nothing to see except the Hassan II mosque. But I had friends there, so I spent a few days.
Standing in line at immigration I got my first look at Moroccans. Casablancans at least were tanned and brown in sporty white clothes and aviators. They spoke a sexy version of French I was calling Frarabic. Lots of soft rolling Arabic with French mixed in and that occasional harsh scraping the back of the throat sound. Some of the women wore head scarves, or the modest yet fashionable Moroccan Jebela robe, and every now and again a full on burka. Fully half the women couldn’t be assed with any of that however and looked instead like back up dancers for a Rhianna video; tight tank tops, short skirts, wide hoop earrings, attitude. Everyone looked sophisticated and cosmopolitan and well fed.
My friends were California peeps and now they lived in a neighborhood called Quatier California. I stepped out of the airport into bright yellow sun and wide palm tree lined boulevards that could indeed have been Los Angeles. We proceeded into the sleepy suburbs past big houses that were nice but not mansions, too modest for millionaires. We also passed through bidonvilles: tin sided favelas with goats roaming the alleys and satellite dishes on every other roof.
Where was the grinding poverty, dry heat and anger? My friend explained to me that it was definitely still there, but Morocco was a kind of an anomaly, what they called the edge of the proverbial crescent. With plenty of very good farmland, few in the country experienced true food insecurity. But at the same time there wasn’t much oil in Morocco, so that oil class and all of the corruption that comes with it was largely absent. People were satisfied with the king and he was moving gradually toward further democracy. Apparently Moroccan weather was too mellow for any kind of Arab Spring.
Later we went down to the old part of town, the medina, to shop for groceries. My first introduction to the fabled Arab medina was tourist free, just locals getting things they needed for the week like vegetables, mint, meat, etc. It was all tightly woven, maze-like streets and single file walking. We kept the kids close; you could easily lose a small one here. Each street specialized in one thing. The row of seamstresses, the spice tables, the olive guys, the dudes with the cheap plastic sandals and knock off American teeshirts; and tables full of sweets buzzing with flies. It was gentle despite the crowd and there was not much hawking or pushing, just regular Moroccans going about their weekly routine. And the two constants of life everywhere in the world it seems: people glued to their phones, and football patriotism on display.
Next I took the train to Essaouira, an old fort beach town on the Atlantic coast. I expected desert on the way. The land outside the train windows was indeed flat and brown, but in tidy squares rimmed with edges of green; olives, shrubs, brush. Essaouira itself was very India like, two story dilapidated stone and concrete buildings, dirty over flowing sewers.
The medina here was low rised, a partial grid, and like a human tesselation; the same basic pattern repeating itself and spiraling out from the middle. Inside of what you thought was a building sometimes you would find whole streets or alleys. Inside those spaces I stumbled into some of the best olive oil of my life, and then a mixed Capoeria/Gnaoua music band.
The women were mostly covered. Essaouira it seemed was much more traditional and I wondered how these ladies would fare on the beach. The next day I went down to the ramparts facing out toward Spain and then to the beach. The water was very cold and not many people were in the the ocean, but the ladies were out in full force in a variety of swim gear in dazzling combinations, each person making their own personal negotiation between piety and summer heat. Some had headscarfs, shorts and teeshirts. Some had bikinis and ponytails. Some stayed clothed. A few had one pieces and shorts. It ran the whole gamut. Thankfully, none of the men had adopted the French style Speedo man-panty. Very modest faith-friendly board shorts predominated.
Marrakech’s medina was grimier, poorer, more medieval, more tout-y, more deformed, more beggared, more third world than Casa or Essa, and 120 degrees in the shade; but it all felt somehow staged. I got the feeling that if the all the tourists moved out of the medina it would suddenly be a ghost town, all the real people going back to their homes a mile off in the newer part of the city.
Worship was overshadowed by commerce here. This is how worship goes down in Djema el-Fna, the main square in Marrakech and home to one of the most significant and beautiful mosques in the Muslim world.
There’s the twilight call to prayer, blasted out slowly from megaphones on top of the mosque minarets. The people, mostly middle aged men, stream into the doors single file and slowly. When the mosque is full, they take up position on the carpets laid outside for them. The ritual begins, synchronized bowing, kneeling and praying, devotion in slow motion.
It is very calm and meditative and beautiful, but it is not the night’s main show. The four hundred or so people who came to pray at the mosques near the square are soon eclipsed by the ten thousand plus people who converge on the square after sunset. During the day the square in front of the mosque is little more than an empty parking lot. At night is comes alive, filling up with griots and storytellers, food vendors and snake charmers, acrobats and musicians.
Crowds form circles around each performer and then a hard press of sweaty bodies fills in all the white spaces between the circles. From above the mass of thousands of people, you feel more than hear the faint drum beat. As you descend into it, each circle pulls you closer with its centrifugal force until you enter its particular field of sound and light, transported into whatever world the performer is creating inside the warm human circle of his crowd. Then you move on to the next and the next and its infinite, all walks of life out at nigth. No one here feels local, even the Moroccans; everyone is out for a good time. The square is crowded with all types; teens, eldery, family. It’s like a summer night out in New York City’s Times Square, where it seems the whole city has poured itself out onto the streets. Although the mosque towers above us in the distance like a snowcapped mountain, the feeling is anything but devout.
I was seized with a desire to do the Arab tourism trifecta in one week (medina, beach, desert) so I changed plans and decided to venture out into the desert. I took a ten hour bus ride and a two hour camel ride to Zagora, an oasis on the edge of the Sahara.
We crossed the Atlast mountains into Berber territory. It was so hot you could feel yourself going insane, your brain cooking in your forhead. The Berbers we encountered this far south were closer looking to Black Africans than to Arabs and they spoke thier language here. They taught me how to tie the desert turban over my head and I had a moment to look at myself and not recognize who I saw. I might have been scared if I didn’t know I was still in thre, underneath. Throughout the history of Morocco the Berbers pretty much always kept thier independence. Looking at thier old Kasbah forts and crossing thier mountain passes, sleeping in thier desert; you could see how they would be a hard people to conquer.
The little bit of desert we saw was tantilizing and beautiful, but it was way too hostile terrain in July to go any further.
Back to Casablanca
I went back to Casa to rest up before heading out to Mali. I finally went to the Hassan II mosque, an ambitious neo-classical testament to Islamic architecture and the most beautiful building I had ever been in.
How could something so large be so graceful? The inner prayer room opens directly up to the sky, and square of pure sunlight filters down to the center like the the warm hand of God. It could seat 25,000 faithful for prayer but there was no one in it at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday. The tour guide explained that it would fill on the first night of Ramadan and for other occasions. I got the feeling this mosque was what some elements of Morocco wished the faith to be here, not what it actually was.
Where were we? Back to my cab driver and the end of my short dip into the Arab world. I had bought a dress downtown and caught a cab ride back to California. My cab driver wanted to engage in a long conversation and I was eager to practice French, which he spoke beautifully and perfectly. My cab driver wanted to let me know that he loved America, especially American movies. You look like Sidney Poitier, he said. You speak French very well. You are very nice, he said. Did you know Morocco was the first country to recognize the independence of the United States of America? No, I actually did not know that. What do you think of Morroco?
That’s always the question people really want you to answer. After seven months on the road I learned the answer to that question is always – I love your country. Is it what you expected, he asked, probing for more. I answered honestly – no. What did you expect? I expected people to be poorer and more unfriendly, I answered honestly. Amercans know nothing about the Arab world, he countered. You just listen to the Jews who tell lies about us. Here in Morocco we are happy and free, things are good, we have people living in villas and plenty of shops. But we don’t have any of those oil millionaires, the New Jews. They always bring corruption. Morocco is doing well, he assured me.
We circled around some as I was lost, as per usual. We were close so I asked him to just leave me on the corner. No I can’t leave you here to walk, it’s not safe, he said. We were in a very very nice neighborhood. I said okay then let’s look some more. He said we’ll ask at the American School. But when we got to the American School he just wanted to drop me off. I handed him a 100 note to pay the meter fare that was 27 dihram. As soon as the money left my hand I knew I had made a mistake. I had gotten too comfortable in Morocco.
My cab driver said since it had taken nearly an hour driving around, we couldn’t go by the meter anymore. Well how much do you want? I asked. 100 dihram. Of course. This was almost 4 times the meter, I said. That’s not fair. He said he was late for something and had taken the time, so I should pay more. I said but I asked you to just drop me off earlier. He handed me a 20 note back as change and I knew I wasn’t getting any more.
Our cozy rapport was broken and I got out onto the hot sidewalk not really anywhere near my destination, looking for another cab to complete the journey. I had landed at last on a sharper part of the crescent. But I didn’t blame my cabbie for it; it was the reality of being relatively rich in a country that was still relatively poor, despite brave appearances. Morocco had still refreshed me and educated me, even if it sometimes did live both up and down to the stereotypes of the Occident’s imagined Near East.