Casablanca: Smoke gets in your eyes

11 Jun

I’m writing on the bus between Casablanca and the ancient imperial capital of Meknes. Yes, I finally got to Morocco!

Sadly Stuart is not with me.

Yet again we had a mini health emergency that required Stuart to go directly to London from Paris. He’d been uncomfortable for a couple of weeks and finally visited the doctor in Wales. The GP found a lump in what Stu cutely calls his ‘nether region’ that required scanning to determine whether it was a nasty or not. Since it wasn’t an acute condition we made the decision that he’d stay with his sister, Catharine, to have the medical check and I’d go on to Morocco alone.

Some people may question the wisdom of that choice but having cancelled once at short notice last year when he had his stroke we determined I should do the small group tour from Casablanca and hopefully Stu would join me in Marrakech if all was well.

The verdict of the Harley Street doctor today was that the lump was a large non-malignant cyst so Stu has the all clear to travel. Whew!

I organised an extra day in Casalanca before I joined the group. This gave me time to visit the stunning Hassan II mosque and the new medina. My hotel, The Moroccan House Hotel, publicised itself as something out of ‘The Arabian Nights’ which meant an overdose of mozaic tiles and gauzy draped beds gathering dust. The regular sized key was attached to a massive non-functional key so careless guests would not lose it and they didn’t trust us to have a plug in the bath tub. But I was in Morocco and god damn it I was going to enjoy myself!

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First order of business was booking the hammam and massage in the hotel spa, then hoping to catch some of the Roland Garros tennis I walked down to the Novotel-Ibis hotel. I saw some of the Ferrer V Tsonga match before the smoking men at the bar drove me out. The same woman begging I saw on the way in was still on the stone steps beside the hotel with her child wrapped in blankets. My set meal at the bar had come with a bottle of water and an apple tart, too much after the quiche and fries. I was glad to be able to hand both to her.

Back at the hotel I was blessed with two sweet women who looked after me in the spa. Khatija explained the process and left me to unrobe in the change room. I was to wear only knickers into the hammam and wrap the towel around me. She ushered me into the elaborately tiled small heated hammam where my bather, Siwafa was waiting. Siwafa was dressed exactly like me – wearing only a pair of black knickers! She was tiny, at least a head shorter than me and the kind of shape hetero men adore. As our friend Charles H would say, she was a ‘dusky maiden’. Politically incorrect but it describes her perfectly.

The routine was similar to previous hammam experiences without the frothy soap massage I experienced in Istanbul. Certainly Siwafa was thorough with the scrubbing and kept leaping up onto the tiled bench to drench me in warm water. No wonder she was in such great shape. Khatijah took over for the oil massage and I drifted off into a deeply relaxed state. The best antidote to jet travel I know.

Next morning I was up early to walk the broad boulevarde down to the mosque in glorious sunshine. A man was tying long strands of coloured thread from the mudbrick wall to the trunk of a palm tree. I could see by the many coloured remnants of previous work that the thread would become something saleable. It was too long for a hammock, what could it be? I had to wait until today to get an answer from our group guide, Yassin. Indeed the man was weaving fine strands of silk thread together to be used for weaving on hand looms.

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My walking brought me beside two chatting, jelaba gowned women. At the crossing I asked in French if I was going the right way for the mosque. Yes, I was and they were walking there too. We played a kind of hare and tortoise game from then on as I would stop to take photos while they kept up a steady pace. They were clearly walking for health as they did not stop at the mosque.

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Only guided tours are permitted inside the mosque. I bought my ticket for the 9am English tour. While waiting I observed the seven smartly uniformed staff (six men and one woman) arriving at work and greeting each other. The men kiss each other more than Europeans, four times for some.

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Pigeon dirt is a problem in the buildings and one was perched on the white stucco ledge by the ceiling light. The cleaner had the bright idea of throwing his keys up to scare it away.

Unfortunately they landed on the ledge beside the pigeon which prompted a roar of laughter from all of us. He quickly fetched his broom and shooed the bird away but I chuckled to myself for some time.

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A large group of loud Australians arrived and the guide materialised to lead us through one of the main doors of the mosque. I’m not sure why these Australians felt the need to make jokes about Islam and mosques. Would they behave the same way in a cathedral? Are they threatened by a faith that creates such magnificent places of worship?

I preferred to keep my distance and found the guide, Mohamad, a great source of information, well worth the 120 dirham. Mohamad has guided in the mosque for seven years and says he feels fortunate to be able to work in a place of such tranquility and beauty. I agree.

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During Ramadan 105,000 worshippers are carefully accommodated inside and outside, with sections for men and women. About half of the structure is built on pylons over the sea and the massive roof splits apart to remove the barrier between the faithful and the heavens. When they pray they are surrounded by the three elements significant to them, sky, stone (earth).

Leaving the mosque I asked an attendant why there were so many young people sitting in the shaded areas reading. He said they come for peace and quiet as their houses are crowded and noisy. From what I observed I think they also come to flirt with the opposite sex.

From the line of red ‘petit taxis’ I chose the oldest driver. After settling on a price Ibrim took me to the Nouvelle Medina keeping up a nonstop monologue along the way. At 69 he has one wife, six kids and four grandkids. He played football for the national team in his youth and competed four times against France. I saw the photos. He spent four years in France but had to return to Morocco when his Mother became ill. He bemoaned the economic crisis in Europe for its effect on tourism but said he and his family are doing OK. We talked about world cup soccer and he was scathing about today’s professionals who he said are soft and lazy. He believes football should have the discipline of the army.

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At the medina I walked a brief circuit of the soukh before settling on one jewelry store with an artistic display. I had no real intention of buying but of course the owner was an effective salesman and after mint tea and a pleasant fifteen minutes browsing I concluded the purchase of a strand of pearls and a pendant for a reasonable sum. He was happy, I was happy. Time to celebrate with a coffee and cheese pannni in the shaded street cafe overlooking palm trees and a busy intersection. Most of the diners were locals, mostly men drinking coffee and smoking.

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My jewelry store owner, happy to pose for the Aussie blogger.

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Of course Ibrim materialised and I offered him coffee which he refused. We chatted and agreed he would drive me back to the hotel. All in all a pleasant, gentle introduction to Morocco.

Our G Adventures travel group meeting was convened for 6pm but not all 12 travellers had arrived. No problem as we weren’t leaving for Meknes, Volubilis and Fez until next morning. Yassin talked us through the travel program, we completed the paperwork and were given advice about Moroccan culture and safety tips. The dinner together was optional but six of us chose to go with Yassin to what he called a ‘mid-level’ Moroccan restaurant. The rest went to Rick’s, a bar and restaurant built after the film ‘Casablanca’ was made, so basically an expensive, artificial tourist trap to drink cocktails, toast each other with ‘Here’s lookin’ at you kid!’ and look at other tourists. Never understood what women saw in HB.

Our restaurant was fancy, gleaming giant brass urns, intricate mozaic walls and carved ceilings. The table linen was spotless and my 75 dirham (7.50 euro) vegie couscous was delicious. The first of many no doubt!

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I cannot in conscience say Casablanca is a beautiful city, they burn garbage on the median strip, it’s dusty and the buildings are charmless, but the mosque and medina made it worthwhile for me. One glorifies Allah while providing a place of beauty, deep peace and silence, whereas the other answers our physical needs and wants and desire to connect socially.

Both are essential for a balanced life.

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Postscript: Eyegee is right to point out the deficiency in my report. I will try to see the art deco quarter next time as I hope to be in North Morocco again!

7 Responses to “Casablanca: Smoke gets in your eyes”

  1. EyeGee June 10, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    Buildings charmless? You are in the wrong neighborhood. Casablanca has a marvellous collection of 1920’s era Art Deco masterpieces, I suggest you take a peek!

    • Sharon Tickle June 10, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

      Fair comment Eyegee, my perspective is based on a few hours. I asked people where to go, including the hoel and my taxi driver and covered parts of the city on foot and by car but no one suggested that.

      There could well be a next time as I am loving Fes. Any more advice gratefully received.

      Sharon

  2. George and Heather June 10, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

    So glad you made Morocco at last Sharon and that Stuart’s little emergency is not an emergency after all. Hope you both continue your holiday there safely and in health.
    Love George and Heather xx

    • Sharon Tickle June 14, 2013 at 6:03 am #

      Thanks Heather and George,

      Stuart should arrive in Marrakech early evening and we have three nights in Morocco before some trekking in the mountains.

      Sxx

  3. Charles Harrison June 11, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    Politically incorrect moi? I am sure “dusky maiden” was not one of mine. Sounds much more like something that the father of the future queen would have said before he had to mind his p’s and q’s!!
    We must remember Sharon that although you look no more than 35 you are a good few years further towards your three score so perhaps the odd memory lapse can be excused!!!

    Love

    Charles H

    • Sharon Tickle June 13, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

      You don’t remember Charles? Ha ha I am going to secretly record you next time.

      In sh’allah Stu will arrive in Marrakech early tomorrow evening.

      I adore Morocco.

      Love to Anne,

      Sxx

  4. EyeGee June 13, 2013 at 11:52 pm #

    Sharon, you should have asked the NY Times! http://travel.nytimes.com/2006/04/16/travel/16going.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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