From Casablanca to Meknès-The First Few Days

Trip Start Nov 01, 2006
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5
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Trip End Nov 21, 2006


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Flag of Morocco  ,
Sunday, November 5, 2006

A short flight from Heathrow and we were in Casablanca-three hours to go from the intimately familiar to the excitingly different. We were happy to be on the road again.

Casablanca is a sprawling city. From our speeding taxi the landscape seemed similar to other Middle Eastern urban centres. The traffic was orderly, and the architecture was dominated by non-descript and slightly worn low rises flush with satellite dishes. We checked into our modest hotel and were delighted that the standard issue pink TP flushed down the toilet. Our delight was tempered when the doorknob in the washroom broke, almost dropping Mel into the toilet.

Early the next morning, Hamid, our Moroccan guide, outlined to us that our two weeks in Morocco would be divided between visiting the imperial cities of Rabat, Meknès and Fès (the granddaddy of the imperial wonders); camping in the Sahara Desert; trekking in the High Atlas Mountains; relaxing at the seaside town of Essaouira; and finally spending a few days in Marrakech, Morocco's cosmopolitan epicenter.

Before we left Casablanca, we made the essential stop at the Hassan II Mosque-the 3rd largest mosque in the world. In honour of Hassan II's 60th birthday, the mosque was built at a cost of half a billion dollars-all paid by public subscription (must have been a pretty good magazine). The mosque boasts the world's tallest minaret complete with a laser that shoots 35 km towards Mecca ("Fire the lazzaaaaaaar!"), a retractable roof for sunny days and interiors as vast as natural spaces.

From Casablanca we drove to Rabat, the modern capital of Morocco. Morocco's well-heeled intelligentsia has migrated to this orderly administrative hub. Just outside of the city are the ruins of Chellah, an ancient Roman city now populated by storks who have built their massive nests high in the ruined spires of the former Roman outpost. A walled pond is popular amongst infertile woman who come to feed hardboiled eggs to the resident eels in hopes of bearing a child. Whatever floats your boat. Keeping watch over the pond is a man we dubbed "The Crazy Cat Guy" with his cat army at his beck and call.

Meknès, our second imperial city, was where we got our first close look at the lavish zellij, or mosaic tiling, that decorate the traditional Arabic architecture of Morocco. Meknès was the imperial city of Moulay Ismail, who is widely considered as Morocco's greatest leader. We spent a half day wandering around the old medina with its powerful sights, smells and sounds.

With a little time spent in country, we began to see that the familiar tension that we had found in numerous developing countries also stalked the Moroccan landscape. As a former French colony, Morocco has a relatively recent history of domination by western imperialism. However, behind that lingering western influence is Morocco's long history as a proud Islamic nation. Conservative Islamic sensitivities still dominate Moroccan society, but ambitious young people, like our guide Hamid, strain against their heritage, chasing after the wealth and modernity that western society represents for them. This tension is even manifest in the shape and structure of Morocco's imperial cities. Each of the imperial cities is divided between the old medina (the historical city centre with its catacomb like alleys and passageways) and the ville nouvelle (the new city centres constructed by the French with wide modern boulevards and bland low rises dominated with street side cafés). This reality, as it probably is throughout the developing world, must be an affront to the proud sensitivities of a people whose culture and religion are not readily disposed to subservience. A crass manifestation of this slight is that western tourists = untold wealth, and so the young Moroccans who have learned English and who are involved with herding around the groups of gawking western moneybags are the elites and are treated with deference as such.
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