We were always had by Casablanca

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
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Trip End Aug 18, 2006


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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Casablanca, or Casa as the locals know it, is a thriving cosmopolitan city, the biggest in all of Morocco, the beating heart of commerce in the country, and probably the locale with least to offer from a tourist perspective. We allocated a whole day, which seemed like a lot initially.

Our plan was to follow the advice of our guidebook and treat Casablanca as something of a transition point, only spending time in the city during the times surrounding our arrival and departure from the country. A common refrain among he most well tested travellers is that 'the best laid plans of mice and men lead but to the grave.' Perhaps with respect to our departure from Morocco, however, we would have done well to ignore this axiom altogether and put some effort into thinking about our onward travel plans: we ended up spending 8 nights in Casablanca, and not because we wanted to. As it turned out, our foolish belief that we would have an easier time finding a bargain once we arrived into the country ended up keeping us in Morocco far longer than we originally anticipated and forced us on several occasions to stay near Casablanca to coordinate and formulate our exit to Egypt.

For what it is worth, the guidebooks mostly have it right when it comes to Casablanca. The prevailing sentiment is that from a tourism perspective Casa's the Hassan II mosque is the only real show in town, mostly because it is truly worthwhile, but partially because it is the only mosque in the country open to non-Muslims. Sadly, on the day we planned to see the mighty structure, Steven fell prey to a mild version of a flu (we wondered whether it was his entrecote et pommes frites at the first and only French restaurant we visited, the Petit Poucet, but the joint was exonerated because Cori ordered the same thing and yet emerged unscathed). As a result, Steve had a difficult time rousing himself from bed to see the one and only true site of the city. Luckily, while Leo and Cori strolled Casa's public gardens and parks, admired the distinctly Moroccan 1930's art deco architecture of the city buildings (the post office really is something, decorated in azul and deep green tiles), and wandered the pedestrian mall lined with chic cafes (some even contained women!) and shoe stores, Steve slept the morning away and felt somewhat refreshed when he was awakened at lunchtime.

Leo and Cori discovered on their walk around the city that the last guided tour of the Hassan II mosque (and any visit there was required to be guided) was scheduled for two in the afternoon. So Steve quickly cleaned up and we packed into a taxi for a quick ride over to what proved to be the single best attraction in Morocco. Steve was glad he bothered to get up.

The Hassan II Mosque is the third largest religious building in the world, only behind the Islamic mosques in Mecca and Medina. What is more, it is hands down the most impressive building in which any one of us has ever stepped foot. Conceived in concept in the early 1980s by the late Hassan II to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, construction on the mosque began in 1987 and concluded in 1993, even though at least one third of the mosque is constructed over the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, the punctuality of construction is a fact amazing in its own right given the sheer size of the place. And what size it has: the mosque contains two acres of marble and another seven acres for the plaza and buildings surrounding the structure. The mosque can hold twenty thousand men worshipping on the ground floor and another five thousand women worshipping in the upper balcony. And another eighty thousand worshippers can be accommodated on the marbled esplanade outside the mosque.

30,000 workers and craftsmen labored twenty four hours a day, seven days a week (fifty million man hours), to construct the structure, which contains 10000 square meters of decorations and 67000 square meters of wood. In fact, the interior is constructed entirely of materials made from Morocco - numerous types of marble, cedar, granite, bronze and gold - with the exception of a the titanium from Russia, and a little Carrera marble and Murano blown glass chandeliers (they weigh fifty tons each), both from Italy.

The mosque boasts over twenty enormous but automated doors, all made with titanium, bronze and cedar. The heaviest door weighs in at 34 tons, while some of the more modest portals tip the scales at only 10 tons. The roof, an enormous expanse of carefully painted and inlaid cedar, harbors its own secret marvel: more than a football field in length, it can retract in two minutes to create an open air courtyard and then close entirely in another three. But as comfortable as it is in summer, it is also in winter; those fortunate enough to be inside likely prize their position on cold winter days - they can enjoy heated marble floors while they genuflect in the direction of Mecca.

Speaking of Mecca, the adjacent minaret to the mosque sends out each night laser beams in the direction of that holy city - lasers that purportedly stretch more than thirty kilometers outward. Just as Moroccans can thus see the minaret at night, so too can they spot it during the day: at two hundred and ten meters tall, it is the largest minaret in the world, and the only one with an elevator inside, which makes it easy for the one and only muezzin (a cantor, of sorts) to sing his calls to prayer, five times a day. Fortunately, the minaret, and the mosque itself, is earthquake proof.

Underneath the mosque are ablutions chambers, one for men and one for women, where Muslims can come to perform their ritual ablutions, or washings, prior to attending the prayers. The marble basins, scattered through the underground chambers, are shaped like lotus leaves. The walls of the ablution chambers are richly decorated in zellij tilework.

Finally, adjacent to the ablutions chambers sit the hammams, which were planned as part of the complex but which have nothing to do with the practice of Islam. Rather, the hammams were ostensibly conceived of as a place where both Muslims and non could come and socialize (and likely where tourists could go for a relatively sanitized but overpriced hammam experience). Regrettably, the throne had not yet found a private corporation to manage the hammams profitably on its behalf, and so the hammams lay fallow at the time of our visit, free to be viewed through the lens of the camera but not to be used.

Rightfully, construction of the mosque has generated some debate (in a country that does seem to have very little of it) about the wisdom of building a structure so opulent and so very pricey when so many of the country's inhabitants are living in dire poverty. Particularly because one third of the $500 to 800 million USD (and likely much higher) price tag was picked up by the Moroccan citizens in a tax widely levied on everyone, from rich to poor, the query seems reasonable: did, and does, Morocco need such a mosque, a mosque rarely, if ever, filled to capacity? (It should be noted here that tourists also pay a VERY hefty fee to enter, which is perhaps the only reason the king envisioned non-Muslims entering in the first place). Perhaps the downside of the Moroccan monarchy is its ability and its right to demand the construction and public funding of such beautiful but unnecessary monuments, shrines, and other buildings erected only to glorify and memorialize their makers. (As an aside, another downside might be the ubiquitous pictures of the king in every establishment. It does seem to be some sort of unspoken requirement that his likeness be plastered on at least one wall of every commercial outfit; like it or not, we had to get used to eating under the watchful eye of the sovereign).

But, if that is the downside of the Moroccan monarchy, then a countervailing upside might be found in the stabilizing influence the throne has had on the populace, particularly vis--vis radical Islamic sects. Because the king claims direct lineage from the Prophet Mohammed's daughter, Fatima, the king has long entertained not only political control but also religious authority over the Moroccan people. Accordingly, the country's imams, madersas and Islamic teachers look to the king for religious leadership and would never think of acting in contravention of his dictates. Thus, the current dynasty's policies of tolerance, progress and stability have steered Moroccan religion away from the more radical paths of its neighbors and down a much more peaceful - and more palatable to its western neighbors - road ahead.

But, digression aside, we were more than anything just completely awed by the artistic majesty, technological capability and sheer magnitude of the mosque. Quite simply, it was the single most amazing site we visited in Morocco, and it made our excursion into the country worthwhile and then some. Truly amazing.

We wish we could say that the rest of Casa rivaled the Hassan II, but we obviously can't. We found no trace of Bogart, nor should we have, since none of the movie was made in Morocco. And we didn't find much of anything else, either. For Leo, that was fine, as she was slated to catch an early flight the next morning back to the States and to her busy practice as a psychotherapist. And so, after a final night in the city, we sadly bid her adieu and watched her walk through customs and back into the western world. We then looked at each other, first quizzically and then somewhat forlornly, because we both knew the reality of our situation: we had no plan to get out of Morocco.

After a dispute with Algeria some years ago (to Morocco's credit, the dispute centered around Morocco's insistence on having some mechanism to track Islamic terrorists coming into their country), the Moroccan-Algerian border was closed, and no overland travel is now possible between the two countries. The Western Sahara, to the south of Morocco, is nominally claimed by Morocco, although it doesn't have a strong foothold and certainly doesn't have much control of the separatist rebels there. So crossing south overland was out, too. Our only way out of the country appeared to be by boat back to Spain or by air.

So, over the course of the two frustrating days and innumerable hours in front of computer screens, we decided not to cross the watery channel back to Gibraltar, not to head to the wintery wastelands of Northern Europe on low-cost airline carriers, and not to try to swim for it. Instead, we decided to bide our time in Morocco and wait for a flight out of Casa and into Egypt, eight days away in reality but many more if judged by the sheer emotional impact it had on us: what on earth were we going to do with another week more in this country?
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