Salam (it actually isnt hello, but really “May peace be with you”) Everyone!
Well we have sailed away from Morocco and also sailed away from a refueling stop in Las Palmas, Canary Islands! I must say I really enjoyed my time in Morocco. It was my first step into the Arab world that we so often see and hear about in the news, and I must say it is nothing like what we see and hear in the news.
I spent my first day and my last hours in Morocco in our port city of Casablanca.
Im going to first state that the city of Casablanca is not a romantic city, an idea that some might get from watching “Casablanca.” It is in fact a dirty, pretty run down business port city. The “chi” in Casablanca is just not very good. In fact I’d say it’s one of the worst metropolises in the developing world that I have visited.
But, there are aspects of Casablanca that make it a nice gateway city to the Kingdom of Morocco.
On the first day I spent my afternoon doing one of my first Faculty Directed Programs titled “The Sacred Spaces of Casablanca.” We visited a mosque, two cathedrals, and a synagogue.
Hassan II Mosque: A mosque built in 1987 and completed in 1993 by the late King Hassan II, it is 2/3 built on reclaimed land on the coast of Casablanca and boasts the tallest minaret in the world. He built it to add spirituality to Casablanca because it was known as the “city of sin.” The minaret was what welcomed our ship into Morocco. It is the world’s 3rd largest Mosque, and the largest one outside of Saudi Arabia. It was an incredible experience to walk into the vast open space of the Mosque. This Mosque combined modern technology with traditional Arabic/ Moorish architecture. It had a roof that could open up and let worshippers receive light from above, it had a system of high tech speakers that were blended in with the décor. As my professor stated, in comparison to a church the Mosque was very ornamented with symbols and calligraphy, it was less of a narrative and more of the experience and timeless quality to the religion and the space. It truly was a memorable experience to take in the foundation of the Arab world which is the religion of Islam.
Sacred Heart and Notre Dame Cathedrals: During the afternoon we visited two different cathedrals. They were both modern cathedrals, built after the Vatican II. The Sacred Heart was more of a community center and was not religiously affiliated, in fact the main stained glass window had various national flags on it instead of stories from the bible. The space though was built in the traditional way of medieval cathedrals in Europe. The Notre Dame on the other hand really saw the effects of the change that was brought about from the Vatican II. It was not built in the traditional way, it was built in a way that felt less grand and more serene and local and familiar to us. It was a way to make churches go from being only for the elite to being for the commoners, the locals, the community.
Synagogue: I was quite surprised by just how large the Jewish community in Morocco was, and that in many of the ancient cities there was a heavy Jewish history and presence. This synagogue was actually the very first one I have ever entered. I have been to cathedrals and mosques and temples but never a synagogue. So it was interesting for me to see the similarities and differences between the various religious buildings now that I have seen the places of worship for some of the larger religions in the world. What our group noticed was that there was not as much Arabic influence in the synagogue’s architecture compared to the cathedrals that we visited.
This FDP was a nice way to get to see Casablanca through the lens of the religions that make up the Kingdom of Morocco. Along the way our guide did point out some important elements to the city, so it was a good way to get a feel of the city. It was also the beginning of what I began to notice throughout my 4 days in Morocco, and that is that I began to see how similar various aspects of the city was to many other cities I have traveled to, both in the developed world and in the developing world. I saw many things that reminded me of Taiwan, and that really made me happy but it also made me wonder if our various cultures, traditions and way of life are really all that different.
After my sacred tour of Casablanca a group of friends and I headed out to dinner. We wanted to eat at a restaurant that was on a recommended list on the ship. The thing is we didn’t know where it was. We got off the shuttle bus at the port’s main gate and asked the guards who had no idea either so they asked a taxi driver waiting outside the port. He said he knew where it was and that it would cost us $5 per person per way. We said no no no that was way too expensive and that we would walk but he said it was too far, and that he actually recommended a better restaurant that was even further away in another direction and that he would take us. Long story short in the midst of confusion, uncertainty, the first night in our first country on the voyage, we just gave in. Turns out he was a decent cab driver named Abdul from Italy and new around 7 languages. He gave us a different perspective of some of the things we already saw on our tours of the city. He pointed out that right across from the McDonalds was the Obesity Clinic, which was funny and ironic! He got us to the restaurant and took us in and seated us at a table where apparently one of the former French Presidents sat. But the thing is he ripped us off because in addition to the said fee there was a late night fee which he did kind of mention but never full on said how much it would be. In the end we each paid 50 Dirhams which comes down to roughly $7. But I didn’t complain all too much because it could have been worse and he did walk us all the way till we were sitting at our table.
After a delicious meal, so Abdul did not lie to us, we decided to stroll along the street where all the bars and clubs were to check out another aspect of the Moroccan Culture: the youth culture. Turns out not many clubs or bars were open as it was the 5 day holiday that follows the month of Ramadan which ended days prior to our arrival. Along the way we met a nice Moroccan kid named Hamsah, who asked us where we were from and was very willing to show us a good time in Morocco. When he went around our group saying hi and getting our names he arrived at me, and before he asked any questions he looked at me and said “Ahhh!” not in the scarred way but in the revelation kind of way and then he bowed to me with his hands in the Buddhist prayer posture. I laughed and said “yea yea!” and eventually we became acquainted. There was nothing offensive or rude about it, it was just him trying to make a connection with me and I thought it was a funny and great moment. Unfortunately for some of us it was getting late and most things were closed so we decided to head back. But Hamsah was a real nice guy who tried really hard to show us the nightlife of Morocco, and I really appreciated that!
On the last day, my friends and I spent our last hours shopping in the Medina (old town) and Souk (market) of Casablanca. We were trying to spend our last Dirhams, not knowing if or when we would ever come back to Morocco, though I really hope I do go back. I ended up buying a Moroccan robe that the men wore everywhere, it was light and comfortable and a more useful and significant piece of Morocco than many of the other souvenirs. There were other nicer medinas and souks that I visited which I shall elaborate on in their designated entries!
Overall Casablanca works as a gateway city, it is the largest city in Morocco after all. But I would not spend more than 1 day in Casablanca, as 1 day is all you need to see what the city has to offer. Casablanca is not the best image of Morocco, and the many cities outside of Casablanca offer a better experience for the senses and are worth more of your time than Casablanca.
Oh and by the way, I drove by Rick’s Café, and heard people’s experiences there. It is basically an overpriced tourist trap. And you are not allowed to take pictures with it unless you dine in it. So I guess it was ok that I did not venture out to see what all the fuss was about.
I shall update with more on my adventures in Morocco soon, especially of the amazing city of Fes!
Till next time!