Sunday, April 22, 2012

Of All the Gin Joints

When I got my invitation for Morocco, the only thing I knew about the country was Casablanca.  (At the time, I assumed Casablanca was the capital, which turns out to be false, but I was right about Casablanca being in Morocco.)  We flew into the Casablanca airport when we arrived in Morocco, but were herded directly onto a bus bound for Fes, so it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I actually visited Casa.

I went with my friends Bethany and Carrie.  I was in town because my mother was arrived bright and early the next morning (!!), and they came to keep me company and to celebrate Carrie’s birthday.  Casablanca isn’t that far from Kalaa, but travel always seems more complicated here, and I ended up missing my train because it took me an HOUR to catch a cab to the next town over with a train station.  (For the rest of the day, I answered the phone with, “GUESS HOW LONG IT TOOK ME TO GET A FREAKING GRAND TAXI THIS MORNING?!” much to the surprise of whoever was on the other end.)  Luckily, there was a bus leaving for Casa within half an hour, so I wasn’t too late getting in, and I was treated to a lovely view of Casablanca as seen from the highway.  From a distance, Casablanca does, in fact, appear to be made up entirely of white houses.   Well named, 16th century Portuguese colonialists.

Our first stop was the magnificent Hassan II Mosque.  Hassan II is the largest mosque in North Africa, third largest in the world and the tallest building in Morocco.  It is also stunning.  (It also, according to my guidebook, has a LASER BEAM at the top of the minaret that points to Mecca, which is AWESOME!)  It’s perched on a promontory in the Atlantic Ocean and is covered in zellij, the tile work Morocco is famous for.  The Hassan II is the only mosque in Morocco that non-Muslims are allowed in, but they are required to be “decently and respectfully dressed.”  That wasn't a problem for Bethany, Carrie or I, since we were all dressed for site (which means wearing all the clothes), but we walked past a group of French tourists in scandalously short skirts.  Every time I go to Marrakesh or Rabat or a bigger city in Morocco, I’m astonished by what tourist wear and flutter about like a Victorian grandmother, hissing Put some pants on, you strumpet at people, but I’m pretty sure these skirts were short even by western standards.

Hassan II Mosque
Hassan II Mosque  Hassan II Mosque

After the mosque, we headed towards Ain Diab, a trendy, beachside suburb of Casa and home to the brand new Mall of Morocco.  Our taxi driver dropped us on the corniche and told us the mall was only a little far away.  We walked along the beach, and sure enough, off in the distance, we could see the mall, looking like a tiny space station on the horizon.  At first, the walk was pleasant.  The beach was lined with empty pools full of trash, and at one point it looked more like a grassy field than a sandy beach, but it was warm, we bought ice cream and I was with friends.  Plus, there was Pizza Hut awaiting me at the Mall of Morocco!  The only problem was we couldn’t get to the mall.  We walked and walked and walked, and yet the mall didn’t seem to get any closer, and after forty-five minutes of walking, we were hot and tired and hungry and, turns out, that close to the mall it’s impossible to find an empty taxi.  Our pleasent beachside walk turned into a forced march, and after an hour, we were trudging single file down the sidewalk - silent, hungry and cranky.  Next time, I'm taking a cab.

The walk was totally worth it though.  The Mall of Morocco is amazing, like a little slice of America.  We ate at Pizza Hut and shopped at H&M and the Gap and marveled at the American Eagle Outfitter.  Carrie bought a coffee at Starbucks and Bethany and I got yogurt at Pinkberry.  We also rode on an escalator, which might not seem that exciting to Americans, but was a treat for the girl in front of us who was clearly using an escalator for the very first time.  There were even attendants stationed at either end to help people get on and off.  We took a bus from the mall to our hotel, and met a Moroccan guy who was impressed by our baby Arabic and that we lived out in the country.  He wanted to know how we did all sorts of basic things, like shopping.

“I go to souq every Monday,” I told him.

“What do you buy at souq,” he asked.

“Vegetables, lentils, couscous, other food,” I told him.

“No, which vegetables do you buy at souq?”

And so I stood on a crowded Casablanca bus, listing vegetables in Arabic.  “Matisha, xizu, shiflur, dnjal, jilbana, lful, korjit….”  The guy behind my new friend was clearly baffled about why this white girl was standing on a bus a rush hour, naming vegetables, and all I could do was shrug at him.  You and me both, buddy.

We stopped at Rick’s Café on our way back to the hotel.  Or rather, we stopped at a Rick’s Café.  It’s about eight years old and looking nothing like the iconic watering hole that spawned a thousand quotes.  There’s even dedicated parking out front.  There was a flat screen TV showing Casablanca, a menu with some very expensive drinks and a roulette wheel, but it felt cheesy and touristy.  We had a drink and quoted the movie a bunch, then scurried back to our hotel.
Of All the Gin Joints

All in all, Casablanca was okay, but its charms are in how unlike the rest of Morocco it is.  You can wear whatever you want and buy alcohol and pepperoni and Starbucks, and walking into the Mall of Morocco felt a lot like walking into Southpoint Mall in Durham, but as much fun as that was, I much prefer Marrakesh.