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Land of the Berbers
Rating: (5.0) (5 Votes)

Casablanca, Morocco,
November 26th, 2005

Pros: Hassam II Mosque - is very interesting
Cons: I will be struggling with a French keyboard

Only 18 hours after we departed Amman we were in Casablanca! Jon, Shannon and Arlene's trip half-way across the world won't be in transit much longer!

Compared to the chaos of many airports I've been in, the arrivals area of the Casablanca terminal seemed very calm. It didn't take us long to pick up our packs, get through customs and catch the train into the city. A short "petit taxi" ride later and we were at our hotel.

As usual, neither of us had gotten much sleep on the flight between the meals, the announcements and the chatter of the other passengers, so much of our first day in Casablanca was spent catching up on our "z"s.

Casablanca at 3.8 million is the largest city in Morocco. From 1840 until 1956, Morocco was a French Protectorate; French is still widely spoken here and many of the street signs are in Arabic as well as French. Being able to speak some Français does come in handy, even if my French is very rudimentary! (People here seemed surprised when you're from Canada and don't speak fluent French.) In hindsight I wish I'd taken Grade 12 French and studied it at university, too. English 101 (or was it 102?) was a total waste of time.

Besides the French language, there is evidence of the French influence in the architecture and, of course, the food. There are patisseries (pastry shops) and boulangeries (bakeries) everywhere. Many restaurants serve French food.

The weather was warm when we arrived (about 20C) but deteriorated as the weekend approached. Our first full day, however, was fine and we took the opportunity to stroll through the streets and sit in the park. It is nice to see some greenery again; the last time I can remember any greenspace was along the river in Hama, Syria. I guess the climate in Syria and Jordan isn't conducive to parks. Morocco is on the coast and would receive a lot more moisture.

While sitting in the park enjoying the sun, Martin was approached twice by two different men. We didn't find out what the first one wanted before he was chased away by a guy with a walkie-talkie; the second one was begging for money because his mother and his wife had deserted him - one was in "England" and the other in "Israel". Yeah, sure. I'd dessert you, too, given the chance. It may have been that the first creep was selling drugs; Martin often gets approached because of his long hair, though it hasn't been since Germany that anyone has bothered him.

I find many of the men here creepy. They look you up and down and leer at you. They'll also whistle (but only when Martin isn't around). At least the jerks in Syria and Jordan were more subtle. The guidebook warns women travelling solo here - it can be very frustrating as well as dangerous.

One of our first tasks when we arrived in Casablanca was to purchase onward tickets to Amsterdam after our tour is over. As is usually the case, it is much cheaper to buy airline tickets in the point of departure than it is from outside the country. We had no problems finding a flight at a reasonable price.

Since we are tired of the local fare (which is similar to countries in the Middle East) we opted to eat at a Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant our first evening here. We were sorely disappointed, however. It was bland and tasteless. We are so lucky to have such excellent Vietnamese restaurants in Saskatoon - their food is even better than the food in Vietnam. It was still nice to eat something out of the ordinary. Breakfast is still the same old: bread, jam, a boiled egg, coffee/sweet tea - even though we're on a completely different continent! Sigh! I am looking forward to the seafood here, though - and I've seen ham on some menus.

There are hundreds of "cafes" here, but really they're just coffee shops frequented by the local men who meet there with their friends. Women seldom seem to darken the door and prefer to stay at home with friends and family where they do not have to hide behind their heavy clothing and scarves/veils.

Morocco is 99% Muslim and many people wear the traditional Muslim garb consisting of a hooded robe called a "jellaba" (in various colours, also stripes) for both men and women and some sort of head covering (often a scarf for the women and a close-fitting cap or fez for the men - or the pointy hood of the robe may be pulled up, making people look like wizards). Many of the men also wear these interesting leather mules with pointy toes; bright yellow is most common. Like in other Muslim countries, if you look closely, you'll notice a lot of women are wearing blue jeans underneath their robes. (In the fields, women often opt to wear bedsheets over their clothing rather than the heavier jellabas.)

There were quite a few beggars on the street near our hotel. Most were women, particularly young mothers with small children. There is no shortage of food in Morocco (nor do they look like they're starving), so it is likely that these women are simply seeking to supplement their husbands' income.

This is the land of the Berbers, believed to be distant relatives of the Basques, Celts or even the Neanderthals(!). According to local folklore, the Berbers were descendents of 100 siblings, begat by the earth's first couple. The physical features of the Berber vary widely and range from dark and rounded sub-Saharan traits to light skin and blue eyes. Morocco is unique in that its culture is influenced by Africa, Europe and the Middle East, so that, although it is on the continent of Africa, it is unlike any other African nation.

One of the most interesting buildings to visit in Casablanca is the Hassam II Mosque, the world's third largest mosque built in honour of the former king. The Hassam II Mosque is the only mosque open to non-Muslims in Morocco and you can only visit on a tour. Our tour guide spoke an interesting combination of Arabic, French and English which was quite charming and I think added to the ambiance of the whole experience.

The Hassam II Mosque took six years to complete (1987-1993) at an estimated cost of $800,000 US, though more likely cost about three times that upon completion. It was designed by a French architect and, except for the Murano glass chandeliers and a couple of pieces of Carerra marble imported from Italy, all materials in the mosque are indigenous to Morroco. It is an awe-inspiring piece of architecture with its delicate, lacy carved marble arches, teak panelled ceilings, stunning tilework (called "zellij") and elaborate titanium doors. The detail is absolutely exquisite. And there are other design features that impress the visitor: a retractable roof that opens to let in natural light, a prayer hall that holds 20,000 praying men, lazer beams from the minaret that light up the night sky, a centrally heated floor. It is definitely one of the most beautiful religious buildings I have ever seen.

Throughout Morocco, I will be struggling with a French keyboard. The letters "a", "q", "z", "w" and "m" are in different positions than I'm used to and the punctuation is all over the place! Makes German and Turkish keyboards seem simple! (But at least some of them switch over to the English keyboard which makes life a lot easier!)

We met some of the members from an Imaginative Traveller tour who were just finishing up (the same tour we'll be taking - "Deserts and Kasbahs"). All had good reports and seemed to enjoy the tour immensely. Sounds like a hectic pace though, so don't know how much time I'll have to keep up with the travelogue!

Jon, Shannon and Arlene won't arrive until the day our tour departs for Fez, so they're going to be pretty tired for the first leg!

And so the tour begins! We left Casablanca by train at noon; Shannon and Arlene were both so jet-lagged (their flight didn't arrive until 1 am) that they slept much of the way. Jon, as a surgeon, is so used to surviving on a couple of hours of sleep a night that he was wide awake and feeling quite refreshed.

Besides the five of us (Martin, Martin's brother and his wife - Jon and Shannon - and Martin and Jon's sister - Arlene - as well as myself), there are eight others on our tour: Tim (30 - the only other male) from the UK who has been working in Dubai for the past four years in the marketing field; Jane (47), a biologist who teaches at university in Auckland, NZ; Kristy (30) from Melbourne, Australia who has been working just outside of London for the past three years (also in marketing); Lindsay (25)from Oxford, England who works in publishing; Celina (27) from Adelaide, a stage manager for a theatre company; Nicole (30), a dietitian from Melbourne, Australia, currently working in the UK; Yuri (37) from near Osaka, Japan, a computer programmer; and Jody (32), a banker from Kerikeri, New Zealand now working in London.

Our tour guide is Sandra (25) from Alysmeer in the Netherlands. She has been guiding Imaginative Traveller tours since September 2004, including three tours of the Middle East and now her eighth tour in Morocco. She is looking forward to returning home at Christmastime to stay put for awhile.

Imaginative Traveller tours are tours for the "independent traveller", i.e, for those people who have travelled a fair amount and are interested in some of the more out-of-the ordinary sights/experiences. Accommodation is not fancy, but is comfortable and clean. The cost of the tour covered transport and hotels; a tip kitty and local payments fund helps cover the costs of tipping guides as well as entry fees. Meals are extra.

Fez (population 1 million) is the religious and cultural centre of Morocco. The highlight of a trip to Fez is touring the Fès el-Bali Medina or old city, the largest living medieval city in the world. A World Heritage Site, it consists of 9,400 twisting alleys lined with shops and the homes of the people who live and work there. It is extremely easy to get lost amongst the streets and a reliable guide is a must. All guides have to be licensed and "faux guides" who haven't purchase a license may be fined or even imprisoned.

No motor vehicles are allowed in the medina, save for the odd motorcycle; however, there are plenty of donkeys, mules and handcarts. We were warned that if we heard, "Balak, balak!" (meaning "attention") we should quickly paste ourselves up against a wall to avoid getting trampled by an animal/cart loaded with wares. Interestingly we also saw two funeral processions while weaving our way through the streets; both were men covered by shrouds and being carried on dais. (We were told that dead women are also placed in coffins then paraded through the streets so no one can see them.)

We toured shops that sold homemade shampoo and soaps; a leather tannery/factory; a tile/pottery factory; a weaving shop; a carpet/Berber blanket shop and a naturopathic pharmacy. From the roof of the tannery we could see the vats where the skins are softened in lime and pigeon droppings, as well as the vats of dye in such colours as brown, red, yellow and blue. All the dyes that are used are natural. In the heat, I understand that it can be a rather malodorous place (since they also use such things in the dye as cow urine), but we hardly noticed since it was cool and cloudy. My nose was greatly relieved!

Handmade carpets and blankets are made by the women in Morocco, but if it involves a loom, it's men's work. The hooded garments worn by men and women are also made by men.

One of the most interesting stops in the Medina was the naturopathic pharmacy where they showed us the aphrodisiac Spanish fly (it actually is flies), Moroccan spices, essential oils such as rose and orange oils, traditional eyeliner (kohl) and lipstick and various remedies for health problems.

On our second day in Fez we travelled to Meknes and Volubilis, the site of the largest and best-preserved Roman ruins in Morocco, dating back to the 3rd century BC and declared a World Heritage Site in 1997. Volubilis once supplied 60% of Rome's wheat and olives. Although we had seen many such ruins in the Middle East, we had not seen ones where the mosaic floors were as intact and in the original location. Also interesting were the storks that were nesting there. Unfortunately, it was raining cats and dogs at Volubilis and it was unpleasantly cold. The only ones who didn't get soaked were our guide (who was wearing a waterproof jellaba) and Jody who had rainpants on. No one stayed to explore the sight after the tour; rather, everyone ran to get hot drinks and huddled under the awning of the restaurant.

The next stop on that very rainy day was Meknes (population 680,000), the "Versailles of Morocco". There we learned about the notorious Moulay Ismail who ruled Morocco in the late 16th/early 17th centuries with an iron fist. He established the "Black Guard", his personal army consisting of 150,000 descendents of black slaves who maintained control over the unruly tribes and made Morocco virtually impenetrable. Moulay Ismail ruled with unabashed cruelty - legend has it that he killed over 30,000 people himself. He also holds the current Guiness Book of World Records for the most children sired (888).

Throughout the medina in Meknes we were followed by a member of the Tourist Police. These men wander through the markets making sure foreigners are safe and are not taken advantage of by unfair pricing, etc. Sandra told us that there has been a great deal of effort put into educating vendors and shopkeepers re: how to treat tourists with more respect. A similar campaign was attempted for littering but has thus far not taken off. Tourism is very important to the economy as Morocco attracts more than two million tourists per year. The aim is to increase that number to 10 million by the year 2010.

The area around Meknes produces a lot of agricultural produce - cereal crops, olives, wines and citrus fruits. Women work in the agricultural industry and we saw many in the fields. Some Moroccans may be poor, but because of the vast quantities of food that are harvested, it is very unlikely that anyone goes hungry.

Since it is very important for a Muslim to face east when praying, there are often indicators of the direction to Mecca. In Mosques, for example, an alcove faces that direction. Our hotel had a sticker on the table with an arrow pointing the way for hotel guests wishing to pray.