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Casablanca – “Here’s looking at you kid”

Ah, Casablanca, how romantic. It’s dark. Dark?! I’ve never seen anything like it. As we approached the airport there were very spotty areas of light then we landed in total darkness except for the runway lights. As we would find out later that night and the next, Casablanca is very sparsely lit at night.

We were swarmed by eager and willing drivers as we approached the taxi stand. We settled on 25 Euros to our hotel but we also had to tip the guy who negotiated this for us. It actually was not a bad deal because it was at least a half hour drive and it sure didn’t look like a very nice part of town that we drove through. As we were driving I noticed the surroundings and that even when there were streetlights there wasn’t a white face to be seen. At first I thought, in a very racially profiling sort of way, well, bad neighbourhood, then it dawned on me, you idiot, you’re in Africa now!

2309141 Hotel Transatlantique (3)As we pulled up to the Hotel Transatlantique we were greeted by a really cool bellman in a fez and slippers. He was very friendly as well. I thought, “This is going to be great.” The hotel itself was very beautifully appointed in the common areas in and around the lobby. This was our first taste of the Moroccan décor; lots of tapestries, rugs, pillows, nice paintings, marble floors, statues, very nice indeed. The web site captured it best, “A mythical place for a unique stay”.

The room itself did not reflect the wonderful comments we had seen and heard about this place. The hotel was built in 1922 and they have put an effort into dazzling you when you enter, but it drifts a little from there. The corridors are dark and blue, that blue, to ward off evil spirits. The room stunk of smoke, was very dingy and was just not very inviting. At 105 dollars per night I thought some changes were in order, however, the place was fully booked and nothing could be done right now. Oh well, Karen’s gone to get dinner. I’m sure it will be a surprise.

Between the doors banging, the TVs, the talking, the rather audible praying and the guy next door hacking up a lung, I guess we were pretty much awake by 5:30 AM. Couple that with a lousy sleep and a really wrecked neck and it should be quite the day. Let’s just get out for as long as we can because this is one spectacular city.

We left the hotel at about 10AM and took a fabulous walk to the Mosque Hassan about three miles away. They say getting there is half the fun, and that certainly held true for this journey. I love Casablanca. We were kind of in a downtown area, but it was different. Yes there were lots of cars (parked 6 inches apart, side by side – I have no idea how the people got in and out of them) but there were also lots of souks, donkey drawn carts and store fronts selling a wide variety of goods from weigh scales to carpets to snacks. Try to find a place to buy wine. Doesn’t exist. Tis a dry country. I’ll have to pay the hotel price, 120 Dirhams, about 16 dollars Canadian.

There is an immense difference between the Muslim culture and ours, but anything in any way related to the military seems to be a well-protected secret. I tried to take a photo of a couple of Moroccan policemen on the street. As I lined up the shot, the man they were speaking to, whom I swear, even though he was executed earlier in the year, was Saddam Hussein, stared at me and waved his finger menacingly. Choosing not to be shot on the spot, I respected his wishes and refrained from taking the photo.

We continued our walk through the outskirts of the downtown area and moved into the ocean beach area. One avenue in particular, President Avenue, or something like that, was very Western looking, and reminiscent of the palm lined roads in California and Florida.

As we walked on toward the mosque we saw all sorts of cultural anomalies; anomalies to us anyway. One memorable contrast was the sight of very poor tenement type housing with hundreds of satellite dishes on and near the roof. The neighbourhood down here is poor at best, but people live their lives at home and on the streets.

Mosque, Casablanca

The second near international incident happened as we drew within sight of the mosque. There is a naval base there and I was preparing to take a very poignant statement shot; politics meets religion: the majestic minaret tower of the mosque framed by the razor wire on the wall surrounding the naval base. As I raised my camera, an armed cadet came running out and waved me off. Again, I chose to comply with his wishes. Funny thing, a man with an automatic weapon can pretty much get his own way. The upside of this story for me was that I had just taken some video moments earlier, so can display my statement as a video frame capture.

Barbed wire and minaret, Casablanca

The Mosque Hassan is an awesome sight. I believe my son had mentioned to me earlier that this is one of the largest in the world. In fact, it is the seventh largest, surrounded by a huge square, not unlike St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Once more, not knowing or understanding the culture nearly got us in trouble. There were two Muslim women sitting on the steps. I asked Karen (she speaks better French than I do) to ask them, “how much to take your photograph?” Well back up bubba. You can’t do that. Apparently, you, as an outsider, cannot speak directly to Muslim women. As soon as Karen approached them, two men came running out of the shadows to intercept her. They explained, very nicely, that the women were praying, and you could take as many pictures of the mosque as you like, but not of them. I had taken a few longer distance shots, so they will have to suffice.

Unfortunately, the mosque interior was not open at the time we were there, because there are times when you can go inside. We were content to see it from outside on this perfect day.

Arabic stop signJust outside the mosque, the stop sign caught my eye. The Arabic alphabet does not contain letters that are recognizable to me so I stood staring at the sign for a while. What does this say? Watch out for toboggans? Luckily it was the universal red octagon in shape or I would never have figured it out.

On the way back, we stumbled upon Rick’s Café. Well, being a diehard Bogey fan, who could resist? The maitre’d on the street called on the phone and the door was opened. A little touch from the movie.

Now obviously this was not the original set or anything like that, but it was great that someone took the initiative to create it. We had a drink at the bar; a Jack Daniels and coke for me, a coke for Karen. It was a very hot day, so this was a nice, refreshing break. We returned to the hotel to relax and enjoy our day in Casablanca. We complained – a Whitehead must, no matter where we go – and got a nicer room.

2309147 Rick's Cafe (3)Some Food Observations and Comments…The national dish in Morocco is Tagine, which we had not had the opportunity to sample yet. However, the pyramid shaped vessel my dinner was served in last night is also a tagine. Cous Cous is also a signature dish. The reason I am not rushing to partake of these dishes is that I know we will be having them both exclusively on our desert excursion…The wine I bought at the hotel was Guerrouane Rouge, the finest Moroccan wine according to the fellow that sold it to me. Now I’m no connoisseur, but I didn’t even know Morocco made wine…The pizza is UN-believable! It is awesome; just like in Italy. Very thin crust; very little dough; very little cheese; probably 1/3 the calories of what we’re used to. Probably good FOR you. I guess you shouldn’t eat three times as much, eh?

A final thought: Casablanca has no Asian people (that is a very rare sight to me), few black people (hey, isn’t this Africa?), everyone’s clothes are incredibly clean looking and there are no fat people (what the hell happened to Sydney Greenstreet?!)

Tomorrow, all aboard the Marrakesh Express.

More by this author on his own website.

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