Wednesday, March 18, 2015


We hit the outskirts of Casablanca and are soon ensconced in THE most intense driving on the planet. There are three lines on the road, which in a normal world would indicate four lanes. In Casablance, it's five. Five lanes of whizzing, speeding traffic. I couldn't count the amount of times I looked at a car edge by with a hair to spare and thought "oh no, this is it". At least there are street names. Unfortunately they are one by one foot tiles up on the walls. They are dark blue and the writing is white, or was once white. Now the writing is kind of a dark grey and in the waning light of day virtually impossible to read until you're on top of it.

Wil focussed on the driving and the kids and I scanned for awnings, street names, anything that would give us an indication of where we were going. Thankfully you can only get so far in Casablanca before falling into the ocean. We managed to stop just short. I finally capitulated and jumped put to ask a parking attendant for some help. He had no french or english but some nice young man came along and translated and pointed in what I'm sure the parking attendant thought was the right direction.

Take two. I jump out and ask three men in suits haggling outside a car for help. One convinces his friends to jump in their car and lead us there. We follow, nearly losing them once, through the hairy traffic. They stop on a boulevard in front of us and the convincer jumps out of his car and comes and grabs my hand and we cross the wide boulevard. He motions to Wil to pull a U-turn into oncoming traffic and leads me down the street. I think Wil was having visions of me being abducted. He points out the hotel and gets on with his day. Moroccans really do have the hospitality thing down. We all offer many shukrans and then go check out the hotel. Of course there is no parking so I jump out with the kids and have a look. The rooms reek of smoke and are grubby and windowless. I tell them I'm going to talk it over with husband and head out.

Rather than sit in our illegal spot while I go back to explain, we start driving away, stressing that we are now going to have to try and find another address in this maze of streets. But the bellhop runs out and asks if we'd like to see another hotel. Sure, we say. He squeezes in the back with the surprised kids and leads us left and right and up and down 'til we pull up in front of another hotel. The kids and I check it out as Wil waits in the, again, very illegally parked car and it's grosser than the first. On we go, feeling guilty for taking this guy farther and farther from his job, to another hotel which is full and another which is also full. "Quatre étoiles?" the bellhop asks. If what we've been seeing is trois then definitely quatre, I'm thinking. On to another hotel which has a room that is out of this world expensive and has about as much charm as a airport bathroom. No, again. One more, he says. At every stop he convinces the surly parking attendants to let us leave the car in a bad spot as he whisks us inside. I can't take the pressure and ask Wil to veto the next one. I sit in the car poring over the map, trying to figure out where we are as he runs off with the bellhop and the kids. They come back. Success!!

We try to give him cab fare to get back to the hotel but he refuses. Wil forces some money on him and he dashes back to work as we head over to our new home. The Hotel Toubkal. We pull up outside and I feel as though I've entered a John Irving novel. The doorman explains that there are two elevators but only one of them will stop on our floor meaning you have to go to the fifth and walk up or to the seventh and walk down. The kids love the elevators — the kind without an inside door so you can see the floors pass as you ascend. The sign inside states that it's built for four people but it's more like two. Oh well, at least the place has charm. It's in a great neighbourhood, near the medina and the coast (which we find later is all walled off with high-end, high-rise construction). We go out for dinner at a steakhouse and everyone pigs out. We have a bottle of wine which feels like such a sinful luxury in this dry country.

In the morning we go for a wander and stop outside the market for breakfast. At a little stand, a man serves up Moroccan pancakes — a square, crispier, chewier crêpe — slathered with Nutella or Vache qui rit with a little glass of mint tea. We walk along the Avenue des Forces Armées Royales toward the Hassan II mosque. There are policemen and soldiers stationed every 20 metres. On one street corner are four groups of men in matching djellabas banging away on drums and tooting horns loudly and waving large portraits of the king, Mohammed VI. Something is definitely up.

We wander through the streets toward the mosque. Women wander around in fleece pyjamas with teddy bear prints. The alleys are strung with drying clothes on ingenious contraptions — long poles with guide wires that stick out of every window.

The women are definitely more present in Casablanca and the proportion of women in headscarves is definitely smaller. Despite this, however, the men are far more unpleasant here than anywhere else we've been. Leering seems to be a bit of a pastime. Despite being sandwiched between the not-unimposing figures of Wil and Henri, the men still see fit to gawk and hiss at Alice as they watch her wiggle by. Wil spends much of the day flashing the beady eye. I, in turn, greet the worst of the gawkers warmly in arabic. So taken by surprise, they respond before they know what they're doing and then I get to listen to them bear the brunt of their friends' mocking.

We get close to the mosque but much of it is cordoned off. When I ask a soldier guarding the perimeter very politely if I can ask a question in french he answers briefly, demonstrating the fact that he can both understand and speak it but then goes on almost entirely in arabic, sneering at me (and my ignorance). What I gather, through the information interspersed with major attitude is that the king is inside and we're going to have to come back later.

We take the long way around, determined to have a peek, and join the throngs hoping for a glimpse of the beloved king. (You'd be hard pressed to find a commercial establishment in Morocco that doesn't have at least one royal portrait on display — the most popular being the one of him and his wife with her crazy mane of curly red hair and their two kids blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.) Most of the men are wandering toward the mosque with a small, folded carpet tucked in the crook of their arm. We end up in the vast esplanade outside with an amazing view of the gigantic structure and the sea beyond. Apparently both the Koran and the Bible state that god's throne is on the water so Hassan II asked the French architect to site the building on this outcropping reclaimed from the sea.

On the square are tidy lines of men kneeling on carpets, all pointing toward Mecca. A good twenty yards behind them, tucked under the roof of a passageway, are the women, similarly laid out but more bunched together in the meagre shade.

The muezzin finishes up (how he can repeat the same call five times a day seven days a week without making it even a little bit musical is beyond me) and the imam's sermon (undoubtedly called something entirely different) is blasted from speakers outside. Sadly the only word I recognize is Allah. A shame, I thought, as he probably worked quite hard knowing he would be delivering it directly to the king.

As we left the square we pass a long line of parked buses with curtains drawn. I assume they're groups of people who've come for a chance to worship with the king but then catch a glimpse of a few uniforms and realize they are military on call in case something goes awry.

We went back to the mosque the next day to see the inside — the only time non-believers are permitted, finding ourselves among a busload of elderly Dutch tourists. The tour guide was a pompous prat more intent on showing off his ability to speak a few languages (poorly) than to inform his audience. Any questions he was asked were responded to in the most patronizing tone. Despite the crappy tour, the building is astounding. At 200m x 100m, it's big enough to fit St. Peter's inside. It is almost ridiculously huge. The craftsmanship is simply spectacular. We were taken through the main floor — admiring the plaster carving, stone work, wood carving, mosaics, painting — all on a crazy scale. It took only six years (and a mere 600 million euros) to build. It's the seventh largest (according to Wiki) in the world (third, according to our guide) with the world's tallest minaret. The coffered ceiling is retractable! Some of the floor is glass to allow a glimpse of the ablutions room and, apparently, the sea but that section was roped off as it's reserved for the king. We were taken into the basement, through the ablutions room with more than forty fountains — rosettes of pale, carved stone. I had a hard time believing the ablutions room was ever used as it was bone dry and prayers had been held there just a few hours earlier. There is also a hammam in the basement, complete with pool, but the guide admitted that it was only for show. ??? The floors throughout are heated. The minaret has a laser that points toward Mecca. All the bells and whistles.

While we stood waiting for the guide to do his pre-tip thank you speech (apparently when he asked for feedback he only wanted the positive variety), Henri bumped his elbow against one of the wall tiles and it sounded hollow. A poorly-laid tile, I told him. He proceeded to quietly tap all the ones he could reach and heard the same empty sound. I hope the building lasts. My impression is that the king is great at commissioning grandiose projects but, if the infrastructure of this country is any indication, maybe not quite so good on the upkeep.

We checked out of Hotel Toubkal, loading our gear into the trusty Kangoo. Our flight was in the evening but we'd run out of things to do in Casablanca. There doesn't seem to be much to do in Casablanca. We headed up the coast to Mohameddia (renamed after Mohammed V upon his death — to the delight of business card and letterhead printers and the dismay of everyone else, no doubt), a little beach town up the coast. We drove through more intense traffic, watched shepherds watch their flocks on the side of the highway, got our feet wet in the Atlantic, listened to cats begging for our tajine and heard the call to prayer one last time.

We're ready to go home. Ma'a as-salaama Morocco!

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