The Slow Enchantment of Morocco- Casablanca and Beyond

Mosaic wall Hassan II. 

My last post was rather discouraging, it really took seeing Morocco through the guidance of our friend Lisa and her fiance's family to come to love this place and so this is the beginning of that story.

To Casablanca
We took a cab costing 20 dihram or about $2 to the Casa Blanca train station.  Trains were a cheap way to travel through Morocco, our five hour ride to Casa Blanca only cost us about $15 each.  In a second class seat we sat in a room with 8 people, a large window, slight AC, and a small shared table.  The only downside was that bathrooms were atrocious- usually they didn’t flush or there was no water or soap or pee in odd places or a combo of any of the above. 

Landscape as reflected through Cam's glasses.
I rather liked watching the ever-changing: array of people entering our car and the scenery outside our window.  I grew accustomed to the landscape it was the color yellow with scrubby plants, “like California”, Cam said.   Along the road I saw an endless amount of white storks nestled all over, on poles, homes, and on the ground.  I joked that the only benefit of all the white plastic bags littered on the road were that they served as great camoflauge for the brids.  Noble looking wild dogs were seated on the hillsides like watchful beacons.  People napped under trees. Construction. Ocean. Farmland. Sweeping Skies.  Cam claimed he even saw a naked man.  As we dozed in out of sleep we watched our cabin mates, students going to the beach, business man, a loud woman that seemed upset about either the economy, lack of internet on the trains, or not being able to travel freely (it’s hard to get a VISA in Morocco). 

As we stopped at each station I tried to get used to the sight of woman being covered.  Not everyone covers their head in public, but I'd guess about 75% of the women had covered heads.  When I first noticed this, I felt sad, I missed seeing people’s hair, for me it was another form of self-expression.  I wondered did these women judge me because I was not covered?  I wasn’t even sure entirely what it meant to be covered in Morocco.  These were questions I saved for Lisa.

On the train, we spoke in basics, most people thought we were French.  To try and figure out the right stop we said the name and checked for their expression, "yes" and "no" were universal.  After a transfer thanks to people directing us, we finally made it to L’Oasis Station in Casa Blanca.  Lisa my good friend from grad school was waiting for us on a bench, we hugged her and looked for a taxi as she amazingly navigated it all in Arabic.  She announced to us from the front seat of the taxi that she was newly engaged!  Wow! Awesome!  

About Why Lisa is kick ass...
It’s a confusing situation trying to figure out what do after graduate school, particularly when you’ve studied art and there is no specific job.  To further compound finding meaningful work, Lisa lost her boyfriend during a heart surgery.  I talked with Lisa about these things while we were studio mates the year and a half after graduate school.  She had gone to graduate school right after her undergraduate degree, and as she told me later she just figured that she needed to get more life experiences.  

Lisa and Noureddin!
So she joined the Peace Corps and was given the assignment to help artisans in Kheimisset, Morocco expand their business.  While in Kheimisset she met and fell in love with the brother of her language tutor.  After the Peace Corp she lived in the U.S. for about nine months teaching at a University, only to decide she wanted to move back to Morocco to be closer to Noureddin, her boyfriend.  For the past year she has been teaching art at an American school.  Here is a link to some of her art if you'd like to check out her recording of her adventures.

After unloading our stuff at her apartment, we headed to a beachside café for lunch.  Lisa gave us a quick crash course in Moroccan culture.  She explained to me that for women in Morocco being covered was a personal choice, they could decide when and where, if at all.  Being covered meant that they were trying to be a good Muslim woman.  Some women covered themselves only when they went out in public, some did not at all.  Since I was a foreigner and not Muslim there was no reason that I should be covered and they would not judge me for this.  Understanding that this was not an oppressive  action, as I had been feeling somewhere inside, allowed me to actually appreciate how much creativity each woman brought into their jalapas (the dress) and headscarves.  Lisa pointed out that if I looked around I would see patterns and bright colors combined in a way that I never saw in the U.S.

We filled Lisa in our trip so far and then Cam and her planned out our itinerary in Morocco. 
Which included:   one day of rest, as I requested.
A visit to Kimmiset for dinner with her fiancé and his family.
A day trip to Fez followed by spending the night in Meknes.
A day trip to Volubulus with a side stop in Moulay Idriss.
Spend the night in Kheimisset again and then head back to Rabat and Tanger.

After finishing our food we walked the boardwalk trying to locate a cab.  No such luck as everyone was walking home from the beach and thus also seeking cabs.  We joined the throngs of youth walking home headed towards the heart of the city.  The usually covered heads of the women were revealed as they left the beach with sopping hair and in their (comparatively speaking to the U.S.), modest swimwear.  Children piled into buses, double and triple rode on the back of bikes, and motorcycles.  They ate ice cream, which Lisa described as sugar water, and the kids threw the cones into the plants.

While the path home was long, we grow to like walking as it provided an opportunity to view the city.  Lisa told us that she hated Casa Blanca, she thought it was ugly in comparison to other Moroccan cities. It reminded me of Lima, Peru and Los Angeles.  A city with old buildings and new constructions, lots of trash in the streets, recycling hadn’t caught on yet, besides repurposing things out of necessity. Disparity in neighborhoods, modern white mansions with manicured lawns versus rows of apartment buildings with laundry hung from the porches and possibly a shared garden.  We walked so far that we reached her neighborhood souk (outdoor market that sells everything).  We purchased food for our dinner- cherries deeply appreciated by the bees flying around them, a delicious melon we tasted on site, and a risky avocado that was past season.  I learned that Moroccan women loved pajamas, as evident by the numerous pajamas stands, and that many women wore pajamas under their jalapas.  I eyed a pair of loose green pants, I was aware that my wardrobe was too short, tight, or hot, for this country, and Lisa worked to bargain a good price for the pants.  A girl next to us also wanted the pants and Lisa told me later that the man would not sell to her until we left because she would receive the Moroccan price, while I had gotten the “tourist negotiated down by an Arabic speaker” price.  Near her house we stopped at the "hanute" or cornerstore for bread, cheese, yogurt, and juice. 

Back at her house we sought relief from the heat by watching pictures of her engagement keyed up on her computer.  Between photos we washed our clothes in her tiny laundry machine that we filled with water from the sink.  I was thrilled to hear about the engagement rituals in Morocco.  A large party was held at Noureddin’s family house, Lisa was dressed up like a princess, and her and Noureddin were elevated on chairs, like on a throne.  They fed each other dates and honey.  Then a professional henna artist applied henna all over Lisa’s hands and feet, the artist even covered the henna with glitter so Lisa looked like a jewel!  While Lisa was made a queen, all of the people at the party danced for Lisa. 
This link has an incredible picture of her at the engagement party.

We woke up late the next day and Lisa prepared us a delicious Moroccan breakfast of scrambled eggs on fresh bread.  Showered and full, we caught a taxi to Casa Blanca’s mosque. 

The building rose up against the backdrop of the ocean. Supposedly it could hold 20,000 people and was the third largest Mosque in the world.  Also this was one of the only Mosques that would let Non-Muslims in, if they took the paid tour.  Decorated in turquoise, blue, green, and tan mosaics, it was all of my favorite colors.  
Detail of Fountain at Hassan II

Archways facing out into the City
Around the mosque, people lounged about and took photos.  The design of the building reminded me of art nouveau designs with its curling forms and repeated patterns.  Looking out through the archways framing the city, I imagined people leaving from prayer setting out to do good in the world. 

(Did you know that five times a day there was a call to prayer announced on loud speakers, that sounded like how in the U.S. we were warned about storms. Only the call to prayer was a reminder to practitioners to pray at that moment or soon there after.)  

Also from this vantage point I was reminded of how Casa Blanca, in its early years before all the industry and development may have looked like the city, where Babar, one of my favorite child hood book characters lived in rows of white houses with palm trees rising on a hill in front of an ocean port.  Modernization had a way of undoing old cities charms.

View of City from Hassan II

Babar's City by Jean de Brunhoff

That night we headed to Khemisset, first by train, and then in the crowded charm of a “grand taxi”, which is like a Moroccan version of a Mexican Colectivo car.  Tons of people squeezed into a Mercedes (4 in back and three in front) but at $1.5 euros it was a steal for an one hour ride.  Cam sat bitch (front middle on console) while I sat next to him, although uncomfortable, we became privy to a lovely unfolding landscape of farmland, trees, animal herds, and rivers.  Suddenly our cab was pulled over for speeding.  While we waited wondering what would happen, we watched cows cross into the road.  A fellow taxi rider, hopped out of the back cab and ran over to the road to try and shoo the cows out of harms way.  I cheered him on but our driver was anxious to leave after his ticket incident and so we picked up the cow hero from the road before he could finishing moving the cows.

Arriving in Khemisset, we lugged our bags down the road towards the Ha house.  Lisa saw Nourdine in the repair shop that he ran with his father and brothers.  We said enthusiastic "Hellos" and then went into their nearby house to meet the family.  Nourdine was so busy that his sister, Azizah, and his sister-in-law, Niemah, had stayed at the family house to prepare us a proper Moroccan meal. 

The greeting custom in Morocco was for men to shake hands and women to kiss each other’ cheeks.  A man meeting a woman also shook hands.   I was used to the cheek kiss greeting from Spain (one kiss on each cheek) but I did not know that in Morocco the giver decided how many cheek kisses to give so I was getting many more kisses on my cheek then I expected.  I tried to follow their lead so I didn’t seem like a rude person.  After greeting Mama and Papa Ha, Nourdine’s sister Nadeya, his brothers Hamid, and Said, and both Niemah and Azizah’s kids, we were invited to have a snack of mint tea and bread with toppings of our choice.  I immediately fell in love with Amaloo a nut butter made from Argan Oil (yes it really is from Morcocco) and crushed almonds.  Typing this, I regret not having brought a jar with me on my travels.  I think it is better than peanut butter!

Dinner was not ready and so we headed to the local artisan fair to look at art and meet some of Lisa’s friends that she worked with while in the Peace Corp.  We met Lisa’s host mom, a kind woman selling Berber rugs, that said that she knew even if she couldn’t speak English that we could feel her welcoming us because of her smile.  Fatima was an embroiderer that Lisa worked with who made labor intensive sewn designs on table cloths and clothing.  I found a few money pouches that were a price I could afford and so I bought some to support her practice.  Returning to the Ha house we sat down for a Chicken Tangine with green beans and carrots that was served with bread and two types of salads.  For dessert there were peaches and a type of melon that tasted like Cream Soda.  Azizah and Niemah were fine hostesses and we connected with them quickly as they taught us new words and asked us about our lives.  The first words we learned were "benin" (delicious as in food) and "zween" (beautiful).  How great that the first words we learned were ones of appreciation.   That night we slept in the heat of a giant purple room with iridescent walls, purple pillows, and lavender accents.  It was the color of royalty and indeed we had been enchanted by true Moroccan hospitality.

Tangine meal made by Aziza and Niemah Ha


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susub75 said…
When will there be free elections in Morocco?

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