August 1st - August 2nd, 1999
For much of our trip, we've been keeping our eyes open for "that beach" -- a oceanside paradise that would allow us to kick back and let a couple of weeks easily melt away in the hot sand and surf. We had higher hopes for Spain and Portugal, but found the Atlantic current a wee bit too cold or the beaches a little too packed. We don't need a deserted beach, but would like one where we can find enough room to throw our beach cloth down without walking a few miles. With these goals in mind, we head off to a town called Essaouira. To get there, we must transverse Morocco's largest city, Casablanca. Forget the movie: most of it was filmed in Tangier. This is a big sprawling place -- African style.
We should have gotten an idea of what we were in for during the train trip there. At the city outskirts we passed by an awful lot of pitched tents and prefab concrete cubes. Casablanca is one of the few places where it's easy to get a job in this land of high unemployment rates, so a people magnet it is. As usual, the people come here first and then the city figures out how to handle them. Trains tracks rarely cross the nice neighborhoods, and neither did ours. Perhaps the saddest thing we saw were barren fields with nothing but dry dirt, stone and (get this) tumbling plastic bags. The Nineties have asked Morocco that 20th century question -- "paper or plastic?" -- and the Moroccans have answered with a single voice. Most of the trash gets burned here, usually by the side of the road. Those feather light polymer bags seem to be rather adept at catching the fires' hot updrafts to freedom. Once loose, they roll like some manmade tumbleweed across the Moroccan plains until snared by a thistle or a broken fence. Then they wave to the passing trains, in this case telling us welcome to Casablanca.
Actually, if you get past the fact that this is a city strained to (past?) the limit, Casablanca is a pretty cool place. With the forty days mourning, we weren't able to sample any of the alcohol-fueled nightlife, but in many ways here is the Paris of Morocco. People test the limits of Islamic sensitivity in dress and behavior, seeing if there is any way to loosen the straightjacket. Things occur here openly that don't happen in any other Muslim place. One, in fact, made us stay a day even though we were both sick and longing to find our hammocks in the sun. There is a mosque in Casablanca that they let infidels like us see and enter!
It's the Hassan II Mosque, built on the late king's demands. Finished in 1993, one of the public goals of Hassan II was to preserve craftsmanship in Morocco. Among the undiscussed goals was to embody Hassan II's legacy in architecture and to tug at Islam's current center of gravity -- presently in Saudi Arabia. The third largest mosque in the world and at 200 meters the world's tallest minaret, it cost $600,000,000 1980's dollars to build.
The capacity of this place is pretty amazing. Inside, the mosque can accommodate 20,000 men and 5,000 women (strictly segregated, of course). The plaza around the mosque can hold another 75,000. All along the center of the worship area are channels for flowing water with windows that allow one to look into the floor below and see the bathing area. All of the mosque's detailing is very traditional, even using a mortar made of egg whites for all of the interior ivory-colored structures.
Above left: the doorway in the photo's left looks out over the Atlantic while the column on the right is reserved for the leader of the worship service. Top right, one of the intricately carved ceilings in Hassan II. Below right: we mentioned the women are segregated from the men. The gals get to go into one of two elevated wooden structures, away from the center and front of the mosque.
Below the main worship area is washing area. Every muslim must wash before worship, and while the faithful who visit Hassan II are encouraged to do so at home before services (apparently, it gets a little crowded here), the lotus shaped washing fountains would be hard to pass up. Also at the basement level are a set of turkish baths open to the public. Large and serene, they were our favorite areas of the mosque.
To help you get a sense of the proportions of this place, here's Jim on the left posing with one of the entrances to the mosque. On the right Kathy registers her athestic opinion of the tiling craftsmanship. You can't tell from the photo, but gravity has tugged mercilessly on each of the thousands of tiles in this mosaic and the mortar has not been up to the task. The patterns are badly distorted to the naked eye, and this is only six years after the mosque's completion! In Morocco we've seen mosaics of equal complexity that were over 500 years old with no visible sag or time-induced defect. Perhaps they used tougher egg whites then?
Seeing Hassan II brought up the obvious question to us: why aren't all the mosques open to non-Muslims like us? Perhaps we're too used to the places of worship of all the other major faiths where non-believers not only are allowed in but welcome. Catholic churches, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Jewish synagogues are areas of quiet reflection and worship for all. If you're down and out and need a hand, these denominations are usually up to the task. Of course, you're going to get an earful of how to turn your life around, but that's the price you pay. Muslims have nothing of this. And don't even get us started about spending $600 million on a single building in a country this poor.
One last note: notice that in none of the photos is there a single statue or other representation of people in power. This is due to the fact that ultra-orthodox muslims believe that representation of the human form is a sin. News to us, too. Makes you wonder how they can accept those dirhams with the king's picture all over them, but we guess money is always different.
By the time we arrive in Casablanca it's become pretty obvious that we both caught something in Fes. Guess a medieval city will be full of medieval diseases. We can't imagine where we might have gotten it, as we were both pretty careful. Most of our stay in Casablanca is designed to limit our time away from our bed and minimize the distance to the nearest WC.