A September 2003 trip
to Casablanca by evilchris
Quote: Casablanca can be accurately described as a gateway from Europe to the Islamic World. I worked for a week here, alternately inhering to its European vicinage and venturing into the "real" Casablanca in my free time. It was a fascinating, unnerving journey through the wealth and indigence of Al Maghrib.
The European colonial history of Morocco is firmly impressed upon the architecture of the city center. With the busy boulevards, cafés, and balconies, you could almost convince yourself that you are in Paris. In contrast, one of the great modern monuments of the Islamic World stands not far away: The Mosque of Hassan II. The city also has a number of restaurants that celebrate Moroccan cuisine, as well as the influences of the former French and Spanish colonialists. Casablanca is also host to the kingdom’s affluent young, with a resultant wild (yet surreptitious) nightlife.
Annoyance number one in Casablanca are the "tour guides." They are always young men. They always wear Calvin Klein shirts (definitely knock-offs) and "Members Only" jackets (probably real). They usually have drinking problems, and they will try to get you to do their "guided tour." The "tours" are as bad as you can imagine, and the price usually worse. Try not talk to them. And if you can avoid it, do not even establish eye contact. I hate to admit it, but I hired one. It was simply worth it to have someone to ward off the vagrants and the other tour guides.
But that is another story...
To get around anywhere else, I recommend a taxi. Even though these small red imports have dodgy suspension and questionable brakes, they are the best way around town. If you take a taxi from a hotel, it will cost you upwards of to get anywhere, depending on the brazenness of the driver. Grab one on the street, and you should pay around . If the taxi has no meter, try and agree the price in advance. Consider it your crash course in haggling before you actually buy one of those rugs you had in mind.
Hotel | "Sheraton Casablanca Hotel & Towers"
The traditional Moroccan restaurant at the hotel is El Andalous. Located on the second floor, the restaurant is a pretty good mock-up of one of the high-end Moroccan restaurants to be found in town. The restaurant is outrageously expensive, but the food is wonderful and the portions generous. Since I was on an expense account, I naturally ordered from the bottom right-hand side of the menu: the couscous special with everything. "Everything" included highly spiced dove, figs, and a variety of vegetables. Follow it up with a few bottles of a nice Spanish red, and I was in heaven. The doors open at 8pm, but the restaurant was pretty dead before 10pm. As an added bonus, there is a band there playing traditional Moroccan music and what I felt was probably an Arabic version of Tom Jones-style pop, as the lead singer kept crooning "Habibi" to a gaggle of women at one table in a wavering, teasing voice until they began visibly blushing.
The basement disco of the Sheraton is the Caesar’s Club. This place was a big draw for my Western colleagues in Morocco and for Western businessmen in general. It seemed to operate primarily a "gentlemen’s club", which is to say, it was full of call girls or women searching for Western men.
The hotel is located on Avenue de L’Armée – spitting distance from the business and shopping districts. A nice change of scenery from the hotel is only half a block away in one of the nearby Moroccan cafés. This is a great place to enjoy a cup of mint tea or a coffee and take in the evening scene of cosmopolitan Casablanca. Not surprisingly, a mint tea at one of these cafés was 1/20 the price for the very same at the Sheraton.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 17, 2004
Sheraton Casablanca Hotel Twrs
100 AVENUE DES F. A. R.
Attraction | "Mosquée Hassan II"
I visited the mosque in the late afternoon, as prayer was already in progress. Old women relaxed in the shade of the endless arcades and archways projecting outwards from the main structure. Their hyperactive grandchildren ran pell-mell through the archways, screeching and shouting as they went. As the adults quietly exited the mosque, the children dashed through robes and legs looking for their parents. It reminded me of my own trips to church with my family; mother and father solemnly focused on the task at hand, while my sister and I fiddled and paid no attention. Many families come in from the countryside in order to pray here at least once, and with beaches and shopping nearby, most make a day out of this pilgrimage. The mosque is a gathering place for local families as well. I was there on a weekday, so the number of faithful fell far short of the 25,000 worshippers it can supposedly hold.
As the intense sunlight finally eased and the laser pointing toward Mecca was lit, families sat together along the ramparts bordering the huge plaza laid out before the mosque. At the far end of the esplanade –- at least 200 meters from the mosque entrance -- teenage boys played a game of pick-up soccer. The tide had gone out by then, and other boys and older men jumped from rock to rock in the tidal pools below the mosque, filling their buckets with what appeared to be mussels.
Enjoying the tranquility of this place was a wonderful experience. The only sad note is that it is clear that certain features of the plaza and the mosque are already in disrepair after only 15 years of wear. One would hope that the government is in a position to maintain such a cultural treasure -- even if it can never be fully shared with the non-Muslim world.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 17, 2004
Hassan II Mosque
The beach itself is also quite large, extending some 300m from the promenade to the water. It did not have spectacular white sand or anything, but it was clean. The water there was not any brilliant blue, but it was clean and full of swimmers. The surf was rough, and I could see why windsurfing would be popular at resorts in this region.
The promenade also hosted a variety of eating options: vendors flogging all manners of pastries, high-end restaurants catering to western tourists and businessmen, and even-and I am not making this up-a Schlotsky's Deli (!).
I plopped down in a vacant spot (once I had figured out the bizarre grids that had been laid out with stakes and string) amongst the local populace. I got a few stares at first, but I quickly became part of the landscape. This was my first time hanging out at the beach in a devoutly Muslim country; I was not surprised to see the boys in bathing trunks, but I was surprised to see the girls laid out in everything from a one-piece bathing suit to a full-on black, Iranian-style chador, which could not have been comfortable. One super cool feature of hanging out at the local’s beach (rather than the European VIP beach clubs) were the food vendors. These were usually guys with trays or rather heavy-looking metal crates with a strap around the vendor’s neck. I realized that in my rush from work to get to the beach, I had skipped a full lunch. There seemed to be a guy passing every 5 minutes, so I waved down one guy selling some pastries.
For those who are not familiar with Moroccan sweets, many are similar to Turkish baklava, i.e. filo dough soaked in honey. However, pastries ranged from rich and dense like baklava to rich and flaky like a donut. These confections also had numerous variations with powdered sugar, cinnamon, almond, and fruit. I know this because after the first vendor came and went, I stopped another guy. A short negotiation in broken French, and I had two of his buddies run up with their trays. I tried a few pastries from each of them. All of them were unique, and the total charge was only a few dirhams. I am sure the calorie count per dollar was about as good a value as you could get.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on November 17, 2004
Boulevard de la Corniche
Attraction | "Ancienne Médina"
Once crossing that threshold, I was in the narrow streets of the Ancienne Médina. My first impression was that it was more of a quiet neighborhood than a bustling marketplace. Before I had gone ten steps, I was accosted by a drunken Moroccan man who could barely hold himself - or his "tour guide" shtick - together. It did not take but a few moments for him to go from friendly hustler to hostile drunk (ah, the wonders of alcohol). Shouting at me alternatively in English and Arabic, he made it fairly clear that we was going to beat a rain check into my face if I did not give him some money. He was half my size and could barely stand, but looking around, the less-than-friendly glares from other locals let me know I was on my own. I talked him down, gave him a few Dirham coins, and pointed him towards a gaggle of German tourists that were disembarking from a tour bus behind me.
That sorted, my goal at the Medina was to find a few examples of Moroccan Marquetry – the ancient art of inlaying wood. Sadly, there were no stalls, and the few shops that were open punted only a few sorry postcards, paperweights, and knock-off luggage. The Medina here is not really a place of commerce, but more of a neighborhood -- and a poor neighborhood at that. I had expected a bustling souk, with rug-makers and other artisans spilling out into the street. The reality was that this was a quiet, stifling, squalid place. The narrow streets wound in various directions, and the few shops sold a meager selection of groceries. The fecundity I had expected turned out instead to be rot. Many dead-ends were piled high with garbage and human filth, and the sweet smell of their decay was impossible to escape.
Passing the one bar I saw, a handful of African men were gathered around billiards table. Their play and conversation stopped as I passed, and through the smoke I could feel their sullen eyes follow me. I heard once that much of Moroccan life takes place behind closed doors. It was clear to me that I was not going to see behind that door that day. It was time to leave, but -- being a person who does not give up easily (or indeed, ever admit to being wrong) -- I pressed on. I happened upon a woman, dressed in Western fashion, being escorted by her mother, dressed in a traditional djellaba. Asking them for directions in French resulted in them kindly escorting me out of the Medina to Boulevard des Almohades. They flagged down a taxi for me, and I made for my hotel, exhausted.
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on November 17, 2004
Tahar el-Aloui Blvd.
La Bodéga de Casablanca
129 Rue Allal BenAbdallah
The main floor of La Bodéga is a Spanish restaurant. My German colleague - Sepp - who brought me, promised me that I would not be disappointed by a night out at this place. La Bodéga is located on a dead-end street (rue Allal BenAdballah) behind the Marché Central (Boulevard Mohamed V). The walls are a tobacco-stained white plaster with dark wood trim and fittings, covered with mementos of Spain. Their specialty is Spanish wines and a wide variety of tapas. Portions are decent, the atmosphere is boisterous and friendly, and the house band played everything from traditional Spanish flamenco to rock-and-roll. There was a wonderful chaos to the arrangement of tables, and the food service quickly enabled me to be in conversation with all those around me. The "locals" I met were all from the aforementioned elite partygoing class. They were all in their 20s or early 30s, dressed to the nines, well-educated, glamorous, and 90% female. They all spoke French, and many were quite fluent in English. Everyone "studied" in Europe and visited home (Casablanca) for "frequent family visits". For those who now resided in Casablanca, I was assured that a shopping trip to Europe was only a short flight away.
Sepp assured me that, as cool as the restaurant of La Bodéga was, it was only the tip of the iceberg. He took me down the back stairs into a basement disco. A DJ was spinning on the decks in one corner, and there were a few tables in the alcoves. Through the smoke and bodies, the main chamber of this basement opened up to a long bar, behind which three of the most hyperactive bartenders I have ever seen were busily slinging drinks and flinging bottles through the air.
The scene down there was incredible. I had expected that nasty cheesy synth music (aka "international music"), but what I heard from the DJ was a fantastic blend of house, lounge, hip-hop, and traditional Moroccan music. Bodies were grinding, and the liquor was flowing freely. The crowd was primarily wealthy Moroccan, but there were some tourists and Western businesspeople there as well (the Sheraton and the Hyatt were walking distance from here).
At one point, the music was at such a crescendo that the bartenders grabbed traditional instruments from under the bar – a two-sided drum called a daff, a tambourine, and metal castanets called qaraqib – and started playing in time to the music. The crowd hit such a fever pitch that a few women started dancing on the bar. The men and women started singing and shouting out that traditional Maghrebi ululation, adding to the intensity. Suddenly, the DJ killed his sound, and these traditional instruments, the ululations, and our clapping carried the beat. For a full five minutes, the women danced, twirled, and swayed to the percussion, encouragement, yells, and ululations of the bartenders and the crowd. Finally, the DJ swooped back in with a thumping beat, perfectly choreographed to the tempo kept by the bar staff. In this traditional, conservative, Islamic country, these surreptitious merrymakers only shouted for more, and the party carried on until the early hours. When la Bodega closed (i.e., when they threw us all out), we stumbled off, ears ringing, into the silent, empty streets of Casablanca.
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