“Don’t get too close to the entry to the Hassan II mosque — especially you, ladies,” our guide warns us in Casablanca, Morocco.
Dutifully, we watch the mosque from afar. But the warning only piques my curiosity more. Why? Because a place with so many arches beckons exploration. Because I’ve never seen the inside of a mosque except for the Grande Mosquée de Paris — which somehow doesn’t count because France isn’t Arab. And because I doubt that anything dire can happen if I take a quick look.
As I walk towards the big ceremonious entrance, I wonder how close is too close.
Two men sit by the entryway, like sentinels. They watch as I come nearer. From about ten feet away, one of them raises his hands and shoos me away. I retreat, but not before I catch a glimpse of a grand, spacious hall where intricate arch upon arch reach farther into its interior. More intrigued than before, I’m now eager to know what lies beyond those arches adorned by concrete swags.
Rich, who’s been watching me, takes the camera from me and approaches the entrance where the men sit. They don’t shoo him away! So he takes a few pictures. Not until later when I see those pictures do I get a better view of the mosque’s great entry hall.
Places of worship designed mostly for men, mosques are in every town and city in Morocco. We often see them from the bus or, in this instance, up close. But only from the outside. Mosques are easy to identify from afar because, like Seville’s Giralda, they have minarets rising higher than all other buildings in a town/city. As in other Catholic countries, many of Morocco’s architectural monuments reside in buildings of worship.
Morocco is — exotic. How else to sum it up? Many things about it are outside the pale of our immediate experience. Hence, we’ve joined a tour — an efficient, good, and relatively risk-free way to sample what the country has to offer. We’ve chosen the Tasting Menu, so to speak.
While Moroccans are free to choose a religion, Morocco is essentially Muslim. However, it’s not governed by Islamic law. Vaguely Frenchified because the French claimed it for about 50 years until 1956, it’s westernizing. Or, at least, attempting to. French is the language of public offices and schools, but Arabic is still the declared official language.
I can’t quite grasp the contradictions in this culture — our five-day visit hopping across four cities is hardly enough for that. A constitutional monarchy, like England, Morocco’s king has almost absolute power. He is religious leader and commander in chief. He appoints the country’s prime minister who governs with an elected parliament, and he can dissolve the whole government. The current king has a law degree from a French, not a Moroccan, university.
On the streets, it seems people can choose to wear traditional or western clothing. Many men wear loose hooded robes while women often wear head scarves. But I saw no woman who watches the world through slits on a burqa, a veil that fully covers heads. In big cities like Marrakech, women — particularly the young — seem to prefer western dress. Women also now run for political office although the government imposes a quota.
Marrakech and Casablanca are probably the best-known cities in Morocco. You may know Casablanca from the movie, though guides will quickly point out that Hollywood’s Casablanca is pure fiction. As a port city, it’s a frequent point of entry. So, it’s many foreigners’ first encounter with Morocco. We’re there only a few hours, in the usual crazy schedule of a tour. After visiting the Hassan II, one of the largest in the country, we go oceanside for lunch. We have choices, but many of us succumb to the lure of the world’s best situated McDonald’s. This hall of the people sprawls along the ocean’s edge, s0 you get ocean views.
Marrakech is very much a town that caters to tourists. Its nouvelle ville (the newer part of the city) has been prettied up with French-style boulevards, numerous luxurious hotels, European style theaters, museums, and homes. Some parts make me feel like I’m in Irvine, California or some such place. The old walled city — the Medina — with shops, riads (private homes), and mosques is clean and relatively well restored. This Medina is best known for a huge square, which satisfies tourists’ stereotypes of exotic Arabic settings — snake charmers, vendors hawking carpets, food stalls. It becomes livelier at night when the city converges there to socialize, sample street food, and be entertained.
In contrast, Fez is old world. Its nouvelle ville is not quite as slick as those in Marrakech, Rabat or Casablanca. Guides like to say that its Medina is a throwback to the 12th century. Within its walls, residents (some 200, 000) continue to practice their trades the old-fashioned way. Mules piled high with stuff used for these trades — e.g., pelts, yarn — are still the primary means of transport and delivery. Marrakech, on the other hand, is motor-driven, and one has to contend more with scooters than with donkeys.
Despite its alleged 12th-century ambience, the Fez Medina is a 21st-century tourist trap. After visits to smelly leather-curing factories (impressive, actually), dusty rug makers, and somewhat noisy metalworkers (also impressive), our guide takes us to shops for sales pitches, the doses of which are heavier than the merchandise you’re finally seduced to buy. Most everyone in our tour don’t mind; they tour to shop.
In addition to two scarves and memories, we bring home one other treasured souvenir. We forego the gleaming, silvery teapots which everyone seems eager to snatch at the guide’s preferred shop. Instead, we wander into a quieter shop, and choose a 100-year old teapot to remember all the steaming cups of mint tea — the sweet (literally), ubiquitous gesture of hospitality — we’ve imbibed everywhere in Morocco.