|6 Mar: Casablanca|
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City of Romance - no more…
Casablanca - this is perhaps Morocco's most famous city, not because it's the country's largest and commercially most important one, but of its association with the movie, Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The romance, intrigue and excitement have all built an aura of mystery around this city. However, to one who first arrives in Casa, it is a modern, industrial metropolis of more than three million people. Shiny glass towers dominate the financial district, with a smallish, not-so-exotic medina next to it. The rest of the city is typical of any in North Africa - plain and architecturally uninspiring - with slums scattered in various parts. But for one who wants to see modern, forward-looking Morocco at work, Casa is the place.
The most important attraction here is the Hassan II Mosque, the biggest mosque in the world after Mecca. It is also here that I began my brief exploration of Casa. Together with the two friendly French, I arrived at Casa's CTM bus station at 5 am. It was too early and the hotels aren't open yet. Carlos and Samer were leaving Morocco on the afternoon flight and had nothing to do. So we decided to see the Mosque before day break.
We caught a cab to the Mosque. There it was - a gigantic structure with a 210m high minaret. It was completed in 1993, in time for the king's birthday, at a cost of US$800m, paid for by public subscription, and of course, named after the king himself. It was a celebration of Moroccan craftsmanship and of the country's faith in Islam. The foreigner may criticise the country for wasting valuable resources for this great monument, but it has become the pride of the Moroccans - all good Muslims want a grand mosque they can be proud of. Exquisite chandeliers grace the ceilings and intricate carvings everywhere. The mosque can accommodate 25,000 worshippers within and 80,000 in the squares around it. It has also adopted hi-tech - its central dome can slide open at the touch of the button. It was an amazing structure, even in those early hours. It is said that foreigners used to bypass Casa. Now, they at least stop by to see the Mosque. We took a few pictures here before friendly police asked us to return after day break.
I wondered if I should visit the interior later - the entrance fee for foreigners is DH100 - more than that for The Louvre and other world class museums. It sounds like too much to pay for a grand mosque with less to offer than a great museum. In addition, no offence meant, but I think I will not encourage poor countries to build projects of vanity while asking for international loans or aid.
After saying farewell to my French friends, I checked into Hotel Rialto (DH 86). I slept for an hour and walked around downtown Casa. Had tea and coffee in different cafes in succession - it was a relaxing day with most of the time spent people- watching at Place des Nations Unies and Boulevard Felix Houphouet-Boigny. The Boulevard was named after the late president of Cote d'Ivoire (or Ivory Coast) who built the world's largest (or was it 2nd largest after Vatican) cathedral in Yamoussoukro, the small village where he was born. He's a good friend of King Hassan II, and he might have inspired the king to build the great mosque in Casa. But at least, Casa is a large city in need of an attraction…
Dropped by the tourist office. What a fantastically well-stocked tourist office ! They gave me a real vintage brochure - dated 15 May 1990 - other brochures are from the 1980's. I must thank them for giving away real museum material. Maybe I can try auction it at Christie's.
In mid-afternoon, I decided to walk to the Hassan II Mosque - cutting through the western suburbs. Away from the city's central square, this is a middle-class residential area interspersed with slums and the likes of shantytowns common in third world countries. Few foreigners must have stepped into these areas, as I found the locals staring at me as though I was a Martian. Many were friendly, saying hello to me. However, there were also rather hostile reception, with people shouting "Ching Chong Ching". More common than not, many shouted "Japon, Japon !" Although I had by then given up persuading people that I was not Japanese, I find such treatment of visitors, whether Japanese or not, extremely rude. I wonder if they would love people shouting at them "Moroccans ! Moroccans !" on the streets. They need to cultivate a more gracious society.
Thank goodness that I finally reached the Mosque. The square around it was crowded with people - families on outings, worshippers at prayers, and people who were just there to relax or meet friends. Some students were studying in the pavilions at one corner - people around the world are similar - they all want to learn new things and improve their lives. It was a wonderful feeling realising this !
Here I met two young bearded Moroccans, one of whom spoke some English. Initially, we had an interesting chat about religions but it soon turned into a most painful one. These people were not interested in listening and appreciating that people can have different beliefs. So convinced that their ways are the only correct path (not surprising for the adherents of all faiths), they were shocked that one who could name the five pillars of Islam would not convert to the truth propagated by the Prophet. They wondered: How can one who discovers the truth not accept the faith ? It was definitely a waste of time for me, as they insisted on carrying the senseless and meaningless discussion much further than I had wanted. Born-again Muslims they claimed they are, and they have abandoned their past sins of drugs, women and greed. They are real Muslims, they say. And people round the world, including famous movies stars and singers, are all converting to Islam. So why haven't you ?
Why should I, I argued. Like you, Christians claim that their faith is spreading like wild fire in Africa and Asia. And the Buddhists claim victory with Richard Gere, and all the support from the numerous pseudo-Buddhists and mystic-seekers of Hollywood. Ask the Sikhs, Hindus, Hare Krishnas and the thousand and one religions, cults, and what have you round the world, and all would have claimed some victories somewhere or at some time. The two born-agains were disappointed, for they had never had such discussions with an infidel, and they had thought it would be easy to convince the unsaved about the beauty of their beliefs. Try harder next time.
It was late and I wanted to see the Corniche, an area of beaches and fish restaurants. I went there alone, but found the place semi-deserted. Many restaurants were closed, and those few which were opened served expensive French fare. Others were sleazy night clubs. It was a waste of time. There, on the deserted beach, next to the tacky restaurant neon lights, I saw the lights of Hassan II Mosque's minaret, even though it was many miles away. Bright and sharp, it probably reminds those having fun on those Corniche beaches with names like Miami and Lido - that Allah is watching them all the time. I took a cab back to town and after a brief argument with the meter-less taxi-bandit, I was a ten dollars poorer - a large sum in this country. I wondered round the city centre hungry and exhausted. I stepped into a traditional fish restaurant not far from Hotel Rialto, where I had a huge plate of five deep fried fish, lots of prawns, fries and more - all for only DH 42. That was one of my best experiences in Casa ! Viva Casa!
|7 Mar: Casablanca - London|
Once again, I checked out of the hotel in pitch dark. This time, however, I was returning to London. The flight flew past Rabat and was soon above the Straits of Gibraltar. Here, one could see the four major cities around the Straits - Tarifa and Ceuta belonging to Spain, Tangier of Morocco, and Gibraltar. It was amazing how close they were from the sky. Indeed, their history has always been intertwined together, and yet it is amazing how far apart politically they can be. Soon, I was above the Sierra Nevada, and then the mountains of Asturias, where the Spanish defeated the Moors for the first time. After three hours in the air, I landed at Gatwick Airport. I stepped out of the plane. The sky was grey, and it was drizzling. A cold rain droplet fell on my forehead. Reality check - London again.
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