Sunday, March 09, 2014


The second stop on my cruise was Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco and the only port outside of the EU.

There’s a massive, glossy redevelopment going into the port, with the glass walled skyscrapers, palm tree-fringed plazas and luxury marinas that you see in these developments wherever they happen in the new world. But it’s only half built and occupied by no one except construction workers and feral cats. The rest of Casablanca is still the old world – dirty, pungent, dusty, chaotic and unplanned.

Well, not quite all of the rest of it. Casablanca’s main tourist attraction, other than memory of a 70 year old film that was shot somewhere else entirely, is the Mosque of Hassan II, completed in 1993. It’s the third largest mosque in the world and has the tallest minaret. Unlike the rest of Casablanca, it’s immaculately clean, scrupulously maintained and incredibly spacious. The mosque can hold 100,000 people, who stream in from all over the city when the call to prayer goes out.

And in a first for the Islamic world, the loudspeakers that broadcast the call to prayer aren’t broken and distorted. Which makes the call rather beautiful and restful to hear, unlike the ear-shredding caterwaul you’ll find in every other Muslim city from Jakarta to Manchester.

While I was at the mosque the call started, and I watched the crowd obediently trickle into the plaza from all corners. They were ladies in bright pink or leopard-skin pattern hijabs, businessmen in fashionable Italian suits, men in long jubbas with Gucci sunglasses and designer stubble, chatting on their mobile phones, and more in the traditional Moroccan djellaba, a long robe with a pointed hood that makes them look like lanky elves. And lots of guys in sweat pants, if not full track suits. You can’t lob a rock in Casablanca without hitting at least three guys who’d be naked if it weren’t for Adidas and Fila.

I was curious to see the inside of the mosque – apparently part of it has a glass floor, so the worshipers can watch the Atlantic roaring and crashing underfoot – but it didn’t seem to particularly welcome tourists, and I didn’t want to upset them by barging into a prayer service, even if my one infidel self would be nothing compared to 100,000 Muslims. Goodness knows the list of comparatively minor things that cause offense and consternation to these people – bacon, wearing shoes inside, representational art, menstruation, beehive hairdos, anything mauve, cherry-flavoured lip balm, Miley Cyrus, Jews – is long and unpredictable, and I didn’t want to find out that the colour of my sweater or the brand of my sneakers was on it.

So I took photos of the outside, then made my way to Casablanca’s old medina, where the mosque’s crisp cleanliness and ample space is but a vague memory, and every horizontal surface more than five feet off the ground has a rusty satellite dish on it.

One thing I noticed about the old city was the smells. The smells weren’t bad per se, but they were earthy and direct – dust, leather, the blood of butchered animals, hay, fresh manure, rotting vegetables and anaerobic mud. After the scrupulous first world cleanliness and hygiene of my luxury cruise liner, it was mildly confronting… but not totally unwelcome.

I found that a good way to deal with both touts and beggars was to murmur, “Non, merci,” at them; then they’d babble at me in French and I could drift away in a happy fug of ignorance. The only exception was a beggar woman who ignored my gambit and started clawing at my shoulder… presumably while skilfully going through my pockets and being disappointed to discover nothing but Admiral Ackbar and a pretty piece of broken tile I’d picked up earlier. She only cleared off when I channeled my Frenchiest self, made a brusque gesture at her and growled “Non!” in the voice I use to scare recalcitrant students at work.

Then it was back to the ship, with its ridiculous Swarovski crystal staircases, champagne cocktails and string trios playing classical music in the Fantasia lounge.


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